Thursday, February 13, 2014

Olympic peakbagging? Why not?

    Should the Olympics give medals for a competition set to music, performed in sequins, and often decided by geopolitics or whim? Commentator Frank Deford mulled on his weekly NPR broadcast whether events like ice dancing are really sports: 
See, it's not easy to qualify what makes a sport a sport. My broad, more inclusive definition would simply be that any time you compete in a physical activity, you have a sport. The key words to me are physical and compete. I think, for example, that perhaps the greatest athletic feat of the 20th century was Sir Edmund Hilary and Tenzing Norkay conquering Mount Everest. But however rigorous, is mountain climbing competitive?
    Well, now that you raise the question ... yes, it can be. And not just at the level of Everest. For quite a few of us, mountain climbing is obsessively competitive.
    We call it "peakbagging." Peakbaggers appreciate the mountainside journeys and mountaintop views as much as anybody, but what motivates us are the races to complete the computerized to-do lists. We keep score.
     Like other sports, peakbaggers have rules, records, and rankings—including global, national, state, and county categories. For example, the Highpointers Club keeps a running list of people who have reached the highest point in all 50 states (at last count, 241 ranging in age from 12 to 77). Among my friends, Charlie Zerphey has stood atop 49 states since turning 65, Rick Shortt has climbed all 106 Virginia peaks over 4,000 feet, and Peter Barr has bagged all 200 mountains in the Southeast over 5,000 feet. The lists are as endless as the horizon.
    I'm no great mountaineer, but I take pride in being one of the few people on record to climb all 13 mountains in Virginia over 4,500 feet. Maybe I could be the first to bag all 43 ranked mountains in Watauga County or reach the highest points in all 146 counties in the Carolinas.
     That brings us to the subculture of "county high-pointers"—peakbaggers who can make mountains out of molehills. We have to find the precise highest point in places like Tyrrell County, N.C., which lies so low and flat that it could disappear in a 17-foot tidal surge. I doubt that Deford would call that a sport. It's more like a cross between trivial pursuit and trespassing.
     But on the top end, I'm willing to bet there are more world-class peakbaggers than Olympic curlers.
     So why not mountain-climbing as an Olympic sport? We have downhill skiingwhy not the opposite? Why not an Olympic version of king-of-the-hill, with climbers wearing Go-Pro cameras for the rest of us to glimpse the cliff-hanging danger? Why not a true cross-country racea bushwhacking marathon? 
     Why not race up the highest mountain in the host country? In the case of Sochi, it is just 150 miles to Mount Elbrus, the highest point not only in Russia but in all of Europe. Even better from a peakbagging perspective, Elbrus has twin summits, so climb them both. And don't come back until you find the benchmark.
     On the other hand, Olympic peakbagging doesn't have to be a race. Judges could give bonus points if you attempt a particularly difficult couloir, crawl through a bear cave, or just rock your gaiters. 
     Or would that make it too much like halfpipe or figure skating? 

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