How Books and Magazines About Climbing Changed My Life

The Portal on Transit Road. (All rights reserved)

The other day I was rearranging my bookshelf to put the guidebooks all in one place, the narratives in another, and box up some that I use less frequently. The shelf is stacked from floor to ceiling inter-mixed with an old piton, an old belay device, broken altimeter, thank-you cards from Banff, and the knife from my Uncle Tom. I came across my oldest set of climbing magazines from the early 2000s and two books from the early 1990s. They affected me how they always affect me; a flood of forgotten feelings, including an impulse drop everything to go to the Adirondack Mountains, came over me like a wave.

Later that week, I realized that I wouldn’t be who I am today without the experiences those climbing magazines and books gave me. It wouldn’t have happened without the arrival of a new bookstore in town.

Although I have been told I watched a lot of television when I was a kid, what I remember most about growing up in my home was my mother, father, and siblings reading. They read the Bible, The Buffalo Evening News (when it was still delivered daily around five p.m.), magazines, Reader’s Digest, books from the library and the bookstore at the mall. I remember reading The Young Astronauts series and how it ; my imagination was strong and while I muddled through the school day, I could always come home to read and then go out into the six-acre woods behind my home to play out exploring the Martian surface. Outside the enchantment around my house, everything seemed lackluster.Moments of Doubt

Everything except for the high peaks of the Adirondack Mountains, a six-hour drive away that until college, we only made the trip for a week once a year. The breeze on a bald summit, the edge of a flat-water lake, the silence on a trail surrounded by mossy boulders and evergreens, and the remote rock faces were beyond the scope of my imagination. I was awed by it all. One week in the ‘Dacks filled my cup for a whole year.

Around 1998, the sleazy bookshop at the mall was unseated as the great local bookstore. That’s when a Barnes & Noble opened up in my neighborhood of Buffalo, NY. The one at the mall was the place anyone at the mall seemed to hang out who didn’t have money to spend but needed somewhere to go. The loiterers endlessly perusing magazines and trinkets; they rarely entering the two long narrow aisles of books. I visited the American history section mostly, seeking interesting stories of people rising up to do important things.

Until the arrival of Buffalo’s Barnes & Noble, the only climbing book I owned was John Long’s How to Rock Climb: Face Climbing (1992), which I bought at the Eastern Mountain Sports in Lake Placid. I had stumbled, without knowing it, into bouldering on mossy Adirondack glacial “pebbles” the size of pickups and box trucks strewn through the Adirondack High Peaks. No one was there to teach me so I hoped this book would unlock some secrets. It did, by teaching me different foot positions and even introduced me to the technique and joy of slab climbing, which is abundant in the Adirondacks.

R&I #102 Aug/Sept 2000I suddenly had access to publications, like the American Alpine Journal that demonstrated what a serious and detailed group many climbers were, Climbing Magazine, which taught me skills, and Rock & Ice, which had fascinating features about people that appeared to have surrendered themselves over to climbing. I peruse these issues every few years, often when packing or unpacking for a move, like when we went from Alexandria, VA to Lancaster, PA. I still get this urge and sense of suddenly being unsettled, and feel the need to load my backpack with my helmet, put on my boots and drive to the Adirondacks or White Mountains in the dead of night to be there by morning and hit a trail to a peak or a hidden (always hidden) crag.

I also discovered David Roberts’ books in that bookstore. I bought a copy of Moments of Doubt, a collection of his articles. I have two memories strongly associated with finding this book. First, I was laying in bed before going to sleep reading the essay “Five Days on Mount Huntington.” In the introduction to the article, Roberts wrote, “I have never lived through a five-day span or comparable intensity.” I read on, as if I were a silent partner traveling with Roberts and Ed Bernd on Mount Huntington, even after Bernd’s mysterious accident that left Roberts alone, high on the mountain, to endure days and nights of storm. My eyes widened, I held the book tightly, and I felt my mostly-dark bedroom was a tent on a snow-blown mountainside that was horrifyingly stormy. Bernd was certainly gone, but Roberts was also certainly aware and the wisdom of his experience was like a candle lit in my dim suburban neighborhood.

