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.

Before the English came, the Alps were still the home of demons and dragons, of goitre and cretinism, of inns with beds like ‘entomological vivaria’ (an English traveller’s verdict) and impossible roads requiring milord’s carriage to be taken apart and manhandled over passes. In modern terms, as Ring says, the Alps were ‘unspoilt’. The scientists of the Enlightenment and the Romantic poets have been given credit for dispelling the dread of ‘most mis-shapen’ and ‘horrid’ scenery, but it is hard to believe that, through the millennia, the spirit of curiosity, the urges of the eremitic and the imperatives of the military never drove men to explore the haunted roof of the world. In his Killing Dragons, Fergus Fleming mentions several 16th-century ascents of Pilatus, notoriously wrapped in superstitious legend. In modern times, Mont Blanc, Europe’s highest mountain, was ‘first’ climbed in 1786 by Paccard and Balmat to win a prize offered by the scientist Horace Benedict de Saussure, who made the ascent the following year, with a young Englishman, Mark Beaufoy, hard on his heels. The insouciant Beaufoy, later a militia colonel and distinguished astronomer, admitted to wearing little more than the equivalent of a pair of pyjamas. The wars with Revolutionary France discouraged Alpinism, but by Byron’s day the flow of English visitors, whether climbers or sightseers, was in his view insupportable; they were fit company for the Swiss, ‘a curst, selfish, swinish country of brutes’. Able-bodied young Englishmen now beat a pathway up Mont Blanc, which had been ‘conquered’ in 1809 by a maidservant, Marie Paradis. Like Beaufoy the young Englishmen wore silly clothes, not excluding cricket flannels and elastic-sided boots, and their irresponsible behaviour was badly received. Fleming takes up the story: ‘The class-ridden British sneered at each other. The Europeans took a more egalitarian view: all Britons were equally awful. It wasn’t so much their clothes and their accents as their manners … [They] were known as “Yes and No Tourists”, from their refusal to engage in conversation.’ In 1851 Mont Blanc suffered what Ruskin called a ‘cockney’ ascent – the expedition of the showman and Punch contributor, Albert Smith, whose supplies included sixty bottles of ordinary wine, six of Bordeaux, ten of Bourgogne, fifteen of St Jean and two of champagne. On reaching the top, Smith fell fast asleep. In cockney fashion the party hurled the empties in all directions. Back in London, Smith mounted a rousing Alpine show which packed the Egyptian Hall for several seasons, firing the imaginations of future Cook’s tourists, who would eventually be rail-borne to the Alps for two weeks’ holiday at nine pounds per head.

Albert Smith was not quite the sort of recruit sought by the high-minded Alpine Club, founded in 1857 to promote good fellowship and lend dignity and purpose to mountaineering. All too often good fellowship was conspicuously lacking. There were perennial feuds between those who climbed for the challenge, those who climbed for science and those who climbed to be nearer Him. John Tyndall, a scientist-mountaineer of high ideals, claimed to find moral and mystical edification in high places: ‘There is assuredly morality in the oxygen of the mountains, as there is immorality in the miasma of a marsh.’ His great rival, Leslie Stephen, future editor of the Dictionary of National Biography, put in a word for the morals of Fen dwellers (would he have defended the goings-on at Sodom, a thousand feet below marsh level?) but he, too, saw mountaineering as an ennobling pursuit, not to be hampered by lugging barometers and theodolites everywhere. Less abstract controversies concerned such matters as the use of pitons and the dispensability, or expendability, of guides, who not only charged too much but ate too much.

At the time of the Matterhorn disaster Stephen was in holy orders. Scores of fellow clerics had flocked to exchange their staffs for alpenstocks, eager to lift up their eyes to the hills, or like the Rev. J.F. Hardy, to sing the National Anthem atop the Lyskamm, with ‘happy thoughts of home and fatherland’. The helpful files of the Times show that the Rev. Charles Hudson, the Matterhorn casualty, had spent rigorous months hardening himself on many an Alpine climb, going everywhere at the double. After dancing parties and routs this handsome priest had been accustomed to thrust his heated limbs into a mere cloth bag under his open window, exposed to icy winds. Seemingly his parishioners at Skillington did not grudge him his long absences (what else were curates for?) and after his death they installed stained-glass windows in his honour. Stephen called him ‘as simple and noble a character as ever carried out the principles of muscular Christianity without talking its cant’. Mountaineering parsons had as much right to risk their necks as hunting parsons and were sometimes seen as the answer to complaints that the new clerical intakes were riddled with feeble and womanish ways. For a clerical Alpinist, the ideal posting was to one of the English churches which had sprung up everywhere in Switzerland – some seventy of them, in Ring’s estimate, at the century’s end.

The hotels which increasingly capped the teeth of the Alps were soon swamped by jostling, ill-tempered and clamorous humanity, as Murray’s Handbook complained, citing especially the one on the Rigi. Whereas the English had at first tended to monopolise hostelry service, demanding full-scale banquets late at night, tyrannising hosts and abusing servants, all the nations of Europe now competed. At least the imperious English had forced hoteliers to brush up on hygiene and instal water closets. Serious climbers, who regarded the Alps as ‘done’ by the 1880s, went off to prove themselves on the Himalayas. Yet Alpine tragedies continued. After three parties were spectacularly wiped out in 1884, Queen Victoria asked Gladstone whether there were not some way of discouraging Alpine foolhardiness. Gladstone demurred, feeling perhaps that an Act to prevent Englishmen from climbing mountains would over-tax the Parliamentary draftsmen. Meanwhile England’s self-exiled pulmonaires were multiplying, braced for what Fleming calls ‘a luxurious stretch on Death Row’. But didn’t Robert Louis Stevenson at Davos protest at the lack of luxury on Death Row?

