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Our mountains are being stripped of their awe

Simon Jenkins

WHO NOW guards the mountains? This summer has been the 700th birthday of the patron saint of mountaineers, the glorious, egotistical, gregarious, melancholic man of letters, Francesco Petrarch (1304-74). He ascended Mont Ventoux in Provence for no other reason than “a desire to see its conspicuous height”. Likewise he crowned himself lavishly with laurels in the Roman Capitol because no one else would. Petrarch on Ventoux spawned a thousand metaphors and a million climbing boots. This autumn his groupies are gathering at seminars across Europe. I could think of no better place to honour him than on a mountain. But which one? His own Ventoux is now humiliated by a road, the D974. The alternative could only be the land of the mountain bards, Wales, but it too is being desecrated. Snowdon has a railway and snack bar on its summit. The Forestry Commission has trashed valleys and closed paths with conifers. At this very moment the Cambrian mountains are being raped by the Trade and Industry Secretary, Patricia Hewitt, with giant bulldozers carving roads and quarries for her wind turbines. The foxhunts which, in this part of Wales, ride no horses and are really village pest control clubs, face extinction.

Petrarch would have been appalled at the offence to Nature. Yet he would still have found mountains. He would have marvelled at the Glyders and admired stately Cnicht, the “British Matterhorn”. That discreet aristocrat of peaks, Aran Fawddwy, would have delighted him. But I know he would have chosen the seat of giants, Cader Idris, powerful as Snowdon and no less dramatic. It was the view that drew Petrarch to Ventoux, and Cader Idris has the best view in Wales, south to St David’s and north to Bardsey. Its massive flanks have galvanised painters and bards. Those who spend a night on Cader, it is said, become blind, mad or a poet.

Petrarch’s modern appeal rests less in his poetry than in his life as portrayed in his voluminous letters. Though in holy orders, he was infatuated by “Laura”, a married girl once seen in church in Avignon and after whom he pined for years. He also had an illegitimate son. It is through Petrarch’s mix of ambitious vitality and tortured self-examination that we feel the window of the Renaissance creaking open. He had read the classics and declared himself “between two peoples, the ancient and those not yet born, looking backwards and forward at the same time”.

Where better to do this than from a mountain? While Petrarch cannot have been the first to climb Ventoux, he was the first to give it metaphorical significance. He had long seen the peak from his window in Carpentras. He determined to conquer it and thus conquer the torments of his soul.

In a letter to a friend, he presents the expedition as might a modern climber. He had the usual problem of whom to take with him. He was no Hazlitt, who believed that the best hiker “walks alone but dines in company”. He considered one friend “too phlegmatic, another too eager, one too slow, another too quick”. Other candidates were too silent, too talkative or too overweight. Eventually he decided that only his family would do, and chose his brother, Gherardo.

Nor was the climb easy. He pondered taking the direct, steep route as did Gherardo, but “I kept putting off the trouble of climbing” by seeking short cuts which turned out to be long ones. Always his brother seemed ahead, so that gradually the symbolism got the better of him. Petrarch realised “that the nature of things does not depend upon human desires; it is impossible for a body to arrive at a summit by descending.” The closer he came to the top, the wider became his spiritual ambition. It was not climbing that mattered but “trampling beneath us those appetites which spring from earthly impulses”.

At the summit not just the South of France but all Petrarch’s life spread out before him. He opened a copy of Augustine’s Confessions and — the most famous coincidence in literature — it fell open at a passage which began, “Men go to admire high mountains . . . and they abandon themselves.” No longer did he “lie prostrate in my slothfulness in the valley of my sins ”. He had risen above the “filth” of carnal desires, above the unattainable Laura. He had climbed the mountain of the spirit. At that point, “I turned my inward eye upon myself and from that moment no one heard me utter a word until we got to the bottom”. He had been walking for 18 hours, climbed 6,000ft and covered 25 miles.

The objective was so clearly a religious purgative that the Petrarch scholar, Nicholas Mann, asks us to “pause on the slopes and ask what is going on”. Much of the Ventoux letter, certainly written some time later, may well be a literary fiction, Petrarch fitting his colourful youth into the framework of a classical fable. Did he really take Augustine’s Confessions on an 18-hour hike? If he took it, it must have been to some future purpose. But then the quest for solitude to escape temptation is as old as monasticism itself.

Petrarch’s path up Mont Ventoux was followed by thousands, literally and metaphorically. Robert Macfarlane’s recent and excellent Mountains of the Mind shows high places transformed from the haunt of devils, witches and dragons into icons of purity and “high-mindedness”. To the Buddhists of Nepal, the Himalayan peaks were sacred. To the Swiss the Alps were “above the laws of Man”. Their alpenglow was a reflection of the Earth’s untapped treasures. Mountains were the stuff of landscape art, blue and misty in the backgrounds of Old Masters or looming from Turner’s swirling Alps.

Mountains were nowhere more enticing than to Petrarch’s literary successors. What to him had been a religious experience, albeit with romantic undertones, became randomly existential. Byron declared that “high mountains are to me a feeling . . . not unallied to madness”. Coleridge was addicted to vertigo (among other things). Keats stood tiptoe “upon a little hill” and “felt as light and free/ As though the fanning wings of Mercury/ Had played upon my heels”. Ruskin saw the Matterhorn as a sculpture chiselled by “the furious energies of the Earth”. Wagner wrote alpenhorns into Tristan.

Wordsworth went over even Petrarch’s top. He ended his autobiographical Prelude with a nocturnal climb up Snowdon (before the railway) and was lucky in the weather: “The moon hung naked in the firmament/ Of azure without cloud, and at my feet/ Rested a silent sea of hoary mist.” The experience transcended “the imperfect offices of prayer and praise” and became “the emblem of a mind/ That feeds upon infinity”. Small wonder a thousand men and women have since hurled themselves against the ice walls of Everest, in George Mallory’s words “because it’s there”. We still eulogise such voyagers to the extremities of the body and mind but only mountaineers tend to be glorified actually for dying in the midst of their hobby. The Times’s obituary of Mallory, after his death on Everest, remarked that he “could hardly have chosen a better end”, as if he had committed suicide.

Whenever I climb British mountains now I have a dread of a loss of awe. I shall find their peaks festooned with government warnings that they are hazardous, slippery and about to be closed pending “ongoing risk assessment”. I imagine them fenced and roped, daubed and wheelchair-friendly, with cordons and cages to preserve this year’s fashionable raptor or last year’s fashionable weed. Round each saddle I expect a caravan, a turbine or a forestry road.

For the moment we can still shout with Petrarch: “Up where no o’ershadowing mountain stands/ Towards the great and loftiest peak/ A fiery longing draws me.” But tomorrow some health and safety commissioner will block our path and declare all lofty places dangerous and all longings a threat to health. Poet and mountaineer alike will be ordered down to the slothful plain, and magic will be dead.