Getting Rid of “Mastery” Over Mountains

A couple of days ago, in response to my post on the language of mountaineering, my friend Karl Steel said (on a Facebook page somewhere, far, far away):

Great piece, but haven’t you shifted the language of battle from climber vs. mountain to climber vs. self? what if we lose the battle or mastery language altogether

Karl is right, of course. And indeed, “losing” the language of “battle” and “mastery” is what I had in mind when I said:

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.

So, to reiterate: I think the language of “mastery” and “battle” persists at heart because mountaineering is fundamentally conceived of as a solo endeavor. Now, even group expeditions can be described in the same language; indeed, perhaps even more so, because more militarized language can kick in: see for instance, the use of “logistics”, “campaign”, “supply routes” and so on. But still, I think, the fundamental act is conceived of as a man, alone, getting on top of the mountain, and it is to address that seemingly individual feat that I think the really heavy-duty arsenal of “overcoming” is deployed.

Interestingly, before commencing my discussion of whether mountaineering language could be reconceived as “self-mastery” I had noted a thought, which I perhaps should have developed further:

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.

I still think that reconfiguring that language requires, more than anything else, reconceiving human accomplishment as not solitary adventures but collective action, a reconception that is required elsewhere in getting rid of the pernicious fallacy of “the author” (a madness that now finds its legal teeth in our modern debates over “intellectual property”). But much, much, more on that later.

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