Climbing #209, Nov. 2002

The other memory is thinking that I had a treasure. The climbing genre books at 796.522 next to the baseball and hockey books were deep. It wasn’t about breaking sport franchise records, or the final scores, or even changing the world or important things like ending poverty. I have always been into religion and theology and the human experiences of climbers written by climbers were the closest things that I related to and connected with from my experiences in the Adirondacks. They were human, emotional, at times egotistical, often impossible to put into words, and yet more enlightened about life and being alive than I have ever read. I had found literature that wasn’t about insight into the every day, I found people that came from the every day and transcended the every day. They found the mountain high and the peace and clarity that comes from the heights. I felt it before, but I thought it was reserved for church and prayer time and maybe after my mountain vacations, and yet, I found it reading these books by people doing something… seeking something, though they rarely ever said what they were seeking. I connected with them.

And I kept the treasure, the books, and my mountain climbing, a secret for a long, long time. It was too personal, too important, to share. Peakbagging, ice climbing, and bouldering gave me power; today I call it being centered. I didn’t share it, I think, because I  thought that if I shared my love for climbing books and climbing that my secret power would be diminished. I had been bullied and picked in elementary school. In defense, I learned not to bring up things that would make me vulnerable. In Buffalo, I had a fire in me, but I felt like very few people supported keeping it lit and a few wanted me to put it out. I don’t know why, even as I turned 40. When I graduated college, I left for Washington, DC without a job, without a cell phone, a bag with three suits and several neckties, a laptop, my Bible, and a box of climbing books.

R&I November 2000

By 2004, I was established in a job working for my hometown Congressman. One night while watching C-Span from the office, I was emailing the boss with recommendations on how he ought to vote on all of the procedural amendments to an appropriations bill. In between votes, during drawn-out remarks by other members of congress, I was exchanging messages with my former colleague who quit Capitol Hill gig to live and work in Alaska just a few months ago. Because of Moments of Doubt, and egged on by stories in those magazines, I decided I had to go, and now was the time to make a pilgrimage. That summer we saw Denali on the clearest day of the year, took in the Harding Ice Field, and even got thrown out of a bar in Anchorage.

I look at the magazines in the stacks these days and compare it to how I feel looking at a new issue of Climbing or R&I and realize I don’t get that feeling. I don’t feel compelled to participate the same way. I suspect that it’s the level of responsibility I have accepted and embraced since then; I can’t simply pickup and nonchalantly go on some adventure with aplomb like I once did.

Face Climbing by John Long.

While I remember the uncontrollable urge to go climb in the Adirondacks when I look at my old climbing magazines, I also know in the here and now I don’t feel it. I am somewhat content. (I say somewhat, because there are always improvements to be made in life, right?) The weird part is, while I am nostalgic, I don’t even feel like I am disappointed at my contentment. Perhaps because I like where I am. In fact, since Natalie and I had our little Wunderkind and Schnickelfritz I have gone on only short hikes but seen more if not just as much as I did on my 22-mile day treks high above sea level. Sometimes I miss the view and breeze atop the bald summits, yet the interest in the streams, a salamander, or a red fox, and bird watching has been truly magical. While wilderness might be far, nature is all around, and it is more rewarding than I ever realized before.

Now, my hikes with my family and my frequent trips to the climbing at the gym are the things that both center my mind and keep me physically fit. I don’t know where I would be as a partner to Natalie and the kids without either of those activities.

Natalie recently reread the biography of Maria Von Trapp, as in the Sound of Music, which we both read with joy before we had children. She recently reread it and read outloud some portions to me; it felt like we had overlooked entire sections and themes. I suppose our lenses have tinted since then.

I think most literature, but particularly books, is the same way — dynamic. My climbing books can be elastic and strike me in different ways depending where my experience has taken me to open new doors and windows into what the author put on paper. Maybe it’s time I reread some of Moments of Doubt. 

Still, it’s not that way as much with magazines. In looking through that old stack of climbing magazines, I can still see clearly who I was and how much I have changed because of them.

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Who Are You Without Mountains?

If you stop climbing, are you still a climber? Or did you used to climb?

If you start climbing again, you just proved that you’ve always been a climber. Right?

