The mysterious origins of mountaineering

The mysterious origins of mountaineering

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Activities Activities: Mountaineering

The "feeling of the summit"

 

Yes, on the mountains sometimes we have to give up. Out of some reason we have missed the summit, but whether we decide to return or not we must not give too much credit to people who claim that it is enough to climb even without reaching the summit. In fact since immemorial time the summit has always exercised a powerful attraction on man. Summit, plateau, end of the wall, it doesn't matter, these ones are the end of a long trip, accomplished with the body but conceived and lived inside us. To dwell on the summit and to seal the moment taking a picture next to the summit signal is a widespread action, a manifestation of joy and fulfillment, almost a celebration. Few people talk about it, but it is possible that at this moment the doors are thrown open to a deeper experience, in harmony with the mountain and in contact with the sky.  Spirituality, "feeling of the summit" according to some mountaineers and influential authors, who think that "technique is only a means that allows you to embark on a fantastic inner journey towards the" goal ", be it a summit or the end of a wall."

Clouds and summit signals, Hurrungane (Norway)
Clouds and summit signals, Hurrungane (Norway)

 

The summit therefore takes on not the meaning of a sporting enterprise, but rather an ideal to be achieved. Technique and physical training allow the achievement of the goal, but it is instead the set of aspirations and complex human elements that come into the play before, during and after the ascent and deeply differentiate mountaineering from common sports activities.

It is not necessary to profess a religion to perceive this feeling. However there is more to tell. The summit has a formidable adventurous dimension too, it’s an “unicum” on the mountain, a well-defined point, but which is still unknown to us until it is reached and discovered, a point that has nothing else of material above it. The modern summit ritual takes on a more brilliant meaning if we consider that its roots go back to ancient times, when people lived and "survived" in the mountains and mountaineering had yet to be invented.

 

Annapurna seen from Pisang Peak BC
Annapurna seen from Pisang Peak BC, Nepal

 

 

Men and mountains in the early days

Tomb site
Tomb site on Llullaillaco 6723 m, Chilean Andes

 

Since the earliest times mountains have always inspired deep feelings, never indifference. At the beginning, the inhabitants of the highlands had begun to coexist with the surrounding mountains, considered in the early days as hostile and difficult places, sometimes a real obstacle to living. Subsequently, man was pushed to the peaks by countless more or less noble reasons, and his attitude has radically changed over the course of history.

The ancestral fears of origins have slowly been replaced by very different feelings. Feelings and motivations that have evolved, transforming themselves according to the historical period and individual differences: from the countless shades of fear, aversion and terror, to curiosity, attraction and even to the most hot passion. From the need to survive to scientific experiments, to the love of beauty, to the tension towards a higher dimension, to the challenge and even to the competition.

The inexplicable and mysterious presence of man since ancient times on the high mountains of the planet is amply demonstrated and testified also by the find of remains and signs left on the conquered summits, for example climbed during hunting actions, or to hide precious objects, to celebrate rites or simply out of curiosity and, why not, out of the spirit of adventure. What is most astonishing is therefore the fact that those ancient predecessors often managed to leave a clear sign of their presence on the summits they had climbed. This custom is therefore not the exclusive prerogative of modern mountaineering, but an action practiced even in very remote times.

The first ascent of Mont Blanc and the birth of mountaineering 

 

De Saussure and Balmat statue in Chamonix Mont Blanc
De Saussure and Balmat statue in Chamonix Mont Blanc

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The custom of the ancient forerunners of mountaineering is a theme often overlooked by the official history of mountaineering, which conventionally and in a somewhat simplistic way makes the birth of mountaineering coincide with a very specific date: 1786, August 8th, the day on which the doctor Michel Gabriel Paccard and the crystal hunter Jacques Balmat, both from Chamonix, made the first ascent of Mont Blanc via the Rochers Rouges route, an itinerary no longer practiced today. A formidable undertaking for the times, also considering gear and clothes, which were completely rudimentary, and the extremely limited knowledge of the time. An entirely French story, except that the Swiss scientist Horace Bénédict de Saussure was among the creators of the enterprise.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I used the word "conventionally" not at random. It indicates in a certain sense a rather arbitrary simplification: this climb was in fact preceded by other illustrious and well-known adventures that led man to the top of the mountains a few centuries earlier. Not to mention the ascents of unknown authors, testified by several findings on the summits, and others even more distant and nebulous ascents.

