Summits, uphill struggles … and what a murky tale of mountaineering derring-do can teach us about Brexit

Brexit, like Annapurna, could be a long and dangerous slog. Shutterstock

At the start of the recent Brexit negotiations, UK Brexit secretary David Davis and EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier exchanged “mountaineering gifts”. Barnier gave Davis a carved wooden walking stick from his native Savoie while Davis presented Barnier with a French version of the classic mountaineering book, Regards vers l'Annapurna, by Maurice Herzog and Marcel Ichac.

But beyond a shared love of the outdoors, what do these gifts signify? Barnier had already discussed his passion for hiking and hill-walking with Britain’s prime minister, Theresa May, at a previous meeting and his walking stick gift may well end up in her holiday luggage this summer. But such exchanges aren’t only about largesse – they have a powerful symbolic element, too.

That was awkward: Davis and Barnier. EPA Images

Barnier, for example, was at pains to draw on the power of mountains as a metaphor for the arduous task of undertaking the Brexit negotiations, reportedly saying that:

If you like walking in the mountains, you have to learn a certain number of rules. You have to be very careful to keep your breath, you have to have stamina because it could be a lengthy path. And you have to keep looking at the summit, the outcome. That’s what I learnt when mountain walking.

This thinly veiled warning of the dangers ahead forms part of a long Western tradition of using mountain symbolism. During the Enlightenment, for example, “the summit position” was seen as emblematic of human self-mastery and sovereignty over nature.

The moral philosopher Mary Midgely, meanwhile, has drawn attention to the fact that the grammar of ascent informs our whole system of values, and that language itself employs “strong natural imagery that links the up-down dimension with difference of value. Earth is ‘lower’ than us, the sky is ‘higher’. The Earth is, of course, also darker, while the sky is the source of light. Light and the upward direction always tend to stand for greater nobility”.

Political and business leaders, when they gather together, also dignify their endeavours with the term “summit”, frequently choosing mountain locations such as Davos, in the Swiss Alps, to drive home the message. Mountains, it seems, convey complex and potent messages.

Into thin air

Davis’s gift of a French first edition of Herzog’s and Ichac’s book (1951) may well be a symbolic gesture of respect for France’s post-war mountaineering glory. But in the complex language of diplomatic gift-giving another subtext suggests itself.

Annapurna. Shutterstock

French post-war mountaineering endeavour was a form of heroic reconstruction after the humiliations of World War II. Like the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community, the precursor of the European Union, in May 1950, the ascent of Annapurna by Herzog in June 1950 reestablished France as a global player.

Annapurna, in Nepal, was the first 8,000 metre peak in the world to be climbed, an extraordinary achievement for France, a nation with no real tradition of Himalayan mountaineering. Against a backdrop of emerging post-colonial anxiety and economic uncertainty, a grateful France had raised 14m francs for the expedition through fund-raising and a national subscription campaign. As the historian David Roberts noted: “Annapurna was a campaign of national honour.”

Herzog burnished that national honour with his narrative of the expedition, Annapurna: Premier 8,000 (1951), dictated from his hospital bed as he recovered from the amputation of his toes and fingers lost to frostbite. A lyrical account of “loyalty, teamwork, courage, and perseverance” for a greater cause, Herzog’s Annapurna expresses a transcendental optimism and unity of purpose that transfixed post-war readers around the world. It remains one of the canonical works of mountaineering literature and the bestselling mountaineering book of all time.

But in the decades that followed, Herzog’s official account of the expedition was called into question by other expedition members. It transpired that Herzog and France’s mountaineering bureaucrats had enforced on all the other expedition members an oath of loyalty to Herzog, forcing them to sign a contract forbidding them from publishing anything about the expedition for five years. The Chamonix guide Gaston Rébuffat, for example, wrote in his journal that this represented “Depersonalisation … a certain Nazification”.

Murky summits

It was not a happy expedition. Precious pre-monsoon time was wasted due to inaccurate maps and the absence of previous reconnaissance. Dhaulagiri (the seventh highest mountain in the world) was the expedition’s original objective, but had to be abandoned, and the attempt on Annapurna was a last desperate attempt to salvage national honour. Indeed, the summit party of Herzog and Louis Lachenal were lucky to survive the descent from the summit.

A gift with a message.

Despite the passage of time, Herzog maintained a tight grip on the representation of the expedition, publishing a heavily edited version of Lachenal’s diary after Lachenal’s death in 1956. Only in the 1990s, did France become aware of competing expedition narratives as a steady stream of revelations challenged the almost mythopoeic verities of the official account.

An unexpurgated edition of Lachenal’s notebooks was published in 1997, closely followed by Yves Ballu’s biography of Rébuffat in 1999 and David Roberts’ True Summit: What really happened on Maurice Herzog’s legendary ascent of Annapurna (2000). Some even began to question the veracity of Herzog’s summit account.

Against this historical backdrop, Barnier and Davis’s attempt to use the shared language of mountains as a form of symbolic exchange belies a deeper rift. Davis’s gift suggests that perhaps mountains, like political unions, are boundary objects that can only be approached from widely different perspectives – and that in the long run the attempt to sustain a master narrative is doomed, ultimately, to failure.

Post-war structures and strategies, like mountains, are subject to the gradual erosion of time. Perhaps the lesson of looking towards Annapurna is that all unifying narratives are subject to revision.