Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. Mai

5.10. Mountain and Cultural Aesthetic
Herausgeber | Editors | Éditeurs: Charles I. Armstrong (University of Bergen, Norway) / Juri Mosidze (Tbilissi)

Buch: Das Verbindende der Kulturen | Book: The Unifying Aspects of Cultures | Livre: Les points communs des cultures

Austro-Hungarian and other Mountains in Arctic Discourse

Johan Schimanski (University of Tromsø) & Ulrike Spring (Wien Museum)


The difference of mountains

The houses are as large as icebergs on a glacier-bank, and they reach a long way in on the land, as far as one can see, like a steep chain of mountains with countless clefts that function as paths.(1)

It was around midday, as we, leaning over the side, stared into the fleeting mists through which the sunlight broke from time to time, that a passing wall of vapour suddenly unveiled rugged lines of cliffs far to the North-West, unfolding within a few minutes into a view of a shining Alpine world.(2)

The first quote is from an account made by the Thule Inuit Uissaakasak of his encounter with New York, in 1897. The second is from an account made by the Bohemian Austrian Julius Payer of his encounter with what was to be named Franz Josefs Land, in 1873. An inhabitant of the Arctic describes his first encounter with a large U.S. city; an inhabitant of Central Europe describes his first encounter with an isolated Arctic archipelago. Both are describing something new and unknown; both make use of categories and comparisons familiar from their own experience and that of their own social group. As it happens, both evoke mountains.

But despite these similarities, both must be read in their respective contexts. Uissaakasak and Julius Payer are situated differently in relation to history and society. The similar use of a discourse about mountains is a reminder of the very historical differences which articulate and layer this discourse. Payer led together with Karl Weyprecht the Austro-Hungarian North Pole expedition (1872-1874) - during which they discovered and named Franz Josefs Land. As in Uissaakasak's case, Payer's words from 1876 are part of a long and complex chain of articulation, spread out over a period of time. Payer was one of the central actors of the expedition and of its mediation afterwards - especially where mountains are concerned.

In the following we will be examining the interferences, overlaps and differences between discourses on Arctic and Alpine mountains, with special reference to the Payer-Weyprecht expedition and different versions of its first encounters with Franz Josefs Land. In particular we are interested in the ambivalences that mark the repetitions of Alpine discourse in Arctic discourse, whereby mountains become secondary rather than primary aims for explorers, the vertical and the horizontal are exchanged, and previous notions of Alpine mountains are applied not only to Arctic mountains, but metaphorically to the Arctic as a whole.

The question of the reproducibility of Alpine themes in other contexts has not generally been given scholarly attention. Mountains have naturally been seen as being located within a surrounding - often populated - landscape (e.g. Jantzen 1988). Especially where the cultural history of mountains and mountaineering in the 1800s is concerned, this is partly a product of the European Alps being taken as a prime example or type. This results in a corresponding lack of attention to the kind of qualities and ascribed functions which are specific to Arctic mountains.

The systematic ascension of mountains has its origins in the 1700s, whereas systematic exploration of the Arctic and Antarctic began on a similar level in the 1800s and early 1900s, with Franklin, Nansen, Shackleton, Amundsen, etc. If one takes the history of Alpine mountaineering as a baseline, similar relationships to Arctic mountains and other mountains outside Europe must appear as delayed, and belonging to new historical contexts. One must then ask whether Alpine mountaineering has been taken as a model for Arctic mountaineering or for Arctic exploration in general.

This question points to a more general question of whether the polar experience is mainly a product of a metropolitan discourse, i.e. firmly based in already supplied cognitive categories, or whether the direct, concrete experience of the polar other has a role to play in the refraction and deformation of polar discourse. What makes mountains interesting in the study of polar discourse is that the already established discourse on mountains could provide explorers with a ready-made set of categories for understanding polar regions, indeed with the competence necessary in many cases to at all survive under polar conditions. Cognitive categories are here not understood as the pure structure of a sensory apparatus, but as more complex narratives, ideologies, myths and knowledges, all making up different horizons of expectation.

