Existential climb to an undiscovered country: As mountaineers face criticism, Stephen Goodwin meets one of their keenest defenders

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The Independent Online
THE DEATHS of three climbers as winter took its grip on the Scottish hills this month were followed by predictable demands that 'something must be done'.

Commentators asked questions, a minister voiced concern, and a familiar crop of remedies was trotted out - paying for the rescue helicopter, 'compulsory insurance', certificates of competence and winter no-go areas.

Two off-duty soldiers were killed by an avalanche above Glencoe and a woman climber caught in a Cairngorm blizzard. Their deaths took the toll in the Scottish hills this year to 53 - a record that prompted the Scotsman to ask: 'Death on the mountains: is the cost now too high?'

The reaction of climbers and hillwalkers to each spate of search and rescue stories is a mixture of sorrow at any tragedy, annoyance at the often sensational reporting and embarrassment at having to defend their pastime once again. In the pub someone is bound to ask: 'You're into this mad game. Why do you do it?'

The answer is usually a trite attempt to close the subject. But into this stand-off has stepped Phil Bartlett, a 37-year-old physics lecturer and much-travelled mountaineer, with an attempt to define the attraction of big hills. His book The Undiscovered Country, published by The Ernest Press this autumn offers a philosophical basis for mountaineering, looking beyond the truisms of excitement, exercise and beautiful scenery to deeper psychological rewards.

The 'undiscovered country' of the title is both new territory for a particular individual and the mind. Using the term 'mountaineer' in its widest sense, from Himalayan climber to Lakeland wanderer, Bartlett extols rewards rather than listing reasons. Romantic and personal, it is a work of existential philosophy, based on his experiences from the Karakorams to North Wales, and on the observations of generations of alpinists whose reverence for the mountains he shares.

'I suppose it's a celebration,' he said when we met to discuss the book in snow-plastered Glencoe. 'I wouldn't claim for one moment that I've written something that's the last word in why people climb mountains.'

So what is the reward? Bartlett does not have a pat answer. Because at the heart of his analysis is a paradox. 'The essence of mountaineering is to touch frontiers and the edge of experience,' he says. This could be literally so on an unclimbed face in the greater ranges or at the limit of one's technical ability - or nerves - on a British crag.

Though phrases such as 'conquering the summit' are no longer fashionable, they betray the true psychological effect, he argues. 'One affirms one's will, one's ability to do, and thus gains a stronger sense of self.' Yet in seeming contradiction to this ego- confirming reward is a profound sense of humility in the face of powerful elemental forces. Bartlett talks of this as a 'return to the primitive', a process which confronts climbers and walkers with the fundamental realities of warmth, shelter, food, movement in harmony with the land or rock face, and death.

'Suddenly we realise that: in modern life we are indeed 'dangerously detached from the basic facts of existence', taking things for granted and never seeing them at first hand, only on TV.'

Nothing demonstrates Western society's separation from nature more graphically, he suggests, than people's inability to accept its tantrums. 'We think weather patterns are there just for our benefit, and are absurdly affronted when trains grind to a halt and cars get stuck in snow drifts.'

The words seemed apposite as we parked in Glencoe three days before Christmas and pondered our prospects in heavy snow fall. We had hoped to do one of the classic ridge climbs on Buachaille Etive Mor, the 1,011-metre peak commanding the head of the glen. But its lower slopes were barely visible and we opted for an ascent on skis and traverse of the easier-angled hills to the north. Taking decisions and having to bear the consequences is another of mountaineering's mixed blessings. We had not been under way an hour when the snow stopped, the clouds parted and the Buach aille appeared in all its glory, prompting a twinge of 'if only'.

However other tantrums followed and Bartlett was spared the challenge of an appropriate philosophical comment at the cairn on the 901m top. A gale-force blast of snow and spindrift rendered speech impossible and retreat more than prudent.

Bartlett hopes the book will strike chords with other climbers and walkers and perhaps enable them better to defend their freedom to go into the hills and get into sticky situations.

'It is as if people who risk their lives are being more than a nuisance, they are questioning the very basis of society. They are being anarchic.'

Bartlett believes that anyone wanting to deal with access or safety in the mountains should first be informed by the evidence of the psychology of those who go there. 'This might mean that there aren't nice simple ways in which things can be done, nice neat ways in which everybody loves the mountains and nobody ever gets killed.'

The Undiscovered Country by Phil Bartlett; The Ernest Press, 1 Thomas Street, Holyhead, Gwynedd LL65 1RR; pounds 15.95.

(Photographs omitted)