Closer to God?
The major religions across the globe hold mountains in high regard, with many of the long-distance routes through ranges based on past or present pilgrimages. The gods of Greek mythology lived on Mount Olympus, in Hinduism Shiva resides on Mount Kailash. For mere mortals, the top of the mountain is the spiritual realm and to an extent, the forbidden. In walking upwards we aspire to get closer to the gods and become more than mortal. After all, Moses found his enlightenment on Mount Sinai when God gave him the Ten Commandments.
In Buddhism, mountains offer isolation to seek the spiritual. Monks make pilgrimages to caves high in the mountains which offer them solitude for contemplation. This isn’t really that far from the sense of quiet we are looking for when we leave urban noise behind at the beginning of a hike, is it?
In what was termed ‘The golden age of alpinism’, mountaineering captured the European imagination and tourism in the Alps was changed forever. In the 1850s & 60s pioneering mountaineers raced for first ascents, becoming superheroes in the popular mind. Climbing mountains became fashionable and the developing US territories would soon be thirsty for European guides to develop their burgeoning tourism industry.
Alongside the development of mountain tourism were The Romantics, writing about the sublime. Wordsworth’s famous Prelude recounts the realisation he came to on the peak of a Welsh hill. Nature and mountains in particular, were an exquisite reminder to these artists of their own insignificance and the greatness of God. Man scaling summits on the continent only fuelled the Romantics. The prize for climbing mountains was multi-faceted: glory and fame, work, adventure overseas or the opportunity to witness the existence of God. It was irresistible and, although the golden age came to an end with the tragic death of several of Edward Whymper’s party on the Matterhorn in 1865, European desire to walk uphill has only grown over the last century and a half.
Our Opposable Thumbs
So they say the only reason humans advanced to civilization is because of our opposable thumbs. Success has made us thirsty for domination and reaching the top of the mountain to look down on nature makes us feel pretty darn powerful, doesn’t it? Mountains, like the ocean, are one of the few elements of nature we are unable to tame or control. They remain stronger than us. Although we dig the heart out of hills with mining and quarries, they retain their awesome power. Reaching the summit is a human attempt to conquer.
The summit of the mountain represents the unknown. Children draw the peak hidden in clouds and often they really are hidden. The summit of the mountain means elusive animals, fatal weather and legend. Curiosity is as powerful as our opposable thumbs. We’re driven to climb to understand, and to conquer, the unknown. He who has reached the summit has knowledge that he can’t easily share.
We want to be stronger, wiser, and more powerful. We want to understand nature and the scars that define nations, cultures, climates and dictate the flow of rivers. Every time we set off up a mountain, be it in the Lake District or the Himalayas, we hope to come down a more magnificent person.