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The Right Mountain: Lessons from Everest on the Real Meaning of Success

The Right Mountain: Lessons from Everest on the Real Meaning of Success. Jim Hayhurst, Sr. John Wiley & Sons, New York, 1996. 209 pages. $24.95.

The Right Mountain, by Jim Hayhurst Sr., is not really about mountains or climbing them. It is a work/study, self-help, self-discovery book (complete with little exercises in the back) meant to go along with and plug the author’s motivational lectures that he gives worldwide. This is the consummate climbing-as-metaphor book. However, there is the very slight thread of a narrative: Hayburst and his son do travel to Everest Base Camp in 1988. And Hayhurst does have the obligatory near-death experiences, such as when his son falls in a creek on the trek and when he himself becomes very thirsty after a particularly long hike one day:

I was dehydrated, almost totally dehydrated … without the slow reintroduction of water into my system, I could die. [A hiking companion] … dipped his finger in a cup of water and touched it to my tongue. One drop at a time he re-hydrated me. I couldn’t absorb more than a drop at a time.

This, of course, results in more self-examination, which, of course, results in more life lessons: knowing your limits, the need for others, etc., etc., ad nauseam (there are 34 of these critical lessons to be learned!). Most climbers unscrew the lid to the Nalgene and guzzle some water, but not Jim Hayhurst. Every step on the trail, every bowel movement, is a catalyst for further introspection and another of his 34 earth-shaking epiphanies about the need for “team building,” “commitment,” and “Core Values.”

While the point is well taken that each of us needs to set our own goals—we all can’t climb at the levels of the editorial staff at Climbing magazine or the North Face Dream Team—it’s just a little hard to identify with a guy whose personal high point of physical achievement is to finally carry two buckets of water “the whole hundred yards!” at the Everest Base Camp. Contrary to the 11 panegyric quotes from top business leaders across South America that open the book telling us how “inspirational” this stuff is, for most climbers this is distinctly not inspiring stuff. Insipid would be closer to the truth.

If all these platitudes about “team building” and “Core Values” sound familiar, it’s not surprising. Hayhurst is the former Chairman of Canadian Outward Bound, an organization that has established itself as a leader in the whole self-discovery business. Indeed, one gets the feeling while reading The Right Mountain that it is not only part of the core curriculum but on its way to becoming part of the canon for all aspiring Outward Bound instructors.

The problem with finding truth in climbing-as-metaphor is the same with finding truth in metaphors in general. This is what gave rise to the Deconstructionism school of thought fashionable in some literary criticism circles today. In his seminal essay “White Mythology: Metaphor in the Text of Philosophy,” Jacques Derrida argues that the excessive use of metaphors is simply an attempt to wear away or erase simple meaning and truths in favor of creating more metaphysical or transcendental ones that have “an inestimable value.” I mean, hey, we are not just having a hard time hauling our fat ass and two buckets of water a hundred meters to camp, we are discovering our Deepest, Most Innermost Balance. In fact, when a climber high on the mountain is struck with pulmonary edema and dies, Hayhurst pronounces the tragedy has occurred because he wasn’t in touch with his Core Values—and, moreover, that he wasn’t on The Right Mountain. This is what Derrida calls a white mythology:

It is a metaphysics which has effaced in itself that fabulous scene which brought it into being, and which yet remains active and stirring, inscribed in white ink, an invisible drawing covered over in the palimpsest.

Palimpsests are one of the great tragedies of ancient literature where parchment was so rare that one ancient writer in need of something to write on would erase another ancient’s work and write over the previous work. This is what climbing-as-metaphor has become: whereupon those with a paucity of meaningful experience in their own lives seize upon the manuscript of real adventure and pour out their sophomoric introspective babble onto its pages.

It is not just the self-discovery/motivational industry that seeks to capitalize on climbing anymore. From life insurance ads to car commercials, climbing is fast attaining the “inestimable value” of fast and easy metaphorical currency. The Right Mountain is but one drop in a tidal wave of the new climbing-as-metaphor genre that threatens to inundate the classics of climbing and high adventure in the contrivances of new age pop psychology and self-discovery.

The deeper problem might lie in Hayhurst’s confession of agnosticism. There are many lost souls casting about looking for answers—answers that religion used to provide. So some people who have no religious grounding get desperate for answers and feel compelled to invent new answers and find new religions, with the bottom line being that climbing is as good as any other metaphor for religion if you have none to begin with.

Dave Hale