Haston and Kant

I’ve been reading Dougal Haston’s biography recently – ‘Dougal Haston: The Philosophy of Risk’ – and I feel that I ought to have known more about him, having picked up scattered mentions and noting a winter route in the Cairngorms with his name. He is a key figure from the British mountaineering past that had somehow avoided my gaze.

His mountaineering achievements are inevitably very impressive, but somewhat predictable – among other things, he climbed the Eiger Direct, South Face of Annapurna and the South West Face of Everest. However, it is his character, personality and inner-self that are perhaps more enthralling. His involvement with a fatal drink-drive road accident in Glencoe and his almost self-destructive climbing ethos paint a thoroughly intriguing picture.

Haston’s identification with the writings of the philosopher Emmanuel Kant resonated with something in me that has been grappling with the motivations behind ventures into high and dangerous places. Haston was evidently on some sort of personal quest, perhaps self discovery, trying to answer why it was that he needed to push himself to increasingly extreme lengths for satisfaction and contentment. Ultimately, he never entirely answered this fundamental question.

In Kant, Haston found some enlightenment as to why he climbed. Kant wrote that, ‘individual actions should be regarded as self-contained necessities within themselves, without reference to any other purpose’, and Haston himself reflected, ‘[Climbing] tests are not stepping-stones to one big test. They exist as separate wholes, the tackling of which is one complete function with my terms of existence’. Practically, that meant, in the words of his biographer, ‘that the only happiness he could find lay in severe tests in a mountain environment. And even that would be temporary; after one test, he would have to find another, and another. To achieve this would take a degree of selfishness and self-absorption and, like his favourite philosopher Kant, he sought the freedom to live as freely as possible within laws of his own making, and nothing would deflect him from the path he had chosen’.

To me this seems sad. Although there is something inherently compelling about mountaineering that draws one to the next peak or climb, to say that climbing for the purpose of enjoyment is too simplistic, as was fashionable in the 1960s and ’70s, is perverse to me. There is something very satisfying in doing an activity for the very sake of its inherent pleasure. Indeed, Eric Liddell, the Scottish runner, who won gold at the Paris Olympics in 1924, spoke of the pleasure he felt in running fast. Ultimately, winning or losing did not matter to him, but engaging himself in the one thing that in so doing would satisfy his soul. In contrast, Haston gained satisfaction from pushing extreme boundaries which would only ever recede and becoming ever absorbed in a self-centred spiral.

In the same way that the natural human condition strives for perfection, it is a mountaineer’s condition to want to quench the wanderlust inside that yearns for the thrill of another exhilarating mountain experience. I know this feeling. Part of it is selfish. The climbing world is a small one, and a rock face an even smaller one – every climber secretly wants to climb the hardest and make the most daring ascents over and above those of the next climber. Partly, also, it is for the fleeting feeling of freedom one feels, no longer shackled to a desk and a computer, but caught up in grand places that put you in your place.

Ultimately, the secret is to find satisfaction in all things from the sublime to the mundane. Alistair Humfreys, the explorer and adventurer, takes this view, one week on a foreign adventure, the next circumnavigating the M25 on foot, seeking to find challenge and fulfilment in every aspect of life. Admittedly, one would struggle to eek out the adventure in placing the stationery order at work on a Monday morning, but how about that feeling of joy on the bike ride to morning, exulting in the fresh morning air with the sun rising like a blazing fireball?

Connor, J., 2002. Dougal Haston: The Philosophy of Risk. Edinburgh: Canongate

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