ECONOMICS ATOP EVEREST

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Like the metaphorical quest for a better life, the quest for the Everest summit has also gotten much more skewed to the rich since Hilary made it to the top exactly 60 years ago.

Today (May 29, 2013) marks the 60th anniversary of the first known ascent of Mount Everest, a towering achievement for humanity that among other things, must be a kind of an enigma for economists studying the rational model of human behavior. Mountaineering is an activity that is hard to pin down in the usual cost-benefit framework that economics often invokes to explain behavior. It is a genuinely high risk activity (so many have perished in their quest for Everest, some excruciatingly and cruelly close to the summit) and the payoff, at least in tangible terms, isn’t much.

George Mallory (believed to have been actually the first man to get to the summit [Jeffrey Archer’s ‘Paths of Glory’ is an interesting read in this regard] but perished tragically, his body found in 1999) is often – perhaps apocryphally – attributed to have said ‘Because it is there’ when asked why he wanted to climb Everest. This is perhaps an exemplification of the intrinsic motivation that has worked into the brains of the intrepid mountaineers who dream of summiting the highest peak in the world.

Mint, the business newspaper, published a heart-warming account of how Tusi Das, the 29 year old daughter of an egg seller in Bengal, and a very keen mountaineer made her dream come true earlier this month. From her mother contributing her savings for Tusi’s wedding to other friends and family chipping in, Das had to spend upwards of a couple million rupees to fund the expedition. She was helped along the way by generous sponsors as well but she confides that she wasn’t looking for a monetary reward or a government job as a result of her expedition. While such emotion hardly fits into traditional economics models (you cannot really put a monetary value to the pride and thrill that Das rightfully feels), the other interesting point is just how expensive it is to get to the top of Everest – both in the literal and metaphorical sense. Hours of training, preparation and career sacrifices apart, you simply need a lot of money to fund the expedition. Money, which enriches tour operators specializing in offering the Everest climb as some kind of an extreme tourism option, but also creates an entry barrier for ‘people like us’. The indulgent rich thus get to live their fantasy and paradoxically sully the real experience as a lot of purists were complaining around in 1996 when one of the worst disasters atop the mountain claimed 15 lives (recounted hauntingly by Jon Krakauer in his masterful ‘Into Thin Air’) because the climbers were perhaps a touch impatient to get to the top to get their ‘money’s worth’.

This is not to trivialize the tragedy that befell them, but to put into perspective that while the economy at the foot of Everest (let’s call it the Base Camp Economy) is a crucial means of livelihood for thousands of Nepalis (whether they are selling mountaineering supplies near base camp, or maps or offering Sherpa services – these services can earn you $6,000 upwards per client!), its boom could be the beginning of its downfall too. Peak traffic at Everest is climbing every year. In May, prime weather for climbing, it can reach 200 plus attempts per day.

A friend of mine (who himself harbors an ambition to have a go at Everest someday) expressed horror when he found out that there was talk of putting a ladder at the ‘Hilary Step’ – the final ascent to the summit wide enough only for one person at a time. The idea is being mooted to figure out a way to reduce the congestion at the top which has only gotten worse despite the laments in Krakaeur’s book and the tragic events of 1996 and after. And Everest seems to be becoming a victim that designer brands often fall prey to – it is becoming a commodity. It has suddenly become a marketing problem. As The Guardian put it

“Many Sherpas and other Nepalis want to develop the industry of guiding clients to the top with minimal risk to all involved, while many mountaineers want to preserve Everest as a climbing challenge that demands a significant level of experience, technical competence and acceptance of risk.”

Economics enthusiast would very well recognize the dilemma – there is a tradeoff involved. And as any true mountain climbing enthusiast knows, there are never any easy answers. Perhaps the time has come to level the playing field a bit. A minimum level of competence requirement would perhaps eliminate the inequality that keeps real enthusiasts in want of funds and the ones with funds but not entirely upto scratch to make the climb get the chance.

The Everest problem seems like a microcosm of the greater threats the world in general faces from rising levels of income inequality. It raises the question everyone is asking – does everyone have a fair chance to make it to the top? Six decades since Sir Edmund Hilary made it on the back sheer perseverance, the answer seems less certain – for Everest and the World Economy. 

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