Welcome to the first church of Mount Everest.
Our society is runs on achievement. It’s the fuel that powers our motivational motors. As long as we’re getting ahead of the next person, we’re fulfilling our purpose. Everything is a competition and this life is our playing field. I don’t think there’s a more pristine example of this than the recent phenomena of “overcrowding” on the highest point of elevation in the entire world: Mount Everest. Gaby Del Valle recently wrote for Vox:
Mount Everest has become so overcrowded that the sheer number of people trying to summit the mountain at once is putting climbers’ safety — and their lives — at risk. Christopher Kulish, a 62-year-old American attorney, died on Monday after reaching the top of the mountain, CNN reports. This brings the known death toll during this year’s climbing season, which typically only lasts a few weeks, to 11.
The last time 11 or more people died while climbing Everest was during a 2015 avalanche, according to the New York Times — but the latest deaths seem to be the result of overcrowding, not inclement weather.
One climber who spoke to the Times . . . told the paper he had to step around dead bodies on his way down the mountain . . . experienced climbers have called on the Nepalese government to begin limiting the number of permits it issues. As Kul Bahadur Gurung, general secretary of the Nepal Mountaineering Association, told Time, “there were way more people on Everest than there should be.”
I, for one, am bewildered by this development. What once was perceived as so insurmountable that if summitted would warrant you knighthood is now being trivialized by climbers whose motivations are “pleasure and fame.” “Do it for the ‘Gram,” I guess, but in the extreme.
There is, perhaps, nothing that explains what we crave as a society more than this: that at the risk of death, we will attempt to do something “impossible.” At the exorbitant cost of time and finances, we will put our lives on hold to ensure our friends and family understand the measure and strength of our resolve. We’re so bent on being remembered that we’ll attempt to ascend the world’s highest peak, as if that’s the holy grail of accomplishment that’s sure to slake our lust for achievement. (I wonder if the “arrival fallacy” strikes mountaineers, too?)
The epidemic of overcrowding on Mount Everest betrays what our culture worships. We bow down at the altar of the impossible so as to be seen as the conqueror. We seek out the unattainable and unthinkable in hopes becoming the hero. It is in that way that the reckless Everest mountaineers are living parables of our own crisis of faith.
As long as we’re seen as the overcomers, the achievers, we will never admit our need for a Savior. As Nick Lannon recently wrote in his book, Life Is Impossible, “the more capable we feel as humans, the less likely we are to admit to a need for a savior . . . as one’s anthropology (view of humanity) rises, one’s Christology (view of Christ) falls.”1 There’s a significant correlation between our perceived ability and our lack of faith. Sola fide swells as our need for sola gratia deepens. Such is the message of the gospel. “Christian growth, then, is not a progression upward, from weakness to strength,” Nick continues. “True Christian growth is more properly to be thought of as a progression downward, from assumed strength to acknowledged weakness.”2
This downward progression is what makes the gospel message so antithetical to all that our society says is important. But perhaps if we saw ourselves for who we are, we wouldn’t be so hell-bent after notoriety. We wouldn’t be clamoring after feats of strength and escalating accomplishments. Perhaps if we saw ourselves less as heroes, and more as just ordinary people, we’d be okay with getting saved. We’d be okay with being the damsels in distress as our true and better Prince comes to our rescue. We’d be okay with descending down the mountain instead of ascending it. Perhaps if we weren’t so stubbornly climbing after our own increase, we’d be okay with decreasing. (Jn 3:30)
Nick Lannon, Life Is Impossible: And That’s Good News (Charlottesville, VA: Mockingbird Ministries), 34.