“The ordinary man looking at a mountain is like an illiterate person confronted with a Greek manuscript.”
– Aleister Crowley, The Confessions of Aleister Crowley
“Great things are done when men and mountains meet.”
– William Blake, Poems from Blake’s Notebook
IN THE EYES of the unenlightened, the name Aleister Crowley will always be synonymous with Satanism, devil worship and drug abuse. However, few of his many detractors realise that he was also an accomplished mountaineer who conquered some of the world’s most inaccessible and inhospitable environments. It is even rare for Crowley’s own followers to discuss his keen association with the dangerous world of rock-climbing, but the fact remains that without taking into account this seminal and developmental aspect of Crowley’s diverse personality one risks neglecting a crucial part of his overall character.
Crowley’s interest in rock-climbing was first awakened just a few months prior to his seventeenth birthday. During a trip to the Isle of Skye with his mother, Emily, in the Summer of 1891, this intelligent and precocious young student from Malvern College soon found himself deeply moved by the breath-taking scenery located in the Kyle of Lochalsh, Kyleakin and Portree regions, and, most notably, throughout the unforgiving landscape of the famous Cuillin Hills. Crowley and his mother stayed at the nearby Sligachan Inn. Martin Booth takes up the story:
Considered to this day to be the finest sub-Alpine mountaineering area in Britain, the Cuillin Hills had only recently been made popular by John Norman Collie, a dedicated mountaineer, lecturer in chemistry at the University of London and the first person to make a practical application of X-rays. He had opened the hills up, plotting climbs and mapping out pathways. Mountaineering being a new sport and popular among the wealthy, such places were often crowded with the renowned and rich of the day. At the time Crowley checked onto the inn, it was packed with mountaineers and hill walkers, Sir Joseph Lister, the founder of antiseptic surgery, among them.
Lister, who was said to have become extremely impressed with the boy’s intelligence and enthusiasm, agreed to take the young man on his first-ever mountaineering expedition. Their quest was the Sgurr nan Gillean, a rugged and triangular peak which begins at the Pinnacle Ridge and eventually rises to a height of 3,162 feet. The ascent, which involves negotiating one’s way through loose scree, sharp crags and rock faces that were almost three-quarters of a mile wide, was rather hard-going for a beginner and Crowley had to wear a rope and harness, but by the time he had conquered this first peak and returned to the village below he was determined to repeat what for him had proven to be a memorable and life-changing experience.
By Easter of the following year, Crowley had travelled to Langdale Fell in the Lake District and heard some of the local walkers discussing an attempt to climb all four of the local fells – Skiddaw, Saddleback, Helvellyn and Scafell Pikes – and was determined to take up the challenge for himself. Close to exhaustion, he spent a whole day scaling the notoriously difficult Scafell in bright sunshine and finally reached its summit. As he began the descent he met a mountain rescue team which had been searching for him for several hours, astonished that the young teenager had been so reckless as to take on one of the area’s most difficult peaks.
Several of the more experienced climbers soon took Crowley under their wing, most notably Owen Glynne Jones and John Wilson Robinson. The former left a bad impression on Crowley for his fundamental lack of professionalism and the manner in which he often endangered the lives of others. Jones was eventually killed in the Alps, whilst attempting an 1899 climb in the Dent Blanche. As Crowley himself notes:
The dangers of mountaineering are ridiculously exaggerated. I have never known of any accident which was not due to ignorance or folly. Eckenstein, the greatest climber of his age, told me the same thing.
It was with Oskar Eckenstein that Crowley travelled to Mexico in 1900 and proceeded to climb the mountains of Iztaccihuatl, Popocatepetl and Colima. Eckenstein, something of a mystic, instructed Crowley in the ways of raja yoga in order to help him focus his mind for some of the more treacherous parts of the expedition. This, of course, in the days before sports psychology had become so recognisably beneficial.
In 1902, Eckenstein and Crowley visited India and set out to conquer the almost unassailable Chogo Ri mountain. No European had ever managed to climb to the summit of what is more commonly known as K2 and it is the second highest peak in the world. After travelling to the Karakoram Himalayas in Baltastan, Crowley, Eckenstein and their four associates – a Swiss doctor called Guillarmod, an Englishman called Knowles and two Austrians called Pfannl and Wessely – encountered some of the harsh realities of life at high altitude. C.R. Cammell, who knew Crowley personally, describes the events:
The expedition encountered climatic conditions of the most formidable hostility. The health of these strong men was shattered by the prolonged violence of blinding blizzards, by the intensity of the cold, by the enforced delays, due to the appalling weather, at altitudes where the lack of oxygen destroys vitality. The eleventh and last camp in that heroic onslaught on the giant mountain was pitched on the great glacier at a height of 20,000 feet. There exhaustion and disease held the explorers in a deadly grip. Crowley, though ravaged by fever and attacks of snow-blindness, reconnoitred alone to an altitude of about 22,000 feet. The weather and consequent illness defeated the party at last. Chogo Ri remained, and to this day remains, unconquered.
