Because They’re There
Why write a new history of Himalayan mountaineering? Because it needs to be done, say Stewart Weaver, professor of history at Rochester, and Maurice Isserman ’79 (PhD), professor of history at Hamilton College. By Scott Hauser
The Himalaya have a place in the imagination of trekkers and travelers that stands higher than the majestic mountains could ever rise above the plains of southern Asia. The exotic Kathmandu. The idyllic Shangri-La. The “dwelling place of the gods.” The Earth’s “third pole.”
For a mountain range that was formed out of the same crude geological forces that created most of the planet’s other peaks—about 40 million years ago, the Indian tectonic plate began a long slide under Asia, forcing upward layers of bedrock—the spiny backbone of rocks along the border of what today is India, Tibet, Nepal, China, and Pakistan has an inexplicable, and oftentimes deadly, appeal.
Even history professors are not immune to the question of why the 150-year quest to climb the world’s highest peaks holds such sway in the Western imagination.
“Whenever I go anywhere, on any trip, I feel the need to get to the highest vantage point of whatever’s around,” says Stewart Weaver, professor of history at Rochester, who as a teenager spent summers trekking in the Himalaya. “Whether that’s the top of the highest building in a city or whether it’s the top of a cliff face overlooking the ocean or whether it’s the very summit of a little hill in Yorkshire, what I do—and what I think many people do—is get to the highest point.
“I think it’s a common human compulsion.”
Putting the compulsion to “conquer” the Himalaya into a broader historical, political, and social context is the goal of a new scholarly effort by Weaver and Maurice Isserman ’79 (PhD), a professor of history at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York. Both self-professed amateur mountaineers, the two are teaming up to write a new history of mountaineering in the Himalaya.
Tentatively titled The Conquest of the Himalaya: From the Age of Empire to the Age of Extremes, the book, under contract with Yale University Press, is the first attempt by professional historians to chronicle the Western world’s efforts to claim the mountain range that’s home to all 14 of the planet’s peaks above 8,000 meters.
Intended both for a general audience and as a scholarly resource, the book joins a longstanding tradition of writing about the Himalaya and mountain climbing. From Annapurna, the French climber Maurice Herzog’s 1950 chronicle of his expedition to be the first to climb a peak above 8,000 meters, to Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer’s account of the spring 1996 climbing season when 12 people died on Mt. Everest, the mountains have inspired some high-caliber narratives.
Weaver and Isserman hope their experience as historians and scholars who understand firsthand the appeal of mountaineering will bring a unique perspective to the project.
Weaver, who teaches the history of British India, is focusing on the early British interest in the region, which dates back to the 1700s, to the eve of the Second World War in 1939. Isserman, an expert on American political history who specializes in the study of radicalism in 20th-century American politics, brings the history up to the 21st century.
The story of mountaineering—and the fascination with it—parallels much of the political and social history of the past century, Isserman says, and he notes that the framework outlined in the book’s subtitle is a key to the approach of the new book.
“Mountaineering is a mirror of society, and as society has changed so has mountaineering,” he says. “In a way, our book can be read as a kind of morality tale. In the beginning, mountaineering in the Himalaya was bound up with the idea of empire. That doesn’t mean that the early British climbers were consumed by a jingoistic desire to wave the Union Jack from the summit of Everest. Considerations of personal glory and an appreciation of the aesthetics of both mountain landscapes and mountaineering technique were always part of the motivation of individual climbers.
“But there also was a notion that climbing involved something more than self-aggrandizement, that climbers were bound to others—their nation and their climbing companions—in a collective enterprise.
“Now climbing is almost entirely about the self,” he says. “It’s become a big business—to the detriment of the mountains, to the detriment of the environment, and to the detriment of the more appealing, traditional ideas that governed climbing ethics up through the 1960s.”
“Mountaineering is a mirror of society, and as society has changed so has mountaineering.”
