re-sized JanSmuts

An ode for mountain climbers, dedicated to Noel Odell…

Whilst looking into the life of Noel Odell, a great climber and adventurer of his time, I stumbled across this wonderful speech from Jan Smuts which was used in an obituary for Odell. I thought all mountain climbers would appreciate and empathise with it. Smuts delivered this speech at the summit on Table Mountain, South Africa, at the end of the Great Wall:

“And so it has come about that finally in man all moral and spiritual values are expressed in terms of altitude. The low expresses degradation both physical and moral. If we wish to express great intellectual or moral or spiritual attainment, we use the language of altitudes. We speak of men who have risen, of aims and ideals that are lofty, we place the seat of our hghest religious ideal in Heaven, and we consign all that is morally base to nethermost hell. Thus the metaphors embedded in language reflect but the realities of the progress of terrestrial life. The mountain is not merely something externally sublime. It has a great historic and spiritual meaning for us. It stands for us as the ladder of life. Nay, more, it is the ladder of the soul, and in a curious way the source of religion. From it came the Law, from it came the Gospel in the Sermon on the Mount. We may truly say that the highest religion is the religion of the Mountain. What is that religion? When we reach the mountain summits we leave behind us all the things that way heavily down below on our body and our spirit. We leave behind all sense of weakness and depression;  we feel a new freedom, a great exhilaration, an exaltation of the body no less than the spirit. We feel a great joy. The religion of the Mountain is in reality the religion of joy, of the release of the soul from the things that weigh it down and fill it with a sense of weariness, sorrow and defeat. The religion of joy releases the freedom of the soul, the soul’s kinship to the great creative spirit, and its dominance over all things of sense. The mountains behold us and the stars beckon to us. The mountains of our land will make a constant appeal to us to live the higher life of joy and freedom.”

Beautiful isn’t it?

Jan Smuts

Jan Smuts was, of course, that great statesman who lived well before his time. A politician, world-famed statesman, soldier, naturalist, philosopher and eventually a former Prime Minister of South Africa, he played an important role in the drafting of the constitution of the League of Nations the exact design and implementation of which relied upon him. He later urged the formation of a new international organisation for peace: the United Nations. Smuts wrote the preamble to the United Nations Charter, and was the only person to sign the charters of both the League of Nations and the UN. He also sought to redefine the relationship between the United Kingdom and her colonies, by establishing the British Commonwealth. In 1941 he was promoted to field marshal of the British Army. He was opposed to segregation and apartheid in South Africa and in 1946 opened a commission to investigate these. “The idea that the Natives must all be removed and confined in their own kraals is in my opinion the greatest nonsense I have ever heard.”

Noel Ewart Odell

Noel Ewart Odell was an English geologist and mountaineer born in 1890, died 1987. In 1924 he was an oxygen officer on the Everest expedition in which George Mallory and Andrew Irvine famously perished during their summit attempt. Impressively, Odell spent two weeks living above 23,000 feet (7,000m) without any supplementary oxygen. He had earlier stated that it was his “firm belief .. that Everest can be climbed without oxygen”.

Noel Odell

On the successful summitting of Nanda Devi (25,660ft), H.W. Tilman,  Odell’s climbing partner, said: “In 1936 he climbed Nanda Devi when he seemed so much fitter than the rest of us that I considered his age (47) to be immaterial.” It is worth remembering that Nanda Devi was the highest mountain climbed and remained the highest until 1950.

In keeping with Jan Smut’s statement on Table Mountain, Noel Odell agreed with the essence of the  statement and went on to say: “Indeed, one’s spirit must aspire ever upwards, metaphorically and in actuality, raising higher and higher one’s lethargic body. Or, to to express it as Robert Browning does, in another way: “a man’s reach must exceed his grasp, else what’s heaven for?”

Poets, philosophers and statesmen alike.

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