John Wylie highlights these problems of cognition in a recent article on Scott's and Amundsen's journeys to the South Pole, hoping not only to show how landscape is "rendered legible through reference to pre-established structures of meaning", but also the importance of the "`eventful', material and sensuous nature of practices of travel and exploration, and the complicit and contributory power of the landscapes through which these practices evolve." (Wylie 2002, 171). Wylie argues against portrayals of explorers purely blanking out the polar landscape in order to make room for their own imaginings, and cites for example the Norwegian experience of the Antarctic as one of recognition and making-familiar: "Members of Amundsen's expedition triangulated Antarctica through comparison with skiing conditions in both inland Norway and the Arctic archipelagos" (Wylie 2002, 177-8). Tryggve Gran, a Norwegian travelling with Scott as a ski-instructor, even compares the Transantarctic Mountains with the mountains of Norway (Wylie 2002, 178). Wylie's discussion shows, however, that these Norwegian comparisons are, to use Donna Haraway's term, "situated knowledges", and it is clear that these comparisons take place within a field of cognition, mediation and discourse, even if the discourse involved is more practice-related than romantic imaginings. This situation becomes doubly clear when the pragmatic and professional turn signalled by the advent of Norwegian explorers in polar travel is compared to a similar cultural turn from imagination to professionalism, which had already taken place in mountaineering discourse by the mid-1800s (Honold 2000).

Our argument is that the discourse on Arctic mountains and the discovery of land in the Arctic in the 19th century must be understood in dialogue with the Alpine. In other words, the Alpine was formative in terms of meaning and form for the Arctic; the Arctic mountain landscape, and also the Arctic landscape as such, were to a large degree interpreted within the categories of Alpine discourse. As Robert G. David observes for 19th-century British imagination:

One of the difficulties facing both writers and artists who sought to represent the Arctic was the lack of language codes and artistic conventions suitable for describing and depicting the very different environment that the explorers encountered. (David 2000, 12)

Some of these codes and conventions could be taken from Alpine discourse. A closer examination reveals that while mountain and polar discourse were clearly differentiated in the 19th century, perhaps because of the delays suggested above, competence with mountaineering could be used in the Arctic in an explicit way, and was in some cases accompanied by more metaphorical comparisons with Alpine fastnesses.

At the same time, however, mountains could be perceived as displaced when actually encountered in the Arctic, and their ascent seen as irrelevant, or at least as meaningful in completely different ways than when encountered in the Alps. In polar discourse, mountains often become epiphenomena. The ascent of a mountain is usually the main project of the narrative agents in mountaineering discourse; in polar discourse, however, mountains are usually secondary to the main project of the narrative agents. Mountains are seen, and thus land is discovered; or mountains are ascended, in order to discover more land. For the expedition, land - and not mountains - is often the central topos.

Weyprecht, the captain of the ship, illustrates the primacy of land in his address to the Geographische Gesellschaft (Geographical Society) in Hamburg, as reported in a Vienna newspaper, the Fremden-Blatt:

At the end of August 1873 new land was seen for the first time. The joy at this was an exceptional one, since until then the expedition had been without success. This discovery of land was the first concrete result of the months of drifting around.(3)

The relief expressed on the discovery of Franz Josef Land is not only a relief at being saved from the dangers of the polar seas, but also one of attaining some measure of scientific progress, of concrete results by which the success of the expedition might be guaranteed.


Mountains as media

We have thus established some of the dynamics of the intersection of mountaineering and Arctic discourse and have shown how differing historical and geographical contexts give mountains different functions. We wish here to bring a second element into our discussion, and that is: the function of mountains as signs and as media, and thus as themselves part of the cognitive process.

