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  • Isabel Steele

Why are humans drawn to the Mountain?

Growing up with regular trips to the Lake District, my love for the Mountain has always been distinct. But travels to the Peruvian Andes added another dimension, geographically and emotionally. Despite how dangerous it can be, I always feel deepest and most alive when up a Mountain. It’s my church. I’ve often questioned what draws me consistently back to these ‘cathédrales de la terre’ (I: 2020), and know I am not alone. Humans as a collective are committed to the pursuit of higher spaces, yet it is a professedly useless pursuit. Our bodies begin to die as the oxygen thins, and there certainly isn’t much to forage or hunt at these lofty heights.


I want to delve into this ‘why’ by treating this blog post as a symposium of opinion and suggestion. Alongside my own experience, I will walk us through an anthology of Mountain advocates, from Nan Shepherd to Frédéric Thiriez, Patrick Baker to Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent. They argue that the Mountain holds immense history, allows us to feel, to live simply, to refuse the chaos of contemporary constraints and to challenge our existence. But most importantly, why the Mountain and its people deserve the utmost respect. Hopefully this blog will provide a solid repertoire of evidence to back up your next 'useless' trip to the Mountain! Let’s begin with the sensory experience of Mountain living.

‘Mille deux cents ans avant Pétrarque [qui, en 1336, fit l’ascension du Mont Ventoux, juste pour le plaisir de contempler le panorama], l’empereur Hadrien gravissait l’Etna, de nuit, dans le seul but de contempler du sommet le lever du soleil. C’était peut-être les premiers conquérants de l’inutile…en tout cas, dont il reste une trace dans l’Histoire.’ (I: 11)


Climbing a Mountain is a profoundly physical experience. While the Mountain is often personified in literature, like I am doing here, I want to challenge the origin of these humanising features. Traversing borders of extreme, ‘the body is at risk in the mountains – but it is also the site of reward, a fabulous sensorium’ (H: xxix). What the Mountain does, is present you a mirror. The ‘low-slung wilderness […] and shattered cliffs. Born of fire, carved by ice, finessed with wind, water and snow’ (H: ix) is actually the landscape of our inner worlds laid bare. Raw, naked humanism. Pain, fatigue, ambition, serenity.


The more we suffer, the law of opposites points to the greater exhilaration we should experience as the natural antidote. We wrongly attribute these galvanised senses to the landscape itself, due to their unfamiliarity in our modern lives. But it is you creating this sensorium, reconnecting. You are seeing the world through your own body, thus ‘‘embedded’ in the ‘flesh’ of the world’’ as proposed by the French philosopher Merleau-Ponty (H: xxx). Shepherd supports this theory by discussing the powerful allegories that topography can offer humans in our thought formation and shaping of memories. The Mountain allows us to feel.

‘The Living Mountain is thick with the kinds of acute perception that come only from ‘staying up for a while’, from frequent crossings of a particular landscape. ‘Birch needs rain to release its odour,’ Shepherd notes. ‘it is a scent with body to it, fruity like old brandy, and on a wet warm day one can be as good as drunk with it.’’ (H: xviii)


Have you ever noticed the different accent of light at altitude? Hagenmuller, considered one of the best mountain photographers and author of Mont-blanc, lumières d’altitude (2014), discusses this unique luminosity. Due to the clarity of the air cast between the peaks, alternating brilliance against shadow, colour illuminates differently. Other authors rise with the sun and enjoy ‘freshly dusted ridges shining like mercury’ (C:227), or the blood red vapour, belted around Mont Blanc at dawn, throwing out light with such vivacity one may think of ‘astres ou des météores embrasés’ (I: 38). For Shepherd, the clarity of the water of the Grampian ‘burns’ and ‘locks’ is so absolute that they appear to her ‘like clear deeps of air, / Light massed upon itself’ (H: xx). Horace Bénédict de Saussure even claimed to see stars in the middle of the day crowning Mont Blanc, as long as you were looking from the shade (I : 38).

'Below me, several hundred metres in the vertical distance, I could see Ryvoan Bothy, its tiny shape brightly outlined in the landscape, sitting snugly in swells of moorland as if floating on a turbulent sea.' (A: 179)

Moving on to more practical reasons, many are drawn to the Mountain for the challenge they pose. The Mountain is a context for self-evaluation and pushing boundaries. Take Nirmal Purja, who summited all fourteen of the world’s highest peaks in six months, or Kílian Jornet, the Catalan mountain and trail-runner who ran Everest twice in six days without oxygen. The Mountain allows us to be awe-inspired and witness human finesse up against ridgeback summits, harsh conditions, and the necessary skills of survival and navigation. While ‘navigational errors are the most common contributory cause of mountain accidents […] Planning and preparation underpin any successes I may have had’, claimed Sir Ranulph Fiennes in The Ultimate Navigation Manual (2011). Navigation makes mountaineering a theory, as well as a sport, levelling the playing field between analytical, mathematical minds and robust, elite bodies.

