Social climbers: Pioneers of the peaks

Next year is the 150th anniversary of the Alpine Club, the world's first organised group of mountaineers. Peter Popham goes in search of a group of English eccentrics who were ahead of their time
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The Independent Online

We have been looking up at the mountains since we came down from the trees, but it is only in the past couple of centuries that we have had the curious idea of climbing them. The idea itself is curious: deliberately going where it is dangerous to go, where there is little oxygen, no trees or flowers only scree and snow and ice and trackless waste, and the ever-present risk of sudden death. But even more curious is the fact that it was the English who, in an organised way, did it first.

Next year the Alpine Club marks its 150th anniversary, and when it was established in 1857 it was the world's only mountaineering organisation.

Yet England has no mountains, so its members had to cross the water, spend large sums and make themselves and their outlandish intentions clear to foreigners before they could get to grips with the mountains.

They did it all the same. It was in February 1857 that the idea was first floated that the Englishmen who could not get enough of mountains should band together. The benchmark of achievement was initially put at a climb above 13,000 feet. When it was realised that this would produce an unfeasibly small club, the committee was given discretion in the matter.

But they were serious climbers. Like all such clubs, it was a primitive first shot at the internet: members who climbed any new peak, or any old peak, by a new route, were to tell the club president all they knew, the details being passed on to other members by the Alpine Journal. Once a year they got together in their dinner jackets in Mayfair for a good feed and a better yack.

They rarely talked, one imagines, about why they spent such energy on the mountains, putting their parents and wives and children to such agonies of anxiety. Mountaineers have been fascinated by the technical factors, driven forward by competitiveness, consoled by comradeship - but shy about talking, except in the blandest terms, about the why and the wherefore.

One founder member who seems to have known exactly why he climbed mountains was Albert Smith. Unlike the others, he did not have a living to fall back on, being a freelance journalist who wrote for Punch and The Illustrated London News. When he set off to conquer Mont Blanc in 1851, it was the 40th ascent of the mountain.

But Smith made up for his tardiness with his flamboyance. He and two companions were accompanied by at least 16 guides and 18 porters bearing 46 fowls, 20 loaves, 91 bottles of wine and three of cognac. Smith's appearance was wasted on the snowfields: he wore high leggings tied with scarlet gaiters, tartan trousers, a worsted helmet, a green veil and blue glasses.

When he got back to London he hired the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly and - taking advice from Phineas T Barnum - laid on a series of lectures illustrating his daring exploit which ran for six years, netting him the huge sum of £17,000 - about £1.2 million today. Queen Victoria was among his guests, and the show begat the "Game of Mont Blanc" board game.

It is no surprise to learn that Smith was held in dim regard by other members. Too many guides and porters, too much wine, too much razzamatazz altogether - with filthy lucre at the rainbow's end. The chap was clearly beyond the pale.

So what about the others hauling themselves up the slopes: the 57 barristers, 34 clergymen, 19 landed peers, 15 dons, five stockbrokers and three politicians among the 281 members elected to the club between its foundation and 1863? What was in it for them?

The writer and art historian John Ruskin was one of those who looked askance at their exertions and in fact mocked them. They regarded the Alps, he sneered, "as soaped poles in a bear garden, which you set yourself to climb and slide down again, with shrieks of delight".

But then Ruskin himself got the bug, and when he wrote to his father from Chamonix in 1863, he probably put his finger on what was goading him and his fellow Victorians onward and upward. "That question of the moral effect of danger," he wrote, "is a very curious one; but this I know and find practically, that if you come to a dangerous place, and turn back from it, though it may have been perfectly right and wise to do so, still your character has suffered some slight deterioration; you are to that extent weaker, more lifeless, more effeminate, more liable to passion and error in the future; whereas if you go through with the danger, though it may have been apparently wrong and foolish to encounter it, you come out of the encounter a stronger and better man, fitter for every sort of work and trial, and nothing but danger produces this effect."

Ruskin had hit the nail on the head. He was elected to the club - more for his writing than his climbing - six years later. Climbing was crazy but it made you better. Life was becoming steadily easier and more comfortable; staying alive was less and less of a struggle, and for decades on end there wasn't even a decent war to throw yourself at. But the high peaks, these men found, made an excellent substitute.

This moral aspect, which mountaineers often hate to talk about, explains why so many religious men took to the sport. Hindu sadhus and Buddhist sages have haunted desolate Asian mountains for millennia, of course, though reaching the physical summit was never part of their programme. But when Frenchmen began assaulting the Alps in the 18th century, many were priests, and indeed the man who has been described as "perhaps the first true mountaineer" - making a series of first ascents of peaks above 11,000 feet in eastern Switzerland - was a Benedictine monk, Father Placidus à Spescha.

