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More Poetic Than Arbitrary – Destination, Return, and Achievement in Mountaineering [Part 2]

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More Poetic Than Arbitrary – Destination, Return, and Achievement in Mountaineering [Part 2]
Created On: Oct 29, 2012
Last Edited On: Oct 29, 2012
Table of Contents


This is the second of a two part essay, or rather: the second two parts of a three part essay. The introduction and the section on Destination can be found here.


Viesturs  Philosophy of Mountaineering

Most American mountaineers will be familiar with Ed Viesturs’ catchphrase, “summiting is optional, coming home is mandatory.” There are two general interpretations of this statement, and of the entire concept of return. The first, most simple, and probably closest to what Viesturs meant, is to calculate risk so that one lives to fight another day, meaning that even if one must, at one point, give up a summit attempt, one may return, and continue to climb elsewhere, so that the total amount of climbing accomplished is increased in the long term. The other interpretation is best summarized by Willi Unsoeld,
"Why don’t you stay in the wilderness? Because that isn’t where it is at; it’s back in the city, back in downtown St. Louis, back in Los Angeles. The final test is whether your experience of the sacred in nature enables you to cope more effectively with the problems of people. If it does not enable you to cope more effectively with the problems - and sometimes it doesn’t, it sometimes sucks you right out into the wilderness and you stay there the rest of your Life - then when that happens, by my scale of value; it’s [sic] failed." (Spiritual Values in Wilderness)
In essence then, return is either a means of lasting longer in the wilderness or a subordination of the entire wilderness experience to the problems of civilization – “where it’s at” for Unsoeld. Both interpretations are problematic: Unsoeld’s presumes an educational purpose for mountaineering, a sort of civic-humanist duty to the “problems of people,” while the other neglects the psychological aspects of return and therefore the key role it plays in the mountaineering experience.
The main problem with Unsoeld’s notion of return, a problem which he passed on to a large portion of the American climbing community through his work with Outward Bound, is that it has nothing to do with mountaineering as an end in itself. It presumes that mountaineering is not and cannot be an end in itself and instead posits an educational, character-building, citizen-cultivating function. The denial of this concept is a central part of my Theory of Alpinism (incomplete at this time); working from the post-war continental climbers, largely Bonatti, Diemberger, Rebuffat, and Terray, I intend to explain mountaineering as a response to the existential crisis of western civilization after the First World War and show that no such external justifications are necessary. This is, however, a matter better left for future elaboration.
Therefore, if return does not mean return for the betterment of society, it must mean return for the betterment of the mountaineer, but not just in the sense of longevity. It might seem that the only difference in the ascent itself between a climb with the possibility of return and a climb without the possibility of return is that in the case of the former the climber is more likely to turn around, but the psychological effects of return are far deeper. My own insight into this topic comes from an experience I had on Mount Index last spring. Afterward I wrote a rather long reflection on the topic, which, if one is interested in the full story, can be found on my blog (a link to which is on my profile), although please keep in mind that the conclusions I reach here will be rather different from that analysis. My thoughts on the subject have evolved considerably but I offer as a bridge from Viesturs’ statement to a more complex understanding of return one passage from that reflection,

Sub-Par Decisions

"On some level I half expected to never return [this was somewhere between an understatement and a lie, as I had made preparations for my death]. I have always laughed at mountaineers who say that a climb is not completed unless the climber returns alive, for who are they to disparage total sacrifice? But perhaps for reasons even they do not understand, they are correct. It is not that the dead climber has failed, but rather [that] without the clear and distinct hope of return the entire process of the climb is upset, somehow the return is integral to the experience. [emphasis added] Built in to every aspect of the mountaineer’s journey is the future: one is constantly thinking in terms of preparation. This may be why mountaintop experiences tend to be so anticlimactic: the meaning of the accomplishment is always oriented toward the future, such that the significance of any accomplishment is not in-and-of-itself, but related to future aspirations."
Although I no longer believe it to be the primary significance of return, the future-tense-orientation of mountaineering accomplishments do make climbing without the assumption of return a very difficult thing. This said, one can easily see how this could be merely a matter of psychological conditioning. One could train oneself to be however singularly focused one wished. All mountaineering carries a slightly smaller assumption of return than normal life, and so it would just be a matter of becoming accustomed by degrees. There are, however, two other possible roots of the significance of return, the idea of survival as the completion of the climb and, rooted in the idea of pilgrimage, the inherent circularity in the journey.
The logic behind the idea that a climb is not completed until, and unless, the climber returns alive is that it is far too easy to die on a summit. To climb without thought to return would be to eliminate many of the difficulties other climbers assume, and therefore to be theoretically capable of summits one does not deserve. Such a climber could dispense with a large portion of his pack weight (and a good deal of research time), and then rely on rescue services to get him down alive – this, in fact, appears to be the plan of a great deal of climbing parties, particularly, and notoriously, in the French Alps around Chamonix. By insisting that the completion of a climb lies not in the summit but in the successful return, the standard of climbing is effectively raised considerably.
Less pragmatically, there is an inherent circularity rooted in our conception of the climb. Unsoeld’s civic-humanist ideals aside, the model, even archetypal, journey in the western consciousness consists of going and returning. This comes from the idea of pilgrimage – the origin of our entire notion that traveling is inherently worthwhile. The pilgrim seeks not to be in the holy land, but to travel to the holy land and return; to have been there is almost more important than to go there. This has strong parallels in mountaineering, in Eiger Dreams Jon Krakauer famously compared his desire to have climbed the Eigerwand with Mark Twight’s desire to climb the Eigerwand, implying that Twight’s motivation was stronger than his and setting up a sharp contrast between achievement-focused mountaineering and experience-focused mountaineering. Yet the two need not be mutually exclusive, for the pilgrim, the return, the lasting glow, is part of the experience that is sought. Likewise for the mountaineer, the two motivations are inseparable, the purely experienced-focused will never get beyond hiking and crag climbing, while the purely achievement-focused will be miserable and burn out. The former of these points, about experienced-focused mountaineering, is likely the more controversial, and therefore the issue of achievement will be examined more fully.


