Final Paper, Examining trend in Mountaineering Psychology


Adriel Stokes



Final Paper


Illuminating Trends in Psychological Narratives in Mountaineering and Climbing Literature


There are two explanations that can account for the reason that there is such a vast amount of mountaineering literature. The first is that they make for good reads; they are exciting, often filled with themes that only can better offer- drama, romanticism, and adventure. The second is that mountaineers themselves (the authors) are often imbued with a deep sense of those same characteristics. This should be obvious; it is causation and not correlation, and that is why they write them. By examining the language employed by authors during their adventures, this paper will seek to elucidate trends in mountaineering and climbing history that depicts the psychology of the author. Is there a different narrative existing today than in the Golden Age of Alpinism? Are there historical narratives at play that impact why people climb and write? This paper will begin by first examining what are those basic narratives in mountaineering and climbing, then seek to uncover historical trends, and later illuminate what the psychologies of the writers may say about the time period.

Before examining specific cases and trying to extrapolate meaning from them, it is necessary to understand the basic narratives that mountaineering employ. The overarching narratives of mountaineering are the surface of the puzzle of the secrets of why people climb and write. One of the earliest and completely blandest narratives is nationalism and romanticism, heralding it inheritance from Medieval Europe scripture and drama. (Lester, 89) Did people really risk life and limb just to be the first French person on top of a mountain? Of course they did, and what an impersonal seeming motive to do so. Climbing used to be so much more imbued with pride than it is today. Not to say that people do not climb for pride anymore, but the proof that this is not a normative statement lies in the Golden Age of Himalayan Mountaineering. What is nationalism but national pride? There are different “golden ages” of alpinism, existing in the Alps and in the Himalayas, but what gives them their golden term is their first accents, the peaks virginity, yet to be claimed for national pride. (Isserman. 295)

In the Golden Age of Mountaineering in the Himalayas, literature witnessed some of its ugliest trends. Beginning with Maurice Herzog’s summit of Annapurna in 1950, national pride mixed with romanticism became the norm of why these peaks were climbed. (Herzog, 144) This began the trend of the Golden Age of Mountaineering. The race was on, World War Two was over, and with the new technology that came out of it, climbers were finally suited to deal with age old problems like frostbit and high altitudes.

Not everyone was happy that climbing and mountaineering became more accessible after World War Two. (Isserman, 233) Hand in hand with pride, egotism accompanied the world of climbing before technology made it cheaper for everyone to conduct. Many people were attached to the class aspect of mountaineering. It was something to be embarked on by people gentlefolk of well-bred stock, “exclusive in its command of esoteric skills, but equally exclusive in the social world upon which it drew recruits.” (Isserman, 233) These people, mostly “white, Protestant, well educated, affluent, and well known to each other” (Isserman, 223) saw it as their personal and inherited right to claim victories for their countries. The pride of their psychology represented national fervor back at home.

This is the history inherited by later mountaineers. It is hardly normative to postulate that mountaineering has come a long way from the “expeditionary culture of the age of empire… bound up with visions of imperial destiny that assumed the rule of white Europeans over dark-skinned Asians.” (Isserman. xi) How is that instead of Social-Darwinism driving climbers, society embraces climbers such as Alex Honnald, who climbs more difficult and dangerous rock than anyone in history, for the mantle-plate of “Improving Lives through Sustainability”? Is it that climbers have been on a historical progression ever since the first mountain in the Alps was summited? Or is climbing a much more subjective and personal endeavor than that? Even though they are historical trends in climbing literature, this paper will illuminate that even though the Golden Age of Mountaineering in the Himalayas was a particularly gloomy period in mountaineering history, there are different motivations for people existing during the same trend.

