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Wired: Rethinking Mountain Gloom

This Wired story first appeared in Alpinist 57–Spring 2017.

Christ Healing the Blind, painted ca. 1657. Dawn L. Hollis observes: The image depicts the healing of two blind men recounted in Matthew 20:29-34. Their first sight will be of the mountainous vista that dominates the canvas. [Image] Philippe de Champaigne

Christ Healing the Blind, painted ca. 1657. Dawn L. Hollis observes: “The image depicts the healing of two blind men recounted in Matthew 20:29-34. Their first sight will be of the mountainous vista that dominates the canvas.” [Image] Philippe de Champaigne

There’s a story that almost all mountaineers and mountain enthusiasts know about the history of their passion, of mountain love and of mountain climbing. And that is this: that before people began to climb the Alps at the very end of the eighteenth century, before the Romantic poets turned to the peaks with an eloquence that would gild their ridges, most Europeans feared, disliked and avoided mountains. It is a story that says we modern people and climbers were the first to love these great cathedrals of stone and earth.

I am here to tell you that story is wrong.

An audience of perhaps thirty mountaineers take their seats. The home of the Alpine Club in London–oldest and most prestigious of all mountaineering societies–used to be a warehouse, and the red carpet and heavy wooden furniture contrast with the stark white paint on the walls.

I am twenty-two years old, and though I have reached my chronological majority, I am conscious, as I shuffle the notes of my first-ever public lecture in my hands, that I have barely finished the first year of my doctorate, and that compared to the people around me, I am no mountaineer. My boldest claim is to have summited Ben Nevis, twice, in the snow.

Two friendly club members fiddle with the projector. The screen obscures two august landscape paintings, leaving only two narrow strips of rock, ice and sky. I step out of the hall to gather my wits. When I return, I find that I’ve been introduced in my absence.

I hurry to the lectern only to discover that it was designed (probably in the days when the Club was an all-male venture) for taller individuals. I briefly consider the benefits of remaining hidden before stepping away from its comforting bulk. With the lights dimmed so that the audience can better see my slides, I am left to squint at my notes in the projector’s glow.

This scene occurred three years ago, and I told the story of European mountain history in as much detail as I knew it then. I opened with a passage from Leslie Stephen’s 1871 The Playground of Europe, which declared confidently that “before the turning-point of the eighteenth century a civilised being might, if he pleased, regard the Alps with unmitigated horror.” My intention, that evening, was to put forward an alternative story–a narrative of mountains that were full of activity and written of in terms of the deepest admiration–long before the development of modern mountaineering.

I began with the most recent sources, and worked my way deeper into the past. In 1681, Thomas Burnet, an irascible scholar and clergyman, published The Sacred Theory of the Earth. He wrote of gazing across the Alps, and deeming them to be “the true aspect of a World lying in its rubbish.” From this, he went on to conclude that mountains were not part of God’s original design, but were instead the result of the Deluge unleashed upon a sinful humanity during the time of Noah.

Paradoxical though it may seem, one of the most famous portions of his text also contains a stirring panegyric upon the peaks: “There is something august and stately in the Air of these things that inspires the mind with great thoughts and passions.”

Thanks to this passage, many historians characterize Burnet as one of the earliest lovers of mountains, and they depict his denigration of them as merely a reflection of the attitudes of mountain distaste typical of his era. At the time, however, his Theory inspired a cacophony of responses, ranging in tone from somber to deliberately insulting, and made by scholars from all corners of intellectual life. I found, to my confusion, that almost every single voice objected to Burnet’s negative vision of mountains.

One such pamphleteer was Herbert Croft, the Bishop of Hereford. Infuriated, he led the charge against Burnet’s “Philosophick Romance” in spite of his failing eyesight and then-advanced age of eighty-two. Mountains are “mighty works,” he wrote, “such as strike our minds with a pleasing astonishment.” Though Croft agreed with Burnet’s positive depictions of mountains, he took issue with the suggestion that they were the result of the Flood. With withering sarcasm, Croft concluded: “Surely all men who behold these things have the same delightful contemplation, as he acknowledges to have felt…yet we never looked upon them as broken and ruined fractions of a former Structure, which we poor Souls never dream’d of, till his Theory gave us notice of them.”

As Croft had hoped, younger men soon followed his lead. Erasmus Warren, a Suffolk rector, entered into a passionate dialogue with Burnet, which included such low blows as insulting one another’s skill in Latin. Warren insisted that mountains represented the skillful ornamentation that made up “the Lineaments and Features of Nature, not to say her Braveries.” Three Johns–John Ray, a botanist, John Beaumont, a gentleman miner, and John Keill, a Cambridge mathematician–joined Warren, insisting that mountains were not only beautiful, but also useful. They were the source of many rivers, the habitats for wild beasts and for hardy plants that would wither in the valley, and their steep ridgelines divided potentially warring nations.

