No One ‘Conquers’ An Eight-Thousander

Despite the dozens, if not hundreds, of mountaineering tales that talk about the ‘conquest’ of mountains, especially the fourteen eight-thousanders that are the world’s tallest mountains, no one ‘conquers’ them. Not the mountaineers who climbed them first, who ‘deflowered’ their ‘virginity,’; not the ones who climb them by new routes, each selected to be harder than others, each with its own peculiar and particular challenges; not the ones who climb them in the dead of winter, in short days and freezing weather. No matter how bold, how adventurous, how pioneering and revolutionary the ascent–without oxygen, without porters, alpine-style, at breakneck pace–the mountain remains unbeaten, unconquered, and unconquerable.

Those that make it to the summit, all the better to plant a flag, take photos, burn incense, pose for posterity, and sometimes bury souvenirs, they do not conquer the mountain. They do not stick around to assert dominion; they do not dilly-dally to set up camp, to settle down to a new residence; they do not triumphantly stake out a parcel for themselves, asserting that this will be theirs till someone dislodges them. Instead, they leave. The smart ones leave quickly, setting off down the slopes they have just painfully and slowly ascended, back to the safety of their last camp, into which they will stumble, exhausted, their physical and mental reserves rapidly running down to empty; they know the mountain has been kind enough to let them in for a quick taste of glory; an extended dalliance on its slopes could mean death. (The frozen, perfectly preserved bodies, still clad in their colorful mountaineering clothes and boots, which litter the otherwise pristine acres of the world’s greatest mountains are ample testimony to this fact.) Conquerors do not behave like this; they do not leave the scenes of their triumphs so quickly; they do not retreat with such haste from the domains that are supposedly theirs. Conquerors are far more immodest. These supposed conquerors only speak of their conquests once they are off the mountain. They know the respect due the mountain.

Despite the genial contempt that some expert mountaineers direct at the ‘easy’ eight-thousanders–speaking relatively of the differences in technical difficulty involved in climbing them–none of them, consummate professionals each and every one, would dare, in their working hours, to show anything other than the appropriate respect to these peaks. They have been ‘up there’, they know what time it is.

The mountain is no place for man (or beast.) It may let you in for a sneak peek at its inner sanctorums, a quick glimpse of the most breathtaking vistas possible, but you do this on sufferance. You do not conquer the mountain; it merely permits you access; a truce is declared, and you are ushered through for a temporary reprieve. And then, time’s up; you must leave. Back to the bottom; back to the safety of the plains. Off the mountain; now left to its own devices, to its solitary splendor. The summit is no one’s to take, dominate, or retain. It is the mountain’s alone. No one and nothing, except the snow and the winds, retains dominion there.

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