Of Mountains, “Assault” and “Conquest”

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.

5 comments on “Of Mountains, “Assault” and “Conquest”

  1. Noor Alam says:

    Nice piece, different than what I thought you would write about these documentaries. The conceit of in the idea of climbing a mountain as a solitary adventure surely ignores the assistance of locals and the generations that have explored the unknown regions of these mountains before. The old trope is definitely pervasive, I think you are right that its time for a new story.

  2. […] briefly, on the relationship that mountaineers have with the mountains they attempt to climb. In one post, I noted the problematic adversarial language that is often deployed in writing about mo…, and in another I sought to move the focus in mountaineering language away from individual effort […]

  3. […] came across this article recently about the language people employ for Mountaineering. When people talk […]

  4. […] man: even the most austere Alpinist, even a Reinhold Messner-extraordinaire does not summit without having relied on others. Messner went solo to the highest peaks in the world, but he used maps, axes, boots, goggles, […]

  5. […] and insecurities. And in this state of mind, it had become clear to me too, all over again, that a summit was not a thing to be conquered. Rather, as I saw it in the clear light of that Colorado morning, a summit was a virtuous […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.