Peak Adventure: On Mountaineering and the Enlightenment

By Colin DickeyJune 9, 2013

Peak Adventure: On Mountaineering and the Enlightenment

The Summits of Modern Man by Peter H. Hansen

SOME YEARS AGO, I found myself stranded at a corporate seminar, ensconced in a frigid hotel conference room, eyes glazing through PowerPoint presentation upon PowerPoint presentation. The day culminated in a luncheon and a keynote speaker: a rock climber of some note who was there to tell the story of how, several years ago, he’d led a team in an attempt to summit a foreboding finger of rock in the Himalayas. He spoke to us in that hectoring enthusiastic tone common to infomercials, televangelists, and business gurus, pacing the stage as he unfolded his tale of rugged resolve, skill, preparation, and — inevitably — disaster and tragedy. At some point during the ascent, a freak storm barreled up the mountains and decimated his team. I can’t remember the details, other than that someone or other lost more than a few fingers, and that this guy described, in the same barking, unwavering tone that might be used to enumerate the features of the ShamWow, how he watched a few of his friends die up there on that rock.

Death in the Himalayas may make for a gripping story for a bunch of people eating salad at a luncheon, but it turns out to not be terrifically uncommon. This year alone, close to a dozen people have already been killed in climbing accidents — many of them on Mount Everest, whose main climbing routes are as overstuffed as a pâté-duck’s throat. The commercial exploitation of Everest was already well underway by the time Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air (1997) chronicled how two rival mountaineering companies led a group of wealthy, under-experienced marks to their death in May of 1996. (To be fair, the two expedition leaders — Rob Hall and Scott Fischer — were also among the dead.) Nor has it abated since that year when so many people learned firsthand the meaning of the “death zone” (the name for altitudes in excess of 8,000 meters, where humans cannot exist without supplementary oxygen). “The spirit of adventure is not there any more,” Jamling Norgay, the son of Tenzing Norgay, the sherpa who made the first summit of Everest with Edmund Hillary in 1953, complained in 2003. “It is lost. There are people going up there who have no idea how to put on crampons. They are climbing because they have paid someone $65,000. It is very selfish. It endangers the lives of others.” Spirit of adventure or no, they’re still coming in droves, creating dangerous bottlenecks and adding bodies to the world’s tallest cemetery. To date, over 220 people have perished on Everest, and more die every single year — many of their bodies are still littered along the trail as grim reminders to other climbers.

Even more shocking than the annual deaths was the fight that broke out in late April 2013 between three European climbers and a group of sherpas[1] — a fight in which no one was seriously injured, but which, in some ways, has deeper ramifications for mountaineering than the everyday fatalities. According to the various and conflicting reports (which, it should be said, have so far been overwhelmingly dominated by the Westerners’ side of the story), the sherpas were fixing the ropes that are used by chartered groups to aid them in their ascent up the mountain, when their work was interrupted by three unaffiliated expert climbers attempting to summit Everest alpine-style (i.e., without the use of bottled oxygen, guides, support crew, or other amenities). At some point, one of the Europeans, Simone Moro, called a sherpa a machikne, or “motherfucker” in Nepali. By the time they all returned to camp, a fight had erupted, drawing in several dozen other belligerents before it was broken up.

Writing for The Guardian, Ian Jack wrung his hands over this state of affairs, lamenting that “something more complicated has also occurred, a change on both sides that has chilled the sherpa-climber relationship.” Such disrespect of the natives, Jack claimed, was an unprecedented change, a far cry from the attitudes of the genteel mountaineers of yore. George Mallory, for instance, who died attempting to summit Everest in June 1924, demonstrated how, “in terms of compassion and empathy, the British climbers could be exemplary.” On another continent, “[David] Livingstone and [Henry Morton] Stanley respected their guides because they knew their lives depended on them […] Livingstone may even have loved them — his ‘boys’ — and however paternalistic the emotion, it was real enough.”

