A common reaction of mine when watching mountaineering documentaries is distaste at the accompanying linguistic package: the language of “assault” and “conquer”, directed against and at the mountain. Though many mountaineers have self-consciously forsworn such language (Ed Viesturs makes a point of noting such language in his books even though at times he slips back into it himself), it remains a hard-to-displace trope. After a weekend spent watching several mountaineering documentaries (80 Meters Below the Summit (recounting a Slovakian attempt to climb Kanchenjunga) Cho Oyu: West of Everest, and a World of Adventure Sports documentary on K2), I almost came to see some of its use as unavoidable; the mountaineer sees himself as pitted against an “adversary” or an “opponent” for better or worse, and once the summit is reached, it is hard not to view that task as having resulted from “overcome” or surmounted a “challenge” that has been “mastered”.
But this makes me think of the impoverishment of the language we employ for indicating human accomplishment: perennially pitted “against” something, as having been achieved in opposition to forces ranged against it. Perhaps we are stuck with that language. But mountaineering and the climbing of mountains can be reconceived, as some mountaineers have, as a matter of self-mastery instead (so the “mastering” and the “overcoming” remains but to assuage my clearly old-fashioned sensibility that baulks at conceiving of the mountain as an opponent, we change the “opponent” to an old and familiar friend: oneself).
Reinhold Messner, for instance, makes a great deal of the notion that a mountain helps him, rather than combats him in, fighting a very particular ‘inner battle’; the mountain is not the opponent any more; rather the mountain is the facilitative device by which the mountaineer gets to fight a unique personal battle. The mountain is not the other; it is that which makes the self-mastery possible. It becomes an aid, a partner, a co-author of a particular story told about oneself. Without the mountain, there is no personal story of self-overcoming. It would be silly in this perspective of thinking of having conquered the mountain. Rather, by climbing the mountain the mountaineer conquers something else in himself: fear most likely, but perhaps something else as well.
There is something hopelessly naive in this request for reconfiguration of the language. After all, to use the language of “overcoming”, “conquest”, and “assault” works because it props up so many other tropes and fictions: that the summit was possible without any partnership (human or technological) is perhaps the most vivid and urgent of these. Even Messner, who sought to return mountaineering to the domain of authentic man-versus mountain contests did not disdain every technological trapping that reduced the natural edge of the mountain; if oxygen reduces the height of the mountain, so does warm clothing. And neither did he disdain help in getting to the mountain and in various acts of support (minimal admittedly, but still).
So, in the end, what we really need to reconfigure is the notion of the human achiever and striver as a lonely actor, a desperate fiction at the best of times, but rendered even more transparently false when one considers the truly co-operative nature of adventure and exploration.