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Walker, H. (1900) The Growth Of Mountaineering. Yorkshire Ramblers' Club Journal Volume 1 Number 2: pp91-101. Leeds: YRC

The Growth Of Mountaineering.

By Mr. Horace Walker.[1]

(Read before the Yorkshire Ramblers' Club, October 18th, 1899.)

DURING the forty-five years which have elapsed since I ascended my first snow mountain, I have had of course some adventures in the Alps, but I do not intend to inflict the relation of them on you to-night. When I began to climb there was a wide choice of unascended peaks before the climber in search of novelties, and we generally chose the easiest way up a new peak. As time went on novelties became scarcer and a new race of climbers arose, far surpassing in skill their predecessors. They were driven, if they wished to make a new expedition, to more difficult and more dangerous routes, so that their adventures have naturally been more striking and more bloodcurdling than mine.

So to-night, if your "Silent Member" has returned from Scarborough, he need fear no indigestion from descriptions of "stomach crawls." I merely propose briefly to describe the feeling which has at different times been entertained towards the mountains, and to give a short history of the conquest of the Alpine peaks.

It is difficult for the climber of to-day, who cranes his neck out of the carriage window as the train emerges from the tunnel at Olten to greet his old friends of the Oberland, to realise that the mountains with which he is on terms of affectionate intimacy for many centuries only inspired horror and aversion. It is true, as Mr. Leslie Stephen points out, that " a certain view from ' an exceeding high mountain ' was considered as highly attractive by a very good judge of human pleasures, " but there can be no doubt that practically up to the middle of the last century the feelings towards mountains were as I have stated. A typical instance of this is given by an English scribe of the 10th century, who could find no more terrific imprecation to cast on the heads of violators of the documents which he drafted than that they might be "tormented by the icy blasts of glaciers and by the Pennine hosts of malignant demons."

There was, however, a notable exception to this state of opinion in the middle of the I6th century, when we find our modern feelings towards the high mountains anticipated, as many other modern ideas were, by the Renaissance. Among a band of professors of the Swiss Universities we find that terror has given way to an intelligent desire for knowledge, and aversion to admiration. Conrad Gesner, a distinguished man of science in the University of Zurich, writes in 1541 to a friend at Glarus:-

" I have resolved for the future, so long as God grants me life, to ascend divers mountains every year, or at least one, in the season when vegetation is at its height, partly for botanical observation, partly for the worthy exercise of the body and recreation of the mind. What must be the pleasure, think you, what the delight of a mind rightly touched, to gaze upon the huge mountain masses and, as it were, lift one's head into the clouds? The soul is strangely rapt with these astonishing heights, and carried off to the contemplation of the one supreme Architect. Those who long after wisdom will always feast the eyes of body and mind on the goodly sights of this earthly paradise; by no means the least among which are the abruptly soaring summits, the trackless steeps, the vast slopes rising to the sky, the rugged rocks and the shady woods."

The intelligent mountaineer of the present day might well take these words of Gesner as his creed. There is in them not only the love of mountain scenery, but also the "Labor ipse voluptas" idea, the love of earning the sight by one's own bodily exertion.

Shortly after this, Josias Simler, also of Zurich, published his "Commentarius de Alpibus" - a very remarkable work. Not only are the different Alpine districts described, but "for the first time sound, practical advice is given as to the precautions to be adopted when making excursions above the snow line."

But for the religious troubles which visited Europe after the Reformation, it seems likely that Gesner and Simler would have founded the first Alpine Club. The thirty years' war, however, swept away the work completely, and the old feeling resumed its sway, even among men of culture. A century and a half later, Addison, writing from what he calls "the top of the highest mountain in Switzerland," can find nothing more worthy of comment than the number of wooden legs in one family. It is fair, however, to state that speaking of the view from the terrace at Berne, he says: " There is the noblest summer prospect in the world from this walk, for you have a full view of a noble range of mountains that lie in the country of the Grisons, and are buried in snow."

To come down a little later, Dr. Johnson's opinion of Scotland is well known. Writing of his journey to that country he says, "It will readily occur that this uniformity of barrenness can afford very little amusement to the traveller; that it is easy to sit at home and conceive rocks, heaths, and waterfalls." In the same spirit Goldsmith, writing from Holland, complains of Scotland. "There hills and rocks intercept every prospect; here it is all a continued plain."

However, towards the middle of the last century a different feeling began to be manifested by a few writers. Among others the poet Gray, and his companion, Horace Walpole, expressed their admiration of the scenery of the Grande Chartreuse in Savoy, which they visited in making the Grand Tour.