These are curious examples, to say the least. After an avalanche that killed seven sherpas in Mallory’s party during one ascent, he sent back a report that read only: “All whites safe.” And Stanley, of course, would go on to become the public face of Leopold II’s rape of the Congo, personally witnessing (and financially benefitting from) the murder and mutilation of countless Congolese. Jack’s nostalgia for the good old days of British imperialism and benevolent paternalism reflects a sad but not unexpected ignorance of history — an ignorance that can only further cloud any understanding of what’s currently going on up there in the clouds.


Because we are unlikely to get an objective journalistic account of what happens on Everest that doesn’t reek of Western entitlement any time soon, the historian Peter H. Hansen’s The Summits of Modern Man: Mountaineering After the Enlightenment is all the more welcome and timely. Hansen sets out to explain “a particular strand of modernity in which modern man stands alone on the summit, autonomous from other men and dominant over nature.” His marvelous book begins with the very question of beginning itself: what does it mean to say someone was “first” to summit a mountain? Taking a cue from Edward Said’s comment that a beginning is “the first step in the intentional production of meaning,” Hansen points out that any such discussion is the product of a Western mythology that is “unimaginable without the peculiar emphasis on chronological priority and individual autonomy characteristic of […] European modernity.” Despite the countless narratives of the first man (or first woman, or first Italian, or first alpine-style climber, etc.) to make it to the top of this or that mountain,

the individual climber has never been as sovereign in practice as the mythology of modernity implies. Histories of discovery or mountaineering are usually told as if they follow an ineluctable and inexorable process of enlightenment, disenchantment, secularization, rationalization, and self-assertion when such categories are themselves modern forms of mythmaking.

Hansen begins with Petrarch, who was retroactively knighted in 1852 as the first to ascend a mountain simply because it was there. But this was not an honor the Italian poet would likely have claimed for himself; indeed, Hansen argues that mountaineering is an essentially modern concept, and even that “[m]ountaineering and modernity mutually constituted one another in the eighteenth century and have continued to do so.” Contrast our intrepid modern obsession with reaching the summit, for example, with the risk-averse likes of Johann Jakob Scheuchzer (1672–1733), who published a collection of images of dragons supposedly haunting the Alps. (To this day, mountaineering is still known sometimes by the phrase “killing dragons.”) Scheuchzer, as fascinated as he was with the Alps, was never particularly interested in getting to the top of them: “The primacy Scheuchzer gave to natural theology left him uninterested in reaching the summit,” Hansen writes. “[T]he summit position remained for God alone.”

What changed in the 18th century was the emergence of a strand of enlightenment modernity, one in which the individual, not God, was sovereign. That sovereignty became defined by Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s concept of a “living eye”: the self as embodied by one’s vision, a self who might stand from the lofty peak of a mountain and take all he could survey around him. (In Rousseau’s Julie, or the New Heloise (1761), the character Wolmar remarks, “If I could change the nature of my being and become a living eye, I would gladly make that exchange.”) Increasingly, enlightenment scholars and scientists sought a view of nature unimpeded by objects or landmarks, a view in which all of the landscape is laid bare before that omniscient sovereign vision. Such a vantage point, they came to see, could only be found at the summit.

Thus, when the naturalists Horace-Bénédict de Saussure and Marc-Théodore Bourrit reached the top of the Buet Glacier in September 1776, they sketched a panoramic view of the Alps around. Saussure would later write of the new breed of naturalist that he embodied, one who “seems to dominate above our Globe.” “To encompass the view from the summit, they had to see with new eyes,” Hansen speculates. “These eyes were not those of another, or any other people, but the ‘living eye’ of the sovereign individual above the summit.”

