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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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