The War is in the Mountains Feature

© Russ Finkelstein @russfinkelstein

Natalie Berry met with US war correspondent and author of 'The War is in The Mountains', Judith Matloff, in New York City to discuss mountain conflicts and their often overlooked global implications.

***This is a long read - please consider reading on a desktop device!***

"We do deserts, we don't do mountains." US chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Colin Powell, made this famous remark in 1992 concerning intervention in the Balkans; a facile quip, albeit one which nonetheless points to the wariness of flatland, centralised governments to engage in operations in mountain environments.

Helicopter landing in Colombia. The remote Andes nurtured a half-century civil war.  © Russ Finkelstein @russfinkelstein
Helicopter landing in Colombia. The remote Andes nurtured a half-century civil war.
© Russ Finkelstein @russfinkelstein

Despite just ten percent of the world's population residing in mountainous terrain, these areas harbour a disproportionate share of global violence and conflict. Holding the high ground over plains, mountain people have inhabited these 'islands in the sky' and waged wars for thousands of years, from ancient Mesopotamian conflicts to current affairs in the Middle East, South America and beyond. Time passes quicker in the mountains than it does at sea level, and there's less oxygen to breathe - but topography is often the key catalyst for violence. Where continents and countries collide, fractures can appear along fault lines in more ways than one.

In an attempt to solve the riddle of why so many of the world's conflicts occur at altitude, acclaimed US war correspondent Judith Matloff embarked on a 72,706-mile quest to frontiers of feuds, fighting and geopolitical conflict. A self-proclaimed 'plains person' who suffers from vertigo, Matloff's ambition to investigate violence in such lofty terrain might seem unlikely. Although a veteran of conflict reporting with multiple visits to elevated zones under her belt, it wasn't until a fortuitous moment occurring in her just-above-sea-level home in Manhattan that Matloff was compelled to explore high altitude conflict and the people whose lives are intertwined with the mountains. During a family game of Risk – a board game in which players vie for world domination and territorial occupation - Matloff's son asked her to point out the locations of ongoing conflicts on the map. She duly pinpointed the afflicted areas, to which Anton studiously responded: 'They all occur in mountainous areas. Why?'

Task in hand and altitude sickness pills in pocket, Matloff set off on her mission: from Albania to the jagged peaks of the North Caucasus, from Mexico to Colombia, across to the Himalaya in Nepal and Kashmir, down to the Balkans and finally to more settled peaks in Norway and the European Alps. Her book The War is in the Mountains is a fitting tribute both to the resilience of the mountain people she meets and to her own insightful yet robust reporting on people and place. Matloff reminds us that studying the root cause of violence in the mountains, and the factors that amplify it, is crucial in understanding global relations. 'Danger, like water, flows downhill,' she writes, and according to Matloff, we forget this both to our detriment and that of the mountain dwellers themselves.


Judith Matloff
© Judith Matloff

As the Kurdish expression goes, some people have 'no friends but the mountains.'

As climbers and mountaineers, we too might regard the mountains as friends, or at least hold them in reverence until their power and beauty becomes intimidating. But what of our perceptions of mountain people? Thousands of years ago lowlanders cast mountain people in opposition to their (perceived) sophisticated selves – the plain dwelling Akkadian elite of ancient Mesopotamia used the word 'lullu' to refer to 'primitive' people, the term taken from the name of a defeated highland tribe, the Lullibi. How different are attitudes today? Since the Golden Age of mountaineering, when western expeditions set their sights on grander peaks in the Himalaya, a region that Matloff discusses at length, mountaineers and mountain people have crossed paths, shared meals and together carried heavy equipment and supplies up snow-capped objectives.

The enlightened mountaineer cringes at talk of 'conquering' a mountain; a concept that would grate on a peak-worshipping highlander alike. A heavier burden still, though, has manifested in exploitation of local porters in Nepal, who tread the increasingly thin line between earning a livelihood and being subject to exploitation. As 'mountain people' of a sort, it's tempting to imagine a kindred spirit between climber and slope dweller. However, orientalist images of quaint alpine and Himalayan villages can be deceiving and scenes of conflict seemingly incongruous to the lesser-travelled among us.