Much of The Summits of Modern Man revolves around the climbing of Mont Blanc by Jacques Balmat and Michel-Gabriel Paccard. Hansen tells the story in considerable detail, chronicling both the selection of Mont Blanc as a peak to be ascended, Balmat and Paccard’s original summit on August 8, 1786, and the ensuing fallout between the two men, followed by centuries’ worth of attempts to appropriate the event by everyone from poets to politicians. Paccard, a wealthy local doctor, and Balmat, a crystal hunter living in poverty in the Chamonix Valley below the mountain, set out to conquer the mountain in part because of Saussure’s offer of a reward, but this alone was not enough. In order for mountaineering to take off, Hansen points out, Europe’s serfs first had to be emancipated, since it was this historical development that freed up the cheap peasant labor that was essential for climbing mountains. We tend to think of European colonialism in terms of white Europeans’ relationship to the peoples of Africa, Asia, India, and the Americas, but prior to the 19th century, this meant white peasants in rural Europe, as well. (Scheuchzer was not far off when he’d written, years earlier, that “Switzerland must often be sought in the Indies, and the Indies in Switzerland.”) Jacques Balmat thus emerges as an approximate analogue to Tenzing Norgay, idealized, like him, as a simple peasant of preternatural strength, endurance, and ability, simple yet somehow closer to nature. “For visitors such as Bourrit and Saussure,” Hansen explains, “the guides and hunters of chamois and crystal, like Balmat, exhibited a masculine heroism with which they strongly identified.”

Though Saussure’s fellow naturalist Marc-Théodore Bourrit wasn’t on the summit, he was the first to publish an account of it, in which he slighted Paccard in favor of Balmat’s rugged and simple masculinity: “Balmat, resolute to make certain, dashes on alone: as he advances on the route the difficulty lessens; the snow is firm, and he sees that only a few steps remain to arrive at the summit of the mountain: he gains it.” As a result of the success of Bourrit’s narrative, Balmat became an international hero, and subscriptions were raised all across Europe to reward his heroic deed with cash.

Paccard and Bourrit had already been involved in a long-running feud, and now, after being rudely written out of history, the doctor was forced to publish his own account, one that described him as the first on the summit. He even went so far as to have Balmat sign a document testifying to the fact:

We were near the summit of the mountain; I went to the left to avoid a steep slope of snow, which the said Mr. Paccard crossed with courage to reach right to the summit of Mont Blanc. The line that I took delayed me a little, and I was obliged to run in order to be almost as soon as him at the aforesaid summit.

The Summits of Modern Man handily dispels rosy visions of the past like Ian Jack’s, putting the lie to the contention that mountaineering was a once noble, principled pursuit that has only recently deteriorated. In the shadow of Mont Blanc, the dispute between guide and client quickly turned violent. The peasant Balmat gradually discovered that, despite his celebrity, he had become a pawn in a game between the wealthy Paccard and Bourrit. At one point Balmat, who claimed he’d signed a blank page to which Paccard later added his account, accosted the doctor, demanding, “Is it not true that you made me sign that?” A quarrel ensued, during which Paccard struck his former guide between the eyes with an umbrella, knocking him to the ground.

Saussure, meanwhile, made his own ascent a month after this brawl. In August of 1787, he climbed Mount Blanc with the help of 18 guides and his personal valet. He spent four hours at the top making barometric measurements and reported his findings widely in journals and books in the years to come. While he initially paid tribute to Paccard and Balmat, the prolificacy and prestige of his writings meant that eventually Saussure’s summit began to overshadow theirs. In time, he began to encourage others to think of him as the first to summit the mountain; in 1802 no less an Enlightenment authority than Immanuel Kant stated unequivocally that “Saussure was the first mortal to climb to the summit of Mont Blanc.” “[E]ven when two people reach the highest point together,” Hansen wryly concludes, “they do not necessarily occupy the same summit position.” In the mountaineering game, egos can be almost as awe-inspiring as the peaks themselves.


Within a few years of these initial ascents, France had exploded into revolution, and Mont Blanc became a vitally important national symbol. “The man of the mountains is truly a man of liberty,” Abbé Grégoire told the National Convention in 1792. “Our union, our liberty, and the sovereignty of peoples will be as durable as your mountains, as immutable as the heavens.” The next year, at a “Festival of Reason” held at the Cathedral of Notre Dame (renamed the “Temple of Reason” for the occasion), an artificial mountain was erected with a temple at its summit labeled, À LA PHILOSOPHIE. Women bedecked in tricolors climbed the mountain chanting an unwieldy slogan: “Crossing the altar of Reason, each of us bows before its flame and rises again in the same direction on the summit of the mountain.” If men like Saussure and Paccard had seen Mont Blanc as a symbol of the enlightened individual’s sovereignty over Nature, the Jacobins now saw in it the Republic’s sovereignty over its Citizens.

