John Branch, Only 44 people have reached the summit of all 14 of the world's highest mountains. Or maybe no one has. NYTimes, May 22, 2011.
Mountains are complex physical objects and their highest points are not necessarily well-defined. Climbing to the top of an 8000 meter mountain is very difficult. Consequently claiming to have reached the summit is a substantial claim, no?
Just what does it mean to reach the summit?
It is a question both simple and cosmic, sure to divide absolutists from pragmatists.
“The summit does matter,” said David Roberts, a climber who has written dozens of books on Himalayan expeditions and co-written books with the likes of Viesturs, Jon Krakauer, Conrad Anker and Alex Honnold. “Why does it matter? Because it’s the whole point of mountaineering. It’s the goal that defines an ascent.”
There is no true governing body for mountaineering, no single arbiter of what constitutes a feat worthy of adulation. For top mountaineers, it is a fuzzy world subject to personal satisfaction and occasional peer review. Accomplishment is judged by some indescribable mix of difficulty, imagination and style.
It does not always matter if the top is reached. As Viesturs pointed out, it is called climbing, not summiting. The point is often the process.
But the summit is a rare tangible accomplishment in climbing, the one yes-or-no proposition. It can turn humans into heroes. It can bestow fame and forge reputations.
More philosophically, it has meaning. It exists as the ultimate metaphor for achievement, a vertical finish line that says you have gone as far as possible. There is nowhere higher to go.
“The summit is an ideal we can aspire to,” said the climber Michael Kennedy, a former editor of Climbing and Alpinist magazines with a list of high-level mountaineering accomplishments to his name.
In 1997, he wrote an editorial for Climbing titled, “Close Only Counts in Horseshoes and Hand Grenades.”
“Issues of style aside, success is measured along a single axis,” he wrote. “You either reach the summit or you don’t. Not much room for debate. Or is there?”
Kennedy still believes those words. “If you want to say that you’ve climbed it,” he said recently, “you should climb to the summit.”
But he and others also wonder: Does it really matter?
“I don’t know,” Viesturs said. “I mean, who’s counting? Who’s watching? Who’s paying attention?”
Maybe the questions do not belong just to the mountaineers, but also to the rest of us. If we find that the world’s greatest climbers have been coming up short of their goals, purposely or not, maybe our response says more than the deception itself.
Maybe we are the ones who must reckon with the notion of a summit, in all its literary and metaphorical forms. Maybe we are the ones who must decide where the limits are.
There's more at the link.