Mountaineering has never been an academic activity. There are no rules in the formal sense, as those that exist in organized sports. There are no widely accepted standards and no widely accepted organizations to create such standards. It is a profoundly individualistic enterprise. In mountaineering, as in few other endeavors, the very best make little effort to dictate philosophy to those below them. Regardless of this, a succession of styles have governed mountaineering, from the early days in the 19th century of noble princes hiring guides to escort them to Alpine summits to the expeditionary siege tactics that brought mountaineering to the great ranges (the Himalayas, Andes, and Alaska ranges) to the resurrection of the “Alpine style” by Herman Buhl, Reinhold Messner and their peers to the splintering of mountaineering in the second half of the 20th century into rock climbing and ice climbing (and their many derivatives), with the term mountaineering being increasingly reserved for long accents requiring multiple days of relatively non-technical climbing. Underlying this change, the transition from summit-focused climbing to route-focused climbing, was a progression in many aspects of culture from a belief in an objective goal to the conviction that the process may be as important, if not more important, than whatever the final objective might be.
Being that mountaineering is, as previously stated, nonacademic, these changes have been wrought by action, not expository theory. The Alpine Style was devised by young European climbers disgruntled with the autocracy of organized expeditions and popularized by poor aspiring mountaineers who were only too happy to hear that large sums of money were not a prerequisite for great deeds of alpinism. The more recent splintering is the result of the same forces, with the popularization of mountaineering, largely by the literature that funds many of its high and middle ranking climbers, there were simply not enough easily accessible crags to go around, and thus the popularity of the climbing gym - all the technical difficulty (and adrenaline rush) of a major peak without any of the objective danger associated with being thousands of feet off the ground. Which is not to say that these various styles, these theories of climbing, have not been articulated in print. Occasional articles in climbing magazines like the Alpine Journal, Vertical, or The Alpinist have carried on a continuous, if a bit sporadic and indirect, debate. And while very few purely theoretical books are written on the subject, the thoughts of many of the greatest climbers have been recorded amidst their memoirs and expedition reports. The few purely theoretical mountaineering books are invariably filled with technique, limited in way of philosophy to a few words on ethics and leave-no-trace policy in their introductions.
Up until this point I have used such terms as “mountaineering”, “climbing” and “alpinism” indiscriminately, and an attempt to rectify that situation will be one of the primary goals of this work. What I am ultimately attempting to articulate is a Theory of Alpinism, an intellectually rigorous, philosophically sound, academically respectable, historically grounded theory of why and how mountaineers mountaineer. This immediate effort will inevitably fall short, but is a first, conscious attempt upon which my further work may be built, and so I will attempt to be as thorough and intensional as possible.
As stated previously, we must start with a definition of terms. Mountaineering is the act of mountain climbing, the act of scaling mountain ranges, the understanding that these ranges are not impassible walls halting all transportation. The beginning of mountaineering should then be considered, appropriately enough, to be in the Alps during the last 500 years before the birth of Christ when first the Gallic Celts, and then famously Hannibal Barca the Carthaginian crossed the Alps. Notable advances in mountaineering for the next 1500 years are scarce, despite more than adequate technology and human energy, and it was not until well into the age of exploration that Mont Blanc was first climbed in 1786 by two Chamonix natives, Jacques Balmat and Michel Paccard. This effectively kicked off what is often termed the “Golden Age” of mountaineering, when the Alps were full of unclimbed peaks and the techniques and technology were in their infancy. As the number of unclimbed peaks inevitably shrunk and the number of aspiring mountaineering grew the activity began to spread, most famously to the central Asian ranges, the Himalayas and Karakoram. Mountaineering then entered what has been called its “Silver Age”, when the last great faces in the Alps were climbed and the first major accents in the great ranges took place. During this era rock climbing, and its attendant technology, was developed and the basic tools of modern mountaineering were perfected.
These two eras (the Golden and Silver Ages - and were I to be writing a history of mountaineering instead of a philosophical treatise I would take issue with those terms) are what I will term Modern Mountaineering, mountaineering during the Modern era, not to be confused with contemporary mountaineering - a term ever-shifting in meaning. Before this was Pre-Modern Mountaineering - the first crossings of the Alps, the development of skis and snowshoes in Scandinavia, and the handful of accents in the medieval era. And after it has come Post-Modern Mountaineering, which encompasses the last two of the styles outlined earlier as well as great advances in mountaineering technology, most notably the invention of the ice tool by Yvon Chouinard and the use of synthetic materials to replace the wool clothes and canvas tents used earlier.
