Photo: Henrik Witt

The Norwegian Eco-mountain

Norway’s national mountain Stetind is not only known for its hard climbing routes. The 1,392-meter-high cliff is also a symbol for Norwegian nature preservation. Suston’s Editor-in-Chief Gabriel Arthur visits the mountain that the ”eco-philosophers” climbed fifty years ago.

What is Magnus yelling, on the other side of the snowy cliff? I cannot see him. The hard wind transforms the words into a long, drawn out sound. The rope continues to slip away from me and now, there are only a few meters left until its end. Two colorful slings attach me to Stetind’s dark granite. I find a good grip for my crampons and turn my shoulder toward the mountain to brace myself against the wind. I do not look down. Just below me, the cliff drops away and there are five hundred meters of air to the ground below. Or was it seven hundred?

I feel weak and tired, and it is not because we have been up since half past three, struggling up the ice-caked mountain in the wind, hour by hour, step by step.

The fatigue is due to Stetind’s sheer sides.

It was not until, 1910 that Stetind was first summited, after several failed attempts. Philosophy professor, mountaineer and environmentalist Arne Næss managed to make the first winter ascent, as late as 1963.

Climbing the 1 392-meter high peak was not really the initial purpose of the trip that photographer Henrik Witt and I wanted to do during the Easter break of 2016. The goal was to visit the impressive mountain and try to understand what caused the Norwegian environmental movement to be born here fifty years earlier, in the summer of 1966.

However, I’ve always been bad at assessing risks and one thing led to another. So now, here I stand, pushing myself up the mountain through a difficult, steep passage that mountain guide Magnus Strand had not foreseen.

We have not even arrived at the most difficult section and I am completely drained of energy. The weather has cleared up temporarily, but across the fjords to the west, the clouds are sliding our way again. I have already realized that I will not reach the top, but how do I explain it to Magnus? A new wordless voice is heard in the wind and the rope between us is now completely taught.

”What would Arne Næss have done?” I think to myself. He looks so happy and satisfied in all of the pictures. Was he ever afraid? Did he ever give up?

Then, I forget Arne Næss, remove the protection, try to find a placement for my crampons and ice axe – and focus on survival.

Two movements are born

The 1960s was a breakthrough for both the rock climbing and the environmental movement, in Norway as well as many other western countries.

The idea that nature must be protected and preserved was not new. Yellowstone National Park, the world’s first national park, was founded in 1872. In 1902, Sweden became the first country in Europe to establish national parks, with nine of them. However, in the early 1960s, researchers, journalists and nature lovers began to wonder if this kind of nature preservation was enough. Modern society began to be questioned. Some examples: in 1960, the world-renowned diver and filmmaker Jacques Cousteau succeeded in stopping France’s plans to dump radioactive waste into the Mediterranean. The following year, the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) was founded. Then, in 1962, came the report and later book commonly referred to as the start of the international environmental movement, ”Silent Spring” by the American biologist and science journalist Rachel Carson. Inside, she told us how DDT and other pesticides used in agriculture led to the birds being wiped out – a discovery that caused a great commotion.

Rock climbing had previously been a pastime for the upper middle class. Yet, in the 1950s and especially the 1960s, a small underground movement was born at the foot of Yosemite’s rocks in California. A growing group of young ”dropouts” abandoned the well-organized middle class life in favor of vertical climbing adventures. ”Big Wall Climbing” was born when they started scaling several hundred-meter-high cliffs, which no one had previously thought possible.
Over the course of two weeks, in July 1966, these two narrow streams – the new nature preservation movement and the new climbing movement – met at Stetind in Tysfjord’s sparsely populated municipality in northern Norway.

The first winter ascent of Stetind was made by Arne Næss and a comrade in 1963. The peak is still mostly climbed summertime.

