Last weekend I was alone in the Scottish mountains. At one point I was high on a narrow ridge of windblown snow with no other human being as far as the eye could see. It occurred to me that if I fell at that point the chances of anyone coming to my aid were slim. It also crossed my mind that it didn’t really matter how far I was from help as the fall would probably kill me anyway. “Why do I do this?” I thought, once I was off the ridge and the possibility of instant death had receded from my mind allowing me the luxury of lonely musings.
I think there is something unique about mountaineering that places it apart from other sports, something that connects us to our primeval past. Mountaineering is, in essence, a struggle for survival in a hostile natural environment. Here, I think the word natural might be the key. No other sport I can think of brings us into such an intense, such a seminal relationship with the natural world.
I think that relationship, between us as human beings and nature, is something we are losing despite the fact that it may well be central to who we are. In the UK the last three hundred years industrialisation has taken most of us away from the land. The majority of us no longer rely on a daily contact with the landscape around us to survive. We commute on crowded trains, jostle through busy streets and spend much of our lives staring at computer screens. We don’t like it but we do it because that’s the way life is, we just accept it.
Eskimos (if that’s the right term for people who live in the far north, it probably isn’t) call Westerners, “the people who change nature.” Over the last few hundred years, as our population has mushroomed, we have changed the place we live beyond recognition. We have altered the natural environment to such an extent that for many of us even the seasons barley intrude in our lives as we rush from one air conditioned environment to another. Never before has the environment changed so quickly and so profoundly.
Despite changing the world we live in radically we are basically the same people who evolved millions of years ago. We are not much different from apes, in fact if you walk round the streets of Inverness, where I live on a Friday night, you can see some people who can only aspire to be apes. We didn’t evolve to live in a concrete jungle, we have destroyed our own habitat. There is evidence that people in hospital who can see a tree out of their window recover better than those who don’t. People who stroke dogs also have better recovery rates. There has to be some mechanism at work here, it can’t just be chance.
When I return from a few days in a Highland bothy I smell of two things, wood smoke and sweat, which is exactly how everyone in the Northern hemisphere has smelt for the last 50,000 years or so. I think computers and the virtual world we increasingly live in offers wonderful opportunities, after all you are reading this, and I’m communicating with you right now, over a computer. It’s great, this cyber world but it isn’t life, it’s not what we are here for, not what we need to be human.
High on that icy ridge last weekend I felt that connection with the real world. As I drove my ice axe into the snow and realised that a mistake could bring death, was I not closer to primeval man as he hunted the forests alert for wild boar or a bear that could come rushing out of the undergrowth at any moment. I was surviving in a hostile world and that is the essence of mountaineering, perhaps of life itself.
Oh, and Merry Christmas