Mountains have long captured our imagination. For early civilizations, mountains offered protection from enemy attacks; their inhospitable environments kept danger at bay and allowed for peaceful areas of respite in valleys for countless villagers. As looming fierce protectors, mountains became the mythical homes to gods and spirits. But much like fire, the power to safeguard was also the power to destroy. It’s not difficult to imagine ancient humans grasping with the terrible natural forces they encountered — avalanches, hurricane strength winds, and brutal cold — and creating mythology and lore to explain these beautiful but deadly environments.
To the Ancient Greeks, the summit of Mount Olympus was the home of the twelve Olympians (the deities of the pantheon) including Zeus, the king of the gods. To the Romans, Mount Etna was where the god Vulcan kept his fiery blacksmith’s forge.
Farther to the east, mountains were viewed as holy places. In Buddhism, Mount Meru (Sumeru in Sanskrit) is the center of the physical and spiritual universe. Now known as Mount Kailash, this 21,778 ft (6,638 m) peak in the Tibet Autonomous Region is sacred to four religions (Buddhism, Jainism, Hinduism, and Bon) and is the site for pilgrimages that have been occurring for several millennia. Climbing this mountain is forbidden.
The Buddhist monk FaXian (~350 CE) travelled from China to northern India in search of Buddhist scriptures. He and his companions had to traverse the Hindu Kush, the Karakoram, and the Himalayas. His writings share that he believed these places contained terrible dragons capable of spewing snow, wind, and stones: “Of those that encounter these dangers, not one in ten thousand escapes.”
In the 18th and 19th centuries, mountains became a scientific curiosity, something to be mapped, measured, and explored. K2 (28,250 ft / 8610 m) the second highest mountain on Earth, got its name from the British Great Trigonometrical Survey, which began in 1802. Surveying the mountains in the Karakoram, they simply labelled them K1, K2, K3, etc. Since no one else had named it and no religions claimed it, the name K2 stuck.
Inquisitiveness, of course, led to climbing and mountains became a symbol of conquest. Mountains fueled imaginations, sparked ingenuity (crampons, ice screws, and high-altitude oxygen rigs, etc.) and provided a crucible for storytelling that continues unabashed today. In both fiction and non-fiction alike, the struggles of person vs nature, person vs supernatural, and even person vs person play out in survivalist dramas that stimulate our minds. Mountaineering triumphs and tragedies abound in prose, poem, and film.
The British mountaineer George Mallory, who died climbing Mount Everest in 1924 along with Sandy Irvine, was once asked by a reporter, “Why climb Everest?”
Mallory’s short reply was, “Because it’s there.”
Many are familiar with this quote, but here’s his follow-up explanation: “Everest is the highest mountain in the world, and no man has reached its summit. Its existence is a challenge. The answer is instinctive, a part, I suppose, of man’s desire to conquer the universe.”