Existential climb to an undiscovered country: As mountaineers face criticism, Stephen Goodwin meets one of their keenest defenders
Monday 27 December 1993
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.
Swedish stars ask fans for £195 pledges on crowd-funding website
voicesJust when you thought you could find a man, get married, and have a baby by the age of 35... it turns out you’re too late, says Grace Dent
sportNapoli 2 Arsenal 0: Gunners must now face either Real Madrid, PSG, Bayern Munich, Atletico Madrid or Barcelona in knock-out stages
musicAs Mariah Carey and Noddy Holder rake in the royalties from their classics, why there hasn't been a decent festive hit for 20 years?
theatreAuthor Daniel Rosenthal recalls the mishaps that almost brought the curtain down on the likes of John Gielgud and Diana Rigg
filmFilm producers sue Warner Bros for $75m over Hobbit films
lifeAs the Royal Mail plans to phase out deliveries on two wheels, it's no wonder posties are in a spin
musicThe 21-year-old beat Ella Eyre and Chlöe Howl to win the honour
lifeFull of the joys and want to help your fellow man? December isn't the time to do it
techLuke Blackall reports on precision engineered prams and babygros that monitor your child 24-7
The ten coldest places on Earth
Nelson Mandela memorial: ‘Bogus’ interpreter made mockery of Barack Obama’s tribute
David Cameron explains selfie with Obama and Helle Thorning-Schmidt at Mandela Memorial
Krokodil in Mexico? Teenager hospitalised after 'injecting drug into her genitals'
Australia incest case: Filthy and severely deformed children found in remote farming community after generations of inbreeding
- 1 Nelson Mandela memorial: ‘Bogus’ interpreter made mockery of Barack Obama’s tribute
- 2 It’s shameful that our universities have accepted gender segregation under pressure from the most oppressive religious fanatics
- 3 Kenyan politician Mike Sonko left red-faced after photoshopping himself next to Nelson Mandela
- 4 Exeter to Edinburgh and back in a day: How one fresher's lost bet left him facing a 900-mile round trip
- 5 Selfie at funeral: Cameron squeezes in on Obama snap at Mandela memorial
- < Previous
- Next >
£77099.84 - £96375.26 per annum + Bonus + Benefits : Harrington Starr: My clie...
£45000 - £60000 per annum + Bonus and Package: Harrington Starr: Trading appli...
£35000 - £38000 per annum + Benefits: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Developer (Win...
£60000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits: Harrington Starr: Senior QA Engineer Tes...