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Of Monuments and Mountains

[This Sharp End story originally appeared in Alpinist 71, which is now available on some newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Be sure to pick up Alpinist 71 for all the goodness!–Ed.]

IN A PHOTO FROM 1912, Fanny Bullock Workman holds up a paper with the headline “Votes for Women” blazoned across the page. Her piolet is sunk in the snow, its sharp pick points ahead. She is at 21,000 feet on the Siachen Glacier. The whiteness of snow and sky billows outward, pressing against the edges of the picture.

Fanny Bullock Workman with her Votes for Women sign. [Photo] William Hunter Workman, Wikimedia Commons

Fanny Bullock Workman with her “Votes for Women” sign. [Photo] William Hunter Workman, Wikimedia Commons

This image has long circulated as an emblem of how climbing and politics can inter- sect in clear, obvious detail: a simple slogan brandished in the Himalayan air. Beyond its margins, however, there are other, more complicated narratives. In their book Two Summers in the Ice-wilds of Eastern Karakoram, Workman and her husband advised expedition leaders to minimize the number of low-altitude porters so the workers wouldn’t become powerful enough to take collective action. And in Ice-bound Heights of the Mustagh, the Workmans insisted, “The coolie understands only the application of superior force as an incentive to fulfill his obligations.” In both the mountains and in the rest of British-controlled India, they wrote, “the principle of equal privilege for all cannot safely be extended to him.”

Fanny Bullock Workman could imagine a world in which women like herself–wealthy, white, Western–deserved an equal right to climb and to vote. Nevertheless, the heights she reached didn’t appear to lead her to consider Balti workers’ lives and desires, their aspirations for freedom and rights to political self-determination, as dearly and carefully as she did her own.

TODAY, THE PHRASE “keep politics out of climbing” frequently pops up in online comments–as though by disregarding the larger context of our expeditions or by censoring certain facts, we might emerge onto a fantasy plane where the messy realities of our societies and the airy brilliance of an alpine summit never intersect.

Yet we are living in a time of overlapping crises and movements that no one can ignore. As I write these words in late July, coronavirus-related deaths in the US are again on the rise. The planet continues to warm. The melting of mountain glaciers remains a stark symbol of a climate crisis that impacts the entire globe. The federal government has continued to relax environmental regulations that protect air and water quality, ensuring additional harm to both alpine ecosystems and human communities that are already vulnerable.

Meanwhile, across America, in the wake of protests, statues of supporters of slavery are finally coming down. Throughout climbing communities, more people are calling for the removal of racist and sexist route names. And in a July post, entitled “Pulling Down Our Monuments,” the Sierra Club’s executive director, Michael Brune, has acknowledged the damaging impacts of the racism of many of its early members, including that of its late-nineteenth century founder, John Muir, who made “derogatory comments about Black people and Indigenous peoples” in some of his prose. In writings such as his 1894 book, The Mountains of California, Muir also praised the Sierra as “a manuscript written by the hand of Nature alone,” discounting the presence of Indigenous inhabitants. “They seemed to have no right place in the landscape,” he declared of a group of Mono people. Preferences for a “wilderness” devoid of human history, as scholars and activists have long argued, contributed to a legacy of exclusion of Indigenous people from their traditional lands in national parks and other areas.

In recent months, there has been “an acceleration of public consciousness not just in defense of Black lives…but the need to transform systems at the root,” activist Nikita Mitchell told In These Times. “It’s deeply inspiring to me to see this level of analysis, dreaming, imagination,” she continued. What new figures and stories might arise in place of toppled, oppressive monuments? In his Alpinist 62 essay “Adventures on the Turtle’s Back,” Joe Whittle offered the example of one of his own environmental role models, Nez Perce Chief Joseph (Hinmatoowyalahtq’it), who declared in 1876: “The earth and myself are of one mind. The measure of the land and the measure of our bodies are the same.”

THIS PAST AUTUMN, I traveled to Washington, D.C., to report on the fourth-annual Climb the Hill. During the event, climbers, community leaders and organizers met with state representatives and policy makers to advocate for issues ranging from support for public lands and outdoor recreation to measures for mitigating climate change. At a Senate reception, a panel of speakers shared stories of how climbing motivated them to act on behalf of the environment and historically marginalized communities. Activist Shelma Jun recalled, “The first time I was 600 feet up the wall, I felt like I was a part of that landscape, that the landscape was something I was actually able to participate in.”

In its richest moments, climbing invites us to re-imagine our place in the universe. High on the slopes of a snowy peak, we might awaken to a sense of being part of something larger than our individual selves. We might catch a glimpse of the world as we would like to see it, one that we can still strive for–built on the principle of equal rights for everyone, on a sense of compassion for each other and for the Earth that is our shared, endangered home.

[Katie Ives will return from sabbatical for Issue 72. This Sharp End first appeared in Alpinist 71, which is now available on some newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Be sure to pick up Alpinist 71 for all the goodness!–Ed.]