Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Arbitrariness of Lists

Many mountaineers are obsessed with completing lists -- for instance, summitting every peak above a certain elevation in a particular region.  Peakbaggers aspire to climb all 12 peaks above 14,000 feet in California, all 53 peaks above 14,000 feet in Colorado, and many have died trying to summit all 14 peaks above 8,000 meters in the Himalayas.  But to me, these lists are extremely arbitrary.  What, for instance, is so important about 14,000 feet?  Why not 13,900 feet?  Or 14,100 feet?  Being cleanly divisible by 1,000 does not seem especially significant. 

The length of one foot is itself an arbitrary convention.  For whatever reason, people agreed that one foot is 12 inches, but there would have been nothing unnatural with setting it at 13 inches.  In which case, no peaks in California would reach 14,000 feet.  To make matters worse, in order for a peak to "count" as a 14er, it has to rise a certain distance above the saddle connecting it to a higher 14er.  In California, if this distance (the peak's prominence) is set at 200 feet, then Thunderbolt Peak "counts", but not if it is set at 300 feet. 

Climbing a mountain, or a lot of mountains, can be valuable in its own right.  For some reason having to do with human nature, climbing mountains that fulfill certain numerical thresholds seems to add a layer of value to the experience.  Why that is the case is a topic for further reflection.


Råbärt said...

Feet and inches are abstract for us here in Europe. What do you think about 2010 Everest Double Traverse Expedition project?

Sam Page said...

Gavin Turner plans to climb Mt. Everest from either the south or north side, descend the other side, rest, then climb back up to the summit, and descend to his starting point.

His plan sounds really ambitious. It's hard to know what to make of it. I'm not even sure he knows. Here is what he wrote on his blog: "The second question you may have is why do this? In future postings, I will do my best to answer this difficult question."

Anyway, I wish him the best of luck (he'll probably need it).