Philosofiction

Steve Bein, writer & philosopher

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Why Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay are even cooler than we remember them

Today is the 60th anniversary of the first human footprints set on the summit of Mount Everest. Today so many people climb Everest that if you wanted to set a new record, you’d have to do something like the first naked snowboard descent on a Tuesday. Okay, so maybe I’m exaggerating, but not by much: this year’s record was for climbing Everest twice in one week.

Reinhold Messner, who is
The Man, said that all the advancements in climbing gear over the last few decades amounts to “the murder of the impossible.” I’m of two minds on this. Part of me cheers when we redefine the limits of what’s possible. I’ve done it in my own life. (I’m a skinny nerd with no innate athleticism. Finishing grad school was on the list of what’s possible for Steve to do. Earning a black belt wasn’t. Earning black belts in combative arts that involve a whole lot of full-contact fighting sure as hell wasn’t. And of course technology has redefined what’s possible many times over. My mom survived breast cancer because we can do what used to be impossible.

But I teach bioethics too, and so I read a lot about it, and much of what I read scares the bejeezus out of me. It’s not beyond our capabilities to design a baby to be a better martial artist. I’m serious. Read up on gene therapy. The debate for a lot of people -- maybe even the majority -- isn’t
whether we should tinker with our babies’ DNA, but rather to what extent.

I have no answers to those questions, but a big part of me is sympathetic to Messner’s position. Maybe some impossibilities shouldn’t be killed off. In any case, on the 60th anniversary of their historic climb, I thought I’d share this
narrated slideshow about why Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s accomplishment was a hell of a lot harder in their day than it is in mine. Today you’d be insane to climb with the kind of gear they were using then.