Burnet was an unusual early modern figure, I concluded, but not because he occasionally found mountains to be wonderful. Rather, he was strange precisely because he shuddered at them, and suggested that they were not God-given. With the exception of Burnet, many late seventeenth-century scholars agreed that mountains were wonderful, and were willing to defend their beauty and value with their very last drops of ink.

Standing at the front of the lecture theatre in the Alpine Club, I took a breath, and glanced around, conscious of the fixed attention of my audience. In the half-gloom, I made out pursed lips, frowning faces and one doubtful, bemused smile.

I fixed my eyes on my notes, and began to share more active examples of mountain engagement and enjoyment. In his detailed travel account, John Chardin, a jewel trader, claimed to have “ascended” Mt. Caucasus in December 1672, “with such nimbleness of Heels, that my Porters stood in Admiration.”

The group bivouacked high in the snow, and as they descended, Chardin looked around him in amazement. He was struck by the clouds that “roll’d under my Feet, as far as I could see, so that I could not but think of myself i’ the Air, though…I trod upon the ground.” In the previous decade, one Edward Browne, a traveler in the Apennines, had been similarly impressed by his lofty view of the peaks: “the Sun… coming to shine upon the upper parts of them…to beautifie, and gild them all, is beyond the expression of words.”

Other travelers focused more on the actual process of climbing. Adam Olearius, a diplomat operating in the 1630s, made an idyllic Christmas Day ascent of a Muscovian mountain, which was “all cover’d with a white frost as [if] with Sugar candy.”

He and his companions missed the standard tourist path to the top, and instead they spent “great hazard of our Lives in getting it up by dreadfull precipices.” This experience did not prevent them from merrily singing Te Deum, a hymn of praise, on the summit, and apparently sharing a festive drink together.

I ended my lecture with two historic figures whom I suspected would be well known to the members of the Alpine Club: the sixteenth-century botanist Conrad Gesner–who famously asserted his desire to climb one mountain every year for his science, his health, but most of all his spirit–and Francesco Petrarch, who has been termed the “grandfather of Alpinism” for his 1336 ascent of Mont Ventoux. My argument, I concluded, was that these two were far from alone in their “early” mountain adoration.

Having traced three centuries of–I hoped–revisionist mountain history in just under an hour, I steeled myself for questions. They came, polite, determined and skeptical.

The club spoke with one voice: they were unconvinced by my story, by my argument that modern mountaineers shared their love of mountains with either seventeenth-century scholars or sixteenth-century travelers. Accustomed to the bored detachment of academic audiences, I was taken aback by the level of emotion and concern behind their response.

Among the critiques I received was that I had shown nothing more than a few exceptional examples, “many of them already well known.” I had been welcomed warmly and listened to carefully, but nevertheless the conclusion was firm: I must have got it wrong.

I returned to my desk fuelled with a new motivation. To prove my hypothesis–both to my own satisfaction, and perhaps to that of the Alpine Club–I needed to uncover enough exceptions to establish that it was, finally, time to reconsider the rule of past “mountain gloom.” (This term, which Marjorie Hope Nicolson borrowed from the writings of John Ruskin, is a useful shorthand for the idea that Europeans used to despise the mountains.)

I discovered more mountain travelers whose treasured peaks were not the Alps of modernity, but the symbolism-laden hills of the Holy Land. Between the first and fourth of February 1668, the linguist and natural philosopher, Jean de Thevenot, climbed no less than four mountains with Biblical associations, including Mt. Sinai, where Moses had received the Ten Commandments.

Other seventeenth-century writers visited peaks steeped in classical mythology. William Lithgow, an irrepressible Scottish pilgrim, gazed happily upon Mt. Parnassus, the legendary home of the Muses, and its double summits that “kisse the Starres so bright.” Lithgow also penned a sonnet for Mt. Etna, then a popular European tourist attraction:

High stands thy top, but higher looks mine eye,
High soares thy smoake, but higher my desire…
High bends thy force, through midst of Vulcan’s ire,
But higher flies my spirit, with wings of loue…
Meanwhile with pain, I climb to view thy tops,
Thy height makes fall from me, ten thousand drops.

Poetry of the period reflected a similar sense of mountain appreciation. The English Parnassus, published in 1657 as a cheat-sheet for aspiring poets, offered examples of mountains in every metaphoric mode. Women’s breasts likened to “warmer Alps” or “hills of snow.” Star-brushing, sky-kissing, heaven- shouldering peaks. Harshness evoked by the image of lightning flashing across “proud mountains’ surly brows.”

