Friday, September 28, 2012

Imperial Ascent, by Peter L. Bayers

Peter Bayers interprets the back story to some of mountaineering's most famous narratives in Imperial Ascent: Mountaineering, Masculinity, and Empire. Using three early books about Denali and four famous works about Mount Everest (Younghusband's The Epic of Mount Everest, Hunt's The Ascent of Everest, Tenzing's Tiger of the Snows, and Krakauer's Into Thin Air), Bayers shows that the modern climbing narrative is an agent of imperialism. This is a book directed towards an academic audience, specifically those with some knowledge of post-colonial theory, and not necessarily Everest. (I had no idea before reading this book that post-colonialism was such a widely-discussed topic.) I read the Everest chapters, as I, embarrassingly, have never read the Mount McKinley books he discusses. He makes a pretty good case against Younghusband, but as the narratives progress in time (Of course, according to Bayers, history isn't exactly progressive these days.), I found myself less fond of his arguments. I feel like I'm at a bit of a disadvantage in discussing the book, as Bayers does not clearly define for people out of the loop some of his important terms, such as "masculinity," and "the sublime;" he, however, defines "imperialism" very specifically, stating that even thinking about other countries or cultures qualifies as imperialism. Here goes---I hope I don't wade in too deep!

Younghusband, of course, can easily be accused of thinking of other countries and cultures. In addition to a number of adventures and travels throughout central Asia and the Himalaya, he led the 1904 invasion of Tibet that sought to secure British interests in the region over those of the Russians. If any Everest writer could be accused of imperialist banter and a heightened sense of masculinity, it would be Younghusband. Epic is a work of both patriotism (read: IMPERIALISM) and romantic ideals that hams up the drama to relate the stories of the first three Everest expeditions, that he oversaw as head of the Everest Committee. I wouldn't say that the book is especially bad in its imperialist bent, but it can certainly be taken as an example of the times, especially in the author's disposition towards Sherpas and his need to work up the national spirit of his audience. Bayers takes the narrative apart and examines the details that prove both its chauvinistic masculinity and its agency for empire. I felt that he moved along from point to point without resolving some his arguments and bringing up some interesting things, such as the concept of the Tibetan archive and Younghusband's spirituality, that were interesting, but seemed to distract from his purpose. Things such as Younghusband's using war allegory in his writing, his insistence upon climbing without supplemental oxygen, his praising the physical prowess of the climbers all point towards a negative hyper-masculinity. Everest's being in a distant land, the expedition's hiring Sherpas to participate in their Western expedition, and the expectation that they live up to Western cultural norms are harbingers of imperialism. While I agree that the book can be interpreted in such a way, I can't go along with Bayers' insisting that Younghusband's and the other authors' narratives must be regarded as he interprets them.

Hunt poses more of a problem with his narrative. Bayers goes so far as to say that Hunt's saying "darkest Africa" asserts imperialist tendencies, rather than describe the dense forests of the Congo, and that the reason he does not discuss the sublime in his narrative is that it is pre-supposed, based on Britain's imperial history. (I suppose it would help if I fully understood what he meant by "sublime"...) In a similar vein, Hunt's joy at their making the summit in time for Elizabeth's coronation is a sign is to the author Everest's figurative subjugation to royal authority. To go even further, Everest's topography, according to Bayers, is a blank space for British heroes to enact their masculine desires. Yikes.

Tenzing's chapter made more sense to me. Bayers picks up on his apologetic, yet slightly subversive tone. The leftovers of imperialism certainly had something to do with the Sherpas treatment at the British embassy in Kathmandu, and Tenzing had a culturally difficult role as intermediary (which he partly shared with Charles Wylie) between the British expedition and the Sherpa high-altitude porters. There's occasional arguments that seem more academic than useful, but Bayers' argument overall comes off as believable here.

Bayer's discussion of Krakauer's book seemed mixed to me. He has to stretch to get Krakauer connected to imperialism, stating that his childhood respect for Willi Unsoeld, who participated in the 1963 American Everest expedition, links him with America's imperial past. Masculinity is a bit easier, as Krakauer freely admits that the American climbing scene he grew up in was pervaded in a hyper level of machismo. Correspondingly, Bayers believes that Krakauer feels feminized by subordinating himself to his guides on his Everest climb. (I somehow doubt Krakauer would put it that way.) Ang Dorje's compromise that allows the icefall work to begin before the puja ceremony shows that western cultural standards are infringing upon Sherpas on Everest.

The parts of the book I read seemed like a game of taxonomy to me. These narratives do not necessarily fit into the boxes Bayers attempts to place them in, as some of his arguments work quite well, while some are a stretch. I appreciate intelligent analysis of climbing and climbing literature, but I found this book more intellectual than intelligent. Tell me otherwise. This is a book that could make for some interesting discussion.

Amusing side note: In the book, quotation marks play an essential role, as a means to distance Bayers from words that might offend, while adding a bit of cynicism. I was impressed in the Hunt chapter, where he uses the effect four sentences in a row, but then in the Tenzing chapter, I found four uses over the course of ten words. "Impressive."

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