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Archive for the ‘Mountaineering’ Category

Enchanting Alpine Flowers, Alfred Pohler, trans. Jacqueline Schweighofer

If the author’s name had been removed you might guess from the title alone that this is a translation. If so, the “PROTECTED!” that punctuates the text would tell you the original language. And yes, Enchanting Alpine Flowers was originally called Zauberhafte Alpenblumen, or “Bewitching Alp-Blooms”. But being shouted at in a book about flowers that are often very delicate isn’t so odd. The flowers themselves are generally photographed against mountain and snow, rather like a young soprano singing sweetly at the front of a stage while a group of basses rumbles away at the back. That kind of photography is sometimes necessary to properly justify the inclusion of a flower, because many of them aren’t unique to the Alps or to mountainous regions. Some of the most beautiful are, though, like Cortusa matthioli, or Alpine bells, a member of the primrose family whose five red petals droop like bells or fairy caps at the top of long, slender stalks.

Aconitum lamarckii

Aconitum lamarckii, Lamarck’s Wolfsbane


It’s found only in the Alps, while the strange yellow Aconitum lamarckii, or Lamarck’s Wolfsbane, extends to the Appenines, Pyrenees and Jura, and isn’t just “PROTECTED!” but “POISONOUS!” too. Neither of those shows any obvious adaptations to cold and altitude, but Leontopodium alpinum, the famous Edelweiss (its scientific name means “Alpine lion’s-little-foot” and its common name “precious-white”), is really a woolly daisy, while the five-petalled, yellow-eyed white flowers of Androsace helvetica, or the Swiss rock-jasmine, are on very short stalks and curve back against the densely packed leaves, as though the plant is hugging itself against the cold.

That is exactly what it’s doing: evolution becomes most obvious under extreme conditions and mountain flowers are often interesting not just for their beauty but for their biology too. The text that fills half of each double-page is short but full of scientific detail and precision, affording another contrast to the richness and delicacy of the photographs standing opposite. Enchanting Alpine Flowers is indeed enchanting.

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Extreme Eiger by Peter and Leni GillmanExtreme Eiger: The Race to Climb the Direct Route up the North Face of the Eiger, Peter and Leni Gillman, with Jochen Hemmleb (Simon & Schuster 2015)

A book that’s easy to read about a climb that’s hard to imagine: the north face of the Eiger by the direttissima, the most direct route. That first attempt in 1966 was like taking the Ogre by his throat and daring him to bite. For John Harlin, the “blond Greek god” who led the English-speaking half of the climb, the dare didn’t come off. He died when a rope snapped and he fell hundreds of feet to his death.

For the other climbers, the tragedy either strengthened or shattered their resolve. Harlin’s team had consisted of Layton Kor, a fellow American, and the Scot Dougal Haston. Kor abandoned the climb; Haston joined forces with the larger German team also making the attempt. He made it to the top, but he too could easily have died. In mountaineering, skill is no guarantee of survival. Nothing is a guarantee: you need luck when you pit yourself against stone, snow and ice. Haston’s luck ran out in 1977, when he was killed by an avalanche while skiing.

He was only thirty-six, but he had taken a lot out of his time on earth. When you risk your life, you experience it more intensely. On level ground, fetching a portable stove that’s a hundred metres off isn’t a memorable event. Half-way up a mountain, it can be very memorable:

Their trials were not over. So far they had brought over two rucksacks, which meant that two were at the far end of the 100-metre traverse. The missing equipment included their stove. Neither [Chris] Bonington nor Kor appeared keen to fetch it. Bonington pointed out that he was there to take photographs; Kor said his feet were cold and he was worried about frostbite. Without saying a word, Haston departed into the snowstorm with the one functioning head torch. (ch. 10, “Parallel Lines”, pg. 202)

Next comes one of the moments that will make you hold your breath: Haston “lost his footing and slid on his back towards the drop above the second icefield, only too aware how insecure the rope anchors were.” The ropes held and he made it back with the stove:

He had been gone for more than an hour and his colleagues’ relief was clear when he arrived. He later described the traverse as the wildest he had ever done, all the more memorable for taking place on the North Face of the Eiger in darkness and a storm. ‘As an experience it was total.’ (Ibid.)

