Summit Fever- The quest for achievement
The book, ‘Into Thin Air’ by Everest summiteer Jon Kaukauer left me reflecting on the meaning of ‘achievement’. This personal account in essence raises a few dilemmas about our quest for achievement and the human debris we leave behind. I realised that what happened on Everest in May 1996 happens every day in the world of business in our career summit pursuit.
Yet we rarely pause and reflect on existential questions like these:
What really is achievement?
Who decides it?
Do we get there all by ourselves or do we use others as ropes and ladders?
Do we abandon, sometimes even jettison, those we perceive as hindering our career summit pursuit?
Do we ever reflect on the collateral damage we have piled up, stricken by our summit fever?
The summit fever in mountaineering and other professions numbs people’s ethical compass. It makes them insensitive and self-centered to not stop by and help another colleague in near-death distress. Jon recounts, how even the few who are moved by the pitiful and near-death state of a fellow mountaineer, invariably move on towards their summit quest and leave the person in the state of near death to die, rather than pause their summit quest and help.
The dilemma is that the other person, out of free will, aware of all the risks undertook the journey. How is it fair for him, when in distress to morally burden the stronger climber who has invested time, money and effort towards his summit objective? The physical and emotional cost of aiding a distressed climber is more than forsaking the summit quest; it often is one’s own life. Equally, there is no guarantee the incapacitated climber would have done anything different, if he were the stronger climber. Why then do all of us regularly posture as people who will give up our summit quest and aid the distressed one? One of our many moral delusions!
Equally, most people, who choose to climb, when they reach the limits of their ability and should have turned back to their base camp for their own safety, often press on. Their summit fever deludes them to not only put their own safety in peril, but also threaten the safety of others. Arlene Blum, climber and team leader on Annapurna, unassertively acceded to the obstinate insistence of three team members to take a shot at the summit, when it was too late and the climbers were mentally and physically weakened. All the three died.
This begs the question: When I as a climber push on, oblivious of my inability to go any higher, am I right in invoking morality, when I am abandoned or forcibly turned back? Where does ambition begin and where does it end? What morality justifies my irresponsible ambition, creating a moral dilemma for others?
So are leaders who deny the weaker members the opportunity to summit, saviours or whimsical spoilers?
The core question is, what morality allows one person in any institution to arrogate upon himself the credit for the achievement of an institution, when it has been earned on the sweat and toil of thousands others? How many award-winning leaders name colleagues, when on the podium?
Sure you cannot take 1,000 names, but a few will signal that there were more people than just “the supreme leader”.
In any mountaineering pursuit, most of the summiteers have no hope to summit without sherpas or the yards of ropes and ladders that others have laid. Yet very few summiteers acknowledge and honour the sherpa. What morality will justify this narcissism?
How do we know we have achieved? Is it the critic’s acclaim, public adulation, front page photo in a newspaper, Facebook likes, Twitter followers, awards, titles — what is it? It also raises the question: Of what use are all these if your colleagues do not respect you; even worse, are scorning or laughing at you? How do you know the cover page earned you respect or for that matter anyone one believes you make a difference to anyone else, other than yourself?
When consumed by the summit fever the mind becomes self-obsessed, disoriented and the emotions numb, reducing us to debris or leading us to leave behind others as debris for our fleeting moment of hypoxic exultation on the summit.
My friend, the double amputee Everest summiteer Mark Inglis, told me getting to the summit is only half the job done; getting down alive, with your team intact, is the real challenge. Useful to reflect upon this: When does ambition become summit fever?