Exploring tension in experiences on Everest

March 7, 2011 -- Adventure seekers frequently drop more than $50,000 to scale Mount Everest to find transcendent and extreme experiences. A new study co-authored by Assistant Professor of Marketing Gülnur Tumbat found that those people who plunk down thousands of dollars often lack the communitarian spirit that traditionally defined such extreme activities.

A photo of Assistant Professor of Marketing Gülnur Tumbat

Assistant Professor of Marketing Gülnur Tumbat atop Mount McKinley in 2007.

To conduct the research, published online in the Journal of Consumer Research, Tumbat spent the whole climbing season in spring 2004 at Mount Everest Base Camp in Nepal -- located on a glacier composed of rock and ice at an altitude of 17,700 feet -- conducting interviews and observing clients, guides and support staff on expeditions up the world's tallest peak.

Tumbat found that people who have paid adventure companies and guides were more likely to jostle for position, rather than cooperate with other climbers or develop a sense of camaraderie during the experience. "What they have is a forced companionship for many, far from any real spirit of community," the authors wrote. "Money versus personal skill and experience compete as climbers argue that they deserve to summit the mountain while others there do not."

Tumbat found that climbers were more focused on individual accomplishments and with claiming unique superlatives -- becoming the first British woman to climb Mount Everest for example -- instead of working together with fellow climbers toward a goal. Tumbat argued that it is this individualistic aspect that has not gained as much attention in such extraordinary experiences. Tumbat noted two European women from the same country in different climbing groups striving to be the first to summit Everest from their country and observed little interaction between the women.

"Our study finds that extraordinary experiences, when bought in the marketplace, can be destructive of feelings of camaraderie and reinforce an individualistic and competitive ethos that I, the climber, am the only one who matters," the authors wrote.

Tumbat herself is an accomplished climber, having climbed for more than 15 years. In 2007 she became the first Turkish woman to scale Alaska's Mount McKinley. In 2009 she solo-climbed Aconcagua in Argentina, which at 22,841 feet is the highest peak outside of the Himalayas. She said her climbing background was critical to conduct the research for this paper.

"It is an absolutely physically and emotionally challenging experience and my background in climbing at high-altitudes in different parts of the world and my knowledge on the subject matter enabled my field research," Tumbat said. "Credibility is an absolute must, especially within a climbing context where people are not necessarily there to interact with one another."

"Marketplace Tensions in Extraordinary Experiences," was published in the online version of the Journal of Consumer Research in December, and will appear in the June 2011 print edition.

-- Michael Bruntz