Pretty Mountains

The first time I learned that people didn’t always think mountains are beautiful was from a book by Bill Bryson. He mentioned in passing that until the 1800s almost nobody went to the Alps for pleasure, and the concept stuck in my mind. How could people not think mountains are beautiful? There’s no question; that’s simply what they are. I was intrigued enough to find books on the subject and even did something you might call ‘research.’ This article is about some of what I learned.

The broadest summary of what I found is that modern landscape aesthetics were developed in tandem first with natural sciences and then with tourism. These subjects are pervasive, which underscores the reality that a lot of the culture of the Western world was developed in Europe. How many nations around the world have their own unique views of landscapes, I don’t know, but American culture at least comes from a predominantly European tradition. Therefore, most of the history I explain below is based on that assumption. It’s worth knowing where our traditions come from in order to be more able to appreciate others’.

“Before the mid-eighteenth century, people simply did not go in to the mountains if they could help it… Europeans spoke of ‘dismal mountains’ and ‘frightful Alps…’ Beaches were similarly taboo and for many of the same reasons… The transformation of ideas about both mountains and seaside are closely connected, each a result of changing ideas about science and aesthetics, urbanization, and health… both sites were re-imagined through a process of rationalizing nature, of making it something that could be made sense of intellectually, whether in scientific or aesthetic terms, and perhaps even controlled…” -Eric G.E. Zuelow in A History of Modern Tourism.

Mountains were largely seen as deserted wastelands in the Western world until the late 18th century. The Alps in the Middle Ages were obstacles to be avoided or endured, but never enjoyed. Mountains were places of cold and danger, where strange people lived and monsters roamed. Today we use the word ‘wilderness’ to mean land untouched by human activity, but before the 19th century the word had a largely biblical context. People went to wildernesses in exile, or to solidify religious convictions. As Roderick Frazier Nash wrote in Wilderness and the American Mind, “Wilderness represented the Christian conception of the situation man faced on Earth. It was a compound of his natural inclination to sin, the temptation of the material world, and the forces of evil themselves.”

This attitude began to change as early as the 17th century. But it really gained momentum in England in the late 1700s. That country was one of the first to benefit materially from the Industrial Revolution, giving increasing numbers of people the time and wealth to pursue nonessential tasks. At the same time and not coincidentally, science was becoming much more widely acceptable than ever before. Wealthy, landed gentlemen took to the English countryside in huge numbers in search of scientific knowledge, elaborating fields like geology, ecology, botany, and biology. Geology especially took them to the mountains, and it was not long before they left the rain-soaked fells of northern England and Scotland for the tremendous glaciated peaks of the Alps.

Rich tourists had been to the mountains before, such as in 1741 when William Windham and Richard Pococke took a trip to the Chamonix valley just to see the glaciers. Their 1744 trip report became a bestseller in England and was part of a movement that made tangible use of the concept of the sublime, which was to be deeply influential in making mountains beautiful. But nearly all trips to the mountains by wealthy English- or Frenchmen in the 18th century were undertaken for ostensibly scientific purposes. They climbed high ridges and peaks to collect rocks and sketch formations and soon found that the experience of climbing mountains was enjoyable in itself. But the need to present a different reason than simple enjoyment for going to the mountains persisted. For one example, Edward Whymper’s book that includes his first ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865, called Scrambles Amongst the Alps, features extensive descriptions of the geology of the mountains he was climbing.

Two cultural movements created the social conditions for appreciating mountain scenery. They were the Enlightenment (roughly the 18th century) and Romanticism (from roughly the late 18th century to the late 19th century), which can be simplified in this context to their respective appreciation of the concepts of the beautiful and the sublime. Robert MacFarlane summarizes them in Mountains of the Mind: Adventures in Reaching the Summit (which, by the way, is a terrific book for anyone interested in more detail on these subjects):

“Beauty… was inspired by the visually regular, the proportioned, the predictable… [In] physiological terms, beauty had a relaxing effect on the ‘fibres’ of the body.”

