“Summit fever” is a mountaineering term that describes the drive or compulsion of a climber to reach the summit of a mountain no matter what the cost. The climber has invested time, energy and resources into their goal, and by the time they have the summit of the mountain in their sight, they are so close to accomplishing the feat that they allow their judgment to be impaired. They make choices toward the top of the mountain that they almost certainly would not have made earlier in their journey.
There are two factors that contribute to this impaired judgment: physical environment and psychological impact. How a climber responds to both can be the difference between life and death.
Both the environment and the physical state of the climber change throughout the climb. Toward the top of the mountain, the air is thinner, affecting the climber’s breathing. The physical exertion of climbing itself, in combination with the thin air’s impact, causes the climber’s body to become fatigued.
From a psychological standpoint, the more time and energy a climber puts into the climb, the more invested they become in its completion. Lower on the mountain, when their time and energy investments are not as great, it’s easier to turn back in the face of changing conditions or emergent risks. But as the hours – or sometimes even days – pass and it seemingly becomes much more difficult to make up for any lost time, the climber may start to feel the impact of schedule pressures. Almost everyone is influenced by the need to finish a task, a compulsion that can lead to risk-taking and dangerous or even deadly results.