If Chris Bonington declined to take a risk over a stove, he took big risks elsewhere. He was indeed only there to take photographs, but he ended up leading part of the climb when Kor, expert on rock but inexperienced with ice, was defeated by an icy gully leading to the top of the Central Pillar. Bonington took over, made good progress and then got worried: the “veneer of ice” became “ever thinner” and he “imagined it shearing away, most likely carrying both him and Kor to the bottom of the face” (ch. 12, “The Turning Point”, pg. 232). His judgment in 2014 was: “It is the hairiest thing I have ever done.” (pg. 233)

Peter Gilman covered the climb in 1966 for the Daily Telegraph, but has re-interviewed the surviving members of both teams for this re-assessment of one of the most famous stories in mountaineering. Harlin is still a controversial figure. “Complex” is one way of summing him up. He was a poseur and fantasist, but he could inspire love, loyalty and respect too. Not in Don Whillans, though. The Mancunian maestro thought Harlin was a bullshitter.

Whillans also had a complex personality. Alcoholics often do. He doesn’t play much part in this book, but as one of the great figures of post-war mountaineering it’s appropriate that he appears. The war itself has an important part, because it was one of the obstacles that the German team had to overcome. Men like Peter Haag, Jörg Lehne and Günther Strobel were too young to have fought in the war, but they all experienced the poverty that followed Germany’s defeat. Mountaineering was not the cheapest or safest sport and by the time they set out to challenge the Eiger they had all proved their dedication and determination.

And while they were the bigger team, they also had the poorer equipment. Not that anyone in 1966 had good equipment by today’s standards: “The climbing equipment historians Mike Parsons and Mary Rose offered a startling metaphor for the comparison between the two eras: it was as if the 1966 climbers were in a ‘bare-knuckle fight’.” (ch. 8, “The Opposition Has Started”, pg. 154) Clothing got wet and didn’t dry; ice axes and boots were primitive; ropes frayed and broke. The direttissima still isn’t easy, but it was a lot harder in 1966.

There was also the psychological barrier: it had never been done before. Harlin hadn’t expected competition, but his own smaller team might not have succeeded without German help, even if he had survived. But “German” isn’t the most exact word. Apart from Lehne, Haag and Co were from the distinct region of Swabia, whose inhabitants were typecast by the rest of Germany as “penny-pinching Scrooges who needed to get a life”. In response:

They are given to a self-deprecating humour that mocks the stereotypes, referring to Swabian intelligence, Swabian humour and Swabian workmanship. They delight in confusing non-Swabians with the formulation ‘Janoi’, which means ‘yes’ and ‘no’ at the same time. In 2009 the world ‘Muggeseggele’ was chosen by a group of Stuttgart newspaper readers as the most beautiful Swabian word. It denotes a tiny unit of measurement and means, literally, the scrotum of a male housefly. (ch. 7, “The Unknowns”, pg. 123)

There is much more than mountaineering in this book: it’s about a confrontation not just between men and mountain, but between different cultures, nationalities and personalities. And it follows the climbers not just up the Eiger, but into the rest of their lives, which were sometimes cut short. Like bikers and drug-addicts, mountaineers tend to know a lot of people who died young.

Haston died young and so did some of the German team, pursuing the same thing: adventure in high places. The Nordwand – “north wall” – of the Eiger has been the scene of some of the greatest adventures of all and has claimed more than its share of young lives. As the Gillmans explain, Eiger doesn’t really mean “Ogre” in German (pg. 20), but the urban legend is easy to understand. The Eiger can fling you or freeze you to death. It never sleeps and never gives up and the Mordwand – “murder wall” – was still trying to kill Dougal Haston during the last few metres of the climb:

Below him, Hupfauer and Votteler were watching in trepidation, as aware as Haston that they had only a poor belay and one slip by Haston could kill them all. ‘He scraped his way up,’ Votteler said in 2014. ‘It was more than a masterpiece.’ (pg. 306)

By then, Haston didn’t have an “ice axe or functioning crampons”, and, to reach a rope, he had to set up on a “tension traverse” by driving an ice dagger into hard ice. As he himself put it in his book Eiger Direct, co-written with Peter Gillman, it was “Three lives on an inch of metal.”

