The Wire @ WPI Online
VOLUME 12, NO. 1     JUNE 1998

Research Scales New Heights

WPI Professor Heads Down Under to Study Mountaineering

Peter H. Hansen, associate professor of history, has taken his fascination with mountain climbing Down Under. From now until mid-August, Hansen is serving as a visiting fellow at Australian National University's Humanities Research Centre in Canberra, the Australian capital near the southeastern coast, where he is continuing his research on the history of British mountaineering and participating in seminars on the topic "Home and Away: Journeys, Migrations and Diasporas."

The theme is central to Hansen's research on the historical and cultural aspects of mountain climbing. "Part of the attraction of climbing is that it happens in a cross-cultural context," he says. "It blurs the boundary of home and away for all participants." Hansen focuses on mountaineering as it has been practiced by the British and other Westerners, especially the relationship of climbers to the local mountain guides or the Sherpas they hire. Navigating nationalistic and cultural differences has long been a part of mountain climbing, he says. "While climbers frequently travel to a mountain from elsewhere, they often feel that they represent their home country in their quest. Yet they need to form close bonds with the locals, who may view the endeavor quite differently." During the 1800s, climbers from Britain, more than any other country, ventured into the Alps, partly for sport and partly as a show of British imperialism. "These men went to the Alps to demonstrate their manhood and virility during the period that England was becoming more urbanized," he says. "They wanted to prove that they could conquer a peak as individuals and to demonstrate Britain's power as a nation. The irony is that in order to climb these peaks they had to enter into partnership with other people and only succeeded as part of a collaboration."

Hansen is writing a book about the cultural history of mountaineering from 1786, the year Mont Blanc in France was first ascended, to 1953, when Edmund Hillary and his Sherpa partner, Tenzing Norgay, known as Tenzing, reached the summit of Mount Everest, Earth's highest point. Last year, Hansen served as a consultant to a BBC television program about the first Everest ascent. The program, which aired recently in the United States on the History Channel, may be rebroadcast in the future.

Hillary and Tenzing were the only ones who reached the top in their climbing party, which was primarily British and approached Everest through Nepal. The political aspects of the accomplishment, which came at a sensitive time in the wake of the presence of the British empire in India, made the story take on a life of its own, Hansen says. Britain, Nepal, India and New Zealand all sought to claim the achievement. Hillary, a native of New Zealand, part of the British Commonwealth, was knighted by the British. Tenzing, who died in 1986, had roots in Nepal and India and was celebrated as a national hero in those countries.

"They were on the same rope, and neither could have made it without the other," Hansen explains. Nevertheless, a controversy erupted over which man made it to the summit first. Later, both climbers attested it was Hillary. A similar controversy marred the 1786 Mont Blanc achievement.

Hansen earned a B.A. at Carleton College and an M.A. and Ph.D. at Harvard University and has been a faculty member since 1992. He teaches a course on the Industrial Revolution, survey courses on British history and Europe in the 20th century, and several advanced courses, and he directs the International Studies Program, an interdisciplinary major and minor program. He is a fellow of the Royal Historical Society, and a member of the American Historical Association and other professional organizations.

While he has been engrossed in mountaineering in a scholarly way for years his doctoral dissertation at Harvard University was on British mountaineering Hansen has only limited mountain climbing experience and professes no desire to climb Mount Everest. His wife and two young children will accompany him to Australia. A highlight of the experience will be a visit to Sir Edmund Hillary's native New Zealand. But an excursion to the Himalayas will have to wait. "Too steep!" he explains with a laugh.

-- Carol McDonald


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