13 MARCH 1953, Page 9

Why Mountaineer?

By WILFRID NOYCE (A member of the British Mount Everest Expedition, 1953) INTEREST in the Himalaya, and hence in mountaineering, is more widely spread now than it has ever been. This year parties from several countries are setting out to attempt Mount Everest, K2, Nanga Parbat and other peaks. The moment seems propitious for asking what it is all about, and how it all started.

I think that these are helpful questions, because too many people are either uncritically enthusiastic over such ventures as ours on Everest or condemn them like defendants unheard. Mountaineering is too old a pastime to be thus hastily penalised. It has its tradition as thoroughly as any cult; and, strange to say, that tradition is a more cultural one than at first sight appears. For it has long seemed to me that the great current of our mountain activity has its source somewhere on the slopes of Parnassus; although many climbers may never have heard of Parnassus, and many more, like that unknown parson in North Wales, may have been following the rocky skylines long before the " craft " of mountaineering was ever formulated. Three years ago, partly for my own instruction, I collected a number of literary names into a mountain book.* I was astonished to find how many, even of the greatest, have felt the shadow of high hills across their lives—Dante and Petrarch, Rousseau, Goethe, Wordsworth and Keats, even Nietszche; not to mention those more directly concerned with the sport of getting up mountains, names like de Saussure, Leslie Stephen and Pope Pius XI.

The critical period was the middle of the eighteenth century. Before that we find indeed ascents of great merit, beginning with the humanist Petrarch's climb up Mont Ventoux. (Dante's climbs, except in the realm of Purgatorio, are impossible to locate.) But these were isolated amid a general belief that mountains were the abode of demons and dragons, a belief fostered by picturesque accounts of the habits of these creatures. By the mid-eighteenth century, however, the mountains were losing their dragons, without finding anything more substantial

* Scholar Mountaineers. (Dennis Dobson. 12s. 6d.)

to people them. They had become a "Uniformity of Barren- ness in Dr. Johnson's phrase, inconvenient lumps which the most ambitious landscape-gardener dared not organise. The change came through the twin influences of Rousseau's sentimental view of the mountains as beautiful homes of the noble savage and the scientists, fairly represented by de Saussure. At his instigation the ascent of Mont Blanc was achieved towards the end of the century. Scientific observations were made at the top; most important of all, the fact was at last proved that human beings can accustom themselves to alti- tude. But the lesson of those struggles is only now really clear to us, and not clear at all to those who talk of a " ceiling ' on Everest above which none can go. De Saussure and his companions certainly believed that they were very near the limit on Mont Blanc. They panted, vomited, palpitated, suffered every ache known to Himalayan mountaineers. Now- adays you will find girls of eighteen sunbathing on the top. In the same way I am quite sure that the "ceiling" of Everest will rise; but not for some time, because we are not mentally prepared for it to do so.

Throughout the nineteenth century the great peaks of the Alps were being climbed, often on aesthetic or scientific pretext. The Victorian pioneers, with Alpine peasants as their guides, led the van. Setbacks there were, notably the Matterhorn tragedy of 1865, after which Queen Victoria seriously con- sidered banning mountaineering as a dangerous sport. But by the end of the century new routes were being made up moun- tains already climbed by their easiest way. Ridges were the first choice; then faces and walls previously thought impossible. The practice was becoming popular of doing without guides, partly because fewer people could afford them. Later, between the wars, rock cliffs of astonishing verticality were overcome, chiefly by German and Italian climbers. As one German put it before a dangerous climb : "We Germans have nothing more to lose." Danger meant glory. Therefore these arduous ascents were a transgression outside the motives of mountaineering. for they forfeited that aesthetic satisfaction in happy, co- ordinated activity which is a mainspring of the best mountain enterprise.

With all this there came an enormous advance in technique, in the art of getting safely up and down steep places, of cros- sing glaciers and cutting steps in ice. Equipment became strong and light. We smile now at de Saussure, carrying "two green greatcoats, two nightshirts and three pairs of shoes," not to mention "a bed, mattresses, sheets, coverlets and a green curtain." Probably our great-grandchildren will smile equally at our cumbersome equipment. And this advance of the genera- tions is most relevant when we approach the Himalaya. Himalayan mountaineering grew over the shoulders, as it were, of Alpine. The technique is only slowly adapting itself; an Everest expedition, seen in its proper perspective, is part of a slow attempt to fit our Alpine ways to the vast scale now before us. In place of a day, a whole month may be needed to climb one high mountain. The greater peaks, therefore, are only very slowly being surmounted. Trisul and Pauhunri in the earlier years of this century pointed the way to Kamet, Nanda Devi, Tirich Mir, Annapurna and many lesser names. Each expedition learns from the one before; and it is quite certain that our cumbersome oxygen apparatus will be laughed at, in the year 2100, as heartily as de Saussure's alpenstock. It may be argued that this high Himalayan venturing is out of tradition, as surely as the Alpine verticals, because it can be extremely uncomfortable and is seldom aesthetically pleasing. Moreover, until the weather is conquered, Everest can never be popular; the climbing season is too short and chancy. (This does not apply to the Karakoram and northern ranges.) Our answer must be that the high Himalaya offer a challenge beyond calculations of pleasure, aesthetic or otherwise; and which can, on the whole, be accepted safely, as some Alpine hazards between the wars could not. The Himalaya form one of those areas where it is given to us, in this crowded world, to be pioneers. That pioneering can be adventure, in which is sheer joy of doing. The moments of rarest beauty, the companion- ship that great mountains engender, the co-operation of local peoples, the stretching of the will—these combine to form a medium in which some men fulfil themselves as truly as the painter in oils or the sculptor in marble. Because these moun- tains stand before them, they must climb them—in the humility, I hope, of Dante upon the Mount of Purgatory. Why climb Everest ? "Because it's there" was Mallory's answer, and I. do not think that anybody has found a better.