Life itself is like climbing a mountain and we all fall off in the end. Mountaineers risk falling off sooner than most, but they play with high stakes for great rewards. This is a book about extraordinary men, extraordinary experiences and an extraordinary achievement. If you want to understand mountains and the men who challenge them, it’s an excellent place to start.

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Front cover of Dougal Haston The Philosophy of Risk by Jeff ConnorsDougal Haston: The Philosophy of Risk, Jeff Connors (Canongate Books 2002)

Shortly after Dougal Haston set off for the skiing-jaunt that would kill him, his girlfriend was struck by the impulse to catch a last glimpse of him. She hurried upstairs and looked out over the route he had taken, but she was too late — he was already out of sight. That’s how Jeff Connors starts the book and the story is so appropriate that you start to wonder whether it’s true. Reading on you’ll discover that Haston was always hurrying, always in pursuit of the peak experiences that would lift him out of mundane reality and place him where he wanted to be: up with the Nietzschean Übermenschen he had studied during his never-completed philosophy degree in his hometown of Edinburgh. In a saner world, Mick Jagger might have been the Dougal Haston of popular music; as it is, Dougal Haston was the Mick Jagger of mountaineering, idolized around the world for his joli laid looks and his Byronic aura of tragic, suffering, misunderstood genius.

But it wasn’t only his looks that were odd: he was tall and slender but so “pigeon-toed” that people sometimes wondered how he managed to walk. It’s almost as though he was some new species of human, Homo montanus, mountain man, evolved for the sheer rock and ice of high altitude. A strange contrast with Britain’s other mountaineering genius of the 1960s and ’70s, the stocky, aggressive, almost ape-like Mancunian Don Whillans, born working-class like Haston but unlike Haston determined never to let people forget it. The two of them performed one of the great feats of twentieth-century mountaineering: the first ascent of the south face of the Himalayan massif Annapurna on an expedition organized by Chris Bonington in 1970.

Haston was Whillans’ protégé then, but he later rejected his mentor, casting one of the votes that kept “The Villain” off one of Bonington’s expeditions to Everest. Whillans didn’t voice open resentment, perhaps recognizing himself that his best days were behind him. Haston’s own position as one of the world’s five or six greatest mountaineers was beginning to be challenged when he died in 1977, strangled by one of his rock-star scarves after he was buried in an avalanche while skiing. And Connors hints earlier in the book that he might always have been in the shadow of another mountaineering genius from Edinburgh, Robin Smith.

But Smith died in 1962 on an expedition to the central Asian mountain range the Pamirs at the age of only twenty-three, and his full greatness remains only a might-have-been. Connors’ implied belittling of Haston there isn’t an isolated flaw: this is often a mean-spirited book and Connors sometimes seems to follow the motto De mortuis nihil nisi malum. The Californian John Harlin, a blond “Greek god” who died in a thousand-foot fall climbing the north face of the Eiger with Haston by the direttissima — straight up — comes in for a thorough kicking when he’s literally down. But perhaps that’s the kind of thing Connors enjoys most, as an ex-rugby player. He’s much more sympathetic with the first of Haston’s two big personal tragedies. The second was his own early death, the first the manslaughter of a hiker in a drink-driving accident in Scotland.

Haston’s distaste for publicity was increased by the court case and his two months in Glasgow’s justifiably notorious Barlinnie Gaol, and he never liked to be photographed smiling afterwards. The brooding melancholy or scowls by which he became known to the newspaper-reading public increased his legend and he found it relatively easy to earn his living by mountaineering, becoming a climbing-instructor in Switzerland.

