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The Cresset and the Light: The Many Futures of Alpinism

[The following essay is one of 18 published in Alpinist 75 (Autumn 2021) under the title, “The Cresset and the Light: The Many Futures of Alpinism.” We are publishing just eight online, including this introduction by Katie Ives. See the list at the end of this story for a complete overview of wide-ranging essay topics and contributors. Pick up Alpinist 75 from newsstands or our online store for all the goodness!–Ed.]

Yangmaiyong (5958m), Sichuan, China. [Photo] Tamotsu Nakamura

Yangmaiyong (5958m), Sichuan, China. [Photo] Tamotsu Nakamura

LATE JULY, 2021: An eerie haze has settled over the mountains of Vermont, Abenaki territory. All day, the hillsides fade into a thick, blue dusk, as if the muddied rivers, farm fields, maple groves, boreal forests and schist crags have dissolved into vast floodwaters. Only shadows of ridgelines rise from the murk, like islands above a lagoon.

I think of the “drowned world” in J.G. Ballard’s 1962 science fiction novel, in which the polar ice caps have already melted, and tropical seas and wetlands have covered much of the planet. For now, it is fire, not water, that makes this landscape seem like the setting of some futuristic apocalypse. Some of the smoke has blown all the way from the wildfires that blaze across the West, filling the air with particles from burnt ranges thousands of miles distant. It is a visceral reminder of how connected we all are.

For Alpinist 50 (Summer 2015), Kyle Dempster penned a letter to past generations. “The alpine style that you so passionately embodied is no longer a light contained within the bounds of any narrow chamber,” he wrote. “The cresset has been smashed to pieces, and the flames are ablaze on the sharp skylines of the earth.” He was speaking, then, not of wildfires, but of ideals that minimalist climbing represented–and of how they were embodied in increasingly varied forms. Since that time, we have continued to witness accomplishments that once seemed “impossible”: challenging free climbs, speed ascents and solos on great peaks and big walls around the world; the first unroped climb of Tu-Tok-A-Nu-La (El Capitan); the first winter ascents of 8125-meter Nanga Parbat and 8611-meter K2.

But it’s also impossible to talk about the future of alpinism without thinking about the grief that has shadowed our pursuits. Without remembering the many visionary alpinists who were once described as the future of the pursuit and who have since died in the mountains–including Kyle and his climbing partner Scott Adamson on the north face of Baintha Brakk II (Ogre II) in 2016. And it is impossible to talk about the future of alpinism without considering the time in which we are now writing–one that can make the discussion of a leisure pursuit appear “trivial,” as British alpinist Nick Bullock observes.

“We have come to the end of a fantasy of climbing as an overcoming of the human condition and a transcending of time and place,” writes the philosopher Margret Grebowicz in her 2021 book Mountains and Desire: Climbing vs. The End of the World. The older narrative formula of a protagonist leaving the apparent security of modern life for the uncertainty and risk of the mountains (an illusion of clear contrast that only ever made a kind of relative sense for a handful of privileged people) appears even more incongruous in an era of global pandemic and political instability, when a summer of heatwaves, wildfires and floods reminds us, starkly, of the unknowns and hazards that many experience in their everyday existence.

“A mountain is a metaphor,” explains the anthropologist Pasang Yangjee Sherpa. “To imagine a future of alpinism is to imagine the kind of future we, collectively as global citizens, want to create on and off the mountain.” Among numerous climbers I’ve spoken with, there’s an increasing awareness of how alpinism itself interweaves with larger issues, from the carbon emissions of flights to distant ranges to the environmental impacts of gear manufacturing, from the barriers that alpinists from marginalized groups confront to the ongoing inequities in much of the mountain travel industry–and more. In many traditions worldwide, mountains represent a sacred space layered with meanings like drifts of snow. As Dine/Navajo mountaineer Len Necefer reminds us, the vanishing of glaciers has become a potent image of climate change, but also of cultural loss. To envision a hopeful future for the high and snowy places of the earth–and for communities who depend on them–can require a leap of faith, a willingness to believe that acts of resistance can still matter.

The illusion that only certain groups of people are, have been or can be climbers has also been smashed. The story of the future of alpinism will not be one story, but many stories. Not a light contained in a single cresset, but countless visions, reflecting a wide range of values, perspectives and experiences. What follows in these pages is only a small, and not fully representative, sample. It became impossible for me to read these essays without thinking about this collection as a letter to the future. Messages of fears and hopes. Voices that sometimes contradict each other and sometimes harmonize into unexpected strains. Words and images that evoke sorrow, anger, beauty, love, struggle or aspiration. Flashes of light from the snows of an unclimbed peak, lines of expedition workers still carrying heavy loads, three-dimensional models of alpine topographies updated continually on computer screens, a grandmother offering incense to a sacred mountain, artifacts emerging from eroding hills, climbers of different ages and backgrounds seeking both old and new dreams–all contained within this capsule in time.

–Katie Ives

[The complete list of essay titles and contributors for “The Cresset and the Light: The Many Futures of Alpinism” includes:

–“Free and High: A Future of Cutting-Edge Alpinism,” by Tom Livingstone

–“Backyard Wilds: A Future of Climbing Locally,” by Brette Harrington

–“Mountain As Metaphor: A Future of Multiple Worldviews,” by Dr. Pasang Yangjee Sherpa

–“Postcolonial Love Poem: Toward a Future of a Decolonialized Alpinism,” by Dr. Amrita Dhar

–“Inclusion vs. Individualism: The Future of Expeditionary Mountaineering,” by Nandini Purandare

–“Khurpas: An Uncertain Future for Pakistani Expedition Workers,” by Hanniah Tariq

–“Sounds of Ceremony: The Future of Sacred Landscapes,” by Dr. Len Necefer

–“Spreading Roads and Melting Glaciers: The Future of Unclimbed Peaks in Nyainqentanglha East and Kangri Garpo,” by Tamotsu Nakamura

–“Seeing the World in Motion: A Cartographer’s Look at the Future of Mapping,” by John Hessler

–“The Silence and the Stars: How the Future (Re)Creates the Past,” by Marko Prezelj

–“The Last Peak Left Unclimbed: The Future of Big Mountain Tech,” by Corey Buhay

–“Do Alpinists Dream of Electric Ascents? The Future of Communications Technology,” by Nick Bullock

–“Sharing Misadventures, not just Adventures: The Future of Climbing Accidentology,” by Maud Vanpoulle

–“Taking Time to Tell: The Future of Trip Reports,” by Damien Gildea

–“A Manifesto: The Future of Alpine Storytelling,” by Kathy Karlo

–“Climbers of Color Come Full Circle: The Future of Expanded Representation,” by James Edward Mills

–“Living Maps of Patagonia: Toward a New Future of Exploration,” by Natalia Martinez and Camilo Rada

–Plus short passages and quotes from Steve House, Ines Papert, Mingma Gyalje Sherpa, Glory Thobias Salema, Jose Gonzales, Bemjamin Ribeyre and Erin Smart, Kelly Cordes, Jason Stuckey, Silvia Vidal, Katsutaka Yokoyama, Elyse Rylander, and Kei Taniguchi.

Pick up Alpinist 75 from newsstands or our online store for all the goodness!–Ed.]