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Sunday, July 05, 2015

Dickens on the Follies of Mountaineering

"Now what, one asks, is the inducement which leads to the essaying of these perilous feats? One would gladly find a reasonable motive ; but none is either found or offered. A late secretary to the Alpine Club leaves unanswered the very natural question, "What is the use of scaling precipitous rocks, and being for half an hour at the top of the terrestrial globe?" alleging that these are questions of sentiment, and do not admit of conclusive arguments on either side. But if it once be conceded that life is risked for no earthly use whatever, most people will think that the admission settles the matter most conclusively.

What is the motive of foolhardiness ? We have said before, and again say, that the only one discoverable is brag. The common-place sport of steeple-chasing is eclipsed and extinguished by pinnacle-chasing. But it is time to be instant in urging that the first ascent of an unclimbed peak, in which only a single life (whether of guide or friend) is lost, confers, not fame, but a painful notoriety, which is a punishment instead of a reward of the exploit.

We shall be told that " mountaineering" is a manly exercise. It is so, inasmuch as it is not womanly. But it is not noblemanly when it is selfish. Is it manly to expose a parent, a brother, or a wife, to the chance of quite un- called-for sorrow ? To lead them into danger perhaps for the satisfaction of recovering our remains ? To tempt hardworking guides, mostly family men, to expose their lives for no adequate object; bringing them, for our amusement, to the condition of Roman gladiators, who might exclaim, " Morituri te salutamus," " We take off our caps to you, on our way to destruction ?"

Is gambling manly ? A gambler, for the sake of temporary excitement, takes his chance of worldly ruin ; but he is led on by the expectation that he will one day make his fortune- perhaps that very day or night. Reckless mountaineering is greater folly than gambling ; because, for the sake of overstrained emotions, it risks all, with nothing to win but an empty boast.

When Alpine Clubbists hold that it is "a question of sentiment," we may ask whether it be not rather a question of duty. The great argument against' suicide urged by moralists is, that a man has not the right to dispose of his life as he pleases. Life is a precious gift, not to be lightly thrown away. It is not a man's own, but a trust conferred upon him by his Maker, to employ to the best of his ability. Has, then, a man the right to cause the wanton sacrifice (even in his own proper person) of a useful member of society, by the snapping of a rope, the slipping of a stone, the failure of a grapnel, or the imperfect freezing of a bridge of snow?

When sensible people discover that they are on a wrong track, they confess it, and retrace their steps. Our climbing enthusiasts may do the same, without exposing themselves to the slightest reproach as to want of courage. Nobody will say or believe that our countrymen (whether Irish, Scotch, or English) are afraid to face danger. But danger should be nobly faced. Compare the man who ascends Mount Cervin, "prepared to conquer the mountain or die," as reported in the newspapers, with him who braves the cholera, or visits typhus patients."

--- All the Year Round, No. 327 July 1865, after tragedy on the Matterhorn in 1865Dickens on the Follies of Mountaineering:

"Now what, one asks, is the inducement which leads to the essaying of these perilous feats? One would gladly find a reasonable motive ; but none is either found or offered. A late secretary to the Alpine Club leaves unanswered the very natural question, "What is the use of scaling precipitous rocks, and being for half an hour at the top of the terrestrial globe?" alleging that these are questions of sentiment, and do not admit of conclusive arguments on either side. But if it once be conceded that life is risked for no earthly use whatever, most people will think that the admission settles the matter most conclusively.

What is the motive of foolhardiness ? We have said before, and again say, that the only one discoverable is brag. The common-place sport of steeple-chasing is eclipsed and extinguished by pinnacle-chasing. But it is time to be instant in urging that the first ascent of an unclimbed peak, in which only a single life (whether of guide or friend) is lost, confers, not fame, but a painful notoriety, which is a punishment instead of a reward of the exploit.

We shall be told that " mountaineering" is a manly exercise. It is so, inasmuch as it is not womanly. But it is not noblemanly when it is selfish. Is it manly to expose a parent, a brother, or a wife, to the chance of quite un- called-for sorrow ? To lead them into danger perhaps for the satisfaction of recovering our remains ? To tempt hardworking guides, mostly family men, to expose their lives for no adequate object; bringing them, for our amusement, to the condition of Roman gladiators, who might exclaim, " Morituri te salutamus," " We take off our caps to you, on our way to destruction ?"

Is gambling manly ? A gambler, for the sake of temporary excitement, takes his chance of worldly ruin ; but he is led on by the expectation that he will one day make his fortune- perhaps that very day or night. Reckless mountaineering is greater folly than gambling ; because, for the sake of overstrained emotions, it risks all, with nothing to win but an empty boast.

When Alpine Clubbists hold that it is "a question of sentiment," we may ask whether it be not rather a question of duty. The great argument against' suicide urged by moralists is, that a man has not the right to dispose of his life as he pleases. Life is a precious gift, not to be lightly thrown away. It is not a man's own, but a trust conferred upon him by his Maker, to employ to the best of his ability. Has, then, a man the right to cause the wanton sacrifice (even in his own proper person) of a useful member of society, by the snapping of a rope, the slipping of a stone, the failure of a grapnel, or the imperfect freezing of a bridge of snow?

When sensible people discover that they are on a wrong track, they confess it, and retrace their steps. Our climbing enthusiasts may do the same, without exposing themselves to the slightest reproach as to want of courage. Nobody will say or believe that our countrymen (whether Irish, Scotch, or English) are afraid to face danger. But danger should be nobly faced. Compare the man who ascends Mount Cervin, "prepared to conquer the mountain or die," as reported in the newspapers, with him who braves the cholera, or visits typhus patients."

--- All the Year Round, No. 327 July 1865, after tragedy on the Matterhorn in 1865
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