For millions of years, there was no such thing as mountain climbing for fun. Just how many other undiscovered sports are there out there, waiting for a little band of eccentrics to one day start doing them - in the same way as the upper-middle class Englishmen wandering into the valleys of Switzerland in the mid nineteenth century, and tying themselves onto the local chamois hunters with lengths of hempen rope?
The game might even have died away again, like, say, acrostics or squeak-piggy-squeak. It was, after all, the kind of wild romantic activity Lord Byron might have indulged in (mountaineering, that is, not squeak-piggy-squeak). Perhaps the sport gained impetus from Ruskin's strong disapproval plus Queen Victoria's suggestion of banning it.
He cuts delicate steps up the untrodden, avalanche-prone terrain of a Victorian gentleman who is expressing his emotion
But what really made the difference was Leslie Stephen's book – at least according to Geoffrey Winthrop Young, writing the Intro to the 1936 edition – along with Edward Whymper's 'Scrambles among the Alps', published in the same year of 1871. (Playground? Scrambles? It's no coincidence that both titles are trivialising it all).
The first chapters are all first ascents: the Bietschhorn, the Schreckhorn, the Zinal Rothorn. The pathological humblebragging of the English upper-middle class makes it hard to work out what's actually happening. "I found myself sliding at railway pace, on my back, over a mixture of ice and rough stones, and was much gratified on being stopped by an unusually long and pointed rock, which ran through my trousers into my thigh, ad brought me up with a jerk. My pace was rather slackened by this incident." Once you've decoded this, it's a life threatening fall and a very nasty injury. But was Leslie Stephen really so incompetent that he spent the whole time dangling on the rope and falling into crevasses?
What saves it is that the humblebragging is wittily done, the litotes and periphrases beautifully crafted – reminding us that if Stephen had managed to kill himself on the Bietschhorn, one of the people who would never have existed was his daughter, Virginia Woolf.
If Stephen had managed to kill himself on the Bietschhorn, one of the people who would never have existed was his daughter, Virginia Woolf
But what also saves it is the mountains themselves. That wonderful north ridge of the Rothorn. The ridge that when you're on it is vertical on one side and actually overhangs on the other. To be climbing that for the first time, not knowing what was over the next rock gendarme, not knowing if it was going to go...
But it gets better. Having spent three chapters expatiating – sorry, this stuff is catching. (I expect you spotted my litotes 'it's no coincidence that', two paragraphs up.) Having spent 44 pages going on about his own uselessness on both rock and ice, he relaxes a bit. And allows himself to describe the mountains around him, to cut delicate steps up the untrodden, avalanche-prone terrain of a Victorian gentleman who is expressing his emotions. About nightfall under a boulder on the glacier. The greeny blue colours in the icefall. Bits of rockface seen through stormclouds on the Bietschhorn.
Oddly, chapters 4 to 7 aren't about mountains at all, but the crossing of unlikely passes, such as the Col des Hirondelles at the east end of the Grandes Jorasses. A sport that somehow has failed to catch on in the same way as bagging the 4000-ers, a sport that's died away along with squeak-piggy-squeak. Perhaps because of the inconvenient way it brings you out a long way away, like in Italy (crossing passes I mean, not s-p-s). Or it could be because clambering up the séracs on the Eigergletscher isn't actually much fun. Also, jolly dangerous.
The Bietschhorn, the Zinal Rothorn: important moments in mountaineering. But the book's best chapter is at the end. A gentle, all-day expedition up Mont Blanc, via the Dôme du Goûter, to watch the sunset. The last sunbeam reflecting in a flash of green of Lake Geneva, 50 miles away. The great shadow cone of the mountain spreading across the whole of the alps, then touching the horizon and rising into the sky.
"He who sees only what is before his eyes sees the worst part of every view."
- Mountain Literature Classics: Annapurna by Maurice Herzog 15 Jun
- Mountain Literature Classics: the Alpine Drawings of Samivel 2 Jun
- Mountain Literature Classics: The Shining Mountain 27 May
- Mountain Literature Classics: Between a Rock and a Hard Place 5 May
- Mountain Literature Classics: 1996 Everest Disaster Trilogy 28 Mar
- Mountain Literature Classics: South by Sir Ernest Shackleton 9 Mar
- Mountain Literature Classics: Space Below my Feet by Gwen Moffat 24 Feb
- Mountain Literature Classics: Mountains with a Difference by Geoffrey Winthrop Young 26 Jan
- Mountain Literature Classics: Feeding the Rat 27 Sep, 2021
- Mountain Literature Classics: The Ridiculous Mountains by GJF Dutton 14 Sep, 2021