Arne and his disciples

As a youth, Arne Næss had been involved in establishing rock climbing in Norway. At 24 years old, in 1936, he and his then wife Else Hertzberg were the first team to climb Stetind via the South Pillar, at that time Norway’s most difficult climbing route. Three years later, Arne Næss became Norway’s only professor of philosophy at Oslo University. The combination of being Norway’s top climber and philosopher – and that he was a great humorist – made him something of a Norwegian national celebrity.
In the spring of 1966, a small group of young climbers from Trondheim, with engineer Nils Faarlund in the lead, heard about the big wall climbing in Yosemite. Nils Faarlund had also received state-of-the-art safety equipment, manufactured by American climber Yvon Chouinard (today known as the founder of Patagonia.)

When Arne Næss held a lecture in Trondheim, Nils Faarlund succeeded in persuading him to accompany him to Stetind, in attempting to climb the ”impossible” west face, fully comparable to the walls of Yosemite. Another mountain-climbing philosopher, Sigmund Kvaløy, was also in the group of six men and two women who, at the beginning of July, made a base camp at the foot of Stetind’s west wall.

Philosopher and alpinist Arne Næss on Stetind in the summer of 1966. Photo by Jon Voll who was also part of the expedition.

The birth of Eco-philosophy

What followed was two weeks that have become mythical among environmentally conscious and philosophic outdoor lovers – a group that, in all honesty, is not so large, but which has begun to grow in recent years.

The gang completed two tough new routes that opened up Stetind’s west wall from the mountain’s foot to the top, ”Vestveggen”, which today is considered one of Stetind’s finest lines, and ”Kongelos direkte”. However, most important was what happened between the climbing, while resting and talking around the campfire.

The young climbers were troubled by two questions. They came from Trondheim University of Technology. How could they explain to people why they spent so much time on life-threatening climbing routes, instead of being in the center of modern Norway?

Second was that during their hikes in the mountains, they saw how new roads and hydroelectric power construction destroyed one beautiful mountain after another. Was it really right?

Arne Næss introduced them to the 17th century philosopher Baruch Spinoza, and his pantheistic thoughts about how everything and everyone belong together, about the nature of nature and how we can identify with this nature – and then experience deep, true joy. This philosophy of everything’s own element was well suited to the new subject of ecology, studied by Nils Faarlund, which showed how living organisms depend on each other and the environment around them.

From these discussions about the philosophy of life and science, new thoughts and ideas were born. That preserving a free nature, unharmed by modern society, may not only be pleasant – maybe it is also possible to scientifically prove that it is vital to life?

And that being in nature may not only be generally pleasant and healthy – maybe it is also vital to life, on a deeper level?

The discussions laid the foundation for what was called eco-philosophy, but also ecosophy and deep ecology. The weeks at Stetind also led to this movement getting three founders. Arne Næss made the thoughts internationally famous in the academic world.

Sigmund Kvaløy was involved in building Norway’s nature preservation movement, which successfully began to protest against the expansion of hydroelectric power. And Nils Faarlund left his engineering career and, in 1967, started Norway’s first open-air and mountain guide school: Norway’s Høgfjellskole in Hemsedal, which remains in operation today, with a large amount of eco-philosophy inserted into the course program.

Nils Faarlund takes a look at the South face of Stetind in 1966. The year after he started Norway’s first mountain guide school. Photo by the climbing partner Jon Voll.

Time for a second wave?

Today, googling the term eco-philosophy produces over twenty million hits. The term has broadened since it was introduced in Norway. Today there are several parallel definitions and ways of thinking, and the original teaching has been criticized. However, one common thought – both then and now – is that science and philosophy together can help us to understand nature.

Thoughts that were controversial fifty years ago have received more and more followers. There is now a lot of research showing that living in nature has a beneficial effect on us, both physically and mentally. The fact that science tells us that we need to take much better care of nature now feels like ”common sense” (some presidents excluded). A new generation of eco-philosophers has taken over, for example Julia Butterfly Hill from the United States, who lived two years in a redwood tree in the late 1990s. Concepts such as ”slow adventure”, ”slow outdoors” and ”bushcraft” are attracting more and more attention. Companies like Patagonia and Houdini say they are inspired by Arne Næss’s thoughts.

