Vertical Margins: Mountaineering and the Landscapes of Neoimperialism by Reuben Ellis


By Wesley Burnett

Climbing for Mother, God and Country

Carabiners, those metal D-rings used by mountain climbers, make good key rings and give their owners status. So do items of clothing that suggest the wearer is a climber. Once the bailiwick of specialty shops that also sell canoes, mountain tents, and sleeping bags suitable for comfortable dozing in a deep freeze, a climber’s wardrobe can now be bought in classy boutiques by people whose idea of outdoor adventure is putting the cat out on a stormy night. Fifty-five American colleges and universities offer a major in ‘outdoor adventure education’, a curriculum that treats climbing as next to Godliness. In Lander, Wyoming, the National Outdoor Leadership School does a land-office business that includes exporting this curious fad, climbing, to some of the poorest places in the world.

By the beginning of the 20th century, poets and gentlemen-sportsmen, the original climbing enthusiasts, surrendered the field to explorers who camouflaged their imperialist intentions with a thin veneer of science. Only in recent decades has climbing re-emerged as a sport, now de-politicized and democratized. Ellis observes that the writings of mountaineers in these several phases is remarkably different. Characterized by a cool indifference to danger, discomfort, disaster and death, the narratives produced by the period of exploration are the most astonishing. If the mountaineers as explorers/scientists are not telling us about the rigors of mountaineering, what else, Ellis wonders, are they not telling us? Answering this question is the purpose of this book and the answer, obviously, is that mountaineering as exploration/science was also a political project, an exercise in western imperialism.

Ellis, however, enriches the obvious with considerable detail and fresh insight. He begins by examining what European didn’t know, or thought they didn’t know, about the world in the early 20th century. Filling this void was the responsibility of various national geographical societies that produced a voluminous literature, itself a form of pop culture in its day. He then focuses his attention of three different climbers. First is Halford Mackinder’s 1899 climb of Mt. Kenya, a unique event in Mackinder’s life that engendered the ‘geographical pivot’ theory, a murky, controversial idea that control of the heartland, an uncertain place somewhere in Asia, or possibly Africa, leads to control of the “world island,” and consequently the world. Mackinder was still producing new versions as late as 1943. To get to Mt. Kenya, Mackinder traveled through a landscape devastated by building the conveniences that allowed him to pass through the desolation in the first place, a fact that escaped him entirely. Some geographer! He is still worshipped at Oxford University, though the rest of us wonder why. Second is the American Annie Smith Park who explored Huascarán and Illampu in South America in the first decade of the 20th century. Her narratives are gripping adventures with a gender-laden subtext. Something of a hero in feminist circles, Park thought that men were genetically adapted only for walking downhill. Primarily, however, she was an advocate for crass economic imperialism. Finally, John Baptist Noel was the photographer for the Mt. Everest climbs in the early 1920’s. Not much of a mountaineer himself, he was content to film the events and from the goodly distance of two or three miles at that. Here, then, is his contribution, the application of technology to achieve the post-modern spectator view of events for which tourists are often criticized. Why bother with all this risky climbing nonsense when we can just buy a ticket, fly in, frame our shots, and get out?

Ellis’ essays are an interesting and important contribution to both our understanding of mountaineering and to the history of geographic thought and literature. This will be the book’s primary readership: mountain climbers and students, probably doctoral candidates, in geography. If, however, the book is relegated to such a narrow audience, a considerable hurt will have been done to America’s reading public. In his epilogue, Ellis compares two short plays about mountaineering. The earlier one places events in the context of the rise of Nazism and portrays ‘the race to the top’ as a project symbolizing important nationalistic objectives, for everyone, that is, except the climber who knows the mountain is just a mountain, without further meaning. In the latter, the story takes place in a contemporary, recreational setting. As the climb evolves from a merely fun adventure to a crisis, one of the characters reflects that this is, for heaven’s sake, his pass-time, not his life.

The observation makes Ellis’ point clear that our presently de-politicized recreation and leisure time activities, be they mountaineering, river floating, bird watching or golf, are anything but de-politicized. Consequently, the book could just as well be about golf or bird watching as mountaineering. In the face of globalization, our pleasures are activities laden with economic and political meaning that encourage us to ‘seek out connections between culture and empire, geography and literature’. Ellis’ book, consequently, should be required reading by all those who wish to take their leisure and recreation seriously, and that is pretty much all of us.

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