In this respect, mountains have an important function in the context of the Payer-Weyprecht expedition. Firstly, as signs of land and of the lay of the land: reference points which help there and then to structure the expedition, giving order to the chaos of the polar landscape. Secondly, as instruments of observation used actively during the expedition as places from which to see the lay of the land, to map it: in effect, as media. As Payer writes in a letter to the Geographical Journal in 1896: "If more details of the country are desired, the prominent mountains require to be ascended"(Payer 1896, 105).

The medialization involved here encompasses other phenomena than mountains. The well-defined rules of scientific work were subject to Arctic conditions. Thus mists prevented painless orientation on the first sledge journey (Payer 1876, 237) and could even be mistaken for new land or mountains:

In fact it is no rare happening in the Arctic regions that the vapour banks of the horizon imitate the definite character of distant mountain ranges, their sharp delimitations caused by the low altitude to which they may rise in the cold air.(4)

Years later, it turned out that several of the mountains, sounds and fiords sighted by Payer only existed as momentary imaginations, as mirage-like deceptions in the polar mists.(5)


The return of the vertical

The Payer-Weyprecht expedition was a multicultural one, with members and crew from different parts of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Of these, three may be said to have mountaineering experience: Payer himself, an experienced Alpine tourist and pioneer glaciologist, and the two Tyrolean hunters Johann Haller and Alexander Klotz. However, the expedition also had another member from a mountain country, albeit a man with a primarily maritime experience: the skipper and Arctic hunter Elling Carlsen from Tromsø, hired as ice master to the expedition. He published his account of the expedition independently of Payer's official account, in Norwegian, in 1875.

The first sighting of land bears striking similarities in Carlsen's account with Payer's description of the same scene, quoted above: "It appears to be a high mountain land, covered in snow and ice and rich in glaciers".(6) However, in following entries detailing sightings of this far-off land (the ship moving slowly, locked into the ice), when land-features are at all mentioned, they come under terms such as pynt. This is an especially ambivalent term, suggesting the outermost bit of a promontory, but also a more mountainous connotation: the protruding edge of a cliff. This discursive vagueness announces an ambivalence between the horizontal and the vertical. Indeed, we may provisionally state that the main project of Arctic exploration is a horizontal one, not unlike that of the penetration of the Alpine world before the shift to the vertical, which took place in the early 19th century (Honold 2000; Mizrahi et al. 1975).

Elements of the vertical do however emerge in Arctic discourse. One may speak of a "return of the vertical" taking place on a subtle metaphorical level. According to Carlsen's notes, the expedition's first action on reaching land is to ascend one of these ambivalent pynts: "Had today an expedition on to land. First ascended a high Pynt and then walked somewhat inwards on the lowlands."(7) No utilitarian reason is given for the ascent in this case. We might imagine that the pynt was ascended to give an overview of the lowland; or we might imagine here another form of overlap between mountain and polar discourse, in which the significance of stepping onto new land (Columbus-like) is reinforced by the symbolic ascent of what may have been a symbolically small height. In the latter case, the action is one of several which show that an investigation of mountain discourse is necessary to an investigation of polar discourse.

An article in a Vienna newspaper, based on Payer's account of the same scene, does not even mention Carlsen's pynt, the presence of a hill paling into insignificance beside the discovery and setting-foot on land: "The land was taken into possession in the name of the Emperor; a cairn (pile of stones) was built and under this was laid a document containing a short history of the expedition."(8) However, while the newspaper report emphasizes the crossing of a border situated on a horizontal plane, the cairn reveals a need to verticalize this experience.


Latitude as altitude

As mentioned above, by the early 1800s, Alpine space - like the Arctic space of Payer's expedition - was divided horizontally and not vertically from the viewpoint of the observer. In the Alps, a change from horizontal to vertical came about through the gradual development of mountainous regions as tourist areas, and as a result of the institutionalisation of mountain walking, the interest shifted to the peaks (Mizrahi et al. 1975). This change is clearly not present in the Arctic discourse of the 1870s. As we have established, the ascension of mountains during the expedition is clearly secondary to its horizontal project.

