In 1336, Italian poet Francesco Petrarcha climbed Mount Ventoux in southern France. Mt Ventoux is not very challenging as summits go and Petrarch, as he would later be known, had plenty of help. He traveled with his brother Gherardo, servants, and I would imagine, a light-bodied Chianti. But what stands out about his ascent, or more precisely his writing about his ascent, is the fact that he climbed Mt Ventoux for no practical purpose at all. Petrarch climbed Ventoux because he wanted to “see what so great an elevation had to offer.”
Scholars have their doubts about whether Petrarch made it anywhere near Ventoux. This is beside the point. His writings about his ascent, whether real or fiction, express a new attitude towards travel, mountains, and the process of enlightenment. After a long day, Petrarch tells us that his party reached the summit of Ventoux where he looked down upon the clouds, the distant Alps, and “stood like one dazed.” For Renaissance scholars, the ascent of Mt. Ventoux represented a critical moment in the development of humanism, a desire to access truths about the world through secular experience, rather than rely upon prayer, church teachings, or the reading of Scripture. In Petrarch’s “seeing what the mountain had to offer” the modern ear hears an echo of George Mallory’s 1923 statement to the New York Times explaining that he wanted to climb Everest “Because its there.”
This secular vision of the mountain – a place for human achievement and perhaps self-enlightenment- is a modern thing as historical processes go. For most of recorded history, mountains were landscapes for the supernatural. Roman, Celtic, and Hindu cultures (among others) placed their gods in the mountains. I was struck, as I read Isserman and Weaver’s Fallen Giants this week, that the first Western descriptions of the Himalaya were not from climbers but from Christian missionaries who trekked through Nepal and China.
But I think we read too much into the secular nature of Petrarch’s ascent. After enjoying the view for a few minutes, Petrarch tells us that he pulled out his copy of St Augustine’s Confessions (not the secularist’s obvious choice for mountain literature) where it opened, miraculously, to a passage about mountains:
Now it chanced that the tenth book presented itself. My brother, waiting to hear something of St. Augustine’s from my lips, stood attentively by. I call him, and God too, to witness that where I first fixed my eyes it was written: “And men go about to wonder at the heights of the mountains, and the mighty waves of the sea, and the wide sweep of rivers, and the circuit of the ocean, and the revolution of the stars, but themselves they consider not.” I was abashed, and, asking my brother (who was anxious to hear more), not to annoy me, I closed the book, angry with myself that I should still be admiring earthly things who might long ago have learned from even the pagan philosophers that nothing is wonderful but the soul, which, when great itself, finds nothing great outside itself. Then, in truth, I was satisfied that I had seen enough of the mountain; I turned my inward eye upon myself, and from that time not a syllable fell from my lips until we reached the bottom again.
As I see it, the lesson Petrarch gleans from his mountain experience is the opposite of Romantic or modern notions about climbing: he tells us that one cannot find truth on the mountain through exertion and sublime experience. Indeed such spectacular landscapes present dangers to the pilgrim seeking real enlightenment. The true path, Petrarch tells us, is an inward path, one without the distractions offered by the wonders of the natural world.
It seems now that the world’s highest mountains have been shorn of their status as places of secular enlightenment and are now merely secular. Richard Salisbury and Elizabeth Hawley’s stunning piece of statistical work on Himalayan climbing makes clear that the 8000 meter peaks of South Asia are sought after more than ever before. Yet increasingly only a few peaks (Ama Dablam, Cho Ayu, and Everest) see increased traffic, mostly by commercial climbing companies which outfit expeditions for high-paying clients, a conveyor belt of climbers who don’t seem much interested in the process of climbing, the view, or anything much else except for the summit. Meanwhile, the other peaks of the Himalayas see fewer and fewer climbers, even “sacred” mountains such as Kangchenjunga. What thoughts goes through the hypoxic climber’s mind when he gets to Mallory’s “there” ? Does he see a vision of God? A warning from Augustine? Or only a picture for his blog site?
Read Petrarch’s Ascent of Mount Ventoux
Look at Salisbury and Hawley’s Himalayan Database