In an essay titled 'Crazy Wisdom' in his book The Magician's Glass, Ed Douglas explores Western misconceptions and the exploitation of Himalayan mountain people. Quirks of locals' character have long been romanticised in Western literature and colonial fantasies upheld, he explains. On Peter Matthiessen's mystification of his porter, Tukten, in The Snow Leopard, Douglas writes: 'Tukten's lone wolf status, his equanimity of spirit, his psychological resilience was not sorcery - it was the hallmark of the outsider.' Few authors, Douglas writes, see past the porters' famous smiles 'to the minds behind them.' This orientalist othering of mountain people by those with greater political power is something Matloff rejects in her book, while emphasising how pernicious it is from the mountain dwellers' point of view.

NATO soldiers training in the Norwegian Arctic. Extreme cold presents the harshest conditions in which to fight.  © Robert Nickelsberg
NATO soldiers training in the Norwegian Arctic. Extreme cold presents the harshest conditions in which to fight.
© Robert Nickelsberg

Tensions between climbers and mountain people have been widely reported. In 2000, elite US climbers Tommy Caldwell and Beth Rodden were taken hostage in Kyrgyzstan by armed Uzbek rebels at war with the government. Misunderstandings at height can be life-threatening, as Jon Griffith, Ueli Steck and Simone Moro experienced in 2013 on Everest, when Sherpa guides misinterpreted the team's decision to advance solo above a group of line-fixers without ropes as a display of dangerous arrogance. Undoubtedly the climbers meant no disrespect to the Sherpas, but in their eyes, proverbial lines were crossed. Ignited by a flippant comment made by Moro, an angry group of up to 100 Sherpas confronted the trio at Base Camp and attacked the climbers with stones. Speaking to The Guardian shortly after the event, Griffith commented: 'There's an underlying feeling among the Sherpas that they've been treated quite badly by westerners and that clients don't have any respect for them. This is 10 or 20 years of frustration spilling out.'

Aside from hard-working locals, mountains are also hideouts for poppy growers, guerrilla rebels and Jihadists, which took many by surprise in 2013 when Taliban members attacked and killed 10 unsuspecting climbers and a Sherpa guide on the steep slopes of Nanga Parbat, adding a grim contemporary resonance to the peak's epithet of 'Killer Mountain.' In 2014, Moro reflected on both the Everest attack and the Nanga Parbat incident ahead of his attempt at a winter ascent. 'You can't justify violence, especially on a mountain,' he told Ed Douglas. 'The biggest dangers are always human – more than avalanche, more than crevasses. We don't know our own limits and don't stop before it's too late. Then there's the stupidity of terrorists and bandits. Those are dangers we should fear more.'


Here place and people seem to be

A world apart, alone;

Cut off from men by spate and scree - Henrik Ibsen, 'Mountain Life' (1859)

Fear mountain people we might, but Judith Matloff strove to understand the root cause of this hostility.

'Mountain people instantly understand each other,' imparted Jean Lassalle, a towering politician of mountainous proportions whom Matloff met in the French Pyrenees and head of the World Mountain People Association, a UNESCO-born initiative enabling an exchange of experiences and grievances between representatives of mountain communities. The physical barriers of living in a high-sided mountain valley or bowl are obvious, but as Matloff bore witness to on her travels, these geographical forms are frontiers that transcend physical obstacles to transport and trade; they are also metaphysical barriers to outside ideologies, influences, languages and government control – with harsh weather systems and the ongoing threat of climate change to boot. Revered, feared and worshipped in their various forms and elevations throughout history, mountains have shaped culture and global relations in more ways than one might expect. Hannibal, his elephants, Sun Tzu and Alexander the Great were all too aware of the limitations that geography imposes.