But what happens if you get into climbing, like really into climbing, and life offers to move you to a place without the mountains you love? Will you able be adequately continue to climb? That’s the question Travis is asking. Travis recently read my post When Climbing Does Not Matter and he wrote me in an email. He gave me permission to share this here:

I read your blog post entitled, “when climbing does not matter.” When I read that several years ago you lived in DC, I immediately thought of my own life situation.  I completely agree with you about the situations when, in fact, climbing does not matter. However, I am confronting some life choices at the moment that I feel are going to impede my ability to climb in the foreseeable future…
As of this moment I live near the Cascades, and have been fortunate enough to spend my weekends hiking and my work nights in the climbing gym. Over the last two years that I’ve lived here I’ve been slowly making inroads into the world of serious mountaineering, and am just now at a point where I feel comfortable tackling larger mountains.
I grew up in DC and the thought of ever moving back there is, to be frank, quite depressing. However, due to my career in intellectual property, the regression seems inevitable.
I have a final round interview for a position at a firm in Northern Virginia next week, and thus I am forced to grapple with the idea of not being able to climb anymore (should I actually get the job).
Since I would be remiss to not take this career opportunity, I wanted to ask you: how does one continue to be a serious climber when living on the east coast? And how do you find time with all of your responsibilities (career, family, etc.) to train? Finally, I am worried about de-acclimating to the altitude and failing climbs due to AMS if I’m living at sea level.
–Travis

 

I wished I could just tell Travis that he should stay in among the mountains. It’s an obvious choice to me. But life isn’t that simple.

When I was in Washington, DC for those 15 years, I know I was supposed to be there. I wanted to be involved in government and politics. I wanted to understand partisan differences. I wanted to know facts to leverage to bring clarity. So I worked for a Member of Congress for two of his terms, worked for a national financial trade association during the foreclosure crisis that became the Great Recession, before taking a cut in pay to join an advocacy team at a national nonprofit. And one day, just when Natalie’s and the kids’ needs weren’t being served there any longer, an opportunity came that we could move.

But the whole time I was in Washington, DC I wished I was other places. I called it Peaklessburg when I was upset about it. I dreamed about a policy job in Montpelier, Vermont. I even worked with a national insurance company about becoming an agent in Maine. DC was too sprawling, too crowded, and although nature was around me it was difficult to see between the stacks of concrete, steel, and glass. Mountains, particularly in the northeast that I craved, were too far and too costly to reach on a regular basis.

I have come to terms with the truth that I need several things to be happy, though two of them are somewhat conflicting and finding balance difficult: I need nature and wilderness in large doses, but I also need a job that I am called to do (meaning a job I find a lot of purpose.) Hopefully this isn’t your problem!

On the other hand, the Washington, DC can be manageable. There are frequently enjoyable climbing-related events with like-minded adventurers at both Earth Treks locations and both Sportrock Climbing Centers, the new flagship REI in the city, the Patagonia store in Georgetown, and National Geographic. I often took advantage of those.

Most importantly, if you haven’t seen it, I posted this back in 2016, when I was still in DC and expecting to stay there a long, long time: 10 Ways I Cope With the Big City. While I have some tangible advice, the key question was: What are you without climbing? For that matter, what are we if we take away our favorite activity or hobby? If we can answer that, I think we can make better decisions, even as climbers, hikers, adventurers, athletes, artists, and human beings.

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When Climbing Does Not Matter

Escape route. (All rights reserved)

“Climbing matters” has been part of the tag line for TSM since I started writing it while working in bleak, peakless, Washington, DC eight years ago. By “matters” I have always meant important or significant, as in climbing matters a lot, not a set of topics, or climbing matters to discuss. To me, the tag line has always been a solid values statement. It matters to me, and I hope to share how and why it should matter to you too. But I recently have been asking myself, does it always matter or am I just fooling myself?

The world is mostly made up of nonclimbers. While people say that climbing has reached the mainstream, the feats of great climbers has always been promoted to the nonclimbing world, and climbing is indeed more accessible, but there is still an opt-in clause to climbing. And even then, is Jimmy Chin’s film Free Solo going to inspire my nonclimbing film-going friends take up even gym climbing? Maybe it will for some kids.

