Exploration

Mt. Everest: Why Do People Keep Climbing It?

Despite tales of overcrowding, fighting and tragedy, hundreds of people continue to try to summit Everest every year. What's the appeal?

Each spring, amidst stories of successful firsts, come tales of overcrowding, fighting and tragedy on Mt. Everest, including last week's avalanche that killed at least 13 Sherpas who were setting ropes on the mountain's most popular climbing route.

Nevertheless, hundreds of people from dozens of countries are at Base Camp right now, and many are planning to make a bid for the summit of the world's tallest peak in the next few weeks, though those bids may be complicated by news that Sherpas have decided to vacate the mountain for the season. Why does Everest continue to be so alluring, despite the costs, the crowds and the risks?

The answer likely differs for each climber, and studies suggest that people who take risks tend to perceive them differently from people who avoid the same behaviors. But for adventurers who are drawn to Everest, the mountain's top is a lifelong dream that inspires intense preparation and a deep sense of reverence.

Makings of the Deadly Everest Ice Avalanche

"I can wax poetically for hours about this, but I thoroughly love the mountain," said Alan Arnette, a mountaineer and respected Everest blogger based in Fort Collins, Colo. "It represents the ultimate, the pinnacle for many people.

"I think Everest is a magical mountain with magnetic qualities," he added. "It's like a light to bugs that attracts people once they hear about it."

The modern urge to climb Everest began more than 150 years ago when British surveyors determined that the 8,848-meter peak was the tallest in the world. Everest soon became a "third Pole" as explorers raced to become the first to stand on top of it.

PHOTOS: The World's 'Eight-Thousander' Mountains

"From the moment it was identified as the highest mountain, it became an object of fascination," said Maurice Isserman, a historian at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, and author of "Fallen Giants: A History of Himalayan Mountaineering from the Age of Empire to the Age of Extremes."

"There are more interesting mountains to climb. There are more beautiful mountains. There are more challenging mountains that are a better experience. But it's a trophy. It's the biggest."

When asked by The New York Times why he wanted to climb Everest, British mountaineer George Mallory, who died on the mountain during his third expedition there in 1924, famously answered, "Because it's there."

Not everybody wants to climb Everest, though, and those who do likely have a strong internal drive to seek out thrills that may be at least partially programmed by genetics, said Andreas Wilke, a psychologist at Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y. Decision-making studies show that some people are more likely to pursue or avoid risk than others.

But the spectrum of risk-taking behavior is broad and more complex than psychologists once thought. In his studies of people who engage in extreme recreational activities like bungee jumping and SCUBA diving, Wilke has met skydiving wallflowers and chain-smokers who buy extensive car insurance. People who pursue risks in some parts of their lives, in other words, don't necessarily live on the edge in every way.

Instead, when Wilke has asked people to evaluate their behaviors, he finds that they often don't consider what they do to be as risky as it might seem to others, either because they have a skill set that gives them confidence or because in their minds, the benefits outweigh any fear involved. That balance of risks and rewards differs from person to person.

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"I would not climb Everest. I have other things to do, but in plain English, I'm also too scared to do it," Wilke said. "But I would do things some mountain climbers would not do, like lecture to 500 undergraduates."

From an evolutionary perspective, Wilke said, risk-taking behavior can be advantageous, particularly in men, because it signals strength and fitness to members of the opposite sex. In line with that theory, a successful Everest climb can convey status and prestige.

"If you said you went to Everest, you by definition climbed the highest mountain available to mankind," he said. "That's a very clear, non-fakable hierarchy. We can be very competitive in nature."

Have Sherpas Had It?

For many people who have topped Everest, though, it's about much more than hubris. Surpassing the "death zone" above 8,000 meters, standing on top of the world and returning home safely is an experience unlike any other.

"It brings into focus what's important to you," said Arnette, who summited Everest on his fourth attempt in 2011. "There are a thousand reasons to turn around and only one to keep going. You really have to focus on the one reason that's most important and unique to you.