King Naram-Sin of Akkad leading the Akkadian army to victory over the mountain people, the Lullubi, from 3rd millennia BCE.
© CC BY-SA 3.0 fr

Each area that Matloff visits is host to unique conflicts broadly determined by its native topography and location; from single-layered blood feuds in Albania to multi-layer devastation in Kashmir. A common denominator in each case, according to Matloff, is a resistance to central control and a stubborn independence. As witnessed throughout history closer to home in the Highland Clearances and the Irish sept, clan violence is in part the result of territorial tensions due to quarrels over land ownership. People and place can rarely be separated in such tight-knit communities.

'The interplay of topography and geopolitics has an essential role in the violence that plagues modern life,' writes Matloff, and her ability to read and react to conflict situations must be akin to an accomplished mountaineer's seemingly innate understanding of their environment. I am intrigued at this interdisciplinary crossover, where current affairs, history and mountains collide. An opportunity to interview Matloff at her home in Manhattan, New York City arises. 'This place used to be a crack den!' she exclaims after our initial greetings as we sit down to talk in her bright and airy kitchen with two curious cats. I get an even greater sense that Matloff isn't afraid to parachute into unlikely and unsavoury situations, if I hadn't already deduced that from the book. (The house no longer resembles a crack den, and is very nice, in case you were wondering/concerned).

In these instances topography was much more than a backdrop; it played a featured role right alongside its human inhabitants.

As a non-climber more accustomed to 'the predictability of pavement and elevators', Matloff admits that the prospect of vertiginous drops and thin air were a greater source of apprehension than entering the domain of rebels, separatists and terrorists. 'The altitude freaks me out, and I suffer from vertigo, but people don't bother me at all,' she says. 'It's the nature of the reporting that I do. I'm not saying I enjoy being in dangerous places, but it's something that I feel eminently experienced in.' Matloff also provides conflict training seminars for journalists. I read the contents of the course on her website with interest as we speak: 'Sexual assault prevention. Hostage situations. Ambush survival strategy.'


Despite the game of Risk planting the seed for the book in Matloff's mind, it wasn't until her meeting with the World Mountain People Association (WMPA) that she became aware of key themes that connected these disparate mountain civilisations, like metaphysical ridge lines emerging from the valleys and extending their reach beyond.

'These are distinct cultures, so you take them on their own level to some extent,' Matloff explains, 'but what surprised me most during the course of the research was how many similarities there were. Before my kid brought this up, I never really connected the dots. I always thought of it as, "OK, this is a particular region of Mexico," or, "This is a particular region of Russia," but I never thought of it in terms of a continuous thread before.' She didn't want to seem like a chauvinist by making assumptions, but the WMPA effectively handed her a theory on a plate. 'They said to me, "These are the themes you should be looking at" and helped me along by connecting the dots.'

The traits outlined by the WMPA proved ubiquitous in the mountain communities Matloff visited. 'These were intensely united homogenous communities and people rely on each other for survival, because the conditions are so rough,' she says. Comparing her native New York City to these high places, the contrast is obvious. 'I come from a society which is highly polarised. You've got every ethnic group in the world. The city is enormous, but we're not a cohesive society,' Matloff explains. 'We're an immigrant society and there are no traditions. What was so splendid about going into these communities is that their traditions go back for years and communities are extremely close-knit. It's quite moving. And at the same time, it can make them insular and uncomfortable with outsiders - and rightly so.'

The discomfort that these people exhibit around outsiders is worsened by the neglect and lack of consideration that foreign countries and political elites have shown over the years - another unifying theme explored by Matloff. 'These are some of the poorest places in the world. They're the last places where they build roads, the last places where they build schools, the last places to get plumbing and the last places to get hospitals,' she explains. 'The outsiders only come in when they want to exploit it. They want to mine it or for military reasons they need to get up on that hill. It's unfair,' she asserts. 'These people are so ignored and marginalised until somebody wants their resources. And then there's so little regard. I think their anger is really well justified.'