But the sublime is our “response to things… that seized, terrified, and yet also somehow pleased the mind by dint of being too high, too big, too fast, too obscured, too powerful, too something, to be properly comprehended. [Mountains] were sublime sights–hectic, intimidating, uncontrollable–and they inspired in the observer a heady blend of pleasure and terror…”

Thomas Jefferson and Voltaire are two classic examples of men who embodied the Age of Enlightenment. William Wordsworth and Mary Shelley are examples of Romantic writers. The Enlightenment shunned mountains, thinking them chaotic and terrifying, but the Romantics loved them for exactly those reasons. With Romantic artists portraying the ‘savagery’ of mountains in a positive light while amateur geologists were simultaneously scaling the Alps in search of knowledge, they laid the groundwork for people to combine the two and decide that mountains are beautiful and that climbing them (or running in them, or biking through them, or skiing down them) is a worthwhile pursuit by itself.

It’s impossible to say when this fully fruited into the frantic aesthetics of mountain beauty that we know today, but the “Golden Age of Alpinism” is a good time to start. That took place from roughly 1854 to 1865 and it was the period when most of the highest peaks in the Alps were climbed for the first time. Of course, the highest peak in the Alps, Mont Blanc, had been climbed in 1786 by Frenchmen Jacques Balmat and Michel Paccard, but that was largely due to the effort and vision of a Swiss gentleman named Horace Bénédict de Saussure, who spent much of his life traveling through the Alps as a scientist and explorer and who made the mountain’s third ascent in 1787. He was ahead of his time.

Once the Romantic appreciation of wild places, risk-taking, and mountain climbing was established in the public mind, the industry took off. A British man named Albert Smith climbed Mont Blanc in 1851 and then produced a play in London about his ascent that “ran for 2,000 performances over six years and helped to popularize mountain climbing in mid-Victorian Britain,” according to his Wikipedia page. At the same time in the mid 19th century, the tourism industry as a whole was gaining momentum. Particularly in England, which was the wealthiest and most industrialized nation in the world at the time, people who had grown up taking ‘long-distance’ vacations to places 100 miles away could now visit Greece, South Africa, or Australia on package tours. Seaside resorts began to sprout up along British, French, and Spanish coastlines as the same kind of aesthetic revolution that taught people mountains were beautiful reconfigured their views of the sea and the beach. With more spare time and money, people began to make use of evolving values by traveling in unprecedented numbers.

Despite all this, mountain climbing and mountain tourism continued to be a pursuit of mostly wealthy people well into the 20th century. Working-class people could rarely afford to spend a summer climbing or exploring in the Alps, even under the guise of science. Only after World War II did railroads and airplanes finally become efficient enough in both time and price to allow larger numbers of people to access high mountains. And once they could get there, they went wild. As visitation to the Alps increased, so did visitation to mountains around the world. Popular destinations from Colorado to Andorra to the Himalaya now have to balance economic, cultural, and environmental concerns as they are flooded in peak seasons by millions of tourists.

This is a greatly simplified description for why we find mountains beautiful. Trying to categorize beauty is ambiguous at best and nearly impossible at worst. My point is not to imply that we are weakling followers for appreciating mountains, but to demonstrate that our values are given to us through culture. We have to be taught to see beauty in the world. I believe that knowing why we appreciate landscapes can help us understand how best to express ourselves among them. The culture of trail running depends not just on doing, but on understanding too. Adventure and travel stories share equal importance with records and times. Since we are highly motivated by mountains, we might be able to make better sense of our experiences in them if we understand why we go there in the first place. This perspective may help us learn how to protect the places in which we play.

Of course, it’s worth mentioning that hundreds of non-Western cultures around the world have prized mountains as beautiful in various ways for as long as their stories go back. Western European society seems to be one of the only ones that actively seperates the concepts of wilderness and society. Furthermore, you may have noticed that most of the people who developed the aesthetics of mountain beauty were wealthy people from industrialized societies, which is a trend that continues to this day. Perhaps socioeconomic lines are not stratified quite so strictly as in the 18th and 19th centuries, but there are powerful correlations between wealth and adventure lifestyles. But these are topics each worth a long book. I bet those books are out there. Keep reading.

