When the Alps Cast Their Spell

Aamir Ali

Mountaineers of the Alpine Golden Age A Book Review

Trevor Braham has been an active member of the Himalayan Club for more than half a century, a devoted mountaineer who has climbed in the Alps and in the Himalaya - eastern, western and central. He was editor of the Himalayan Journal (1957-58), Hon. Secretary (1950), Vice- President (1958-65) of the Himalaya Club; he is now an Hon. Member. To readers of the Himalayan Journal, he is no stranger. Nor can it surprise them that he was awarded the Boardman-Tasker Prize for the best mountain book of 2004. [1]
In the 50's when the Himalayan giants were climbed one after another with almost frightening rapidity, the era was often compared to the 'Golden Age' of the Alps - a century earlier. In a special chapter at the end of his book, Braham outlines the period in the Himalaya, which 'dawned in 1950 with the ascent of the first mountain above 8000 m and extended over the next 15 years when all the main 8000 m summits had been reached.' This book is the chronicle of the mountaineers of the Alpine Golden Age in the nineteenth century; a heroic group of men, Braham explained in one interview.

At the Boardman-Tasker prize-giving ceremony, the Chairman of the Judges said, This is an epic work of reference, written with skill and deep understanding. And in accepting the prize, Braham said; I decided to focus my book on the character of the people involved in order to try to throw some light upon what they were really like.

And indeed the two things that distinguish this book are, firstly, the meticulous research that has gone into it, exact dates of the climbs, the names of all those who took part, including the guides. And secondly, the giants of those days, the guides and all, come alive and emerge as rounded personalities.

'The year 1854 was probably regarded as a convenient starting point for the opening of the Golden Age,' Braham writes. It was claimed that climbing as a 'sport' began with Alfred Wills' ascent of the Wetterhorn, in that year. [2] 'During the next eleven years to 1865 when the Matterhorn was climbed, practically every major Alpine Summit had been reached.' 36 summits of over 4000 m were climbed, 31 of them by British climbers.

Wills' climbs over the following years included the Grandes Jorasses (1864) and Mont Blanc by the Bosses ridge (1866). In 1857 after climbing Mont Buet, he passed by the Plateau des Fonds above the village of Sixt in Haute Savoie. The idea of building a chalet in this delectable spot grew; he entrusted the building of the house entirely to his guide, Auguste Balmat. Balmat was defrauded by contractors and held himself responsible; he died in 1862 aged only 54. Wills devoted much time to nursing him. [3]
Alfred Wills' distinguished legal career led to his appointment as a Judge of the High Court and the sensational case of Oscar Wilde was tried before him. It was he who sentenced Wilde to two years' imprisonment. Other times, other mores.

It was only natural that strong bonds grew up between climber and guide. Apart from Balmat, Wills often climbed with Johann-Joseph Imseng, who met with a mysterious death; he was murdered and his body thrown into the Mattmark lake. John Tyndall climbed with Johann- Joseph Bennen who was killed in an avalanche in 1864. Tyndall organised a collection for Bennen's dependent mother and sisters.

Leslie Stephen climbed with Melchior Anderegg and his cousin Jakob, as did Moore. Moore wrote in 1878 on Jakob Anderegg's death, 'He had been my personal guide ever since 1865. Great physical strength and a keen mountaineering instinct combined to place him in the first rank of pathfinders. In addition to these qualities, he was endowed with a particularly sweet and equable temper, considerable sense of humour. As a companion and friend, no less than a guide, I shall ever deplore his loss.'

Adolphus Moore (how he must have hated that name!) also climbed with Christian Almer and later with Jakob Anderegg. Almer, the hunter from Grindelwald, 'had stood on top of the Wetterhorn with Sir Alfred Wills ten years earlier.' Albert Mummery formed a most effective duo with Alexander Burgener.

It was customary to climb with guides, often more than one. Leslie Stephen wrote, I utterly repudiate the doctrine that the alpine travellers are or ought to be the heroes of alpine adventures. The true way at least to describe all my alpine ascents is that Michel or Anderegg or Lauener succeeded in performing a feat requiring skill, strength and courage, the difficulty of which was much increased by the difficulty of taking with him his knapsack and his employer.

