December 27, 2011
In 1955, Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary became the first people to summit Mount Everest. This year, another mountaineer became one of the first people to tweet from the top.
Kenton Cool, a 38-year-old alpinist and professional climbing guide from England, had already summited the mountain eight times when, on May 6, he did it again. This time, though, Cool stepped onto the familiar 29,035-foot peak, took out his smart phone and texted a message to the world via Twitter: “That’s one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.” Wait. Sorry. Wrong guy. Here it is:
“Everest summit no 9! 1st tweet from the top of the world thanks to a weak 3G signal & the awesome Samsung Galaxy S2 handset!”
Bravo. And, so help us, the Internet had conquered the highest point of land on Earth. (Wired.co.uk reports that American explorer Eric Larsen beat him by six months.)
But what’s even more alarming is how keyed up people were—whether climbers or incorrigible nerds—in anticipation of the feat. Cool himself, who was sponsored by Samsung, had tweeted messages to Charlie Sheen and Aston Kutcher prior to his reaching the summit, announcing his ambitions and offering to personally tweet to each of the movie stars. And even two years prior, the climbing and tech worlds were astir with excitement as Irish mountain climber Gavin Bate, who had a laptop with him, seemed fated to be the first person to tweet from the top of the world. A Tech Crunch article describing Bate’s ascent that May was followed by numerous comments indicating that not all were thrilled that tweets might soon ping from the holiest of mountaintops. One man named “Kyle” wrote, “i remember the days when those amazing people came home with just a story. that’s how i’d do it. twitter is getting really annoying.”
(Bates himself would later tell the BBC that the entire concept of climbing a mountain at all, no matter how high, is rather trivial. “The important thing to remember,” Bates said, “is that climbing Everest is a pretty selfish, pointless thing to do.”)
Anyway, on his 2009 attempt, Bate, an experienced mountaineer who had already unsuccessfully attempted the mountain four times, failed yet again to reach the peak—and for the time, Everest’s summit would remain a Twitter-free zone. But the powers that be seemed aligned with the collective desire to forge Internet access from the high slopes and summit, and in the fall of 2010, Nepal established a 3G antenna near the mountain, enhancing Internet connections and paving the way for the glory that would become Kenton Cool’s eight months later.
I spoke with Gordon Janow, director of programs of the Seattle-based guiding outfit Alpine Ascents International about the changes that have come to Everest with the advent of the information age. He feels there are pros and cons to having Internet access on the mountain. The mystique of Everest, certainly, has been smeared slightly, Janow says. “But we have real-time weather reports now that are updated daily, whereas we used to have to rely on four- or five-day forecasts,” he said, before adding, “The mountain has definitely changed, but, really, the whole world has changed.”
The internet isn’t the only newsworthy thing to find its way to Mount Everest recently. Teenagers, elders and amputees have attempted the mountain in the past two years. When 13-year-old Jordan Romero scaled Everest in 2010 (and called his mom via satellite phone from the top) as he toured the world on a mission to climb the highest peak on each continent, an outcry followed that Everest was being disrespected for the sake of vanity and trophies and that age limits must be imposed. In May 2011, 82-year-old Shailendra Kumar Upadhya, formerly the foreign minister of Nepal, attempted to become the oldest person on the summit. He died at about 6,400 meters altitude without reaching his goal. (Upadhya, though, received more praise than criticism for his effort.) Two weeks later, a 30-year-old Nepalese guru climbed the mountain, then spent 27 hours meditating on the peak. We can only wonder what magnitude of brain damage he suffered. People who have lost limbs are climbing Everest. One man recently stomped on the summit for the 21st time. Others have climbed to the top and paraglided down.
Today, after thousands of men, women and children have climbed Everest, countless others have failed, and more than 200 have died, I wonder: Are people playing games while climbing the world’s tallest mountain? That’s hard to say, but they’re definitely texting.
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.