James Heathers
6 min readJan 8, 2022

I can’t take credit for appropriating the idea of a false summit. Read this first.

Now, Olav is a nice man, and an excellent neuroscientist, but I find it advisable to ignore any neuroscience written in the newspaper. No matter who says it.

But the concept of a false summit immediately captured my imagination. And to my lasting surprise, no-one else seems to have explored it. Search for it. You will find it discussed only by hikers and mountaineers, who tend to share their favourite stories of betrayal by some geographical frenemy. There is zero research, as far as I can tell. The only scientific papers on ‘false peaks’ tend to deal with signal analysis or spectroscopy.

I have seen a false summit, once. My family was ski touring, which essentially combines all the bad things about camping (being footsore, far from help or assistance, carrying heavy bollocks around) with all the bad things about skiing (being cold, and wet).

I never get cold. Ever. Except, it turns out, during ski touring.

As a consequence, I despised the whole activity, and despising things is something in which I excel. My poor father was dealing with that, and then something that actually mattered happened — my brother got ill. So with one boy throwing up and the other doing his best impression of Sonny Liston, we immediately headed out of the blasted wilderness and went the short way back to the car, back the way we came.

We were caught in a near white-out on the return, and then when it cleared, I realised there was only one hill to go up to the car park on a plateau. The end of misery!

And, on coming around a ridge line to the right of the summit, searching for the sight of a ratty old blue Mazda station wagon… I suddenly realised it was the wrong hill. We weren’t there yet.

You can taste disappointment at a time like this, and a specific combination of factors are involved. First, and most obviously, the violation of your expectation of achievement (or, equally, of respite). Secondly, and most crucially separating this from garden-variety despondency, is the indignity of progress being reversed as you must lose elevation by necessity in order to summit the next peak — you must, by definition, go down before you can continue. Thirdly, the loss of confidence in your sense-making abilities, as your task transforms from terminable to at least somewhat interminable. Is the next visible summit just more false hope? It might be. And all of it delivered when you are tired, and footsore, and entirely out of options.

Related: you will encounter just such situations when raising funds in a startup. You form a relationship with an investing party who are interested. You talk, propose terms, answer questions, send financials, conduct due diligence, and get to a position where the conversation leads you to believe the deal is done — and at the absolute final mile, when you certain no more remains to be said or agreed to, when all you are waiting for is a signature, and it is so very strongly implied that you will get it due to the length and detail of the conversations up to that point, and then you hear the word: no.

The disappointment is obviously similar in both scenarios. The descent into the saddle between peaks, the indignity of reversal, is the need to find additional investing parties, to start over again from scratch with relationship-building, or to re-establish existing contacts. The loss of confidence might be the worst part: having agreed to X dollars under Y terms with a handshake and a smile, how can you trust similar agreements in future? The next term sheet, the next agreement, may be as ephemeral as this one. Maybe they all will be.

This uncertainty and frustration is part of the startup world, and if you find it intolerable, you should probably work elsewhere. Where I think this concept has a tremendous possibility for sense-making right now is in the collective response to the Omicron variant.

At no previous point during the last two years has there been such a violent disconnect between the biophysical reality of the disease and its processes vs. the collective behaviour on display. Public health officials, staff working in emergency medicine, and the scientifically informed have reacted — stridently and at length — to the changing circumstances.

Literally everyone else, not so much.

While previous waves of the plague have always been greeted inappropriately by either the medically hostile or professionally disaffected, there has not been a normative response so far which amounts to ‘ehh, screw it’.

An enormous wave of denial (something which is absolutely not an option when faced with the reality of a mountain range or not making payroll) has settled over civic, commercial, and general public life. Cases right now are three times higher than they were at peak Delta, or during the Great First Wave when so many people died. Yet, today, I walked past restaurants and bars half full of people entirely unaffected, eating and socialising in poorly ventilated places, very much indoors.

Everyone is just … over it. Sick of having to have a reaction.

It’s false summit fatigue.

There certainly were points last year when it felt as if it was The Beginning of the End, a new Plague chapter was being written. The removal of indoor mask mandates, the definitive loosening of civic restrictions (concerts, sporting events), the re-opening of classes of business. I saw a photo of friends of mine in Australia, all sporting lockdown hair sprouting from their lumpen heads at unfashionable angles, propping up the bar the very first morning after restrictions were lifted. They were a bit haggard, but smiling, the faces of men who’d done their time and secured parole.

A false summit, it seems, as New South Wales now has an unprecedented level of infection both in local terms AND internationally. This is today’s figures:

I have highlighted the previous ‘big’ wave, in September last year, so you could see it.

About 1500 cases. Today was over 23,000.

And now, the reckoning. The three points again:

(1) the violation of expectation

(2) the humiliation and frustration of ‘going down to go up’

(3) the loss of confidence in the ability to make predictions about the future

This is us, now.

The decline in COVID cases lasted for most of last year, most places gradually wending their numbers down as the bulk of vaccinations lowered both the amount of people available to get infected and the amount of infected people straining the thoroughly bruised healthcare systems which manages them. Suddenly, from nowhere, the new variant appears — and a tremendous regress of everything, everywhere.

And, again, the spectre of additional shots, new vaccines, lockdowns, mandates, school closures, canceled elective surgeries, sick family members, and circumstances generally trending from bad back to dire. What we just got away from.

And, finally, a tremendous jolt to the collective understanding that we have ZERO long-term certainty as to whether or not this will repeat until the end of time. The infectivity of Omicron means a tremendous number of new viral replications and new hosts for possible mutations. ‘What will the Pi variant bring?’ is a question we never collectively asked after Delta.

We have no summit, only summit fatigue. And it’s yet another spanner flung directly in the world’s collective psychic gears. Another direct contributor to Covid Derangement Syndrome, as if that was something we really needed.

I do not give Plague management advice, to governments or anyone else, because it has no chance of effecting any change. A waste of pixels.

What I will say is: manage your own expectations. Dumb hope and intellectual laziness are the true parents of summit fatigue.

I would rather think the path I walk is just a series of hills until I have utterly definitive proof that I am on the peak. I would rather think the marvelous deal I am offered is literally fictional until it is signed.

And I would rather think that right now, our collective public health is very fucked in some very creative ways, and that our reply is a tepid under-reaction which will have dire consequences, for which I need to be prepared.

You will enjoy the summit no less if you don’t fool yourself on the way there.

If you want this developed into something you can buy, or you just want to talk, find me at http://linktr.ee/jamesheathers