Archive for Mountains
On February 6 2000, Guy Waterman drove his Subaru Impreza to Franconia Notch in New Hampshire, hiked up Mt Lafayette, and in the windy -16 degree night, let himself die of exposure.
Waterman was a man of many gifts and torments, a climber, writer, and environmentalist who lived for thirty years with his wife Laura Waterman off-the-grid in Vermont.
Of these torments, which drove him into deeper and deeper isolation, Waterman said little. Yet he wrote about them through the characters of literature. He was Shakespeare’s Ariel battling the witch-child Caliban. He was Milton’s proud Satan. He was tragic Prometheus. He was Melville’s Ahab.
Ahab. As I read Laura Waterman’s spare, graceful memoir, Losing the Garden: The Story of a Marriage , it seemed an appropriate metaphor for Guy Waterman.
Then, this morning, reading Maria Coffey’s book, Where the Mountain Casts its Shadow: The Dark Side of Extreme Adventure, Ahab surfaced once again. Near the summit of Everest in 1996, David Breashears and Ed Viesturs come across a body near the Hillary Step.
They found [Bruce] Herrod’s body clipped on to fixed ropes with a figure-eight rappel breake. He was hanging upside down, his arms dangling, his mouth open, and his skin black. “Like Captain Ahab,” Breashears later wrote, “lashed to his white whale.” [Coffey, 118]
It made me pause. One hears different many different literary metaphors for explorers and adventurers, but rarely Ahab.
Successful explorers find comparison to Odysseus, the brilliant, cock-sure hero of Homer’s Odyssey. (Confined to the scurvy-ridden cabin of Advance over the long winter of 1854, Arctic explorer Elisha Kane would keep up the spirits of his men by reading them Alfred Tennyson’s Odyssean poem “Ulysses”) Those explorers who perish are commonly portrayed as Icarus, a boy whose joy with altitude overcame good judgment, causing him to fall to earth.
Both of these are figures are imperfect but bright of heart. Ahab is a different creature, a man of darker spirit, a figure turned in upon himself. Ahab’s travels to the ends of the earth bring no discovery or enlightenment; he sees only the white whale. Ultimately his obsession brings tragedy to all, not only Ahab, but to those who follow him.
Is Ahab the true spirit of extreme adventure? You would not think so reading most adventure literature. While these books reveal some of the dirty laundry of expeditionary life, they mostly chronicle struggle and attainment, heroism and transcendence. Indeed, elite climbers often speak of the transcendent moment as the Holy Grail of high-altitude climbing, that thing which brings them back, time and time again, to the most dangerous mountains in the world.
Yet transcendence, going beyond oneself, is the opposite of obsession, a psychic tunneling-in so extreme that it diminishes or excludes everything around it: Golem’s ring, Ahab’s whale, Herrod’s mountain.
Grim metaphors indeed. Perhaps the legions of 8000-meter peak baggers and Seven-Summiters should read Moby-Dick, digest the moral of Ahab, and then turn their attention to the Ahab’s Quaker First Mate Starbuck:
[H]is far-away domestic memories of his young Cape wife and child, tend[ed] to bend him … from the original ruggedness of his nature, and open him still further to those latent influences which, in some honest-hearted men, restrain the gush of dare-devil daring, so often evinced by others in the more perilous vicissitudes of the fishery. “I will have no man in my boat,” said Starbuck, “who is not afraid of a whale.” By this, he seemed to mean, not only that the most reliable and useful courage was that which arises from the fair estimation of the encountered peril, but that an utterly fearless man is a far more dangerous comrade than a coward. [Melville, Moby-Dick]
If this seems too tame or Quakerish for the modern climber, perhaps they’d learn more from a more modern Starbuck, the character Kara “Starbuck” Thrace of the Sci-Fi channel’s Battlestar Gallactica. Thrace is a woman of many demons, of violent appetites. Her thirst for transcendent experience has no limits. But ultimately she channels her dare-devilry into objects of common interest, the search for Earth, the return home.
Why do people climb 8000-meter mountains? Free-solo the Eiger? BASE jump the Eiffel Tower? Motives are tricky things.
My work on Arctic explorers gave me a way to think about it.
Nineteenth-century explorers had their own answers to the “why” question. In the 1850s, when U.S. exploration of the Arctic began, explorers defended their missions by describing all of the commercial benefits that would accrue from their expeditions: new routes to Asia, new whale fisheries, new technological innovations in ship design. (Interestingly, NASA features a similar-sounding set of commercial benefits when it justifies its current plan to return humans to the Moon and Mars).
Then, in the 1880s, explorers changed course, justifying their exploits by anti-commercial motives: we explore because it is impractical. We explore to escape the strictures of the civilized world. We explore for the sake of exploring. Or, in George Mallory’s translation for mountain climbing, “because it’s there.”
