American's thesis on a manly sport

September 4, 1998

popular interest in mountain climbing has inspired an American academic to conduct research this summer into British mountaineers who, he says, started climbing not only to demonstrate their manhood and virility but also to demonstrate Britain's power as a nation.

The irony, says Peter H. Hansen, a history professor who is researching in Australia, is that in order to climb these peaks the British had to enter into partnership with other people and only succeeded as part of a cross-cultural collaboration.

"As I pursued my research, it became increasingly clear that mountaineering was not just a 'British' topic," Dr Hansen says. "I paid more attention to the role of guides - Swiss guides in the Alps and Sherpas and other porters in the Himalayas - and I began to see mountaineering as a partnership and collaboration of many people who often come from very different backgrounds." Sir Edmund Hillary's conquest of Everest in 1953 is "a striking example" of such a cross-cultural partnership, he says.

Dr Hansen, a professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in the United States, has interviewed British climbers, Sherpas and other mountain guides.

"My research is now as much 'comparative history' as 'world history' or 'British history'," he says. He says the sport made social climbers into mountain climbers, beginning with ascents up Mont Blanc in the 1850s by ambitious men of the professional middle classes.

"Many of these men were concerned that Britain was becoming a wealthy but unmanly society and they responded by developing strenuous sports and gentlemanly activities", such as mountaineering in the Alps, he says.

Since finishing his Harvard dissertation on the subject in 1991, Dr Hansen has extended his research to include the period from the first ascent of Mont Blanc in 1786 to the first ascent of Everest in 1953.

He is revising his work into a book, since "mountaineering sounded like something that people might want to read about".

The resurgence of interest in mountain climbing has parallels with the earlier development of mountaineering in the Alps. The so-called "yuppie climbers" who pay for guided ascents of Everest today, he says, resemble the social climbers who invented mountaineering in mid-Victorian Britain. Both groups were criticised by their hardier predecessors.

The father of small children, Dr Hansen himself has previously climbed but now confines himself to hiking. He is conducting his work this summer in the Humanities Research Centre at the Australia National University.

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