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The End of One Beginning

[This Sharp End story originally appeared in Alpinist 73, 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 73 for all the goodness!–Ed.]

Jebel Musa in the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt, often thought to be Mt. Sinai. [Photo] Mohammed Moussa, Wikimedia

Jebel Musa in the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt, often thought to be Mt. Sinai. [Photo] Mohammed Moussa, Wikimedia

Picking a definitive spot where the mountain begins is not so easy. The curve between land and mountain is not built for subdivision. Should you start where a climber starts using his hands? Or where the glacier ends?… History also resists subdivision.

–Daniel Arnold, Early Days in the Range of Light, 2009

DURING THE FOURTH CENTURY, Egeria clambered up the rocky slopes of Mt. Sinai, following a swell of longing for sacred places that might have drawn her for thousands of kilometers from a home somewhere within the borders of modern-day France or Spain. The cadence of her footfalls merged with the prayers of local monks. “These mountains are ascended with infinite toil,” she wrote to her friends, “for you cannot go up gently by a spiral track, as we say snail-shell wise, but you climb straight up the whole way, as if up a wall.” On the summit, she marveled at the distant glint of the Red Sea. Peaks that once appeared immensely high had dwindled to small bumps. “All so much below us as to be scarcely credible,” she observed. At last, she concluded, she’d “fulfilled all the desire with which we had hastened to ascend.”

A SEVENTH-CENTURY SPANISH MONK, Valerius, extolled Egeria in terms that might depict a prototypical mountaineering hero: “Nothing could hold her back, whether it was the labor of traveling the whole world, the perils of seas and rivers, the dread crags and fearsome mountains.” Valerius attributed Egeria’s ascents of holy summits to “God’s help,” but also to “her own unconquerable bravery” and “iron strength.” Curiously, for a long time, Egeria’s name rarely appeared in subsequent histories of mountaineering. More often, writers described the Italian poet Francesco Petrarch as the “first” European mountaineer, in the “modern” sense of the word–though the tale of his 1336 ascent of Mont Ventoux took place more than 900 years after Egeria’s story, and on a lower and less craggy mountain than Jebel Musa, the 2285- meter peak in the Sinai Peninsula often believed to be the one that Egeria climbed. Near the start of his narrative, however, Petrarch wrote, “My only motive was to see what so great an elevation had to offer,” a statement that led some chroniclers to declare him a founder of “mountaineering for mountaineering’s sake.”

Petrarch himself didn’t claim utter originality. In a letter to his spiritual mentor, Dionisio da Borgo San Sepolcro, he alluded to an ancient tale that inspired him. According to Roman historian Livy, King Philip of Macedon’s expedition had headed up Mt. Haemus in the hopes of gaining a panorama of the Adriatic Sea, the Alps and the Black Sea that would aid his military strategies. (Livy found the report of the view dubious.) Petrarch also described a local shepherd who had made a prior ascent and who showed him and his companions a faint, rocky path. As Petrarch sought easier ways, he realized his detours took him farther from the summit. His desire to find a less steep trail, he concluded, represented his attraction to “low and worldly pleasures,” while commitment to the direct route symbolized the difficult journey to God. On the apex, at last, Petrarch opened Saint Augustine’s Confessions–Dionisio’s gift to him–at random. “And men go about to wonder at the heights of the mountains,” Petrarch read out loud, “but themselves they consider not.” Petrarch felt ashamed. He’d let himself become absorbed by the finite wonders of the earth, instead of focusing on the infinite grandeur of the soul. “Then, in truth, I was satisfied that I had seen enough of the mountain,” he declared. “I turned my inward eye upon myself.”

Current historians debate whether Petrarch hiked up a real mountain or whether he merely intended the tale as an allegory of spiritual life. Even if Petrarch did plod all the way to the summit, he may have altered his account to suit his themes–perhaps to please his reader, who was, after all, a monk concerned about the state of Petrarch’s soul. Whatever Petrarch’s motivations might have been, the story of his climb is far more complex than anything undertaken purely for fun. In retrospect, his ascent of Mont Ventoux might represent a different benchmark: an origin myth of Western climbing history that reminds us of the fallacies of taking some “firsts” too literally.

