UIAA at the heart of a novel look at mountaineering history by Harvard University historian

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German-born historian Carolin Roeder will spend the summer poring over the archives of the UIAA as she works on a novel history of mountaineering involving transnational relationships between mountaineers.

Roeder, a PhD student at Harvard University, is part of a growing trend in academic research that focuses not just on well catalogued and well-documented histories of the ascents and failures of mountaineering expeditions, but contextualizing mountaineering historically.

In her case Roeder is focusing on the cross-border ties that bound individual mountaineers and clubs between 1930 and 1980 – a period marked by great political rivalries and tensions.

“Personal connections were crucial in order to overcome mutual distrust,” said Roeder discussing one instance where the Soviet Mountaineering Federation was only accepted as a member of the UIAA in 1967 – almost eight years after discussions first began.

She pointed out that many Eastern Bloc countries such as Bulgaria, Poland and Czechoslovakia were UIAA members before the Soviets were accepted.

“When the world was divided ideologically, what I found interesting was how people managed to overcome their political and ideological differences to climb mountains together,” said Roeder.

These ties developed not only because of the logistical necessity of putting together complex mountaineering expeditions but also for ideological reasons involving cooperation and internationalism.

By documenting such international relationships, Roeder said she hopes to provide a new perspective on the historical origins of a twentieth century global community – this one populated by mountaineers.

“The broad theoretical aim of my dissertation is to explore how in the course of the twentieth century non-state actors like mountaineers contributed to the formation of a global community,” said Roeder.

What better place to start than in the archives of the UIAA in Bern, Switzerland, which has never been studied academically before and which Roeder called a “treasure trove of information.” She said historical records in the archives document national allegiances and political quarrels as well as information related to now-defunct mountaineering associations.

“The main task of the UIAA  was to serve as an umbrella organization for at times up to ninety national organizations and as a lobby for issues of access to mountains, reciprocal treatment in club cabins, and the standardization of safety standards and ethical norms values and goals which in a broader sense would later also inform the process of European integration,” said Roeder.

“The story of the UIAA shows how even in the fiercest political climate a small number of enthusiasts worked towards a goal which they regarded valuable enough to mobilize considerable resources,” she said.

Roeder will also be looking at other mountaineering archives including the Alpine Club in London, England, the world’s oldest mountaineering club and other archives in Scotland, German, Austria, Slovenia, New Zealand and Russia.

Roeder said the idea for studying cross-border relationships between mountaineers was an evolution of research that initially began on the national parks in Slovenia, a country where mountaineering is very popular.

“Mountaineering can help to illuminate the complexity of global community,” said Roeder. “Compared to other sports phenomena, it is unsurpassed in its multidimensionality: mountaineering can be explained neither as an international social movement, nor as a professionalized sport alone.”

Today Roeder is not only just studying mountaineering but also recently been able to realize her fascination with mountaineering that began as a teenager in Germany, leafing through the catalogues of the German Alpine Club and wanting to climb like its members. Roeder said that at Harvard University, she’s joined the outing club there, and having a blast going on various mountaineering outings.