Mountain of my Fear, David Roberts
On Sunday I finished Dave Roberts’ The Mountain of My Fear. Dave gives a reflective account of a four-man expedition he organized with members of the Harvard Mountaineering Club to make a first ascent of the West Face of Mt. Huntington in the Alaska Range. Roberts gives vivid descriptions of the challenges posed by this technical route, but the real reason his account is a staple of mountaineering literature is for the interwoven reflections on his motivations for climbing and the relationship between the mountaineer and the mountain. I am particularly interested in how Roberts’ assessment of risk and the interplay between self reliance and reliance on his gear and partners evolved over his life, and in the next few months I’m planning to read some of Roberts’ other works, which include Deborah and most recently Alone on the Wall with Alex Honnold, both of which can be found in Millikan Library (only the latter is actually part of the CAC collection though—for the rest you might need to go to the basement!).
“But what sort of relationship is possible between a man and a mountain? If any, an obviously one-sided one; and if the mountain only mirrors the man, if the route he chooses is not made out of rock, snow, and ice so much as out of some tortured translation of his ego, then that clean love he can feel toward his objective would become a barren narcissism. ‘Have we vanquished an enemy?’ Mallory said. ‘None but ourselves.’ Put that way, it sounds noble, it rings with aphoristic authority. But what would happen, I wonder, if the self could be vanquished? What would be left of life but to live it out in smug lethargy? Could any man who had languished himself ever want to climb another mountain? I would like to believe that Mallory himself could never have relaxed into complacency; that when he climbed into the clouds on Everest never to be seen again, he died, like Terray, still full of dream of other summits. I need to believe, if only to explain climbing, that the dissatisfactions of life ultimately become its joys, that to resolve may be only to die, not to answer. Therefore for me the mountain must be there, real; it must, as much as anything I will ever have contact or combat with, exist, outside myself. The mind may be wonderful, and even self-sufficient, but for the mountaineer it is not large enough by itself. It and the heart and the body, all that make up man, require response, not only love and co-operation but hindrance and hate, not only friends but enemies. If a mountain, Huntington for instance, was not an enemy we could impute any malice to, did that make it a less formidable one? What can be more appalling than the sovereign power of nature directed by no mind, spirited by no will, indifferent, dwarfing? What vision of malignity can equal the darkness of that of a universe that is running dow, of a cosmos that neither orders nor obeys man’s yearnings, but blindly collapses toward a final motionlessness? Death, our only glimpse of that entropic end, has its seductive fascination. Hence, the risks of climbing stir and motivate us, just as other risks may someday stir some cosmic voyager."