But his students were often disappointed: expecting individual tuition from him, they could easily find him “out of sight”, climbing too fast and too skilfully for mere mortals to match. His appointment as the director of the international climbing school at Leysin in Switzerland precipitated his death, when he translated his taste for mountaineering in extremis to the ski-slopes and took one risk too many. Some of those who knew him were surprised only that he died skiing and not climbing, like so many of his friends and colleagues. Even the most careful and safety-conscious mountaineer places his life in the lap of the mountain-gods every time he climbs. But without risk there is no rush. Although Connors dismisses the suggestion that Haston had a death-wish, it’s certain he had a defy-death-wish. “Genius” is an over-used term but Haston’s achievements — Eigerwand by the direttissima, south face of Annapurna, south-west face of Everest — speak for themselves and will continue to do so long into this century.

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Front cover of Himalaya edited by Philip ParkerHimalaya: The Exploration and Conquest of the Greatest Mountains on Earth, general editor Philip Parker with foreword by Peter Hillary (Conway 2013)

A book with spectacular images and spectacular stories. In the nineteenth century, early mountaineers confronted and conquered the Alps. Then they looked for new challenges. They found them in a much higher and much harder mountain-range lying to the north of India:

For thousands of years the Himalaya has captured the imaginations of explorers, writers and those who have lived among this spectacular, remote and often dangerous landscape. This is a land that demands superlatives – it is the highest mountain range in the world, one of the youngest mountain ranges in the world, home to all of the world’s independent mountains exceeding 8,000 metres (26,246 feet) above sea level, the “eight thousanders”, and some of the greatest river systems on earth. (ch. 1, “Anatomy of the Himalaya: The formation and topography of the range”, Madeleine Lewis, pg. 13)

Opposite that description is one of the spectacular images: a satellite photo showing India colliding with Eurasia to throw up the crumpled band of the world’s highest mountains. The collision has taken place over millions of years, creating a patchwork of blue ocean, green and brown lowlands, and white mountains. Himalaya means “Snow-Abode” in Sanskrit, the ancient Indic language that inspired European scholars to discover the common roots of two linguistic outliers separated by thousands of miles and thousands of years: Icelandic, spoken on a cold island in the far north, and Bengali, spoken on a warm delta in the deep south.

This book is about a parallel exploration by incoming Europeans: of geography, geology, ethnography and the limits of their own biology. Orography, or the mapping of mountains, is part of geography, but Europeans had to climb a psychological barrier before they became true orographers. For example, one of the first great explorers of Tibet was the Italian missionary Ippolito Desideri (1684-1733). For him, the Himalayan mountains were “the very picture of desolation, horror and death itself” (ch. 3, “Early Travellers and Adventurers: The Himalaya to 1815”, pg. 41). As Stewart Weaver, the author of that chapter, remarks:

It is clear that in 1715 the romantic appreciation for mountain glory had yet to take hold of the Western imagination; the Himalaya was a desolate and fearful obstacle to be crossed out of missionary necessity, perhaps, but otherwise to be strenuously avoided. (Ibid.)

Mountaineering rose in Europe as religion declined. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. Divinity retreated and humanity advanced, climbing to new heights in all kinds of ways, from science to music. Vivaldi and Mozart didn’t write music to conquer mountains by; Beethoven and Wagner did. This spirit of adventure – or hubris – was European and the older idea that climbing a mountain is sacrilege has kept Europeans off the top of a mountain even more challenging than Everest: Kangchenjunga. The British mountaineers George Band and Joe Brown could have been the first, but refrained from climbing the last few yards to the very top: the leader of their expedition had “promised the Sikkimese authorities that they would not step onto the summit out of respect for Kangchenjunga’s status as a holy mountain” (ch. 8, “The ‘Golden Age’: 1953-1960”, pg. 147).

