Imperial Ascent: Mountaineering, Masculinity, and Empire

Imperial Ascent: Mountaineering, Masculinity, and Empire

Imperial Ascent: Mountaineering, Masculinity, and Empire

Imperial Ascent: Mountaineering, Masculinity, and Empire

Synopsis

The thrills and chills of mountaineering literature have long attracted a devoted audience of serious climbers, adventure-seekers, and armchair enthusiasts. In recent decades, scholars have come to view these tales of prowess and fortitude as texts laden with ideological meaning. In Imperial Ascent, a comparative study of seven such twentieth-century mountaineering narratives, Peter L. Bayers articulates the multiple and varied ways mountaineering and its literature have played in the formation and maintenance of national identity. By examining such works as Belmore Browne's The Conquest of Mount McKinley and Sir John Hunt's The Ascent of Everest, Bayers contends that for American and British climbers, mountaineering is tied to imperial ideology and dominant notions of masculinity.

At the same time, he demonstrates how Tiger of the Snows,, Sherpa Tenzing Norgay's account of climbing Mount Everest, undermines Western conceptions of mountaineering and imperialism. Throughout this theoretically informed critique, Bayers manages to retain the sense of awe and adventure inherent in the original works, making Imperial Ascent a highly engaging read.

Excerpt

In the Spring 1994 issue of the mountaineering and adventure magazine Summit, an article by Richard Bangs salutes the first man to stand on the summit of Mount Everest, Sir Edmund Hillary. Lamenting what he sees as the end of an era, Bangs explains, “Hillary was…part of a historical narrative that is essentially over. He was a figure in that great story of heroic adventure that includes Marco Polo, Columbus, Lewis and Clark, Stanley and Livingstone, Peary and Scott, Amundsen, Lindbergh—all those manly men with knives in their teeth and icicles in their beards and whatnot” (49). Comparing Hillary’s achievement to contemporary mountaineering, Bangs complains, “When Ed climbed…he belonged to a time when ‘because it is there’ was good enough reason to climb a mountain. But this was 1993. Man-against-nature has taken on a new meaning, I told myself” (49). Bangs’s sentiment alludes to the antiseptic version of contemporary mountaineering. Climbing routes up major peaks such as Mount Everest and Denali (Mount McKinley) are so well established that the mystery of the unknown and thus the “manly” prowess formerly necessary to confront the unknown have been lost. Moreover, with enough money and time, virtually any fit person can pay a guiding service to be led up the mountain, even if—as was illustrated on Mount Everest two years after Bangs’s article appeared—clients and guides might occasionally perish.

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