In the language of day, the explorer had succumbed to “Arctic fever,” a term used over and over again in the last decades of the nineteenth century to describe the seemingly irrational behavior of explorers in putting themselves at risk:
“The northern bacilli were in my system, the arctic fever in my veins, never to be eradicated.” Robert Peary, 1898
“The polar virus was in [my husband's] blood and would not let him rest.” Emma DeLong, 1884
Explorers are ” infected with the same spirit.” Frederick Cook, undated
“Arctic enthusiasm is an intermittent fever, returning in almost epidemic form after intervals of normal indifference.” McClure’s Magazine, 1893
As I tried to make sense of “Arctic Fever” for my book Coldest Crucible, I concluded that all of this talk of fevers was just another means to show purity of motive:
The disease may seem to be nothing but a playful literary metaphor, but it had serious functions. Arctic fever located the urge to explore in the human passions. It was a condition that afflicted the heart against the better judgement of the mind, operating beyond conscious control. Why should anyone attempt to reach the North Pole when it served no useful or scientific function? Because -explorers claimed- they felt irrationally compelled. In this way, Arctic fever masked rational motives for voyaging north, namely, the promise of celebrity and financial reward.
While explorers spoke about their irresistible compulsions, they were simultaneously working out huge publishing contracts, product endorsements, and lecture fees. At the time I wrote my book, it seemed to me that all of this talk of instinct, true spirit, experience of the sublime, etc. was just a matter of bait-and-switch: finding motives that would impress paying audiences and would hide the true, mercenary motives behind them.
I haven’t abandoned this line of thinking entirely, but after reading the first chapter in Maria Coffey’s book, Where the Mountain Cast Its Shadow, I think I need to revise it.
Coffey’s book is about the effects of extreme adventure on the people left behind: spouses, parents, and children who have to come to terms with the loss of loved ones. She starts her book with interviews of adventurers who talk about their motives in putting themselves at such risk.
“Endurance, fear, suffering cold, and the state between survival and death are such strong experiences that we want them again and again. We become addicted. Strangely, we strive to come back safely; and being back, we seek to return, once more to danger.” Reinhold Messner
“I was totally possessed. The experience was like some inner explosion. I knew it would somehow mark the rest of my life.” Wanda Rutkiewicz
Coffey’s list of climbers who speak about this compulsion is impressive. It extends beyond the elite, celebrity climbers such as Messner and Rutkiewicz to include those who do not have agents, publishing contracts, or product endorsements.
I am realizing that it’s not enough to label this exploration “fever” as merely a savvy form of marketing. It is clearly a psychological manifestation too, one that Coffey links to the impact of extreme risk on biological factors such as adrenaline and dopamine.
Coffey also describes the way that such extreme experience can have, ironically, a quieting effect on adventurists, making them feel less moody, more even-keeled, more able to focus on the present moment. Indeed, more than one climber described climbing as an escape from distraction, a way to concentrate on the task at hand, to live in the moment, to experience things more fully.
At times, it made me wonder if there a common psychological profile for elite climbers. The frequency of people referring to attention and distraction sounded very similar to interviews conducted by Dr. Edward Hallowell in his book, Driven to Distraction, a book about attention deficit disorder (ADD).
The point here is not to throw out one label in order to replace it with another. But Coffey’s book is making me realize that my work on the history of exploration should not only play out at the level of nations, empires, commerce, and popular culture. I need to make room for the individual, a tangled world of emotion, experience, and behavior.
I know that many of you are thinking “No duh! This is standard stuff for climbing books.” True enough: Will power, spirit, fear, endurance, ecstasy: the meat and potatoes of adventure literature. But cultural historians are trained to think of personal motives as ultimately unknowable, a black box that should not be opened. To psychoanalyze the historical subject is like touching the third rail in the subway. Dangerous terrain.
I didn’t plan on writing another post on contingency, but I was reading Donald Worster’s new biography of John Muir, A Passion For Nature: The Life of John Muir, and found this:
A human life, like any mountain trail, winds and twists through a very complicated, ever-changing landscape, taking unexpected turns and ending up in unexpected places. The lay of the land, the physical or natural environment, has some influence over the path one chooses to take — going around rather than over boulders, say, or along the banks of a stream rather than through a tangled wood. Likewise in the course of an individual life, nature helps give shape to the direction a man or woman takes and determines how his or her life unfolds. So also does one’s inner self, the drives and emotions that one inherits from ancestors far back in evolutionary time, determine the route. But the trail of any one’s life is also shaped by the ideas floating around in the cultural air one breathes. All those influences make it impossible explain easily why a person’s life follows this path rather than another. [Worster, Passion for Nature, 11]
Ok, the metaphor of the “life path” is a bit overused as a literary metaphor. Indeed, it was already overused in the nineteenth century before Robert Frost lofted it into cliché orbit with “The Road Not Taken” in 1916.
