Aconcagua: The Invention of Mountaineering on America’s Highest Peak. Joy Logan. The University of Arizona Press, 2011. 256 pages. Photos. Paperback. $35.00.
If you have a keen interest in mountaineering history, Joy Logans richly researched Aconcagua: The Invention of Mountaineering on America’s Highest Peak may be for you. This book adds to a growing list of sophisticated cultural critiques of mountaineering that do not simply recount the various exploits and drama surrounding alpine achievement and failures, but situates mountaineering within its cultural context.
As one example, this book considers the impact of Dick Bass, Frank Wells, and Rick Ridgeway’s Seven Summits, published in 1986. As a result of this book, lots of people became interested in tagging the highest point on each continent; therefore Aconcagua became essential. But how many mountaineers who put the peak on their tick list have any knowledge of its cultural history or surroundings? All that matters about the peak is that summiting it fulfills a mountaineer’s desire; in essence, the mountain is “mapped” in his imagination to conform to his own fantasies of prowess. Logan sees Bass’s “Tarzan yell” on Aconcagua as symbolic: summiting Aconcagua was an act of masculine rejuvenation that prepared Bass to reenter the rough and tumble business world from which he had come.
According to Logan, the imaginative erasure of local cultural history and meaning is part of an imperial tradition in Western mountaineering. Mountains around the world fulfill masculine fantasies, she claims, just as exploring “blank spaces” in Africa, the Orient, or North America fulfilled European imperial adventurers. And when these mountaineers employ local muleteers—arrieros—to help transport their equipment, the locals are often treated in condescending ways that reinforce the Western sense of superiority.
Even middle-class mountaineers from Mendoza, the city that is the launching pad for expeditions to Aconcagua, tend to align themselves with the Western narrative. They, too, create hierarchical divisions between themselves and the arrieros. Logan traces these trends back to Argentina’s rise as a nation intent on aligning itself with the Western global narrative.
Logan argues that other formulations of Aconcagua define the mountain through the lens of regional or indigenous identities. A prime example is the Cementerio de los Andinistas. Located five miles outside Aconcagua Provincial Park and often visited by tourists and mountaineers, this cemetery points to what Logan calls the “hybrid, fluid, postmodern identities of nation and self that Aconcagua constructs.” The fact that arrieros who have perished on the mountain are also buried in the cementerio puts their stories on equal footing with those of mountaineers aligned with imperial tradition. As Logan writes, “the Cementerio offers a rich and complex reading of local, national, and global interactions that include images of non-Western, non-male, and non-heroic subjectivities.”
Just as the cemetery offers “a rich and complex reading” of Aconcagua, so does this book. The book’s style is one of academic discourse, but it remains accessible to the intellectually curious non-academic reader.
Peter L. Bayers