The extreme conditions affected each of the men in their own way and, at one point, as Crowley became delirious with malaria he grabbed his revolver and threatened to shoot Knowles. Crowley was eventually felled with a quick blow to the stomach. But Pfannl also became ill and was spitting blood and threatening to go completely insane, labouring under the misguided impression that he had evolved into three separate individuals and then attempting to stab one of the manifestations of his own imagined and fragmented personality. Despite the great hardship that Crowley and his comrades had been forced to suffer and the fact that they eventually had little choice but to abandon the expedition altogether, they had remained on the glacier for sixty-eight days and thus set a new world record.
Crowley remained undeterred and, in May 1905, both he and Guillarmod decided to return to the Himalayas and climb the five peaks of Kangchenjunga which, at over 28,000 feet, were long considered to be one of the world’s most perilous mountain ranges. The pair set about recruiting volunteers and managed to secure the services of Charles Adolphe Reymond, Alexis Pache and Alcesti C. Rigo de Righi. Crowley was under no illusion as to the dangerous and unpredictable nature of the expedition and even went to the trouble of making out a will prior to his departure.
Just fourteen miles from Tibet, Kangchenjunga lies on the border between Sikkim and Nepal. Crowley, who insisted on being appointed sole leader of the expedition, was impressed with the conditions as the men entered the early stages of the ascent. He also considered himself to be in excellent physical condition. When they arrived before Mont Blanc, however, the 230 local porters – charged with carrying the belongings of their European paymasters – refused to go any further as a direct consequence of the fear and respect they had for the resident mountain god who was reputed to rule over the Five Great Peaks. Guillarmod, meanwhile, disturbed at the amount of baggage that Crowley had brought along with him, considered this to be a blessing in disguise and the men continued on their way. But things soon took a darker turn as he became annoyed at Crowley’s fast pace and the fact that he had left no stone markers along the route. Crowley, for his part, was annoyed that Guillarmod had decided to make his own stage-camps and ignore the sites that he had prepared for those bringing up the rear. Before long, a more serious air of dissension began to seep into the ranks:
In the evening of 31 August, a number of porters tumbled into Camp IV and complained to Guillarmod that Crowley had been beating them. They had had enough and were on their way home. They continued down to Camp III, where de Righi, who knew their language fluently, persuaded them not to abandon the expedition. He have his word that he would not allow the Burra Sahib to beat them any more and that they were not obliged to spend a night in the same camp with him. Reluctantly, they took up their loads again. Crowley admitted beating a porter, but only for his own good, and for the sake of others.
Crowley, on the other hand, offered a markedly different opinion to that of his estranged companions:
There was no suggestion that I had acted improperly in any way. From first to last it was merely the feeling of foreigners against being bossed by an Englishman. The same thing had happened with Pfannl on Chogo Ri.
As the weather conditions worsened, however, Guillarmod’s lack of direction and bad leadership meant that Pache and several of the porters were killed in an avalanche. Guillarmod himself also suffered a bad fall and came very close to death, whilst de Righi was knocked completely unconscious. Crowley was elsewhere at the time and managed to avoid the avalanche altogether, but whilst he had lost a dear friend in Alexis Pache he was unremitting in his criticism of Guillarmod’s foolishness and largely unsympathetic towards those who had also perished on the slopes:
Aleister Crowley, who was also still up at Camp V, had heard the cries for help along with Raymond. But he did nothing. His later explanation was that he had advised Guillarmod not to make the descent and that once Guillarmod had rejected his advice the Swiss had also abrogated any claim on his person; and that although Raymond – who had ‘not yet taken off his boots’ – had indeed left Camp V to help, Raymond did not return to tell Aleister of the disaster and request his help. So Crowley turned over and went to sleep.
When it came to raising the hackles of others, Crowley was rather adept. Several years earlier he had angered the prestigious Alpine Club by suggesting:
That most Alpine Clubmen simply paid locals to haul them up a few well-known peaks. He attacked Club members for laziness, cowardice, ineptitude, jealousy and bad sportsmanship and they responded by ignoring his feats.
The Kangchenjunga expedition was an episode in Crowley’s life that many biographers continue to use in order to draw attention to his uncompromising and haughty manner, but it remains a fact that Crowley had no part in the disastrous events which took place on the slopes of Camp V and, as is evidenced by his wider mountaineering achievements, he was more than a match for his critics. So what drove Crowley to undertake these challenging and demanding feats of endurance? Cammell explains:
There is a fearful fascination in completing the perils and hardships endured by explorers of untrodden jungles, deserts and mountains. The records of such exploits, written by their heroes from notes and explorations made on the spot, and at the time of their performance, thrill our nerves on reading, beyond the power of fiction.
