150 Years of the Alpine Club

George Band

On the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the Alpine Club - the world's first mountaineering club - the Editor has invited me to write about its special relationship with the Himalaya, and the Himalayan Club, and to say something about the AC's anniversary celebrations in 2007.

The Alpine Club was founded in 1857 to facilitate the exploration of the European Alps. The first half of the 1860s proved to be a golden age for the Club, when many alpine peaks were climbed for the first time. Leslie Stephen, President 1866-68, famously asserted 'the number of unaccomplished feats may be reckoned on the fingers'. It was time to look further afield, to what we now term the Greater Ranges. Early choices were the Pyrenees, the Caucasus, Norway, the Rockies, and the Southern Alps of New Zealand.

But the highest of all was the Greater Himalaya and its adjacent ranges. Here, recreational mountaineers were long preceded by the early explorers; the naturalists, such as Joseph Hooker, who travelled in Sikkim and eastern Nepal in 1848-9; and the staff of the Great Trigonometrical Survey, who set up their plane tables at well over 20,000 ft; and the incredible pundits, like Hari Ram, who made the first circuit of the Everest group in 1871. As recorded by Kenneth Mason in his Abode of Snow, W W Graham was the first traveller to come from England with the main objective of climbing mountains, 'more for sport and adventure than for science', as he admitted to the Royal Geographical Society on his return in 1884. With his Swiss guide, Joseph Imboden, he tackled peaks in Sikkim; just across the border in Nepal; and in Kumaun near Nanda Devi. He claimed to have climbed Kabru, 24,000 ft, but it was probably a lower peak.

By 1885, roads were being improved, and the Himalaya was becoming more accessible. Valleys were known reasonably well and the higher peaks correctly located, but hardly anyone climbed for pleasure. It was a period of ascending passes rather than peaks. The glaciers and general topography of the high peaks and their satellites were unknown and ripe for exploration, providing wonderful opportunities for both sporting and scientifically minded mountaineers.

In 1887, Francis Younghusband made his daring crossing of the Karakoram by the 19,000 ft Muztagh pass to the Baltoro glacier, en route from Manchuria to India. On a second mission to Hunza in 1889, he had a small escort of soldiers from the 5th Gurkha Rifles, perhaps the first occasion Gurkhas were used in mountain exploration.

Following the Hunza-Nagir campaign of 1891, Lieutenant George Cockerell was deputed to explore and map some 12,000 square miles of the western Karakoram and Hindu Kush. This prepared the way for the first major expedition organised from England to the Himalaya in 1892, the first such venture to receive financial support from the Royal Society and the Royal Geographical Society. The expedition made the first crossing of the Hispar pass, explored the Biafo, and climbed Pioneer Peak, 22,600 ft. It was led by Martin Conway, who kept detailed records and produced a reconnaissance map, which provided the basis for the Duke of Abruzzi's great expedition in 1909. Next after Conway, in 1895 Mummery, Collie and Hastings came to reconnoitre Nanga Parbat, 26,660 ft, one of the fourteen 8000 m peaks. They were joined in India by Charles Bruce (later General Bruce) and two of his Gurkhas. Sadly, while attempting to cross a high pass, Mummery and the two Gurkhas disappeared, almost certainly swept away by an avalanche.

The next expeditionof real note was Douglas Freshfield's celebrated circuit of Kangchenjunga, 28,169 ft, on the border between Nepal and Sikkim, which took from 5 September to 24 October 1899. He was accompanied by Vittorio Sella, the greatest mountain photographer of his day, and the geologist Professor Garwood, who produced an excellent sketch map.

Tom Longstaff was one of my heroes. He came to lecture while I was an undergraduate at Cambridge. With his guides, Alexis and Henri Brocherel, he spent a memorable six months in the Himalaya in 1905. First they tried to penetrate the ring of peaks surrounding Nanda Devi, 25,660 ft, where in 1883 W W Graham had failed to force a route up the gorge of the Rishi Ganga. They reached a 19,000 ft saddle on the eastern rim, now known as Longstaff's col. After being avalanched on Gurla Mandhata, 25,350 ft, in Tibet, two years later in 1907 they did succeed in making the first ascent of Trisul, 23,406 ft, on the outer ramparts of the Nanda Devi Sanctuary, by climbing 6000 ft in one day. For 23 years it remained the highest summit reached by man.

In that same year, the scientist Alexander Kellas made his first visit to Sikkim. Unusually, he climbed without Alpine guides, relying on local porters who both he and Bruce realised, had the potential to be trained as mountaineers. With them, he made first ascents of Pauhunri 23,180 ft, and Chomiomo, 22,430 ft, but tragically died on the way to Everest in 1921. He became very interested in high-altitude physiology and concluded, in a remarkable paper written in 1920, that Everest could be climbed without supplementary oxygen if it was not too difficult, and with oxygen even if it was technically difficult. It was 58 years before Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler realised his first prediction!