Life is more than climbing. For me climbing is a lens to see not just mountains but my life. Brandon Leonard in Sixty Meters to Anywhere that climbing centers him. Nick Bullock and Kevin Jorgeson, through separate experiences, both claim climbing changed their lives. And still, there is more to life than climbing. We still go to a job to make money, support a lifestyle, be responsible (at least to some degree, right?), celebrate birthdays, and spend time doing nonclimbing things with people we like to be with.

I recently stumbled back to this brief passage in Kelly Cordes’ book The Tower, by chance. Here, Cordes arrives in Patagonia a year after Hayden Kennedy and Jason Kruk debolted the Compressor Route:

When I arrived in El Chaltén in January 2013, I had a hard time seeing the outrage over the debolting I had heard and read about. Climbers and trekkers were everywhere, locals were busy dealing with the tourists, and unprecedented spells of good weather had settled over the massif.

Nearly everyone I met was kind and welcoming, despite many being stressed and overworked. One day, I spoke with a year-round resident named Poli. Her observations matched those of most non-climbing locals. She said she doesn’t know anything about climbing — these “nails” [Maestri’s old bolts] everyone was talking about last year were things she couldn’t even identify. Of course she knew about the controversy, everyone did, but to her it didn’t matter. She would never go to Cerro Torre, she said.

If you know about “these nails,” folks knowledgeable about Cerro Torre’s history or that read Cordes’ book, it’s hard not to have an opinion of Cesare Maestri, Hayden Kennedy, and Jason Kruk. They’re either heroes, liars, cheats, or assholes. Maybe a little of each. I think a case could be made that they’re all audacious for different reasons. I personally don’t care if you know about the the Compressor Route and it’s history, though I think it is very interesting and that there is a lot for everybody to glean from it. Overall, I think the drive and cleverness of the men and women of action that made them go to the mountains in the first place is critically important to us being human. Still, I could see why people don’t bother to look into climbing’s stories.

And if you really don’t know about “these nails,” life is busy enough with out them, right? We are all working to support our lifestyle or reaching for the next higher lifestyle. Whether we are poor and trying to earn food, rent, and keep the heat on, or trying to be middle-class buying better food, paying off the mortgage, and saving for a nicer car, everyone is busily keeping up with their life. And it’s hard. We make it hard, especially in Western society, keeping up with a standard of living we have or are pretending to have. Nick Bullock, a mountaineer and author of Echoes: One Climber’s Hard Road to Freedom (2012) and Tides: A Climber’s Voyage (2018), was told the formula for a successful life by his father: You should get a good job that you’ll keep forever for financial security, one day marry, and one day die. I was taught that too, in fact. But it lacks any beauty, inspiration, or soul, doesn’t it?

Even if we take Bullock’s father’s formula as doctrine, we still pause to think about things being easier or better with ease, don’t we? Unless we’ve shut that part of our imagination off. To help us break free of the formula, Bullock found climbing and so did I.

But for a lot of people, that’s not true. To those for whom climbing doesn’t matter, climbing is inconsequential, mere recreation, and, at worst, pure and dangerous frivolity:

  • Climbing does not matter when you’re content.
  • Climbing does matter when you need the world to slow down.
  • Climbing doesn’t matter when your cup runs over with responsibility.
  • Climbing does not matter when change in and around our community seems unrelenting and we cannot keep up.
  • Climbing does not matter when we need food, shelter, and clothing.

The nonclimber’s opinion of it as mere recreation and frivolous doesn’t worry me as much as dismissing climbing as inconsequential. Fortunately, it’s not a climbers-versus-nonclimbers struggle. There are lots of degrees of appreciation. Even Poli doesn’t have to climb to appreciate it; at least she recognizes it as part of her community.

The threshold of appreciating climbing, where it starts to matter, it seems, is acknowledging a restlessness inside us, or that we seek something more than the world where some things do not matter. Maybe what we need to recognize is that we want to matter. Do we matter? Do you?

