During last year's Whistler Writers Festival, a panel convened to discuss the perennially elusive topic of mountain culture vs. culture in the mountains. The purpose was to explore the dichotomy, have some friendly debate over our perceptions, and perhaps define what the prosaic phrase "mountain culture" actually meant. It failed miserably. Those who lived in the mountains had differing opinions on how the two concepts worked together. And those who didn't, far from having some objective perspective, hadn't a clue. So here we go again.
We hear a lot about what draws people to mountains. What makes us want to climb, conquer and commune with them. There are many reasons people forsake the drudgery of everyday life to seek a higher experience in the mountains, but what is it that makes them stay, perhaps choose a life based on risk and adventure, where death hovers close enough to touch on a daily basis? Some say it's because you feel most alive when you dwell on this knife-edge. Others cite the powerful draw of being closer to nature. Whatever the arbiter, mountain towns have a unique vibe; their inhabitants play hard and party harder. And everyone, it seems, has a compelling story — of how they got there, of what they do, of why they do it. Listen to these and the lives of many mountain folk seem the stuff of fiction. No doubt we can all relate, but it begs a searing question: is this mountain culture?
If we consider what media often points to under the rubric of mountain culture, we'd have to answer, yes. Print, photography and film are all adept at getting an audience's attention by celebrating the amazing—whether through daring feats or those performing them. By focusing a dramatic arc on this, they purport to get behind the scenes and find out what it takes to be a world-class skier, mountain biker, or climber; what really goes on when you're planning an expedition; how risk is both managed and celebrated; how disaster and death are dealt with, and; how business and family life are maintained in the face of it all. But do they really find out anything? Because this suite of issues could just as easily describe any action-sport milieu—e.g., Maui's North Shore big-wave surfing scene — what can it really tell us about mountain culture?
Anthropologists come at it differently. They ponder differences between "a mountain culture" — indigenous peoples who've occupied elevated ground for millennia and for whom the basic industry of life revolves around survival in the landscape — and what we, a mobile society, most often construe as "mountain culture" — moving to the mountains to enjoy them.
Few indigenous mountain peoples, of course, have chosen their lot, many historically forced into particular lands because of conflict and tribalism. The common denominator — whether Nepalese farmers raising barley on dizzying terraces, or Swiss cheesemakers leading cattle up to summer pasture — is adaptation to an extreme environment. Trading altitude for latitude, similar extreme conditions and subsequent adaptation can be found in other, more horizontal environments like the Arctic.
In considering differences between these notions, it's important to first ask whether there really needs to be; both are dictated by seasonal rhythms and their play on mountain environments. Perhaps the interplay between man, mountain and time is the place to look: what is its effect on art and artifice?
Much literary thinking on the subject is based in the naïve notion that modern mountain culture constitutes areas removed — by dint of both geology and choice — from the mainstream of whatever general culture surrounds. Moving to the mountains is seen as concerted disconnection, a purposeful stepping away, an acknowledged freedom play.
Increasingly, however, we invite — often drag — that surrounding culture into what was once sanctuary: McDonald's, KFC, Starbucks and other signposts of North American cultural homogeneity have diluted the special feel of many places we previously viewed as centres of mountain culture. These have joined broader notions of home-away-from-home resortdom to bring the perennial struggle of development versus soul into sharp focus. These externalisms — constructs of the mind, if you will — seem not to have posed the least deterrent to our fascination. In fact, in greater numbers than ever we seek the mountains, or, upon arrival and embrace, feel that they have sought us. This suggests that mountain culture as we see it is simply a convenient label that has little to do with culture or even mountains, and everything to do with ourselves.
Perhaps each of us who looks to the heights, whether we know it or not, is simply acknowledging our own personal inner journey — such that it matters not whether altitude has engendered an attitude, or merely nurtured one that already existed. Which might mean that mountain culture, ultimately, isn't a state of mind at all, but simply one of self.
"No matter the peak, the goal is always the same: an experience of communion with the spirit within. From the summit of any mountain we see into nature and into ourselves. We are all climbers, and we each yearn to achieve the summits of our own soul."
— Robert W. Sandford, The Canadian Alps