“Mountaineering” is then a generic term for the entire phenomenon, while climbing, trekking skiing, hiking, scrambling, jumaring, etc, are mechanical descriptions of how one mountaineers. Alpinism is a more difficult idea to capture. Alpinism is the spirit of mountaineering, the underlying philosophy or mode of thinking. Despite its geographic origin it can be used as broadly as the familiar term “alpine”, to describe anything from a style of skiing to a bio-zone found world-wide.
For how strongly it has gripped the minds and bodies of generations of mountaineers, Alpinism is remarkably difficult to articulate. George Mallory, before departing on his fatal trip to the then unclimbed Mt. Everest, famously remarked when pestered as to why he wanted so badly to climb the mountain (this was not his first expedition to the peak) “because it’s there.” This is the beginning of the first of the three essential questions a Theory of Alpinism must answer - why do people climb mountains? Or rather, why do people risk so much, endure such hardship and danger for such a objectively meaningless achievement as having stood or traveled over a particular patch of snow, ice or stone? The key to the answer is not in the quips of the famous, Mallory’s it exists therefore I climb or even Joe Simpson’s less philosophically problematic “it’s fun.” One may be prompted to climb a mountain purely because it stands in one’s gaze and one’s only motivation may be the simple enjoyment of a good mind-and-body-consuming challenge but this is unchanging and mountaineering is not. Mont Blanc stood for many thousands of years before anyone endeavored to climb it. The historical answer to the question will prove to be the most convincing.
Men seek glory, they always have and always will, we desire recognition and distinction beyond what normal life offers, and mountaineering has far more in common with previous glory-seeking (difficult, dangerous, male-dominated) than many mountaineering would likely be comfortable admitting. The similarities between his own desire to climb and the desires of the Greeks of Homer’s Iliad was pointed out by Gregory Crouch in the conclusion to his book Enduring Patagonia and early mountaineering did bear resemblance to the other aristocratic pastimes, hunting and exploration. In short, we climb because we think it is glorious; because we have seen others achieve glory doing it. The tradition passes down, more often then not from father to son, each growing up with it, learning to find value it by the example set by their elders. Mountaineering is thus objectively valueless, it is given subjective value only through proximity with others who value it. This explains why, although they lived in the shadow of the highest peaks on earth for millennia, the Sherpa people were not climbers until European expeditions began to hire them as porters, taking advantage of their natural immunity to many forms of altitude sickness. It also explains why so few westerners, American or European, find mountaineering to be remotely compelling. To the average person it is as nonsensical as chasing down a wild boar or besieging Troy, one has to become accustomed to it, inoculated against its insanity, to accept it as worthwhile.
Having gained some understanding of the essential motivation we must now endeavor to understand what mountaineering has become. For the Western European gentry who climbed in the 19th century it was just another pastime alongside fox-hunting and yacht racing, but this cannot explain the obsession with which mountaineers have pursued it since then. We will consider three models for Post-Modern Mountaineering, a sport, an addiction, or a faith.
For many mountaineers, particularly rock and ice climbers, hikers, and scramblers, mountaineering is merely athletic. It straddles a line between exercise for the sake of exercise (jogging) and competitive sport (a local Soccer league). Athletic mountaineers see what they are doing as a sport, something fun to do on the weekends that keeps them healthy. By this definition of a sport, many young athletes appear to take their sport much more seriously it deserves - they treat it with a intensity that “something fun to do on the weekends” does not deserve. But however fanatic the athlete is, their sport remains a sport as long as they consider it a secondary concern. A sport is a part of someone’s life, when that sport becomes their life it becomes either a career or something more insidious, an addiction.
Here is where mountaineering differentiates itself from most competitive sports, the average high-school or college athlete knows that they will not have a career in their sport, however much they love it, it will always be nothing more than something they did when they were young. The college athlete does not major in athletics, the very best will go on to professional sports but the vast majority know that they must make other plans. It is precisely the unwillingness to settle down and move on that characterizes the addiction form of mountaineering. It is not that there are not careers in mountaineering, it is that far more people are pursuing them than can possibly be accommodated. And even these careers are secondary, few climbers set out to be a sponsored athlete (in effect, a model) or a guide or a writer, these are just ways to support a climbing habit without taking a completely unrelated job. And for many the unrelated job is an acceptable state of affairs, there is a whole sub-culture of mid-level climbers who work manual labor and save every penny for expeditions to the great ranges. What these men are doing cannot be considered a sport, their behavior is far more similar to that of the drug addict. What they do often causes them great physical injury and always a great deal of suffering. They go into debt to finance their climbing and many of constantly looking for a way to quit - their last big trip, or something to replace their addiction - kayaking, dog-sledding, sport climbing, handgun shooting are all alternatives well known mountaineers have tried.
