What does climbing Mt. Everest have in common with arts and cultural events? Well, you can start with cachet, line-ups and a diminished experience that can make you wonder whether it’s all worth it in the end.
Last week in Toronto I stood in line for an hour to buy a ticket to the Royal Ontario Museum’s Mesopotamia: Inventing Civilization exhibition, shuffling forlornly ahead centimetres at a time in the rain. The show was great, the entry steeplechase not so much. This week I had a similar experience at Mosaiculture Internationale at Montreal’s Jardin Botanique. Half a snaking hour in the blistering sun, mercifully broken by passage under a few shade trees. Once inside, the press of the crowd on the 2.5-kilometre path you had to walk to see the pieces was almost too much to bear. Trying to find a way around strollers and kids and a tide of people flowing in every direction most of whom had a camera or phone pressed to their face was an annoyance tempered only by the acknowledgement that you were one of them. Again, an amazing exhibit—massive theme-art plant sculpture by a range of participating countries, several many stories high—was somehow sullied by the unease of access. Because I fastidiously avoid lineups in general and only convinced myself of the worth of these because of the unique opportunities they represented for someone who lives 5,000 km away, on both occasions I couldn’t help but think how you might experience the presentation of such incredible human creativity without so many people, what the individualistic feelings and connections might be free of the crush. Granted my timing was certainly at fault—the choice to see both at inopportune times (I’ll claim tourist naiveté) when, with Labour Day, the end of vacation, and school looming, the serotinal crowds were at their height. But another aspect was the reality of attending these heavily advertised “must dos” at all when there are so many other unheralded wonders on display in both cities. Which made me think about how even “must dos” have changed in our once word-of-mouth culture, now turbo-charged by the net and social media to the point where everyone literally feels they must make the effort to have a marquee experience. It’s great for those putting on the events but clearly diminishes the experience of the attendee.
The thing is, I’d already started thinking about this earlier in the summer, not just in regard to events but in relation to some of the tweeted-up must-hikes in the Sea to Sky corridor. Outside of dark, dawn or dusk, for instance, the Grouse Grind has become a two-way misery of stumbling entourages involving everything from children’s groups to tourist buses to family reunions, interspersed with hard-charging triathletes-in-training pushing everyone aside as they run up. Though Outside magazine perpetrated an incredible faux pas this summer by listing the Grind as one of the 10 Toughest Hikes in the World (for which they were roundly excoriated by everyone), if there were some truth to it at all it would lie not in any of the physical challenge presented but in dealing with the insane crowds. The Stawamus Chief hike in Squamish is scarcely better in summer, the parking lots and trail in kind now regularly jammed day in and day out. It’s still a great hike, but the human factor significantly waters down the impact of the rainforest enclosing it and the magnificent views available if you pry your way through the phalanx at the top.
Alone or in small numbers is the way best to experience such things, as my partner and I were reminded when we happened upon what seemed like a hiking trail while bushwhacking above Green Lake in Whistler. The barely visible route went up, up, and up, through all sorts of different forest and substrate types, talus areas interspersed with mossy domes, mixed forest that changed to small rock-clinging trees then segued to veritable giants arranged in small wetlands. Gurgling streams appeared and we followed the trail as far as we had time for, enchanted and engaged by every little thing we saw, heard and smelled in a way that is impossible when most of your attention is focused on getting around or making way for people on the path. On the way down we met the only person we saw that day, heading up with a clutch of tools on his back to work on the trail. That was the first hint that this really was a hiking area, and furthermore the man allowed that this was the quickest way to get into the alpine in the Whistler Valley, one that largely no one knew about. It seemed likely, given how we’d found it, that it would stay that way, and I was happy both for the knowledge of its existence and the serendipity of discovery. In retrospect, were it not anathema to this very experience, it seems something I would happily stand in line for.
When it comes to visiting Everest, it probably pays to park your disappointment with any of the ruination you encounter, as you’ve come too far and paid too much to not take what you can get. But in circumstances where you can return to something at a better time, it’s best to take a pass on the mob scene and plan to go at a time that maximizes the experience, changing the very notion of a must-do to must-enjoy.