The Alpine Journal : a century and a half of mountaineering history

Stephen Goodwin

There is a degree of temerity in writing about the Alpine Journal. The AJ, as it is affectionately known, has about it the air of a sacred text, rather as The Times commanded before Rupert Murdoch drove it down market with bingo and headline hyperbole. But while ‘the Thunderer’ is now a mere blusterer, the Alpine Journal still aspires to be a journal of record and can, again unlike The Times, claim an unbroken record of publication since it first appeared in March 1863. Note the date; perhaps the most well known fact about the AJ is that it is the oldest mountaineering journal in the world.

That there would be ‘a journal’ was inevitable once the Victorian mountaineers had decided there should be an Alpine Club. Forming clubs and societies was a feature of the age, with two certain concomitants - one, there would be a fine annual dinner, usually in London, and two, there would be a journal to record the doings of club members.

Just over a year after the AC was formed in December 1857, the publisher and club member William Longman brought out a collection of articles under the title Peaks, Passes and Glaciers. It was edited by the multi-talented Irishman John Ball, variously a barrister, politician, amateur scientist and first president of the AC. He was also an alpine guidebook writer and had an eye to the commercial potential of the PPG anthology.

From the start, Ball envisaged an annual volume. Proposing as much in a letter to Longman, he added: ‘If carefully selected, I should say that such a volume would be generally interesting, and secure of a large sale.’ How right Ball was. By the end of 1859, PPG had run to four editions totalling 2500 copies and a fifth edition was printed the following year.

It is interesting to note that at a time when trade was supposedly disdained, this elitist club of gentlemen produced, and presumably sold, twice as many copies of its first PPG journal than the AC does today. In recent years, the AJ has had a print run of no more than 1500 copies, enough for the club’s 1200 members, plus copies for mountaineering libraries and new members etc, and just a residue for sale. Perhaps there is a lesson here.

Two fallow years followed and then in 1862 came two volumes of PPG edited by Edward Kennedy and illustrated by woodcuts prepared by Edward Whymper. A year later, the AJ itself appeared. At first it was published in quarterly ‘numbers’ that were then combined into a single volume. Volume 1 comprised eight ‘numbers’ covering 1863 and 1864. Later, the norm was for two ‘numbers’ per year, in May and November, together forming a single volume; a pattern that continued until 1969.

The Journal’s intention, as set out in an introductory address, was ‘to report all new and interesting mountaineering expeditions, whether in the Alps or elsewhere; to publish all such new items of scientific and geographical knowledge as can be procured from the various sources; to give some account of all new books treating of Alpine matters, and generally, to record all facts and incidents which it may be useful to the mountaineer to know.’ It looks a tall order today when mountaineering is so internationally popular; however at the time it was a fairly small community with a manageable amount of ‘news’. The AC was, of course, the only such club in existence until Austrian mountaineers banded together in 1862 and the Swiss and Italians a year later.

Thankfully the dry, somewhat pompous, tone of the introductory address did not set the tone for AJ articles in the 19th century. In fact, the very first in Volume I begins for all the world like a Gothic novel: ‘As the strokes of midnight were clanging from the Campanile at Sondrio, a carriage rolled heavily into the court-yard of the Hotel della Maddelena...’ Editor Hereford George had a star writer in Edward Kennedy who had fine tale to tell - a cocktail of champagne, the clatter of hooves and ebullient mountaineering. In the coach, besides Kennedy himself were the reverends Leslie Stephen and Isaac Taylor, guide Melchior Anderegg and servant Thomas Cox. All bar Taylor, who went botanising, made the first ascent of Monte della Disgrazia and afterwards, in an excited dash back to Sondrio staged a careering chariot race between their two coaches, Anderegg and Cox getting thrown into the road. No wonder Ball thought there would be a popular market for the Journal.

