Mountain research spotlight: Paul Gilchrist

This post is part of our ‘mountain research spotlights’ series, sharing the work and insights of colleagues working on mountains across the humanities (and beyond). 

Name and institution: Paul Gilchrist, University of Brighton

Research summary: I am a historical and cultural geographer with expertise in the geographies of sport and leisure. I have longstanding interests in mountains and the making of heroes and heroines and have investigated the changing forms and functions of the heroic mountaineer in the context of national and imperial imaginaries, social constructions of gender, and the evolution of media cultures. I remain fascinated by the processes of mediatisation and fame-making, having published journal articles and essays that explore the role of print media, television, written memoir, and social media in the fashioning of heroic reputation. Currently, I am researching prominent celebrities who have journeyed to, attempted and in some cases succeeded, in climbing Everest and other high-altitude mountains.

Do you define yourself as working within the mountain humanities / mountain studies?

Yes. My work falls under the umbrella of GeoHumanities in having a focus on people-environment relationships and I have researched mountains in the context of trying to understand the cultural fascination with the exploration and conquest of extreme environments. I work predominantly as a historian and have investigated the cultural implications of the relationship between mountain and mountaineer by employing humanities-based approaches to study representations of heroic achievement in various print, visual and digital media.

Tell us about an article you’ve written in this area of study

‘Embodied causes: climbing, charity and ‘celanthropy’’, International Journal of the History of Sport, 37:9 (2020), pp.709-726. You can find the freely available accepted author manuscript here, or the published version here.

This piece brings together my interests around mountains, gender and fame. I became interested in the evolution of charitable causes and fundraising on high-altitude mountains. The piece traces some of the origins of these associations, focusing on the Climb the World event in 1990 and the emergence of what I termed the ‘climbing-charity-corporate complex’ over the subsequent decades. The piece brings together some prominent British examples of ‘celanthropists’ – celebrity philanthropists who came to public prominence on behalf of charitable causes through brand endorsement and philanthropic activisms. The article focuses on women climbers and celebrities and reveals the forms of emotional and embodied labour that have been essential to their ability to climb for a cause and their subsequent heroic reception as celanthropists. I place this work in the context of scholarship on celebrity humanitarians and work that is emerging on the gendering of physical philanthropy through televised suffering in extreme environments.

My desire is to continue this stream of work by focusing on a wider range of mountain environments to deepen and develop the understanding of the ‘climbing-charity-corporate-complex’. A companion piece – a book chapter – is due for publication in 2024 which focuses on British celebrity adventurers Ben Fogle and Ant Middleton and explores how they negotiated their identities as fathers and risk-takers during their ascents of Mount Everest in 2018. I would love to hear from any potential international collaborators who could help me to expand my work on celebrity mountaineers to cover non-British cases and examples.

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