A human walks alone among stark and jagged peaks. Great monoliths of stone, seemingly endless upward slopes. A hermit thrush pleads his case to gnarled and twisted foxtails, stunted by elevation, harsh winters, and inhospitable winds. A marmot waddles from its promontory to some dugout at the base of a lodgepole, the water of an alpine lake laps its shores, nothing else stirs.
Except the shutter behind the lens.
You can call it a tired refrain. I know it’s been said before. And I also know all the literature about the troubles with taking the human out of nature. I’ve read Gary Snyder, I understand the tenets of deep ecology, I’m familiar with the inherent pitfalls of the man-nature dichotomy. But I’m not calling for taking humans out of nature – not at all. I’m calling for something else.
You’ve probably heard of the age of exploration. Typically, it refers to the period of time when Europeans began traveling across oceans to explore new lands. We all know what happened next. I’ll save you the trouble of reading a “quick and dirty” synopsis of how the age of exploration affected Africans, Native Americans, Indians, Asians, Pacific Islanders, and basically anyone else in the world with dark-colored skin.
I’d like to consider the term more broadly. Let’s define an age of exploration just the way you would expect to – as a time period in which something new is discovered, and explored. We could consider deep-sea diving, flying the friendly skies, space travel, traversing the Amazon, whatever. Come up with any example you like.
What interests me about ages of exploration is that as far as I can tell, they are almost invariably followed by a different age. Let’s call that an age of exploitation.
Been exploring a jungle? Found some rubber? Get the rubber. Poked your head around in the desert? Found some oil? Get the oil. Spent a sojourn out at sea? Found some whales floating around? Get the whales.
So it goes. When we discover new things, we seek them out, and use them, generally with little concern for the places those things come from.
What does it have to do with climbing? Well, let’s try to break climbing down into a few eras and see if the pattern holds.
Was there an era of exploration? Sure, all signs point to what your average wizened grizzled hardman might refer to as the Golden Age. Whether that refers to the decade or so between Alfred Wills’s ascent of the Wetterhorn in 1854 and Edward Whymper’s ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865 or to Yosemite in the 1950s and 60s, it’s academic. I’m not going to put forth an opinion on when the golden age of climbing was, or was not.
But for the sake of argument, let’s work backward. What comes after the age of exploration? Exploitation. How do we define an age of exploitation? The age following the discovery of a certain resource, in which that resource is mined, harvested, hunted, stolen, misappropriated, used, abused, or just plain taken by one means or another from its original home.
All signs point to the grand and noble pursuit we call climbing being in such an age. Is there exploration happening? Sure – of course there is! New routes are going up all the time, people are climbing mountains that humans have never laid eyes on (or at least that white people haven’t) before. And yes, any marketing team could spin a tale of how humans are exploring the inner depths of their souls through climbing more than ever.
The paradigm shifted when people learned they could make money from climbing. After all, one has to wonder, what’s the resource that’s being exploited? It’s not rocks, or lichen, or alpine meadows (though all those things are affected by the sport’s growth), right? Nobody is physically out there taking those things en masse back to the city centers.
The resource being mined by climbers everywhere has to be something else. It’s something new, something different, something that maybe we’d never considered a resource at all, in the first place.
What if the most important natural resource for us to protect as climbers is that of terra incognita? Not the reality of the unknown, but the feeling of it? What if every time we snap a photo, name a place, provide a map to it, and put our metaphorical flag upon a summit by writing an account of our triumph in some magazine, journal, or periodical we actually diminish a rapidly fading resource that once gone is gone as long as those records exist?
This is not a new idea. Reinhold Messner began talking about the idea of “white wilderness” in the late 1980s, expounding upon the importance of preserving wild places. He was not referring to snow or glaciers (though that would be a good place to start) when he said “white,” he was referring to parts of the map. In a June 1989 article for the LA Times, he wrote, “The next generations will not remember us for how many 8,000-meter peaks we climbed or how many records we set, but how we left those wild places.”
As a community, we’ve become obsessed with consuming and selling climbing in any way you can imagine. Be it climbing products, the lifestyle, the stories of climbs, or even the climbers themselves, given the Hollywood-style celebritification of some of today’s top athletes. The climate has been one of sell-sell-sell, all without doing much for protecting the experience we tend to sell: one of solitude, peace, and exploration of the unknown in the most rugged environments in the world.
There are a few outliers and dots of hope out there, of course. You have green organizations like One Percent for the Planet, and companies like Patagonia trying to source their fabrics sustainably and fairly. It’s not all doom and gloom. But there’s certainly a long way to go.
Going forward, my suggestion if that we put our minds to the task of ending the age of exploitation in climbing and ring in the age of conservation. Consider it a climbing ethos for the new millennium.
And while it may feel funny to talk about protecting climbing resources in terms of thousands of years, consider the ramifications about any of our actions or behaviors in such broad terms. The science of climate change is direct evidence that we can have huge impacts on the world in significantly shorter amounts of time. Perhaps thinking about the 1,000-year effects of our behavior is the quantum leap that we need to take to create real change from a conservation standpoint.
Think of it as an adventure in thought. Think of it as an exploration of human capabilities. Think of it as a new age of exploration.