Shut in a kind of damned Hotel,
Discountenanced by God and man;
The food? – Sir, you would do as well
To fill your belly full of bran.
The company? Alas the day
That I should toil with such a crew,
With devil anything to say,
Nor anyone to say it to.

So RLS took to tobogganing, alone and at night, which he found strangely exalting. His fellow sufferer, John Addington Symonds, founded the Davos Tobogganing Club, and enthusiasts at nearby St Moritz laid down what was to become the Cresta Run. By the late 1880s the Norwegian sport of skiing had reached Davos, with Colonel Napier’s Norwegian manservant gliding through town with a tray balanced on his shoulder. In the following decade the Lunn organisation sent over Etonians and Harrovians galore to block-book the winter sports hotels on behalf of the Public Schools’ Alpine Sport Club, creating the sort of exasperation that fills the modern traveller on finding that an entire city has been taken over by American lawyers. For old Alpine hands like Stephen it was becoming too much. At St Moritz he found ‘the genuine British cockney in all his terrors’, and in his hotel was a ‘genuine king’. Both kings and cockneys, he felt, were very objectionable neighbours in a hotel. Henry James thought the new breed of tourists were ‘rarely, to judge by their faces and talk, children of light to any eminent degree’. Another huge embarrassment was the female mountaineer, sometimes wearing breeches, a sight to attract a hail of stones. Up to now the role of women had been to watch the antics of their breadwinners through a telescope, with suitable gasps. Now they were striking out for themselves, leaving maids and chaperones behind and pulling on their own boots, possibly for the first time. The doughty American spinster Meta Brevoort undertook many difficult climbs with her doting teenage nephew, William Coolidge, who grew up to be a cantankerous pedant, feared by all. One woman climber married a Chamonix guide, and her two sons could hardly wait to ascend Mont Blanc, one at the age of 13, the other 11.

Strangely, neither of these books mentions what Ruskin described as ‘the sorrowfullest spectacle’ he had ever seen: Cook’s tourists queuing up to stir the Alpine echoes with cannon fire. Not content with gazing on a wild landscape, they had to listen to it, too. It was a fancy they could have indulged just as well in the English Lake District, where the small cannon at Ambleside cost under two shillings to fire. The Rev. William Gilpin, populariser of the picturesque, recommended firing not one round but a salvo of six in quick succession. ‘Such a variety of awful sounds, mixing and commixing and at the same time heard from all sides, have a wonderful effect on the mind, as if the very foundations of every rock in the lake were giving way.’ Or, as Thomas West, a fellow vandal, put it:

The dire explosion the whole concavefills
And shakes the firm foundations of the hills.

Ring mentions the firing of cannon to signal successful ascents, but not the cry of ‘God, what a glorious sight! Give it six rounds of rapid fire!’

Ruskin saw the Alps as the ‘cathedrals of the earth’ doomed to be treated by the English as ‘soaped poles in a bear garden, which you set yourselves to climb and glide down again, with shrieks of delight’. More and more the shrieks of delight came from tobogganists and skiers, who had found an exercise to beat such fads as bicycling, roller-skating and sliding down staircases on tea trays. A generation or so later, the ever growing zest for winter sports became sharpened by national rivalries. During the 1936 Olympic Games, Hitler telegraphed the captain of a German university team: ‘Deeply disappointed by the results of the Downhill race. Expect you to do better in the Slalom.’ They did worse. In the wake of the Anschluss two Germans and two Austrians scaled the horrendous north face of the Eiger. This time Hitler was well pleased and one of the climbers was given free tickets for a Northern cruise, a modest enough reward. After World War Two the English who had ‘made’ the Alps were able to enjoy a holiday there only if they could limit their spending to £25, failing which they risked jail. It was time for the innkeepers and guides to look down on the race that had once treated them with such disdain. Today, Ring says, in spite of the revival of the winter sports industry, out of fifty million visitors to the Alps every year, no more than one in twenty is English.

The feats of derring-do brought off by the pioneers of Alpinism are excellently described in Killing Dragons, but no less fascinating are the character studies of those who blended nerve and guts with sourness, choler, jealousy and general crotchetiness. Professor James Forbes fought relentlessly with Louis Agassiz and John Tyndall to ‘copyright’ his theories about the composition and speed of glaciers. He had prophesied that the bodies of guides lost in 1820 would be given up by the glacier between 38 and 40 years later, and was only a year out. Whymper, described by Stephen as the ‘Robespierre of mountaineering’, tended to climb in other lands after the Matterhorn affair, but when he died in 1911 he was waiting at Chamonix for the bodies of men lost in a Mont Blanc disaster of 1870 to surface. He had no time for weaklings, or for Swiss males who cherished their goitres in order to dodge military service. ‘Let them be formed into regiments themselves, brigaded together, and commanded by cretins. Think what esprit de corps they would have! Who could stand against them? Who could understand their tactics?’ So much for the hapless victims of iodine deficiency. For the reader uncertain what sights and behaviour to expect in a village of cretins, Fleming has an unsparing quotation from Saussure. He has quite an eye for grue, as in the account of a hospice on the St Bernard Pass in 1825. A few steps from the dining-room was a charnel house stacked with the unclaimed dead picked up on the road, and preserved for possible identification in the postures and clothes in which they perished. Some of these dried-out bodies still had their clothes after 18 years, ‘though tattered like a gibbet wardrobe’. Nor does Fleming spare us descriptions of the walking wounded punished by the Alps for their temerity: climbers with black and blue half-flayed faces exuding a sort of resin, squirting blood if they should happen to laugh or yawn, and exuding blood from all other orifices. But what was mere blood? It was rumoured that Swiss chamois-hunters climbed barefoot, first cutting their feet so that congealed blood would give a better grip. The English stopped short of that.