  1. Zuelow, Eric G.E. A History of Modern Tourism.
  2. Nash, Roderick Frazier. Wilderness and the American Mind (17-18).
  3. MacFarlane, Robert. Mountains of the Mind: Adventures in Reaching the Summit.
  4. Löfgren, Orvar. On Holiday: A History of Vacationing.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Where does your love of wild landscapes come from? From deep in the history of your culture? Taught to you by your family when you were young? An adult-onset love? Can you trace the lineage of how you came to love natural spaces?
  • While this article is about the Western European history outdoor appreciation and recreation, many other cultures have different relationships with nature. Can you share your own culture’s approach to wild landscapes?

There are 8 comments

  1. MoonMarsh

    I’ve also thought about the question of why people find mountains (or other parts of nature that aren’t necessarily hospitable) beautiful, but always started with the assumption that people had always felt this way. The reaction I have to mountains feels so visceral that I assumed it was some fundamental part of human nature. I’ve wondered whether there might be some evolutionary reason (e.g. a drive to explore new places that might be difficult for others to reach as an advantage in procuring resources, tactical advantages in gaining the high ground). I have no idea if there has been much research into this line of thought or not.

    Until reading this article, I hadn’t thought to consider the degree to which standards of beauty in landscapes might be cultural. Standards of human beauty certainly vary across cultures and across time, so I guess I shouldn’t find it too surprising that the same is true for landscapes. Considering this parallel, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that marketing plays a role as well.

    This also makes me think of ways my ideas about what is beautiful have been shaped by culture– being taught from a young age that climbing a mountain is a worthwhile accomplishment (had a small one just behind my house as a kid), seeing photographs used for postcards, calendars, and magazines (and these days social media posts), where I was taken on family vacations, etc.

    I could go on, but this is probably enough over-thinking for tonight. Interesting stuff!

  2. Doug K

    excellent review, thank you..

    in South Africa the mountains around Lesotho go by names in several languages –
    uKhahlamba in Zulu, means ‘barrier of spears’
    Drakensberg in Afrikaans, means ‘dragon mountains’
    This suggests they were not considered pretty ;-) sublime with overtones of horror, yes.
    There are glimpses of these mountains in the Black Panther movie, as they fly in to Wakanda.

    “Western European society seems to be one of the only ones that actively separates the concepts of wilderness and society. ”
    One of Bill Bryson’s observations in Notes from A Small Island is that the USA has an idea of wilderness which England does not. This is mostly because there isn’t any wilderness left in England (Western Europe), every inch of land has been soaked in human blood at some point, but also possibly because of a frontier mentality characteristic of the US. Pretty much everything we see and think is a social construct.. it’s helpful to have this revealed as this article does..

  3. Markus

    From what I have learned is, that American’s equal mountains often with wilderness.

    In Europe you don’t have that. The Alps have people living in it for thousands of years. There are no wilderness areas in Europe for a long time.

    For example if you run in the San Juan Mountains (Hardrock course) or if you run just 5 miles north of south of I-70 in Colorado, it gets remote very quick. Try that in the European Alps. There is always a mountain hut within 2 hours and probably you can see a village at the bottom of the valley.

    Because of that the mountains in Europe are way more touristy.

  4. Pete

    A question I often wonder about is if Western Europe appreciated their mountains a little too much, in terms of accesibility. The cable cars, gondolas, mountain top restaurants/cafe’s, and huge tunnels bored through them seem to neutralize the alpine areas to me, making them an extension of their cities rather than a wilderness area.

    1. Markus

      The Alps were always better accessible. People are living in these valleys for hundreds if not thousands of years. There probably never was a time where there was a “wilderness area” as the Americans would define it.

      And yes the cable cars and gondolas and the ski industry is quite excessive there and way more harmful to the mountains since all of the skiing is above treeline where the ecosystems are why more fragile.

  5. David

    Thank you for taking the time to write a insightful and inspiring paper. My wife and I appreciate your humor and thoughtfulness in what you choose to share.

  6. Kirby W

    The timing of this article is great. Just a few weeks ago I was reading Continental Divide-A History of American Mountaineering by Maurice Isserman. There was a quote that stuck out about the beginning of mountain aesthetics that I thought was fascinating. I even circulated it to a few buddies.

    Isserman quotes Joseph Addison’s Remarks on Several Parts of Italy, 1699, “the Alps…fill the mind with an agreeable kind of horror.” I bet many of us have felt this “agreeable horror.”

    Thanks for the article.

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