Monday, 21 March 2011

Political Mountaineering

Lots of people ask me how I can square mountaineering with politics.

It's not as stupid a question as some might at first see it as.

Mountaineering was perhaps most enthusiastically pursued by the Victorians, and their approach to it often characterises people's approach to it today. As an example of this, people are often unembarrassed about the huge danger to life and limb it can pose. They argue that such things don't matter. They see the danger as irrelevant, as a small part. What's the big part? It's the Victorian part - conquering.

The Victorian urge was to claim a conquest over nature at its most inhospitable. What this said about their psychology spawned -as well it should- a field day of psychoanalysis in the 20th century. Suffice to say, that obviously doesn't square with my politics. It's not only an imperial urge, it is also one obsessed with the body - not just a privilege of the able-bodied, but of those stronger, faster, fitter - the worst forms of elitism. And the conquest of nature went on in their heads as well as under their boots - peaks were named, quantified, classified, listed, measured - rationalised.

So why would I love mountaineering?

Just because that drove Victorians from their homes and to their deaths doesn't mean it's the only thing. In our global quasi-American media, mountaineering can only ever be understood thus, perhaps. This is because expeditions that depend on sponsorship must publicise their daring for their existence - and because those that talk loudest about mountaineering talk loudest because they brag, about their "achievements" on mountains. But that doesn't mean we cannot reclaim mountaineering from them.

Rationalisation is a big problem. Within climbing (here I refer to trad and sport climbing and bouldering) certain ways of moving over vertical ground are graded for difficulty in a system. There are specified requirements to be adhered to in order to "tick" a route, that is, to claim that you've been up it and followed all the rules. Climbers talk about "pushing their grade", ie getting ticks against higher route grades.

Mountaineering is different. Within what is usually called mountaineering, that is to say, moving over mountainous terrain, usually involving climbing of some sort, usually to a summit, there are no such rules, and usually few or no grades. The reason for this is simple - nature is ungradeable. There is an implicit understanding in mountaineering that if you go up a mountain (or around, across or down it, I don't talk only about summits - "getting to the top is optional, getting down is mandatory") your progress depends on snow conditions, wind conditions, avalanches, rockfall, temperature, visibility, acclimatisation, and as many expeditions are more than one day, your physical health. Two people go up the same mountain and it's almost impossible that they go the same route. Even if they do, everything else is different - and usually, they can't be certain of their route afterwards anyway.

Many climbers talk of the movement of climbing being a pure act, of the yoga-like properties of moving in complicated yet confident ways, with acute balance and poise, over rock. This is not about achievement, it's about an experience, a way of moving and of acting. I won't write here about the purity of action versus thought - that's for the book - but suffice to say it's that.

There's more, though - why mountains, not trees, or buildings? Here my thought is more confused. There's a lot to be said for its being a reaction of my eyesight - to go from endless text consumption on a TFT screen at two feet to horizons, to picking safe rock out of a whiteout, to moving quickly over shifting snow and watching the stars is a relief that needs to be intense for its rarity. Crucially for me, it's the unconquering, the unforgiving nature of the mountain that provides more solace. It's the uncaring mountain that cannot notice if I slip or die, that gives me perspective over my personality. It's that hatred is wasted on a mountain, it's that you don't have to do things a certain way but you always have perspective, you always have the mountain telling you what is impossible. And you can do all this with any body. I know I shall enjoy it when I am too old to climb as I do now, or if I lose my mobility to an accident. To me a mountain is the perfect cure for the neurotic existence of the city dweller, as it does not allow half measures, as its immediacy is plain, not constructed, as it takes no glories and does not reward the lucky.

I must stop here as a book can easily (probably will be, in fact) be written on this, and that the rambling is becoming increasingly unstructured - this may be the whisky. Anyway - I hope I have reassured some of you that I do not seek to conquer things.

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