Why study mountains? a question for a 21st-century historian

Dawn discusses what brought her to the study of premodern mountains.

Last time I posted, I wrote about why a seventeenth-century traveller might choose to visit a mountain. Today, I want to turn that question on its head – why did I, a twenty-first century historian, choose to study such mountain interactions?

I grew up in Suffolk, an English county which, if you’ve ever visited it, you’ll know is not exactly renowned for its rugged hills (the highest point in Suffolk is Great Wood Hill, at a giddy 136m tall). When I was very small, I liked drawing mountains: upturned triangles with jagged hats of snow at their tops. Aged 9, my parents took my to Wales, where they promised I would see mountains. I was vocally disappointed to be met with green-brown, wooded round hills rather than with blue-white, sharp Himalayan ridges.

At some point during my teens, I became fascinated with mountaineering, and particularly with the ‘mystery of Mallory and Irvine’: the disappearance of two climbers near the summit of Everest in June 1924. George Mallory’s body has since been found, but the mystery remains that we do not know whether he and his climbing partner died going up the mountain, or coming back down from the top. If the latter, he and Sandy Irvine would be the first people to have ever climbed Mount Everest, almost thirty years before Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s recorded first ascent in 1953.

I started to read everything I could get my hands on about the history of that expedition, and of mountaineering in general. At the same time, I started climbing: rock climbing in the small local leisure centre, undertaking a winter mountaineering course in Scotland in February, and generally becoming incapable of passing a peak without wanting to reach its summit. Later, I joined university mountaineering clubs, and dreamed of saving up to take an Alpine skills course.

My undergraduate thesis was firmly rooted within the narratives of modern mountaineering, considering the nature of cultural encounters between the British members of the 1921, 1922, and 1924 Everest expeditions, and the people of Tibet who played involuntary host to them. When I came to consider Masters-level and doctoral research, however, I wanted to turn to the early modern period – the era dating roughly (and it depends very much on which early modern historian you ask!) from 1450 to 1750. And of course, like most mountaineering enthusiasts, I knew full well that no one liked mountains before the late eighteenth century: before the sublime, before the first ascent of Mont Blanc, historians generally agreed that Europeans feared and avoided spaces of high and rugged wilderness.

I found this thought quite amazing, in some ways. Such an emotional response was so at odds with my own feelings – of muscular joy in ascent, of aesthetic admiration of the shapes and scenery of mountain landscape – that I felt compelled to investigate further. What did it look like for people who felt so markedly different about mountains to have to travel through them? What did they think and write about their experiences amongst places that were, to them, horrible and fearful?

There certainly were early modern descriptions of the cold, uncomfortable nature of mountain travel, but the deeper I looked the more complex I realised the story was. There were numerous pilgrims who made their way to the summits of Mount Sinai (where Moses received the Ten Commandments) and Mount Quarantine (or the Mount of Temptation, where Jesus fasted in the wilderness) in order to stand at the site of great moments of Scriptural history; diplomats who journeyed over mountain passes and sang hymns to the glory of God from the top of a peak on Christas Day; and natural philosophers who wrote, at length, of the numerous benefits that the mountain landscape brought to the wider environment of the world.

It was undoubtedly true that the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw a shift in the way people viewed and engaged with mountains – the overwhelming drive to claim the summit of a mountain, in particular, developed simultaneously with the inauguration of the modern sport of mountaineering – but to say that mountain attitudes were straightforwardly opposed between the premodern and modern periods seemed to me to be far too simplistic a story. Which is precisely how I ended up writing a PhD on early modern mountain attitudes, and then leapt at the chance to pursue postdoctoral research into the even deeper, classical roots of those early modern ideas.

So, it was my distinctly modern love of mountains – by which I mean an appreciation for them tied up in the climbing of them, a fascination rooted in twentieth century histories of heroism and imperialism – which brought me to where I am today, intellectually roaming the hills of early modern period, and physically located only a short drive from some of the most fabulous mountain landscapes the British Isles has to offer. The irony is, however, that my increasing familiarity with early modern mountain attitudes – which admired and appreciated mountains without feeling the need to conquer them – has prompted a waning of my enthusiasm for tramping to the summits, ice-axe in hand. In becoming a historian of premodern mountains, I have found I can no longer call myself a modern mountaineer.

Illustrations: Mount Everest, North Face (the side attempted by Mallory and Irvine) by Luca Galuzzi, CC BY-SA 3.0; Tibetan monks visiting Britain in 1924 (after the British Everest expedition, and controversially brought from Tibet by the expedition film-maker, John Noel, in order to raise publicity), Edinburgh Evening News, 3 December 1924.

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