Mountains & Minds

Verticality and the Rise of Science


“The world is not all radiant and harmonious; it is often savage and chaotic. The nature worshippers are blind and deaf to the waste and shrieks which meet the seekers after truth.”

                                    — William Clifford, “Cosmic Emotion,” 1881.

      In the nineteenth century, scientists fashioned a new spatial approach to investigating nature, one that covered vast vertical geographies. They bounded the atmosphere with iso-lines of all types and gridded mountainsides with zones of flora and fauna. Many sciences contributed to the formation of this vertical orientation – including geology (strata in earth), meteorology and terrestrial magnetism (strata in the air), and oceanography (strata in the sea) – so that by mid century, a prevalent vertical consciousness guided scientific research. It was during this exact time that mountaineering became a recognized sport.

      Mountains & Minds: Verticality and the Rise of Science examines this close relationship between mountaineering and science in the nineteenth century. While it is widely acknowledged that scientists directed the formation and initial acceptance of mountaineering as a sport, little has been written about how alpinism fundamentally transformed the nature of scientific research. In eight chapters, beginning with the naturalist Alexander Humboldt on Tenerife in 1799 and ending with the geographer Halford Mackinder on Mt. Kenya in 1899, I will show how scientists transformed their research through their ability to climb on mountain ranges throughout the globe.

      Climbing adventures and scientific practices form the overarching narrative of the book. Underneath lurks a far more intriguing picture of what extreme environments enable people to think, discuss, debate, and print. Neither science nor sport occurs in a vacuum; they are both products of broader cultural developments. Mountaineering, likewise, has never been simply about climbing, especially during the mid nineteenth century when alpinism was invented. Mountains provided the perfect physical geographies for Victorian scientists to engage the most significant cultural questions of the day, enabling them to grapple with heated issues of masculinity, nationalism, morality, empire, and modernity. 

      The impulse to explore dangerous environments in the name of science continues unabated today.  High Alpine environments are testing grounds: physically, intellectually and spiritually. Climbers seek answers, but they also relish in the questions. This impulse helps explain why climbing is so deeply personal, a moral quest as much as a physical one. And it explains why climbing creates such a fellowship among climbers arising from the shared experience of finding meaning in the mountains. Mountaineers are often portrayed as mere nature worshipers, but they have always aspired to be seekers after truth.