Mountains held an important place in almost every ancient culture. If a society lived near any sort of alpine terrain, it was inevitably woven into the culture’s myths and legends. More often than not, it was seen as the realm of the gods. Perhaps the most recognizable example in Western culture is Mount Olympus as the home of the Ancient Greek pantheon. Mount Sinai, in all Abrahamic religions, is the place where some of the most important teachings of God were handed down. Mount Fuji in Japan is home to countless Shinto temples all long its base. Mount Kailash and Mount Meru both play an important part in many Hindu myths. Native peoples such as the Taranki in New Zealand, the Incas in Peru, and the Wintu in California centered their religious life in nearby mountains.
It’s plain to see why so many cultures were inspired by the grandeur of mountains. Their peaks represent a place beyond humanity. Mountains impose their immense figure on the surrounding landscape for leagues in every direction. It is hard to look at a far-off mountain and not get a sense of power. The mountain seemingly leep up to the stars and clouds. Its rocky peak is the only thing to break up the monotony of a clear, azure sky. Mountains were as distant and insurmountable to the ancients as the heavens above. The gods were seen as a bridge between the human and the divine forces. It’s only fitting that they would call the mountains their home.
Human settlement has never touched the highest peaks. It is simply impractical to sustain civilization at great altitudes. All of the necessary ingredients for a society such as agriculture, commerce, and architecture are made difficult. Because of this, most ancient cultures were uninterested in conquering them. Life at the lower elevations was difficult enough. The activity of mountaineering for pure pleasure is a thoroughly modern pursuit.
A good candidate for the first mountaineer is Petrarch, a 14th-century scholar and poet. He completed an ascent of Mont Ventoux in southern France in the spring of 1336. He described the entire event in a letter to a friend, which has made it into the general body of his work. Being an unknown activity at that time, he goes to great lengths to justify his desire to climb. He describe to his friend how he was inspired after reading a text by Livy. It told of a general who desired to survey the terrain an upcoming assault with his army. Only the highest vantage point would satisfy the general, so he climbed a nearby mountain. Petrarch thought this sort of act was singular to the heroic nature of the ancients. To better understand this ethos, he too would climb a mountain.
He spends the remainder of the letter describing his ascent of Mont Ventoux. On his way up, his thoughts wandered to his every day life. He became pensive in a way that he had never been before about such things as the woman he loved, the books he was reading, and the direction of his life. Upon reaching the peak, he was struck by the new appearance his surroundings took on. He able to see across great expanses into France, including the path of the river Rhône and the neighboring Cévennes range of mountains. He stood on the peak for quite while, contemplating the beauty of nature and why men are almost universally moved it. On his descent, he grew silent and melancholic, bemoaning the insignificance of men’s actions on the larger world.
As with Petrarch’s climb hundreds of years ago, mountaineering today gives an immensely personal experience. One cannot simply see a photo from the heights and be inspired in the same way a climber can. Mountain climbing is a inherently heroic accomplishment. It is only through struggle that the activity gains meaning. No one but climber can bring himself to the top of a mountain. It must be conquered through perseverance, an active application of strength, and the endurance of one’s own will. It is not an accomplishment that can be attained through patience, prudence, and passivity. The climber can turn around at any point on the ascent. The path downward will always be easier than pushing forward.
There is a rare kind of purity and simplicity in mountaineering not found in other sports. It does not require any special equipment except in the harshest of conditions. It offers as much or as little challenge as one desires and at any pace the hiker sees fit. The easiest hike can be a peaceful stroll while the most dangerous peaks kill thousands every year. Mountain climbing reflects in life in this sense. More satisfaction is derived from a hard accomplishment than an easy one. By their very nature, mountains bring out the will to excel and push oneself to greater heights. The ever present peak is in the distance throughout the entire journey. The climber has a constant reminder of what he is struggling for.
Once the climber approaches the zenith of the mountain, he is greeted by an intense and inhospitable environment. The very air itself is hard to breath. Shelter from sun is non-existent. He might be lucky to find a boulder large enough that can protect him from unhindered gusts of wind. No water, plants or animals can exist here. Only the everlasting snow and glaciers break up the monotony of the stark landscape.
The world below has changed as well. The climber is free to peer over the precipice on the opposite side of the peak and see an entire world once obscured to him. Even the largest of trees are now only part of an indistinct sea of green. It carpets the slopes below as far as the eye can see. The contours of the valleys hills are now plainly visible. Cities and towns are no longer made up of homes, stores, and offices but rather a sprawling mass of concrete, brick, and asphalt.
Beside the climber are the other peaks of the range. Their silent majesty appears even clear now that he is on equal footing with them. Each of them in turn, beckons him to ascend once more. They might provide a tougher journey, filled with wider horizons, freer skies, and clearer air.