Nevertheless, I think Worster pulls it off in talking about Muir. After all, how else should an environmental historian speak about someone who is the ultimate lover of all things path and mountain? But more to the point, I think the passage nicely encapsulates the many contingent forces that shape the life of an individual.
Congratulations to Maurice Isserman and Stewart Weaver, winners of the 2008 Banff Mountain Book Award for Mountaineering History. Their excellent book, Fallen Giants: A History of Himalayan Mountaineering from the Age of Empire to the Age of Extremes , does not merely chronicle the harrowing ascents and colorful personalities of high-altitude climbing. It also offers a look at mountaineering as a cultural project that blossomed in the 19th and 20th centuries. (In the interest of full disclosure, I am friends with Stewart and an acquaintance of Maurice).
David Chaundy-Smart, editor of Gripped Magazine, states:
Tilman speculated that a chronicle of the “fall of the giants” of the Himalayas would not be as interesting as chronicles of the failed attempts. He never anticipated that Maurice Isserman and Stewart Weaver would eventually paraphrase him in the title of an exhaustive and entertaining history of Himalayan mountaineering. This is a standard-setting work that credibly accounts for the struggle to summit the 8000 metre peaks with a seamless discussion of politics, economics and the development of climbing technique backed by a mind-boggling list of sources.
If this isn’t enough to satisfy your Himalayan appetite, visit the Pitt Rivers Museum’s Tibet Album. Here you’ll find a collection of British photographs in Central Tibet from 1920-1950. The collection totals 6000 photographs by Charles Bell, Arthur Hopkinson, Evan Nepean, Hugh Richardson, Frederick Spencer Chapman, and Harry Staunton among others. Taken together with Everest expedition photos of the Bently Beetham Collection (listed in my links and profiled here), one gets a vivid picture of British-Nepali-Tibetan encounters in the early 20th century.
You can also find the journal of Cecil Mainprise, medical officer of General Sir Francis Younghusband’s expedition to Tibet in 1903, dutifully published in blog form by his great nephew Jonathan Buckley.
Reading all of this material may give you a bit of altitude sickness. Best to descend for a while and acclimatize. I’ll be here with more after the New Year.
As a student of exploration, it would be fun to tell you that my eureka moments come at the end of long days of dog-sledding, bear-wrestling, and artifact-gathering. In truth, there are very few eureka moments and no bears. Most of my discoveries appear in hermetically-sealed, humidity-controlled Special Collections rooms. I’m usually wearing cotton gloves and the librarian watching me has taken away my pens.
But I had a eureka moment last night, ex bibliotheca. I was at a holiday party, sitting with a small group of people I had never met, cradling a large gin and tonic. We took on a whirl of topics: Apple computers, school bus driving, Thai massage, history education, and technical rock climbing. On this last point, people had much to say because, despite our different backgrounds, everyone was either a hiker or rock-climber. (This might seem a remarkable coincidence except for the fact that our hosts, Michael Kodas and Carolyn Moreau, are uber-climbers themselves, something probably reflected in their pool of guests).
Gerry, sitting to my left, picked up a copy of The Alpinist and showed me an article about solo free-climber Steph Davis. In the article, Davis is free climbing an outrageously sheer cliff, the “Pervertical Sanctuary” of 14, 255 ft Longs Peak in Colorado. Davis has no ropes, no parachute, no net, no way of preventing death if she falls.
“What’s up with this ?” I asked Michael (not Michael Kodas), a highly skilled rock climber to my left. “I mean, after all, would ropes and harness be that much of a buzz-kill?”
“Ultimately it’s about focus. The climber has to be in the moment. Make this hold or die. Now the next one. Now the next one.”
Although Michael uses ropes, he remembers his most dangerous climbs with searing clarity: the texture of the rock, the shape of the flake, the tortured movements he uses to pivot his body in space.
Although I write often about the commercial hypocrisy of Arctic explorers of old (and some Everest climbers of new), I can appreciate the beauty of a mind in focus. It shines brightly to me through the thicket of distractions, of cellphones and Blackberrys, of text messages and twittering feeds, of listservs and Netflix deliveries. The ability to cast one’s mind on something and fix it there is powerfully appealing.
Would I dangle my body off a 4000 ft cliff to find it? Probably not. But I understand how intoxicating others would find it. And this bears on a bigger issue. Sometimes it’s easy for historians to forget the human beings behind their historical subjects. Or in my case, to see explorers’ drive for fame and glory and forget the powerful psychological underpinnings of dangerous travel. Historians do this on purpose, I think, for fear of imparting motives that are not borne out by the texts. After all, it’s easy to track faked photos, product endorsements, and publishing contracts, but harder to read minds and motivations. And yet these psychological motives are real, something I need to take more seriously in my work.
So to Michael, Gerry, Nikki, Trace, and Topher, it was great to meet you last night. Thanks for including me on your voyage of discovery.