Mountains have long been a source of inspiration for those who glance up to the heavens in both wonder and astonishment, or who dare to test the limits of their own strength and endurance. In this respect, Crowley – himself one of the great spiritual adventurers of the last few hundred years – was no different. A few words from the Tibetan mystic, Milarepa, may serve to illustrate mankind’s perennial fascination with the world above the clouds:
The storm, the thunder, the clouds from the south. When they arise, they arise from the sky; when they disappear they do so into the sky. The rainbow, the fog, and the mist. When they arise, they arise from the air; when they disappear they do so into the air.
In many cases, of course, what are commonly regarded as perfectly natural phenomena can often appear seemingly inexplicable, even more so among those ancient or contemporary non-Western minds uncontaminated by quantifiable science, and are therefore attributed to the divine inhabitants of those god-strewn realms which lie above and beyond the purely earthly domain in which most of us spend our lives. Crowley, of course, lived at a time when space travel was still unthinkable and mankind had yet to breach the skies. The German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, has discussed the great allure that mountains continue to have for people like Crowley and various others who dare to attack the perceived limitations of the firmament above:
O sky above me! O pure, deep sky! You abyss of light! Gazing into you, I tremble with divine desires. To cast myself into your height – that is my depth! To hide myself in your purity – that is my innocence! And when I wandered alone what did my soul hunger after by night and on treacherous paths? And when I climbed mountains, who did I always seek, if not you, upon mountains? And all my wandering and mountain-climbing, it was merely a necessity and an expedient of clumsiness: my whole will desires only to fly, to fly into you!
When it came to describing how he felt about the land beyond the clouds, Crowley often employed some beautifully evocative and descriptive language himself:
Behold the ice-clad dome
On which we stood, all weary of the way,
And marked the east awaken into scorn,
And rush upon us. Then we set our teeth
To force a dangerous passage, and essayed
The steep slope not in vain. We pushed our way
Slowly and careworn down the icy ridge,
Hewing with ponderous strokes the riven ice
In little flakes and chips, and now again
Encountered strange and fearsome sentinels,
Grey pinnacles of lightning-riven rock
Fashioned of fire and night. We clomb adown
Fantastic cliffs of gnarled stone, and saw
The vivid lightning flare in purple robes
Of flame along the ridge, and even heard
Its terrible cackle, ‘mid the sullen roar
Of answering thunder.
Aleister Crowley was used to pushing himself to the very limits of human endurance and his mountaineering adventures were simply another way of both searching for and activating the hidden scraps of divinity that dwell within us all. Rock-climbing has always served as a perfect analogy for the Faustian drive towards self-improvement and the fulfilment of one’s own destiny. Perhaps Crowley was reaching out to the heavens in the way that the Ancients strove to raise a Tower of Babel to the dizzying heights of Heaven itself? In Crowley’s case, of course, the ‘tower’ was his own body and the ennobling effects of his Herculean expeditions allowed him to test himself and move closer to the Godhead. As Julius Evola notes in his Meditations on the Peaks:
And what should I say when someone climbs almost vertical icy walls, where if two or three centimetres give way that is enough for him to fall to his death? And yet this may be one of the deepest aspects of the experience of mountain-climbing: a kind of amor fati, to unite the excitement of the adventure with danger, to give in to trusting that which in our destiny is beyond human control.
Given the spiritual adventures that lay before him, the young Aleister Crowley could not have had a better grounding in the whys and wherefores of what was soon to become a lifelong quest for unification with the divine.
1. Martin Booth, A Magick Life: A Biography of Aleister Crowley (Hodder & Stoughton, 2000), p.34.
2. Aleister Crowley, The Confessions of Aleister Crowley, An Autohagiography (Arkana, 1989), p.90.
3. C.M. Cammell, Aleister Crowley: The Black Magician (New English Library, 1969), pp.52-3.
4. John Symonds, The Great Beast: The Life and Magick of Aleister Crowley (Macdonald, 1971), p.81.
5. Crowley, op. cit., p.430.
6. Roger Hutchinson, Aleister Crowley: The Beast Demystified (Mainstream, 1998), p.112.
7. Gerald Suster, The Legacy of the Beast: The Life, Work and Influence of Aleister Crowley (W.H. Allen, 1988), p.27.
8. Cammell, op. cit., p.51.
9. Jetsun Milarepa, The Song of the Essence of All Things, 1052-1135CE.
10. Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra (Penguin, 1961), p.184.
11. Martin Booth (Ed.), A Descent of the Moencii in Aleister Crowley: Selected Poems (Crucible, 1986), p.97.
12. Julius Evola, Meditations on the Peaks: Mountain Climbing As Metaphor for the Spiritual Quest (Inner Traditions, 1998), pp.89-90.