The attitude to mountains can also be judged by the feelings expressed by some of them. Thus Wills on reaching the summit of the Wetterhorn, wrote, I experienced, as this sublime and wonderful prospect burst upon my view, a profound, almost irrepressible emotion...as in the more immediate presence of Him who had reared this tremendous pinnacle, and beneath the 'majestical roof' of whose deep blue heaven we stood, poised as it seemed half-way between the earth and the sky. Not all climbers were quite so religious but most did have a deep reverence for the mountains. The mountains don't raise the same passion as they used to in those Victorian days, Braham explained in an interview.

While Braham's book provides information on a large number of climbers and guides, he devotes special attention to a handful: Alfred Wills (1828-1912), John Tyndall (1820-93), Leslie Stephen (1832-1904), Adolphus Warburton Moore (1841-87), Edward Whymper (1840-1911), Albert Frederick Mummery (1855-95). They were the leading figures of the Golden Age; the ones who made the first ascents. Inevitably, they met in the Alps, and in the Alpine Club established in 1857, and climbed together on occasion.

John Tyndall was born in Ireland and had a distinguished career as a scientist. His second visit to Switzerland, when he was already 36 years old, opened up a decade and a half of alpine exploration and climbing. I have returned to the Alps every year, and found among them refuge and recovery from the work and worry...of London, he wrote.

He made the first ascent of the Weisshorn, 'one of the most sought after summits.' And one of the most beautiful, one might add. In July 1862 he made an attempt on the Matterhorn, from Breuil. Whymper was also on the mountain, having begun his dedicated siege of it. Tyndall wrote, At Breuil we found a gentleman whose long perseverance merited victory, was then on the mountain...At night Mr. Whymper returned from the Matterhorn, having left his tent upon the rocks. In the frankest spirit, he placed it at my disposal, and thus relieved me from the necessity of carrying my own. Tyndall's party of five included his guide Bennen, whose early elation over the chance of success evaporated as the difficulties multiplied. A shoulder on the SW ridge has since been called Pic Tyndall (4242 m).

Tyndall's interest in the Matterhorn did not end after it had been climbed; in 1868 he made the seventh ascent, traversing from Breuil to Zermatt. There was a 'shroud of fear guarding the upper part of the Swiss route' and it was only three years after Whymper's tragedy that a second ascent was made by that route.

It was in 1858 that Tyndall first went to Belalp, between the Rhone and the Aletsch glacier, beginning a love affair that lasted 35 years. What the Plateau des Fonds was to Wills, Belalp was to Tyndall, After his late marriage at the age of 56, he built his own summer home there, his spiritual home as he called it.

In 1993, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his death, a bronze plaque was unveiled on the memorial that Mrs. Tyndall had raised in Belalp in 1911, with the inscription 'to mark a place of memories'.

Though Leslie Stephen may be better known as a writer and the father of Virginia Woolf, his climbing career was outstanding. His books, especially The Playground of Europe, remain entrancing for modern generations. This was published in 1871, the same year as Whymper's

Scrambles Amongst the Alps.

His Fellowship at Trinity Hall required him to take Holy Orders, which he did in 1855 and renounced in 1862. His enthusiasm for

'organising 30 mile Sunday walks often enabled undergraduates to overlook his clerical status.. .He once walked 50 miles in 12 hours from Cambridge to London to attend an annual Dinner of the Alpine Club.'

He spent 25 summers and 8 winter holidays in the Alps. 'His record of first ascents included 5 summits above 4000 m and 5 other major peaks; he also crossed several new passes.' Once, forced by bad weather to spend three days in Zinal, 'Stephen and his friends played cricket in the high street.'

Adolphus Moore was the first to consider a route up Mt. Blanc from Italy by the Brenva face; he succeeded in climbing it in 1865 with Frank Walker, aged 59, his son, Horace, and their guides Jakob and Melchior Anderegg. 'The climb was made on the day following the Matterhorn accident. Five years were to pass before a second ascent was made; twenty nine years later, Mummery . made the fifth and the first guideless ascent.. .Moore's account of his climb has been described as among the finest in mountain literature.'

Moore was 23 in 1864 when 'he planned and carried out a series of bold ventures which included 12 glacier passes (three crossed for the first time) and six mountain ascents.' The following summer, with Whymper, Horace Walker and the guides Almer and Croz, they made the first ascent of Les Ecrins. As they approached the summit after a very difficult climb the guides tried to persuade us to go in front, so as to be the first to set foot on the summit. But this we declined, they had done the work, let them be the first to reap the reward.

