- The Summits of Modern Man: Mountaineering after the Enlightenment by Hansen, Peter H
In his book The Summit of Modern Man, Peter Hansen discusses the historical interrelations of modernity, masculinity, and the first ascents of peaks in the west-Alps. He argues [End Page 513] that domination over nation, individual autonomy, and new visions of sovereignty as part of the enlightened modernity culminated in the achievement of a “summit position” as a result of individual will. Hence discovering mountain peaks and being the first on the summit can be seen as a vital contribution to state building and building a modern (masculine) self.
In the opening chapter the Italian humanist and poet Francesco Petrach serves as an example for the discourse of making up a “modern man.” Only in the mid nineteenth century Petrarch’s presumed climb of Mount Ventoux, the highest peak of the Provence in France, described in a letter in 1336, was retrospectively represented as exemplifying the discovery of the individual. In the period when mountaineering has become a popular pastime in the Alps, Petrach therefore was entitled “the first modern man” and especially the first one to discover a mountain peak. Following Hansen, “Petrarch as a modern man on Mont Ventoux was the product of a time knot” and marks a new epoch (p. 15).
While in the seventeenth century high mountains and the surrounding glaciers were still considered hostile and dangerous, and consequently called montagnes maudites, the idea of civilizing nature by moving the boundaries of untrodden areas and observing the new environment with scientific methods became fundamental for the enlightened period. The exploration of the newly accessed territories was also a crucial part of building and mapping states in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
A major part of the book is dedicated to the story of the first ascent of Mount Blanc and the discussions on who was really the first to foot on the peak. On August 8, 1786, the summit of Mt. Blanc was reached for the first time by Jacques Balmat and Michel-Gabriel Paccard. Both individuals were locals from the Chamonix region. Balmat, a peasant laborer and crystal hunter, represented the type of the local and physical strong man who knew the area well but did not have any further “modern” interest in climbing the summit. In contrast, Paccard, a physician in Chamonix, was interested in the scientific description of nature and therefore represented the modern man. Which of the two was in fact the first on Mt. Blanc never could be proved. Still, Hansen shows how the debate on this uncertainty sparked in the following centuries indicates the competing contemporary visions of modernity, masculinity, and individuality. Mount Blanc serves as a symbol for reaching a summit position and of demonstrating the power of will and scientific curiosity. It also “served as a foundation myth in narratives of mountaineering and modernity” (p. 33). To illustrate his considerations Peter Hansen reveals step by step narratives on the ascent of Mont Blanc from the eighteenth century to the twentieth century.
Finally, the representations on the first ascent of Mt. Blanc are compared to a major mountaineering as well as a political event of the twentieth: the ascent of Mt. Everest by Sherpa Tenzing Norgay and New Zealand’s Edmund Hillary on May 29, 1953. Both climbers emphasized on the fact that they reached the top together, but nevertheless debates were raised about which nation could claim the success.
The book ends with reference to the case of the “Iceman Ötzi” who was discovered in the ice of a glacier on the border of Austria and Italy in 1991. Six years after the bicentennial of the first ascent of Mt. Blanc the controversies about the precise nationality or the actual founders and owners of the more than 5,000-year-old mountain man illustrate that questions on the definition of discovery and success are currently still under debate. [End Page 514]
The author bases his arguments on archival material, such...