Humans have always held mountains in the highest esteem. Since ancient times, people have prayed to them, immortalized them in mythology and worshiped their spirits. But throughout time, mountains have also been a source of conflict between those who believe these landforms to be holy and those who view them as something to be conquered.
“We don’t appreciate these land-based religions,” says Anne Klaeysen, clergy leader of the New York Society for Ethical Culture. “For indigenous people, it is about the geography. Colonists and settlers don’t get that.”
Just because we have access to all of the world’s mountains doesn’t mean we need to climb them. There are other ways to experience extraordinary natural wonders without offending the people who worship them or endangering those who live around them.
Here are ways to determine whether you should climb a mountain, think twice or admire from afar.
If the consensus is that a mountain is holy to a group of people, leave it alone.
There are plenty of signals suggesting to visitors to Uluṟu-Kata Tjuṯa National Park that it’s problematic to climb the region’s namesake attraction. Uluṟu is a red sandstone formation that juts from the otherwise empty flat ground of Australia’s Red Center region. You can walk around the base of Uluṟu and read placards describing the culture of the Aṉangu — the indigenous people who hold this place sacred. Alongside the historic signs, you’ll also find massive ones explicitly asking visitors to not climb Uluṟu.
In 2017, the traditional owners (the Aṉangu people) and the Uluṟu-Kata Tjuṯa National Park Board came to an agreement in accordance with the national park’s management plan that climbing Uluṟu would be banned as of Oct. 26 this year — a date marking 34 years to the day that the Aṉangu people were given back their land rights.
"We welcome tourists here. We are not stopping tourism, just this activity,” said Sammy Wilson, traditional owner and chair of the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park Board of Management, in a statement when the ban was announced. Uluṟu is an “extremely important place, not a playground or theme park like Disneyland. We want you to come, hear us and learn. We’ve been thinking about this for a very long time.”
Until a stabilizing chain for hikers is removed in October, the climbing continues on Uluṟu. In fact, as the ban gets closer to being implemented, climbing has been more popular than ever. Tourists see the public site as just another landmark that deserves exploring.
The chain is still installed on Uluṟu, and you can technically climb it. But just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Klaeysen says that indigenous people like the Aṉangu have sacred landmarks that they hold in the same respect as is given to Western churches, mosques and synagogues. To climb Uluṟu is like climbing over a church’s pews, altars and religious texts. She suggests outsiders visit sacred sites like Uluṟu with empathy.
“To have empathy means to put yourself in the position of someone whose sacred site is being desecrated,” Klaeysen says. “This is serious.”
In addition to the cultural considerations, it also simply isn’t physically safe to climb Uluṟu. At least 35 people have died trying to climb the 1,100-foot-tall monolith. Unpredictable and strong winds and slippery surfaces are just part of what makes the act dangerous. Climbers often underestimate Uluṟu, and it is undisputed that it’s unsafe to attempt the climb.
Some mountains may have started off sacred, then time and opportunity changed how locals approached them. Everest is one such place. The Sherpa — the local ethnic group that inhabits the regions of Nepal around Everest — worshiped the world’s tallest mountain but had no intention of climbing it until outsiders came along.
Today, Sherpas allow climbing, but they pray before embarking on their missions to the summit. And just because Sherpas and the governments of Nepal and Tibet permit climbing doesn’t necessarily mean you should do it.
Mount Everest has become more accessible than ever, but it’s still one of the most difficult mountains to climb, and the commodification of bragging rights is proving fatal. Most recently, a photo of the mountain’s traffic jams in 2019 went viral, documenting a problem that led to the death of 11 people this climbing season. Yet Everest’s elusive summit keeps it a popular bucket-list item for adventure travelers — not all of them professionals.
“It’s still the ultimate testing ground of stamina,” says Margaret J. King, director of a think tank, the Center for Cultural Studies and Analysis, in Philadelphia. “Since the early 20th century, Everest has been an international monument to heroic risk-taking, endurance and human achievement. The amateur generation now climbing, using technology for safer and easier access, is challenging the reality and reputation of the world’s highest peak."
When early Everest hopeful Eric Shipton first attempted to climb the “Holy Mother” in 1933, he had been climbing since he was a teenager and had summitted peaks in Africa, India and Europe. Before writer Jon Krakauer embarked on the infamous 1996 Everest expedition, he had been an avid mountain climber, taking on advanced feats in Alaska and Patagonia. But today’s climbers don’t need the same kind of résumés as Shipton and Krakauer.
