On May 23, Wang Jing, co-founder of the Chinese outdoor equipment brand Toread, published a post on Weibo, China’s wildly popular microblogging website: “Right now, it has been exactly three years since my 2014 ascent of Mount Everest,” she wrote. The status was accompanied by a photo of Wang half-squatting at the peak of the world’s highest mountain, while two Sherpas help her unfurl the Chinese flag. In the background, the sun is setting behind the endless snowcapped summits of the Himalayas.
However, Wang’s Everest ascent continues to stir up considerable controversy in mountaineering circles. The Sichuan-born entrepreneur didn’t make the whole climb on foot; instead, she flew by helicopter from base camp, situated at 5,364 meters above sea level, to the second camp at 6,400 meters before actually beginning to climb.
Conquering Everest is supposed to demonstrate the human capacity for extreme physical endurance and our ability to venture outside of our comfort zones. By hitching a helicopter ride up the slope, Wang has offered herself up to fierce public criticism.
Since the early 2000s, business moguls such as real estate Svengali Wang Shi and Zhang Chaoyang, the founder of internet giant Sohu, have succeeded in popularizing this exorbitantly expensive outdoor sport among the Chinese public. These days, mountain climbing is lauded as a teambuilding exercise by many of the country’s startups, and an increasing number of affluent Chinese people view it as a must-have experience. Struggling up to the peak of a mountain is a vivid metaphor for an entrepreneur on the road to eventual success.
Commercial high-altitude climbing has only taken root in China during the past 20 years or so. Prior to this, Chinese mountaineering was a highly politicized endeavor, and all excursions were planned by the state. The book “China’s Mountaineering Movement,” published in 1964, declared: “The creation of a mountaineering movement in the new China is … a physical health initiative that will benefit the socialist revolution and the construction of a socialist society.”
However, in 1980, after an increasing number of individuals and associations in Europe, Japan, and the United States expressed their desire to lead mountaineering expeditions in China, the nation opened eight of its mountains to the public. Since then, privately run expeditions have coexisted with state-funded treks.
In 2001, Tibet Sacred Mountains Exploration Services was jointly established by the Tibet Autonomous Region Mountaineering Association and the Tibet Mountaineering School, leading Chinese amateur climbers on private tours to the summit of Everest for the first time. Since then, anybody — provided they have enough money — can pay a private company to help them realize their dream of reaching the world’s tallest peak.
Unfortunately, mountaineering has now become yet another way for China’s most privileged to flaunt their wealth. Very few people can afford to enlist the services of a mountaineering company in addition to buying equipment: Climbing Everest with the aid of Tibet Sacred Mountains, for example, currently costs at least 400,000 yuan ($60,000) in service fees and equipment expenses.
This year, Hu Zhaohui, an interior designer and amateur climber from northwestern China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, went on an expedition to Muztagh Ata, a soaring dome on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau. He successfully reached the peak, located at a vertiginous 7,509 meters above sea level. Hu spent 32,800 yuan for the privilege, not including equipment costs.
Hu’s achievement earned him a “National First-Level Athlete” certificate from the Chinese Mountaineering Association. A seasoned mountaineer, he says that these days a large number of his fellow climbers are high-net-worth individuals who view the expeditions as an important opportunity to network. “I think most of them probably have assets of at least 500,000 to 600,000 yuan, maybe even 1 million,” he says. “And 20 to 30 percent of clients are there to socialize.”
Hu’s anecdotes about fellow amateur climbers on Muztagh Ata reveal how casual enthusiasts obsess over summiting mountains at the expense of taking pleasure in the country’s pristine slopes. Many see safety protocol as optional: One wealthy businessman hired four Sherpas to accompany him to the top of the mountain and breathed with the aid of an oxygen tank throughout the trek. At the summit, he discovered that his oxygen supply had run out, so he had the Sherpas to carry him all the way back down to base camp, tipping them 10,000 yuan each.
Another climber hadn’t taken the time to complete the requisite pre-expedition training, which was designed to acclimatize them to strenuous exercise at high altitudes and familiarize them with their equipment, Hu says. Instead, the man spent close to 100,000 yuan to breathe oxygen the whole way up. Hu also remembers a woman who brought facial cleanser and beauty masks onto the mountain and insisted on sticking to her meticulous beauty regime whenever they set up camp.
Hu believes that many Chinese choose mountaineering out of a desire to show off rather than a passion for alpinism. “They fill their WeChat [messaging app] feeds and offices with photos of themselves climbing,” he says. However, he admits that while climbing Muztagh Ata was a dream of his, he was also somewhat seduced by the prestige associated with reaching the top.
This ruthless pursuit of prestige is perhaps best exemplified by the owners of mountaineering companies. In 2011, Luo Biao founded his own company, Urumqi Kaitu Mountaineering and Outdoor Activities, which offers guided expeditions to Gangshiqia and Yuzhu peaks in northwestern China’s Qinghai province, as well as trips to Xinjiang’s Muztagh Ata and Bogda Peak. Since its establishment, the company has maintained an annual growth rate of 40 to 50 percent. The vast majority of customers come from China’s wealthy eastern cities.
“Chinese people have such a powerful desire to reach the top, whereas foreign mountaineering groups place a greater emphasis on the process of climbing itself,” Luo says. “[Foreign groups] meticulously plan every expedition down to the last detail before setting off. So long as their expedition goes according to plan, they’re always elated at the end, whether they reached the peak or not.”
Luo remembers leading a French mountaineering group whose holistic attitude toward climbing made a profound impression on him. Returning to base camp after reaching the summit, the climbers weren’t in any hurry to leave. Instead, they hung around the camp, reading, listening to music, and generally “treating life as if it were a holiday,” as Luo puts it.
Yet Chinese clients rarely exhibit such joie de vivre. “Regardless of how much money they spend, as soon as they get down, they head straight back to the city,” Luo explains. “They are so focused on reaching the top that they overlook the entire experience of climbing.”
Luo believes that this divergence in attitudes is largely the result of China’s history and political propaganda. When Wang Fuzhou, Gong Bu, and Qu Yinhua became the first Chinese people to ascend the north face of Everest in 1960, their achievement brimmed with national political significance: The climbers were featured in an article in the People’s Daily — the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party — and became subjects of a documentary and a cross-talk skit, a type of traditional Chinese comic performance. They even appeared on the country’s stamps, while Gong was granted a personal meeting with Chairman Mao.
Today, though, commercial mountaineering is still largely the preserve of an elite echelon of super-wealthy Chinese, many of whom have yet to learn that being on the slopes is as fulfilling as being at the summit. “When Chinese people learn to enjoy the experience of being at camp, hiking, and taking photos,” Luo says, “and no longer view the peak as the sole purpose of the expedition, then we will be able to say that mountaineering as a sport in China has reached a mature point in its development.”
A version of this article first appeared on Sixth Tone.