High above the fray of social politics, where nature's grandeur all but eclipses human significance, mountain climbers are struggling with more than just thin air. It seems the growing numbers of wealthy would-be adventurers, those with limited mountaineering experience who can purchase guided climbing tours on a whim, are getting the cold shoulder from seasoned climbers who've built a culture around scaling earth's snowy peaks.
"The issue is around ‘deservingness,'" says Gulnur Tumbat, an assistant professor of marketing who studies consumers who purchase physical risk. "It comes from both sides. From those who pay an adventure company tens of thousands of dollars to provide the experience, and from seasoned mountaineers who've spent years preparing to make the climb on their own. Both feel they ‘deserve' to be on the mountain, but for reasons that are often in conflict."
An experienced climber, Tumbat conducted her research firsthand. Last spring, after an extended stay at a base camp on Mount Everest, Tumbat scaled Mount McKinley to observe the dynamics among climbers. She descended with fresh data that contradicts long-held assumptions about how people behave in extreme environments.
"Current theories suggest that when people come together in these environments, they leave their sociocultural boundaries behind and work together toward a common goal. I found instead that when a high-risk experience is commercialized, people behave differently."
For example, if a climber from a commercial expedition is struggling with the ascent, experienced climbers will stand aside and let the guide handle the situation.
"The behavior is not malicious," asserts Tumbat, whose field notes reveal a pattern of discourse within the climbing subculture that she calls The Four Ds (deservingness, deliverance, drama and divinity). "Seasoned climbers are simply reacting to the encroachment of a lifestyle they revere."
Like surfers, says Tumbat, mountain climbers are a subculture all their own, a close-knit social group built around a common experience, who typically resist the commercialization of their lifestyle.
"For many, mountain climbing is a sacred pilgrimage, an experience that must be earned, not bought," she says. "At the same time, uninitiated consumers feel they have a right to be there because they have paid for it. These conflicting attitudes inhibit cooperation."
Conflict or not, it is the mountain that ultimately wins. "With or without help, a person either reaches the top or they don't," says Tumbat. "Either way, everyone who attempts it comes away changed."
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