If one doesn’t have the mountaineering chops to get up Everest independently, they can pay a company $65,000 (flight to Nepal not included) to drag them up. This exposes one of the largest problems with today’s amateurs attempting to climb Everest: It puts the lives of others, particularly the Sherpa people employed to make the climb possible, at high risk.
Every climbing season, the Sherpas are responsible not only for guiding and feeding customers but also taking on a majority of the risky heavy lifting required to facilitate the climbing. They fix ropes and ladders along the route to the peak, carry and distribute oxygen tanks up the mountain and set up camps. All of this prompts the questions: Should humans continue to climb it? Can we justify the risk to the Sherpa people alone?
“I don’t think it can be justified personally, not at all,” Klaeysen says. Foreign climbers “need to have some recognition for these people who are taking care of them. And understand that the reason they’re doing it is because Sherpas need to make money.”
Unlike the Aṉangu, the wider Sherpa community doesn’t seem to be calling to end the climbing of Everest. It does, indeed, inject a ton of money into the Nepalese people. The work may be potentially fatal, but people are still eager to have it.
Instead of suggesting a complete climbing ban on Everest, veteran climbers are calling for stricter regulations. If you have to ask whether a veteran climber thinks you’re qualified to take it on, you’re probably not. Consider whether you could undertake it without Sherpa help.
“Sherpas are there to support you, but they’re there to fix the lines. Their business isn’t to save your life,” says Sean Burch, who holds world records for a number of feats, including the fastest crossing of Nepal; most first ascents of unclimbed peaks solo; and taking first place in “the Northernmost Marathon,” held at the North Pole. The Nepalese government made Burch a goodwill ambassador to Nepal, and he’s working on a documentary about the Sherpa people who fix the most dangerous lines on the route to Everest. “A lot of Sherpas have died risking their lives to save Westerners,” he says. “Because you want to climb Everest, people will die.”
Burch has seen people at Everest Base Camp who are so inexperienced that they can’t put on their basic climbing equipment. He has watched foreigners gearing up to climb the mountain learn how to cross ladders for the first time. It’s an upsetting sight when you know you may be stuck in a traffic jam in the mountain’s “death zone” behind someone so unprepared.
While Burch relies on the ropes and ladders set out by Sherpas, he doesn’t rely on a guide for the climb. He has climbed Everest on his own to minimize the risk for others. Burch believes that if this were a mandatory practice, it would lead to fewer fatalities.
Alison Levine, the team captain of the first American Women’s Everest Expedition in 2002 who is working on a documentary about the first female Sherpa to summit Everest, is on the same page as Burch. She would like to see fewer companies take climbers up — not just for safety but also to lessen the environmental effects.
“I do think humans should keep doing it, but I think we have to change the way we do it,” Levine says. “Nepal is going to have to limit the number of permits they issue every year. They should cut it in half. That works in Rainier [in Washington state]; it works in Denali,” in Alaska.
Not only will limiting people on the mountain help with clogs, but it will also protect the sanctity of the climb. So if you’re not a passionate mountaineer, skip Everest. There are other ways to earn accolades without putting people in danger.
One could argue that it’s in our DNA to want to climb mountains, perhaps even against our better nature.
“Being a human sets us up for exploration,” says King, the academic in Philadelphia. “Exploration is as old as our species — that’s why we conquered the world.”
Don’t be discouraged by the handful of spots on the map that are off-limits — they’re hardly impediments for the modern-day adventurer. Our planet is populated with challenging and spectacular mountains to climb on every continent. In Nepal alone, you have peaks like Lobuche, Pokalde, Dhampus and Cho-Oyu. You can go to Tanzania and summit Mount Kilimanjaro, the “roof” of Africa. In Russia, there’s Mount Elbrus, and in Argentina, you have Aconcagua.
“There are so many other amazing mountains that are out there to be explored,” says Levine, the mountain climber, noting options beyond Everest. “Nepal opened up more than 100 new peaks that had been previously closed off. You couldn’t get permits to climb them.”
There are milestones galore for the attempting. Burch holds world records for tackling first ascents solo not just in Nepal but also in places like Mongolia, Alaska, Tibet and Greenland. Do your research before paving your own adventurous way to assess whether the mission you’re making is controversial, and then go forth. After all, it’s in your human nature.
Correction: A photo caption in this article originally misstated the height ranking of Aconcagua. The mountain in Argentina is not the second-highest in the world, but rather the second-highest of the Seven Summits. This post has been updated.