Mt. Everest: Why Do People Keep Climbing It?

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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“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.”