However the idea of ascension does return on another, more general Arctic level. Mountain discourse also provides a template for polar discourse on the basis of the similarities between mountainous regions and the polar region itself, regardless of whether there are mountains there or not.

When Payer explains, in his definitive account of the expedition, the principles of seasonal variation of the Arctic ice as a whole, he uses his previous experience of the Alps as the basis of an extended analogy, a spatial allegory, beginning as follows:

The sum impression given by the ice sea is strikingly reminiscent in certain respects of our own glaciers. In both cases the ice pushes its way from a climatically less favourable zone to a warmer region. In one case this happens from high to low, in the other on a level plane towards a decreasing geographical latitude; [...].(9)

This spatial allegory is based on a metaphorical transfer of altitude to latitude; Payer's use of the phrase "the high North" - "der hohe Norden" (idiomatic in German) - already implies such a transfer.

The figural nature of such a transfer becomes quite clear when we consider that fact that the North Pole is "actually" lower than Vienna. The transfer must be a product of conventions in cartography - clearly discursive and historical. This has implications for the way in which Polar discourse reproduces the narrative structure of 19th-century Alpine discourse. In both discourses, the aim at certain historical junctures is to reach an ultimate limit, defined as a geographical point. In addition to raising the flag at their first point of contact with the previous unknown territory of Franz Josef Land, the expedition also places a flag at the northernmost point reached. "On the northernmost point which was set foot on, the flag of Austria-Hungary was hoisted (applause)", as Payer tells an audience on his return to Vienna.(10) The success of the expedition in Franz Josef Land is obviously not measured by the height of the mountains ascended there - these heights primarily being a necessary means of orientation - but rather by the latitude reached. Thus crewmembers participating in the land expedition are given prizes for reaching the 81st parallel and again on reaching the 82nd (Payer 1876, 282).

Thus the race for the summit is on the way to being replaced by a race for the pole, and the expedition balances between its disinterested scientific endeavour and its more competitive interest in latitude. Again, contemporary mountain discourse is used in forms which can only be described as hybrid or mimicking repetitions.

© Johan Schimanski (University of Tromsø) & Ulrike Spring (Wien)


(1) "Husene er så store som isfjelde på en bræbanke, og de strækker sig langt ind over landet, så langt man kan se, som en stejl bjergkæde med et utal af kløfter, der tjener som veje." (quoted in Andersen 1992, 81). We follow Jørgen Østergård Andersen in using this quote - from a conversation between Uissaakasak and the Danish polar explorer Knud Rasmussen in 1907 - as an introduction to an article. Anderson uses it to highlight questions of cultural communication across the borders between the known and the unknown. All translations here our own.

(2) "Es war um die Mittagszeit, da wir über die Bordwand gelehnt, in die flüchtigen Nebel starrten, durch welche dann und wann das Sonnenlicht brach, als eine vorüberziehende Dunstwand plötzlich rauhe Felszüge fern in Nordwest enthüllte, die sich binnen wenigen Minuten zu dem Anblick eines strahlenden Alpenlandes entwickelten!" (Payer 1876, 135-136).

(3) "Ende August 1873 wurde zum ersten Male neues Land gesehen. Die Freude hierüber war eine außerordentliche, denn bis dahin war die Expedition erfolglos gewesen. Diese Landentdeckung war das erste greifbare Resultat des monatelangen Herumtreibens." "Von unseren Nordpolfahrern", in Fremden-Blatt (Abend-Blatt), 28:262 (September 24, 1874), 2.

(4) "In der That geschieht es in arktischen Regionen nicht selten, daß die Dunstbänke des Horizonts den ausgesprochenen Charakter ferner Höhenzüge nachahmen, weil die geringe Höhe, bis zu der sie in der kalten Luft emporzusteigen vermögen, ihre scharfe Begrenzung veranlaßt; [...]" (Payer 1876, 324).