That was in 1954. Forty-nine years earlier, in 1905, another Briton had made an attempt viâ the notorious “Yalung Glacier”. He became much better-known in other fields: mountaineering is not how Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) made his notorious name. But he confirmed his courage and daring in the Himalaya, having climbed extensively in the Alps, and fully deserves the sidebox he receives here as a “Mystic, poet, magician, pansexual and Satanist” (ch. 5, “The Opening Phase”, pg. 62). After all, he was “part of the first serious attempts on K2 and Kangchenjunga” and “identified the route that would eventually be used in the conquest of each mountain” (ibid.). “Eventually” is the operative word: Crowley and the expedition-leader Oscar Eckenstein shared an “iconoclastic contempt for the ‘stuffy’ Alpine Club”, but “once again, accomplished Alpine climbers” proved “unprepared for the scale of the Himalaya” (pg. 61).

No-one had thought to use “supplemental oxygen” in the Alps, for example, but it began to seem essential in the Himalaya: “at the top of Mount Everest there is approximately one-third of the oxygen available at sea level” (pg. 63). There were debates about the propriety of its use, just as there had been about the use of crampons and other climbing aids in the Alps. One thing was a big argument in its favour: death. People have regularly died of altitude sickness in the Himalaya. Avalanches, rock-fall, cold and disease take an even heavier toll: four men died during Eckenstein’s and Crowley’s attempt on Kangchenjunga. The great Austrian Hermann Buhl (1924-1957) died in the Himalaya too. He had solo’d Nanga Parbat and was making an attempt on “the neighbouring peak of Chogolisa” when he and his companion Kurt Diemberger were forced to retreat by a storm “when only 305 metres (1,000 feet) below the summit” (ch. 8, pg. 131). During the ascent, Buhl “fell to his death through a cornice”.

His body has never been discovered. The body of George Mallory (1886-1924), another famous Himalayan casualty, was discovered in 1999 after lying on Everest for seventy-five years. Had he reached the summit? And if he did, how did he feel? Sometimes conquest isn’t satisfying. In this chapter, another spectacular image shows a bearded mountaineer sprawling on a rock-outcrop above a sea of clouds and a near-vertical snow-slope. It’s described like this:

Bill Tilman takes a precarious rest on … Nanda Devi during his 1936 ascent of the mountain. When he and his summit partner Noel Odell reached the top, Tilman’s initial euphoria was followed by melancholy. As he later wrote, he had a “feeling of sadness that the mountain had succumbed, that the proud head of the goddess was bowed”. (ch. 6, “Himalaya Between the Wars 1919-1939”, pg. 79)

And yet Tilman was a “famously taciturn misogynist”: the psychology of mountaineers is another part of why mountaineering is so interesting. Mallory may have conquered Everest in 1926; Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay definitely did in 1953, but Hillary didn’t ask Norgay to photograph him on the summit. The only photos of the moment are of the Nepali, not the New Zealander, apparently because Hillary didn’t want any taken of himself. Quixotry or modesty aside, it was an appropriate partnership: one by one, the Himalayan peaks have been conquered by combining European psychology with Nepali physiology. The environment of Europe has created human beings who want to climb very high mountains and the environment of Nepal has created human beings who can carry supplies in thin air.

This book also covers the medicine of mountaineering: the effects on the human body of thin air and low temperatures. Nepalis are adapted to both: they’ve evolved the right kind of lungs and blood to live at high altitude. That’s why they were hired as porters by the unadapted outsiders from Europe, who were sometimes killed by the challenges they set themselves. But there’s another kind of biology in the Himalaya, and another mystery. Crowley was To Mega Therion, or “The Great Beast”. But does another great beast live in the Himalaya: the Yeti? Probably not: bears seem to explain all the stories, tracks and hair-samples.

And the chances that there’s really something mysterious there dwindle by the year: Himalayan mountaineering is increasingly crowded, increasingly bereft of solitude and glamour. Everest is becoming strewn with rubbish, for example, and the climbing challenges of the Himalaya are increasingly contrived: not first ascents, but new routes, new methods, new times of the year. Sic Transit Gloria Montis – “So Passes the Glory of the Mountain”. But this book explains that vanishing glory and opens a window on a fascinating region of the earth, describing history, humanity, geology and technology, and displaying everything from multi-coloured Tibetan script and glaring death-gods to awe-inspiring walls of sun-slanted ice-rock and Aleister Crowley outside a tent.