Monte Bianco at sunrise from Aosta Valley
Monte Bianco at sunrise

Various summits around the world had been climbed before Mont Blanc

A very remote ascent handed down by historians is that one of Philip V of Macedonia, considered by someone to be the first mountaineer in history. According to the ancient historiography, in 181 B.C. he climbed Mount Emo, a mountain in Thrace, trusting the belief that from the top he could have seen "the two seas". Mount Emo is probably the current Mount Mussala 2925 m, the highest elevation in Bulgaria and in the entire Balkan peninsula. The news of this ascent were also reported by Titus Livius in his writings, although in a rather dubious form. Instead, the first ascent in the year 126 A.C. of the Etna  3340 m, a high volcan in Sicily, was attributed to the Roman emperor Adriano and in 132 AD also that one of Jebel Aqra, or Mount Casius 1769 m, a mountain in Syria, in the year 132 A.C . 

etna dec2006 vi
Volcan Etna 3340m in Sicily

We now recall in chronological order the various ascents that were successfully undertaken a few hundred years before the conquest of Mont Blanc.

Pilone Giallo (Yellow Pillar), Pietra di Bismantova
Pilone Giallo (Yellow Pillar), Pietra di Bismantova

 

It is not known for certain whether Dante Alighieri, evidently sensitive to the call of heights, really climbed the summit of Monte Falterona and the Pietra di Bismantova, both mentioned in the Divina Commedia (Canto XVI of Hell and Canto IV of Purgatory). On the other hand, it's quite sure the “performance” of another great Italian poet, Francesco Petrarca, who on the year 1336, April 26th, reached the summit of Mont Ventoux 1909 m, located in France, in the Pre-Alps of Provence, with his brother Gherardo. It’s true, it was not a difficult climb - today the mountain is reached by a road and it’s sometimes the destination of the Tour de France - but it must be noted that it was carried out in the Middle Ages and above all it was motivated by a pure spirit of adventure. In fact, the poet wrote after his ascent: "Today I climbed a very high mountain in this country, rightly called Monte Ventoso, driven by the sole desire to see such a great height". Francesco Petrarca also climbed the Dente del Vaulion 1483m in the Swiss Jura.

Only twenty-two years later, on the year 1358, September the 1st, it was won a much higher and more demanding mountain, due to the altitude (3538 m) and the difference in height (3000 meters from the valley floor): during his second attempt Bonifacio Rotario d'Asti managed to reach the summit of Rocciamelone, in the Piedmont Alps, a severe mountain which at that time was believed to be the highest one in the Alpine chain by virtue of its dominant position on the plain.

Amazing is also the history of Mont Aiguille 2097 m, in the Vercors, French Prealps, which was climbed by Antoine de Ville known as Doyac, captain of Charles VIII, King of France, at the head of a group of improvised companions on the year of the discovery of America, the 1492, June 26th, on a project by the King himself. A real climb, very difficult for the time, so much so that the second ascent was carried out almost 400 years later. It was an entirely French enterprise, which the transalpines have recently claimed as the true origin of mountaineering.

Year 1492: first ascent of Mont Aiguille (Vercors, Provence ranges)
Year 1492: first ascent of Mont Aiguille (Vercors, Provence ranges)

We also remember the ascent of Momboso, the current Cima di Bo 2556 m, in the Biellese Prealps, performed by the scientist Leonardo da Vinci (1511) and that one of the Popocatepetl volcano 5452 m, in Mexico, carried out by an expedition led by Diego de Ordaz, lieutenant of Hernán Cortés during the conquest of the Aztec empire (1519).

Sunset over Popo
Sunset over Popo

Why was the first ascent of Mont Blanc chosen as the principle of mountaineering?

Why therefore is the birth of mountaineering traced back to the first ascent of Mont Blanc? Why, if there are several other previous ascents? Recognized as fundamental by some mountaineering historians, by other ones these previous ascents have been underestimated, as it was believed that they were NOT animated by a true mountaineering spirit, but by other reasons. The historians of mountaineering object for example that Rotario d'Asti designed and carried out the ascent to Rocciamelone to keep faith with a vow, while Antoine de Ville and his companions submitted themselves to a wish of the King of France and were probably rewarded by him. If we reflect, this justification is not convincing: even the first ascent of Mont Blanc was carried out mainly with non-mountaineering reasons. In fact, in the year 1760,  Horace Bénédict De Saussure, eager to climb Mont Blanc to carry out scientific experiments at high altitude, promised a considerable cash reward to those who managed to identify and follow a route up to the summit.

Mont Maudit and Mont Blanc seen from Aiguilles Rouges
Mont Maudit and Mont Blanc seen from Aiguilles Rouges

The interpretative key is obviously another: the conquer of Mont Blanc was not the result of the initiative by a single man isolated in history. The mountain was able to concentrate the interest of several mountain men, creating a great mountaineering movement around itself. Starting a few decades before the "conquest", in fact Mont Blanc had enormously attracted the attention of men of science and culture and local mountaineers looking for a route up the mountain during years of reconnaissance and attempts. This ascent clearly differed from the previous ones: in fact, thanks to this climb, mountaineering began to develop as a real activity and to interest no longer a single precursor, but a certain number of climbers, albeit limited. In this sense, it is perhaps possible to consider that mountaineering, as a movement of people, began to develop with the first ascent of Mont Blanc.

