The lites at the top

Mountaineering has its origins in the spirit of British imperialism of the XIXe century. It’s about bringing the colors of the Union Jack to the top, but also about demonstrating your taste for risk, in a marathon of the peaks which embodies the process of distinction so dear to the gentry.

No human activity completely escapes the spirit of the times, the Zeitgeist. Mountaineering is no exception to this iron law. It takes off in XIXe century, the initiative of the British.

Of course, the interest in the mountain and the change in outlook on it goes back a long way. The Genevans will not contradict me, who have largely contributed to a scholarly approach to the mountains. But mountaineering as a systematic activity, including today's climbing walls or feats ofAssassin's Creed leaping from one roof to another constitute the modern and distant developments, finds its origin in the spirit of British imperialism in XIXe century.

Fair play of the lites

It is within the public schools that the Empire trains its future elites. Let us prevent any misunderstanding from the French reader, this is a perfect false friend. THE public schools British have nothing to do with the schools of the Republic dear Jules Ferry, instilling the rudiments of calculation, reading and patriotism in all little French people under the influence of the black hussars.

On the contrary, across the Channel there are a handful of establishments reserved for the elite, somewhat equivalent to the Jesuit colleges of France during the Ancien Régime. Audience is opposed here to the private education of the high aristocracy, provided at home by tutors. THE public schools are therefore distinguished from private education by their collective character, if not democratic.

As much if not more than forming an intellectual elite, it is a question of forming an administrative elite first imbued with the character and virtues of the breed British destined to dominate the world. With a mixture of endurance, restraint, ambition and modesty in posture.

In this educational framework, the games this is the time when rugby, football and many other games were codified and played a fundamental role. It is about confronting each other, but victory cannot and must not be obtained at any price. The rule plays a fundamental role in this respect. The gentleman strives to win, but within the rules. If he loses, he must be a good sport and, if he wins, show restraint in expressing his satisfaction while greeting the defeated opponent.

It is this fair play that distinguishes him from the vulgar. It is also about the resurgence (or survival) of aristocratic virtues mixed with Protestant asceticism, at the very moment when mercantile capitalism triumphs which, in many respects, seems opposed to it: the end justifies the means.

Opponent: the mountain

The English mountaineers who set out to conquer the Alps came from a patriotic gentry, intending to wear the colors of the Union Jack to the summits. They will coin the term mountaineering. This race towards the heights is not without similarities with the all-out explorations aimed at reaching the sources of the Nile or the poles.

British climbers relied heavily on local skills, recruiting guides with whom they sometimes became friends and whose superior climbing performance they recognized. These guides can have all the virtues, the wages they receive immediately putting them in another category. Some climb for honor, others for money.

Institutional mountaineering is embodied in the Alping Club founded in 1857, which immediately established itself as a careful guardian of mountaineering excellence, moral excellence more than technical, in particular by striving to codify the ethics of mountaineering, the rules of the game of this game which will last a long time sportivizationthat is to say the professionalization of games in sports, with its share of economic interests and penetration into the working classes.

Mountaineering is unique in that we face not an opposing player or team, but the mountain itself. What is fair play in asymmetrical conditions?? Over the decades, debates will focus on the use of innovations. You can use an ice ax and studded shoes, but not crampons, at least in the beginning, and if you can cut steps in the ice, you don't have to cut them in the rock. You can use the ladder (or the back of a porter), but not plant a pedestrian. And when the time comes for Himalayas, the question of the use of oxygen cylinders will arise.

One of the key elements of this ethic is the relationship to risk. For gentlemen, it is forbidden to endanger one's life and that of one's subordinates: this would be a symptom of excess and lack of self-control, a lack of fair play therefore, the refusal to recognize that the mountain has won the part. But we must also distinguish ourselves from the mass of tourists, the Monsieur Perrichons whom the equipping of the Alps with modern means of transport is beginning to pour into the formerly remote valleys. The crest of the moral distinction is very narrow!

The Alpine Club, whose author carefully analyzes the sociological composition and productions, notably its newspaper, arouses mules in other European countries, who will at the same time come to shake up its monopoly. French, Italian and German mountaineers engage in the race for the summits, which takes on a nationalist color commensurate with the contestation of Pax Britannica.

In this regard, we can only think of the chase of Nazi and Soviet mountaineers on Elbrus, the highest peak in Europe, between 1942 and 1943, an illustration of this politicization of mountaineering. These continental mountaineers, often of more popular origin, have fewer scruples in the use of new techniques.

Asceticism and spirituality

In Great Britain itself, mountaineering became more popular and diversified first between the wars, then clearly in the post-war period. The new members from working classes are hard men which promote technical excellence and individual performance, which leads to practices whose level of risk increases considerably.

A taboo falls, breaking with the restraint of the gentry: risk, the assumed game with death become integral parts of high-level mountaineering. One factor will come into play: the exhaustion of unconquered summits. How to stand out in a finite world? The challenge and the distinction shift. Winter ascents, difficult faces, without oxygen, alone, multiple ascents constitute a sort of peak marathon.

Aristocratic mountaineering had resisted the sportification, mountaineering must remain the demanding but disinterested exercise of the gentry. Mountaineers living from their stories and conferences, like the explorers of the time, had however already introduced a form of bias sometimes attracting the wrath of purists. From now on, quasi-professional mountaineers appeared, dedicating their lives to their passion, to the detriment of their social life, sometimes supported by sponsors such as the equipment companies which were developing at the time.

The Alpine Club, which renews itself through co-optation, survives and maintains its leading role by integrating newcomers after much resistance. Despite these mutations, there remains, however, a specific discourse of mountaineering, which aims to be more than a sport (and even perhaps not a sport at all), but an asceticism, almost a spirituality, producing a mystical-sporting literature emphasizing a very particular process of election, participating by renewing it in the process of distinction so dear to the gentry who gave birth to it.

This theme of election strongly evokes the Protestant theme of predestination, so prevalent in Victorian England and elsewhere.

And tomorrow?

In any case, it is the author's Bourdieusian prism of analysis, which illustrates her thesis with great conviction, concluding on the permanence of the discourse of distinction and excellence, at the risk however of neglecting for the reader orthogonal paths which are outlined, sometimes very well documented, but little used in terms of conclusions.

This is the case of the influence of nationalism. Likewise, in the emergence of hard menDelphine Moraldo concludes by insisting on continuity, distinction and excellence, more than on discontinuity, as the fundamental rupture concerning the acceptance of the mortal risk which becomes a constitutive and claimed risk of the practice.

Likewise, when it comes to the slow and complex opening of these meteorites which are their beginnings but in fact very early in the history of the women mountaineering movement in Victorian society. The study of mountaineering would lend itself wonderfully to a more general theory of distinction, not reserved for the distinction between social classes, but as a fairly distributed anthropological phenomenon nourishing a phenomenon of innovation and going beyond the rule.

Women mountaineers, peaks, hard menthe patriotic mountaineers, the sponsors have each shaken up the rules of the game and reinvent a tradition. The fact remains that the staggering mortality figure (60% for high-level mountaineers born between 1940 and 1950) questions the limits now reached by the process. The peaks of risk, like the peaks of the mountain, now seem to have been reached. What will be the new fronts of distinction tomorrow??