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Engraved illustration of mountain range with church in foreground
Engraving from John Chardin’s Travels into Persia and the East Indies, 1686, showing Mount Ararat, Turkey.

Is it time to stop climbing mountains? Obsession with reaching summits is a modern invention

As a historian of mountains in Europe, I have been struck by the environmental questions raised by the pandemic. Early in lockdown, news outlets declared that Mount Everest, long worn-out by queues and litter and human refuse, would finally have a chance to recover as the climbing season was cancelled.

Everest, and other mountain locations that saw restrictions imposed, sorely needed this moment of respite from the erosion, noise pollution, trampled flora and disrupted fauna that come with climbing tourism.

As the world shut down, global carbon emissions also dropped radically. Hunting for positives in the early days of lockdown, people wondered whether the pandemic could produce answers to the environmental crisis.

Men loading bags of rubbish onto vehicle.
Major rubbish clear-up at Mount Everest, 2018. EPA

But since restrictions eased, there has been depressing news. Revisited beauty spots have been scattered with litter. With social distancing ongoing, the carbon emissions saved in lockdown are expected to be exceeded by pollution from individual car journeys – including long drives to faraway mountains. Inevitably, Mount Everest is about to reopen for the autumn climbing season.

Observing all this, I wonder whether my research into mountains might help explain how we engage with the environment today – and even offer alternatives.

Aiming for the summit

Four hundred years ago, or so the traditional story goes, Europeans didn’t appreciate mountains. Instead they feared and avoided them. It was only as mountaineering developed in the 18th and 19th centuries, along with the new aesthetic idea of “the sublime”, that people began to truly love wild landscapes.

I have spent five years pushing against this story. In my research, I have come across great enthusiasm for mountain landscapes before the age of mountaineering. Clergymen gushed that God had designed the mountains with so many benefits: that they were beautiful, provided a habitat for unique plants and animals, and provided life-giving water.

Travellers caught their breath at the top of high passes and marvelled at being above the clouds. And paintings from the 16th and 17th centuries celebrate mountains as a rugged backdrop to that most loving of Christian images, the Madonna and Child, or show Jesus healing the blind, their eyes opening to a stunning mountain vista.

Painting of Mary and Jesus in front of a mountain range.
Marco d'Oggiono’s Virgin and Child Enthroned with Saints (1524). Wikimedia

Europeans did admire mountains in this era, but most felt no particular drive to accrue personal or national glory by claiming their tops. Travel was also less common. For many, distant environments were experienced through the pages of books and their black and white engravings.

What changed at the end of the 18th century – and is ultimately to blame for the piles of rubbish on Mount Everest – is what mountaineering historian Peter Hansen terms “the summit position”. This is the sense that to truly appreciate a mountain, an individual must place their boots upon its highest point.

Journal cover with drawing of two men mountaineering.
British Alpine Club publication, 1859. Wikimedia

Hansen discusses the famous “first” ascent of Mont Blanc by Jacques Balmat and Michel-Gabriel Paccard in 1786 as exemplifying this shift. By the mid-19th century, as people read about the proudly patriotic exploits of the British Alpine Club, summit fever was here to stay.

It seems to me that modernity has also brought an obsession with personal experience. Modern photography, video and the internet would have left my 17th-century research subjects reeling with wonder. Yet still we want to experience Mount Everest and places like it for ourselves.

Hard questions

Looking to the future for mountains involves asking difficult questions. Answers will need to include restrictions to protect wild landscapes - such as limiting the numbers on Mount Everest - and more robust governmental action for the environment in general. But it seems to me that we also need to put our choices as individuals up for question.

Over the past months, we have all given up personal freedoms for a greater good. If you love mountains, especially in the sense of wanting to place your own boots on their summits, what freedoms are you willing to give up to preserve them? The same goes for the wider outdoor environment. Are you prepared to help limit footfall in these places, and the carbon emissions needed to reach them?

Man standing at the top of a mountain
Another summit in the bag. Miroslav Stasevskij, CC BY-SA

The answer may be different for each person, but we need reflect that not all our pursuits are essential to the enjoyment of the outdoors. Some of them are created by a culture with an increasingly unhealthy relationship with the environment. Why race between Scotland, Wales and England for the Three Peaks Challenge? Why bag every Munro? Why fly between continents for the Seven Summits? Indeed, why climb to the very top of a mountain at all?

As I type, I can virtually hear mountaineers sharply taking in their breath. These questions might make you feel indignant – and they should. The drive to reach a summit has been wired into us over several hundred years of European history. It is hard to question this drive – but it may be necessary.

Future histories

Of course, I don’t see the pandemic marking an end to mountain climbing. But if I could travel forward in time, and write a book on changing attitudes to mountains and environments from the perspective of 2100 or 2200, I’d like to be able to record 2020 as the beginning of a gradual shift away from the assumption that every wild landscape and mountain summit needs a human to experience it.

I’d like to write about a shift in the decisions of individual travellers and climbers: yes, to still climb that peak and still visit that place, but maybe sometimes deciding not to climb a certain over-trodden peak at all, or choosing to be transported to a fragile landscape by the written word rather than plane.

After all, history shows us that we don’t all have to stand on the very top of a mountain in order to appreciate it.

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