Perhaps for the wrong reasons, Edward Whymper is probably the best known name of the band of pioneer climbers; partly no doubt because the Matterhorn is the best known mountain of the Alps, and the tragedy of14 July 1865 has become a mountaineering legend. And the Matterhorn was Whymper's mountain.

We have all read accounts, including Whymper's own, of that first climb of the Matterhorn and the tragic - melodramatic, one is inclined to say - slip that led to the death of four of the seven climbers - and the somewhat providential (and sometimes suspected) breaking of the rope, which saved three lives. Braham gives a clear and succinct account of the triumph and the tragedy. And we see how Whymper, known for the careful preparations he made for his climbs, came to be a member of a motley group of climbers and guides, at least one of them with little experience of climbing and quite unfit for a major adventure.

Edward Whymper's father was an artist painter and wood engraver and Edward was apprenticed to him at the age of 14. He went for long walks, once at age 15, covering 35 miles in a day. (Later, he walked from Martigny to the Grand St. Bernard a tiring walk of 32 miles - and very glad when the hospice appeared in sight). At 20, he was commissioned by Longmans Green to do a series of mountain sketches for a publication of the Alpine Club (William Longman was a member). Edward went to the Alps and his life changed.

It was in 1861, after his climbs in the Dauphine with Moore, that Whymper 'began his long and relentless series of campaigns to climb the Matterhorn.' He met Jean-Antoine Carrel, who was his guide and then his competitor in the last lap. The following year, in a solo attempt, Whymper slipped and fell nearly 200 ft in seven or eight bounds. He was badly bruised but managed to get down to Breuil, 4800 ft below. Five days later he made his next attempt, the fourth. Two days later, he made another and two days after that, yet another.

He made renewed attempts with folding ladders in 1863; on his sixth attempt he was beaten off by a snowstorm. In 1865, he undertook a series of ambitious climbs but his sights remained fixed on the Matterhorn. Between 13 June and 7 July he climbed five peaks of which four were first ascents (including the Aiguille Verte), crossed 11 passes of which 4 were new.

And so to the Matterhorn, to success and sorrow.

The aftermath of the tragedy marked Whymper for life. At the age of 25, he 'withdrew from the alpine climbing scene.' Whymper made his last major alpine ascent in 1894, when he spent two nights in the Janssen observatory on Mt Blanc. A year later, aged 55, accompanied by Cesar Carrel, his son, and two other guides, Whymper set out from Breuil to climb 'his' Matterhorn again; alas, stormy weather frustrated his attempt.

His book Scrambles Amongst the Alps, 1871 was described as 'an artistic masterpiece.' He had a full career of lecturing and writing, and his guidebooks on Zermatt and Chamonix were very successful. Carrel 'enjoyed a glorious career as guide,' including pioneer climbs in Ecuador with Whymper, and 53 ascents of the Matterhorn. Upon his death, Whymper opened a subscription in England for Carrel's family.

An interesting footnote for us is that one of Edward Whymper's brothers went to India as manager of the Murree Breweries.

The Matterhorn tragedy was a watershed. 'The early period of the Golden Age, which virtually came to an end after the ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865, was succeeded by a new and more challenging phase of activity involving climbs once regarded as being beyond the limits of possibility.' Mummery's exploits began 'a decade and a half after the Matterhorn tragedy. (He) was an innovator, revolutionizing established ideas, crossing new frontiers in pursuit of climbs which demanded greater technical skills.'

His mountaineering covered 24 of his 39 years. 'He had a powerful will, tireless energy and a charismatic presence... His prose is characteristically facetious and lively, reflecting the intense enjoyment he derived from his climbs. He was a persuasive leader in search of the sort of challenges that deterred lesser men. He knew by instinct or long experience whether his points of adhesion were sufficient for momentary safety. he was always completely confident. Nothing flurried him. He could endure any amount of cold and would sit out through a night in the open at any level.'

Mummery climbed the Matterhorn seven times by four different routes. In 1879 he met Alexander Burgener; and with him climbed the hitherto unclimbed Z'mutt ridge. Bad weather appeared to be coming but Mummery was able to prophesy fair things with such an appearance of knowledge that Burgener was half convinced... (though) I felt more than a tremor of doubt myself.My persistence suggested occult knowledge. Mummery was asleep in the afternoon when Burgener woke him with a jubilant air and a thump, intended to convey devout appreciation of my astounding wisdom. They reached the summit after nine hours of continuous effort.