Few mountaineers exemplify those ideals in such stark relief as George Leigh Mallory, the onetime British schoolteacher who, when asked by an American reporter in 1923 why he wanted to climb Everest, the 29,028-foot crowning peak of the Himalaya, famously quipped, “Because it is there.”
Mallory, who would disappear near the peak of Everest during a 1924 expedition, is one of 24 people who died on the mountain between 1852, when a British survey team first recognized Everest as the highest point on Earth, and 1953, when New Zealander Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay became the first to reach the summit.
Mallory’s legacy in mountaineering—and the legacy of the British approach to mountain climbing—casts such a long shadow that Weaver is devoting an entire chapter to Mallory’s place in the history of the Himalaya.
While Mallory often is eulogized as one of the “noble failures” of British exploration alongside Robert Falcon Scott, who died in 1912 in Antarctica after losing the race to the South Pole to Norway’s Roald Admundsen, Mallory epitomizes the “gentleman amateur” tradition that invented modern mountaineering, Weaver says.
The British first took up mountain climbing in the 1800s as an avocation in Cumbria and Wales (many of the geologic formations in the Himalaya are still referred to by Welsh names), and began climbing in the Alps in the 1850s and 1860s before moving to the Caucasus.
“Mountaineering for its own sake is a British concept,” Weaver says.
But the early British fascination with the Himalaya has deeper roots, too. Because the mountains marked the northern boundary of the British Raj on the Indian Subcontinent, British political and military administrators took great interest in mapping what was, even until the 1940s, largely uncharted territory. Even today, parts of the region remain a heavily disputed frontier.
The drawing of borders in the late 1800s and early 1900s had implications for Britain’s influence at a time when Russia and China were launching skirmishes in the region.
“Where the British could go, where they could explore, where they could go on the map, where they knew the lie of the land—that would be British India,” Weaver says.
But by 1924, when Mallory was on his third expedition to the region, the motives for most British climbers were often wrapped up in a conflicting mix of personal and national values, Isserman and Weaver point out.
Hailed as a national hero when news of his death reached Great Britain, Mallory in life was dismissive of the nationalism that often surrounded early British expeditions. A graduate of Magdalene College at Oxford, Mallory dabbled in Fabianism and hung out with members of the Bloomsbury set.
For his time, that was a pretty strong record of counterculturalism, and it foreshadows the tension that would lie at the heart of modern mountaineering, Isserman says. Climbing attracts a fairly freespirited type of person, but most expeditions in the first 60 years of the 20th century needed a sponsor to support their aims. That usually meant signing on with a national, governmental, or agency bureaucracy, all of whom insisted that an expedition’s story be told to maximize PR.
The American success on Everest in 1963 was featured on the cover of newsmagazines, heralded by the Kennedy administration as a national triumph, and quickly became embroiled in the rhetoric of the Cold War and the race for the moon.
Isserman, who has interviewed several of the climbers who took part in that American expedition as well as other American mountaineers with Himalayan experience, says that, to the climbers, the experience was not simply an exercise in “sticking it to the Russians.”
Although they were celebrated as Cold War heroes and were certainly as patriotic as the next American, “they were not big flag-wavers,” Isserman says.
“Some of them told me that they would have preferred not to carry flags to the summit at all,” he says. “The summit of Mt. Everest was, to them, too important a place for cheap nationalistic grandstanding.”
Later in the 1960s, climbing began to reflect the self-exploration and individualism evident in other countercultural movements. And by the 1980s, companies headed by mountaineers began offering commercially guided expeditions, now the predominant—and expensive—way that most people reach the top of Everest. As carefully choreographed as mountain climbing can be, the guided expeditions often use a preset system of ropes and other techniques to assist less-experienced climbers.
“It becomes a pastime that can be practiced by anybody who can afford the $65,000 fare for being towed to the summit of Mt. Everest,” Isserman says.