Traces of other remote climbs 

What about those remote ascents whose traces have been found on the summits, but without any information, neither handed down nor written?

 

The Main de Fatma chain, Mali
The Main de Fatma chain, Mali

 

Clear evidence of these ancient spontaneous activities have been found in different mountainous areas of the Earth. Numerous are the finds made in the various mountain ranges of Mali, West Africa, where it is now amply demonstrated that the ancient Tellem inhabitants and their successors, the Dogon, who settled in Mali around the 1300, practiced climbing, obviously with reasons different from our ones. Like the Bandigara cliff, on whose vertical walls there are niches where the remains of human settlements have been found, such as ancient objects, fetishes and burials. Using ropes made from bao-bab bark, these ancient inhabitants climbed up to inaccessible places to hide grain and food, or objects of workship, with difficult climbs that today still remain unexplained. Or like the red and vertical stoneware towers of the Homborì Mountains, called the Dolomites of Mali due to their verticality, in particular the small group of the Main de Fatma: the first French explorers found very dated artifacts on the summits of Kaga Tondo and Suri Tondo. Given the considerable technical skills required to climb to the top of these vertical towers, we have to assume that those ancient inhabitants were somehow capable of climbing on respectable difficulties.

 

Volcan El Misti seen from the Pampa de Matacaballo
Volcan El Misti seen from the Pampa de Matacaballo

Another evidence of the mysterious human presence even on the highest peaks, starting from very remote times, was the discovery of ancient objects on the top of some mountains of the Andes, made in the 1960s by the well-known scientific expeditions led by the Austrian mountaineer Mathias Rebitsch. An example is the summit of Llullaillaco, in the Chilean Andes, which is as high as 6723 meters. In the 1990s, several mummies were found on El Misti, an extinct volcano in the Cordillera Occidental of Peru, near Arequipa. Very unique is the case of Cerro El Plomo 5434 m, in the Chilean Andes, which was periodically climbed by the Incas in the 15th century to practice rites and probably even sacrifices.

Llullaillaco
Llullaillaco
Plomo after the storm
Plomo after the storm

 

Official history of mountaineering tells us that even these ascents CANNOT be considered as the result of a primordial exploratory spirit, but rather as the expression of a kind of "ante-litteram" mystical mountaineering. An example of this is the "Cult of the Sun", practiced by pre-Inca peoples on the peaks of the Andes. Summing up, as partial denial of these hasty assessments, however, it must be concluded that it is rather difficult to establish what spirit pushed this ancient precursors to climb the summits. Traces of those ascents belonging to different eras have been found on various mountains in various places of the Earth and it is not possible to identify when and where mountaineering, intended as the aspiration of man to climb the summits, was really born. Its origins still remain shrouded in mystery.



Comments

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Vid Pogachnik

Vid Pogachnik - Dec 12, 2020 1:45 pm - Voted 10/10

Very well written, Silvia!

I really enjoyed reading this article. And also learned a lot.

Silvia Mazzani

Silvia Mazzani - Dec 12, 2020 3:27 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Very well written, Silvia!

Thank you Vid. Very glad to receive this appreciation by someone as competent as you.

Vid Pogachnik

Vid Pogachnik - Dec 13, 2020 2:46 am - Voted 10/10

Re: Very well written, Silvia!

Some of the facts that you are listing are really amazing. Also, I was thinking, what Oetzi decided was also amazing. He was severely shot by an arrow, but he still decided to cross the 3000+ m high pass near Similaun. He could had survived hiding somewhere lower, on the southern side. But no, he went up. That tells me, that he was very much at home in high mountains - already in bronze age, some 5250 years ago. Passing a 3000+ m high saddle was something, what he for sure did several times before. And, when healthy and in good weather conditions, he for sure went also higher, on some easy summit. If he didn't bleed, he would succeed to pass even wounded, despite obvious bad weather (he was probably immediately after death covered with snow).

Silvia Mazzani

Silvia Mazzani - Dec 13, 2020 6:49 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Very well written, Silvia!

I really agree with you, Vid.
In fact I am referring precisely to these very distant events - such as the incredible story of Ötzi, the man from Similaun - when in the article I argue to conclude that the origins of mountaineering still remain shrouded in mystery!
Who knows how many other stories similar to Ötzi's have occurred in the history of mankind?

selinunte01

selinunte01 - Jan 31, 2021 4:10 am - Voted 10/10

Thanks for sharing this article

There is quite a lot of information in it I was not aware of. Great read!

Silvia Mazzani

Silvia Mazzani - Feb 1, 2021 5:31 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Thanks for sharing this article

Hi Michael,
it is an article I wrote a few months ago in Italian on the "Orsaro" magazine of the Italian Alpine Club.
I thought it was worth translating and publishing it in English too. Thank you very much for your appreciation.
Cheers, Silvia

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