Guest Column: Clouded Ambition: The Difference Between Living and Dying In The Mountains by Thomas Pollard


A student in search of enlightenment strives for progress by sitting in silent meditation for hours each day.  Eager for new spiritual insights a teacher reminds the student that ambition itself – rooted in earthly attachment – is the antecedent to enlightenment. Practice. Diligence.  Non-attachment to the goal.  These are keys to success.   If enlightenment doesn’t come quickly, keep on practicing, and sooner or later a good student will have success.

Picture of one of George Mallory Letters found on his body in 1999 ©Thomas Pollard

Many lives would be saved if a similar approach to high-altitude mountain climbing were followed.  There are over 150 dead bodies on Everest.  The number will grow each year.  Many lives are lost as a result of classic mountain-related hazards, such as avalanches, serac falls, Himalayan storms, etc.   However, more than a few of those who have returned safely from Everest will attest that a fair percentage of Everest deaths are due to the mountain climber’s greatest enemies: clouded ambition, overdeveloped egos, obsession with the summit. 

With advances in bottled oxygen technology, modern climbing equipment and clothing, and the rapid growth in guided expeditions, Everest receives a population of climbers that probably don’t belong there.  Many of these climbers haven’t gone through the years of preparation and training that pre-and early 1990’s Everest climbers were known for. 

Suddenly, a disproportionate number of inexperienced climbers make it all the way into the death zone on bottled O’s, Sherpa cooked meals, and ambitious teammates whom they met in Kathmandu at the outset of the expedition.  When turn-around time comes and storm clouds are brewing below these climbers have no idea what awaits them, or how to arrive at the decision to give it up.

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