Concluding this review up until World War I, C F Meade made three determined attempts onKamet, 25,447 ft, in 1910,1912 and 1913, reaching 'Meade's col' at 23,420 ft. Being reasonably accessible, it had been attempted as far back as 1855 by the brothers Schlagintweit, but it was not until 1931 that this first Himalayan giant over 25,000 ft was climbed by Frank Smythe's expedition.

After World War I, the seven British Everest expeditions of the 1920s and 1930s tended to dominate British climbing in the Himalaya. Although failing to climb the mountain, they did establish new altitude records over 28,000 ft. They were matched by the Bavarian expeditions of 1929 and 1931 to Kangchenjunga and the succession of German expeditions to Nanga Parbat. Fortunately, it was during this period that Shipton and Tilman rediscovered, as had been shown by Longstaff and Kellas, that cheap and small expeditions could accomplish a great deal. The penetration of the Nanda Devi Sanctuary by way of the Rishi Ganga gorge in 1934 by Shipton and Tilman, with their three Sherpas, Angtharkey, Passang and Kusang, is one of the great stories of exploration. This paved the way for the actual ascent of Nanda Devi in 1936 by the joint American-British party organised by Charles Houston and Graham Brown. When Tilman and Odell reached the summit - the highest point in the British Empire and the highest peak then climbed - Tilman subsequently wrote in his restrained prose: 'I believe we so far forgot ourselves as to shake hands.'

This seems a good point to end this brief account of Alpine Club members' association with the Himalaya, as the Himalayan Club was now well established - being founded on 17 February 1928 - and not a few climbers have become members of both Clubs. Writing in the first volume of the new Club's Himalayan Journal in 1929, the first Honorary Secretary Sir Geoffrey Corbett pays a generous tribute to the senior Club from which the Himalayan Club's original objects were adapted: 'To encourage and assist Himalayan travel and exploration, and to extend knowledge of the Himalaya and adjoining mountain ranges through science, art, literature and sport.' Corbett continues, 'We owe much to the Alpine Club, and in particular to Colonel E L Strutt, the Editor of the Alpine Journal, who is also one of our founder members... Members of the Alpine Club who come to the Himalaya may be sure of a warm welcome and all the assistance that the Himalayan Club can give.'

Subsequent volumes of both the Alpine and Himalayan Journals in the 1930s were recording the highlights of members' climbing: Reggie Cooke's first ascent of Kabru in 1935; John Hunt and James Waller reaching 24,500 ft on Peak 36, now called Saltoro Kangri, also in 1935; Wilfrid Noyce in Sikkim and Kashmir; Shipton and Tilman filling in the 'Blank on the Map' in Shaksgam; and Peter Lloyd writing most significantly about 'Oxygen on Mount Everest, 1938'. As Jack Longland concluded, the seeds of the great renaissance of British climbing after 1945 were already sown.

If you have read this far with interest, and wish to learn more, my book SUMMIT: 150 Years of the Alpine Club, written specially for the anniversary, tells a fuller story. I was pleased to present copies to both the Mumbai and Kolkata sections of the Himalayan Club, so you are not obliged to buy it! It was published in October 2006, to be available throughout the anniversary year, so it was not possible to mention any of the special celebratory events in the anniversary year itself, so a short account of these follows.

As an early curtain raiser, the Travellers Club in Pall Mall generously hosted an Alpine evening on 9 November 2006, with a champagne reception and dinner, before which I gave a PowerPoint presentation based on SUMMIT. This was not the only book produced specially for the anniversary. Peter Mallalieu, Keeper of the Club's

Pictures, produced and The Ernest Press published The Artists of the Alpine Club, launched most successfully at the John Mitchell Gallery, Bond Street, on 7 March 2007.

The year 2007 began with a symposium and sumptuous dinner at the Shap Wells Hotel in the Lake District, on 3 February, organised by William Newsom and attended by a record 260 members and guests. Peter Habeler was the Guest of Honour. The menu cover was an updated version from the Club's Jubilee Dinner of a chiffon clad Britannia welcoming the President and past Presidents to the mountains!

The Pen-y-Gwryd Hotel was the venue for the second dinner - the 'Home of British Mountaineering' - below Snowdon in North Wales. It has been in existence as long as the Club itself. Chris Briggs and his wife Jo became the owners in the 1940s when it was also the Mountain Rescue Post. His daughter Jane Pullee now maintains the Briggs' reputation for hospitality. In common with the alpine pioneers, the forty lucky diners - including seven past and present Presidents - drank sparkling Bouvet and feasted on rack of Welsh lamb.