For some mountaineers though, the addiction model also falls short. These men love what they are doing in a way no drug addict or alcoholic does. People shoot up or smoke or get drunk to deal with pain, often acute personal problems. The destruction wrought by the addiction is accidental to the high, not intrinsic (abscesses, decaying teeth, etc are results of how the drug is administered, not the physiological processes that cause of the high). Mountaineering however, creates pain intensionally. Without the pain, without the difficulties involved, it would not have value. Some climbers have found their lives destroyed by their mountaineering habit, but just as many have been saved by it. The salvation offered by mountaineering points to the third model - a faith. Following Paul Tillich’s description of faith as a state of being occupied by an ultimate concern, mountaineering can be seen in a religious light. The specifics of the faith are likely different for each climber, one may say the climb the ultimate concern (the god), while another the summit, and another the wilderness itself. The mountaineer partakes in this god by entering a sacred space, the mountains, and performing holy sacraments, climbing. The mountaineer reaches the summit, or whatever their objective is, only by the grace of their god and escapes with their life, grateful to have been to such a lofty temple. The question then, following the model through, is whether or not the faith is idolatrous - whether or not the ultimate concern is truly ultimate.
One of the defining characteristics of a true faith is the acceptability of death, the Christian does not question the meaningfulness of the death of another Christian for their faith (this is martyrdom, and it is found in many religions). A non-Christian might find this death meaningless, as recent scholarship regarding Christian martyrdom demonstrates, just as a non-nationalist would find death for one’s country to be meaningless, but one would be hard-pressed to find a mountaineer, even the most ardent and committed, who felt a peak or a route was worth dying for. Many mountaineers seem to consider their faith worthy of their lifelong commitment, but not their total commitment. They are willing to risk death, but not to actually die (the words, almost exactly, of Gregory Crouch). And this is a contradiction, one cannot claim that an immensely dangerous task is worth attempting, and then as soon as someone dies attempting it that their death was in vain. Which is precisely what mountaineers, and the general public, do with great regularity. Ed Viesturs is practically a national hero, while Allison Hargreaves was condemned as irresponsible. I will claim however, that this is not as much a problem with my Theory of Alpinism as it is with the practice of post-modern alpinists - delusional men of little faith who risk death for the adrenaline rush without any comprehension of what they are doing.(This model - mountaineering as faith - uses Tillich’s philosophy as outlined by The Dynamics of Faith, but falls far short of its subtlety and genius. An elaboration of this model deserves a much more intensive treatment.)
This discussion of mountaineering as faith has brought us inadvertently to the third great question of Alpinism - a mountaineer’s proper ethical conduct, probably the most complex and difficult question to answer. Instead of attempting to create a comprehensive theory of mountaineering ethics I’ll simply outline a few questions and areas for future development. Frequent sources of recent controversy include: the use of bottled oxygen, the use of pitons and bolts that alter the face of the mountain, the use of oxygen by guides, the guide-client relationship and the limits of professional responsibility in the face of disaster, the relationship between clients and paid porters, and the duties of teammates to each other, both in the cases of definite injury and the unknown. Less controversial, but equally ethically problematic are the responsibility of climbers to gauge their own skill level and choose objectives accordingly, the rope-team and how it alters the duties of teammates, and the balance between safety and ambition, especially as it relates to extreme lightweight alpine style climbing.
Returning briefly to the second question, sport, addiction or faith, there need not be a definite answer. As stated in the introduction, mountaineering is the most individualistic enterprise imaginable, and thus can be many things to many people. So for some it is a sport, for others that sport has become an addiction, defining their life, and for still others the mountains are not a playground or a fix but a place of worship - the highest cathedrals on earth.
This essay is very much a work in progress and I am posting it only to create the illusion that I am accomplishing something. A blog of this nature is difficult to maintain when most of my writing has switched to larger, ultimately - hopefully - novel length projects. I have a sneaking suspicion that the entire second half of this is bullshit and it is likely full of typos, but like I said, I need to post something if only to maintain (initiate?) momentum.
Also - if any reader is aware of other works of mountaineering-philosophy I would be very interested in hearing about them. As I alluded, I have found the absence of strong academic work on this subject somewhat strange.