William Wordsworth came to the Chamonix Valley in 1790, and while his initial reaction was one of wonder (“I had not a thought of man, or a single created being,” he wrote his sister. “[M]y whole soul was turned to him who produced the terrible majesty before me”), his gradual disillusionment with the French Revolution colored his later recollections. In the 1850 edition of Prelude, he writes of “arms flashing, and a military glare” of the army that occupied the nearby Benedictine monastery in Einsiedeln, realizing how easily pristine nature and simplicity could be co-opted by militarism and nationalism. Of Mont Blanc itself, he noted it offered only a “soulless image on the eye.”

Wordsworth was far from the only pilgrim to visit the Alps around this time; in a few short decades the region had become thick with tourists. By 1832, bestselling novelist Alexandre Dumas couldn’t finagle an advance from his publisher for a book on the Chamonix Valley, since “everyone” had already been there. Two other prominent Romantics, Percy Bysshe and Mary Shelley, had by that time already had their say, having made a tour of the Alps together in July of 1816. Percy Shelley’s “Mont Blanc, Lines Written in the Vale of Chamouni” offered a quintessential Romantic vision:

Thou hast a voice, great Mountain, to repeal
Large codes of fraud and woe; not understood
By all, but which the wise, and great, and good
Interpret, or make felt, or deeply feel.

Mary, on the other hand, incorporated the experience in quite a different way: in her 1818 masterpiece Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, Victor Frankenstein returns to Chamonix to escape the trauma of recent events. He resolves to climb the nearby glacier Montanvert, recalling an earlier trek that had given him a “sublime ecstasy that gave wings to the soul.” Shelley’s description of Victor’s ascent includes some of the best writing in the book (“Their icy and glittering peaks shone in the sunlight over the clouds. My heart, which was before sorrowful, now swelled with something like joy”), but this epiphany is shattered by the unexpected appearance of Victor’s own horrific creation, striding across the ice:

I suddenly beheld the figure of a man, at some distance, advancing towards me with superhuman speed. He bounded over the crevices in the ice, among which I had walked with caution; his stature, also, as he approached, seemed to exceed that of man.

Set against Victor’s laborious, hard-fought ascent is the superhuman ease with which Frankenstein’s monster traverses this terrain — just one more dragon that Scheuchzer might have cataloged. If anything belongs up here, Shelley’s novel seems to suggest, it isn’t human.

Appropriations of Balmat and Paccard’s and Saussure’s treks would continue to appear through the 20th century, in everything from Surrealist Blaise Cendrars’s novel The Confessions of Dan Yack to proto-Nazi German adventure films. By then, though, attention was turning from the European mountains to the summits of the Himalayas, and Hansen’s penultimate chapter, “Almost Together,” explores the ascent of Everest by Hillary and Tenzing in 1953. As with Balmat and Paccard, there was an immediate and fraught debate over who had actually reached the top first, though both men worked hard to assert that they had reached the summit together (or “almost together” in the language they both agreed to), even as various political forces conspired to highlight one figure’s achievement at the expense of the other. It’s not insignificant that, while Hillary and Tenzing reached the top on May 29, 1953, news was delayed in strict security for three days, so as to coincide with the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II on June 2. A conservative London paper, The Daily Herald, argued that Everest should be renamed Mount Elizabeth: “No race has a better claim to write into the history books a wonderful success story.” Meanwhile, Indian newspapers polled their readers and decided, unsurprisingly, on “Mount Tenzing.”


There’s not a lot in the first nine chapters of The Summits of Modern Man that would be particularly eyebrow-raising to a typical left-leaning intellectual: the idea that philosophers and politicians appropriate mute Nature for their own purposes is hardly new, after all, nor is the fact that Western adventurers have been quick to exploit Eastern expertise but slow to credit it. This is why the book’s 10th and final Chapter, “Bodies of Ice,” is so important, so radical, and such a worthwhile contribution to our current discussions of the environment. Following more recent mountain expeditions in search of geologic records and glacial histories, Hansen turns to the currently voguish term “Anthropocene” — a word used to designate the newest, and most frightening, epoch in geologic history, in which human activity has had sufficient impact on the earth as to alter its natural evolution. But the problem with the Anthropocene as a historical epoch is that its limits are fuzzy at best: finding geologic evidence for shifts that have happened in the past 200 years is exceedingly difficult, not to mention the fact that historians prefer to define periods after they’ve ended, not as they’re beginning.

