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.
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.