Is mountaineering sexist?

At Via Outdoors, we aim to connect people with the great outdoors and protect the planet.

This simple purpose is driven by research that shows that time outdoors and connecting with nature mindfully is one of the greatest indicators of conservationist action. Other reports have shown that enjoying nature correlates to recycling, buying locally and responsibly, and travelling more sustainably. From watching wildlife to enjoying a sunrise, regularly appreciating the wonders of nature makes us much more likely to act. Perhaps noticing nature helps us to realise how connected and dependent our lives are on the environment. If nothing else, we protect what we love.

But what does it mean to ‘notice nature’ and ‘connect with the outdoors’?

The examples given in the University of Derby research should give us a clue:

Children's connections to nature

  • 90% infrequently or never watched the sunrise

  • 83% infrequently or never smelled wild flowers

  • 77% infrequently or never listened to birdsong

  • 24% of children often stopped to look at the stars or the moon

Adults' connections to nature

  • 79% infrequently or never smelled wild flowers

  • 62% either infrequently or never listened to birdsong

  • 57% rarely or never watched the sunrise

  • 27% often watched clouds

  • 38% often stopped to look at the stars or the moon

At Via Outdoors, we of course encourage everyone to get outdoors and experience the wild places of the UK in whatever way is authentic to them, but we also encourage people to interact thoughtfully with the world around them. Not only is it good for our mental health, but it’s good for the planet too.

What does this mean in practice?

One of my bugbears of the outdoors is people’s obsession with ‘conquering’ mountains. Jay Griffiths describes this and its sexual and colonial nature well: “Mountaineering literature is full of men ‘conquering’ mountains or ‘laying siege’ to them”. H. B. George described the desire “to explore the earth and subdue it” had “made England the great colonizer of the world, and has led individual Englishmen to penetrate the wildest recess of every continent”. Philip Temple described his expeditions as “penetrating attacks” with a particular desire for summits that were “unconquered”, recalling their “virgin state”. Beyond the mountains, exploration has always been a predominantly male effort to “claim” what cannot be claimed and to ignore the use of that land by indigenous people and animals. At the peak of the golden age of exploration, Giles wrote of his desire “to be the first to penetrate into this unknown region where, for a thousand miles in a straight line, no white man’s foot had ever wandered”.

This is changing but it’s still prevalent, with my friends talking about conquering summits and racing to send climbs.

Instead, this is a plea to slow down, appreciate the world around us, and to recognise that nature is fragile but resilient. It exists without us and should be timeless. For us to ‘conquer’ a summit or send a climb, we need to not work against nature but to embrace it, understand it, and work in harmony with it, with her. From the weather and the rock conditions to our mental state, there are many externalities that mean that we cannot simply ‘smash’ a climb.

Instead let us watch the sunset, smell the woodland, and notice nature, for us and the planet.

This is at the heart of Via Outdoors. It’s the ethos that underpins the partnerships we’re making for our relaunch, from foraging courses to wellness retreats, and is an embodiment of the values we believe we need to save the planet from humanity: empathy and truth. The climate emergency, destruction of our ecosystems and global inequality is driven by our lack of empathy for anyone beyond our closest friends and family. Instead, as I’ve written before, we need to relate and feel with people and animals around the world. That shift away from our self-centred and materialistic worldview can be the only way to sustainable living.

So next time we’re out in the outdoors, let us all try to be a little more empathetic for the world around us: slow down and appreciate, support those humans and animals around us, and leave nature as you found it, if not better. The wild is immovable and does not care for our petty desires ad conquests, but we will be an extended family forever saddened and grieved by its loss.

As Nan Shepherd wrote: “on the mountain, I am beyond desire… I am. That is the final grace accorded from the mountain.”

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