It was however, J. J. Rousseau who was the Luther of the new creed of mountain Worship. One might wish, perhaps, for a nobler and manlier founder of one's faith, but Mr. Leslie Stephen points out that he was addicted to two amusements characteristic of the genuine mountaineer. "One is gazing for hours over a parapet at the foam-spotted waters of a torrent. The other is a sport whose charms are as unspeakable as they are difficult of analysis. It consists in rolling big stones down a cliff to dash themselves to pieces at its foot. No one who cannot contentedly spend hours in that fascinating, though simple sport, really loves a mountain."

It was undoubtedly to the influence of Rousseau that the changed feeling towards mountains was due; how great the change was may be seen from the great English poets at the beginning of this century.

But, although admiration had taken the place of disgust, the feeling of distrust still lingered, and as late as 1854 the editor of Murray's Handbook could write of Mont Blanc: "It is a somewhat remarkable fact that a large proportion of those who have made this ascent have been persons of unsound mind." I hope that editor was mistaken in his theory, as three years ago your President not only committed that act of lunacy, but induced me to accompany him.

Having thus shortly traced the feelings towards mountain scenery down to the present day, I will turn to the history of mountain ascents.

The earliest record of a deliberate attack on an Alpine peak is the attempt on the Roche Melon, shortly described by an 11th-century chronicler. This peak, which rises above the Mont Cenis Pass, is 11,605 feet in height. Coryat, who crossed the pass in 1608, mentioned that the height is estimated at 14 miles! The attempt which was made by a certain Count Clement and a follower was defeated by mist and falling stones. A party of clerics repeated the adventure, but as they chanted litanies and hymns all the time, no doubt to exorcise the demons mentioned before, their want of success is not surprising. In 1358 Rotario d'Asti succeeded in reaching the top, and probably in fulfilment of a vow built a chapel close to the summit. To this chapel there is still a regular pilgrimage in August, frequented by thousands.

The early history of Mont Pilatus is interesting. After his suicide in prison, the body of Pontius Pilate was thrown by the executioner into the Tiber. A disastrous inundation of Rome and the surrounding campagna immediately followed. The body was then drawn up from the river by a criminal under sentence of death, as no one else would undertake such a dangerous duty, and sent to Naples, where it was thrown into the crater of Vesuvius. The eruption which destroyed Pompeii at once occurred. A citizen of Naples recovered the corpse from the crater, losing his life in the deed. It was then put into a boat, towed out to sea, and turned adrift. The boat was driven by the wind up the Rhone as far as Vienne, where it capsized owing to collision with the pier of the bridge. Then the same prodigies were repeated: the river overflowed its banks, the crops and vines were destroyed by hail, and lightning fell on the town. This devastation lasted for two hundred years, till the Wandering Jew happened to pass through the town. On being appealed to by the inhabitants he descended into the river and brought up the body, which he carried off on his shoulders. After going round the world without finding a suitable place in which to deposit it, as it would everywhere renew the misfortunes which it had already caused, the Wandering Jew happened to cross the mountain then called Fracmont, and decided that that was a suitable spot. So mounting to the top of the Esel he threw from there the body of Pilate into the little lake near the top. A tremendous storm was at once felt at Lucerne, and from that day the clouds which used to pass above the mountain now descended on it as a "meeting place for tournament and war." Some time afterwards a wandering monk returning from the Holy Land extorted Pilate's consent to remain quietly in the lake except on Fridays, when he was allowed to make the circuit of the lake three times, clad in his judge's robes. At other times people throwing stones into the lake roused his unquiet spirit, and tremendous storms ensued. Certain it is that the Government of Lucerne forbade all strangers to approach the lake, and in 1387 six bold, bad men who had broken this regulation were sentenced to a long term of imprisonment for their reckless conduct.

Towards the close of the 13th century Peter III., of Aragon, ascended Canigou (9,135 feet) in the Pyrenees. He started with two knights, who soon gave in, so Peter completed the ascent alone. As horses can now be ridden to within half an hour of the top, there seems to be no reason for doubting the royal word. Peter seems to have been a merry monarch, for when he rejoined his knights he told them that he had found a lake on the top, and that when he cast a stone into it a great and terrible dragon came out of it and flew away, breathing out a vapour which filled the air.

The belief in dragons was firmly established in those days, and lingered down to the time of Scheuchzer, who in his "ltinera Alpina," published at the beginning of the 18th century, gives pictures of no less than eight varieties of these monsters.

They were not always malignant. The monastery of Debra Damo, near Axum, in Abyssinia, was founded by Tekla Haimanout, the greatest of Abyssinian saints. It is so situated that those who go to it must be drawn up by a rope. The saint, however, was originally raised to the summit by hanging on to the tail of a dragon. In one of the early volumes of the "Alpine Journal," there is a reproduction of an old view of the saint and his amiable monster.