NOTIONS OF “FIRSTS” have long been central to many narrations of climbing. And yet there are undercurrents, often scarcely acknowledged, to decisions about whose feat is “significant” enough to count. As historian Peter Hansen observes in his 2013 book, The Summits of Modern Man, the choice of a founder reflects something of a desire for a simplified tale about a singular, heroic individual, rather than the more complicated and overlapping actions of multiple groups in many regions over time.

A seeker of the “beginning” of European alpinism could have numerous options, each one reflecting different ways of starting the story. In Life of Hadrian, Aelius Spartianus wrote of how second-century Roman emperor Hadrian made the ascent of Mt. Etna, in Sicily, to contemplate “the sunrise, which has many colors, they say, like a rainbow.” As far back as the eleventh century, people strove to summit 3537-meter Rochemelon, believed (erroneously) to be the highest peak in the Alps and to contain a hidden treasure. According to myth, an irate spirit defended its apex with blasts of smoky mist and loose rocks. (The hazards, at least, sound real, though the supernatural cause might be in doubt.) Clad in iron-spiked boots, local guides, known as marrons, probed for crevasses with long poles while they led medieval travelers over snowy passes. Villagers scrambled along narrow ledges to hunt surefooted chamois and up steep faces to find quartz crystals. According to Roger Frison-Roche and Sylvain Jouty’s 1996 History of Mountain Climbing, Alpine residents carried out such quests to the very top of 4000-meter Les Droites and 3856- meter Les Courtes, “which raises the question of how many other of today’s famous summits were also scaled.”

Stories abound of early ascensionists seeking adventure, novelties or sheer joy. Among them, during the thirteenth century, King Pierre III of Aragon reportedly became determined to discover what lay atop Canigou in the Pyrenees. He braved lightning and hail to solo the steep-flanked peak, after failing to persuade his knights that the “honor and glory” were worth the pain. (When the king threw a stone into the summit lake, a giant-tailed dragon flapped its wings at him, or so the story goes in The Chronicle of Salimbene di Adam.) In 1511 the artist Leonardo da Vinci took notes on the quality of light and the glimmer of ice atop Monte Bo in Italy. In 1536 Swiss poet Joannes Rhellicanus recounted in heroic verse a picnic that he and his friends held on the summit of Stockhorn in the Bernese Alps. And in his sixteenth-century account of nearby Niesen, Swiss professor Benoit Marti described many “inscriptions, verses and proverbs” carved into rocks by previous ascensionists who summited “for their pleasure.” One Greek engraving, in particular, appealed to Marti: “the love of mountains is best.'”

“IT IS NECESSARY TO BE PRECISE first of all about the sense in which we use the word ‘Alpinism,'” Victorian mountaineer W.A.B. Coolidge insisted, as he decided which ascents belonged in that category. In Josias Simler and the Origins of Alpinism up to 1600 (published in French), he presented his own lists of “firsts”: Petrarch was “the first alpinist inspired by the love of the mountain”; Bonifaco Rotario, a fourteenth-century Piedmont nobleman who carried a triptych to the top of the much-coveted Rochemelon, was “the first ascensionist of a high snowy peak”; the unnamed marrons who dragged the lord of Villamont up the same summit in 1588, wearing early crampons on their hands and feet, were the first to resemble “modern” mountain guides; and sixteenth- century Swiss naturalist Conrad Gessner, who elaborated on the delight of imagining oneself in a realm of clouds and the “profound and religious silence” of mountaintops, composed “the first detailed exhibition of the alpine aesthetic.”

