Patrick Lam

Associate Professor, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Director, Software Engineering Programme
University of Waterloo
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February 15, 2018

Thoughts on climbing Mt. Everest

When people find out that one of my hobbies is climbing, sometimes they ask whether I'd like to climb Mt. Everest. The answer is no. Here's why.

Yes, of course Mt. Everest is the highest mountain in the world. But I don't really climb mountains just because they are high. Elevation is only one feature of a mountain. Another key feature is technical difficulty. Everest is not high on the technical difficulty scale, and I understand that the sherpas manage most of the technical difficulties so that climbers don't need to consider them. It is of course physiologically challenging to climb above 8000m, but that's a different thing. I'm more interested in technical difficulty (which is still somewhat vague: are the moves difficult? is there objective hazard to manage?) and other aesthetic features of the climb.

I mentioned guides above. I strive to have the competence to do my trips without a guide and to take responsibility for my own safety. It's more rewarding to be in control of one's destiny rather than being along for the ride. On the other hand, my understanding of Mt. Everest these days is that, for almost all climbers, you pay a guide $$$,$$$ and they take you to the top of the mountain, with some non-zero risk of dying. It's true that you're physically taking all of the steps, but you're not making the decisions. Many Everest climbers don't have the skills that would otherwise be required, and are not going to develop the skills on the trip. It's not a situation where you are to learn a lot about alpinism. And that's just much less rewarding.

In summer 2017, I did join an Alpine Club of Canada trip to Kyrgyzstan which featured Russian guides. That was interesting as a cultural experience, but in terms of the mountaineering, our group would have been fine without the guides; we just didn't know the area and couldn't read the literature, which was in Russian.

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