On mountains and character: near the end of Storm Over Everest, Beck Weathers observes:
“Everybody always says that the definition of character is what you do when nobody is looking. And when we were up there, we didn’t think anybody was looking. And so everybody did pretty much what their inner person, the real them, the exposed them, would do.”
In an interview about the making of Storm Over Everest, David Breashears uses Weathers comment to consider the power of Everest to reveal a climber’s “core” person beneath the social artifices we show to the world (hat tip to Geoff Sheehy):
The idea is that all the artifice that we carry with us in life, the persona that we project—all that’s stripped away at altitude. Thin air, hypoxia—people are tremendously sleep-deprived on Everest, they’re incredibly exhausted, and they’re hungry and dehydrated. They are in a very altered state. And then at a moment of great vulnerability a storm hits. At that moment you become the person you are. You are no longer capable of mustering all this artifice. The way I characterize it, you either offer help or you cry for help.
This idea that the journey brings you closer to the person that you really are has long roots. We can trace it back to the Romantic movement in the late 18th century, when travelers set off into the wilds of nature in hopes of encountering “the sublime.” They sought to experience the beauty (and the terror) of nature, and in the process, learn more about themselves. No surprise that some of the most itinerant Romantic landscape painters of the 19th century headed to the mountains and/or the polar regions.
Frederic Church, Cotopaxi, 1862
We could also trace this idea back even further, to Petrarch’s ascent of Mount Ventoux in 1336. Petrach, an Italian poet who would come to embody the “spirit of the Renaissance,” used his hike up Ventoux (no oxygen required) to bushwack through the thickets of his own conscience. At the summit, he stated “I had seen enough of the mountain; I turned my inward eye upon myself.”
I have written, in The Escape From Civilization, how this idea surfaces in the works of Robert Dunn, who tried to scale Denali in the early 1900s with Frederick Cook. For Dunn, explorers were “men with the masks of civilization torn off.”
No doubt that mountains and other extreme environments create conditions that take us out of ourselves. Who can argue with Breashears that the hunger, cold, hypoxia, and sleep deprivation of Everest can make people act in ways at odds with their social personas? But what do we make of this? Breashears’ view – and that of Dunn and many others – suggests that the human psyche is a giant onion: tough, dirtied, and weathered on the outside, but pure at the core. Putting oneself in extreme enough environments, so this thinking goes, is a way to peel the onion and reach the true person underneath.
I don’t believe this. When you look at a person, when you look at yourself, where do you draw the line between artifice and real? My feeling is that what exists as “self” and “society” are elements we all carry inside of us which cannot be disentangled. We commonly think of “nature” and “nurture” as separate elements that influence the development of human beings – but think about it: can either of these elements exist independently of the other?
In any event, my point is this. Mountains are places to challenge oneself, to reflect, and find insight – certainly this has been their role in my life. But to say that they (or any environment) can burn away what is false from what is real doesn’t ring true to me.