English divines were equally susceptible. In July 1855, in the climb that was regarded as the beginning of the golden age of mountaineering in the Alps, five Englishmen and three guides set off up Monte Rosa, at 4,634 metres the highest summit in Switzerland: four of the five were Anglican clergymen, the fifth, a banker, was a Quaker.

In June next year, members of the Alpine Club will gather at the Hotel Riffelberg beneath Mount Rosa to celebrate the anniversary. "When they gather on the terrace of the Riffelberg," writes Stephen Goodwin, the editor of the club's Alpine Journal, "they will be able to look around in the knowledge that 19 of the major peaks on the Zermatt skyline were first climbed by men who were, or would become, Alpine Club members. Of these, no less than 10 of the pioneer parties had Anglican ministers among them ..."

But if Alpinism was a sport for the pure in heart, then what was "the wickedest man in the world", Aleister Crowley, the notorious satanist, doing on the world's third highest mountain, Kanchenjunga, in 1905? (His attempt to climb it failed. One of the climbers and a number of guides who had decided to turn back were swept away in an avalanche. Crowley did not lift a finger to rescue them, confirming his diabolical reputation).

Motives were fatally mixed right from the beginning, and became much more so after the First World War, as German and Austrian and Italian climbers raced to explore the mountains in their own backyards and become national heroes.

The English, whose Alpine Club had a 20-year start on the continental ones, looked on in disgust as Johnny Foreigner transformed the clergyman's test of courage into something much more dynamic. They climbed faces that were considered impossible using pitons which they bashed into the rocks and with crampons strapped to their feet, to the disgust of the Alpine Club geriarchy. When two young Italians yomped up Capucin de la Brenva in 1928 using these technical aids, Colonel Edward Strutt, blimpish editor of the Journal, wrote: "This sort of exploit is quite beyond the pale and is a degradation of mountaineering. Any steeplejack could have done the work better and in a tenth of the time."

When Germans used pitons to climb a rock buttress in south Wales in 1936, "troops were mobilised" - according to George Band in Summit, his new book on the club's history - "the pitons removed ... and the climb done without. The pitons were then sent back with a courteous note saying that we did not want them in our cliffs."

In the longer view, Strutt was on to something: today's climbers increasingly use cunning metal wedges instead of pitons, which do not need hammering in and can be removed after use, leaving the face as it was when first encountered. But in the meantime English mountaineering stagnated. It was not until after the Second World War that a new generation of climbers, the upper-middle class heirs of the original Victorian clergymen plus an infusion of working-class talent from northern cities, brought England back into the reckoning again.

George Band is himself a central figure in that renaissance: a student at Oxford in the early 1950s, he was a keen climber but with very little experience, when a notice on his college notice board presented him with a unique opportunity: an eccentric American geologist was seeking Oxford students to help him with an experiment up in the Alpine glaciers, and offering $100 to each.

"Our big problem at the time was that exchange controls prevented us from taking more than £25 out of the country," he says "so long expeditions were out of the question." Band signed up to the American's slightly crazy experiments and collected the loot. "I stayed out for nine weeks and did 14 climbs, some of them British firsts."

Suddenly he had a brilliant mountaineering CV, and aged 23 was the youngest climber to be picked for the team that conquered Everest in 1953.

Two years later Band and a tiny Mancunian called Joe Brown achieved the climb of a lifetime when they became the first men to reach the top of Kanchenjunga, on what was supposed to be no more than a reccy.

It was the beginning of another brilliant period for British mountaineering, as a new generation of hungry, fiercely ambitious British climbers - reared on the sheer rock of Wales, Scotland and the Pennines - again seized the initiative and with famous climbs on the Matterhorn, the north face of the Eiger and many other slopes, re-establishing British prominence in the Alpine world.

Today the snow in the Alps may be in short supply, making climbs such as the Eiger's north face even more harrowing than in the past. But as Steve Goodwin points out, there is an overabundance of fresh peaks to tackle, whether in eastern Tibet, Tajikistan, Turkey or Patagonia.

Today aged 77, George Band is still taking expeditions up to base camps in the Himalayas. The Alpine Club remains lean and small, with 1,200 members - a mere minnow compared to the mass organisations on the continent. The clergymen have been replaced by the likes of Joe Brown, Sir Chris Bonington and Stephen Venables. The terrors and the trials remain.