High achievers

As the Alpine Club celebrates its 150th anniversary, the cream of the world’s climbers meet in Zermatt, Switzerland, to pay homage to the British men who pioneered the sport of mountaineering, writes Carolyn Fry
At 3,800 metres on Switzerland’s Breithorn mountain, the weather is closing in. White flakes swirl around on a biting wind that has sucked the temperature down to –15°C. The snow-covered ground blends seamlessly with low-hanging cloud, so everywhere is a disorientating bright white. Only when the mist lifts to reveal the surrounding jagged grey-brown rocks does the landscape regain its lucidity. When it does, it also reveals a stream of tiny, silhouetted climbers, roped together in fours, slowly edging their way towards the summit.

With the Alps now a mecca for mountaineers wanting to test their mettle on its array of 4,000-metre peaks, this could be any day in the Swiss climbing season. But a closer look at the 60 or so people trudging step by step through the snow hints at a more auspicious occasion. All consummate mountaineers, they include Doug Scott, a veteran of 45 expeditions to the high mountains of Asia; George Band, member of the team that made the first ascent of Mount Everest in 1953; and Stephen Venables, the first Briton to climb Everest without oxygen.

These mountain celebrities have come to the Swiss village of Zermatt to climb the 4,164-metre Breithorn and pay homage to the Alps in the 150th anniversary year of the world’s first mountaineering club, the Alpine Club. Founded on 22 December 1857 by a group of British mountaineers in the Ashley Hotel, London, the club has been at the forefront of mountaineering ever since. ‘It’s a club for climbers and our membership includes most of the mountaineers in the country,’ says Venables, the club’s current president. To join as a full member, you must have bagged at least 20 ‘respectable alpine routes or peaks’, or the equivalent in other ranges and wilderness areas.

When the Alpine Club was founded, however, the Alps were still a relatively unknown quantity. Before the turn of the 18th century, the towering peaks and sheer rock faces were largely regarded with horror rather than as places of beauty to be explored. After experiencing the Great St Bernhard Pass, the monk John de Bremble prayed: ‘Lord restore me to my brethren, that I may tell them not to come to this place of torment.’ The 17th-century diarist John Evelyn summed up the landscape as a collection of ‘horrid and fearful crags and tracts’, and essayist Joseph Addison recoiled from ‘this most mis-shapen scenery’.

The subsequent change in attitude towards the mountains had much to do with developments in literature, science and tourism. During the early 19th century, the poets Byron and Wordsworth both wrote of the Alps’ majesty and beauty, while scientists such as Scotsman Professor JD Forbes and Irishman John Tyndall began ascending peaks to seek knowledge about the forces that created the Earth’s lofty landscapes.

Later, as Britons who had grown wealthy on the Industrial Revolution started spending their spoils on grand tours of continental Europe, the concept of tourism emerged, and inns sprung up in Alpine villages to cater for visitors. The formerly fearsome rock faces were now challenges to be conquered.

Peak time

The Alps soon became an adventure playground in which well-heeled Britons competed to be the first to reach the top of unclimbed summits. Between 1857 and 1863, the Alpine Club swelled to 281 members, whose middle- and upper-class affluence afforded them the time and money to indulge in their new hobby. In Summit, his informative history of the Alpine Club, Band writes: ‘... if you view the ring of peaks in the wonderful panorama from the Gornergrat above Zermatt, the Dom, Täschhorn, Alphubel, Allalinhorn, Rimpfischhorn and Strahlhorn were all climbed by the British, as were also the Nord End of Monte Rosa, Lyskamm and Castor. Pollux and Breithorn fell to Swiss and French climbers but, thereafter, the Matterhorn, Gabelhorn, Zinal Rothorn and Weisshorn were British successes.’

Amid these heroic victories came tragedy. In 1860, Edward Whymper, a wood engraver and painter, was commissioned by William Longman to illustrate Peaks, Passes and Glaciers, a precursor to the Alpine Club’s longstanding annual publication The Alpine Journal. He visited Zermatt, Saas Fee and Kandersteg. The following year, he returned to make more illustrations and also made the first British ascent of the Pelvoux. His success prompted him to turn his attention to the Matterhorn, one of the few major peaks that was, as yet, unclimbed. Soon obsessed, he made seven unsuccessful attempts on the summit from Italy during the next four years.

Like many of the British mountaineers, Whymper employed local guides to boost his chances of getting to the top. Many of his initial attempts were made with the Italian guide Jean Antoine Carrel, but when Whymper returned to the mountains in 1865 to make another bid for the peak, Carrel said he was unavailable. A fervent patriot, he was, in fact, planning his own expedition in the hope of claiming the summit for Italy.

Whymper decided to climb the mountain from the Swiss side. Travelling to Zermatt, he assembled an expedition team comprising local father-and-son guides Peter and Peter Taugwelder, Chamonix guide Michael Croz, experienced climbers Lord Francis Douglas and Reverend Charles Hudson, and a novice mountaineer named Douglas Hadow.