Facing these same severe conditions, I would like to now present a contrasting, more ‘localist’ approach. It is one of knowing a place more intimately, slowly, a closeness which can serve ‘to intensify rather than limit’ the Mountain vision (H: x). Racing the summits, life thrums at a higher pitch, thrilling and hectic, yet I argue this is cursory and there may be a more thorough way of feeling the Mountain. Maturing into an appreciation of being rather than doing, this less egocentric approach allows the Mountain to be seen as an entity, challenging the appropriation of them as a series of individual summits to be conquered. Shepherd admits ‘that as a young woman she had been prone to a ‘lust’ for ‘the tang of height’ […] over time, she learned to go into the hills aimlessly, ‘merely to be with the mountain as one visits a friend, with no intention but to be with him’’ (H: xvi). By taking your time in the Mountain, you open yourself up to the opportunity of feeling what is there, rather than forcefully chasing a sense of euphoria against the gradient.


I found Shepherd’s approach to the Mountain very relatable and soothing, through her preoccupation with the ‘inside’ of the mountain, encouraging us to let go of the obsession with summits, perfectionism, competition and complete knowledge, all scourges of modern society. She argues that ‘the massif is not a crossword to be cracked, full of encrypted ups and downs.’ (H: xxvi). I think this is a valuable, respectful approach to the highest natural kingdoms on Earth which provide endless uncertainty in their microclimates, illusions, light and sensory experience. Living the Mountain slowly may be the healthiest antidote to the fast-paced contemporary chaos we are all tied up in. Maybe less height and more depth are required?

Emelie Forsberg, while living simply from a van parked in a mountain pass at 10,000 feet above sea level, close to Leadville, Colorado:

"It may not be optimal for an elite athlete to live in a camper van, to be cold, to not be able to shower after training, to not even be able to stand upright at home. But this simple life makes me realize what’s really important: to be warm enough, get food for the day, and do something I enjoy. I guess that is basically what most people strive for. It’s something we have had inside us for thousands of years, something we forget while stressing about choosing education, paying back mortgages and saving money for our holidays. I have always been fascinated by the simple." (E: 33-34)


Reading books like Land of the Dawn Lit Mountains by Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent (2017), another side of Mountain living becomes very apparent. She temporarily removes the rose-tinted naivety of a pristine wilderness, to see the hardship lived by many mountain communities. ‘There was no medical care, or electricity, or schools. Many of the villagers were illiterate. They lived hard, physical lives in an extreme climate. It was an existence that left little room for the luxury of idleness’ (C: 237). While I agree that we should not romanticise these landscapes for their harshness is reality, modern Westerners are often so disjointed from what we really need. We are increasingly ‘overfed, malnourished, sedentary, sunlight-deficient, sleep-deprived, and socially isolated, [contributing to] poor physical health and the incidence of depression’ (F). We must remember that our minds are shaped by the bodily experience of being in the world and we can reconnect to a more authentic way of living stripping back to these basics.

By returning to the wildly simple, there is more space for our natural emotions and happiness to breathe, the antithesis to the limited oxygen of external pressure, greed, ambition and individualism. The Mountain provides the perfect setting to make this shift. It can be hard, it can be painful, it can be frightfully exposed, but this is what makes it so real. I have never felt more alive and connected than running high among the hills in Peru, just thinking about staying warm, safe and respectful of the Mountain and its indigenous community. The life of the Mountain people is one of ‘genuine togetherness, not one lived through the distorting, distancing filters of emails and social media’ (C: 239).


Maybe we are drawn to the Mountain because it is in our blood, this rich landscape which harbours hidden narratives of our history, nomadism, war, and escape. Looking to our own British Isles, war themes and territorial conflict are often a distant thunder in Cairngorm literature, featuring ‘the aeroplanes that crashed into the plateau [...] and the felling of Scots pines on the Rothiemurchus estate for the war effort’ (H: xii). These bodies of land hold immense pride and a timeline of our nation. Going back to the Enlightenment period, Picturesque and Romantic Movements in the 18th century, ‘scientific enquiry of geology and botany’ and ‘aesthetic reconsideration of wild places’ was what initially drew more and more of the professional class into the Mountain (A: 45).


And while the pioneering group who formed the first Alpine Club in 1857 considered themselves primarily ‘Alpinists’, domestic ranges became the playground of the masses following the Second World War. This period saw military trained mountain enthusiasts taking to the hills thanks to ‘improvements in clothing design and large surpluses of ex-military equipment cheaply available for outdoor use’ (A: 50). Not to mention the soaring popularity of skiing, official outdoor education and improved roads, finally bringing this ‘lost continent of the skies’ back into reach (A: 56).

