Archive for Mountains
Gertrude Bell and Sir Percy Cox, Mesopotamia, 1917
My students are usually pretty good at the why questions of history. Why did the French revolt against their King? Answers include “Peasant frustration.” “Anger at the monarchy.” “Expensive bread.” It’s the when questions that cause students trouble. Why did the French revolt in 1789? What particularities of this historical moment led to the great unraveling of the French Monarchy?
This pattern holds true for discussing women in history, or more specifically, the actions of women travelers and explorers. Why did Annie Peck climb the Matterhorn (1895)? Or Fanny Bullock Workman the Himalayas (1899-1912)? Why did Mary Kingsley canoe her way up the Ogawe River in Africa (1895)? Or Nelly Bly circle the globe in 72 days (1889)? Student answers usually come in some variety of “They had to prove something to the world.” Ok, fair enough. But here is the more interesting question: Why did they all feel the need to prove it at the same time?
Mary Wollstonecraft certainly felt she had something to prove. Enlightenment novelist and historian, philosopher and feminist, Wollstonecraft authored A Vindication of the Rights of Woman a full 136 years before Britain fully granted women the right to vote in 1928. But living at the end of the 18th century, Wollstonecraft is something of an outlier in women’s history, a person whose beliefs and actions were at considerable remove from the rest of society. Peck, Workman, and Bly, by contrast, were part of a large social movement that extended across the Atlantic, a movement that gleefully assaulted the idea of a “separate spheres” for men and women.
In this sense, Gertrude Bell was a women of her time: born in Britain, Oxford educated, Bell was an omnivorous learner and traveler, fluent in Persian, Arabic, Turkish, and German. She voyaged around the world twice and took up a passion for mountain climbing in the Alps all before “settling down” in the Middle East as archeologist, author, and British political agent during the First World War. She collaborated with T.E. Lawrence to draw up the modern political map of the Middle East including Jordan and Iraq. Yet Bell remains hard to categorize. Sitting at the center of British political activity in the Middle East, Bell also served as honorary secretary of the British Women’s Anti-Suffrage League.
Bell left 1600 letters, 16 diaries, and 7000 photographs, all of which are in the possession of the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. Now the University Library has begun a four-year project to put these materials online. Here for example is Bell’s description of her ascent of the Aiguille du Géant in the Alps:
Demarquille was frozen. I gave him my big woollen gloves. My hands were warmed by the rock work, but I continued to shiver, though not unpleasantly, almost until we returned to the foot of the Aiguille. We crossed a bit of snow and turned to the left under the Aiguille where we found a hanging rope – it was just about here that a guide was killed a fortnight ago by lightening, after having accomplished the ascent by a new road up the N face said to be easier than the old. The first hour or so was quite easy. Straight up long slabs of rock with a fixed rope to hold by. Then a flank march which was rather difficult; the rocks from here to the top of the NE summit are extremely steep. At one point my hands and arms were so tired that I lost all grip in them. A steep bit down, a pointed breche and a very steep up rock leads to the highest summit where there is a cairn.
The Gertrude Bell Archive is a work in progress. Not all of the materials have been scanned. It does not have keyword or full-text search capabilities. Still it deserves to be filed as a bookmark in your growing list of exploration archives.
For more on women explorers, see posts on
Two weeks ago I wrote a post criticizing the modern commercial ethos of Himalayan climbing. As I continue to dig deeper into the history of Himalayan climbing (guided by the excellent book Fallen Giants), I am beginning to realize what diverse motives brought western climbers into the Himalayas and Karakorum. Nineteenth century climbers, like Arctic explorers, saw climbing in romantic and nationalistic terms, but they also viewed it in other ways as well.
The story of Sir Francis Younghusband, British Army officer, shows the importance of empire in the exploration of these regions. In addition to adding to the West’s geographical knowledge of these distant ranges, Younghusband spent his days outmanovering the Russians and trying to occupy Tibet. Yet Younghusband was, as modern climbers go, rather atypical. He did not seek to summit peaks as much as to survey and move through ranges. As much as he was an agent of empire, he was also deeply affected by the mystical traditions of India and Tibet.
