Life lived on a higher level

Janet Adam Smith tells Stephen Goodwin about when one packed one's ballgown for a climbing trip

James Cusick
Sunday 23 October 2011 02:16

If there were awards for the most accidentally prescient book title, Sir Leslie Stephen's paean to alpine mountaineering, The Playground of Europe, would take some beating. The polymath Stephen, father of Virginia Woolf and a president of the Alpine Club, cannot have had the faintest inkling in 1871 that a century later 100 million people would holiday in the Alps each year.

From the so-called "Golden Age" enjoyed by Stephen to the Second World War, alpinism was a sport mainly for middle-class professionals - doctors, dons and wealthier clergymen and schoolmasters. Skiing - the coddled epitome of the Alps as a playground - was virtually unknown until the 1920s. An overnight stay above the valleys in the Tarentaise, a range thousands of British skiers know only as the mountains around Tigne and Val d'Isere, would as like as not mean sleeping in a hayloft above the cattle and goats.

Yet it is not a time out of living memory. The author and journalist Janet Adam Smith remembers both sides of pre-war alpine holidays - days in the Golden Age time-warp of the Hotel Riffelalp above the Swiss resort of Zermatt and others with straw in her hair on climbing trips in the less developed French and Italian mountains. Contrasts are, after all, at the heart of mountaineering, where the life-enhancing buzz gained from success on a taxing route up rock or ice is set against the risk of death.

For her first visit to the Riffelalp, Miss Adam Smith packed a ball gown as well as her climbing boots. "In the fashion of 1929, it was short at the front and long at the back, in golden silk," she recalled when we met at her home in Holland Park, west London.

It was a family holiday, and when the narrow-gauge train stopped at St Niklaus on its way up the valley, the elderly guide Josef Imboden was there to greet her clergyman father and reminisce about climbs they had done in the 1880s. The Very Rev Sir George Adam Smith was principal of Aberdeen University and not descended from the father of free marketeers - a supposition the family is used to correcting. "My father would tell people `the great economist died a virtuous bachelor'."

The Imbodens were one of the premier guiding families. Josef had accompanied the intrepid Mrs Aubrey Le Blond, first president of the Ladies Alpine Club and a pioneer of women's climbing. But Mrs Le Blond did not flout all convention and was accompanied on routes by her lady's maid. She famously climbed the Zinalrothorn (13,365 feet) twice in one day - the second time to retrieve the skirt which propriety demanded she wear over her climbing breeches when off the mountain.

Ball gowns and peasant guides - as an image of mountaineering it could hardly be more different from the aura of Spartan self-reliance that surrounds the sport today. Nor would skiers recognise the French "resort" of Val d'Isere Miss Adam Smith reached in 1935 after a bruising crossing from a neighbouring valley. A hamlet where cackling chickens were usually more numerous than visitors, Val d'Isere had struggled to accommodate a couple of hundred skiers over its first Christmas season. Avalanches blocked the road and supplies, including beds, had to be sledge-hauled up from an equally rustic Tigne.

By then she was married to Michael Roberts, schoolmaster, poet and critic; an intellectual from a less privileged background than hers. He introduced the young lady of the Riffelalp to a kind of low-budget mountaineering familiar to alpinists and ski-tourers today. She laughs at Roberts' shock on their first meeting in the Tarentaise to find she had brought suitcases, when he planned to roam from valley to valley with a peak in between.

Over afternoon tea she recalled it all with clarity and fondness, but without any "it was better in my day" sourness. In fact, she continued rock-climbing at a respectable degree of difficulty into the 1960s and still, at the age of 91, enjoys a gentle walk in the Cevennes or the South Downs. Many of her later climbs in the Alps and North Wales were with Nea Morin, a leading proponent of "manless climbing". Morin recorded their traverse of La Meije, a 13,065-foot peak in the Dauphine, as probably the first by a British cordee feminine. But Miss Adam Smith was not conscious of climbing as a feminist issue and remembers the Meije for the classic qualities of the route - a mixture of rock, snow and ice - and the oddity of their party - "three ladies in their 50s and an 18-year-old French student". The traverse took them 15 hours.

The specialist publishing house Ernest Press has just re-printed her 1946 book Mountain Holidays. Although the innocence of the title may jar in the self-regarding world of mountain sports, the book captures the spirit of pre-war alpinism and serves as a benchmark to the changes wrought since the masses gained admission to the playground.

Mountaineering has been by no means all of Miss Adam Smith's life. After Roberts's death from leukaemia in 1948 she brought up four young children on her own while working as literary editor of the New Statesman. Her own books include a noted biography of John Buchan and Life Among the Scots.

But she remains very much a mountaineer in spirit, alert to the forcing of new routes in distant ranges and to the sport's controversies, whether over commercialism or the impact on a fragile environment. She is strongly opposed to the proposed funicular railway to the top of Cairn Gorm. "The Cairngorms should be left as nearly as possible a wilderness," she said. "Those crossings that I did [in the early 1930s] were in part to satisfy a desire to belong to the place. And you can only do that if you have to make some kind of effort."

Technology may have enabled climbers to tackle harder routes and air travel opened up ranges as distant as Patagonia, but the impulses and rewards are essentially those that inspired the Victorian pioneers. "There is the same wish to explore, to go a little further, to test oneself; the same sense of personal achievement, and pleasure in the company of one's fellow climbers and the beauty of the mountains."

Her husband Michael Roberts provided perhaps the most rigorous justification ever for the sport in a paper he read to the Alpine Club in 1939. The risk brought no material gain but was partly excused by the exhilaration and sense of clear vision, he said. "It is a demonstration that man is not wholly tied to grubbing for his food, not wholly tied by family and social loyalties; that there are states of mind and spirit that he values more highly than life itself on any lower level."

Set out like that it is a frighteningly austere code. Miss Adam Smith is certainly conscious that philosophical reflection can make mountain holidays sound "too purposeful" when really the common thread is sheer enjoyment.

`Mountain Holidays' by Janet Adam Smith is published by The Ernest Press, at pounds 12.50.

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