Somebody once said that there are two types of people in this world: those who say there are two types of people in this world and those who don’t. And so I’m going to say that there are two types of people in this world: those who want to climb incredibly dangerous mountains, and those who don’t.
George Mallory was a pioneering British mountaineer who made three attempts to be the first to climb Mount Everest back in the 1920s. This was a crazy thing to do in the 1920s when they didn’t have oxygen tanks and they probably liked to smoke lots of unfiltered cigarettes. When he was asked why he wanted to climb the impossible mountain, Mallory famously said, “Because it’s there.” Mallory disappeared on Mount Everest during his third attempt in 1924 and his body wasn’t found until 1999. His body was close enough to the summit that he may have been the first to reach the top, but getting up is only half the task. Getting back down alive is kind of important and that round-trip wasn’t successfully completed until 1953.
I was watching a TV documentary about mountain climbers. Why? Because it was on. This documentary was about the disastrous 2008 expeditions to climb K2, the world’s second highest mountain in northeastern Pakistan. K2 is harder to climb than Everest (around 300 successful attempts for K2 compared to 7,000 for Everest) and in 2008 a series of mishaps killed eleven mountaineers. Obviously each death was a very sad tragedy, and yet I found it hard to muster much sympathy. From the comfort of my armchair on a swelteringly hot day in Kuala Lumpur, I just couldn’t understand why they wanted to climb a mountain where one in four mountaineers die. I once spent a very enjoyable afternoon drinking a cappuccino in a quiet piazza in Venice. That’s how I want to spend my holidays, not climbing a mountain gasping for oxygen before being swept away by an avalanche. And yet the daredevil spirit of these adventurous mountaineers does make me feel small and as if my Venetian afternoon was a lesser experience. I don’t know. Is it?
We were on holiday in Bali and my wife said, “We should go white water rafting. It’ll be fun!” And I thought, no it won’t. It would be the opposite of fun. Fun is rummaging through a second-hand bookstore in Thailand and finding, of all things, a biography of Bryan Ferry, the lead singer of Roxy Music. Not fun is careening down a mountain river being led by a tough and rugged leader who shouts tough and rugged things like, “paddle harder now!” while I’m at the back of the boat screaming like a girl. I mean no offence to girls but even girls at a One Direction concert would consider me to be an embarrassment when I’m in full scream. That’s the problem with adventure: it exposes my unmanliness.
There was a time when I did climb mountains, and I’d do it again if I could. These were mountains in Wales and Scotland and none of them were anything like an Everest. They were more than a bukit but less than a gunung. I climbed up (walked up, really) several unpronounceable Welsh mountains in the 70s and 80s along with hordes of other holidaymakers but I felt a sense of achievement, which was enhanced by my private belief that I was achieving some kind of first by planting an imaginary Malaysian flag at the top (one of the great things about being Malaysian is that the bar for Malaysian firsts can be set incredibly low, as low as the 14th highest mountain in Wales). But I would never have made the attempt if there had been any kind of risk, if I knew one-in-four hikers would die. Where’s the fun in that?
Clearly I’m not a risk-taker. Risk-takers still climb mountains even when they know they might die. They’ll eat raw maggot-infested sheep carcass and use what’s left as a sleeping bag. Most of all, they’ll do everything they can to make me feel bad about myself. I think these people climb K2 for the sole purpose of making me feel ashamed that my coffee in Venice isn’t pioneering, exciting and manly enough. The only risk I take is whether or not to leave a tip. But I have to convert from Malaysian Ringgit and these days, even being able to afford to get to Venice is perhaps the biggest achievement possible. So next time I’m travelling and I find a delightful café, I’m going to have coffee and think of those people clambering up dangerous mountains. Why? Because they’re there and thankfully, I’m not.