Maurice Herzog will forever be one of the most remembered names in mountaineering literature, and “Annapurna remains one of the most canonic works in exploration literature.” (Roberts, 23) His success stands upon two reasons; the fact that he was the first to summit one of the worlds 8,000 meter peaks, and the timing in which he did so. France, a very nationalist country, (they invented the thing) had just emerged out of the crushing humiliation of World War Two, and was desperately in need of national heroes and pride. (Roberts, 133) Herzog was aware of this, in fact it was this pride that funded and drove the narrative of his book. In the words of Francoise Rebuffat, “Herzog said at one point that his company, Kleber-Colombes, had asked him to work, to go see the Maharajah. They knew Nepal would need rubber.” (Roberts, 131) Herzog was little less than a puppet of Lucien Davies, the man who published and had the most to gain from Annapurna besides Herzog.

Is the point of all this, and True Summit to squander the name of Herzog into the ground? If that is a unfortunate side affect then so be it, but the fact is that Annapurna falls directly into the narratives employed during the Golden Age of Himalayan Mountaineering, and his fabrications and thinking actually help shed light onto an entire time period of mountaineering genre. Such fabrication is not warranted today, or else Jon Krakaur will come down upon you with a mighty vengeance. What it illuminates is that notions of self-centered pride, wrapped up as it may be in national pride, allows for a certain type of psychology in mountaineering literature. Annapurna was highly filled with personal pride! Pride is what drove Herzog to the summit; pride is what corrupted his retelling of Annapurna and writing out the deeds of his comrades. Pride is the psychological narrative that drove Annapurna, unbeknown to Herzog himself. Nobody knows this better than Lachenal who understood that “That march to the summit was not a matter of national glory. It was une affaire de cordee” (Roberts, 225) loosely translated as “a manner of the heart”, this statement underlines the psychology of the narrative. It was so powerful that it only barely gave Herzog pause in rewriting the passage in which Lachenal admits he only went to the summit to keep Herzog alive. (Roberts, 224)

So what does this psychology of pride illuminate about the Golden Age of Himalayan Mountaineering? In Herzog’s darkest moments, it was not his reserves to keep living and see his loved ones that kept him going, nor some grander meaning of life that gave him new fortitude. It reflects the spirit of the age. The adventure on Annapurna was funded by national pride, and on an individual level it was motivated by pride. It simply tells us that this trend defined many climbers of the era. For the upper class American, or the bourgeoisie French, mountaineering was a point of pride. At least on some level it consisted of a starting point to motivate societies involvement in the mountains. This may detract from notions of romanticism, but for some it may even add to it- climbing is subjective at its very core.

Herzog’s Annapurna was largely devoid of rhetoric describing the beauty of the area; it was instead described more as a physical assault. Does the Golden Age of Mountaineering lack an appreciation for the aesthetics of mountains? It may, but just as trends in aesthetics change over the short period of time that mountaineering has been existent in literature, it has changed greatly over different civilizations and different time-periods. Just as English literature depicted a long-standing disgust with mountains, inherited from ancient Greece (Nicolson, 38), societies living at the same time had great love and appreciation for them. What this illuminates is that trends are simply concentrated amounts of people at the same time thinking similar things, and that there are always individuals who go against the grain.

Heinrich Harrer did not go against the trend of aesthetics of the time, but he did contrast nicely with national pride. Before France had even fallen to the Blitzkrieg, Heinrich Harrer scaled the north face of the Eiger, arguably the hardest climbing rout in Europe. The narratives that Harrer deploys in his 1959 book depicting his 1937 adventure, The White Spider, are markedly different than that of the national and personal pride as described by Herzog and indicative of the Golden Age of Mountaineering in the Himalaya’s. In fact, Harrier goes out of his way to discredit the notion that anything motivated their feat outside of the fact that it “proved an irresistible challenge to our courage and to our love of adventure.”(Harrier, 134) The White Spider stands in such complete contrast to Annapurna, and took place before it that it deserves extra examination.

