Summit Fever, the Pope, and the Canadian Teacher

May 29, 2018 Chatham Financial

Philadelphia City Skyline

Sixty-five years ago today, on May 29th, 1953, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first confirmed climbers to stand atop Mount Everest, a dizzying 29,035 feet above sea level.  Many prior expeditions dating back at least thirty years had tried and failed; in fact, Hillary and Tenzing were not even the first-choice pair selected by their expedition leader, Colonel John Hunt.  However, after the previous tandem had been defeated by oxygen equipment failure within 300 feet of the summit, Hillary and Tenzing began trudging ever upward through -55°F wind-chill until, as Tenzing put it, “there was no more up.”

News of the successful assault on Everest traveled in pre-agreed secret code by runner to Namche Bazaar, then by telegram to the British Embassy in Kathmandu, and then finally to London, just in time for public announcement on the morning of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation on June 2nd.  The son of a beekeeper and a yak-herder respectively, Hillary and Tenzing became instant celebrities, yet they held their gentlemen’s agreement through thirty years not to speak about which one reached the top first, acknowledging the team effort.  And although Tenzing died in 1986, Hillary lived on until 2008, running the Himalayan Trust for decades and promoting construction of numerous schools and hospitals in the remote Himalayas.

How the mountain has changed in sixty-five years!  With Everest a siren song for tens of thousands, the sheer volume of expeditions over the years has left discarded oxygen cylinders, tents, food, toilet paper, and even human excrement befouling the formerly pristine landscape.  Worse, close to three hundred climbers have died attempting the climb, and the remains of more than one hundred still rest on mountains slopes or within ravines.  Climbers bring great risk upon themselves and others or reputedly ignore fellow mountaineers in distress, all under the spell of “summit fever,” the irresistible compulsion to reach the summit at any cost.  After 2006 reports that forty mountaineers walked right by a distressed British climber without aiding him until he eventually succumbed to the elements, Sir Edmund Hillary raged, “The whole attitude towards climbing Mount Everest has become rather horrifying.  People just want to get to the top. They don't give a ---- for anybody else who may be in distress.”

Thinking of today’s Everest anniversary, we couldn’t help being reminded of summit fever as we read Oeconomicae et pecuniariae quaestiones, published earlier in May by the Vatican Press under the direction of Pope Francis.  After stating that “the integral development of every person, of every human community, and of all people” is the “ultimate horizon of the common good” to be advanced, the document declares:  “Wherever mere profit is placed at the summit of the culture of a financial enterprise, and the actual demands of the common good are ignored, every ethical claim is really perceived as irrelevant.”

Having stated that vital thesis – the headlong pursuit of peak profits at any cost leaves incalculable human and societal damage in its wake – the Vatican’s bulletin proceeds to catalogue some of the more significant damages wrought in the last decade.  Individuals responsible “for the correct fixing of [LIBOR] rates” formed “a criminal association” to manipulate them.  Predatory traders created knowledge asymmetries and undue complexity to exploit less savvy counterparties.  Speculative CDS buyers nurtured a desire to see the economic ruin of other entities, or even took proactive measures to usher in that ruin.  Clearly, for certain individuals or firms, mere profit was placed at the summit of the culture, and every ethical claim became irrelevant in the face of summit fever.

At Chatham, we believe that our highest and best corporate ethos will pursue profitability tirelessly, but always bounded by inviolate principles and values, and always in tension with purposeful betterment of our team, our clients, our markets, and our communities.  If we would never make a choice that could reduce net income but preserve our values intact, then mere profit really would be at the summit of the culture.  This is a place we never want to be.

We are left inspired by the tale of Andrew Brash, a teacher from Calgary who gathered up every spare penny he had and sank it into a 2006 Everest expedition.  Yet when he and his companions discovered Lincoln Hall on the Second Step, in hypothermia so advanced he was shedding his clothes because of hallucinations that he was on a boat, Brash gave no second thought to surrendering his shot at the summit so that Hall might be led to safety.  “I had a few summit pangs back at base camp,” he said, but “I could never have forgiven myself if I walked past a climber who was so clearly in need.”  And so Brash defeated summit fever the only way one can; by realizing that Everest was not the only summit to be claimed, and that he was unwilling to compromise his values to claim it.

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