Although, as I have pointed out already, a good deal seemed to be known at the time of Simler about the dangers of the High Alps and the proper methods of encountering them, still no records of any ascents above the snow line have come down to us. It was not till the year 1739 that the ascent of a snow peak was accomplished. In that year the Titlis (10,827 feet) was ascended by a monk of the Benedictine monastery at Engelberg.

Two years later two English travellers visited Chamonix. There had been a Benedictine Priory there since the 13th century, and Bishops of Geneva held visitations there as far back as 1411, but Pococke and Windham were the first tourists to publish an account of their visit to the valley. They ascended the Montanvert and visited the Mer de Glace, and published a short account of their travels.

In the year 1740 Horace Bénedict de Saussure was born. It was owing to him that the earliest attempts to reach the summit of Mont Blanc were made. These efforts were not successful till 1786, when Jacques Balmat discovered the route and made the first ascent with Dr. Paccard. The following year De Saussure made his celebrated ascent, to be followed a week later by an Englishman, Col. Beaufoy.

De Saussure's ascent and the publication of his Alpine Travels attracted increased attention to the Alps, and particularly to Mont Blanc itself, which in the next fifty years was ascended some twenty times; but these ascents were made out of curiosity, and we do not find that any of the men who made the ascent were led by it to further exploration among the mountains.

Perhaps the extraordinary amount of clothing which they thought it necessary to wear as protection against cold may partly account for that. As every other one who ascended Mont Blanc in those days published an account of his adventures, we know a good deal about these early ascents. This is what some of them used to wear : a good pair of lamb's-wool stockings, two pairs of gaiters, two pairs of cloth trousers, two shirts, two waistcoats, a shooting coat, and over all a woollen smock-frock. I am sure that if I had to struggle up Mont Blanc arrayed like one of these I should think mountaineering a much over-rated amusement.

With the exception of Mont Blanc, but little was done in the mountains for the next twenty-five years. Père Murith, of the St. Bernard, had ascended Mont Velan (12,353 feet) in 1779 and in the Eastern Alps the Count von Salm, Prince Bishop of Gurk, made an attempt in 1799 on the Gross Glockner, the highest peak in his province of Carinthia. He did not then succeed in getting to the top; perhaps the plentiful supply of pineapples, melons, Tokay and Malaga, which we are told was laid in, may account for the want of success. Some of his retinue, however, who perhaps had not had access to the Tokay, undoubtedly reached the summit. The Bishop tried again in 1806, but was again defeated.

The Ortler Spitze (12,804 feet), the highest peak in Tyrol, was ascended about this time (1804) by a native hunter, in consequence of a reward offered by Archduke John of Austria, but, perhaps owing to the Napoleonic wars, we hear of no more climbing in Austria for many years. The Marmolata, the highest and easiest of the Dolomites, was not vanquished till 1864, though I may mention that a priest lost his life in a crevasse there in making an attempt on it in 1804.

To return to the Central Alps, it was not till 1811 that the next important ascent is recorded. In that year the brothers Meyer, of Aarau, accomplished the ascent of the Jungfrau, and, in the following year, of the Finsteraarhorn (14,026 feet), the highest of the Bernese Oberland. The Zumstein Spitze of Monte Rosa was reached in 1820, the Tödi in I837, and the Signal Kuppe in 1842, but it was not till about 1850 that climbing began to be practised to any extent. A few years before that Prof. Forbes, with Agassiz and other savants of Neuchâtel, did a good deal of exploration on the glaciers, but they were tinged with the scientific heresy, and did not practise climbing for its own sake. It was the ascent of the Wetterhorn, from Grindelwald, in 1854, by Mr. (now Mr. Justice) Wills, and the charming account of that and other excursions which he published, that led to the formation of the Alpine Club in 1857.

lt would be easy to show the moral superiority of mountaineering over other sports, but unprofitable, for men do not choose their sport on ethical grounds. Indeed, it might not be considered a recommendation. We most of us sympathise in our hearts with the advice given by Miss Medora Trevilian to her friend on the choice of a husband:

"If he's only an excellent person.,
My own Araminta, say 'No' "

So I will not dwell on that point, nor on the pleasures of the sport; suffice it to say that I believe there are few who could not, at the end of a good day on a high mountain, say with Gesner: " What entertainment can you find in this world so high, so worthy, and in every respect so perfect? "

After the formation of the Alpine Club climbing went on merrily, and by 1865 most of the high peaks of the Alps had been climbed. The last of the higher peaks of the Oberland, the Balmhorn (12,176 feet), was ascended in 1864 by my father, sister, and myself, and the next year saw the downfall of the last Zermatt peaks, the Gabelhorn (13,364 feet) and the Matterhorn (14,781 feet). Perhaps the Grandes Jorasses (13,707 feet) was the last great peak to yield. Mr. Whymper reached the W. peak in 1865, but the higher E. peak was first ascended by me in 1868.