But the concept of the Anthropocene does have the allure of placing human activity at the center of a global geologic drama. “Rather than searching for a boundary figure or stratigraphic layer,” Hansen argues, “the Anthropocene would be better understood as yet another alternative modernity, a deeply ambivalent assertion of human sovereignty at this particular postcolonial moment.” In fact, the 21st century is not the first time such a category has been proposed; the Anthropocene mirrors a concept introduced in 1854 by the English minister Thomas W. Jenkyn, the “Anthropozoic.” The Anthropozoic, for Jenkyn and the other writers who took up the term, denoted the period marked by human sovereignty over the natural world: eschatological in nature, it was a reference to the pure, universal history that separated prehistory from the time of Christ. As the priest and mountaineer Antonio Stoppani explained in 1873, the Common Era:

occurred when the world resounded with the great word, when the Christian yeast was introduced within the dough of ancient pagan societies, the new element par excellence, the food that replaced former servitude with liberty, darkness with the light, and the fall and degeneration with resurgence […] and the true progress of humanity. It is precisely in this sense that I do not hesitate to proclaim the era Anthropozoic. The creation of man is the introduction of a new element in nature, a force wholly unknown to ancient worlds.

Modern proponents of the idea of the Anthropocene have claimed Stoppani as an ancestor while stripping references to Christian dogma out of quotes like this one. But there is really very little difference: whether the Apocalypse comes via Christ’s return or rising ocean levels, it’s the same view of history as inherently eschatological, and inherently anthropocentric. Like the Anthropozoic, the Anthropocene casts human action in the starring role, both as villain and as potential hero and savior. The Anthropocene, then, is only the latest example of what Hansen calls “summit position”: “a periodization that revives the sovereignty of ‘modern man’ by another name.”


These echoes of the past are as uncanny as they are depressing, which brings us back to the state of modern mountaineering. In 1865, a race to the summit of the Matterhorn between an Italian and an English team led to disaster: the English were first to the top, but during the descent one climber tripped and slid off the mountain, dragging three other men (including Lord Francis Douglas) to their deaths. A few months later, Charles Dickens wrote apoplectically of what he called “foolhardihood” and the waste of life that achieved no useful or meaningful purpose. Dickens sympathized with the Swiss peasants who’d lost “hale, strong, brave” sons, “tempted for hire to assist [their] employers to conquer impossibilities,” and it’s hard not to think of the sherpas on Everest who regularly plunge into gulleys or whose brains literally boil from high altitude cerebral edema. Long ago Dickens saw better than most:

There has been too much nonsense got up, on the renown to be won by scrambling high, rather high, higher, highest among Peaks and Passes — which yield, in nine cases out of ten, no new aspect of Nature — simply because nobody has ever been up there before. But the nonsense becomes ghastly when it implies contempt for and waste of human life — a gift too holy to be played with like a toy, under false pretences, by bragging vanity.

Rereading Krakauer’s Into Thin Air after finishing Hansen’s book, I was once again struck by the brutal selfishness and callous disregard for one’s fellow humans that characterizes contemporary mountain tourism. In 1996, Japanese climber Eisuke Shigekawa and his partner had walked past three dying men from another party on their way to the summit of Everest; they offered no aid on their way to claim glory, and none on the way down, despite the fact that the three men were alive and not yet past hope. Partly this is due, of course, to the harsh conditions up there, which make it hard to keep oneself alive, let alone help another in danger. (“Above 8,000 meters is not a place where people can afford morality,” Shigekawa later said.) But then, Everest is not a battlefield, nor a suddenly occurring natural disaster area — and you have to wonder about individuals who have knowingly and freely put themselves in a situation where they’ll have no choice but to turn their back on those dying all around them. That these people risk their lives is a well-worn cliché; what’s less acknowledged is the degree to which they risk — and lose — their humanity for the sake of a thrill, or a little glory.