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Goodbye, Hayden Kennedy

Mountain singe (All rights reserved)

On October 10th, while getting up to speed on a brand-new job, in a new area, and remodeling an old house after 15 years of living and working in Washington, DC, I got a text message from my friend Jason in Alberta who needed to reach out to someone. He wrote “…such devastating news.” After a hasty Internet search, I was nauseous over the news of separate deaths of Inge Perkins and Hayden Kennedy.

I had just read his essay The Day We Sent Progression on Andrew Bisharat’s Evening Sends. I set aside time to read it, when the kids weren’t running around, I wasn’t lost in work or chores getting our lives in our new home in order. It involved Kyle Dempster and Justin Griffin. Two more climbers that died too young. Hayden even acknowledged such in the essay, and now Chris Kalous is all that is left of that group.

Hayden’s father, Micheal, is one of America’s greatest climbers and he’s a talented writer. He also lead Alpinist Magazine for a period while it got itself back on good financial standing. In 2012, after Hayden and his climbing partner Jason Kruk knocked the ladder off of Cerro Torre’s Compressor Route, Michael wrote a public letter to Hayden. There, in the pages of Alpinist, an old man admired his son and shared his angst over being the father of a climber like Hayden. While Hayden wrote many great essays and articles, I think that letter from Michael is what is required reading in reflecting on Hayden’s wonderful, yet all-too-short life.

Hayden left his mark on the climbing world. I’m sorry he had to go and I send warm thoughts and prayers to Michael and his mother and the Perkins family.

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An Open Letter to Secretary Zinke on Bears Ears National Monument

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World class crack climbing (All rights reserved)

This Friday, May 26, 2017, is the deadline for public comments to Secretary Ryan Zinke about the Trump Administration’s notice in the Federal Register on reviewing Bears Ears National Monument. I genuinely believe that the current size and boundaries are at severe risk of being significantly reduced, if it isn’t rescinded (read eliminated) altogether, and the boots-on-the-ground lobbyists I know are saying that the quantity and quality of input during this comment period, for Bears Ears through Friday and all other National Monuments through July 10, 2017, could turn the tide. 

I submitted my personal comments about Bears Ears earlier today in an open letter. This letter is far from my best work, but I wanted to share this today in hopes you might submit your own and add to the volume of comments in support of Bears Ears and public lands in general.

 

May 22, 2017

 

The Honorable Ryan Zinke

Secretary

Department of the Interior

1849 C Street, N.W.

Washington, DC 20240

 

Dear Secretary Zinke:

Thank you for your recent visit to Southern Utah and the opportunity for me to provide input on your notice published in the Federal Register on May 11, 2017 regarding the “Review of Certain National Monuments Established Since 1996.” I will focus my comments on Bears Ears National Monument (BENM). I understand that you can’t possibly read every letter personally, but I hope this one is selected to be a sample for you to review.

I have spent nearly 20 years working in real estate and public policy and have always been passionate about conservation, climbing, and hiking. However, my interest in Southern Utah has swung dramatically from adamant disinterest to a kindling passion. I had long thought of the deserts of the southwest as useless land and perhaps only suitable for providing resources to support the needs of construction and other materials in towns and cities. I also thought it was less useful than the forests, like those in my native home of Upstate New York. However, a business trip brought me to the American southwest and changed my whole perspective. I took in the space, the breeze, the solitude, and the colors and realized this land wasn’t a blank on the map but someplace special. My eyes were opened, and shortly afterwards Utah in particular took on new interest; I learned that the land of Southern Utah was more ecologically diverse than the even the Adirondack Mountains where I loved to hike and climb; in fact, it was more diverse than all of Yellowstone National Park. And the history of the people was richer, and deeper than even the Iroquois. While the Iroquois largely avoided entering the Adirondacks, the area around southeastern Utah, was in and of itself, was not a destination, rather an important place. I suspect that your visit to Southern Utah had a powerful and transforming effect on you.

As you know, perhaps better than me, the Antiquities Act of 1906 was created in order to protect objects of historic and scientific interest. Since the law’s enactment, presidents have named well-over 100 National Monuments, some of which have gone on to be National Parks. I believe that the 1.3 million-acres of BENM is quite worthy of its designation for various reasons. The region around BENM holds a significant quantity of preserved and intact Native American structures and artifacts. In addition, BENM is one of the most admired outdoor recreation destinations in the U.S. Its landscape has a deep impact on those who spend time there rock climbing, mountain biking, paddling, hiking, hunting, fishing, and canyoneering. In fact, the rock climbing is truly world-class and annually attracts tens of thousands of visitors from around the world to climb at Indian Creek, Valley of the Gods, and many other walls throughout the monument.

