Written as Victorian politician Tim Holding was rescued, lost on Mt Feathertop.
As Tibetan mystic Milarepa said, “Deep in the wild mountains is a strange marketplace where you can trade the hassle and noise of everyday life for eternal light.”
And you can trade your everyday perception for a fresh take on your self and your place in the world. Mountain-climbing exploits are often told as a quest to conquer nature with the mountain as trophy. But delve a little deeper into the vast bookshelf of mountaineering stories and you’ll find obsessive quests for things more intangible, even to the protagonists themselves.
Mountain landscapes are repeatedly described as sources of personal inspiration and renewal. For many climbers, the landscape is not something to conquer, but something to respect, even something to enter into in a way that transcends the self. And underlying the narratives is the idea that an acceptance that the natural forces of land and weather are infinitely more powerful than human will is a crucial part of the bargain the climber enters with risk.
In the words of mythologist Joseph Campbell: “[T]hough terrors will recede before a genuine psychological readiness, the over-bold adventurer beyond his depth may be shamelessly undone.”
Our assessment of risk – and our place in the world of ecological life – has come askew. We have come to consider ourselves as separate from the more-than-human world. We consider that we live in a technological, ethical, and cultural order that is not constrained by ecology. Animals, the world and its atmosphere exist in an ecological order that is not constrained by ethics.
We systematically overestimate human knowledge and control. We have forgotten that as in mountain climbing, humility in the face of nature is appropriate, that it does not diminish us as human beings, and that it is, in fact, a characteristic of a hero.
As the enormity of the risks that really do threaten us bank up, we focus on eliminating smaller, more identifiable risks with greater and greater zeal. Maybe Tim Holding should have taken an emergency beacon to make it easier for rescuers to find him. But maybe we’re missing the bigger risks our behaviour creates, because they are not so obvious, because the consequences happen at another time, in another place, or to another generation.
Most of us now live in a world of endless comfort. A person who chooses to venture into wild nature is acclaimed as a hero or derided as a fool. Either way, they’re considered a freak. This polarised response admires heroes who dare to leave the comfort of ordinary life, and on the flipside, disapproves of personal risk-taking so intensely that it borders on a kind of moral panic. Tim Holding is copping both admiration and the tut-tut.
In times past, unsuccessful adventurers like Ernest Shackleton or George Mallory could be forgiven poor preparations, hubris, and insensitivity to the wild place, and hailed an heroic failure. But in the age of Gore-tex and the Global Positioning System, such failures are not tolerated, especially if the unsuccessful adventurer needs the help of others to escape a self-imposed predicament.
Whether triumphant, disapproving, or something in between, the public seems fascinated by wilderness risk-taking. Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer’s account of the 1996 Everest tragedy where eight climbers died, sold millions of copies, and, bizarrely, seemed to increase business for adventure travel operators. Everyone wants to go to Everest, where despite oxygen tanks and safety ropes, it is still possible, even easy, to die.
Perhaps this fascination is a kind of tragic katharsis, as Joseph Campbell described in his classic explorations of the social role of myth, where the emotions of the spectator of the tragedy are somehow purged or purified through exposure to pity and terror.
Like me, when I walked 700 kilometres alone through the mountains from Walhalla to Canberra, Tim Holding is both a hero and a fool. We shouldn’t quibble over the cost of helicopters. We should thank him for allowing us to feel deeply the fear that all was lost, and then the love when all was found.
And we should relax our grip on the idea that wild nature is an inherently risky place where modern humans do not belong. Unchallenged, our perception grows flat and bland. Enclosed entirely in a word of human making, our solutions become predictable, our innovations self-referential.
I have hiked Feathertop in wintertime and there, my gaze, and somehow my whole self, was drawn into the million diamonds embedded in the fabled cornice of windblown ice and snow flowing in a magnificent feathered crest along the mountain’s spine. It looks more like a huge, foaming, snap-frozen wave than a ridge. And below it, the exhilarating space in my peripheral vision where the ground usually is. This combination of exquisite detail and massive depth of vision made me feel expanded, my senses refreshed in the beauty of the world.
If we want to survive our species’ dark night on the mountain, we need to reclaim this wonder. We need to disrupt the imagined separation of human and nature, and reclaim the overlap, extending ethics into ecological realms, and ecology into human realms. Our technology can help us, but we must integrate our technology wisely into the world of ecological life and to succeed in this we must also transform ourselves.
If our political leaders want to remind themselves that such transformations are possible by getting themselves lost in the mountains, I’m all for it.