But what was it that the eco-philosopher’s experienced on this mountain that sparked these thoughts? This is what photographer Henrik Witt and I wanted to know. And that is why I’m fighting my way around the high, icy cliffs of Stetind, fifty years after eco-philosophy was born here.

This is the scariest pitch that I have climbed since I was in my twenties. The snow bursts up around me and then rages down into the void below as I kick my crampons and swing my ice axe trying to find purchase. The ice under me is mere centimeters thick.
When I finally manage to make my way up to where Magnus’ is belaying me, I do not want to continue. We stand on a small ledge that is two to three meters wide, with an abyss on either side. In front of us the ridge towards the top begins.

What does this have to do with eco-philosophy, really? I ask myself completely exhausted. Or more easily expressed: ”What am I doing here?”

”I want to go down,” I say to Magnus.

A turning point on the mountain

Magnus comes with a proposal that is more like an order.

”We will do one more pitch. From there, you can see the rest of the ridge better and you will see that it is not that hard.”

I then make my way up the ridge at a snail’s pace like a cowardly old man, with the ice axe more like a kind of walker. We arrive at Magnus’s viewpoint. I sit down in the snow and breathe out. The ridge ahead does not look so dangerous, but the void on either side of it does and the summit feels infinitely far away above us. At the same time, Stetind’s summit is so beautiful – standing alone, calm and proud. A whole world of mountains and fjords spreads out around us.

A sense of peace is spreading within me, and I relax for the first time since we came to Kalfjället this morning. Suddenly, the fear is gone.

”Magnus, I really want to turn around. Maybe I would make it to the top, but I would not think it was fun,” I say, looking him in the eyes.

”Then that is what we will do,” he says, and seems to understand.

On the way back, Magnus finds an easier route, so that we do not have to traverse over the sheer cliff. A half hour later we meet Henrik, who has been waiting at Halls Förtopp. The wind is increasing and the clouds come back. Soon the summit is completely lost in the gray.

Once we make it down to the forest and fill our water bottles in a small stream, Magnus says:

”It was the right decision to turn around.”

”Yes,” I say, completely exhausted, but in a good way.

However, afterwards I wonder, what Arne Næss would have thought?

The last of the Mohicans

It is not so easy to get an answer to such a question. Arne Næss died in 2009, at 97 years old. I’m trying to get through his book Ecology, Society and Lifestyle from 1974, describing the ecosystem the he chose to call his teachings.

It appears to be written by a professor of philosophy that does not take any shortcuts. Each text portion is a kind of logically substantiated argumentation. You understand what he wants to say – it is the same reasoning that today permeates the international environmental and nature preservation movement. Yet, at the same time, there is something that is not included. Why did he devote so much of his life to climbing? And where is that joy of life that he was so famous for?

To get a clearer picture, I look up the phone number of Nils Faarlund, today 80 years old and the only living member of the first generation of eco-philosophers.

I reach him when he is eating lunch at a road-side restaurant outside of Hemsedal, with his electric car parked outside. We talk for over an hour. He explains that eco-philosophy in Norway almost died in the 1980s. ”It burned up in the Norwegian oil rush.” But today he is invited to schools and various events to tell us about eco-philosophy. I tell him about our little adventure on Stetind. Was it okay to turn back, even though we might have been able to get to the top? Nils Faarlund has probably received similar questions many times. Patiently, he explains what he thinks.

”Many people are so busy performing today and telling others about their accomplishments. However, mountaineering, as I see it, is not about getting to the top. It is about getting completely into what you are doing, to be immersed in nature. To experience deep and true joy. Then you will also want to protect nature even more. If that’s what you did on Stetind – then I think you understand what climbing and eco-philosophy is all about.”

Gabriel Arthur
gabriel.arthur@norragency.com