Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Summits of Modern Man, by Peter H. Hansen

Peter H. Hansen presents a history of the idea of climbing Mount Blanc, tied to the larger history of mountain climbing, in The Summits of Modern Man: Mountaineering after the Enlightenment. He begins with the earliest history of the area, with tax records and land grants, closely followed by the "discovery" of the area and its exploration. A running theme is the idea of primacy and conflict over firsts; Hansen often shows that those who fight most bitterly to prove their promenance were often followers in others' footsteps, whether Paccard, de Saussure, or d'Angeville. Hansen traces not only the climbing of Mont Blanc, but the ideas and literature inspired by the peak, such as works of Dumas, Shelley, Fanck, and others. He also works in the larger story of mountain climbing, as events on other peaks, such as the Matterhorn, or most notably, Everest, shadow events on Mont Blanc.

His Everest allegory works quite well, as many of the same conflicts played out both peaks. He discusses the early local recognition of Tenzing as the hero of his climb, just as Balmat at first took center stage. Similarly there was a cultural and class difference that played out between the two climbers, whether they liked it or not. Tenzing, like Balmat had climbed much further towards the summit than his ropemate before the final climb and received compensation for his actions that took care of him, but never made him rich.

This is a great book for those who like to think about climbing, not just read about it. Hansen does a lovely job do turning the story of some rather ambitious climbers into the story of the world around them.

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