You Didn’t Know This About the Birth of Mountaineering

In some ways it’s amazing that mountaineering was born, to a large extent, during the latter half of the 1800s. At that time, physical endurance activities were unusual characteristics for a recreational activity, but that was slowly changing. The Industrial Revolution made work more efficient and the resulting labor movement instituted the novel idea of free time. So we went to music concerts, read popularly printed books, and gambled where it was accepted.

Still, physical endurance activities were usually left to soldiers, like those serving the British Empire, protecting and expanding territory. (This played a role, in part, why the terminology of mountain climbing centered around the idea of conquest and described features of mountains as ramparts or defenses.) Sporting and physically engaging activities were just emerging, seemingly for the first time since the Greek Olympics, and the leading sport, believe it or not was walking.

Walking anywhere of any distance in those days was considered odd. Roads were narrow and suitable only for horses, carriages, and wagons. And when destinations were far, there was always the risk of being benighted; without flashlights, lamposts and electricity, being stranded after dark, and with it perhaps the cold, was a danger we have long forgotten. Yet walking suddenly had the potential to be a feat.

Men — and this was a male actvity — with some bravado and competitive spirt would take bets on whether one of them among the gamblers could walk from one town to another or from one county to the next over. Sometimes these bets would take a competitor 100 miles or so in a day. It became known as pedestrianism in Britain and the United States, and was even the start of professional athletics in the United States, even predating baseball players.

Pedestrianism came after the first ascent of Mont Blanc in 1865 and some other historic moments in mountaineering, however the arrival of the walking wager, as pedestrianism was less frequently called, was a leading part of mankind’s movement to seek physical challenges. Opening the door to such challenges to a new fieldnof self discovery.

What did these pedestrians see and feel? Did it feel like a night on a belay ledge when they were benighted? Did they halicinate from the exhaustion? Did they get clarity in who they were as people and what makes them feel alive? These answers were a mystery to the spectators, and only walking far for oneself would yield any useful answers. In fact, it seems like a version of an alpine quest.

Pedestrianism was part of our embrace of ourselves as physical beings and connecting with that physical world around us. It started on a level plain of countryside by just walking, but it lead to explore the other plain on the Y-axis.

British men went beyond pedestrianism by visiting the Alps for walks and scrambles. They entered the ranges not for the lush alpine meadows for the good of livestock, but to explore the landscape, know themselves and challenge the hurdle of being benighted.

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