American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

More About Mountain Mysticism

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  • Publication Year: 1945

More About Mountain Mysticism

Howard Palmer

THE topic “Mountaineering and Mysticism” which has lately received attention from literary climbers in books and shorter papers, is a tempting one. Almost everybody who has climbed at all harbors ideas of his own about it and easily succumbs to provocation to set them down. But we deem it a venial sin. No harm is done and perhaps for someone the air may be cleared a bit.

This happened to the present writer when reading a recent article in these pages.1 It sounded a cool and clarifying note in the tangle of emotionalism and unsound thinking which has become so general in the discussion. The author rejects conceptions which fail to stand the test of logic and points out that mountains themselves are utterly impersonal always, so they cannot possess mystical and religious attributes. Impressions to the contrary must therefore be brought to them from elsewhere. He then takes up among others the postulates that nature is spiritual; that it is an outward aspect of a Personality; that it is an intelligent whole; and that mountaineering has a religious affiliation and supports a theological interpretation of reality. On all these matters the author turns a penetrating eye and, by deft comment, brings out that such beliefs are either fallacious or are merely reflections of the varying personalities which entertain them.

Man’s reactions to the great peaks are, however, numberless. They are also complicated and profound. The effort to put them into words, as Geoffrey W. Young has suavely expressed it, causes their meaning to escape like music heard in dreams, or like a drying sea pebble whose opalescence passes with the shadows of its moisture. Nevertheless, the temptation to have a try at it is irresistible and most travellers upon their return hasten to frame a rational interpretation of their novel sensations in terms of normal existence. Recourse is had to religion, philosophy and psychology, and presently the neophyte finds himself sucked into the maelstrom of explaining the mystery of the universe, which even genius has hitherto muffed most dismally. Small wonder that confusion results.

We do not flatter ourselves that we can resolve it. But we do venture the suggestion that the problem be simplified by introducing certain distinctions which have hitherto been lost sight of. In the first place, it is needful to point out that only the reaction of the normal intelligent person to alpine peaks is germane to the discussion. One who has a superstitious, mystical or theological bent in the valley will not lose it in the presence of a mountain. Therefore our type should be, as nearly as possible, the average man, with or without mountaineering experience. This specification being accepted as fundamental, we pass on to the observation that the mental states produced by human contact with the peaks are not at all uniform. They vary with the scale of the uplift, with the experience of the climber with his psychological make-up.

Obviously the greater the peaks, the more intense the impression. In the Himalaya, the Andes and Alaska, for instance, an entirely different set of influences comes into play from those connected with a summer holiday in the Alps, the Rockies and similar lesser ranges. And they are likely to give rise to vastly different philosophical speculations. Likewise with the reaction of the hardened climber as against that of a man new to alpine work, and with the response of a sensitive, nervous, individual as opposed to that of a more phlegmatic nature. These situations are manifestly dissimilar and ought not to be lumped together in drawing a single conclusion. It may be added that much of the literature dealing with the subject emanates from persons who have never come to grips with a peak. Nineteenth-century poets write prettily of the distant afterglow; mysteries and superstitions flourish in the minds of valley dwellers and in their writings. But consideration of these factors in their many cross-combinations need not concern us here.

It is urged that the fascination of mountains refutes a material interpretation of nature—that human appreciation of beauty cannot be accounted for by evolutionary processes, because, even potentially, it could not have been present in the rock, sea and mud of the primitive planet. Therefore it must have been instilled into many by a higher power. But this same reasoning applies equally well to the evolution of other human capacities which no longer are challenged as products of evolutionary processes: the sciences of astronomy, mathematics, painting and music, for instance. So their seeds or potentialities must have been present in the pre-historic ooze. The sense of beauty is simply the exercise of the faculty of discrimination. It is the joy in certain forms and colors which leads to a preference for them as against others, and choice is an acknowledged factor of evolution. Further, it must be clear that the ability to admire natural beauty is no exclusive perquisite of the saint. One cannot begrudge it to the rogue or doubt that he often exercises it. Morality belongs to ethics not scenery.

However, humanity reacts to more than beauty in mountains. It also reacts to the ugliness of savage cliffs, awesome couloirs, dreary expanses of broken stone and slovenly glaciers. The effect is repellent, even gruesome at times. Must we attribute this likewise to an outside power—perhaps to an interposition of the morbid might of Satan? Indeed not; the one line of reasoning is as faulty as the others. Mountains express only permanence and gigantic natural force. They shed no aura of religion, superstition or anything else. Otherwise they would arouse the same responses everywhere and climbers as a class would stand out as more religious, more superstitious and possibly more fanatical than other men. But this is not the fact.