Isserman’s own interest in mountaineering found its foothold in 1968, when the Connecticut native arrived at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, without ever having visited the campus.
Long interested in outdoorsmanship, Isserman met his first mountain—the 11,000-foot Mt. Hood—and was hooked.
“Because it is there.”
“In a sense, the book represents a new direction in my scholarly interests,” Isserman says. “But it also represents a return engagement with a sport that I greatly enjoyed in younger days. Instead of having a midlife crisis, I decided to write about mountaineering.”
After graduation from Reed, Isserman arrived in Rochester to study with history professors Eugene Genovese and Christopher Lasch. He stowed his climbing gear and focused on his academic career, which eventually led him to Hamilton. Most recently, he published a highly regarded biography of the American socialist Michael Harrington, The Other American: The Life of Michael Harrington, in 2000.
But he’s not lost his explorer bug. Last spring, he and a Hamilton geology professor taught a course on exploration in American history that culminated with taking 17 undergraduates on a trip that followed the Lewis and Clark trail from Bismark, North Dakota, to Portland.
And last fall, he published Across America: The Lewis & Clark Expedition, part of a Facts on File series, which he edits.
In 1986, when Isserman was a faculty member at Smith College, he met Weaver, and the two realized they shared an interest in mountaineering.
More than a decade later, Isserman suggested they collaborate. “The idea for the book was Maurice’s,” says Weaver.
The premise struck a chord with Weaver’s interest in British colonialism and his own history as a mountaineer.
Weaver lived for about four years as a teenager in India, where his father worked as an educational consultant to the Ford Foundation, advising Indian institutions of higher education. During the summers, to escape the heat of New Delhi, Weaver’s family took up the British practice of heading to the mountains.
At 15, Weaver went on an extensive trek in the Annapurna region and was given a copy of Herzog’s book chronicling the 1950 expedition.
“It got me hooked not just on the mountains, but on mountaineering books and on mountaineering literature,” Weaver says.
After his family returned to the United States, Weaver continued his love affair with mountaineering, climbing in the Appalachians of North Carolina, the Wind Rivers of Wyoming, and the Sierra Nevada, but he has not climbed seriously in several years.
At the National Outdoor Leadership School in Wyoming, he was taught by Scott Fischer, one of the professional guides who died during the 1996 Everest disaster chronicled in Into Thin Air.
In 1997, Weaver was reading Into Thin Air and had been following news from France about a then recently released book taking exception to many of Herzog’s claims about the expedition recounted in Annapurna.
“Annapurna was kind of in the news again, at the same time that Everest was really in the news,” Weaver says. “I thought about my own time in India, my own time in the mountains, and my own experience as a climber, and then I thought about my own teaching field in the history of British India.
“When I put those things together—though I had never put them together in my mind before—it seemed to make sense. Besides, it sounded like it would be a lot of fun.”
Isserman, too, says the project has allowed him to put together pieces of his life that don’t usually meet.
“I joke that I’m getting into my inner Oregonian,” he says.
But he emphasizes that the project is a serious exploration of the consequences of human actions.
He recounts an anecdote from an American climber who remembered that in the 1920s and 1930s, the Sherpa, one of the native people of the Himalaya, had so little contact with the rest of the world that they would scour the camps and the slopes to retrieve anything left by the mountaineers that was thought to have a later use or value.
Everything down to the last tin can was salvaged.
By the 1980s, the Sherpa could trade so easily with the influx of Westerners that the thousands of oxygen canisters left behind by climbers pile up mostly untouched, just one symbol of ecological and environmental fallout that has yet to be fully addressed.
The Himalaya, in other words, and those touched by the mountains will never be the same.
“You go into a new area because of your love for adventure or your love of exploration, and you end up destroying it—or at least you transform it so that it wasn’t what it was before and therefore has no attraction to you,” Isserman says.
“That’s a metaphor for a lot of things, not just mountaineering.”
Scott Hauser is editor of Rochester Review.