What constitutes an achievement in mountaineering, and whether this designation is arbitrary is the central problem of this topic for climbers, but first a point must be made regarding the centrality of achievement in mountaineering. The easiest way to answer this question is to simply acknowledge how arbitrary our achievements are and then devalue achievement as a motivating force. This has a certain attraction to it as it allows us to condescendingly dismiss the great majority of (pseudo-)mountaineers who climb only for their own ego, leaving us, the enlightened minority, climbing not for any sense of achievement but for pure love of… And the dilemma emerges, if the accomplishment of a goal, the basic definition of an achievement, is removed, why then are we climbing? Some common answers might be for camaraderie, for mountain vistas, for the joy of exploration, and for the pleasure of physical exertion. Yet done of these, or even all combined, can explain our notion of destination without placing some value on mountaineering achievements. As we saw in that discussion, our entire way of valuing destinations is reliant upon it and additionally, achievement is a major part of the experience sought in the pilgrimage. To have accomplished something worthwhile is, from the beginning, part of the desired result. This, of course, leads us back to our original question, are mountaineering achievements worthwhile, which the cannot be if they are arbitrary. This is the true meaning of Munroe’s statement, mountaineering cannot be worthwhile if the only reason we are pursuing it is that we are rich enough to select our goals randomly or by whim.
The concept of glory provides a escape from Munroe’s accusation. In the last chapter of his excellent climbing memoir, Enduring Patagonia, Gregory Crouch compared mountaineering endeavors to the exploits of the Homeric heroes and claimed that they, more so than most people today, would understand why climbers risk as much as they do. The pursuit of glory is a search for personal value; that validating knowledge that one is set apart, and therefore has reason and cause to live. This search is central to the human struggle and anything but arbitrary, without it we lose all pride, dignity, and individuality. That we seek to fulfill our need for glory through mountaineering achievements is, to a degree, arbitrary, but never the less it is historically validated.

Mont Aiguille

When Dompjulian de Beaupre climbed Mont Aiguille in the late middle ages (considered the first technical climb) it was arbitrary, Charles VIII said to go and he did, but that was over five hundred years ago, and since then mountaineering has established itself with far greater historicity than most popular sports. In essence then, the value of mountaineering is culturally constructed – built up over hundreds of years as a way of seeking glory – but that does not make it arbitrary, or rather: it does not make it any more arbitrary than anything else we do, whether we are rich enough or not.



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ericvola - Nov 10, 2012 9:20 am - Voted 10/10

Mont Aiguille 1rst ascent

A small correction and addition to your quote:

Mont Aiguille 1rst ascent was done in June 1492 by Antoine de Ville, lord of Domjulien, specialist of assaulting strongholds. The request was made by Charles VIII in late 1489 to Antoine de Ville, one of his captains after he had seen this impressive peak on a pilgrimage he made in the area. It will require 3 years to Antoine de Ville to succeed which says a lot of the determination of both the king and his captain.

The ascent was authentified by Yves Levy a solicitor staying at the bottom of the climb.

Antoine de Ville was assisted by Sébastien de Caret, an apostolic preacher, Reynaud Jubié, king's escalleur (échelleur - certainly the key man of the ascent, a specialist then for assaulting stronholds using ladders), Cathelin Servet, master quarier from the Sainte Croix of Montélimar Church, Pierre Arnaud master carpenter from Montélimar, Guillaume Sauvage, lackey, Jean Lobret, inhabitant from Die, François de Bosco, chaplain and probably several more 'specialists'. The ascent was made by this team of "spécialists" using ladders, ropes and grapnels .
They discovered "a beau pré (nice meadow) which would take 40 men to mow, with flowers of various colors and scents, and some chamois". Antoine de Ville and his companions stayed several days on the summit meadow, drank and ate, had masses given, baptised it mount 'Aiguille Fort', built 3 crosses and a small stone house.

Later Antoine de Ville will be joined by a number (maybe 20) of nobles from the region which means that his specialits had really built quite a route. The story mentions 1.5 km of ladders!

It could well be that after this ascent the property of 'Beaupré' from the 'pré' found at the top of Mont Aiguille, was added to Domjulien, as Antoine de Ville was also 'captain of Montelimar' a town in the area, the king may well have attributed it to him so pleased he was with this accomplishment considered as the first act of 'modern' climbing i.e. using hands, ropes, ladders and probably the first pegs to attach the ladders - but the exact route has never been acertained and how the 'chamois' when up either. But I doubt it as all his descendants were named after their main property Domjulien as were all French nobles, and a property which would not bring any revenue was considered as nonexistent.

The second ascent will only be done 400 years later in 1894 by Jean Liotard, a local sheperd.


jacobsmith - Nov 11, 2012 7:30 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Mont Aiguille 1rst ascent

thanks for the correction/addition. my source for the comment in my article was an admittedly somewhat sketchy book, The Early Mountaineers, by Francis Gribble, published in 1899.

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More Poetic Than Arbitrary – Destination, Return, and Achievement in Mountaineering [Part 2]

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