It would, of course, be possible to carry on like this through another 107 volumes of the AJ picking out colourful adventures as the cream of mountaineering moved on from the Alps to the Himalaya, to climbing the ‘north faces’ and unlocking the potential of the remoter ranges. Though Mont Blanc and many of the alpine 4000ers had already been climbed before the AJ first appeared, it was in time to chronicle the splendid twilight of the ‘Golden Age’ of alpinism and has been abreast (if not always in sympathy) with every subsequent development in mountaineering. A complete collection of AJs is therefore a unique record, and a valuable one too as such sets are comparatively rare. It is also a mirror of almost 150 years of profound geo-political and social change, reflecting the erosion of class and gender barriers and the shedding of colonial attitudes.

Each incoming editor casts an eye over the list of his predecessors (there has, to our shame, been only one female editor) and inwardly shakes a little. How can one live up to the erudition of Leslie Stephen or Douglas Freshfield, or match the meticulous accuracy of William Coolidge? And one cannot but envy the early editors their rich pickings of pioneer climbing. George had the ‘vintage’ years of 1864 and 1865, including Whymper’s ascent of the Matterhorn. His successor, Stephen (editor 1868-72) presided over a less dramatic period, after which Freshfield took the editor’s chair and, as one might expect under such a scholar-explorer, the Journal roamed wide. Areas such as the Rockies and even Afghanistan featured in Freshfield’s final volume.

Next came the legendary William Coolidge (editor 1880-89), one of three very able men whose diverse and fascinating journals have been overshadowed by their own disputatious temperaments. The other two controversialists were Edward Strutt and T Graham Brown. Coolidge’s main interest as both a climber and editor was the Alps; however he gave generous space to Whymper’s expeditions in Equador and also to early ventures into the Caucasus, Sikkim and the mountains of New Zealand. Science has always had a place in the AJ - despite a jibe by Stephen - and Coolidge covered topics such as breathing at high altitudes and the value, or otherwise, of alcohol as a stimulant.

Coolidge was the supreme authority on all things alpine, and woes betide any correspondent or editor who begged to differ. Fiery missives would issue from his ‘typing machine’ in the book-lined retreat that was his home in Grindelwald. A later editor, Percy Farrar, who revered Coolidge as his mentor, nonetheless described him as a ‘despotic recluse’. Famously, it was said of the Hermit of Grindelwald, that he could do anything with a hatchet except bury it. Yet the experience of most of Coolidge’s victims seems to have been that his wrath was temporary.

The longest reign of any AJ editor was that of George Yeld who occupied the post for 30 years (1896-1926) - a record very unlikely to be beaten. However Yeld had Percy Farrar as an assistant or joint editor from 1909 to 1926 and it was the energetic captain who effectively ran the show for much of that time. Yeld’s early solo volumes benefited from a flush of exploration and pioneer climbs in the Andes and Himalaya and an advance in rock climbing skills. Farrar, with resort to alpine history, kept the AJ at an eminently readable standard during the First World War (inevitably lean years) and then between 1921 and 1924 the expeditions through Tibet to attempt Mount Everest filled many pages.

Farrar’s final wartime offering (vol 32) included a paper (journal articles used to be referred to as papers) by George Mallory entitled ‘Pages from a Journal’. It is a minor masterpiece. Written while serving as a soldier in France, it recalls a climb of Mont Blanc from the Col Du GĂ©ant by the eastern buttress of Mont Maudit. During lulls in the fighting - ‘the spells of long, damp waiting and cold inaction’, Mallory was reliving alpine memories and pondering what it is one strives for on such a climb. The AJ is a repository of some of the finest of all mountaineering writing, though spread through so many, and sometimes rare, volumes it is not easily accessible. Thankfully, the best of it, up to the 1970s, was made available in Walt Unsworth’s judicious selection published under the borrowed title Peaks, Passes and Glaciers (Allen Lane) in 1981.

The 1930s saw the AJ engaging in controversy as never before or since. Nationalism, crampons and the piton were at the heart of it. Depleted by war and diverted by Everest, British climbers were relatively minor players in the Alps in the inter-war years. By the 1930s the Alpine Club worthies did not like what they saw, particularly the race for the North Faces, accompanied by artificial aids, flag-waving and an unconscionable waste of life. It appeared all very distasteful. Nor did they care for Continental sniping at British climbers as ‘unenterprising’.