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Front cover of Granite and Grit by Ronald TurnbullGranite and Grit: A Walker’s Guide to the Geology of British Mountains, Ronald Turnbull (Francis Lincoln 2011)

For a small country, Britain has had a big influence on the world. Like a lot of other things, modern geology started here. There are several reasons for that and one is very simple: pioneering geologists had mountains of material to work with. According to the author, “Britain has the most varied geology of any country in the world.” This is an excellent introduction to the rocks of the realm, from gneiss in the Outer Hebrides to granite on Dartmoor. I like the way Turnbull discusses not only how rocks affect your eyes – their colour, texture and contours – but also how they affect your boots. He’s a hillwalker, not a professional geologist, so he conveys a strong sense of place and of how Britain’s landscape varies. But there’s more than geological variation here: Britain isn’t just rich in rocks and its landscape is shaped by more than physics and chemistry. This is the caption to one spectacular photo of a misty mountain:

Bwlch y Saethau, where according to legend King Arthur battled his nephew Mordred; behind, Y Lliwedd stands at the centre of a far greater act of violence, the Lower Rhyolite Tuff event. (ch. 10, “Redhot Flying Avalanches: Ignimbrites in Snowdonia”, pg. 98)

Britain’s varied mountains are named in Britain’s varied languages: Welsh, English and Gaelic give different flavours to the landscapes they describe, from Carnedd Dafydd to Eskdale, from Ingleborough to Stuc a’ Chroin, from Ardnamurchan to Mynydd Mawr. But English names split into Norse and Anglo-Saxon, which have different flavours too. Underlying all these languages is a common ancestor, just as some very different rocks have common ancestors too. Heat, compression and erosion change rocks; time, separation and mutation change languages. So Turnbull is writing about two kinds of history as he discusses different parts of Britain: geological history and linguistic history.

Linguistics dwarfs geology in complexity, but geology dwarfs linguistics in time. To understand why Britain looks the way it does, you have to go back billions of years and trace its movement over many thousands of kilometres. You also have to study seemingly exotic things like volcanoes, glaciers and tropical botany, all of which are central parts of Britain’s geology. Turnbull is a relaxed but knowledgeable guide to some big events and some big transformations and because he isn’t a professional he knows how to write for a general reader. He doesn’t just inform, he re-orientates: you won’t look at Britain in the same way:

Black pointy islands of volcanic ash rise above the sea, the water around them a froth of falling ash. The shores of the new islands get washed away by tsunamis as chunks of other islands fall into the sea. Lava slides down and then runs level, to form black land made of glass. The glassy ground crackles as it cools, and then quickly weathers to orange shards and gravel. Showers of sharp-edged volcanic rubble fall into the sea, forming seabed layers 300m deep which will eventually be the summit of Snowdon itself. (ch. 10, pp. 103-4)

Geology is like cuisine in reverse: from the cooked dish you have to work out the recipe. Landscapes that seem inert can have cataclysmic pasts, full of fire and thunder or flood and frost. There are centuries of ingenious deduction and painstaking observation behind the chatty text and attractive photos in this book, but there are still mysteries to solve. More maths will be needed, because matter obeys mathematical rules in all its transformations, whether geological or culinary. And those material transformations have immaterial parallels in linguistics and sociology, where maths is the key to understanding too. And science itself has metamorphosed and mutated. Geology is an important subject not just for its contemporary research but also for its influence on other fields. It made scientists realize the vast age of the earth. Charles Darwin used that idea to transform biology. Like the pioneering geologists, he was British. That isn’t a coincidence and it’s something else that increases the power of this book. The planet starts here. So does the universe.

