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  • Breathless Subjects
  • Elizabeth Mazzolini (bio)

As the highest mountain on Earth, Mount Everest is frequently cited in discourses about extremity and achievement. That incontrovertible status looms over humans who would seek to establish their own identities with reference to the extreme height. Over the past dozen or so decades, people have sought to adopt the unassailability of Mount Everest’s standard for themselves. Mountaineers and mountaineering commentators (between which groups there is considerable overlap) pursue the ultimate and authentic, to test and prove integrity of body and character. In past mountaineering eras, it was enough just to reach the highest point on earth; now, getting there must be accomplished in some particular identity- and authenticity-affirming way. Although the idea of authenticity can seem naturalized, vague and overdetermined, on Mount Everest it has a specific, materially based ideological history.

Climbing to high altitudes involves great physical exertion under inhospitable atmospheric conditions, and discourses of authenticity on Mount Everest regularly implicate the use of supplemental oxygen, but in different ways at different times. The historical variation reveals shifting cultural priorities about authenticity’s significance and location--where authenticity might be threatened and in need of maintenance. For example, in the early twentieth century, British climbers generally considered it unsportsmanlike to use supplemental oxygen, because aiding the body’s natural processes would detract from the significance of the accomplishment that reaching the summit of the world’s highest mountain could be for a whole and hale Briton.1 Stigmas like this one stayed with supplemental oxygen for much of the twentieth century.

In spite of oxygen’s early association with weakness, in 1953, the first people to reach the summit of Everest, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, did use supplemental oxygen, and their accomplishment is nevertheless usually acknowledged as the legitimate “first” to the top. Twenty-five years later, the first people to reach the summit of Everest without supplemental oxygen were Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler, in 1978. A few years after that, Messner reached the summit alone and without oxygen, another significant “first.” In the 30 or so years since then, the unaided and highly romanticized climbing ethos Messner embodied has all but disappeared, replaced by a thriving commercial climbing industry. Paid guides have been regularly taking clients up Mount Everest since the late 1980s,2 and this contemporary clientele has none of the compunctions about using oxygen that their predecessors have had. Generally, contemporary mountaineering guides and clients are more than willing to be unsportsmanlike if it means standing on top of the world.

Supplemental oxygen is no longer as implicated in romanticized sportsmanship or unaided accomplishment as it has been in previous years, but it has become embroiled in other controversies of authenticity on Everest. These new controversies focus on environmentalists’ response to the commercialism that seems to have taken over Mount Everest’s slopes. The piles of oxygen bottles left by commercial climbing expeditions are regularly lambasted as eyesores and litter contributing to the environmental and aesthetic degradation of a formerly pristine mountain. In turn, such criticisms have recently come under criticism themselves. Apparently, “environmentalism” on Mount Everest, especially in the form of picking up the garbage that preponderantly includes oxygen bottles, has been already incorporated into the commercial climbing industry. People who make money on the mountain have a vested interest in keeping it looking clean. In other words, empty oxygen bottles on Mount Everest may not be the significant aesthetic or environmental problem they are made out to be, but instead may be used to garner well intentioned but misguided funding for expeditions climbing under the auspices of environmentalism. Discarded oxygen bottles are sometimes cited as evidence of ugly, commercialized and inauthentic man-mountain relations; but even that judgment has come into question, because even just citing the purported presence of discarded oxygen bottles can be taken cynically, as a sign of the venality that has come to pervade the mountain.

Even though Mount Everest’s status in culture has changed over the years, its bottled oxygen controversies have remained focused on the authenticity of attempts to reach the top, whether the agent in those attempts is a nation, an individual person or a commercial...

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