So too was Aleister Crowley, whose role in the failed K2 expedition of 1902 has been eclipsed by his reputation as “The Great Beast 666,” and “The Wickedest Man in the World.” Crowley’s love of mountains was life-long and also an opportunity for spiritual reflection.
Alfred Mummery, on the other hand, saw mountains as the testing grounds for technical climbing and technological advancement. Mummery, inventor of the Mummery tent, first attempted to climb Nanga Parbat in 1895 and died in the attempt. It seems that Mummery viewed mountains tactically, rather than strategically, and thus, as Steward Weaver tells it, failed to see the Himalayas in their proper scale. For Mummery, the Himalayas were an overgrown version of the Alps.
Still others, such as Alexander Kellas, were “traversers” climbing up one side of the mountain and down the other – an enormously difficult and dangerous thing to do on 8000 meter peaks. Kellas spent his time on the mountain trying to figure out the physiology of altitude sickness, leading to new ideas about mountain acclimatization. One wonders what Kellas would have observed from the Royal Geographical Society’s Everest expeditions in the early 1920s. He died before reaching Everest base camp in 1921.
Readers who find these stories interesting should check out Bill Buxton’s excellent online mountain bibliography.
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
In the news for Friday and Saturday:
Chinese astronaut Zhai Zhigang opened the hatch of his Shenzhou 7 and took a brief stroll in orbit Saturday. This makes China only the third country in the world, after the United States and Russia, to have completed a space walk. More to the point, it demonstrates that China is ramping up for some of the heavy lifting required of long-term space projects (e.g. space stations and moon missions) which would require people moving outside of spacecraft for construction and repair projects.
Why are such journeys outside of spacecraft called “space walks”? It’s an interesting choice of words since there is no real walking as far as I can see. “Space crawl,” “space climb” and “space float” would all be more accurate if less pithy. We must scout out the etymology of the term. It strikes me that NASA and cold-war space enthusiasts would like “walking” because it is far more active, self-directed and dignified verb than floating and crawling. Another question, what are the Russian and Chinese terms for these ex-craft jaunts?
The New York Times Book Review features Bruce Barcott’s write up of Maurice Isserman and Stewart Weaver’s new book Fallen Giants: A History of Himalayan Mountaineering from the Age of Empire to the Age of Extremes. I’m only a couple chapters in, but Fallen Giants promises a comprehensive, socio-cultural look at high-altitude mountaineering in the last 150 years. Despite the vast heap of books written on the history of mountaineering, this type of project is sorely needed.
Deep Sea News has now made the move to Discovery Blogs.
In other news:
There was a presidential debate.
The world economy is in free-fall.
There is a freedom that comes with studying dead people. We, the historians of the not-so-recent, learn about our subjects in archives and newspaper columns, from photos, maps, and bank statements. We reveal what we’ve learned, personal and perhaps unflattering, knowing that the people we’ve researched cannot talk back to us, sue us, or toss rocks through our windows. (This is work best left to other historians). Still there are times when I meet my subjects sort of. I often talk shop with modern-day explorers at meeting and lectures, some of whom share the goals and sensibilities of the people I study. This is always a welcome experience for me, but one that often feels a bit strange, since I look at the work of past explorers with such a critical eye. What has been refreshing to find, however, is how self-aware and historically-minded many modern day travelers and explorers are.
For example, take the site ExplorersWeb.com, a clearinghouse of information about extreme travel in the polar regions, the oceans, mountains, and space. It is the brainchild of Tom and Tina Sjogren, two Swedish uber-travelers, who provide daily updates about expeditions in the field as well as their own exposes of expeditionary bad-behavior, from selfish guides, and faulty equipment manufacturers, to climbers who fib about their summit climbs. The reports of Explorersweb have not been without controversy, particularly from veteran mountaineers who’ve been the object of scrutiny. Nevertheless, it’s worth taking a look at.