Poets, then, had clearly recognized the mountain landscape in all its character. Had artists? I spent a month trawling databases of artworks for any that contained mountains. Painters of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries well understood the appeal both of close-up crags and of blue and distant hills. I was arrested by a painting of Christ healing the blind outside of Jericho, composed in 1657. It captures the blind men in the moment of their vision being returned to them–and they are facing straight out toward a stunning mountain vista. What a view for newly healed eyes.

There was also a pairing of mountain background and human subject that appeared constantly: the Madonna and Child. In painting after painting, high peaks enthroned the holy pair. In an age of deep religious belief, it was unimaginable that painters would frame one of the most comforting of all Christian images with a landform that was generally despised.

Virgin and Child Enthroned with Saints, ca. 1524. Hollis notes, The stylized mountain directly behind the Holy Pair almost appears to be an extension of their throne, with more naturalistic mountains also prominent in the background. [Image] Marco d'Oggiono

Virgin and Child Enthroned with Saints, ca. 1524. Hollis notes, “The stylized mountain directly behind the Holy Pair almost appears to be an extension of their throne, with more naturalistic mountains also prominent in the background.” [Image] Marco d’Oggiono

Of course, travelers, writers, poets and artists (generally educated, wealthy elites) were not the only people to draw value and benefit from mountains before the age of mountaineering. In the August before I began my doctorate, honeymooning in the Tarentaise Alps, I visited an alpage–an old summer pasture, where local residents would take their herds for fresher grass–called Le Clou. Nestled in the shelter of a high, glacial bowl, the settlement’s place of worship was set apart from its homes, a brief climb up to the edge of the bowl.

Only the footprint of the chapel remained, the altar marked by an undulating modern stela. I stood in the middle of the tiny rectangle of consecrated ground and looked out at the sight that would have greeted the worshippers as they passed through the doors of the chapel: a sweeping view of the valley below and, straight across, a bright blue glacier tumbling down the western side of Mont Pourri.

Seeking stories of such mountain dwellers, I found references to sixteenth-century Alpine villagers who knew the signs of impending avalanches, Welsh guides who sighed at seventeenth-century gentlemen who insisted they lead them up peaks in the rain. The mountains of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were full of lichen for dying cloth, safe routes for droving cattle, and clean, secluded streams for illicit whisky stills. The poor who dwelt among the peaks left no written record of their impressions, but they left evidence of a far more important point: they built their livelihoods upon them. In fact, they actively benefited from the very same usefulness that Thomas Burnet’s opponents held up as one of the most important qualities of the rugged natural landscape. Yet how dreary that sounds, in a modern age in which utilitarian is often a euphemism for “a bit ugly.”

The peaks of Herbert Croft and Erasmus Warren were overlain with a uniquely pre-modern, European array of cultural allusions and significances. Behind discussions of mountains lay a crucial association: that such landforms had been designed by a beneficent God for the benefit and edification of human-kind. To look at a mountain, or to describe it as useful, was to think of the divine. It is for precisely this reason that Burnet’s suggestion, that mountains were not part of God’s original design, met with such furor. People wanted to be able to connect the greatness of mountains to the power of God.

Ruins of the chapel of Saint Jacques, Tarentaise Alps, France. The chapel, Hollis explains, served the spiritual needs of summertime inhabitants of the alpage at Le Clou. [Photo] Dawn L. Hollis

Ruins of the chapel of Saint Jacques, Tarentaise Alps, France. “The chapel,” Hollis explains, “served the spiritual needs of summertime inhabitants of the alpage at Le Clou.” [Photo] Dawn L. Hollis

Today, many of us love mountains as grand objects in and of themselves, and we climb them within the context of a mountaineering culture that celebrates them as pure, untouched spaces set apart from daily life, and envisions the summit as the location of heroic achievement. Yet to state that the early modern experience of mountains was different from that of today does not mean that they were disdained and ignored.

Since that night at the Alpine Club, I met other people who were perplexed or even upset by my dry historical inquiry. One day, late into my doctorate, I looked around my office: full of doctoral students, books and disposable coffee cups. As I regarded my office mates, I thought: I bet none of them have ever received such passionate responses about medieval law, or seventh-century Norwegian kingship, as I have about the mountain past. This was the final puzzle I had to solve. Why had so many historians concluded that people before the eighteenth century despised mountains, and why did mountaineers care so much about the idea that they would defend it as furiously as Burnet’s opponents had once attacked his Theory?

