I learned a new word last month: “oropolitics,” meaning the political aspect and use of mountains and mountaineering. Coined in 1982 by Joydeep Sircar to describe the use of mountain-climbing expeditions in the Himalayas to “progressively readjust that line you will not find on any ordinary map, the all-important ‘line of control’ in Northern Kashmir lying athwart the Karakoram range,” the word illuminates an unusual intersection of extreme sport and politics.
Sircar’s example of oropolitics was the launching of competing climbing expeditions by India and Pakistan in the late 1970s and early 80s, sometimes in collaboration with other nations, to support each side’s claims along the Siachen glacier. The competition eventually escalated from peaceful forays into military occupation of the relevant ridgelines by military forces, which began twenty years of clashes in which more troops have been killed by the environment than by enemy action. (A recent article in Political Geography describes many of the details [the Version of Record is here; a unpaywalled copy is at)
The original oropolitics of the Karaoram range are only one example of the phenomenon, even within the great mountain ranges of Asia. Canadian mountain historian Bernadette McDonald has written two books on the mountaineering exploits of Polish and Yugoslav climbers that also address the politics of their activities. In both countries Communist governments supported competitive mountaineering overseas as a way to acquire national prestige, making the expeditions a sort of long-range oropolitical activity. At the same time, climbing was a way to escape from the constraints of the communist system or even to be subversive – one of the famous Polish climbers, Wanda Rutkiewicz, used to goad Soviet mountaineers to shout “Brezhnev be gone!” in exchange for Solidarity lapel pins when they met at training camps. Domestic oropolitics, perhaps?
The Wikipedia entry for oropolitics mentions American efforts to secretly place nuclear-powered monitoring devices in the Himalayas to monitor Chinese missile tests. I think that example misses the point. Many mountains have strategic importance, which is why mountain warfare has been going on since time immemorial. But places like Siachen are uninhabitable and, in a narrow sense at least, strategically and economically irrelevant. Oropolitics are a pursuit of political impact not because the mountains are important, but because of the Mallory-esque fact that they are otherwise unconquerable.
h/t: War is Boring