The celebration in Zermatt, Switzerland, over the weekend 22- 24 June, was likely to be the high point and it proved way above expectation. On the Friday, some 300 people crowded the square opposite the historic Hotel Monte Rosa listening to the band of Zermatt guides, speeches and presentations, with Kurt Diemberger and Walter Bonatti as special guests. Deputy Mayor Gerold Biner said he did not enjoy mountaineering; preferring to sit, looking out of a window, so he became a helicopter pilot for mountain rescue! That moment a helicopter appeared overhead, lowered a cable and snatched away the shroud behind him, revealing a brilliant bronze statue of a climber by Stefan Mesmer, with the inscription 'The Alpine Club 1857 - 2007 Marking 150 Years of Friendship between Zermatt and the Pioneers of Alpinism'. Suitably impressed, we all adjourned to the ballroom of the Zermatterhof for drinks and a buffet dinner until the early hours.

Earlier that morning, seven AC members joined four guides and some ten journalists and photographers (including two from Mens Vogue!) up the cable car to the Klein Matterhorn, emerging into a vicious wind and whiteout, for a rigorous 'media' ascent of the Breithorn - now the easiest alpine 4000 m peak. Doug Scott looked suitably eccentric in a knee-length gardening jacket, leather gauntlets and a floppy Stetson. I was thrilled to take part, because at the Centenary celebration in 1957, I had also climbed the Breithorn with Chris Brasher by the Younggrat, in a distinguished party including John Hunt and Albert Eggler.

On the Saturday the sun shone and many AC members laid siege to the Riffelhorn for relaxed rock climbing, including a new route named 'Swiss Hospitality' led by VIP guest John Harlin III. Dinner at the Riffelberg was a victim of its own success. Planned nearly two years previously, nobody had expected as many as 250 thirsty AC members and guests who had to be split between the hotel and the restaurant. So speeches were held first, in a stunning alfresco setting in the magical evening light. The Swiss Alpine Club President, Frank Urs Muller presented the Club with a watercolour of the Finsteraarhorn. It was on the first British ascent of this peak that thoughts of forming the Club were mooted in the summer of 1857 by Edward Kennedy and William Mathews' cousin St. John Mathews. Walter Bonatti, recently made an Honorary Member of the Club, followed with an eloquent speech outlining the Club's history, and that of the Matterhorn, recalling his own extraordinary solo route up the north face during the 1965 centenary.

The official events ended with a Sunday morning service at the English Church commemorating both the occasion and members who had been buried in Zermatt. Afterwards, in the brilliant sunshine outside the Monte Rosa Hotel, an impromptu photo shoot of some forty AC members simulated Whymper's 1864 engraving of 'The Club Room of Zermatt' in the same precise location! Huge thanks are due to Zermatt Tourism for their efficiency and generous welcome, and to our own members Rick Eastwood, Stephen and Lucy Goodwin, and Toto Grunland, under the genial leadership of the President, Stephen Venables, for organising the biggest gathering in the Alpine Club's history.

Back in the UK, there was more to come. In September, the major contribution by the AC Library was an exhibition, 'Treasures of the Alpine Club' at Christie's, the eminent auctioneers, in conjunction with their annual Exploration and Travel sale. Then two events were held in December: a formal Reception hosted by the Swiss Ambassador at their Embassy, preceded by a seminar 'Summits of Learning: 150 Years of

Mountaineering, Mountains and Science', with a clutch of distinguished speakers. The year closed with the Club holding its traditional London black tie dinner on 10 December, organised by Chris Russell, in the Old Hall, Lincoln's Inn, close to where the very earliest meetings of the AC had been held in the rooms of T W Hinchliff, the Club's first Honorary Secretary.

One might be forgiven for thinking that the whole year had been spent in celebratory eating and drinking, but this was not so. A newly formed AC Climbing Fund, supported by the equipment supplier 'First Ascent', made its first grants to two expeditions. Malcolm Eldridge also conceived a competition 'AC Challenge 150'. Points were to be awarded for three different challenges, one for big peaks worldwide, one for Europe, and one for individuals. There was even an age-related bonus. I am not sure how it all worked, or whether the results will ever be published! Also close to our hearts, the Mount Everest Foundation set up jointly by the Alpine Club and the Royal Geographical Society in the 1950s, decided to double its grants in 2007 to £42,450, by assisting 42 expeditions. This was to compensate for a dramatic change in government policy by UK Sport who had previously channelled significant grants to expeditions via the British Mountaineering Council, but have now, with an eye on 2012, decided to concentrate their funding on 'Olympic medal sports'. Despite this body blow, after 150 Years the Alpine Club is in good heart and climbing more actively than ever.


A look at the special relationship shared by the Alpine Club and the Himalaya and Himalayan Club. Also, an account of the year-long celebration of 150th anniversary of the Alpine Club, celebrated in 2007.