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Peter HansenThe Summits of Modern Man: Mountaineering after the Enlightenment

Harvard University Press, 2013

by Bruce Berglund on July 9, 2013

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Scholars have pointed to various historical ingredients they see as necessary for the development of modern sport: political changes that allowed people to form associations, the rise of competitive capitalism, an emphasis on calculation and measurement, the advance of secularization.  But this attention to economic, social, and political factors has missed one important piece.  For games to have become modern, participants first had to think like moderns.  The peasant who had once celebrated seasonal festivals with some village game had to become an individual player—someone who wanted to beat his opponents, show off his prowess, and bask in the cheers.

Historian Peter Hansen makes this point in his study of mountain climbing, The Summits of Modern Man: Mountaineering after the Enlightenment (Harvard University Press, 2013)Prior to the 1700s, mountain peaks had been the preserve of gods and kings, while their crags and caves had been the hiding places of demons and spirits.  Even the miners and shepherds who worked in the mountains for centuries did not climb to the summits.  Why would they bother?  According to Peter, the birth of the modern sport of mountaineering thus required a fundamental change in thinking.  People had to look up at a peak and want to reach it, just for the sake of being at the top, and they had to think of themselves as able to do it.

Peter’s book is a sweeping account of the history of mountain climbing and its connections to modern culture, from the first attempts to scale the Alps in the 18th century to mountaineering in the current age of climate change.  He focuses on two episodes in that history: the first ascent of Mont Blanc in 1786 by Michel-Gabriel Paccard and Jacques Balmat, and the 1953 climb of Mount Everest by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay.  As we learn in the interview, there are striking parallels between these two important chapters in mountaineering.  Above all, both feats tap into our fascination with high places and the solitary climber at the top.

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