The Cairngorms soon became a tourist destination and John Hill Burton made a compelling case for their uniqueness. ‘The depth and remoteness of the solitude, the huge mural precipices, the deep chasms between the rocks, the waterfalls of unknown height, the hoary remains of the primeval forest, the fields of the eternal snow, and the deep black lakes at the foot of the precipices, are full of such associations of awe and grandeur and mystery, as no other scenery in Britain is capable of arousing. (A: 46)


With the great variety of Mountain ranges across the world, these landscapes provide opportunity for adventure, which air travel has made increasingly accessible. Among the most spectacular are the Himalaya, Andes, Caucasus, Patagonia and Pamir. These geographical masterpieces have enthralled the imagination from ancient accounts of hidden gold and sun worshiping civilisations, to impressive Silk Road trade and religious war brawling on their flanks. Personally, I dream of cycling Patagonia against the backdrop of Tierra del Fuego, conversing with the resilient Mapuche people and sheep-farmers who defended their distinctive cultural landscape against Spanish, German and Italian interference. The Mountain is not just geography, it is history, community, multiculturalism and exploration.

'The river’s depiction on the map steadily changed the further my finger moved against its downward flow, tapering from fat blue curves, looping and bending across the map, through green forestry and salmon-pink villages […] Eventually the river became a slender cobalt filament surrounded by the compressed orange of merging contour-lines and the black symbolism of cliffs.' (A: 2)


However, the European Mountain remains a place of limited racial and ethnic diversity, and most works of mountaineering literature have been written by men. The Mountain remains a space often ‘qualified by the success or failure of a summit’ (H: xiv). I want to finish this blog by suggesting a more respectful, inclusive way we can enjoy these spaces we clearly love.


According to a study carried out by The Outward Bound Trust, people from ethnic minority backgrounds visit outdoor spaces less, tending to take part in more urban outdoor activity within 1-2 miles from home. This is not through lacking value in the natural environment, but a negative perception of the social environment, fearing exclusion and no role models to identify with due to the vicious circle of under representation. Furthermore, we know that less women and girls participate in Mountain activities likely to lead to the interest, skill and motivation to pursue a career in this area. Through voice and inclusion, literature and education, we must shift our focus to lift all of our society to the heights of equality, 1,345m above sea level.

Mountain Training have devoted significant time to considering how their training structures can attract and support candidates from different backgrounds. The National Training centre, Glenmore Lodge, now offer female specific programmes and also hold the annual Women In Adventure conference. Online there are numerous popular and successful sources of female inspiration and groups offering support and a different way of being in the outdoors.’ (The Outward Bound Trust)

As I see more of you lacing up those boots and heading out to the Mountain as the world opens up, remember to leave no trace, take your litter home, respect the other people wanting to enjoy the space, and always trust your map and compass.


While I believe humans are drawn to the Mountain for a plethora of reasons, I think the most obvious is that subconsciously, we know that we need it.


‘So I shall build my altar in the fields,

And the blue sky my fretted dome shall be,

And the sweet fragrance that the wildflower yields

Shall be the incense I will yield to Thee.’

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, To Nature.


Stay wild,

Issy x




SOURCES/BOOK RECOMMENDATIONS:


A. Baker, P. (2014), The Cairngorms: A Secret History, Birlinn Ltd, Edinburgh

B. Bernhardson, W (2017), Patagonia : The Trip of a Lifetime, Avalon Travel (Moon), Fifth Edition, A Hachette Book Group Company

C. Bolingbroke-Kent, A. (2017), Land of the Dawn-Lit Mountains: A journey across Arunachal Pradesh – India’s forgotten frontier, Simon & Schuster, London/New York/Sydney/Toronto/New Delhi

D. Brotherton, L. (2011), The Ultimate Navigation Manual, HarperCollins Publishers, London

E. Forsberg, E. (2018), Sky Runner: Finding Strenght, Happiness, and Balance in your Running, Gawell Förlag, Sweden

F. Hidaka B. H. (2012). Depression as a disease of modernity: explanations for increasing prevalence. Journal of affective disorders, 140(3), 205–214. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2011.12.036

G. Krakauer, J. (2007),Into The Wild, Pan Books, London

H. Shepherd, N. (2011), The Living Mountain, Canongate Books, Edinburgh/London

I. Thiriez, F. (2020), Montagne: Les plus belles pages, de l’Antiquité à nos jours, Éditions du Mont-Blanc, Auverge-Rhône-Alpes


(All photos are Wix Media apart from the last taken swimming on Scafell Pike

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