I returned to Leslie Stephen–and then looked further back. I found, to my surprise, that the idea of pre-modern “mountain gloom” had held sway as early as 1844, when the Romantic poet William Wordsworth wrote in a letter to the editor of The Morning Post that “the relish for choice and picturesque natural scenery…is of quite recent origin.” The elderly poet came out of his quiet retirement when a railway proposal threatened the peace of his beloved Lake District. His case was simple: the example of the past made it clear that the love of mountains was not innate, but the result of finely developed aesthetic taste. As such, there was no point in enabling poor townspeople to access the picturesque landscape, as they lacked the aesthetic sense to benefit from it. Better to leave the mountains to such pioneers in appreciation as himself.

Wordsworth and Stephen were not alone. In the late-eighteenth century, on the coattails of the Enlightenment, the posthumous editors of a travel guide written by Daniel Defoe–who really did hate mountains–both apologized for the author’s backwardness and asserted their own modernity in noting that the latest volume finally acknowledged “natural beauties, hitherto unnoticed.” They failed to acknowledge that many of Defoe’s predecessors and contemporaries (whom he frequently roundly abused) had happily travelled amid mountains, admired them, and even built stately homes among them.

The most intriguing accounts, however, came from the pages of the Alpine Journal. The periodical was inaugurated in 1863 to record the history-making activities of the members of the club. It also rapidly became a forum for the re-making of history.

Throughout the closing decades of the nineteenth century, contributors turned to the past as they sought to establish the exceptional nature of their modern sport. Former club president C.E. Mathews suggested defining everything pre-1850 as the “prehistoric epoch” (casually discarding earlier Alpine ascents as “not necessarily mountaineering,” perhaps because they were not carried out by Englishmen). An anonymous contributor likened seventeenth-century natural philosophers dismissively to the modern “British cockney; a man to whom Snowdon [the highest mountain in Wales] is nothing but a dirty and inconvenient mound [but who] will fall into ecstasies of delight at a rock shaped like the late Duke of Wellington’s nose.” A few historically minded mountaineers alluded to the activities of men such as Petrarch and Conrad Gesner, but the implication was that these were strange and unusual individuals. By 1934, the Mountaineering volume of the Lonsdale Library of Sports opened with the bland assertion that “it is common knowledge that mountains were once regarded as things of terror and horror.”

Similarly, in literary journals, scholarly inheritors of the Romantic worldview identified Wordsworth and his contemporaries as the inaugurators of a new feeling for mountains. The same story has resounded through the decades, asserting that not only were modern, privileged men and women the first to ascend mountains, they were also the first to adore them.

The historian Peter H. Hansen has suggested that the “summit position,” the image of an individual, alone and first upon a mountaintop, is central not just to mountaineering but to modernity itself. It is part and parcel of the legacy of the Enlightenment, which created new ideas of individuality, selfhood, personal agency and historical priority.

I have come to believe that Hansen’s “summit position” is inherent not only in mountaineering but in the history it has constructed for itself. The old story of mountain gloom is part of the pleasure of enjoying mountains in the modern day. It is the whisper that, when we look at a peak and feel our heart thrill to it, we are special. The traditional tale handed down from volume to volume of the Alpine Journal emphasized the idea that mountain appreciation was born simultaneously with the activity of mountain climbing. The narrative provides one more way for modern mountaineers to be first.

My research into sixteenth- and seventeenth-century narratives has transformed my own experience of the mountains. I see a double-topped hill, and I think of the mythological home of the Muses. In the heart of the Alps, I find myself distracted by the same diversity of flora and fauna so admired by the three Johns of the Burnet debate. Much of my past climbing ambition has been dissipated by the early writers’ feverless engagement with the summit. But I do not find God in the hills, and I still take joy in reaching the very top of a peak, however homely or humble. My shelves are still full of stories of modern adventure.

I sometimes wonder if I am ruined for both periods: too much lingering fascination with the heroism of the hills to be welcomed in the seventeenth century, and too much the early modern for the Alpine Club. But perhaps this has given me a unique ability. Perhaps if I keep climbing toward the twenty-first century with my seventeenth-century cord, I can bring the two together.

The pages of Alpinist are filled with people feeling deeply for the mountains: heroic, intimate emotions of desire and pain and love and joy. Did my early modern climbing partners ever experience the same panting need to reach the summit, the same itch to encompass a mountain with their aching muscles and to take communion with its harshest lines?

My answer has to be: they did not, and therein lies the real difference between our modern mountain culture and theirs. But, by god–and by God–they did feel for mountains. With their minds and with their bodies and with the eyes of their spirits they sought them out and explored them, took their living from them, and spilt ink and passion seeking to explain them. In that sense, at least, they are more than worthy of having the severed rope of mountain history spliced together at last.

This Wired story first appeared in Alpinist 57–Spring 2017. Subscribe today or order your own copy at the store.