After the fall of the great central peaks, climbers in search of novelties either gave their attention to finding new ways up the high mountains or to the exploration of less known districts.

Mr. Coolidge and Mr. Gardiner devoted themselves with great success to the Alps of Savoy and Dauphiné, in which latter district hardly anything more than the Mont Pelvoux and the Pic des Ecrins had been climbed. The ascent of the Meije (13,081 feet, first climbed by a French gentleman) by Messrs. Charles and Lawrence Pilkington and Mr. F. Gardiner, without guides, in 1879, is still remembered as a notable performance which gave a great impetus to guideless climbing.

Mr. Douglas Freshfield, however, was not satisfied with the Alps, and in 1868 started for the Caucasus in company with the late Mr. Moore and Mr. Tucker. They ascended Kazbeck (16,546 feet), the peak on which Prometheus was bound, and the eastern peak of Elbruz. Six years later another party reached the western summit, 18,470 feet in height, now reckoned by geographers as the highest mountain in Europe. Since then many of the high peaks of the Caucasus have been scaled by Mr. Woolley, Mr. Dent, and others.

Mr. Freshfield's example soon bore fruit, and many distant mountain chains have been visited. The New Zealand Alps have been explored by the Rev. W. S. Green, Mr. E. A. FitzGerald, and some members of the New Zealand Alpine Club, three of whom had the honour of reaching the summit of Mount Cook, the highest in the island.

Mr. Edward Whymper visited the Andes of Ecuador in 1879-80, and reached Chimborazo (20,500 feet), Cotopaxi, and other well-known mountains. Mr. FitzGerald three years ago headed a party to explore the Chilian Andes. Owing to illness he was not able to reach Aconcagua, the highest mountain of the American continent, but one of his companions, Mr. Stuart Vines, and the guide, Mattias Zurbriggen of Macugnaga, were more fortunate, and succeeded in reaching the summit, 23,080 feet in height. With the possible exception of an ascent by Mr. Graham in the Himalayas, about the accuracy of which some doubt has been expressed, this is the greatest elevation yet attained. Last year Sir Martin Conway visited Bolivia, and climbed Illimani, and to within 300 feet of the top of Sorata, when he was stopped by an ice slope in a dangerous condition. He also repeated the ascent of Aconcagua.

In 1892 Mr. (now Sir Martin) Conway made his notable expedition to the Karakoram district of the Himalayas. He did not succeed in getting near K.2., the second highest peak in the world (28,250 feet), but he reached a peak of 22,700 feet. Three years later three English mountaineers went out to try conclusions with Nanga Parbat (26,630 feet), but owing to the sad death, it is supposed by an avalanche, of Mr. Mummery, one of the most skilful of climbers and most amiable of men, nothing was accomplished.

In North America several parties have visited the Rocky and other ranges of mountains. Professor Dixon, Dr. Collie, and Mr. Baker have been very successful in exploring much new ground. Further north the Duca degli Abruzzi, with a strong party, succeeded in reaching the summit of Mount St. Elias (18,092 feet), long supposed to be the highest in North America. Latterly, however, it has been deposed by Mount Logan, to which a height of 19,500 feet is ascribed.

It would be impertinence on my part, in addressing a Club presided over by Mr. Slingsby, to enter on the subject of climbing in Norway, so that only Africa remains. There, in 1889, a German party succeeded in scaling Kilimanjaro (19,718 feet), the highest peak in Africa, and this year Mr. H. Mackinder, at his third attempt, reached the summit of Mount Kenya, which proved to be 17,180 feet, estimates previous to Captain Smith's observations in 1895-7 having given it a height of over 19,000 feet.

This completes the climbing record to the present day, but before these words are in print we may be gratified by hearing that that veteran explorer, Mr. Freshfield, and his companion, Mr. Garwood, have succeeded in their attack on Kinchinjunga (28,150 feet) ; "a consummation devoutly to be wished." [2]


[1] I am indebted to Mr. Coolidge and Sir F. Pollock for information about the early writers and climbers.

[2] This wish has unfortunately not been realised, The party met with such heavy snowstorms as to make an attempt on Kinchinjunga out of the question. They succeeded, however, in making for the first time the circuit of the mountain, crossing several passes of great height.