Who Were the First Recreational Mountain Climbers?

by Adrienne Mayormountain-sunrise-18614-2560x1440 (Wonders & Marvels contributor)

Moses climbed Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments and ascended Mount Nebo (Jordan) to gaze on the land he would never reach. Jesus took three disciples to a mountaintop to commune with the ghosts of Moses and Elijah. Empedocles, the ancient Greek philosopher, climbed the active volcano Mount Etna on Sicily and leaped into the flaming crater in 430 BC. According to legend, he intended to become an immortal god; the volcano ejected one of his sandals turned to bronze by the heat.

But these religiously motivated peak experiences cannot be described as enjoyable or recreational.

For what may be the earliest summit experience undertaken for pleasure we can look to the ancient Roman historian Livy. King Philip V of Macedon’s mountain climbing expedition was undertaken to admire the spectacular view from Mount Haemus in Thrace, a high peak (ca 7,000 ft) in the Balkan Mountain Range of  Bulgaria. In antiquity, it was a popular belief that one could see two different seas—the Adriatic and the Black— from the peak. Philip, recently retired from ruling his kingdom (involuntarily, due to the Roman conquest of Macedon in 197 BC) was keen to see this celebrated  panorama. According to Livy, as Philip and his men “approached the summit everything was so covered with fog that they were slowed down just as if they were on a night march.” When Philip’s party descended, however, the Macedonian mountain climbers “said nothing to contradict the general notion of the fabulous view of oceans, mountains and rivers that one could view from the peak.” (On a clear day one might see the Black and Aegean seas, but not the Adriatic.) Livy rather nastily insinuates that Philip and his friends hoped “to prevent their futile expedition from providing material for mirth.” Livy and the Romans doubted the recreational nature of Philip’s expedition. They suspected that his goal was military reconnaissance, part of a strategy to make war on Rome.

Another ancient instance of recreational mountain climbing occurred in AD 126. The Roman Emperor Hadrian had heard that sunrise over Mediterranean from Mount Etna was breathtakingly beautiful. The emperor’s team ascended Mount Etna and arose at dawn to admire the sun’s multicolored rays like a rainbow as it rose over the sea. The iridescent effect would have been due to the volcanic smoke, scintillae, and particulate matter in the atmosphere. I’ve never climbed Mount Etna for sunrise but I imagine it might even surpass the spectacular sunsets to be observed today in Elizabeth, New Jersey, thanks to the smoke and flames belching from the oil refineries there.

 About the author: Adrienne Mayor is a Research Scholar in Classics and History of Science, Stanford University. She is the author of “Greek Fire, Poison Arrows, & Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World” (2009); and “The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy,” a nonfiction finalist for the 2009 National Book Award.

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