by Danielle Raad
In November 2019, I spent ten days in the Alps. I landed in Munich and took a train south into the mountains. Mountains were a constant presence, in the abstract and the physical, the focus and the backdrop, on the trip.
I headed to Innsbruck, Austria, to attend the Annual Conference of the Austrian Association for American Studies hosted by the University of Innsbruck. The theme of this year’s conference was Mediating Mountains. The conference organizers, in their call for papers, wrote: “Mountains are not only objects of reflection that mirror, archive, and project human and cultural investments, but they can also be conceived of as ‘hyperobjects’ that affect the ways we come to think about existence, earth, and society”.
My weekend in Innsbruck was invigorating. I met people from different fields in the humanities and social sciences who study mountains in some guise or other. And while we scholars conferred, the snow-capped Alps loomed in the not-so-distance, visible from the room in which I gave my talk on the role of visual media and collective vision on the creation of mountains in 19th-century America. I also chaired a session called “Commodifying Verticality,” which included talks by three historians. Dr. Carolin Roeder, a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, spoke on climbing grades, Dr. Rachel Gross, an Assistant Professor at the University of Colorado Denver, presented on commercial sponsorship on Everest, and Jesse Ritner, a PhD student at the University of Texas at Austin talked about making artificial snow. At the conference and in the weeks since, I have been thinking a lot about orogenesis, or the creation of mountains, quite a bit. Both the geologic movement of tectonic plates, which I know well from my days as a science teacher, but also in terms of the processes by which societies construct their mountains.
After the conference ended, I took a funicular and two cable cars up Hafelekar Peak, part of the Nordkette, or North Chain. I trudged through the snow to summit the 7,657-foot tall mountain. A Gipfelkreuz, or summit cross, greeted me at the top and signaled the primary religion of the community thousands of feet below. I could see before me all of the Inn Valley, the River Inn, and the city of Innsbruck. I also saw the elevated train tracks heading south through a mountain pass to Italy, which I would be on the next day.
There is a tension between the Romantic gaze of mountains as unreachable, unknowable symbols of nature’s power, and the modern gaze of mountains as controlled and managed landscapes . I was standing on Hafelekar Peak in a conference outfit and was carried most of the way there by machines. I also arrived and departed Innsbruck via machine. The construction of the railroads and trains which have transported myself and many others in and out of the Alps opened up the area to tourism and outdoor recreation.
But looking down from the cable car at the Nordkette below, I saw evidence of a massive avalanche in the form of hundreds of flattened trees, and was reminded of the awesome power of the mountains. They also dictate human movement through the Alps, forcing us to jump from valley to valley. The train that I took from Innsbruck south, headed for Verona, went through the Brenner Pass. Despite technological advancements, and indeed many tunnels have been carved straight through the rock, for the most part humans must react to the physical mass and resulting weather systems of the mountains.
On the way to Verona, I passed by the Italian town of Bolzano and stared wistfully out the window towards where Ötzi the Iceman, a mummified 5,000 year old proto-mountaineer, lay in a closed-on-Mondays museum. I emerged from the Alps momentarily and spent a day in Verona before taking another train west to Milan and yet another north, back into the mountains. I reconvened with my family and spent several days in Morbegno, the Italian village in the Valtellina valley where my father-in-law is from.
One day we drove to Sondrio, the capital of the region, to visit Il Castello Delle Storie Di Montagna in Sondrio (CAST). This is a museum that tells the story of the changing perception of mountains. It is a sort of museum within a museum; it is housed in the Castello Masegra, a Renaissance villa. Interpretive signage provides information on the historic building as well as the mountain-related theme on each floor.
The first floor focused on the climbing (bouldering, sport climbing, and ice climbing). Against a backdrop of faded Renaissance frescoes, exhibits mirrored the tactile nature of the sport. Interactive touch screen maps displayed videos about climbing sites around the world. The theme of the second floor was mountaineering expeditions, global in scope yet emphasizing the Alps. In the banquet hall room, under an ancient wooden vaulted ceiling, were interactive timelines of the history of mountaineering and a virtual reality telescope. Visitors could take books on various topics off shelves and insert them into slots to activate videos on a screen, or place film negatives on a lightbox to trigger content on the role of cinema in mountaineering. The final floor dealt with the topic of environmental protection and the origin of parks, focusing on the protected areas of Valtellina and featuring interactive components as well.
At sunset, we took a sickening car ride up the face of a mountain on what felt like a pilgrimage to the Ponte nel Cielo, or bridge in the sky. We took numerous switchbacks, which triggered my motion sickness and my thoughts about the futile nature of human insistence on dominating these mountains. The Ponte nel Cielo is the highest and longest suspension footbridge in Europe and connects two sides of the Tartano Valley. We paid to walk across it and to look out at the expansive view of the valley with Lake Como in the distance, then to walk right back. The bridge seems to exist for the sake of being a bridge, as an expression of the ability of humans to manage the mountain landscape. My nausea on the way down served as a reminder of the ways that the mountains, however, manage our bodies and our movements.
Danielle Raad is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology and a Public History Graduate Certificate Candidate at UMass Amherst.
Anderson, B. M. (2012). “The Construction of an Alpine Landscape: Building, Representing and Affecting the Eastern Alps, c. 1885–1914.” Journal of Cultural Geography, 29(2), 155–183.
Austrian Association for American Studies. (2019). AAAS Conference 2019. Mediating Mountains. Universität Innsbruck. Retrieved from https://www.uibk.ac.at/projects/mountainfilmstudies/2019-aaas-conference-mediating-mountains/index.html.en
Debarbieux, B., & Rudaz, G. (2015). The Mountain: A Political History from the Enlightenment to the Present (J. M. Todd, Trans.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Morton, T. (2013). Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Taylor, J. E. T. (2011). Pilgrims of the Vertical: Yosemite Rock Climbers and Nature at Risk. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.