Time to Eat the Dogs

A Podcast About Science, History, and Exploration

Archive for Mountains

Contingent World, Part 3 of 3

John Muir

John Muir

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.

Robert Frost

Robert Frost

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.


Fallen Giants Wins the Banff Book Award


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).

Maurice Isserman receives Banff Award from Mike Mortimer

Maurice Isserman (left) receives Banff Award from Mike Mortimer (right)

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.

Field Force to Lhasa 1903-04

Cecil Mainprise Diary, photo from blog: Field Force to Lhasa 1903-04

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.

Lessons of the Free Solo

Steph Davis free soloing The Diamond

Steph Davis free soloing The Diamond, Longs Peak, Colorado

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.

The Room of Discovery

The Special Collections Room

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.

Steph Davis free soloing The Diamond, Longs Peak, Colorado

Steph Davis

“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.

The Gertrude Bell Archive

Gertrude Bell with Sir Percy Cox in Mesopotamia, 1917Gertrude 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?

La Liberté guidant le peuple, Eugène Delacroix, 1830

La Liberté guidant le peuple, Eugène Delacroix, 1830

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, by John Opie, 1797

Mary Wollstonecraft, by John Opie, 1797

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.

Fanny Bullock Workman, holding a "Votes for Women" newspaper at 21,000 ft in the Karakoram

Fanny Bullock Workman holding up "Votes for Women" sign at 21,000 ft

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.

Aiguille du Géant

Aiguille du Géant

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

Digital Archive: AfricaBib and Women Explorers

Routes Up the Mountain

Mt Everest, 1924 Expedition, by Bentley Beetham

Mt Everest, 1924 Expedition, by Bentley Beetham

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.

Francis Younghusband

Francis Younghusband

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.

Aleister Crowley

Aleister Crowley

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.

Albert Mummery

Albert Mummery

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.

Alexander Kellas

Alexander Kellas

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.

The Secular Mountain

Mount Ventoux

Mount Ventoux

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.”

George Mallory

George Mallory

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

Saturday’s Big Stories

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.