But while the “ghastly nonsense” Dickens criticized proceeds largely unabated, the rationale behind it has changed. Most people who climb mountains no longer do it in the name of nationalism, or even of science, and in reading The Summits of Modern Man, along with half a dozen other mountaineering books,[2] I’ve thought back to that frigid hotel conference room and bombastic keynote speaker, and wondered what on earth the point was of his enthusiastic story of death. He was, after all, a paid speaker, so the company that had organized this luncheon must have seen in his story the importance of triumph over adversity, or resolve in the face of danger, or the indomitability of the human spirit, and certainly not what I heard in his almost farcical tale of woe: how human folly and arrogance led to a senseless waste of human life and fingers.

Whatever it is that motivates mountaineers, it’s clear that their stories sell. When technically proficient men and women set out to face almost certain death, the few that return to get their frostbitten toes amputated and testify to the heroism of their dead partners can reap great amounts of cash — from memoirs, corporate sponsorships, TED talks, and appearances on the lecture circuit. If George Mallory’s famous quip regarding why he sought to climb Everest (“Because it’s there”) has long comprised the three most famous words in mountaineering, three other words may be more relevant: “Because it sells.”

Early mountaineers were a product of early modernism; they were nationalists, scientists, and individualists. The current crop are by-products of capitalism and corporate guruism, CEO alpha males (and, less often, females) who’ve been raised to believe that any obstacle can be overcome with sheer determinism and willpower, Richard Bransons who believe success in business can translate to domination of nature. (It’s no surprise that among Everest’s many victims are CEOs like John Delaney, the embezzling founder of Intrade.) Alongside these corporate adventurers are climbers like Ueli Steck and Simone Moro, the men who were involved in the fight on Everest in April 2013. But these athletes, too, are all about business. Steck, a recent New Yorker profile revealed, has been able to live primarily on sponsorships and the lecture circuit by coming up with ever more new climbing feats and stunts, which was what he was attempting with Moro in April when the trouble started. The conflict on the side of Mount Everest was perhaps less about East versus West, or even rich versus working class, than it was two competing business models, both milking the mountain for as much cash as they can get out of it. In this sense, our age gets the mountaineers it deserves.

Hansen ends The Summits of Modern Man with a reminder that we are all tied to the past, and that one cannot summit a mountain without being part of this long narrative, whether or not one is ignorant of it. It is said that from the top of Everest one can see the curve of the Earth. One has to wonder if those who make it up there — the ones who’ve been willing to gamble away their humanity, who’ve come to kill dragons and end up becoming monsters themselves — can also see the arc of history.


[1] “Sherpa” (with a capital S) is an ethnic designation referring to the people who live in the mountainous regions in Eastern Tibet; “sherpa” (lowercase S) is an occupation, someone who acts as a guide and carries supplies. The men involved in the dispute with Moro and Steck were both ethnic Sherpa and working as sherpas. To refer to them as “Sherpas” might accentuate, subtly, that this was a conflict bound up with race, where as to refer to them as “sherpas” suggests a conflict based on class — while I have retained the latter throughout, both are obviously at play here. [Back]

[2] Other books consulted include: Jim Curran, K2: Triumph and Tragedy; Maurice Herzog, Annapurna; Jon Krakauer, Eiger Dreams: Ventures Among Men and Mountains; Joe Simpson, Touching the Void; and Stephen Venables, Everest: Alone at the Summit. [Back]


Colin Dickey is the author of Afterlives of the Saints: Stories from the End of Faith and Cranioklepty: Grave Robbing and the Search for Genius. He is also the coeditor (with Nicole Antebi and Robby Herbst) of Failure! Experiments in Aesthetic and Social Practices.

LARB Contributor

Colin Dickey is the author, most recently, of Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places (Viking), as well as Cranioklepty: Grave Robbing and the Search for Genius and Afterlives of the Saints: Stories from the Ends of Faith. He is also the co-editor of The Morbid Anatomy Anthology. He currently teaches creative writing at National University.


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