The toll of German and Austrian dead on the Eiger Nordwand drew particular criticism from Colonel Strutt, editor of the AJ from 1927 to 1937. Strutt had a good climbing record, usually with guides, was ‘an outstanding iceman’ and had a thorough knowledge of the Alps; however he is remembered not for his climbing or his absorbing journals but for his virulent antipathies. Strutt was a traditionalist and, to some, a snob. He regarded crampons and other aids as cheating and German antics on the Nordwand as ‘insane’. As T S Blakeney put it with wonderful delicacy in a three-part study of the AJ and its editors: ‘Strutt wielded a ready but abrasive pen, and was too apt to express violent disapproval of things novel or alien to his thinking.’ Blakeney recalled a classic ‘Struttism’ in volume 41 in reference to the first ascent of Mount Kaufmann (Pic Lenin) in the Pamir. The mountain had been lately renamed ‘in honour of a notorious assassin who died in a lunatic asylum’, observed the Colonel in a footnote.

Blakeney was one of the unsung heroes of the AJ. For several years beneath the editor’s name at the front of the Journal was the legend, ‘Assisted by D.F.O. Dangar and T.S.Blakeney. Fred Dangar performed this backroom task for almost 20 years (1953-74), his capacity for meticulous research and alpine knowledge bolstering the AJ’s authority.

To ‘Hal’ Tyndale, like Farrar, fell the duty of bringing out the Journal during wartime. Blakeney suggests that Tyndale’s task was the harder as the Second World War made a greater call on civilian life, as well as the obvious closing of the Alps and putting climbers in uniform. History took up some of the slack and there was a grim increase in obituaries. But the war also had lighter spin-offs in postings that enabled the likes of Wilfrid Noyce to write of an aircrew recreation centre in Kashmir, J C Hawksley to visit the mountains of Sinai and Robin Hodgkin and Edward Peck to detail their explorations of the Ala Dag in Turkey. Incidentally, the Hodgkin and Peck articles remain among the best background reading there is for this still little visited range. Such is the value of the AJ.

Thomas Graham Brown, who took over from Tyndale in 1949, was the last of the AJ’s ‘awkward squad’ of controversialist editors. He had quarrelled beyond all reason with Frank Smythe over their impressive Red Sentinel and Route Major climbs on Mont Blanc and soon brought his capacity for rancour into the business of the AJ. Perhaps as infuriating for those who had to work with him on the Journal was his laxity with correspondence and proofs. The Club was forced to act and Graham Brown was dismissed - the only sacking in AJ history. (I cannot be the only one of his successors to have offered up a prayer on contemplating such an outcome.)

The irony is that T Graham Brown was in post for a golden period in mountaineering, with the opening of Nepal and the attempts on Everest. His editorial swansong (287 in vol 59) was devoted to the1953 ascent, with contributions by Hunt, Hillary and other members of the successful team. Graham Brown wrote an introduction in which he waxed eloquent about ‘the romance of man’s strife against nature’, though the word was his journals appeared thanks largely to those who assisted him.

If there was an Alpine Journal office, one might say that calm descended on the premises after the departure of Graham Brown. In fact the editor works alone, typically in a study or front room at home. Editing the AJ is essentially a labour of love, undertaken by a Club ‘volunteer’ (I use the word advisedly) assisted by other volunteers who take care of reviews and obituaries, area notes, and the all-important layout and production process.

The next 13 years under Francis Keenlyside and David Cox saw the AJ, like the Alpine Club itself, coming to terms with post-war modernity. Keenlyside stepped into the job in direct from the editorship of the Climbers’ Club Journal. His journals (1954-61) reflect British mountaineering’s acceptance of artificial aids and the opening up of the Himalaya to expeditions big and small. Volume 60 (1955) is a classic, ranging from an account by Ardito Desio of his ‘cast of thousands’ siege of K2, through the more adventurous first ascent of Kangchenjunga, written by George Band, to the shoestring Creagh Dhu expedition to the Khumbu. The ‘team’ comprised only Hamish MacInnes and John Cunningham, and MacInnes rounds off his report with a note on costs - fares £150 each, expenses in Nepal £12 each, supplies £17 2s 6d. There is a certain dry humour to be mined from the AJ.[1]
Cox encouraged a younger generation of writers. His Journals (1962-67) span a time of enlightened upheaval, both in wider society and in a popularising of mountain activities. As MacInnes and Cunningham had already shown, the mountains need no longer be the preserve of the upper middle class. Cox reflected this new egalitarianism with articles such as Ian Clough’s account of an attempt by an Alpine Climbing Group party on Gauri Sankar. Don Whillans was at the sharp end. Cox was also interested in what we now label ‘issues’ and carried a detailed paper by Blakeney on the rightness of the Tibetan name Chomolungma for Everest.

