Firstly, what defines a big piece of rock sticking out of the ground as an entirely separate, individual mountain, as opposed to being part of a neighbouring peak? From where exactly should the height of a mountain be measured, especially for those in ranges far from the sea? How do we interpret the endless peaks and troughs of Earth’s varied physical landscapes in order to decide what is and isn’t a mountain?
It’s worth remembering how mountain ranges helped establish the geopolitical map as we know it. Where would the French-Spanish border be without the Pyrenees? More nationalities than you might think define themselves using mountains; from the Alpine barrier which separates Italy from Europe, to the idea of the ‘Highlander’, a man at home in Scotland’s wild landscape.
So mountains turn out to be quite powerful cultural constructs. The Himalayas, the Andes, the Rocky Mountains, all continue to help build stories and identities to reinforce modern nation-states. Even other countries’ mountains can create nationalistic stories, none less than Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay summiting Mount Everest on behalf of Queen Elizabeth II.
Overall, The Mountain gives you what you might expect from a translated text written by Swiss academics living in a part of the world where mountains dominate their thinking. It’s less a book for mountaineers and more an academic overview of mountain theory. The stories aren’t uninteresting, however they’re so dry and factual that it’s hard to stay focused for a long period of time. One for the real mountain geeks.
THE MOUNTAIN: by Bernard Debarbieux and Gilles Rudaz; The University of Chicago Press; £35 (paperback)
This review was published in the January 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.