'The Mummery-Burgener partnership accomplished some remarkable first ascents and made several notable attempts,' including two on the Dent du Geant.Where Mummery left a cairn with a card inside from his highest point, 245 m below the summit. He had written, absolutely inaccessible by fair means. Mummery's association with

Burgener developed into a partnership of equals with mutually dedicated aims. He climbs better than I do, remarked Burgener once, to another client.

With Burgener, Mummery made the first ascent from the Charpoua glacier of the Aiguille Verte, descending by the Whymper couloir. After spending eight hours on the Mer de Glace face of the Grepon, they abandoned the attempt. They moved to the other side and were told by a well known guide that it was impossible, yet the ascent was accomplished without using a single piton. Within 36 hours the climb was repeated to the south summit, 4 m higher. Mummery's description 'is a classic of alpine writing.'

On 20 June 1895 Mummery set off for the Himalaya, just after his book My Climbs in the Alps and Caucasus was published.

Major C.G. Bruce, later of Everest fame, was invited to join the expedition, which included Collie and Hastings, and he brought two Gurkhas along. Their objective was Nanga Parbat. Deciding that the steep Rupal face offered no possibility, they moved to the Diamir face. The final crossing to Diamir 'involved a 12 hour climb to the Mazeno ridge followed by a bivouac without provisions or equipment. Both adventures indicate an obvious failure to appreciate the difference in scale between the Alps and the Himalaya.' Today, the casualness with which the whole expedition seems to have been carried out seems incredible. Mummery wrote to his wife I have good hopes that we shall get up Nanga.

Some very difficult climbing was achieved but it became clear that avalanches threatened their route. They decided to move to the Rakhiot glacier. While the main party made the interminable scrambling over loose stones, Mummery tried a direct passage. He chose two Gurkhas Raghobir and Goman Singh although he was unable to speak a word of their language. 'They left the others on 24 August and were never seen again.'

When Hermann Buhl climbed Nanga Parbat in 1953, he paid homage to Mummery that great English climber .He had failed to recognise the overwhelming size of the mountain ...It was in 1895 that Mummery laid the foundation-stone of the pyramid which grew to be the history of Nanga Parbat. ...I want him to know that I climbed Nanga Parbat without

the assistance of any modern climbing aids, that is to say, in the way he would have wanted it, under my own steam, by what he himself considered 'fair means.'

One of Braham's most readable and enlightening chapters is about lady climbers. They not only made difficult climbs but also had to overcome the prejudices of the age. It is startling, even pathetic, to read that Mrs. Le Blond, who 'saw absolutely no reason why women should not climb mountains on equal terms with men, wore breeches for climbing, with a skirt over them which was removed once she was out of sight of civilization.'

The adventures and achievements of the early women climbers arouse deep respect, Lucy Walker (1835-1916) climbed with her father Frank and her brother Horace; she took part in 98 expeditions of which only three were unsuccessful, and most were first ascents by a lady. Meta Brevoort (1825-76) climbed regularly with her nephew W. A.B. Coolidge, in the Alps and in the Dauphine. Her ambition to be the first woman to climb the Matterhorn was just thwarted by Lucy Walker who achieved this first with Melchior Anderegg.

There were many others and their stories deserve a book of their own. The Ladies Alpine Club was established in 1907.

When the Alps Cast Their Spell will be a valuable addition to your library; it will cast its own spell over you.


Review of the book, When the Alps Cast Their Spell, by Trevor Braham.

[1] When the Alps Cast Their Spell: Mountaineers of the Alpine Golden Age, by Trevor Braham, Pp. 314, 44 illustrations. The In Pinn, Glasgow. (ISBN I-903238- 74-94. UK Pounds 20).

[2] Rather like the tradition that Indian mountaineering began with Gurdial Singh's successful expedition to Trisul in 1951.

[3] I must add a personal note. Some time in the 50s, on my way to the Col d'Anterne, I saw this chalet way above us, perhaps 200 m up. On inquiring about it, I was told, 'Oh, it was built by an eccentric Englishman. He even had a piano carried up there, can you imagine?' I had considered this a village myth, but Braham confirms the story: Nothing indicates more vividly the remoteness of that age than the faded photograph of six stalwart men carrying a piano up a forest track, to the chalet. The photograph is on exhibit in the Museum of Sixt with a large panel of photographs of the Wills' family.