"It forces you to look deep inside yourself and figure out if you really have the physical, as well as mental, toughness to push when you want to stop," he added. "When you come home, you realize you are able to face a wall and overcome that wall."

After leaving Base Camp, climbers have to cross the ice falls, some with the help of rope and ladder. The ice falls are where 13 sherpas lost their lives last week.

The world's 14 "eight-thousanders" -- mountains taller than 8,000 meters (26,247 feet) -- are all located in Asia. On one hand, they really beautify a horizon, but on the other they present a fierce, at times fatal, challenge to mountain climbers. Beauty can, indeed, be deadly. Here's the "baby" of the bunch, Shishapangma in Tibet, peaking at 8,027 meters (26,335 feet).

This is Gasherbrum II (we'll have another Gasherbrum coming up shortly), on the border of Pakistan and China. It's 8,035 meters up in the sky (26,361 feet) and is sometimes known as K4. These mountaineers are near the summit.

On the left side of this picture we see the sheer mass of Broad Peak, the 12th highest mountain on the planet at 8,047 meters or 26,394 feet above sea level.

As promised, here's another Gasherbrum: Gasherbrum I. (Gasherbrum, translated from the Tibetan language Balti, means "beautiful mountain.") It also goes by the name of K5, lives along the China-Pakistan border and is 8,080 meters (26,444 ft) high.

The Himalayan mountain range Annapurna, in Nepal, is seen here from Pkhara, about 124 miles (200 kilometers) west of Kathmandu. Annapurna is considered one of the most dangerous for climbers; first crested in 1950, it has since been climbed by more than 100 people but taken 53 lives along the way.

This somewhat unsettling photo was taken in 1931 by mountaineers at a base camp on Pakistan's Nanga Parbat, the ninth-tallest eight-thousander at 8,126 meters (26,660 feet). The area captured in the picture is known as the Nanga Wall.

Eighth-tallest of the eight-thousanders is Nepal's Manaslu, at 8,163 meters (26,781 feet).

The Dhaulagiri mountain range in the Himalayas sports a rather volcanic look in this picture, with the sun brushing its top. But Nepal's 8,167-meter (26,795-foot) monster is of course quite chilly on top. Dhaulagiri's south face is considered by mountaineers to be a next-to-impossible climb, and no one has ever topped the mountain from that side.

Clouds hover over snow-covered Cho Oyu mountain in Tibet. The sixth-tallest mountain stands 8,201 meters tall (26,906 feet), and the "Mountain Goddess" (in Tibetan translation) is considered one of less-challenging climbs among the eight-thousanders (if you don't consider climbing ANY mountain a challenge, that is!).

Next in the eight-thousander club is Makalu, the fifth-highest mountain in the world, looming on the border between Nepal and China. It's 8,463 meters (27,766 feet) tall and is another tough climb, with 22 deaths tallied against its 206 successful climbs.

Standing 8,516 meters tall (27,940 feet), Lhotse, fourth-tallest, rests on the border of Nepal and Tibet. It was first climbed in 1956.

Kangchenjunga, in Nepal, is the world's third-tallest mountain, edging Lhotse by just 71 meters, standing 8,587 meters tall (28,169 feet). It's a prominent mark on the horizon in Darjeeling, the tea-growing region.

K2, the second-tallest mountain on the planet, is 8,611 meters up in the clouds (28,251 feet) along the China-Pakistan border. Climbers know it for its incredibly difficult ascent routes; in 2008, an ice fall on the treacherous slopes took the lives of 11 climbers.

And now we reach the Big Daddy in the worldwide mountains club. That, of course, would be Mount Everest. Its name alone is synonymous with challenging feats, as climbing it continues to this day to be a dicey endeavor, though it draws people year after year to attempt the ascent. And what a climb: Mount Everest stands 8,848 meters tall (29,029 feet). It was famously crested for the first time in 1953 by New Zealand climber Edmund Hillary and Nepalese Sherpa mountaineer Tenzing Norgay.