Mount Everest Deaths: Why Are We Addicted to Deadly Sports?

Four people died of exhaustion and altitude sickness while descending Mount Everest last Saturday. High traffic along the 29,035-foot summit, the world’s tallest peak, may have been one cause of their deaths. It is proposed that the climbers may have waited too long at too high an altitude.

Why are extreme sports, such as mountaineering, so popular when they’re so dangerous? They give young people the chance to show off their strength, to enjoy highly satisfying payoffs, and to experience a sense of journey or exploration. But these sports also tend to be solo, highly unpredictable, and dependent on nature; making for a more heroic, almost romantic challenge for people of all ages. Humans may have evolved a willingness to take risks. 

Scientists examined peacocks, which have such huge, colorful tails that they theoretically should be more vulnerable to predators. Why have they survived, and why have they evolved these attention-grabbing feathers? This cost may actually let them show off their strength: if a peacock can survive in spite of such danger, then they must be that much stronger. Popular scientist Jared Diamond argues that this also explains why humans engage in risky behavior, such as drug use, in spite of their dangers. In a way, risky behavior shows off the resilience of someone's bodies.

People also like risk for its high payoffs. Drugs, unprotected sex, and extreme sports are highly stimulating. While only one climber of the climber's who disappeared, South Korean mountaineer Song Won-bin, was younger than 30, young people tend to be the biggest demographic for extreme sports. Youth and high risk have always run together, so it’s likely that they take these outdoor risks not just for the adrenaline rush, but also out of a youthful sense of invincibility and desire for attention. Plus, it gives a sense of exploration to people still figuring out their lives -- like with skydiving, these extreme sports takes people to lesser known parts of the earth.

Extreme sports also tend to be more solo than traditional sports. Baseball and tennis players tend to compete against other people. Mountaineers, on the other hand, may climb with other people or compare heights and times; ultimately though, they seem to climb by themselves, and for themselves. It seems to be more of a personal challenge than a competitive sport. Reaching a summit tests a person’s capabilities against not only the physical challenges of climbing itself, but also against nature and its unpredictability. All the uncontrollable variables make it so dangerous. Perhaps life in general feels more unpredictable for young people, which makes dominating an unpredictable sport potentially so empowering. But, this overwhelming awareness of nature also gives climbers of any age, whether actually solo or not, a sense of being alone. Solitude on the tallest peak in the world makes the challenge that much more epic -- you, and you alone, trying to conquer nature.

Young people want electrifying experiences that allow them to test, and hopefully show off, their strength. People of all ages also may find a different kind of challenge against nature in extreme sports. But tragedy such as the deaths of the Mount Everest climbers reminds us how dangerous these challenges really are.