Morality in the Oxygen

E.S. Turner

  • How the English Made the Alps by Jim Ring
    Murray, 287 pp, £19.99, September 2000, ISBN 0 7195 5689 9
  • Killing Dragons: The Conquest of the Alps by Fergus Fleming
    Granta, 398 pp, £20.00, November 2000, ISBN 1 86207 379 1

The rope broke and down they bounced four thousand feet: the heir-presumptive to the Queensberry marquessate, a Lincolnshire clergyman, a 19-year-old Harrovian and a Chamonix guide. They were the casualties of Edward Whymper’s successful assault on the Matterhorn in 1865, lost during the descent; a tragedy supposedly honoured by nature with an enormous fog-bow, incorporating two crosses. Whymper survived with two Swiss guides, father and son. The English chaplain of Zermatt, who had hoped to take part in the climb, joined the search for the bodies. They never found Lord Francis Douglas. The chaplain decided to bury what there was of the other three in the snow and read over them the 90th Psalm, from a prayer-book found in the pocket of the dead divine, the Rev. Charles Hudson. Unsurprisingly, the Swiss authorities were displeased about corpses being committed to their snows by English clergymen – Switzerland was not yet an English colony, though beginning to look like one – and the bodies were reinterred at Zermatt. The Times, untainted by the spirit of ‘Excelsior!’, erupted over the follies of Alpinism. ‘Why is the best blood of England to waste itself in scaling hitherto inaccessible peaks?’ it demanded. No doubt such an ascent was magnificent. ‘But is it life? Is it duty? Is it common sense? Is it allowable? Is it not wrong?’ The sort of courage required of us in daily life was not to be acquired in a series of desperate adventures, by trying to emulate skylarks, apes, cats and squirrels; or, to put it another way, by trying to rival sailors, steeple-climbers, vane-cleaners, chimney-sweeps and lovers. What right had scholars and gentlemen to throw away the gift of life with its ten thousand opportunities?

A Times reader who was not prepared to mock men of nerve and guts was allowed a line or two to say that gallantry on the Matterhorn was equal to that of subalterns on a ‘forlorn hope’, or a winner of the Victoria Cross, but this hardly seemed a popular view. Dickens sided with the newspaper. He thought that scaling peaks ‘contributed about as much to the advancement of science as would a club of young gentlemen who should undertake to bestride all the weathercocks of all the cathedral spires of the United Kingdom’. Such was the strength of mid-Victorian feeling against Alpinism that, in the words of one of its devotees, ‘a sort of palsy fell on the good cause,’ and English climbers went round under a ‘dark shade’. The sense of outrage was compounded by the fact that the Matterhorn had claimed its victims from the aristocracy, the church and the public schools, rather than a group of foolhardy nonentities. Beyond doubt the blame for the disaster lay in the expedition’s hurried and careless assembly, in a near-frantic attempt to outclimb an Italian party (from the summit the Whymper team had hurled unsporting stones in the direction of their defeated rivals). The young Harrovian, a protégé of Hudson’s, should never have been in the party; it was his stumble that caused the accident. Nor was the rope all that it should have been. Its frayed end, preserved in the Zermatt museum, symbolises the frayed ends of the story.

What were English gentlemen, and all those Anglican clergymen, doing in the Alps, anyway? If the English, as the title of Jim Ring’s book claims, ‘made’ the Alps, did they not also do much to ruin them? The story of England’s ‘love affair’ with the Delectable Mountains is hardly a new one, but Ring’s book usefully, and entertainingly, analyses all the driving forces: lust for adventure, scientific curiosity, vanity, national pride, the need for spiritual uplift, the geological urge to disprove Genesis, the expansion of railways, the tourist mania, the deathly pilgrimages of the tubercular and, finally, the primitive and irresistible joys of the piste. All of which turned the Alps into a leisure park of honeycombed, hotel-capped peaks, vast car-parks shimmering above the glaciers, rock faces stuck with hooks and pegs, and everywhere a tangle of téléfériques; or, in Ring’s statistics, a region of six hundred resorts and 41,000 ski runs capable of handling one and a half million visitors an hour.

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