A friend and well-known economist at a real estate finance trade association once discussed with me why communities choose affordable housing versus developing a shopping and business center, and the lesson applies to all kinds of land use. He said that land ought to always be used for its highest economic value; in the Midwest that mostly means using it for farming; on the other hand, in Manhattan, this means using land for mixed-use high rises. Except in Manhattan, there is the anomaly Central Park. He went on to explain that communities must decide what else is a worthy use, and thereby valuable purpose. This applies to affordable housing, farmland, and even how the land is zoned, managed, and controlled, as is the case with National Monuments; in the case of BENM, there is no replacing it.

The region in and around BENM holds 100,000 archaeological sites of preserved and intact Native American structures and artifacts. Unfortunately, these artifacts have been not been treated with due respect, and the protections that come with the designation of a National Monument comes too late as local Utahans, including local officials, have looted the sites. At the same time, local officials complain of perceiving a dominant federal government control. In fact, in 2014 San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman lead an ATV ride up Recapture Canyon, where off-roading was not permitted because of the antiquities throughout the region. (This region in particular, unfortunately, was not included in the final BENM proclamation.) He was jailed for his violation in 2015, yet was “honored” for his actions by being nominated “Commissioner of the Year.” For such abuses, and in the interest of reassuring public appreciation for the area’s cultural and historical roots alone, appears to be what the authority under the Antiquities Act was created to protect.

In addition, the vertical landscape itself is unique, and climbers like me want to ensure it’s protected for all of the reasons and mentioned as well as this: In his special-jury mentioned book at the 2001 Banff Mountain Book Festival, American Rock: Region, Rock, and Culture in American Climbing, Adirondack climbing guide and author Don Mellor wrote, “If there ever comes a time when all the routes are done, all the climbing areas on earth explored, climbed, and documented, Indian Creek [in BENM] will probably still top the list as crack-climbing Mecca to the world… Few places on earth have such parallel-sided, featureless cracks.” It’s also no wonder that in the declaration for BENM that rock climbing was specifically enumerated as a permitted recreational activity. I urge you to please preserve rock climbing as a permissible activity as well.

I believe BENM must never be shrunk nor repealed. In fact, BENM does not adequately cover the additional historical sites and recreational areas of Utah covering nearly 600,000 more acres. It is a remarkable wilderness landscape. Beyond the monument’s namesake twin buttes are world-renowned wilderness treasures like White Canyon, Indian Creek, and Comb Ridge. Myriad plant and animal species thrive in its varied habitats. And you’d be hard pressed to find the solitude provided by these areas elsewhere else in the lower 48.

Thank you for your attention to this important matter.

Sincerely,

Andrew Szalay

CC: Senator Mark Warner, Senator Tim Kaine, and Rep. Don Beyer

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Why Mountains Were Cool Before Climbers Climbed

The Retreat. (All rights reserved)

We’ve been told that prior to 1681, mankind thought of mountains as unpleasant boils on the surface of the earth or heaps, or at least some unsightly feature that we were likely to avoid or dismiss altogether. We’ve been told that after 1681, opinions began to shift. This was when Thomas Burnet published The Sacred Theory of the Earth, which we’ve been told that this was the moment when mankind began looking at mountains not as inconvenient land on which to farm but as clues to earth’s past. If something in you rebelled at the thought, because something in believed mountains have always been beautiful, then I have something to tell you.

During Christmas break I reread Robert MacFarlane’s landmark and mesmerizing book Mountains of the Mind: Adventures in Reaching the Summit (2003). MacFarlane brought our generation’s attention to the shift initiated by Burnet through this book. My wife noticed that I had underlined passages and had notes throughout in ink. I was rightly chastised. My only defense was that this was how I took notes in college to help me write papers; I didn’t need to copy every line and make a citation, it was just here. She did make me feel a bit guilty, though I could find key passages with ease.

