Alaska Shorts: “Ascent of Mont Ventoux” by Petrarch

To-day I made the ascent of the highest mountain in
this region, which is not improperly called Ventosum. My only motive was the
wish to see what so great an elevation had to offer. I have had the expedition
in mind for many years; for, as you know, I have lived in this region from
infancy, having been cast here by that fate which determines the affairs of
men. Consequently the mountain, which is visible from a great distance, was
ever before my eyes, and I conceived the plan of some time doing what I have at
last accomplished to-day. The idea took hold upon me with especial force when,
in re-reading Livy’s History of Rome, yesterday, I happened upon the place
where Philip of Macedon, the same who waged war against the Romans, ascended
Mount Haemus in Thessaly, from whose summit he was able, it is said, to see two
seas, the Adriatic and the Euxine. Whether this be true or false I have not
been able to determine, for the mountain is too far away, and writers disagree.
Pomponius Mela, the cosmographer – not to mention others who have spoken of
this occurrence – admits its truth without hesitation; Titus Livius, on the
other hand, considers it false. I, assuredly, should not have left the question
long in doubt, had that mountain been as easy to explore as this one. Let us
leave this matter one side, however, and return to my mountain here, – it seems
to me that a young man in private life may well be excused for attempting what
an aged king could undertake without arousing criticism.

When I came to look about for a companion I found,
strangely enough, that hardly one among my friends seemed suitable, so rarely
do we meet with just the right combination of personal tastes and
characteristics, even among those who are dearest to us. This one was too
apathetic, that one over-anxious; this one too slow, that one too hasty; one
was too sad, another over-cheerful; one more simple, another more sagacious,
than I desired. I feared this one’s taciturnity and that one’s loquacity. The
heavy deliberation of some repelled me as much as the lean incapacity of
others. I rejected those who were likely to irritate me by a cold want of interest,
as well as those who might weary me by their excessive enthusiasm. Such
defects, however grave, could be borne with at home, for charity suffereth all
things, and friendship accepts any burden; but it is quite otherwise on a
journey, where every weakness becomes much more serious. So, as I was bent upon
pleasure and anxious that my enjoyment should be unalloyed, I looked about me
with unusual care, balanced against one another the various characteristics of
my friends, and without committing any breach of friendship I silently
condemned every trait which might prove disagreeable on the way. And – would
you believe it? – I finally turned homeward for aid, and proposed the ascent to
my only brother, who is younger than I, and with whom you are well acquainted.
He was delighted and gratified beyond measure by the thought of holding the
place of a friend as well as of a brother.

With hiking season in full swing, I can’t help but be reminded of the reflective power a mountain trail, how a hike can inspire me to spend the next few days writing. In the spirit of such a sentiment, I thought I’d change things up a bit for this week’s Alaska Shorts and share one of the first nature essays ever written.

The Italian poet Petrarch wrote
about his ascent of 
Mont Ventoux (elevation 1912 meters) on 26 April
1336 in a well-known letter published as one of his 
Epistolae familiares (IV, 1). In this
letter, written around 1350, Petrarch claimed to be the first person since
antiquity to have climbed a mountain for
the view. The essay illustrates the mirroring effect of nature—that it reveals
an equally vast inner world. This is evident when, near the end of the essay,
Petrarch writes, “How earnestly should we strive, not to stand on
mountain-tops, but to trample beneath us those appetites which spring from
earthly impulses.” Read the full essay here.

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