Molehill out of a mountain

PUBLISHED : Friday, 26 May, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 26 May, 2006, 12:00am

My elder son was glued to the television more than usual the other day, watching a man wearing not a lot clamber at speed up an especially dangerous-looking artificial slope constructed in the name of extreme sports. As the guy reached the top and slid belly-first down the other side to claim a new record, my flesh and blood uttered a whistle of admiration.

'Dad,' he asked. 'Can I have a motorbike when I'm old enough to get a licence?'

There is a time and place for everything and this was not a good choice of either. I did not respond and as my son is 15, I have a few years to think about it. But knowing his predilection for activities that would scare the life out of ordinary people, such as my good self, any vehicle I buy him will look more like a tank than a motorbike.

That, of course, will not stop him from doing wild and crazy things to push his body to abnormal limits. There will be the day, I am sure, when he will turn from the TV, where muscle-bound men will doubtless be kick-boxing one another in the head in the name of sport, and ask me if I will fund his expedition up Mount Everest.

Given that weather conditions make May the best month to climb the world's highest peak and there are currently stories galore about this and that record being broken, I am well prepared for that moment.

'Go right ahead,' I will say, adding that he can find the requisite US$47,000 himself.

Anyway, I figure that there is nothing extreme about climbing the 8,850-metre mountain these days. In the 53 years since Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first to achieve the feat, 1,500 climbers have made it to the top, with dozens more succeeding every season.

The youngest was a Nepali youth my son's age and the oldest a Japanese man, who claimed the record this week at the age of 70 years, seven months and 13 days.

Also so far this month, a Nepali sherpa guide beat his own record by climbing the peak for the 16th time, the first husband-and-wife team made the ascent, two 19-year-old British men became the youngest from their country to make it to the top, and - most challengingly - a man with artificial legs clambered up to stand on what has become known as the rooftop of the world. A blind man got there in 2001 and a wheelchair-bound paraplegic got to base camp two years later.

Keep in mind that when Sir Edmund and Tenzing made their climb on May 29, 1953, they were weighed down with oxygen tanks and heavy mountaineering equipment. Nowadays, using oxygen is considered cheating by some, clothing is made of frostbite-resistant fabric, and technology has meant that the going is comparatively light and easy. Before long, infants will be making the climb backwards in beachwear - or so one would think, the way the records are tumbling.

Truth be told, mountaineering is dangerous. Four climbers have already died on Everest this year, taking the mountain's toll since expeditioning records began in the 1920s to almost 200. My German grandfather, an amateur mountaineer, died of a stroke while descending that country's highest mountain, the Zugspitze.

I know such information would not circumvent my son's plans to physically challenge himself. Besides, there is no logical reason why people climb Everest, the age-old response being: 'Because it's there.'

Nonetheless, the steady stream of increasingly unlikely people making their way up its slopes surely calls into question its status as a challenge. I sense that with every man, woman and pet that makes the trek up the south and, more difficult, north face, the novelty will have worn off by the time my son has saved up.

This poses a new problem for me: how to stop him from the potential alternatives, like polar bear baiting, swimming with great white sharks, or extreme ironing on a tightrope across the Grand Canyon.

Peter Kammerer is the Post's foreign editor.