Thursday 20 April 2017

Xtremely Queer : Climb Every Mountain

When researching my recent article on Alexander von Humboldt I was reminded of the other lgbt mountaineers and climbers I have come across in other researches. Mountaineering is no stranger to my blog as I have written about it before, notably with Cason Crane, the young gay man who completed one of the ultimate Xtreme challenges of climbing the highest mountains on each continent.

Climbing and mountaineering has had its fair share of climbers from the lgbt community. Simon Thompson, writing in his book “Unjustifiable Risk? The Story of British Climbing”, claims that there was a large number of predominantly closeted gay mountaineers in the first part of the 20th century. This may have been true but it will be difficult to judge or prove. However, there have been some high profile lgbt climbers who were active during that period and it them I wish to look at in this 2-part article. I’ll look at 6 lgbt mountaineers who started their climbing careers before World War II. In this first article we’ll look at those who began climbing before 1900.

First on the list is the man I featured last month, Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859). Long before mountaineering had the safety equipment and appropriate gear Humboldt and his fellow scientists were climbing up mountains without such basics as breathing apparatus. His most celebrated climb was up Chimborazo in the Andes, a 21,000 feet high extinct volcano permanently capped with snow. This was like climbing Mount Everest in those days. Indeed, Everest hadn’t been discovered by western climbers at that time and Chimborazo was, to them, the highest mountain in the world. And Humboldt made the dangerous climb in the name of science. He took lots of scientific instruments with him to measure temperature and air pressure, and an instrument to measure the blueness of the sky.

No-one had ever climbed higher. Standing near the peak he surveyed the scene below and around him. From that moment he realised all of nature was connected, and it started his research into the many natural disciplines that alerted him to climate change. The modern world has much to thank for Alexander von Humboldt’s climb up Chimborazo in 1802.

Now, here’s a queer climbing connection you’d never have guessed. It’s someone who made a contribution to the improvement of mountaineering equipment, the “Great Beast” himself, the “Wickedest Man in the World”, Aleister Crowley (1875-1947). Crowley was a keen climber from an early age. In 1893 he became friends with Oscar Eckenstein (1859-1921), a half-German, half-English mountaineer. Such was their friendship that Crowley dedicated one of his books to Oscar, through there’s no reason to suspect that the Great Beast initiated him into his poly-sexual occult practices. In fact it seems that it was Oscar who initiated Crowley into extreme mountaineering and included Crowley on the expedition to be the first mountaineers to climb K2 in the Himalayas in 1902. The climb was abandoned after sickness hit team members. Another concern was inadequate equipment.

Crowley was to help Oscar to develop new, better, climbing equipment. In particular, Oscar came up with the modern crampon, without which many mountaineers have little grip on the ice sheets. At first the crampon was seen with some suspicion but once they caught on mountaineering was changed forever. Crowley’s main claim to fame may be more a claim to infamy, but he also contributed to the saving of lives.

Oscar Echenstein married but had no children. Perhaps he is one of those hidden homosexuals that Simon Thompson wrote about. Who knows? What we do know is that he knew most of the major British climbers of his life-time, including our next gay mountaineer, Geoffrey Winthrop Young (1876-1958).

Oscar Echenstien contributed to Geoffrey Winthrop Young’s mountaineering manual “Mountain Craft” (1920). They had climbed in north Wales together and in the Alps. Young wrote several other significant books on mountaineering, including an autobiography in which he hints that his motivation for climbing was to overcome his homosexual urges.

Young may well have become a Himalayan mountaineer had an injury received while serving with an ambulance unit during World War I not led to the amputation of one leg. He did, however, continue climbing in the Alps and become President of the Alpine Club.

That’s where we leave it for now. In part 2 which will appear in June I look at 3 more lgbt mountaineers who started climbing in the first part of the 20th century. We’ll return to the Himalayas, go Down Under, and remember a tortured soul.

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