Conquête de l'Inutile

Why do people court Danger? The question is often put to mountaineers, but most of us avoid the embarrassment of a serious reply. It is convenient to quote Mallory’s easy answer about his ambition to climb Everest. ‘Because it is there’, he said. We are aware of the urge to test our nerve and skills on steep and difficult places, but we draw back from self-analysis. Of course, the ‘reasons why’ may differ, at least in emphasis, between individuals, and according to their preferred kind of climbing. All climbers would agree that mountains, great and small, whether they are easy or difficult, present a challenge; at the very least, they provide a strenuous form of exercise. Where we meet difficulties, we may experience fear, which we may not enjoy, yet we positively seek; the pleasure is likely to follow the danger, rather than accompany it.

For all but a few, I surmise, there is a sense of empathy with the whole environment in which we climb: a feeling of being at ease in the mountains. The walk to and from the crag, or mountain precipice, is the more enjoyable for its contrast with the hard way we have chosen to reach the top of the cliff, or summit. And there is a special quality of comradeship which grows from inter-dependence in difficulties and the sharing of the experience as a whole. As we grow older, this may be the most enduring of the pleasures of a pastime which some perceive as a way of life.

Such are the ingredients of the relationship between mountains and men. But they do not provide a complete answer to that inner impulse. At the lowest level, it is tempting to invite comparison between climbing and the antics of our simian ancestors. At the other end of the scale, it begs the question of what motivates the human spirit. I forbear from pursuing the line of inquiry; there are others better qualified to do so.

For myself, I am content that the mountains have, while climbing, walking and living among them, powerfully influenced my life. Ever since I first visited Switzerland as a child of ten, I have looked forward to the next time: to re-visit some favourite crags, or to climb mountains further afield; to explore whenever – and in whatever mountain regions – opportunity has offered me a window. Now, I treasure my store of memories, surprisingly perhaps, are climbs on which my companions and I did not get to the top.

So much for the passion which holds mountaineers in its thrall. But what about a host of other people who do not climb and may have scant knowledge of the mountains, yet who derive pleasure and inspiration from climbing exploits? I have been impressed by this enthusiasm ‘at second hand’, which is shared by a very wide public. It creates a strong demand for mountaineering stories, through every form of communication. There is, of course, the element of thrill for a sensation-hungry public. Many people, especially when they are young, choose their heroes and heroines from among the daring men and women who take risks in one way of another, in peace as well as in war. Tales of such exploits help to relieve the drabness and monotony of many peoples’ lives. If climbing is likened to a drug for a climber, it can be no less palliative against boredom for a wide range of people.

But there is something else in human nature which responds to pastimes involving dangers, some of which incur serious injuries and death. We may not fully understand what prompts some people to test themselves while sailing the seven seas, or undertaking arduous and hazardous journeys upon, above or beneath the surface of the earth, or to seek out nature’s secrets in remote corners of the globe. It matters not whether the journey is undertaken for some useful purpose; or whether, in the words of a well-known French mountain guide, it is to attempt ‘La Conquete de l’Inutile’. But we do know that such enterprises elicit applause from people everywhere, in a world which is divided on many issues and conditioned by material values.

Lord Hunt of Llanfair Waterdine, KG CBE DSO
Oxfordshire, June 1994