High stakes and high returns

The commercialisation of mountain culture

The small, tectonic shifts our mountains have endured over the past century are nothing compared to the attitudinal changes and environmental impact of humans on these natural wonders. Rock walls, spectacular ascents and snow-capped summits along with the daring intersection of skill, stupidity and mother nature has cast our gaze upwards as we look to exert some form of mastery over these uncontrollable forces. Mountain culture encapsulates an idealistic lifestyle and is inescapable on social media, propped up by companies looking to profit off our fascination. Whether it’s a #wanderlust Instagram post, Red Bull video or even just a post from a friend, mountain culture has begun to infiltrate our daily lives, as well as our wallets.

I recently watched the Australian documentary, Mountain, which chronicled our attraction and changing relationships with these wonders of the world. As cultured as I sound, I won’t pretend the 76 minutes didn’t feel like a slow-moving Google screensaver at times. Despite my wavering attention and double-parking Aperol Spritzes for the duration of the movie, it showed an interesting timeline of our history with mountains. Admiration has been replaced with dominance as we force ourselves higher, stretching the limits of human endurance and skill. British philosopher, Kate Soper suggests humans define nature as a metaphysical concept that we create to mirror own our self-concept. We push ourselves to the extremes of nature to celebrate being human, stroking our fragile egos in the process. Mountaineering and extreme sports companies have chosen our natural environment as pawns in their battle for market share, exploiting the ethos of ‘mountain culture’ in a game with high stakes and even higher returns. Nothing comes for free, and the commercialisation of our once sacred mountains isn’t only damaging our environment, it’s also costing us our lives.

A mountain of problems

Thousands of climbers flock every year to the mecca of mountains, the Himalayas, home to 10 of the world’s 14 highest peaks. Experienced and inexperienced climbers alike try their hand at summiting the world’s tallest and most notable mountain, Mount Everest. Everest represents the pinnacle of our flawed relationship with mountains, as inexperience and ego perform a deadly dance on the world’s highest stage. Local and international companies make sure that it’s a full-house every year, exploiting pride and ambition for a steep price.

Many climbers are part of dangerous ‘pay your way’ ventures which push them beyond their physical limits for a profitable attempt at glory. What these climbers lack in experience, they make up for in aspiration, and Everest summiting companies have profiled them as their leading target market. These climbers will pay up to $100,000 for a three-month stint on the mountain, undertaking months of training and acclimatisation, all the while being cooked and cared for, and sometimes even babysat, by local Nepalese Sherpas. Many of these climbers fail to summit on their first attempt, which creates a lucrative revenue stream of repeat customers. With all climbers signing a waiver which renounces the companies’ liability before embarking on the journey, a half-hearted attempt at ‘duty-of-care’ has been responsible for several tragedies in recent years.

Welcome to the world’s highest queue

Months of preparation amalgamate in an eventual Everest summit attempt, and the nature of this uncontrollable beast means that almost all climbers embark for the summit on the same day, if weather permits. The ‘blind-eye’ many companies have turned to those who they deem fit to climb has resulted in not only the world’s highest queue but also a dangerous mix of naivety and physical exertion. Climbers who either don’t know or who ignore their limits push their bodies beyond physical endurance, putting the lives of everyone around them in danger. One of Everest’s most notable landmarks, the Hillary Step, was the last technical climbing phase before the summit and arguably was one of the most dangerous bottlenecks. Climbers have waited hours for an attempt at the sheer ice wall on their way to and from the summit, leaving them exposed to the elements and their failing physiology. Reports this year have confirmed that the Hilary Step has crumbled, potentially allowing for 2-way traffic. This may simply lull exhausted or physiologically failing climbers into a false sense of security, pushing them onwards when they should be turning around. And of course, many other bottlenecks exist.

Overcrowding on Everest is a serious problem which costs on average 6 lives per year. The romanticised notion of ‘climbing the world’s highest mountain’ has been replaced with unceremonious traffic jams and flailing inexperience. Everest mountaineering companies stay safe at sea-level, pushing climbers beyond their limits to increase their ‘summit success rate’ and attract new customers.

The sanctity of this mountain – still revered and praised by local Sherpas – has become a breeding ground for Western influence and it’s profiteering system which so often leaves the natural environment devastated in its wake. Don’t even start me on Everest Base Camp, which some have described as a lawless wild-west frontier town replete with alcohol, gambling and even prostitution.  But individual mountaineering companies are child’s play when it comes to the ‘mountain madness’ big leagues, with brands such as Red Bull and GoPro pushing their athletes further, higher and harder on our mountains, raking in video views and sponsorship dollars for their daring acts.

Sending it home

‘Go big or go home’ is the sentiment felt by all extreme sports companies, and Red Bull has championed this successful business model from day one, signing extreme athletes as the leading actors in their adrenaline-fuelled Red BullTV channels. What goes up must come down, and humans have become fascinated with displays of those who seem to defy this law of nature. Wingsuits, base jumping, motocross, cliff-diving and snowboarding are just some of the tools in this company’s arsenal, encouraging athletes to ‘send it big’ for their chance to go viral and boost sales. Extreme sports and the thrilling nature of these events align with the brand image of companies such as Red Bull and become some of the most enthralling displays of content-marketing, capturing the hearts and minds of millions of thirsty consumers across the world.

When athletic skill tries to mould mountain forces, there is undoubtedly fall-out. Several extreme sports athletes die every year—a significant majority from a small pool—and almost all perish at the hands of their sport. Companies such as Red Bull continue to exploit ‘mountain culture’ and those who dare to take it on for their own benefit. These marketing tactics have propelled Red Bull into a leading company, sitting at #70 on the ‘World’s Most Valuable Brands’ list and sales amounted to more than 7 billion US dollars last year, demonstrating the clear pay-off this type of exploitation.

As our relationship with mountains evolves, companies have seized the opportunity to sell a commercialised version of our natural environment back to us. The current state of Everest and Red Bull’s willingness to throw anyone off the side of a mountain (if the camera’s rolling) has greenlit a new wave of environmental exploitation. Beyond the physical environmental damage imposed on our mountains, the commercialisation of ‘mountain culture’ has been responsible for a number of deaths and society’s general apathy towards these natural structures. Little consideration is given to minimising our environmental footprint and finding ways to ethically and sustainably travel. If Red Bull invested their earnings from one high-profile video into a mainstream education program, it would go a long way towards helping alleviate the current mountain of problems. It may be a game of high stakes and high returns but failure to act now means we risk losing it all.

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