A victim of Kashmir's conflict. The stunning Himalayas are home to a brutal decades-long carnage.  © Robert Nickelsberg
A victim of Kashmir's conflict. The stunning Himalayas are home to a brutal decades-long carnage.
© Robert Nickelsberg

Mountains are not only a physical boundary or frontier, but also a psychological barrier. Out of sight and out of mind - the Pyrenees from Paris, Khumbu from Kathmandu - mountain people are 'literally and figuratively' inaudible, Matloff writes, until vested interests in natural resources point governments towards the hills. In Nepal, Matloff witnessed the anguish that proposals to build dams in the Himalayan mountains are causing the Rai community, whose culture is at risk with the inevitable displacement that a dam would bring. The Rai lack decent services and a say; Nepali officials who refuse to listen to them are also under India's thumb.

The key is not just height, but how certain places loom in the imagination.

None of the other communities that feature in the book face such a threat of dislocation due to the state's pursuit of power. Yet Matloff writes that plight is 'as existential as it was physical.' A case of the lesser of many evils is at play here, with the ever present threat of forest fires thrown into the mix. 'If we don't drown we'll burn,' a Rai person candidly tells Matloff, laughing at the irony. The opposite is true for other afflicted areas, she writes – the government mostly leaves communities alone, albeit with problematic consequences.

Out of all of the regions Matloff visited, Kashmir made the deepest impression emotionally. 'With its panoply of factors, Kashmir is most in extremis,' she writes. The combination of a minority ethnic group with sacred ancestral attachment to mountains alongside poverty, discrimination, contested water and crags providing hideouts for jihadists results in a complex, multi-layer problem that has caused its inhabitants to live in a state of limbo in psychiatric wards. Added to these elements is Kashmir's geographical situation, squeezed between India and Pakistan (both nuclear-armed). 'If Nepal is a yam between two boulders (India and China),' Matloff writes, 'then Kashmir is a crushed lily with potential to become radioactive.'

Despite her best efforts to share the plight of these people with the world, Matloff admits to feeling helpless, especially in the case of Kashmir. 'The whole society is traumatised from this brutal war and one can't see a way out of it. It's just devastating. The worst thing is, you come in, you parachute into these places and people say, "Tell the world about us," and then you go out and the world doesn't care. You really can't help them. You might write their story, but then who reads your book? You do your best. You try to transmit this message and hope it resonates and lingers,' Matloff tells me. 'You do your best,' she repeats.

Women in Kashmir.  © Robert Nickelsberg
Women in Kashmir.
© Robert Nickelsberg

The deeply-entrenched Albanian blood feuds struck a more personal chord with Matloff. Thousands of men have been murdered due to these extra-judicial familial honour codes that are nigh on impossible to end. Blood is never un-avenged. 'There was this 13 -14-year-old kid and he wanted to escape the cycle of the blood feuds. Because my son was the same age then, the Albanian boy made an especially profound impression. I still think about this kid a lot. I email periodically with a nun who is trying to mediate on the family's behalf and I get updates that make for a depressing read.'

A deep sense of history was another common thread. Taking Mexico as a current example with its drug syndicates and civil unrest, the biggest hotbeds of resistance to central rule are in the exact same indigenous mountain communities as 500 years ago when the Spanish arrived, Matloff reveals in the book.

'These traditions run deep, the grievances equally so,' she explains. 'History is alive in the present. In many of these areas the oral history has been passed down for hundreds of years and it shapes how communities view current conflicts. Central governments have to recognise that. They need to recognise that these grievances didn't start in 2018. They go back to 1572 or before that.'

Add linguistic differences into the mix, and there's not so much a melting pot, but rather a pot boiling over with communication difficulties and misunderstandings.

'Without a doubt, it isolates people further,' Matloff tells me. 'Look at the Andes, where it's often Quechua speakers in the mountains. And then within the Quechua, there are different sub-groups of the language. Look at Dagestan, something like 60 different languages. It's hard to forge a unified culture, or national identity. In Albania, they speak two completely different dialects, which are difficult to communicate across, in the north and the south. I saw such cultural fragmentation in every mountain range.'