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Front cover of The Swiss Alps by Kev Reynolds

The Swiss Alps, Kev Reynolds (Cicerone, World Mountain Range series, 2012)

The Matterhorn is probably the most photogenic mountain in the world. That’s why it sits on the front cover of this book, a giant fang of icy black rock biting at the blue palate of heaven. It looks fearsome and formidable, eager to kill anyone who challenges its freezing heights. But its looks are deceptive. The Swiss Alps offer much more dangerous climbs, like the Eigerwand, or north face of the Eiger:

Between August 1935 and June 1938, four separate attempts by German, Austrian and Italian climbers were made to scale the Eigerwand, resulting in no less than eight casualties. The deaths brought the mountain a savage notoriety which resulted in a decree by the Swiss government that banned all climbing on the wall. (ch. 5, sec. 8, “The Bernese Alps: Grindelwald and the Lütschental”, pg. 331-2)

The Eiger is probably the world’s third-most famous mountain, after Everest and the Matterhorn. Human beings have been gazing in awe at all three for millennia, but began trying to climb them only in the past two centuries. That’s interesting both historically and culturally. Psychologically too: it took serious courage to challenge the Eigerwand and climbers didn’t let the ban stop them trying. The first ascent was finally made by two Austrians and two Germans, who spent four days on freezing, avalanche-prone vertical rock to reach the summit on 24th July, 1938: “As Walt Unsworth says in Hold the Heights, ‘It was a breakthrough as profound as the first ascent of the Matterhorn had been or the Brenva Spur but much more wide-reaching because it became the cornerstone of all modern mountaineering.’” (pg. 332) This book is full of interesting mountain-lore and mountain-history like that, devoting more than 400 pages to almost every aspect of climbing and tramping in the Swiss Alps. That’s a lot of orology (Greek oros, mountain), but it raises an interesting question about biology (Greek bios, life). Why is climbing mountains so important to human beings? Or rather, why is it so important to white male Europeans? That group has dominated mountaineering since pioneering it in the nineteenth century.

The Englishman Edward Whymper started things with a bang in 1865, when he was the first to climb the Matterhorn. The ascent was more important psychologically than orologically: as pointed out above, the Matterhorn looks more formidable than it is. If Whymper had climbed a tougher mountain that looked easier, his feat wouldn’t have been so widely reported or been so inspiring to others. There’s a lot of mens in conquest of a mons: it’s mind over matter in a particularly spectacular and satisfying way. But that mens has had particular characteristics: it’s been overwhelmingly white, male and European. Recall that the Eigerwand was first climbed by Austrians and Germans. A year later, members of the same demonic demographic would set out on a different kind of conquest and start the Second World War. Was that a coincidence? I don’t think it was. I think there’s a connexion between war and mountaineering, because both are about power, will, and domination. Austrians, Germans, and Italians all risked death and mutilation to challenge the Eigerwand, and those races were part of the Axis during the war. So were the Japanese, another pale-skinned race with wilful and war-like traditions, and the Japanese have been important in modern mountaineering too. It’s a Faustian endeavour: climbers seek to challenge and conquer nature, to push themselves to their physical and mental limits, to win fame and glory or die in the attempt.

Even easy mountains can kill you and even the most skilful climbers can die there. You don’t just push your mind and body in climbing: you push your luck. Ropes broke a lot in the early days; rocks fall a lot nowadays:

When Whymper was here the Matterhorn still had “a cordon drawn around it, up to which one might go, but no further”. Today Zermatt [the district of the Matterhorn] is the epitome of Leslie Stephen’s Playground of Europe. And yet, despite it all, even in the height of summer it remains possible to find solitude amidst impeccable scenery, and one can still climb routes on the most popular of peaks without the fear of being bombarded by rocks dislodged by other parties above, and experience again the mystique that made the pioneers gasp in awe. Zermatt may be bursting at the seams, its slopes tunnelled through and laced with cableways, but all is not yet lost. (ch. 2, sec. 10, “The Mattertal”, pg. 157)

