Editor's Note

Posted on: March 1, 2008


Of Men and Mobilekind

MAY 29, 1953, 11:30 A.M.: An oxygen mask and a wreath of icicles hid Tenzing Norgay's face, but Edmund Hillary could nonetheless distinguish the Sherpa's delighted grin. The two men shook hands silently, then Norgay flung his arm around Hillary's shoulder. The first to stand on top of the world, they were enveloped in an unimaginable solitude, surrounded only by the whipping of the wind, the ribbons of cirrus clouds and the sound of their own breaths.

Just five days before, under the headline "Of Men and Mountains," a New York Times journalist had pronounced: "The world waits again for news from a corner of the world that has become familiar through its challenge to man's imagination and ability. Radios and newspapers do not penetrate to that area, and word must be brought down from the mountain and across miles of rugged trails by runners. As Everest's peak has waited these many years for the conquering foot of man, so must the world wait for word of success or failure." It would be eight more days before the world learned of the men's summit.

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Fifty-three years and fiftyone weeks later, the top of Everest was a decidedly more connected place. At 5:30 a.m., on May 21, 2007, some ten to fifteen people, mostly from a commercial expedition, crowded the summit. The year before, China Telecom had installed a cell tower in Rongbuk, establishing line-of-sight signal for the North Ridge. Now British client Rod Baber jabbed at his cell phone with his gloved hands until he managed to send the message that the company sponsoring his climb had prepared: "One small text for man, one giant leap for mobilekind—thanks Motorola." It was -30°C, and a couple of batteries had already died in the cold, but the one he'd taped to his chest was still warm enough to work. Quickly the news went up on www.motorola.com, where Baber's image was superimposed against the crystal-clear backdrop of the mountain, his orange jacket and green hat bearing the company logo. Soon after, his feat was entered into The Guinness Book of World Records.

[Illustration] Jeremy Collins

In the half century since Sir Hillary and Norgay's quiet isolation, calls (by satellite or radio) have become commonplace on Everest, and the true "record-breaking" nature of Baber's climb may lie in its role as harbinger of climbing's future. In 2005 many members of the climbing community criticized Tomaz Humar for the hyper-communication surrounding his attempt on and subsequent helicopter rescue from Nanga Parbat, each gripping moment narrated in real time on his website. Yet today, climbers such as big-wall soloist Silvia Vidal (see "Life Is Lilac" in this issue), who venture into remote areas without any form of connection, have become the minority, even among purists. In 2007 Steve House provided voice-mail updates about his impressive September Charakusa trip (including the first ascent of K7 West, alpine style, with Marko Prezelj and Vince Anderson) via satellite phone to his sponsor, Patagonia, which the company posted in MP3 format on its blog, The Cleanest Line; and Valery Babanov radioed news of his and Sergey Kofanov's alpine-style ascent of the Northwest Ridge of Jannu from the summit itself. (We reported both expeditions on www.alpinist.com as soon as information became available.) Ironically enough, Humar, who soloed a line on the south face of Annapurna, was the one who delayed informing the world of the exact location and nature of his route, much to the consternation of other, curious alpinists (as well as of our reporters).

In the coming years, communications technology will produce even smaller, lighter, faster, more durable gadgets. Climbers may start to transmit their ascents via live webcasts, from cameras affixed to their helmets, and we will likely avail ourselves of the opportunity to stream such climbs on our website so our readers can watch climbs unfold as they happen. Compensation for professionals could become directly proportional to audience size, and more climbers could make a living pursuing their dreams. But we might take a moment to ask what the increasing immediacy of such reportage will do to the pursuit itself.

House predicts that the rise of new media could lead to a greater democratization of climbing stories: while print magazines tend to publish ascents by a small elite, websites and blogs already allow a larger forum in which anyone can tell his or her tale of adventure. Mountain historian Bernadette McDonald adds that such proliferation could mean a departure from the early days of single, and often sanitized, "official accounts." Real-time narratives with multiple voices might render it impossible for any one participant in a climb to control the manner of its recounting. Prezelj, on the other hand, emails us that "the level of manipulation can be even higher [in instant, online accounts] because the reports (ab)use the effect of first cut, and any corrections [to erroneous reportage] after[ward] are just additional 'promotion.'"

One way or another, the omnipresence of such immediate, public attention will inevitably affect the nature of the climbing experience. As Prezelj puts it, "Are the feelings (and our behavior) making love the same if we know that someone is watching us?" When the need for funding and sponsorship influences professional climbers' use of these media forms, a new self-consciousness may replace what's left of the traditional solitude climbers once enjoyed. Ultimately, it may be up it to the amateurs to defend alpinism's traditional spirit and to search once more for that private world of two friends alone on a mountaintop, lost in the silence of all that unsignaled air.

—Katie Ives



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