Thursday, 17 June 2010

Because It's There

Because It's There was a one-evening exploration of what mountains represent to humanity, held at the Royal Geographical Society. A tall order, but over three hours various speakers touched on everything from why people climb, fear, women and mountaineering, the commercialisation of Everest expeditions to is true adventure still possible?

The first part of the programme consisted of four short talks. Journalist Ed Douglas began by looking at the relationship between the media and mountaineers. This has changed since the days of Arthur Hinks, then secretary of the Mount Everest Committee, who attempted to stifle all publicity relating to the Everest attempts of the 1920s, and who found that ‘All these questions of dealing with the newspapers are personally very distasteful to me'. On the 1953 British Everest expedition, Jan Morris (then James) used a pre-arranged code to ensure the Times got their Hillary/Tenzing exclusive.

Now climbers are blogging and writing on the mountain, often in real-time. One consequence of this is that media hails those that can write as the best climbers, while the true stars and innovators often go unnoticed.

Louise Turner talked about her long mountaineering career and how the real adventure often begins when the unexpected happens. However, she was very clear that she enjoyed living, not dying, and thus didn't take unnecessary risks.

Peter Baily then presented a meditation on what you can learn about yourself when you're in the mountains - the relationship between the the body, mind and emotions. He's as interested in the spiritual benefits of interacting with the landscape, as the physical exertion of getting to the summit. He illustrated this with a line from Walter Bonatti's The Mountains of My Life where the Italian climber states "it was solo climbing, above all, that let me enter into the spirit of the mountains and so come to recognize my own true nature". Finally, photographer Alexandre Buisse explained how the best photographs often come about in situations when you don't really want to be hanging around adjusting camera equipment.

The author and mountaineer Stephen Venables made the keynote speech. This was an inspiring romp through many of his expeditions, but he concluded that adventure doesn't always have to take place in the most inaccessible places.

The second part of the evening was the debate, Has Everest killed the true spirit of adventure? With a strong panel, it looked like being an exciting session. All agreed that climbing on the mountain had opened up new vistas, both in their climbing and non climbing lives. Kenton Cool, who has been to the Everest summit eight times, warned that you should never take it for granted. Meanwhile, Doug Scott talked about the importance of his 'apprenticeship' on the mountains of Scotland the Alps, before venturing into the higher reaches of the Himalaya. He also pointed out that there were more unclimbed than climbed mountains in Nepal - adventure for anyone who seeks it.

All of the panellists, with their anecdotes, tales and great experiences, made for exciting listening. However, the debate only occasionally came close to answering the main question. In many ways a well moderated online discussion might have revealed more. Nevertheless, it was a stimulating evening and pictures of the event can be seen here.

Finally, mention must be made of the complimentary King's Ginger that was available during the break. The drink of 'sporting gentlemen and high-spirited ladies', no doubt it was also taken on expeditions. Despite being often thought of as a winter drink, I've noticed that people have started sipping it in the warmer months (at least in South London they have). No mention in Double Measures, but this piece from the Observer's celebrated wine writer (December 17 1967) explains all:

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