November 17, 1995 Features & Images » Feature Story

feature 246 

Mountain Culture: More active than yoghurt? By Jayson Faulkner With all that is happening this fall in cultural events and sporting activities I was asked to reflect on mountain culture. I have stated many times when introducing world famous adventurers that they are here as notable presenters of "mountain culture." Luckily no one has ever challenged me to explain what I meant — that was, until Pique asked me to write this article. As any writer worth his or her salt knows, research is the key. So I asked the resident expert in my house, my wife. She said, with a very sarcastic tone: "Isn’t that what grows on you after you touch a mountaineer who has been on an expedition too long?" So much for my research. But she does have a point... I think. The roots of mountain culture are honest ones. The earliest practitioners of the faith were priests and monks dating back to times, in China, as early as 2250 B.C. In Europe, the earliest promoters of the mountains as a playground for the soul were also religious men. It seems man has always felt a yearning to go higher, to learn more about himself and his surroundings. The priests were the first to promote the idea that walking and hiking in the mountains were worthwhile pursuits in their own rites. They wrote that mountains were not deadly places, full of beasts, dragons and monsters, but spiritual places to relax and enjoy. An easy conclusion to reach if you didn’t have to slave in your field all day for survival. Certainly a much better recreation for priests than torturing the local villagers to profess their sins and pay their tithes. Of course, throughout history there have been writings and paintings of the mountains. But it wasn’t until the 19th century that the tones of the writings began to promote the recreational aspect of the mountains. The great German painter Albert Bierstadt painted such spectacular scenes of the American frontier West that many historians feel his paintings played a critical role in promoting western settlement from the teaming, filthy centres in Europe and the Eastern U.S. Sort of early WRA marketing brochures. Trying to define any culture is difficult because by nature it is a vibrant thing that is made up of ideas and perceptions, not hard definitions. Take Canadian culture; we all agree we have one but it’s hard to define it. We tend to point to the institutions, like the CBC and the NHL. So, if I am going to define mountain culture, perhaps I could start by pointing to its institutions. Some of the original mountain culture crucibles were the Alpine clubs of the 19th century. The Alpine Club, in England, began in the early 1860s and soon was copied throughout Europe. These clubs provided a unique forum for mountain enthusiasts to share information and resources, which allowed them to play more effectively in their beloved mountains. Most of the early reports were written for the newspapers in London to impress the lower classes with the upper class’s great feats, like the first ascents of the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc (climbed in 1786). Guidebooks and journals of mountain adventures became very popular publications. The Alpine Club of Canada began in Winnipeg in 1904 — hardly a mountain town, but certainly in its day a great centre for mountain culture. I think it was the last civilized place before you hit the Rockies and therefore it was the only place members could find a nice bar to meet in. Booze has always played an important role in promoting modern mountain culture. Many British climbers have made careers out of drinking and climbing. The famous British climber Joe Brown was said to have done his most difficult climbs with hangovers that would have killed mere mortals. In fact, early British hard men and women didn’t consider a climb accomplished by "fair means" unless it was done with a hangover. Mountain culture has always promoted a good time and general lightening of the spirit. Mountain culture is not only about climbing or mountaineering, but in the last couple of hundred years these activities have most heavily defined it, largely because of the copious amounts of writing done by the practitioners. This, I believe, is because the nature of the setting in which mountaineers do their deeds does not allow for spectators. If you accomplish a death-defying act in the middle of a stadium — like Evel Knievel did — there are lots of spectators to report on your brilliant cunning, brave heart and deep soul. But climbers, having, um..., healthy egos, must eloquently tell everyone about their exploits while at the same time remaining very humble about these heroic, life threatening, superhuman feats. If we climbers didn’t tell, then who would know that we were so cunning and brave, with such deep souls? Again, the Brits took this style to an art form after the ascent of Everest. Sir John Hunt’s book, The Ascent of Everest, is so dry and high-brow that you come to believe that the camp cook was a superhero and the yaks were deserving of medals of bravery. A great satirist by the name of W.E. Bowman was compelled to write the hilarious Ascent of RumDoodle, to poke fun at his pompous countrymen. There is a certain arrogance that mountain culture presents. Mountain enthusiasts tend to feel a little bit superior to flatlanders. We mountain dwellers like to think we are a little more grounded and perhaps even a shade more noble because of our chosen environs. Must be our harsh living conditions and all those stairs. I certainly believe that if you ask the average local in Banff, Jackson Hole, Mont Tremblant, Lake Tahoe or Whistler they would agree that people living in the mountains are more intelligent, healthier and generally just plain better than their unfortunate flatlander cousins. I mean, let’s face it, it’s the truth. Our culture reflects all of these facts. Tami Knight’s books are clearly a higher form of writing. Mountain culture to me is the writings, the dialogue, the paintings, the photographs, the arts and the communications that celebrate or involve the mountains as a basic or central theme. It is a celebration of the places we choose to live and play, which by nature are harsher and more difficult environments than found in cities or most flat places, Winnipeg excepted. Because of this shared experience it forms a common bond of interest. That is why people love to hear or see other people just like themselves relate their adventures and experiences in writing, in photographs or in films or paintings. We live in inspiring places that allow us to pursue inspiring things. Mountain culture has never been stronger or more vibrant, and just by living here or playing here you can be part of it.

Interactive Map

Today's COVID-19 cases in Canada

Click each province to see the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases, deaths, recovered patients, and tests administered...more.

Latest in Feature Story

© 1994-2020 Pique Publishing Inc., Glacier Community Media

- Website powered by Foundation