Everest and the Quest for Status
By James Schneider
I’m currently polishing up my behavioral health economics book The Seven Deadly Sins. The first five chapters discuss the core health concerns of diet, exercise, drinking, smoking, and sex. The last two “sins” are using heroin and climbing Everest. I included these chapters for the sake of entertainment; I doubt many of my readers will be weighing the pros and cons of engaging in these activities. However, I discovered that these two ways of getting sky high could be used to illustrate a lot of important economic principles.
Here is a short excerpt from the chapter on Everest.
Why do people climb Everest? One possibility is that they seek a little fresh air and wish to enjoy the great outdoors. This seems doubtful. Alternatively, people might climb Everest out of pride or as a way of gaining status. Evidence for the status-seeking theory can be seen by looking at what peaks are climbed in the Himalayas. All things being equal, going higher means increased risk and physical suffering. However, the climbs that garner the greatest prestige are the fourteen peaks that are higher than eight thousand meters. If status is important, then climbing mountains just over 8000 meters will be much more desirable than climbing mountains just under 8000 meters. Even if the peaks just under 8000 meters are similar in deadliness, there is no simple shorthand way to communicate your achievement.
Elizabeth Hawley has been cataloging Himalayan expeditions for decades; her data is as close as there is to an official record. Her records provide information about eight of the fourteen peaks higher than 8000 meters. (She doesn’t concern herself with the peaks in the Karakoram nor does she disclose data for Shingapanga which is completely in China.) I’ve extracted the following chart from Hawley’s dataset. It shows the sixteen highest peaks in her data: eight above and eight below the 8000 meter threshold.
The drop off in expeditions at the arbitrary cutoff of 8000 meters is striking. In fact, every peak over 8000 meters has more expeditions than any of the eight peaks just below 8000 meters. In the chart, there are two obvious outliers with the most expeditions: Everest and Cho Oyu. The appeal of Everest is obvious; climbing the highest peak in the world confers a type of status that is universally recognized. Cho Oyu’s popularity can also be explained by status seeking. It is generally considered the easiest of the eight-thousanders to climb.
If high-altitude mountaineering had been pioneered by Americans instead of Europeans, would the arbitrary threshold have been set in feet? If the artificial bar for acquiring glory had been set higher than Annapurna I, many fewer people would be tempted to climb what is considered by many to be the deadliest of the eight-thousanders. Alternatively, the bar could have been set lower and many more climbers would have scaled the rather obscure Gyachung Kang. In another alternate world, alpinists would brag about climbing the world’s 10 highest peaks; a distinction never mentioned in my readings. (The arbitrary cutoff of the 8000 meter peaks finds a parallel in modern long distance running. There are a great many races that are 26.2 miles long, but not races that are, for example, 25.8 miles long. The first few marathons had varied distances before the length became standardized. A long run with an unspecified distance could never confer the same status as a marathon.)
To the extent that climbing Everest is primarily motivated by status, it might be wasted effort from a social standpoint. Status is by its nature a positional good; someone who gains status by climbing Everest likely detracts from the status of lesser achievements such as marathon running.