Mount Everest as a Symbol (Assessment)

Who doesn’t know Mount Everest, the tallest mountain in the world?

We live in a whirl of symbols, and to make sense of the world around us, even as children, we need to become experts in attaching appropriate meanings to an immense range of images, logos, numbers and signs

— From Land of Symbols by Melissa Harper and Richard White.

Symbols of countries and ordinal things are not something we are alien to. The Burj Khalifa is the tallest man-made structure. Jungfrau is the top of Europe, and Mount Everest is nature’s tallest point in the world.

I decided to talk about Mount Everest because not only is it well known in Nepal but also globally. For indeed, who hasn’t heard of Mount Everest, the tallest mountain the world? As a symbol and icon, however, it carries certain distinct meanings for different people.

A sign points towards the Everest base camp some 140km northeast of Nepal’s capital Kathmandu. 
PRAKASH MATHEMA/AFP/Getty Images

What sort of symbol does Mount Everest carry? It certainly means different things depending on who you ask. For the Buddhist Sherpa guides, it carries a religious significance. According to them, the south side of Everest is regarded as a béyül—one of several “hidden valleys” of refuge designated by Padmasambhava, the ninth-century “lotus-born” Buddhist saint. Furthermore, Miyolangsangma, the “Goddess of Inexhaustible Giving,” is believed to reside on top of Mount Everest and is thus the one who delivers the Sherpas’ bounties. For Western foreigners, the answer is more profane: Testing one’s limits. Personal achievement. Companionship in a shared challenge. Escape. Fun.

Professional guides are the backbone that has made the adventure accessible. Sherpas set up ropes and ladders, and base camps with tents, stoves, bottled oxygen, and food. Alun Richardson/Getty Images

Despite the historical and religious significance of it, Mount Everest seems to be exploited for the benefit of commercialization and tourism. Since its first successful attemot in the 1950’s, mountaineering is a booming business on many sides, with 8,300 people successfully ascending to the peak in the past six decades. To start with, climbers hire a Sherpa for around $5,000 and securing oxygen for at least $500. There is also a mandatory $11,000 permit. Additionally, climbers need to buy expensive gears to climb the mountain. This has resulted in Mount Everest as a luxury adventure destination for prestige and intrinsic rewards. As for the Sherpas, mountaineering is their livelihood, and they do it to support their families.

Appa Sherpa, who has climbed Mount Everest 11 times, inspects empty oxygen cylinders brought from the world’s highest mountain in Katmandu, Nepal. 
Binod Joshi/AP

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