A little low practice on the peaks

How the English Made the Alps by Jim Ring John Murray, (£19.99, 287pp) Killing Dragons: the conquest of the Alps by Fergus Fleming (Granta, £20, 398pp)
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For most people "the Alps" are an image of ice-white teeth rearing stupendously against the sky. An alp with a small "a", the original core of the word, is a steeply sloping meadow in the mountains. I have walked or driven past many of these on the way to climbing the fantastical (Jim Ring's word) limestone towers of the Dolomites, where families were raking hay on slopes dotted with heavy-timbered barns like arks.

For most people "the Alps" are an image of ice-white teeth rearing stupendously against the sky. An alp with a small "a", the original core of the word, is a steeply sloping meadow in the mountains. I have walked or driven past many of these on the way to climbing the fantastical (Jim Ring's word) limestone towers of the Dolomites, where families were raking hay on slopes dotted with heavy-timbered barns like arks.

The Alps show their tectonic origins beautifully as you fly across eastern France and western Switzerland on the way to Italy - a sea of rock thrust up as the Earth's crust buckled. Snowfields drape their eastern sides, bleached herbage tries to grow on their western slopes, and the huge culminating massif of Mont Blanc merges its linen whites with those of the clouds.

So the Alps were made by the Earth, not by "the English". Of course, Jim Ring is putting a very modern pair of inverted commas round the Alps, to mean "the mountains as mediated by our perceptions of them"; and another pair round "made" to mean "turned into a cultural commodity". What the first modern (ie 18th-century) travellers from France, Italy, Switzerland and Britain found among these highest lands in Europe was a dream-like wilderness of pinnacles, glaciers and cliffs, seamed by valleys which peasants inhabited with their flocks. These farmers lived on milk and months-old bread, and made cheese for distant markets. In their houses, and in some of the inns, living room was shared with the animals.

The wine was bitter, the mutton stank, the straw beds were rife with fleas. In remote valleys people were plagued with goitre and cretinism because of an iodine deficiency. When the first women climbers omitted to put skirts on over their breeches on returning to the villages at night, they were stoned. The super-civilised Alpine Club was little better: an early woman climbing writer had to publish in its journal under a male pen-name and gentleman climbers cut the ladies dead in the streets of Zermatt.

So the climbers came, professional guides and men of private means, scientists and academics, doctors and priests and lawyers, carrying barometers, thermometers and crates of wine (on porters' backs) to the highest summits and over storm-blown passes. By 1815, the tracks round Chamonix were so crowded that tourists were advised to avoid peak hours.

The inns and roads and bridges improved. Railways were built up extraordinary gradients and through the roots of the mountains - the St Gotthard tunnel runs 6,000 feet below the ridge. The "white leprosy" (Ruskin's phrase) of the hotels transformed peasant villages into international resorts. Today there are 2,000 cable-cars and ski-lifts in Austria alone (25 in 1939), Zermatt has beds for 17,000 visitors, St Anton 300 ski instructors. In the Alps as a whole there are 600 resorts and 41,000 ski runs, able to handle 1.5 million visitors an hour.

These two books overlap at many points and quote many of the same passages. Yet their styles are very different. Fergus Fleming is in essence a journalist, with an eye for a good story, an appalling scandal or disaster, a savoury fact or intriguing character. Jim Ring is a sober historian. If railways are the topic, or the growth of skiing or the high- altitude cure for tuberculosis, he marshalls the facts in a couple of concise pages. Quite often he lists the successful ascents of a decade, naming the mountains and specifying their heights with next to no evocation of the terrain - although he has frequented it himself.

Ring is good on the layout of the many valley and glacier systems, and if someone is climbing something by the south-east ridge or the north-west spur, we know where we are. The same thing in Killing Dragons is liable to turn into an icy welter. Fleming is more vivid than Ring, and has more space, so that some of the famous horrors, the death-fall of Whymper's party on the Matterhorn in 1865 and the frozen agony of Toni Kurtz on the Eiger in 1936, are re-told in a graphic close-up that makes you sweat, whereas the same episode in How the English Made the Alps leaves you sitting quite comfortably in your chair.

So two different overviews of the Alpine history are being offered. After reading Fleming I was dismayed, as much as anything, at the physical suffering, the desperation, and the bad blood that plagued so many people as they took part in what was supposed to be either a high-minded quest or an exhilarating pastime. I am happiest among the high lands myself, and find low lands a come-down with their sticky earths and sluggish waters. The trouble with the extreme high ground is that it is almost too much for human nature.

Edward Whymper, first person to climb the Matterhorn, was a man of extraordinary grit and purpose, a brilliant way-finder, a most incisive writer, and a draughtsman so good that his drawings leave you with no pressing need for photographs. When he got back to base after a 200-foot fall on the Matterhorn and a 4,800-foot down-climb in pitch darkness, he "slunk past the first cow sheds, utterly ashamed of the state to which I had been brought by my imbecility", and was then treated by having vinegar and salt rubbed into his many head-wounds. When his great rival in the "race" for the Matterhorn, John Tyndall, just failed to climb it, Whymper venomously disputed the exact high-point Tyndall had reached and Tyndall responded by virtually accusing Whymper of lying about who said what to whom when the climbing parties were organised.

When Whymper reached the summit in 1865 and saw a rival Italian party far below, he and his mates trundled rocks down the mountainside: "The Italians turned and fled". Then came the famous fall, which killed four of Whymper's party. When three of the dead were found, the guide among them, Michel Croz, "was missing the top half of his head and was identified only by his beard and by a rosary cross which the Revd Robertson dug out of his jaw with a penknife".

Is this really the activity which was supposed to do so much for the inner self? Leslie Stephen, excellent scholar-critic and Alpine pioneer, wrote that that "If I were to invent a new idolatry... I should prostrate myself, not before a beast, or ocean, or sun, but before one of those gigantic masses to which, in spite of all reason, it is impossible not to attribute some shadowy personality. Their voice... speaks in tones at once more tender and more awe- inspiring than any mortal teacher. The loftiest and sweetest strains of Milton or Wordsworth may be more articulate but do not lay so forcible a grasp upon my imagination." I almost endorse that, although "personality" is rather fanciful. The fact remains that grappling with the ice, the often rotten rock, and the violent weather of the highest ranges, and handling the fierce egoism of the people competing to get up them, makes a record at least as ugly as it is inspiring.

In stressing the murky underside of the Alpine sub-culture, Fleming is more or less at one with the best-known of recent mountain-writers, Joe Simpson, whose books are fraught with the pain and guilt which extreme mountaineering engenders. This is a partial view. Allowance must be made for Fleming's journo-cynicism and a sometimes snide style. On the romantic poets' tendency to marvel at the Alps from afar, he writes "Swimming across the Hellespont, as club-footed Byron did in 1810, was fine; succumbing to consumption in Rome (Keats, 1812) was highly fashionable; being burned on a funeral pyre on the shore at Viareggio (Shelley, 1822) was even better". Ring has no such tendency to relish the more unworthy or ambiguous strains in human behaviour, so it is convenient that we can make an amalgam of these two books in our attempts to plumb one of the most thought- provoking aspects of modern European culture.

David Craig's 'Native Stones: a book about climbing' is published by Pimlico