The Heart Wants What It Wants

To make a long story somewhat less long: February is the absolute worst.

The weather is lousy and there is no sunshine.1 I’m having my normal February-induced existential crisis where I wonder what the heck I’m doing with my one precious life. To add to my mid-winter angst, my husband left on Thursday to return our Elder Teen to college, which meant two things: 1) my heart hurts (but not as much as the first time) and 2) I had full control of the TV that night.

My intentions were noble. I was going to plow through all of the heady documentaries in my queue that I have to watch alone;2 instead, I found myself sucked into the first season of Everest: Beyond the Limit, which is now streaming on Amazon Prime.

The bare outline of the show is pretty much what you’d expect it to be: some dudes climb the world’s tallest mountain. Here are six episodes from the 2006 summit attempt. Some of these dudes succeed. Some fail. A few die, because the mountain really doesn’t want you there.

The theme song, which is essentially just another dude chanting “Ever-rest” over a generic synth track, proves that all of the production money went to getting footage from the climb itself. Any mountaineering expedition takes buckets of money, mind. You can quintuple those buckets for Everest. This is not an avocation for anyone who isn’t spectacularly wealthy.

The first season’s3 climbers are, of course, swimming in enough disposable income4 to fling it at New Zealand’s Russell Brice, who runs Himalayan Experience, Ltd. If you are hell-bent on doing something this foolish, Brice is the guy you want to do it with. He’s been leading these trips for decades, has climbed the mountain himself a couple of times, and has a great safety record.

In this season, you can tell how very important that last clause is. Other tour groups on the mountain — and there are a lot of them — play fast and loose with best practices in the effort to make a buck. There is absolutely no margin for error on a mountain with a substantial “kill zone,” which defines the portion of the climb above which nothing can live for very long. More than a few of these lesser groups get themselves into trouble and their inexperience5 nearly leads to a cascade of deaths near the summit. Instead, they only kill their own clients.

While I fundamentally do not understand the appeal of doing something this dumb6 that contributes nothing to the sum of human knowledge (unlike, say, space exploration, which is also hostile to human life but provides all kinds of side discoveries), I am fascinated by the process of doing it. Brice, his Sherpas, and his team of doctors and guides are professionals.7 You want them in your corner when you are pushing this many limits. The logistics alone are worthy of admiration and study.

But the industry around Everest is also fascinating. The governments of Tibet and Nepal fund themselves (mostly) with permit fees for expedition groups. Sherpas can change their lives by proving themselves on the mountain — or die in the process, as many do. It’s in the economic interests of these marginalized people to have as many white people on the mountain as possible, which leads to more and more impact on the environment and infrastructure of their countries.8 But should they be stopped from doing so by an outside agency? Who should decide what is in their best interest?

Beyond those broad questions are the individual stories. The gold standard of writing a personal narrative about climbing this mountain9 is Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air,10 which remains one of my all-time favorite books. (If you can, pick up the newest edition because it covers all of the fallout that rained down after it was first published.)

So much of what Krakauer saw in the late 1990s has only increased, like how crowded the mountain is and how too many of the climbers don’t have the chops to not be a danger. It’ll be interesting to see how the pandemic shifts the climbing-Mount-Everest industry and all of those who depend on it.

Regardless of all of the larger, thinkier thoughts that the series brings up, watching these dudes climb this mountain is hypnotic, no matter how self-serving you believe the endeavor to be. I’m certain they would think my afternoon/evening of watching them do this is silly in its own way. They’d be correct. But I didn’t risk frostbite (or worse), which counts for something, and, for a few hours, I didn’t dwell on how blah this time of year can be. I’m calling it a win, even if I didn’t get to take a picture of myself at the top of the world.

What’s the last series that you found yourself binge-watching? What was it about it that drew you in?

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1

We’re used to it, mind, unlike our friends (and enemies) in Texas who were deep in the shit and are now forced to shovel it for the foreseeable future. Sorry you’re dealing with this, y’all.

2

My husband is a very smart dude who enjoys knowing things but cannot understand my love of documentaries. I cannot understand his love for Star Wars and/or Marvel. It’s about balance.

3

There are three seasons total. I’ve only watched the first but intended to view them all.

4

At least $70,000 for the attempt at the summit alone — and significantly more when you factor in gear, travel to Kathmandu, etc.

5

and outright negligence

6

I cannot tell you the number of times I muttered “these fucking idiots” to the dogs.

7

Brice’s experience saved a lot of lives in 2014. This New Yorker story is a breakdown of how one judgement call can change everything.

8

to say nothing of the number of people killed in pursuit of the summit

9

It goes beyond just his experience and really gets to the heart of why anyone would want to do this, as well as all that can go wrong.

10

His Under the Banner of Heaven is another of my all-time favorites and I feel a re-read coming on.