Last night the local film club put on a film called ‘Mountain’ – 72 minutes of mountain footage directed by Jennifer Peedom with a script by said director and Robert McFarlane. If you enjoyed his book ‘Mountains of the Mind’ it’s a natural accompaniment. It deals (in far less depth) with all the same issues – obsession, our need for wild places, the way perceptions of mountains have changed. For someone like me, who does not go up mountains the footage of places I could never properly imagine, was most welcome.
The take-home line for me came as the film (narrated by Willem Dafoe) considered the relationship between colonialism and mountains. “Replacing mystery with mastery.” It struck a chord. This urge to get to the top of mountains is one I’ve always found a bit odd. I love mountains, I love looking at them, but the language of ascent and conquest makes me uneasy.
What is it that gives some people a desire for extreme experiences? Why can some people only feel truly alive while staring death in the face? The mountain climbers in the film where overwhelmingly (but not exclusively) affluent white men. You only have to look at the kit to know this is not a hobby for the poor. It is the people with the most control and the least risk in their lives apparently who feel the need to get out there and seek risk. And I have to question what they do to landscapes in their quest for thrills.
The footage of long lines of people under supervision, following the established ropes up Everest demonstrates that what we do with wilderness is try to tame it. The urge to conquest destroys the very wildness that was attractive in the first place. When you consume landscape in this way – building roads and base camp and ski lifts and whatnot, the very thing you were chasing, is driven out of reach.
Walking back home afterwards, through a chilly winter’s night, we reflected (Tom and I) that this was as cold as we wanted to get while walking. We wondered about the kind of life that sends a person chasing such risks. I find I do not have to be staring death in the face in order to feel alive. I generally feel alive. I feel alive in all my encounters. Being able to feel alive and present in my day to day life, I do not need to shock myself with danger or overwhelm myself with enormous things in order to break through my own apathy or indifference.
I wonder how much of it stems from a loss of mystery and meaning.