Peak #MeToo: Can mountains be victims of everyday sexism?
In the latest in his series of memorable walks and pathways, Will Gore wonders why we ascribe human characteristics to our surroundings
Are mountains male or female?
Go onto online forums about hiking and you’ll find a healthy debate on the subject. Some commentators suggest that femininity can be assumed across the board simply because of mountains’ intrinsic beauty; others contend that it depends on the specific character of the peak.
A few more prosaic minds maintain that mountains are gender neutral.
The names of some mountains give their sex away.
The Old Man of Coniston looms over the village and lake that lie at his feet. Buachaille Etive Mor, one of the best-known peaks in the Highlands, translates as “the herdsman of Etive”. The Eiger is “the ogre”; and ogres are universally depicted as male.
There is also the Old Man of Hoy – not a mountain of course but Orkney’s famous 449 feet high sea stack, which is said to resemble the torso and head of a man. For the smuttier, it might also resemble an erect penis, which would suit the name just as well.
In Emily Dickinson’s poem, “The Mountain”, the titular peak sits:
“In his eternal chair,
His observation manifold,
His inquest everywhere”
“…Grandfather of the days is he,
Of dawn the ancestor.”
Then again, what about FB Money-Coutts, who in “Swiss Mountains by Night” describes:
“Ye lovely peaks, with brows of ice!
Ye lonely peaks, with breasts of snow!
Like nuns remote from worlds below,
Pale with the pain of sacrifice.”
Maybe a mountain can even change gender, depending on the weather. Do male mountains brood as storms rage, then become feminine when the sun shines?
Either way, what does all this anthropomorphism tell us about ourselves and our stereotyped views of gender? There is surely a PhD to be done on the subject, if it hasn’t already spawned a hundred.
The Five Sisters of Kintail between them make up one of Scotland’s classic ridge walks, rising to the north of Glen Shiel; three of the peaks Munros in their own right, the other two mere subsidiary summits.
So legend has it, there were once two other sisters, who fell in love with Irish princes. The father of the sisters would not let the younger girls marry until the five older siblings had also found husbands – so the Irish princes promised to send their five brothers back to Scotland after they returned home with their new brides.
The promise was never fulfilled but the five sisters continued to wait, becoming mountains in their unending vigil. Chauvinism rules the hills.
On a trip to the Highlands nearly a decade ago, I and my companions (all men) hiked the ridge, beginning at the easterly end. Walked in that direction, the major peaks come first – with Sgurr Fhuaran, the central sister, the highest summit at just over 3,500ft.
As we reached that third peak, the remaining sisters came into view. The fifth, Sgurr na Moraich, was less severe in appearance than her siblings.
“Matronly”, said one of our party, knowingly.
“Or the dumpy younger sister,” said another.
“#MeToo” growled the mountain, prophetically. She had a point.