Mountaineering After the Enlightenment

The Summits of Modern Man
Mountaineering After the Enlightenment
Peter Hansen
Harvard University Press  336pp  £25

Caspar Friedrich’s picture of a man alone on a summit is a well-known Romantic image. The interdependence of climbers on a mountain, however, attached to the same rope and reliant on each other for safety and wellbeing, destroys any notion that mountain climbing is an individual activity; rather the reverse – the epitome of teamwork. Similarly, on a larger scale, mountaineering is not detached from politics and culture. One of the major claims of Peter Hansen’s book is that mountaineering and modernity occurred simultaneously. Mountain climbing ‘did not emerge after enlightenment, they arrived together’. Modernity, however, is a slippery term to embrace; its shifting and multiple nature, means it ‘must be continually enacted.’

Hansen traces the interaction of the roles mythology, religion, science, culture and, most importantly, politics played in the development of mountaineering, from Michel-Gabriel Paccard and Jacques Balmat’s first ascent of Mont Blanc in 1786 to the conquest of Everest in 1953. It culminates with thoughts about the anthropocene, the ‘man-made geologic epoch we are living in’. It situates mountaineering within ecological, political and cultural concerns. Mountains since the Enlightenment have become important for politicians, naturalists, scientists, poets and filmmakers, for whom they hold different, often opposing, religious and cultural meanings. A recurring theme is the way these ‘multiple modernities cause tension between self, state and mountain’. Individual will, for example, often conflicts with state aspirations and man’s domination of nature, championed in the Bible, eventually threatens the existence of the mountain environment, as seen in the retreating glaciers.

The book is structured chronologically beginning with Petrarch as the first mountaineer and modern man, together with early conceptions of mountains as abominable ‘excrescences’ – havens of dragons and evil spirits. This is well-documented territory to anyone familiar with the history of mountaineering. Hansen takes us beyond this, however, asking the question of who gained the summit first and the significance of such possession. To be first, he maintains, was a peculiarly ‘modern’ delight.

Much of the book is devoted to detailed descriptions of the first ascents of Mont Blanc and the subsequent disputes that broke out among the principal protagonists and their supporters. These all centred on who was thought to have first stepped onto the summit.

The French Revolution, which spread unrest into Geneva, led to attempts by differing factions to appropriate Mont Blanc for their respective causes. Meanwhile the enfranchisement of the people of Chamonix enabled Chamoniards to find employment as guides, creating a tier of experienced lower-class men that the largely British middle-class alpinists in the 19th century used in their quest to ‘conquer’ hitherto unclimbed peaks. A similar subaltern situation occurred again between Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary, where concerns over who was first, were once more resurrected.

Apart from brief encounters with climbers Marie Paradis and Henriette D’Angeville and the writer Mary Shelley, women are largely absent from this account, even though between 1858 and 1880 they stood on top of most Alpine summits for the first time.

This densely written book requires concentration, but in putting mountaineering into a political context, Hansen has achieved his own ‘first’.

Clare Roche is writing a thesis on women mountaineers

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