Matloff researching in Colombia.  © Judith Matloff
Matloff researching in Colombia.
© Judith Matloff

Rebels and rogues have long fled to and dwelled amongst mountains, where the collective nature of mountain culture is a perfect vehicle to organise a struggle, Matloff writes. In the region of La Montaña in the south of Mexico, a humanistic geography and attachment to place became apparent - a community in which appreciation of the past strengthens its bond to the landscape. In a world where arbitrary boundaries are being hand-drawn by states and governments, these parametres are unrelatable and incongruous to indigenous communities. Isolated and without full political autonomy, nothing changes for the natives.

Man-made borders that don't align with geographical frontiers are equally vulnerable, Matloff explains. 'Colonial powers in Africa drew artificial borders not based on tribe or natural boundaries. This will heighten the chances of conflict, either inter-state or by an ethnic group chafing at central rule. Kashmir comes to mind, here.' In a similar vein, in his book The Revenge of Geography Robert D. Kaplan recalls likening the concrete Berlin Wall to an impenetrable peak. 'The Wall, however brutal and arbitrary,' he writes, 'seemed as permanent as a mountain range.'

In Mexico, a peak is where heaven and earth meet, and for many 'sons of the soil' – a term coined by political scientist David Laitin - it's not political power that is desired above all, but saving land. To quote Kaplan's view once more, urban Western civilisations are - in contrast to these remote communities - 'increasingly divorced from the soil.' Matloff agrees. 'Mountain people have immense respect for and awe of their own landscape,' she says. 'In the more isolated cultures which are indigenous, they worship stones and mountains. In Mexico and Nepal, the surroundings were definitely sacred. Colombia, Chechnya and Dagestan - not so much. Norway, not at all. But if you go to African mountains, it's definitely a factor.'

Civil wars are often waged over issues of identity - racial, ethnic, religious, economic - all of which are somewhat fungible. But attachment to a specific piece of land is not.

This insularity of mountain cultures extends beyond immediate borders for those who venture further afield. 'If you look at mountain communities in diaspora, they tend to be really insular. Take the Basques and the Armenians and the Kurds. When they go abroad, these groups tend to marry inside their own ethnic groups,' Matloff says. 'Even when they move to flatland Nebraska in the United States, that mountain insularity remains.' This mentality extends to conflicts and friction in European countries, Matloff points out. 'The Mafia first started as clan conflicts from mountain areas in Italy and Sicily. If you look more recently at Catalonia and its separatist movement, the communities that were most resistant to assimilating were once again the more insular, mountain ones, whereas the lowlanders tended to be more ambivalent.'

Although mountains are found at points where plates converge, mountains have a paradoxical tendency to make landlocked islands of the communities living among them. 'What struck me in Kashmir is that the people are connected by land to the rest of India, but they talk about the mainland. They see themselves as an island!' Matloff explains. 'I was intrigued with the use of the word but not at all surprised. That sort of summed up the whole theme of the book: you're part of the mainland, but you feel totally disconnected from it. It's that mountaintop-ist mentality.' 'Mountaintop-ist', as explained in the book, is a rough translation of a Communist Chinese term coined to describe an independent person who chafes at central party authority. I ask Matloff if she considers highlanders to be more or less defined by their topography than islanders. 'I do think these communities are islands in the sky, but I think they're even more isolated. Waterways are also highways,' she explains.

Albania's "Accursed Mountains.' Tens of thousands of men are killed in blood feuds in remote communities.  © Marc Wiese
Albania's "Accursed Mountains.' Tens of thousands of men are killed in blood feuds in remote communities.
© Marc Wiese

Double standards exist in the Mexican Mayan rebel movement EZLN, Matloff writes, in that the community is selectively embracing some aspects of development, but eschewing others. 'The Zapatistas are in theory anti-NAFTA and anti-globalist, but yet the evils of capitalism are embedded in their daily lives,' she says. 'In their communities, as in all over Mexico, which has the world's highest obesity rate per capita, Coca Cola is hugely prevalent, even in the Zapatista communities, thanks to the spread of American culture and products. It's this weird contradiction, because the Zapatistas love this drink that symbolises American capitalism, but yet, on a theoretical level and an ideological level, they're rejecting globalism and are against capitalism.'

