Is Mount Everest the ultimate successful branded product, made in Asia, but benefiting from all the political and marketing genius of the imperial West?
Once upon a time, Mount Everest throned at the top of the Himalayas, the highest point on earth, as a symbol of the unattainable, a place where it could be said, quite literally, that humanity had no business being there. Nature had its domains — deserts, tundras and mountain peaks — that it reserved for its own enjoyment. All that has changed, as Everest has just as literally become a brand, a business and “the place to be” for rich, vain tourists. Or rather, the place to be able to say one has set foot on.
Business Insider sums up the current situation: “Everest’s popularity has given rise to a new crop of local companies looking to capitalize on the growing market, with many offering significantly cheaper rates than foreign-based companies.”
Everest is both a commercial object to be exploited and a marketplace.
Here is today’s 3D definition:
The much sought-after virtue that turns a product into a successful brand; the key to making a profit for the brand’s investors mainly through an artificially created perception of the importance of the object or idea the brand represents as a factor in the lives of those who consume (or are consumed by) the brand
By the 20th century, few people perceived any interest in the idea that a human being might show, just for the sake of showing, that it is possible to reach the summit and stand on the world’s highest point. Most reasonable people calmly wondered, with a vague sense of curiosity, what conditions might be like in such an obviously inhospitable place. Once it was achieved, in 1953, the media turned it into a cause for celebration.
What made the conquest of Everest possible? Unlike the moon landing 16 years later that opened up the notion of travel to other planets, it could be the prelude to nothing more. And while the moon landing aimed at gaining access to potentially unlimited mineral resources, reaching the heights of Everest offered no material reward.
To achieve the feat nevertheless required monumental effort and investment in the form of planning, scientific understanding and technology. But it also depended on human preparation, physical performance and endurance. And, of course, money. Because getting to the top of Mount Everest constituted a project of major proportions, requiring complex logistical coordination and serious investment to make it work.
Even though two men reached the top in 1953, one man received the credit. The rest of the world could have simply appreciated the accomplishment as a unique moment in history. But climbing Mount Everest has achieved “popularity” with people who are simply following in Edmund Hillary’s tracks.
Recently, journalist Emily Sohn asked: “Why does Everest continue to be so alluring, despite the costs, the crowds and the risks?” Answering her own question, she explains: “[T]he mountain’s top is a lifelong dream that inspires intense preparation and a deep sense of reverence.” She doesn’t bother to mention another possible motive: narcissism, or reverence of one’s own abilities, though she does cite a more respectable version of it, hubris. Sohn also quotes an enthusiast, who hints at but doesn’t himself believe in the narcissism thesis: “It’s like a light to bugs that attracts people once they hear about it.”
Before 1953, no human being had both the crazy idea of climbing to the top of Mount Everest and the means of accomplishing the task, since there was absolutely no natural interest in doing so. When the New Zealander adventurer Sir Edmund Hillary accomplished the task in 1953, he acquired instant fame as his name resonated through the media. The website New Zealand History pays its homage to its hero, “the best-known New Zealander ever to have lived.” We learn that “ascent of Mt Everest, the planet’s highest peak, with Sherpa Tenzing Norgay brought him worldwide fame — literally overnight.”
Still at the geographical height of its empire after World War I, Britain created the Mount Everest Committee as a joint venture between the Alpine Club and the Royal Geographical Society. It coordinated and financed the 1921 British Mount Everest reconnaissance expedition to Mount Everest. In 1947, it changed its name to become the Joint Himalayan Committee to finance and organize Lord Hunt’s expedition to have Hillary conquer the top of the world. According to the “daring old-world soldier-spy” Sir Francis Younghusband in his 1926 book, The Epic of Mount Everest, the motivation of the Royal Geographical Society was quite simply that “the Society will not admit that there is any spot on the earth’s surface on which British man should not at least try to set his foot,” as suitable an imperial motivation as anyone might expect.
If ever proof was needed that the media and even our education systems uphold a racist view of history, the fact that everyone knows Sir Edmund Hillary’s name and almost no one remembers Tenzing Norgay’s supplies that proof. The scientific project stayed true to its imperial identity and ultimately served the commercial economy by creating a unique, universally recognizable brand. The world celebrated a white European triumph organized by an Englishman who was honored by becoming British Lord, funded by the imperial power and executed by an able, white member of the British Commonwealth, who acceded to knighthood thanks to his exploit. Oh, yes, and assisted by a talented darky, without whom none of that would have been possible.
As National Geographic explained: “Hillary was knighted for being the first known person to climb to the top of Mount Everest. But Tenzing, who simultaneously reached its summit, only received an honorary medal. In the years since, there’s been growing disquiet at the lack of official recognition.”
According to the Financial Times: “The political economy of Mount Everest is unsustainable.” It’s a problem not just of scaling the mountain, but of scale, a traditional marketing problem. A tiny point of land doesn’t have the dimensions as a commercial venture to skim the savings or the chump change off an ever increasing populations of Western middle class or wealthy narcissists, raised in an imperial culture. “The result is that you feel you are on a conveyor belt rather than having a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
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