The biggest change in the actual appearance of the AJ occurred under Cox’s successor, Alan Blackshaw (editor 1968-70). Blackshaw, who is the current president of the Alpine Club, ended the practice of bringing out the journal in two parts each year and from 1969 settled on just one single volume to appear in the second half of each year. With the advent of climbing magazines there was no need for such frequent numbers of the AJ in order to keep up to date with developments. As for content, it is interesting to see Blackshaw, as an accomplished ski-mountaineer, giving Malcolm Slesser space to mount to a defence of skiing, though not, as he put it, ‘the genus skier’.

Ted Pyatt (editor 1971-82) took some satisfaction in knowing that his was the second longest run in the post after Yeld. He was a good organiser, delegating tasks to knowledgeable assistants, and there is an impression of the editorial process running smoothly. Nor did his journals lack content. This was the ‘Hard Way’ era in the Himalaya and the storm years of the likes of Scott, Boardman, Tasker and Andrzej Zawada all of whom contributed to the AJ during Pyatt’s tenure.

With the 1980s, we reach modern times; Margaret Thatcher, after all, still seems like frighteningly recent history. AJ editors have come and gone in brisk succession - Fairley, Sondheimer, Merz and Douglas - each maintaining a high standard with journals of great variety. (Thankfully, Johanna Merz has not actually forsaken the AJ and continues in the vital role of production editor.) Alpine-style ascents of bold routes in areas such as Alaska, Patagonia and China are at the forefront of today’s mountaineering game and have been well represented in recent journals by the likes of Mick Fowler and Ian Parnell. History, art and ethics have also occupied many pages while the Area Notes, recording the best new routes around the world, remain an invaluable resource.

The trick for any editor is to recruit talented writers with an exciting or thought-provoking tale to tell. It is not easy when many of the top climbers are professionals with tight time schedules and the option of selling their story to a US magazine. The choice, I suppose, is gratitude and a place in history with the AJ, or a fist full of dollars from a magazine that will be recycled into wrapping paper in a couple of months. So far the AJ is holding its own. But I cannot help envying Hereford George, able to open Volume 1 with chimes at midnight, a clatter of hooves in an inn yard, and the first ascent of the Disgrazia to come.


1. Predominately the Alpine Journal 1863-2003.

2. T S Blakeney’s three-part study ‘The Alpine Journal and its Editors’ 1863-1953 appeared in vol. 79 (1974), vol. 80 (1975) and vol. 81 (1976).

3. Peaks, Passes and Glaciers, selections from the AJ edited by Walt Unsworth, Allen Lane, London, 1981.

4. The Victorian Mountaineers, Ronald Clark, Batsford, London, 1953.

5. Scholar Mountaineers, Wilfrid Noyce, Dobson, London, 1950.

SUMMARY: About the Alpine Journal, by Stephen Goodwin who is the current editor of the Journal.

[1] The Creagh Dhu is a Glasgow-based club with its heyday in the 1950s that
grew out of the shipyards and tough areas of the city - a working class
club in contrast to the gentleman of AC and CC etc. All those
distinctions have since blurred, thank goodness. The 'expedition' in
1953 was actually just Hamish MacInnes and John Cunningham, who I think
hoped to live on supplies left behind by the Swiss, if they ever reached
Everest. It was a crazy escapade which has now passed into folklore.
Hunt beat them to Everest of course. They had just 8 rupees when they
left Namche to attempt a much smaller Khumbu peak. They didn't make it,
and still had to get back to Bombay. Hamish wrote it up with dry humour
for the 1955 AJ, Vol 60.