In many mountain communities, Matloff writes, young people are moving away as the employment and educational prospects are so limited and the wider world beckons. In the Zapatista movement, there has been significant attrition of the younger generation that was born into the movement. They leave and never return. In Nepal, there was also a movement amongst the younger Rai generation to leave this very tiny community. 'With the fear that their homeland was going to be inundated, there was even more incentive to leave the community. There was a sense of impending doom,' Matloff says. 'I saw that a lot also in Albania. Young people wanted to escape the blood feuds. But the blood feuds would still follow them. I heard of one case where people went all the way to Sweden to get away from the blood feuds and they were hunted down there. You can't leave the mountains completely.'

Ministers come and go, even dictators die, but mountain ranges stand unperturbed. - Robert D. Kaplan, The Revenge of Geography

The source and nature of mountain conflicts is largely influenced by the kind of community in which the violence is taking place. Matloff describes how centrifugal and centripetal forces impact regions differently. Centrifugal conflicts are clan-based, and as the name suggests, start from deep within the community and eventually pull people apart. 'You get these tiny little communities that are separated from each other by language and clan. They have their own issues. Then it goes wider and metastasises into other conflicts,' she explains.

Few would imagine that ethnic violence in the North Caucasus would eventually lead to a terrorist attack during the Boston Marathon in 2013, Matloff writes. Two brothers, whose Chechen religious minority was deprived of political autonomy in their Chechnyen homeland in Russia, carried the burden of this alienation and disillusionment across the Atlantic, where they latched onto a radical Muslim cause. The terror born in Chechnya and Dagestan alongside the war in Afghanistan are prime examples of initially concentrated homegrown conflict going global in reach, with rugged topography often initiating the divisions and ensuing tensions. 'What might have been initially the periphery against the state or the periphery against the periphery, then you had foreigners coming in and that complicated things further,' Matloff says.

These clans are highly organised when it comes to guerrilla warfare, she explains. 'When the Mongols and then the Tsar's army were pushing towards the north Caucasus in centuries past, the clans were able to mobilise very well against them due to their insular communities.' Centripetal forces, on the other hand, help to unite a country or region. National identity, economic infrastructure and unified language and religion are just some examples - which in mountain communities are typically lacking.

A nun who is trying to mediate Albanian mountain feuds.  © Marc Wiese
A nun who is trying to mediate Albanian mountain feuds.
© Marc Wiese

In many of these groups, community takes precedence over the individual. Communal grazing lands were a continuous theme throughout Matloff's travels, from Swiss alpine hamlets to the Andes. Lack of arable land forces people to share and work collectively to make the most of the available space. 'I remember I was in a Pyrenean community and the parking lot of a town was actually communal land, because it was an old collective grazing land that had been paved over, but it was still the collective land. It didn't belong to one person or family. That's not a concept you'd find in a more modern political system.' In most western societies, the opposite rings true: capitalism has fostered a culture predicated on individualism.

Whilst in the French Pyrenees, Matloff learns of the clashes between mountain communities and the French government concerning the reintroduction of bears and the threat they pose to livestock and livelihood. A 'quaint' issue to negotiate in comparison to Kashmir and elsewhere, Matloff posits, but one which nonetheless demonstrates the disconnect between central governments and highland communities.

Having explored the causes of these widespread conflicts, what, then, does Matloff propose as a possible solution? Is there a one size fits all approach to such a diverse set of issues? One of the safest and most successful countries in the world might offer the best example to follow, she posits, despite its rugged terrain in the heart of the European Alps: Switzerland, or 'She of the rough peaks arrogant,' as Victor Hugo describes in his poem 'The Swiss Mercenaries.' Known for chocolate-box scenery, cheese and multilingualism, Switzerland's military neutrality and high-functioning democracy are assets that rarely make it onto a tourism brochure.

