Monday, April 8, 2013

A Window Into Mountaineering's Questionable Past

Compared to the other narratives we’ve studied so far, the age of Whymper’s text makes it both historically interesting and somewhat grating to read. The latter effect is basically just my personal reaction to the dated writing conventions of the time-as the author’s unnatural grammar and syntax seem to make the text intentionally harder to read. My objections to this style may just be a product of getting so used to contemporary writing in this class, but it was jarring nonetheless.

Beyond my nitpicky grammatical frustrations though, I found this to be a really interesting historical document, showing how mountaineering attitudes, procedures and conventions have advanced since Whymper’s time. It was shocking to hear that they often didn’t climb with ropes, and even more shocked that they did so as a matter of pride. I laughed aloud when Whymper explained that the guides “think that they will not be taken by surprise” on page 146—isn’t a surprise defined by our inability to predict it? We encountered some proud characters before, but none that match this level of hubris/stupidity. 

On a historical level, I was also interested in Whymper’s personal mannerisms and personal/authorial conduct in the story (because we can’t necessarily assume that his written reactions and self-descriptions perfectly match reality). He seemed to carry himself with an air of noble British pretension and stoicism that appealed to my cartoonish notion of all 19th century Brits as self-important narcissists in white wigs (but that’s probably just the bitter Irishman in me). He provides almost no detail about their ascent but how many feet they climb in how much time; he summarizes the four climbers’ deaths in a stunning half paragraph and first reacts with the hilariously inadequate line “So perished our comrades!” His lack of emotion and honesty in these passages sharply contrasts the presentations in some of the modern texts we’ve read, offering an interesting perspective on how adventure culture has developed over time.

1 comment:

  1. I, too, found Whymper's style and subject matter to be interesting in relation to the other authors we have read. The anecdotes he decides to include adhere to no criteria, other than Whymper's whimsy and interest,(like the arson case they stumble upon), which certainly adds a layer of personality to the text. He addresses safety concerns and technical aspects of climbing in a way that I imagine would be very helpful to a Victorian amateur alpinist, and his engravings on appropriate rope safety (and other things) added variety to the pages, which I appreciated. And even though his general personality was repugnant to me, I do think there's value in a lot of what he, an accomplished and safety conscious climber, writes.