Thus far, the tenor of our course has been negative. It is time to turn to the other side of the picture and consider some of the positive effects to which lofty mountains give rise. Here is an impression recorded by one of America’s leading literary figures never in the slightest way associated with them:

There was something subduing in the influence of that silent and solemn and awful presence; one seemed to meet the immutable, the indestructible, the eternal, face to face and to feel the trivial and fleeting nature of his own existence the more sharply by contrast. One had the sense of being under the brooding contemplation of a spirit—not an inert mass of rock and ice—a spirit which had looked down through the slow drift of the ages upon a million vanished races of men and judge them; and would judge a million more and still be there, watching unchanged and unchangeable, after all life should be gone and the earth have become a vacant desolation.

While I was feeling these things, I was groping without knowing it toward an understanding of what the spell is which people find in the Alps—that strange, deep, nameless influence which, once felt, cannot be forgotten—once felt leaves always behind it a restless longing to feel it again—a longing which is like homesickness; a grieving, haunting yearning which will plead, implore and persecute until it has its will.

This passage from Mark Twain’s Tramp Abroad can scarcely be surpassed as a mirror of the normal interaction between mountain and man. It registers sensation only—deep, simple and sincere. Its tone is reverential without being religious—a distinction too often disregarded—and as for its suggestion of mystery, this is properly portrayed without a touch of the rhapsody so common under the circumstances and it is only this excess of rhapsody and the hypotheses built upon it which are to be deprecated.

Mystery is a predominant element in the spell cast by mountains. It is sensed most definitely when they reflect the pastel colors of sunset, particularly a giant snow-cap looming from afar above cloud banks in a haze of golden radiance. Such a scene undoubtedly communicates an uplifting stimulus to the human spirit which defies exact analysis. In some it may evoke a pseudo-religious response as a hint of celestial glory; in others an artistic delight. But never does it engender a scientific fervor or pose a philosophical conundrum. The effect is independent of the mood of the beholder, for it is felt with equal intensity on a wearied return from a hard-fought day in the open, or from the ease of a dining-car window. Another ingredient of the spell infusing the spectator is awe. The inordinate bulk of the mountain—the largest object in nature—reduces his ego to utter insignificance. The stark might of the cosmic forces brands indelibly upon consciousness the essential triviality of human activities. This comes as a shock to most people who are so deeply embedded in routine that they come to forget the rest of the universe. Yet religion is no part of it; there is no hint of the tolling of church bells or of the preacher in the pulpit. Rather is the mind blank in rapt contemplation.

The fact is that religion and mountains have been blended so intimately down through the ages that continuance into the present is perhaps not to be wondered at. History, symbolism and literature all conspire to this end. It has become traditional to express moral and spiritual values in terms of altitude. Men “rise” from degradation; heaven is “on high,” ideals are “lofty”; that which is morally base is relegated to a subterranean hell. From a mountain came the law of Moses and the gospel of the Sermon on the Mount.

In mediaeval times, the earliest writers, more often than not, register disgust for the elevated regions of the earth. The Oberland, seen from the Jura or from Berne, prompted no tributes to its beauty, nor were the inhabitants of the Lombard plain more appreciative. Contemporary philosophers could enthuse over artificial gardens, but nature unadorned, struck them as uncouth.

Man’s proclivity for fads has played a considerable part in his reaction to mountains. About the time of the Gothic revival, fashion suddenly took a slant toward appreciation of rugged scenery and we do not find such strictures against it as were conventional earlier. Rather strangely, however, the men who built the cathedrals do not appear to have received any inspiration from the mountains, and though the towering steeples pointed continually towards heaven, we have no evidence that the natural spires of the adjacent Alps intensified religious fervor in the least.