(5) See Wråkberg 2002 for a discussion of mountains and aerial phenomena as part of the scientific observation apparatus in a similar situation: the discovery of land visible from the East coast of Spitzbergen.

(6) "Det synes at være et høit Bjergland, belagt med Sne og Is og rigt paa (Gletschere; [sic]" (entry "20.8.73" [sic, really 30.8.73], Carlsen 1875, 35).

(7) "Havde idag en Expedition iland. Besteg først et høi Pynt og gik derpaa noget indover Lavlandet." (entry 1.11.73, Carlsen 1875, 43).

(8) "Das Land wurde im Namen des Kaisers in Besitz genommen; es wurde ein Cairn (Steinhaufen) gebaut und darunter ein Document niedergelegt, welches eine kurze Geschichte der Expedition enthält." "Von der Nordpol-Expedition", in Neue Freie Presse (Morgenblatt) 3619 (September 23, 1874), 8.

(9) "Der Totaleindruck des Eismeers erinnert in einigen Zügen lebhaft an den unserer Gletscher. In beiden Fällen drängt das Eis von einer klimatisch am wenigsten begünstigten Zone nach einer wärmeren Region. In dem einen Falle geschieht dies von der Höhe nach der Tiefe, in dem andern in der Ebene nach abnehmender geographischer Breite; []." (Payer 1876, XLV).

(10) "Auf dem nördlichsten Punkte der betreten ward, wurde die Flagge von Oesterreich-Ungarn aufgehißt (Acclamation)". "Die Nordpolfahrer in der geographischen Gesellschaft", in Fremden-Blatt (Morgen-Blatt) 28:268 (September 30, 1874), 4-5; here 4.


Andersen, Jørgen Østergård: "Kulturens grænser", in Grænser, eds. Frederik Stjernfelt and Anders Troelsen. Århus: Aarhus universitetsforlag, 1992, 81-103.

Carlsen, E[lling] (1875): Optegnelser fra den österrigsk-ungarske Polarexpedition (1872-1874). Tromsø: Carl Hansens Bogtrykkeri.

David, Robert G. (2000): The Arctic in the British Imagination, 1818-1914. Manchester, New York: Manchester University Press.

Honold, Alexander (2000): "Zum Kilimandjaro! Über die Faszination exotischer Berge und die Stationen ihrer Entzauberung", in: Tourismus Journal 4:4, 519-537.

Jantzen, René (1988): Montagne et symboles. Lyon: Presses Universitaires de Lyon.

Mizrahi, Robert, Hélène Amar avec la participation de Laure Amar, Phillipe Conord (1975): Genèse des représentations urbaines de l'espace alpin. Rapport C.O.R.D.E.S.

Payer, Julius (1876): Die österreichisch-ungarische Nordpol-Expedition in den Jahren 1872-1874, nebst einer Skizze der zweiten deutschen Nordpol-Expedition 1869-1870 und der Polar-Expedition von 1871. Wien: Alfred Hölder.

Payer, Julius von (1896): "Payer's Map of Franz Josef Land", in Geographical Journal 7:1, 105.

Wråkberg, Urban (2002): "The Politics of Naming: Contested Observations and the Shaping of Geographical Knowledge", in Narrating the Arctic: A Cultural History of Nordic Scientific Practices, eds. Michael Bravo and Sverker Sörlin, Canton MA: Science History Publications, 155-197.

Wylie, John (2002): "Earthly Poles: The Antarctic Voyages of Scott and Amundsen", in Postcolonial Geographies, eds. Alison Blunt and Cheryl McEwan, New York: Continuum, 169-183.

5.10. Mountain and Cultural Aesthetic

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For quotation purposes:
Johan Schimanski (University of Tromsø) & Ulrike Spring (Bergen): Austro-Hungarian and other Mountains in Arctic Discourse. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 15/2003. WWW:

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