With five countries stitched around its seams and linguistically and culturally distinct communities living in elevated mountainous pockets throughout its landscape, Switzerland realised that centralised power was unworkable, Matloff explains. The same problematic mentality of mountaineers attempting to 'conquer' a mountain is equally detrimental when militaries expect to subdue native inhabitants with force. Gerald Templer's 1956 approach of 'winning hearts and minds' by communicating and collaborating with locals is a more viable and effective solution all-round, Matloff writes - and history would suggest the same. 'You can't achieve that militarily. There's no precedent in military history. You have to somehow co-opt and come to some kind of agreement with people. You just can't go up there and conquer a mountain. You can't bomb it from existence.' Switzerland understood this, Matloff explains. 'Pragmatically, they realised, "We can't impose one national identity."

A helicopter lands in a NATO Arctic exercise.  © Robert Nickelsberg
A helicopter lands in a NATO Arctic exercise.
© Robert Nickelsberg

Perhaps each cluster of communities being elevated to similar heights – with no one particular group holding the literal and metaphorical high ground over the rest – has helped Switzerland's case, I suggest. 'I think that makes a very big difference. It seems to be worse when there's flat land and then one mountain. Take the case of Mexico. They have 31 states and they have three major ranges. Within those chains, diverse communities have different languages and different cultures, but yet the central government has trouble recognising those differences.'

Even if military intervention is favoured and attempted by some governments, their lack of preparation for tackling tough terrain is startling. In researching her book, Matloff visits the Army Mountain Warfare School in Vermont, where US soldiers appear stoic but woefully unprepared; perfecting their knots, but lacking the experience of extreme conditions and appropriate clothing. 'The US Army came really late to realising that civilian climbers were very much ahead of the game. Over the last 20 years, they've subsequently readapted their equipment, techniques and tactics to what you guys have been doing forever,' Matloff laughs. 'The idea that you could have layerable fabrics that wick was a revolutionary concept to the US Army when they first intervened in Afghanistan, which is crazy.'

Merino wool, as many climbers will know, is a resilient and versatile fabric that is well-suited to outdoor activities. However, as Matloff discovered, the US Army couldn't use clothing produced elsewhere, since gear must come from American suppliers. 'The idea of it is to protect US industry, but on the other hand you're not necessarily equipping your soldiers with the best supplies available.' In Europe, Matloff witnesses NATO troops preparing for mountainous terrain through extensive training in the Arctic Circle. With Russia strengthening its winter fighting brigades and melting polar ice caps opening new shipping lanes, eyes are turning to the Arctic Circle. Yet fighting in glaciers in extreme cold is the last miilitary frontier, barring space. No other terrain presents such unsurmountable challenges.

However, even in the most militarily challenging conditions, high-altitude mountain tribesmen prove difficult to outwit for foreign militaries. Physiologically adapted to altitude and athletically nimble, local fighters are hard to catch on their home turf - especially when they are infinitely more adept at shooting while perched jauntily on a cliffside.

'They come down hillsides like falling boulders, not running but bounding, and in crags they literally drop from foothold to foothold...These men are hard as nails.' - British General Sir Andrew Skeen describing Pashtun tribesmen of the late 1800s in a 1932 British Army booklet.

I wonder if Matloff ever got the sense that the people in these communities wanted to be left alone. 'Oh, the Zapatistas - yes,' she agrees. 'But part of that's ideological. It's not just because they're highland people. I went to Chiapas back in the 1970s and the early 1980s and there wasn't so much resistance to outsiders. Part of it is the ideological bubble they've put themselves in. It's the raison d'etre of the movement. They've withdrawn from society into these caracoles, or snail shells.' Overwhelmingly, though, these communities welcomed Matloff warmly. 'I found people so immensely welcoming. "Wow, you want to visit us?" they'd say. Particularly the Nepalese and also the Albanians. "Tell everybody about us. Tell people what we're going through." The hospitality was heart-breaking,' she says.

