The Aesthetics of Success, or How to Climb a Mountain

This article first appeared on LinkedIn.

Taboche Peak (21,309ft / 6,495m) near Thokla in the Khumbu Valley of Nepal (Adam Hodges / adamhodges.com)

This past May I spent two nights at Everest Base Camp with a group of runners taking part in the Tenzing Hillary Everest Marathon. The famous base camp consists of a small tent village set up on the edge of the Khumbu Glacier, the final launching point for those seeking to stand atop the world’s highest mountain. For us, it was the final stage of our pre-marathon altitude acclimatization and the starting line of a marathon course that followed the Khumbu Valley back down to the bustling Sherpa town of Namche Bazaar. It was a special opportunity to glimpse into the world of Everest climbing expeditions and reflect on what it really means to run a marathon. 

When asked to characterize the relative difficulty of the course compared to other trail runs, I point out that the marathon itself is not where the difficulty lies. Yes, the marathon starts and ends at an altitude unmatched by any other organized race in the world. Sure, the course involves a substantial amount of elevation gain and (mainly) loss. But other trail races could boast greater difficulty with respect to denivelation. What sets the Tenzing Hillary race apart, however, is that it may very well be the most difficult marathon to get to the start of. Unlike potentially challenging courses in the Alps or Rockies, you can’t simply drive a car there, sleep in a comfortable hotel bed overnight, or engage in the usual pre-race eating and training rituals. The hardest part of this marathon was actually getting to the starting line, which required nearly two weeks of trekking to slowly acclimatize to the altitude while dealing with sleepless nights and the inevitable traveler’s illnesses encountered in a developing country.

In many ways, the trek to the starting line was as integral to the marathon experience as the 42-km race itself, providing cultural interchange with the local people we met and stayed with, exploration of the natural beauty of the Khumbu Valley, and the formation of numerous friendships along the way. If one could somehow skip the approach, one would miss out on the full experience and beauty of what it means to run “the world’s highest marathon.” 

After I returned from my Himalayan trip, I was struck by news reports of a couple from India that had claimed to summit Mount Everest. The feat would have made them the first Indian couple to achieve the summit together. But suspicions immediately began to swirl in the mountaineering community and it didn’t take long to show that they had doctored their summit photos—apparently altering the actual summit photo of another Indian climber who recognized the uncanny similarity. Given the evidence of their fraudulent claim, the Nepalese government banned them from climbing mountains in Nepal for 10 years. 

Stories of cheaters are nothing new in our world. Before I had left for Nepal, The New York Times published a pair of articles in April about a Canadian triathlete who allegedly cut the course in several prominent races, including Ironman Canada and the Long Course Triathlon World Championships, to claim wins in her age-group division. Of course, the world of professional sports provides even more examples—Lance Armstrong being one of the higher profile cases in recent years. And the world of business has its own cases—from Wells Fargo to Enron—where the end rewards of success are claimed without traveling the requisite road to get there. 

The allure of the end rewards of success pulls at all of us. That is not a bad thing. After all, focusing on an end vision of what we want to accomplish—in work, in life, in athletics—provides the all-important motivating force to move us forward. But the end point of the metaphorical road to success is not a static destination that can somehow be detached from the process-oriented movement toward it.  

All great climbers know that the summit may be the goal, but the climb itself is where the real rewards reside. That’s because the climb is where the movement takes place, where life is lived, where the joy and suffering play out to create the success that is merely represented by the summit, not encased within it. 

I’m not just talking here about ethics, or doing right by the rules of the game in which one is engaged (although there is that dimension, too). What I have in mind is more an aesthetics of success that looks beyond the end goal to understand that the process of gaining the summit (or any goal) is like an artistic creation where the beauty lies as much in the process as in the final achievement. To operate according to the aesthetics of success—in any endeavor in life—is to recognize this fundamental lesson from the Zen of mountain climbing. How one climbs a mountain matters just as much, if not more, than what mountain one climbs (or whether the summit is even reached on any given attempt). 

This is important for climbers because it allows them to maintain that all-important attribute required in the face of difficult conditions: good judgment. Good judgment flourishes when one tucks the end goal in the back of the mind while turning one’s attention to the immediate surroundings and task at hand. As a result, a successful summit is made all the more possible (or, if conditions deteriorate, a safe and successful descent). 

But the aesthetics of success is also important for climbers and anyone engaged in a goal-driven undertaking because it allows us to see the end goal as but part of a larger process. If we’re too caught up on the end rewards without a full appreciation of the process, we get distracted from experiencing and living the creation of that sought-after signpost of success. After all, the beauty of success—the pleasure and elation of achievement—actually resides in the movement we make toward it, not the summit photos we take at the top of the mountain or the medals we collect at the end of the race. 

This entry was posted in Articles, Education & Learning, Life & Zen and tagged , , .