On the last page, I found a note I wrote after reading it the first time. It was a mild dissent, though without any concrete foundation. MacFarlane’s thesis was that how we experience mountains is all in out imagination. I agree, even today, that how we perceive nature is driven by how things are framed, but I didn’t share his conclusion entirely. I never bothered to try to prove it, but I felt like there were many examples of wildness (which mountains are a part) that were necessary components for finding enlightenment. I mean, think of all the times some character in the Bible went into the wilderness and saved whole populations of people… Moses, Abraham, Jesus, and even Paul to an extent. I even think Daniel would have climbed a mountain, except he was such a city kid; it’s all that he knew.

Mountains of the Mind

Robert MacFarlane’s book has been one of my favorites over the years. I regret that I didn’t read it sooner than I did, which was five or so years after it was initially published. MacFarlane tells the recent history of how mankind has looked at mountains and how our contemporary game of mountaineering and climbing has evolved under the lens of previous literature and adventurers. Here’s his thesis statement from the opening chapter:

This book tries to explain how this is possible; how a mountain can come to ‘possess’ a human being so utterly; how such an extraordinary force of attachment to what is, after all, just a mass of rock and ice, can be generated. For this reason, it is a history which scrutinizes not the ways people have gone into the mountains, but the ways that they have imagined they were going into them, how they felt about them and how they have perceived them… It isn’t a history of mountaineering at all, in fact, but a history of the imagination. (MacFarlane, 22-1)

Among retelling his own climbing stories, MacFarlane does a marvelous job at connecting the dots, starting at the end of his book where he recounts in pointillism-detail George Mallory’s intense obsession with Mount Everest (and there is no doubt that the great climber was obsessed, according to MacFarlane or most other researchers,) and tracing back through time contemplating how Europeans, and Britons in particular, viewed mountains. MacFarlane’s key juncture, where his book begins is with Thomas Burnet in the 1680s. While rudimentary, Burnet was the first to suggest how mountains came to be, which kicked-off a scientific look at the mountains. What followed was science, and romantic poets offered wondrous descriptions of the landscape spurred a movement in search of the sublime.

Fundamental to MacFarlane’s view, and retelling of Burnett’s view, is that the mountain landscapes were unwanted tracts of land to be avoided and ignored. A later view offers clues to a conspiracy theory. And we’re all victims.

Mountain Gloom that Wasn’t

Thanks to Alpinist, I discovered Dawn L. Hollis, a graduate student at the University at St. Andrew’s. She contributed to issue 57 in spring 2017. And she’s offered a few reasons why our belief that Burnett was a visionary was wrong.

In the Wired column, Hollis wrote a piece titled “Rethinking Mountain Gloom.” She said that three years ago she gave a speech to the Alpine Club (the original one from Briton,) “to put forth an alternative story — a narrative of mountains that were full of activity and written of in terms of the deepest admiration — long before the development of modern mountaineering.” And this included long before the pivot around 1681.

Hollis demonstrates that there was actually some disagreement around Burnet’s dismal characterization of mountains. Herbert Croft, an aged Bishop, countered Burnet that mountains were great, which Hollis quotes. Others also dissented, and Hollis concluded:

Burnet was an unusual early modern figure… but not because he occasionally found mountains to be wonderful. Rather, he was strange precisely because he shuddered at them, and suggested that they were not God-given.

The article is well worth seeking out and paying full price for a back-copy if necessary, particularly as she goes back deeper in time to uncover numerous examples of praise and adoration of mountains from literature to art.

Hollis goes on to explain that there appears to have been a sort of cover-up, or revisionist take that used Burnet’s view to promote the value and significance of mountaineering. Through the Alpine Journal, members entered their historic ascents and presented perspective, through a revisionist lens to deliberately cast pre-mountaineering activities in the mountains as antiquity and unenlightened, essentially. More interestingly, Hollis demonstrates evidence that successive writers were influenced by these subtleties and followed suit, perpetuating the myth.

I wish we could take a second crack at MacFarlane’s take. Perhaps we’d have to reach back farther than Burnet’s work to make it complete. The story is still true, but as Hollis showed, there’s more to the story.

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