“We must, however, reserve the name of ‘first climber’ to Antoine de Ville,” Coolidge insisted, “the predecessor of all ardent spirits who love to do battle with the difficulties of a mountain climb.” In 1492, under the orders of the French king, Antoine de Ville and his companions scaled the sheer precipices of Mont Aiguille in the Vercors. To Coolidge, there was “a flavor of modern alpinism in the account of this ascent–to launch oneself with courage against a summit reputed to be inaccessible and to vanquish it with the help of ladders and other equipment.” To a reader today, the nationalist purpose and the heavy reliance on gear might prefigure siege-style climbing. Coolidge himself explicitly linked de Ville’s ascent with symbols of imperial conquest, comparing it to Columbus’s voyages: “One often takes the date of 1492 (or 1494) as the start of modern history in general.”

IN MANY WAYS, efforts to designate a “first mountaineer” in Europe or other regions, represent “a sleight of hand,” as British historian Dawn Hollis notes in a 2019 article for ISLE: “By defining mountain appreciation, or mountain climbing, in very narrow terms, the author could firmly claim the summit position for their chosen victor.”

Starting around Coolidge’s time, as Swiss mountain historian Jon Mathieu explains in The Third Dimension, a “formula” arose in which European writers began to claim that no one–apart from Petrarch, de Ville and a handful of other prominent men–had truly appreciated the beauty of the Alps, let alone climbed in them for pleasure, before the arrival of well-to-do, late- eighteenth-century tourists. Nineteenth-century British alpinists, such as Alpine Club president C.E. Mathews, went so far as to suggest that the English had invented mountaineering.

A more nuanced and accurate history would include a wide range of approaches to peaks since the early days, as Hollis, Mathieu and other current scholars have observed. But by appointing themselves as the “first,” upper- and middle-class Victorians could claim a special relationship with alpine landscapes. In his influential 1871 book The Playground of Europe, British climber Leslie Stephen (who disliked encountering working-class travelers) insisted that “mountain scenery is the antithesis…of the commonplace” and that visiting alpinists (like himself ) loved and understood the heights better than anyone else.

For a long time, mountaineer had meant someone who lived in the mountains. As Victorian climbers adapted its significance to describe only their own identity, they emphasized their status as protagonists in mountain tales, allegedly above “porters” and “guides,” as well as other alpine villagers. And when the Victorians and their successors ventured farther abroad, they used similar terminology to try to distinguish their feats from those of local residents. In his 1918 memoir The Playground of the Far East, Walter Weston declared that Kobo Daishi–part of a tradition of Japanese monks who have summited spiry peaks since the sixth century–should be considered “a worshipper among the mountains,” not a mountaineer.

Indigenous narratives tell a different story. Around the world, there are countless traces of journeys by local people who have both dwelled and climbed in mountain regions since time immemorial, undertaking pilgrimages and ceremonies, hunting and trading, seeking visions or refuge, or exploring out of curiosity and wonder, forming deeper connections to peaks than conquerors ever could. In his 1977 history These Mountains Are Our Sacred Places, Chief John Snow of the Nakoda Wesley First Nation recalled his people’s “mountain-top experiences” in the range now known as the Rockies, where they “received powers to heal.” In the Coast Mountains, a Skwxwu7mesh (Squamish) chief, Ian Campbell, once explained to Alpinist, “We’ve been mountaineers for thousands of years.”

“THE BEGINNING,” wrote Edward Said, the famous scholar of postcolonial studies, “is the first step in the intentional production of meaning.” A quote that, as Hansen observes, climbing writers would do well to contemplate. Over time, the selection of certain founders has resulted in a sense of immutable formulas, consigning anything that didn’t fit their parameters to a shadowy or invisible lore. By learning to see beyond one beginning, we might recall alternative ways to climb and to live, imagining stories as fluid and multifarious as flashes of light over water, snow and stone. And in an age when alpine ecosystems and communities remain at risk, as we look for our heroes, we might turn, not toward those who wished to vanquish summits or who saw them merely as playgrounds, but toward the stewards, healers and worshippers still among the mountains.

[This Sharp End story originally appeared in Alpinist 73, 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 73 for all the goodness!–Ed.]