The Angry Corrie 40: Jan-Mar 1999

TAC 40 Index

The chiropody of antiquity

When does a hill become a mountain? The question has been asked in these pages before, not least in the context of Hugh Grant and Welsh movies. But Ronald Turnbull still isn't happy, and from deep inside his Diogenic barrel comes yet more philosophical rumbling:


IF A CERTAIN EGYPTIAN PYRAMID-BUILDER had been in the habit of biting his toenails, or had an intimate companion to bite them for him, there would now be a path and a large cairn on a fine high point of Wester Ross. Beinn Dearg was 2999ft before metrication - we only needed to take 1/250th of an inch off the end of that ancient surveyor's foot to make it a Munro. And so, by some people's definition, a mountain.

Clearly the existence or otherwise of a mountain is far too important to be affected by the chiropody of antiquity. Indeed, it should be independent of the units used: 3000 feet are no more significant than 1728 megalithic yards, or 0.000003 light seconds. Mountainousness or otherwise must be inherent, and the discipline to determine it will be philosophy or nothing. Plato was a known pot-holer - the Metaphor of the Cave indicated his choice of sport - but his theory is universal.

What is "dog"? We can look at an entity of the real world and say "Yes, that is an example of dog", or, "No, that one is human being." More, we can say, "Yes, that is a dog, but with fewer legs / more hair / even noisier." This is possible because there is, in the realm of pure Idea, an Idea (eidolon) of Dog: any specific dog is dog insofar as it corresponds with the Idea of Dog. Thus the Ideal Dog has all four legs, is somewhere between hairy and fluffy, barks but not all the time, and so on.

So what of the Ideal Mountain? Its shape is not in doubt. A mountain is mountain-shaped insofar as it resembles the Matterhorn as seen from Zermatt. A mountain that approaches this ideal may even be nicknamed accordingly. Thus Sgurr na Ciche is the Matterhorn of Knoydart, Clach Glas is the Matterhorn of Skye, Cnicht is the Welsh Matterhorn, Shutlingsloe is the Staffordshire Matterhorn (not actually Staffordshire any more than Matterhorn), and Grisedale Pike is the Matterhorn of Lakeland - while Belles Knott, cited by Wainwright as the Matterhorn of Langdale, may qualify as the smallest of all Matterhorns.

What, then, is the height of the Idea of Mountain? Is it perhaps 4478m, this being the height of the Matterhorn? Mont Blanc is 4808m. If the Ideal mountain height were 4478m, then we would have to say that Mont Blanc would be more mountainous if it were 330m lower. This is clearly nonsense. By the same token, Everest would only be improved by the addition of a proper summit in the style of Sgurr Dearg or the Cobbler, or a Berkeley's Seat affair overhanging the Kangshung Face, rather than the present arrangement of flat snow and oxygen cylinders. Thus we conclude that the Ideal Mountain is at least 8848m. Every actual mountain of the real world is, it transpires, too low. And the Platonic Ideal of the Bagging List is an empty page.

Ronald's wild-haired ramblings were submitted back in June, before TAC37 coincidentally dealt with related matters. And so, a week later, the stoical postman delivered an envelope crammed with afterthoughts:

I must comment further in the light of TAC37. The Idea of Mountain is independent of time and space. Thus it is for the editor of the journal concerned to explain why the two illustrations for my article appear on pages 14 and 15 of a previous issue.

I'd forgotten Roseberry Topping (the Matterhorn of North Yorkshire), perhaps my only unbagged British Matterhorn. Never did get on to the Swiss one. Waiting till I was good enough for the Zmutt. Now, alas, they are roping the Zmutt to make it bad enough for me. There is also the question of the Relative Height of the Ideal Mountain. (For consistency, clarity, and hypnotic effect, could we resist the neologistic "relative drop" and "absolute drop", and retain the original "relative relative height" and "absolute relative height"?) The example of Scafell may demonstrate an upper limit on this: to my mind, it would be less mountain with a deeper Mickledore. The way Scafell appears to be accessible from its outlying (but higher) Pike, but actually isn't altogether so, actually adds to its mountainousness. In any assessment of mountainousness, irony is a relevant attribute!

Ed. - Mention of Plato's speleological prowess brings to mind something once said by the bloke named Tam who painted and decorated the original TAC Towers in Glasgow. Tam was a handsome man, what some people might term "a bit of all right". Learning that I was keen on the hills, he stopped wallpapering for a moment, looked up from his paste bucket, gave a big grin, and said, "Aye, I'm fond of a bit of mountaineering myself. Usually on a Friday night - climb a couple of peaks, then do a bit of pot-holing." There wasn't a lot I could say to that.

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