Peak practice

Chinese tycoons climb Everest


“You see. I did make it to the top”: Wang Jing shows her certificate

Whether George Mallory ever made it to the summit of the world in 1924 – during his third and fatal attempt – is one of Everest’s greatest mysteries. Nevertheless, the British adventurer lives on in popular imagination, in part for uttering the three most famous words in mountaineering: “Because it’s there.” That’s what Mallory told the New York Times, on being asked why he wanted to challenge the 8,848-metre peak.

Mallory’s primitive gear was a far cry from the hi-tech equipment available to today’s climbers. Indeed, these days getting to the top of Mount Everest is acquiring a reputation as an achievable if expensive undertaking. (A full climb can easily cost $100,000.) As the UK’s Telegraph newspaper has suggested, wealthy climbers with minimal experience are turning the ‘vertical limit’ into “a conveyor belt to the top”.

That metaphor became all the more controversial when it became public that Chinese tycoon Wang Jing had reached the summit partly assisted by a helicopter.

The 41 year-old scaled the Hillary Step on May 23 accompanied by five local guides. In doing so Wang became the only woman to ascend Everest from the Nepalese side of the mountain (and the first to do so in the current climbing season). But the Nepalese government held back from logging her achievement as Wang had taken a chopper from an altitude of 5,364 metres to an advanced camp at 6,400 metres.

“Using a helicopter would constitute a serious moral violation of tradition in climbing the world’s highest peak,” Reuters suggested.

Even Chinese investors voiced their disapproval. The stock price of Toread, an outdoor sports-gear maker founded by Wang and her husband, fell more than 15% in the month following her controversial climb.

But Wang says she was vindicated with the award of a certificate by the Nepalese government last week. It seems to have ruled that the helicopter ride was necessary in traversing a route made too dangerous by an avalanche a month earlier.

“We believe she returned to base camp after using the helicopter to deliver supplies and then climbed on foot,” a Nepalese tourism official said.

As Wang has been the public face of Toread, her mountaineering expenses are probably absorbed as marketing investment. But other Chinese entrepreneurs from less sporty sectors have also been making the pilgrimage to Everest too.

The trend was started by Wang Shi in 2003. The chairman of leading real estate firm Vanke completed his first full climb aged 53. Other businesspeople followed suit, apparently keen to forge an image of derring-do, Guangzhou Daily has suggested. The newspaper said Wang Shi has spent more than Rmb30 million ($4.8 million) in subsequent expeditions, mentoring friends and business partners including Huang Nubo, a property tycoon who tried to buy up Iceland’s wilderness (see WiC122). Another of Wang Shi’s pupils is Wang Qiuyang, an executive president of Beijing-based developer Antaeus Group, who besides scaling Mount Everest has also travelled solo to Antarctica and reached the North Pole on foot, making her the first Chinese woman to set foot in three of earth’s most extreme environments (see WiC38).

Bosses at other Chinese firms also like the publicity of an Everest moment. Charles Zhang climbed the mountain in 2003, with his internet firm Sohu (in doing so he was also keen to showcase China’s internet connectivity astride the world’s tallest peak). Wang Jian, co-founder of the Beijing Genomics Institute (see WiC195), which operates the world’s longest assembly lines in gene sequencing, also scaled it in 2010 at age 56.

Many other bosses, including Shi Yuzhu of Giant Interactive, have visited Everest without making an attempt on the summit.

Time Weekly says Chinese tycoons like to strengthen their informal networks with shared passions and experiences. These social circles range from executive courses at business schools, through art collecting to mutual practice of qigong (see WiC236). But the magazine says that mountaineering has become another popular form of “socialising and business” because it is an “elite private club” that excludes people without sufficient time and money to participate.

The mountaineering craze has reached a point of overkill, warns the Yangtze Evening News, which likens the situation to the Wiener Musikverein of Vienna, where so many of China’s musicians have paid to perform that the venue has lost some of its cachet for Chinese (see WiC230). Song Zuying (a famous folk singer) has even apologised for starting the concert frenzy and the newspaper reckons Wang Shi should show similar contrition. Failing that, Mallory’s quote may need a makeover, it suggests. Why climb Everest, a Chinese tycoon might be asked? Because so many of my peers have done it already, he could well reply…

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