Summit fever is a mountaineering term which describes the dangerous state of mind experienced by some climbers while attempting to reach a mountain summit. It is a physiological phenomenon where a person disregards dangerous weather, route conditions, physical exertion or simply refuses to take them into consideration in their desperation to reach the top.
In May 15, 2006, 34 year-old mountaineer David Sharp died before reaching the summit of Everest. He could have survived if just one of the 40 climbers that passed him by that late afternoon had stopped to help him. In their excitement to reach the summit, having only a small window of opportunity and having spent a small fortune to get there, 40 people succumbed to summit fever. Living the dream was worth more than a man’s life.
In August 2008, 11 climbers died (of a 25 person expedition) ascending K2, Earth’s second highest mountain. Again, summit fever is believed to have been a contributing factor in the deaths.
In 1995 Peter Hillary (son of the legendary Sir Edmond Hillary) turned his back on K2’s summit with only a few hundred metres to go, because of a coming storm. He survived, but the storm claimed the lives of seven others he’d been climbing with. Peter Hillary explained the situation…
“Summit fever had developed in that group. There was a chemistry in there that meant they were going for the summit no matter what… They were all driving each other on. These people came together and because of the place and the atmosphere and their personalities, they became blinkered and simply focused on the top. There was no careful awareness in the group and the most dangerous thing about groups is that everyone hands over responsibility for themselves to someone else… It means that no one is taking responsibility. There can be a false sense of strength in numbers, but it doesn’t matter how big your group is – you can have 1,000 people and the mountain could still kill them all.”
For every four climbers who have ever reached the summit, K2 has claimed one of them. Everest claims one in ten, and over 150 bodies remain on the mountains’ ‘death zone’ to this day.
Summit fever – A callousness that drives climbers reject ethics, sometimes literally climbing over dead bodies to reach their goals.
Even though most of us will never be scaling the peak of Everest or K2, are we still in danger of a kind of summit fever? The kind of fever that tempts us to compromise ethics, integrity and morals because of the eagerness to reach our goals? For those of us who are driven to achieve personal dreams, or to ascend the summit of our life-dreams… are we at risk?
I think so.
Jesus told a story which perhaps illustrates the danger of summit fever in everyday life…
There was once a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. On the way he was attacked by robbers. They took his clothes, beat him up, and went off leaving him half-dead. Luckily, a priest was on his way down the same road, but when he saw him he angled across to the other side. Then a Levite religious man showed up; he also avoided the injured man. “A Samaritan traveling the road came on him. When he saw the man’s condition, his heart went out to him. He gave him first aid, disinfecting and bandaging his wounds. Then he lifted him onto his donkey, led him to an inn, and made him comfortable. (The Bible, Luke 10:30-34)
In our pursuit of reaching the goal of success, fame, ministry, do we compromise our integrity? Are we at risk of neglecting, ignoring or even rejecting the most important things in life, in favour of reaching the summit or seeing the vision fulfilled?