As was typical in mountaineering literature at the time, authors often depict the mountain as a foe. Language of battle is commonly deployed, as one “lays siege to the mountain.” This mainly derives from the fact that this was before sufficient technology existed that allowed climbers to quickly and safely get up and down a mountain. Instead of today’s style, where it is fashionable (and safer) to use the bare minimum of gear, leave as small of an impact as possible, and get back in bed as quickly as possible. Instead, success was usually based on who had the most resources. The ability to lay siege to the mountain meant using resources as possible, and slowly but surely working your way up to the top. Harrier and Herzog deploy such language, and it reflects the trend in aesthetics of the time. Instead of climbers today that go out with commonly held notions of ‘finding oneself in nature’, they were identified as the type of people who make war on “this menacing bastion of rock and ice.” (Harrer, 21) The transformation in how people depicted the aesthetics of the mountains could represent many things, one which being that people in the modern era have a greater awareness of man’s impact on nature, and this could be reflected in their appreciation for it. As aesthetics evolve, so also do narratives about climbing, and the psychology of why people climb.

Heinrich Harrer gives much attention to the psychology of climbing. More so, he gets often annoyed with the psychology that non-climbers ascribe to climbing. Harrer admits that it’s a damned near crazy, and that it may be proof of underlying complexes. But the honesty and blunt way in which he faces these arguments grants himself and others immunity from critiques of foolhardy climbing just for the sake of danger, or indicative of mental imbalance. Is it not better to face your fears that have made you “suffered from complexes- and where is the man who has not, unless he is satisfied with the dull existence of a mere vegetable?” (Harrer, 20) It seems that people have been applying the same Freudian psychology to mountaineers and climbers for almost a century.

Narratives are an inherited enigma. They change over time, but often slowly, because the thread of one author is picked up by another— this is the way of art. The historical narrative of mountaineering literature leave legacies in their wake, and many famous climbers and authors admit that their love for the mountains started at home by the fire with a book. Robert Macfarlane cites the beginning of his adventuring beginning with The Fight for Everest, the famous account of when “George Mallory and Andrew Irvine disappeared near the summit of Everest. True Summit was inspired by the authors love for Herzog and his comrades, and is what actually led him to uncover the truth of the expedition. (Roberts, 23) The psychology of the author is not only a reflection of society at the time, but it also a collective timepiece than gives a chronological perspective on the trends of that genre.

It is inevitable that individuals will reflect the ideals of their society at the time. When examining different climbers during different times, do they reflect their culture or does their culture reflect back on them? Of course there is interplay here, but it would simply be correlation if the Golden Age of climbing simply reflected climbers attitudes at that time. Instead it is the other way around, climbers and mountaineers are heavily impacted by the ideals and collective consciousness of their society, and are often reflections of the state of said society. (Lester, 88) This would explain causation in historical trends, and is an important but seemingly simple point to make. Instead of Herzog defining aspects of trends in the Golden Age of Himalayan Mountaineering, he is a product of it, and that French “cultural assumptions, not necessarily at all conscious, actually shape actions and motivations.” (Lester, 89)

As mountaineering moved out of notions strictly attached to national pride, it had a transitioning period of scientific development. Do not be fooled however, because these expeditions to map out the Earth were linked to ideas of Western exceptionalism, but the 1960s marked a huge shift away from strictly national expeditions for the sake of national pride. (Isserman, 350)

Instead of nationalism, science was invoked. Finally gone were the days when a nation laid siege to the mountain. No longer were the expeditions bound up in “conquest or national glory but as a kind of transcendent personal experience.” (Isserman, 350) This shift marked the end of the Golden Age of Himalayan Mountaineering. The reason is quite simple, there were hardly any first ascents left to be conquered, and two decades after World War Two, nationalism had come to simmer on its own accord as well. People had time to cope with the victories and the losses, and how this played into national pride. Combined with the absence of first ascents, the Himalayas did not offer the point of national competition that they used to. Because “first ascents [were] becoming a thing of the past, the next generation of climbers would have to redefine what it meant to achieve distinction in the Himalaya.” (Isserman, 349)

Instead, people went off in search of Yeti’s. No joke, a long-standing mythical creature in Nepali and Tibetan beliefs, the Yeti had been the face of the unknown and the mysterious in the Himalaya’s ever since Europeans first arrived there. (Isserman, 351) As a new way to simultaneously acquire funding and scientific knowledge, the Himalayan Scientific and Mountaineering Expedition set off for not quite national pride, but something akin to it yet wrapped up much more nicely. This represented a shift in how mountaineers conceptualized their adventures, and indeed a shift in the psychology of mountaineering forever.

