Will Climbing Mount Everest Make You Happy? Or Will ‘the Noise’ Get in the Way?

If you climb successfully to the top of the world, defying ice falling on your head, blizzards knocking you over and waiting in line behind less skilled climbers while your oxygen depletes…

will you be happy?

Or are you just as likely to die?

Everest, summit
Headed for the top of Everest, the final steps along the ridge to the top of the world.

Perhaps melodramatic, but as climbing Everest is one of the highest risk activities most people will ever undertake, and it is your life after all, it is worth thinking about. If you compare the statistics, with around 1% of those who summit dying, it isn’t great odds. Shouldn’t the reward, the reaching the top, make one very happy?

Or even supremely happy.

As Steve Bell, author of Virgin on Insanity, pointed out to me before I climbed Everest my first time, there is “before Everest,” and “after Everest.” I don’t remember it being a happy or sad discussion, we are both lifelong climbers and guides and we know climbing makes us happy. It was just a statement that all who have climbed Everest understand – that after having stood on the top of the world, you will see it differently.

But will that difference include being happy?

With happiness now often seen as most obtainable when what happens exceeds your expectations, will climbing Everest exceed those expectations?

robert mads anderson, sibusisu vilane, Everest
Summiting with Sibusisu Vilane – he savored his climb of Everest and talked in the depths of the icefall of shapes that reminded him of Lions from his native bushland in Africa. Photo: David Hamilton

Or are expectations so high for the highest mountain on earth, that the aftermath is little more than a let down, a goal achieved and accomplished, that then needs to be replaced. Is there also a sadness in knowing you can, at least physically, never go any higher?

Success achieving happiness starts with the ability to identify what’s important and what you value. As I am biased as an Everest climber and guide, I turned to one with far more perspective, who knows the mountains, the worlds far away places, and more importantly, the mind; life coach and PhD. mathematician Jen McKeown. She took my surmises and made sense of them in what I write below.

Dr. Jen McKeown, right, advising a penguin on beverage intake to ward off dehydration, Union Glacier, New Years Eve, Antarctica.

To climb Everest you need to think hard about why you want to do it. And perhaps more importantly, what you will give up to get there – think family time, friends, income or just a warm bed. And if you really want to risk your life to a much higher degree than normal life demands?

Then add how climbing Everest will add to your character, to add to the values you find important and cherish or wish to develop.

If you say your family comes first and I’m going to climb Everest in the same sentence, you are probably kidding yourself. If you are a serious lifelong climber, you answered that question long ago, whether consciously or not. If Everest is the first mountain you ever thought to climb and it came randomly into your head at some point, you may wish to dwell on this point a bit further, to examine your motives.

Now lets add in a very important factor to the pure sense of happiness you want to achieve – distractions and noise. This can be applied to any desire for happiness – but with Everest it has now become a major factor, lets just call it “the noise.”

Everest, Hillary Step
A whole lot of noise. Waiting in the line over the Hillary step. Big numbers of people, big teams and little coordination in years past have created massive traffic jams. I’m in yellow, at the back of the line. Photo: David Hamilton

‘The noise’ right now on Everest has become an avalanche of factors. The perception of overcrowding, with rubbish and bodies littered about. The climbers who aren’t really climbers, pulled to the top, getting through to the summit due only to good luck and good management from Guides and Sherpas, with little skills of their own. Or simply waiting in line to get to the summit. How banal is that?

Depending on your rational, ‘the noise’ could overwhelm the happiness. If you are climbing to say you have climbed Everest, to impress others, ‘the noise’ will get in the way. Others won’t really think that much of you, or they think if you can do it, they could do it, so what’s the big deal? Or you may realize they secretly think you are an elitist snob, with more money than sense, who is so insecure you have to go out and do something so crazy, that really isn’t that big of a deal anyway. You go from wanting to be looked up to, to being looked down on – not a recipe for happiness.

There are 2 simple questions, honestly answered, that help

  1. Do you want to actually climb Everest?
  2. Or do you want to climb Everest to say you have climbed Everest?

If the idea of happiness is an instagram selfie atop the mountain you are in category 2, and a risk to yourself, and others. When guiding, it is the first and most important thing I want to find out about each team member – what is their motivation – because when climbing gets dangerous and difficult as it inevitably does, your motivation defines how you react.

If you like the idea of the icefall pre-dawn, of front pointing on the Lhotse face in an afternoon blizzard, and not sleeping for a day, then setting out for the top of the world in the dark, encased in down and buried behind an oxygen mask, then happiness may be realized.

To return to the wise words of Jen McKeown, will Everest “set your soul on fire?” Or are you likely to burn it up for someone else or some other reason?

Everest, Sunrise
Above the noise. Everest, the summit pyramid just beginning to form in the west at dawn. Taken from just below the South Summit at 8,650 meters on our way to the top. We were supremely happy at just being where we were, at that point in time.

If the actual experience of climbing Everest fires your soul, there will be happiness.

And then ‘the noise’ won’t be so relevant.

Nine Lives – Expeditions to Everest. Photo: Alexander Hillary

If you would like to avoid the noise on Everest, there are a host of ways to do that, from choosing a different season, a new route or just a different mountain. For more on all the ways you can find happiness on Everest, have a read of Nine Lives – Expeditions on Everest to see how you could have it all to yourself.