An early example of this broadening attitude towards scenery is contained in Joseph Wilson’s History of Mountains (London 1807), a work in three volumes which seems to have escaped the notices of commentators hitherto. Although antedating by half a century the beginnings of mountaineering, the sentiments, if not the style, of the following passage would not be out of place in a contemporaneous essay:

Upon mountains where the air is keen and pure, one feels greater facility of respiration, more lightness in the body, more serenity in the wind. Meditation there assumes a certain character, grand and sublime, proportioned to the objects which occur to the eye. It would seem, says Rousseau, that in raising oneself above the abode of mankind, all grovelling earthly sentiment, all the meaner passions were left behind, and that the mind, in proportion as it approached the ethereal regions, contracted some portion of their unalterable purity. One is grave without being melancholy; calm without indolence; content to exist and to think. All impetuous desires are stifled; they lose that keen edge which renders them painful; they leave nothing in the heart but a light and pleasing emotion; and thus, in this happy climate, those passions are rendered subservient to the felicity of man, which are elsewhere his torment. No violent agitation, no hypochondriac malady, can long hold out in these elevated regions; and it may be matter of wonder that the salutary and invigorating air of mountains has not become a prescription in medicine for moral as well as physical disease.

While the energetic climber of today will doubtless smile at the quaint insinuations that mountains “stifle impetuous desires” and evoke “calm without indolence,” he must acknowledge that the extract denotes a significant advance in the relations between man and mountain, particularly as the context intimates that the author received his impressions on the lower meadows near the glacier tongues.

As the century unfolded, facilities for travel and residence in mountain districts expanded rapidly. The corner stones of natural science were being lain and man’s ideas about his world were seething with revolutionary innovations. Longer periods of peace expedited these developments. Visitors flocked to the Alps and modern mountaineering was born. By the close of the century it had evolved into an art, numbering its devotees by the thousand and reflecting their special interest in a literature of its own. At last, man could be said really to know mountains. The close contact of climbing built up a true criterion of the sentimental outpourings of the valley dwellers. It enabled him at first-hand to experience what the actual effects were, as well as the reactions corresponding to them.

Mountaineering undoubtedly involves a tinge of asceticism which tends to promote a mystical attitude. Bodily comfort is deliberately disregarded, for the aspirant embarks upon the enterprise with full knowledge of its strains, stresses and toils. These inculcate a discipline none the less potent because inarticulate. He sacrifices momentary pleasure to attain an ulterior happiness which is a superior, completer and more rational satisfaction—often to be secured only at the cost of some privation. But, contrary to the exponents of mysticism in the East, the climber does not admit to any self-conscious virtue in this. He may realize that a day on the heights makes him a better man than he would have been without it, yet he does not presume to claim superiority over a non-climber or even over one who detests it.

In this Spartan frame of mind, he ascends into a new world of freshness and beauty, a world of snowy magnificence and airy spaces whose magic exercises all sense hardship. Civilization is forgotten. Depressing worries and preoccupations melt away. In a feeling of kinship with the primitive, the subliminal self comes to the fore untrampled and revels in a refreshing exhileration unattainable in any other way.

These are some of the delectable sensations pertaining to a day on the heights. Psychologically they are normal. But when impulsive enthusiasm expands them with words of emotional rhapsody and builds thereon religious and philosophical structures, no matter how plausible, reasoning cannot follow.

Take for instance this passage from an essay entitled “Aesthetics Among the Alps”:

Thus Alpine heights are but steps leading to the summit of a throne on which descends power from heaven to rule on earth —and that power is God.

This writer expresses his sense impressions in words of religious symbolism and naively assumes that others will accept his fiat, thus expressed, as truth. He does not realize that it is only the interpretation placed by his personal equation upon a superlative natural spectacle.

Taste for and susceptibility to rugged scenery vary widely among individuals. They are on a par with proclivities for music, art, science and religion. Even with people who are naturally attracted to mountains, the response is diverse. Some are content to sit and gaze at them from afar; others wish no more than to walk around their bases. Only to a few do the peaks speak in a challenge to vigorous action. Yet even to them, a climb does not necessarily carry the same meaning. The neophyte who is entering the ice-world for the first time will gain an exciting revelation of something new under the sun, while a veteran on the same rope will be animated rather by the prospective pleasure of solving the problems to come, than by emotional response to novelty. No matter what the nature of the initial reaction; awesome, mysterious, religious, superstitious, consciousness of new-found power, elation in victory won by intelligence applied to the defenses of the mountain—all of this is amenable to the laws of human psychology. If men were blind and deaf, the mountains would still be there but our intellectual perplexities would not arise.

After all, one must recognize that mountaineering is a sport and like other sports provides its own rewards and satisfactions. Although its memories are a perpetual joy, its practice can be only intermittent and fleeting. That it carries more serious implications than most sports in the way of distant journeys, special preparations, expense, and bodily risk, is no sufficient reason for twisting its significant lessons into a philosophy of existence for humanity at large.

1J. W. A. Hickson, “Mountains and Mysticism,” A. A. J. v, 14.

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