With three very strangely missions side by side, the Himalayan Scientific and Mountaineering Expedition sought out on a threefold mission: seek out the Yeti, study human adaptation at high altitude, and go on mountaineering adventures. With Hillary at the forefront, this consisted of a huge change in how Himalayan mountaineering was conducted. However, these were still national endeavors to a large extent, with the National Geographic Society and the Central Intelligence Society working hand in hand to make sure everything got done. (Isserman, 353) Even though elements of government were at play, this was the transition period away from national expeditions.

In examining how others have examined mountaineering psychology over time, a meta-analysis of mountaineering psychology is quite helpful, because it points to a very obvious trend; it has not changed at all. Since the Eiger was climbed, the “last problem of the Alps”, up until today, critics and climbers themselves use Freudian psychology to describe the many, simply put, crazy things climbers do in the wilderness. It is easy to point to a climber who risks life and limb for no actual psychical reward, except for the ache in their arms and legs. Many of these arguments of psychological analyses are Freudian in nature, critics of self, and goal versus process-oriented arguments.

An overarching characteristic however of these analyses is that of psychological arousal. (Lester, 88) When embarking on an adventure it is not the physical aspect that is most enduring, it is the mental aspect. When Heinrich Harrer admitted that climbers suffered from complexes, his counter point was just as compelling- does not everyone suffer from complexes? (Harrer, 20) A common reflection is the over-compensation against fear, or counter-phobia, narrative. (Thackray) This theory postulates along Freudian psychological lines. It goes that if someone has a phobia, the best way to counter that phobia is by going and seeking it out, and thusly overcoming it. (Thackray) It may be surprising when climbers are asked if they are scared of heights, and many more of them are than may suspected. Of course, if read along strictly Freudian terms, this “an impossible dream: to banish in one’s maturity the residue of apprehension and panic that he could not overcome in childhood.” (Thackray) Not only have many aspects of Freudian psychology been proven wrong, it is also true that many people develop phobias later in life that they did not have as children. Without devolving too far into Freud, this paper acknowledges the rampant application of varying ‘complexes’ associated with mountaineering.

The psychology that authors depict of mountaineering has changed greatly since the Golden Age of Mountaineering. No longer reflections of national ego, people undertake the most dangerous feats that nature has to offer to them because of differing psychological motivations, but with some overarching ones. The psychological thrill overpowers the psychical achievement. Men have always come to the mountains to test their courage, long before mountaineering was a literary phenomenon. The end of the Golden Age of Mountaineering was marked by the end of national ego stroking expedition funding. This is what began the change in trend to “transcendental personal experiences.” (Isserman, 350) Because individual’s psychology and motivations are reflections of societal trends and not the other way around, it was the shift away from nationalism that changed the way psychology was depicted in mountaineering and climbing literature forever.




Maurice Isserman and Stewart Weaver, Fallen Giants: A History of Himalayan Mountaineering form the Age of Empire to the Age of Extremes. Yale University Press

Robert Macfarlane, Mountains of the Mind: Adventures in Reaching the Summit. Vintage Books

Heinrich Harrer, The White Spider: The Classic Account of the Ascent of the Eiger. Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam a member of Penguin Putnam Inc

David Roberts, True Summit: What Really Happened on the Legendary Ascent of Annapurna. A Touchstone Book Published by Simon & Schuster

Maurice Herzog, Annapurna: The First Conquest of an 8,000-Meter Peak. Lyons Press

John Thackray, The Psychological Utility of Mountaineering.

James Lester, Spirit, Identity, and Self in Mountaineering.

Marjorie Hope Nicolson, Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory: The Development of the Aesthetics of the Infinite. University of Washington Press.

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