Rocks also fall because of “glacial recession”: the famous White Spider, an arachnoid snow-patch near the top of the Eigerwand, disappeared in “the hot summer of 2003… and the ice-fields were reduced to gravel, making it even more dangerous than normal” (pg. 332). Global warming is at work in the Alps, you see, but that may be another way white male Europeans have made their mark on the world. Mountaineering is connected, sometimes literally, to their invention of and continuing domination of science and technology, with strong support from other pale-skinned, highly intelligent groups like the Chinese and Japanese. While white males like Edward Whymper were climbing literal peaks in the nineteenth century, white males like Faraday and Darwin were climbing metaphorical ones, seeking to conquer nature through observation and reason. It’s all connected and it’s no coincidence that the first human being to set foot on the moon was a white male. After scaling the heights of the earth and plumbing the depths of the ocean, white males needed a new challenge and found it in outer space. This book isn’t a conscious celebration of the white male’s Faustian quest, but the evil-intentioned can certainly read it that way. But decent people will enjoy it too. There’s not just orology, hydrology, and climatology here: you’ll also find linguistics and Swiss history:

Valle di Bosco is shorter than its neighbour, and at 1503m its only true village, Bosco Gurin, is the highest in Ticino. Settled in the 13th century by German-speaking Walsters from the upper Rhône valley, the inhabitants today still speak a form of Schwyzerdütsch [Swiss German], rather than Italian. (ch. 3, sec. 6, “Lepontine and Adula Alps: Valle Maggia and Its Tributaries”, pg. 211)

If you write about the Swiss Alps, you also have to write about Switzerland, and Switzerland is an interesting place. One interesting thing is its demographics, which means that its genetics will be interesting too. Living among mountains has effects on the body and brain, so Swiss geography has been written into Swiss genomes, as genetics is now discovering. But it’s interesting that the Swiss didn’t pioneer climbing in the Swiss Alps. Brits did, and Britain isn’t rich in mountains. Brits had to seek them out, first in Europe, later in the Himalayas, where you can find the most dangerous climbs and the most awe-inspiring landscapes. But Switzerland can sound Himalayan too:

Rising steeply from a riot of sub-tropical vegetation, where ferns grow as high as man’s shoulder, to a headwall of granite teeth, soaring slab walls and a necklace of scree and glacial moraine, Bondasca’s reputation is assured. The “flamelike” Scioras, Pizzi Gemelli, Cengalo and Badile are compelling features in Christian Klucker’s famous “land of granite”, where several chapters of Alpine history were written: the unhappy but productive partnership in the 1890s of Klucker and the Russian Anton von Rydzewski; the inspired leadership of Riccardo Cassin on the first tragic ascent of Piz Badile’s NE face over three days in 1937; Rébuffet’s account (in Starlight and Storm) of the second ascent of the wall 11 years later; and Herman Buhl’s astonishing 4½hr solo climb of the same route in 1951 – all these have given the valley a romantic appeal, and made it a magnet not only for climbers of ambition, but for all who love wild and uncompromising landscapes. (ch. 4, sec. 3, “Bernina, Bregaglia and Albula Alps: Val Bregaglia”, pg. 261)

This book should be a magnet for anyone interested in men, minds, and mountains. It’s got an interesting text, attractive photographs, and easy-to-follow maps. And, as a further recommendation, it’s published by a small company called Cicerone based in Milnethorpe in Cumbria. Cicerone is Italian for “tourist-guide” and is derived from Cicero, the Latin orator who wrote about the Faustian feats of ancient Rome. Two millennia later, Kev Reynolds is another white male writing about further Faustian feats. There’s a satisfying symmetry there, as there is in the location of the publisher: Milnethorpe is a small place, Switzerland is a small country. There’s a satisfying a-symmetry in mountains, but their visual appeal is still mathematical. Like the clouds that float above them and the trees (and ferns) that grow on them, mountains are fractals, or shapes in which the parts reflect the whole. You don’t have to see the maths to savour books like this, but I think it helps. Maths is inseparable from mountains, whether you recognize it or not. So are white men. Vivant Alpes, vivant Albi!

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