the glory of the hills

Early alpinists 

(Originally printed in the Sewanee Mountain Messenger. Reprinted by permission.)

At the first annual dinner of the Scottish Mountaineering Club, on December 12, 1889, its first-ever president, Professor G. G. Ramsey of Glasgow University, gave a speech. I want to quote pretty extensively from it, because it can teach us quite a bit, even today, about how people should and should not relate to the outdoors.

“What are we to say of the mountaineer?” Ramsey asked. “For, like all fair objects, mountains have their false as well as their true admirers.

“First, there is the finely fashionable sort who wish to do as others do. They look at the mountains, because others do so, and because they can find nothing else to look at…

“We then have the mere curiosity tourist, who notes all that is remarkable or out-of-the- way in scenery, but admires nothing; and never walks a yard that he can avoid.

“Then we have the American mountaineer, who checks off the mountains, one by one, as he sees them, guide-book in hand, just as he does with the statues in the Vatican.

“And then comes the class who look upon mountains simply and solely as a field for exercising or gaining muscle, or the glory which muscle-culture brings. These men care for no ascent which is not difficult or new, and measure mountains solely by their height. These men are not so much mountaineers as mountain acrobats.”

Did any of those ring a bell? Those sorts of people aren’t just in the mountains, it seems, nor did they vanish after the 19th century.

Having described the less-desirable ways of going to the mountains, Ramsey then spoke memorably of the good:

“Well, gentlemen, our mountaineer must be something different from all these, though he may borrow something, in moderation, from them all. He will not despise a good novel in a day of rest; and none like he can enjoy a good dinner and a good glass of wine when he has done good work upon his mountain.

“He delights in the difficulties and dangers of a new route; and he is fully sensible of the pride of finding his legs firm beneath him, his wind sound within. But his main and great joy is in the glory of the scenery through which he climbs.

“He likes fine weather, but he will not be turned by a shower; he likes a big hill, but will delight in a little hill when there are none other; but, above all, whether his climb be difficult or easy, he will carry to it the same sense of joy in nature, of love of her milder as well as of her sterner phases.

“And whatever his mountain, he will leave his load of trouble at the bottom, and find himself gaining a larger heart, a calmer nerve, a more hopeful and trusting spirit, as he climbs upwards.

The glory of the hills, then, gentlemen, the beauty of natural scenery, must be our motto.”

Amen, Professor Ramsey, for us gentlemen and gentlewomen too.