Setting off at dawn, the party made good progress and soon reached 4,000 metres. As the escarpment steepened, however, Hadow needed assistance from the elder Taugwelder. Croz, Whymper and Hudson took the lead, spurred on by the thought that Carrel’s Italian team could already be ahead of them on the other side of the mountain. Eventually, Croz and Whymper rushed ahead of the others to the summit. Whymper was triumphant, writing: ‘At 1.40pm, the world was at our feet and the Matterhorn was conquered! Hurrah! Not a footstep could be seen.’ They later saw the Italian team far below.

Their jubilation was short-lived, however. On the most treacherous part of the descent, with all the climbers roped together, Hadow slipped. He knocked Croz from his feet and pulled Hudson and Francis along behind him. As Whymper and the Taugwelders braced themselves to take the imminent strain on the rope, it snapped. The three watched helplessly as Croz, Hadow, Hudson and Francis slid and jolted down the steep escarpment and over the edge of a precipice that dropped some 1,200 metres towards the Matterhorngletscher below.

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Matterhorn memorials

Today, in the Matterhorn Museum in Zermatt, visitors can see the frayed rope that sent the four climbers to their deaths, along with a letter that Whymper wrote following the tragedy: ‘For five years I have dreamt of the Matterhorn; I have spent much labour and time upon it – and I have done it. And now the very name is hateful to me. I am tempted to curse the hour I first saw it; congratulations on its achievement are bitterness and ashes and that which I hoped would yield pleasure produces alone the severest pain, it is a sermon I can never forget.’

The graves of Whymper’s Matterhorn climbing party now lie side by side in the cemetery of Zermatt’s English Church. The young ages of the people commemorated on the surrounding gravestones are a reminder that, despite the advances in mountaineering knowledge and technology in the intervening years, the Alps remain a dangerous terrain. One reads: ‘In memory of David Robinson of Wakefield and Bangor, North Wales, whose untimely death at the age of 24 years occurred while descending the Hornli Ridge having climbed the north face of the Matterhorn on December 28th 1976.’ Another, decorated with an ice pick and the declaration ‘I chose to climb’, commemorates the short life of Donald Stephen William of New York City, who died aged 17 on Breithorn.

Fortunately, the climbers undertaking the Alpine Club’s 150th anniversary ascent of the Breithorn make it back down in time to attend a celebration in the main square in Zermatt. Back in the Golden Age of Mountaineering, leading Alpine Club climber Sir Leslie Stephen attributed the success of the British pioneers to a combination of ‘the skill and courage of Swiss guides and the ambition of their employees’. The anniversary event seeks to underline the contributions made by both countries to the evolution of Alpine mountaineering. In front of some 300 Alpine Club members, Venables and representatives from Switzerland Tourism unveil of bronze statue of a climber with the inscription: ‘Marking 150 years of friendship between Zermatt and the pioneers of Alpinism.’

The Alpine Club is hoping to regain some of the past attitudes of heroism and chivalry in its new Spirit of Mountaineering Commendation. Prompted by several high-profile incidents where climbers have ignored others who were sick, injured or dying in self-centred bids for ‘summit glory’, and championed by double-amputee and high-altitude climber Norman Croucher, the commendation aims to recognise unselfish acts undertaken in extreme situations in the mountains. The hope is that new generations of climbers will go on to gain pleasure and inspiration from the Alps, just as climbers have done for a century and a half, while appreciating that preventing a human tragedy is a far greater achievement than standing on the summit of any mountain. 

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The evolution of Alpine mountaineering

Pre-1800 Mountains are mostly considered places of horror inhabited by demons and dragons. Nonetheless, crystal gatherer Jacques Balmat and doctor Michel Paccard climb Mont Blanc in 1786 for a two-guinea reward offered by Geneva scientist Horace Bénédict de Saussare

1800–1850s Scientists and artists begin making forays to the Alps. Professor Louis Agassiz hones his theory of ice ages by studying the glacial landscapes; a visit by William Wordsworth in 1820 yields 38 poems

1854–1865 Alfred Wills’ ascent of the Wetterhorn in 1854 marks the start of the Golden Age of Mountaineering, during which many first ascents are made of major Alpine peaks. After the Alpine Club is founded in 1857, mountaineering flourishes as a sport. Of the twenty-eight 4,000-metre peaks surrounding Zermatt, 19 are climbed for the first time during this period, primarily by wealthy British gents. This Golden Age is considered to end with Edward Whymper’s ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865

1866–1882 Known as the Silver Age of Mountaineering in the Alps, this period culminated in the ascent of Dent du Géant, the last great Alpine peak to be named and well known before being climbed. With the Alpine mountains exhausted, climbers start exploring the Greater Ranges of the Caucasus, Pyrenees, Rockies and Andes. It will be some time before the Himalaya entice climbers to their peaks

2001 A team of British and Swiss climbers complete an expedition in the Swiss Alps, dressed in 19th-century mountaineering garb. The trek across the Aletsch and Jungfrau regions includes ascents of 4,000-metre peaks, following as closely as possible some of the routes of early pioneers

2007 Some 300 people gather in Zermatt, Switzerland, to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the formation of the Alpine Club. Switzerland Tourism places an advertisement in the Daily Telegraph that reads: ‘A big thank-you to the British for introducing us to climbing 150 years ago’

December 2007