In Kashmir, each time Matloff visited a house, she experienced what her translator called 'oppressive hospitality.' 'You had to be given tea and biscuits,' Matloff says. 'Even if they didn't have any money, they would give you the last grain of rice in their house. So every time we went to somebody's house, we brought something. And if they said, "No, no, no," we would just leave the sack of rice there.'

An Arctic white-out.  © Robert Nickelsberg
An Arctic white-out.
© Robert Nickelsberg

Matloff tells me a story of one community in Mexico, which was subject to a landslide forcing people to camp on top of a burial site. 'They had nothing. They had rescued a couple of chickens and somebody was going to kill one of their precious chickens and serve it to me and the photographer. Could you imagine that?' she asks me, bewildered. 'You come into my house here and I give you my last steak? No. I'm sorry, it's not going to happen. But it's very, very moving. That's humanity at its best, that hospitality. It really makes you think more about our lifestyle here and what's wrong with it.'

I wonder if Matloff has kept in contact with the people she met on her travels. 'I still get emails from military guys on a mountaintop in Colombia,' she says. 'I'm still in touch with a nun in Albania, and a couple of people from Kashmir. Periodically, I hear from my minders in Norway, as well as the colonel who showed me around Vermont. I've stayed in touch with a lot of them. Will I go back and visit any of these places? I don't know.' she says. 'I don't know.'

More mountain conflicts are on the horizon, Matloff warns, if we continue to ignore their significance and extensive reach beyond the hills. In this game of high versus low, a middle ground must be found before more blood is shed on mountaintops, valleys or in a city that's too close for our comfort. The areas we visit as climbers and trekkers might be volatile, but being sensitive to local issues and engaging with these communities is the least we can do. 'Don't mess with mountain people,' Matloff was warned by a mountain dweller. We'd do well to abide by this maxim, it seems, as well as to make friends with the people for whom the mountains have long been their only comrades.

The War is in the Mountains  © Judith Matloff
The War is in the Mountains
© Judith Matloff
Order The War is in the Mountains online here from Duckworth Overlook books, or via Amazon if from outside the UK.

Thanks to Matthew Shipton (UKC article) for his contributions on the ancient world for this piece.

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3 May, 2018

Thoroughly worth reading and a thought provoking article. I now look forward to reading the book. 

4 May, 2018

Very good, thanks UKC.

There have been some interesting intersections between war and climbers over the years. WW2 in the Alps is an obvious one, but Khampa guerillas (Tibetans living in Nepal) were trained by Americans to do cross-border raids into China in the 60s and 70s.

A few well-known US climbers (Jim Whittaker etc) were training the military in Alaska in the 60s, including on the south face of Denali, which was part of the eventual placement of the nuclear-powered devices on Nanda Devi and Nanda Kot.

Other US climbers, like Jay Smith and Mark Twight, have made good money training and guiding US Seal teams and others in recent times.

During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, trained climbers were used for operations in the Hindu Kush. The very successful Georgian mountaineer Ilias Tukhvatullin once had to climb up a mountain, to a crashed helicopter, to recover top secret documents.

4 May, 2018

Really great piece, thanks very much for this, great to have the climbing perspective broadened in this way. I remember talking to a guide from Chamonix not too long ago about the history of that valley. He was from one of the families who can trace their historical connection to the valley as far back as the records exist. His sense of connection with mountain people all over the world was very deeply felt, having travelled very widely in mountain areas. 

4 May, 2018

Great article - food for thought indeed.  Climbers don't routinely experience of war in the mountains, but there are stories of the mountaineers who filmed border guards opening fire on refugees fleeing into Nepal, and Tommy Caldwell's team getting kidnapped by rebels at gunpoint after topping out.  It's good to know more about the wider context and history behind these and other stories.

6 May, 2018

I'm a little confused by this article. I thought it was going to convince me that mountains are proportionately more often the site of military conflict judging by the preample and picture of a helicopter but it was more of a general cultural differences piece and a attempt to demistify 'mountain people'.

I just wondered what war and violence had to do with climbing, and apparently the answer is very little which I'm pretty happy with!

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