Digital Detox on Mount Everest?

At the foot of the world’s tallest mountain, lies South Base Camp. It takes 10-14 days to hike there. The view? Awe-inspiring. The sense of achievement? Indescribable. The Wi-Fi? $5 an hour.

Every year, thousands make the trek to Mount Everest’s South Base Camp in Nepal, 5,364 metres above sea level. Of those few thousand, a few hundred deemed fit (and wealthy) enough will continue on for another treacherous 40 days with the aim of reaching the summit. Those who embark on this challenging expedition speak of an unforgettable and often deeply spiritual experience. Setting foot on the sacred mountain the Tibetans call ‘The Holy Mother’, sparks a profound connection to nature far removed from frivolous modern day distractions.

With this in mind, you might think it would be the perfect place to truly get away from it all. To disconnect, unplug, and digitally detox for the duration of your adventure. But you’d be wrong. At South Base Camp, the Wi-Fi packages are as easily available as they would be in your local café. Thanks to the Nepali entrepreneur Tsering Gyaltsen Sherpa, Wi-Fi has been operating at the camp since 2014.

Every spring the camp fills up with hikers and mountaineers from all over the world who come to rest after their long trek, or (if they have been granted the necessary permit by the Tibetan Government) physically prepare themselves for a climb all the way to the summit. The trek to the camp alone doesn’t come cheap–a typical trek with a tour operator will set you back a few thousand dollars. Meanwhile, those lucky few who have been granted a permit to attempt the full climb may have paid up to $100,000 for the privilege, when you take into account the cost of the licence, sherpa, and all the gear and training required. These are people on the trip of a lifetime. For many, the thought of not documenting it on their phones would be unthinkable.

On the one hand, it’s astounding to imagine someone looking at a phone while surrounded by such a mind-blowing landscape. Shouldn’t people be focused 100% on their physical environment, leaving their phones at home so they can allow themselves to take it all in? Does the presence of technology not tarnish the magic of a place so spectacular?

On the other hand, the availability of Wi-Fi has brought many benefits to the sherpas and adventurers. One might argue that there is a myriad of practical reasons why it’s safer to be online. For example, climbers can use their phones to receive alerts in case of avalanches or poor weather and adjust their route accordingly. They can call for help, they can stay connected with family. And being able to do live feeds of their journey is often a requirement for a sponsorship deal that may have made it all possible in the first place.

However, while many people will opt to pay the $5 an hour for the Wi-Fi on offer, as many others choose not to. For them, disconnecting is exactly what they want – climbing Everest offers them the freedom to switch off and be at one with nature.

Whichever group you fall into, in the end, it’s the elements that ultimately tend to make the decision for you. In reality, the reception is patchy at best, and the technology is far from being able to replace the reliability of satellite-based phones. And let’s say you make it to the summit, the Wi-Fi is technically working, and you decide to post a victory photo to Instagram – it may not even be possible because phones have been known to freeze at that altitude anyway.

It seems that in the battle between the natural and technological environment, at the top of Everest, ‘The Holy Mother’ reigns supreme. And we all know how strict moms can be about limiting screen time.