Alpine Climbing

THOUGH Switzerland does not contain within its borders more than one-third of the Alps, and the greatest height of the Alpine range (Mount Blanc) is wholly within France, the Alps are always associated with Switzerland in the popular mind ; and with good reason, for the country is particularly and almost wholly Alpine in its character, and its national existence has been largely shaped by the mountain ranges which have given people differing from one another in racial origin, in language, and in religion a bond of unity.

The most famous mountain range of the world historically, the Alps are far from being the greatest in height, and they are by no means the oldest of the world’s mountains, though they are older probably than the Himalayas, older certainly than the parvenu peaks of the South Seas, some of which were born amid thunders and lightnings only yesterday, considering Time in geological periods. The form of a mountain range and its height give usually some surface indications of its age. New mountains, like those of the South Seas, are very sharp and jagged in their outlines. Old mountains have been usually smoothed down by erosion. The oldest mountains probably of the world, the Australian Alps, are near neighbours of the youngest, the fiery volcanoes of the Straits of Sunda.

A mountain’s first birthday is marked by a movement towards old age. As soon as it begins to live it begins to die. If it is of volcanic origin its term of life is usually short ; it comes to being suddenly with a wild upheaval of the Earth, and at once the eating rain, and the splitting frost, and the destroying wind set to work to cut away its peak and pull it down to the level of the plain again. If the mountain is of more slow creation, the result of a gradual up-wrinkling of a crease of the Earth as she readjusts her surface to the cooling of her bulk, the mountain may go on growing whilst also it goes on dying. From below inward forces are pushing it higher towards the sky. From above the rains and snows and winds are chiselling away its rocks and bearing them to the plains. In time the process of pushing up ceases ; the process of grinding down goes on remorselessly, never pausing for a moment.

So the mountains are eternal only in the figurative sense. Actually their term of existence is strictly finite. Once the Australian Alps had their tremendous peaks, and hills of unmelting ice. To-day they have been ground down to below the line of perpetual snow, and along the gentle grades of the chief peak it is possible to drive a carriage to the very summit. The European Alps are being subjected to-day to the same process of softening of outline and lowering of height.

But for many generations yet they will lift white peaks to the skies. This though it is clear that the ice area upon them is steadily dwindling. This is a result, however, not of erosion, but of a warming of the climate of Europe, indeed of the whole northern hemisphere. Some measurements in 1912 by the Swiss Alpine Club confirm the recession of the Swiss glaciers. The largest of the glaciers, ” L’Aletsch,” had retreated 10 feet, following on nearly 60 feet in 1911, and rather more than that in 1910. The Rhine Glacier had gone back 34 feet, in addition to the 70 feet lost in the previous two years. An exception to the general rule appeared at first to be furnished by the two glaciers of Grindelwald, which had increased since last year ; but the advance did not compensate for the loss of the previous year, and since 1893 the two glaciers have lost nearly a quarter of a mile. Their temporary advance is attributable solely to the inclement weather during 1912. Nearly all the smaller glaciers, out of the fifty-two surveyed by the Alpine Club, show some retreat, and the largest loss appears to be that of the Palu Glacier, near Bernina, which is losing regularly 70 feet a year.

This dwindling is not confined to Swiss glaciers. A survey of Canadian glaciers which was made five years ago shows that other glaciers in the northern hemisphere are retreating. The Victoria Glacier is doing so ; and the only slight exception appeared at that time to be the Yoho Glacier, which was retreating, but not nearly so fast as it had been in previous years. M. Charles Rabot asserts that the glaciers in Argentina are also retreating, and surmises, from data perhaps not so well established, that there has been a general retreat of glaciers during the last half of the nineteenth century throughout Spitzbergen, Iceland, Central Asia, and Alaska. He suggests that the cause is a present tendency to-wards equalisation of the earth’s temperature. Others more boldly affirm that the Swiss glaciers, as well as other great ice masses existing on the globe, are remnants of the last Ice Age, and are all doomed to disappear as the cycle works round for the full heat of the next Warm Age. But the disappearance, if it is to come, will not come quickly, and the doom of ice-climbing in Switzerland is too remote a threat to disturb the Alpinist.

To the inexpert a glacier is a glacier all the world over, but the expert knows that the glaciers of different mountains have the same variations of character as the streams of different countries. Sir Martin Conway describes Swiss Alpine glaciers as

of the medium type, lying as they do half-way between the Arctic and tropical extremes. They have not the rapid flow of the Arctic nor the dry rigidity of the tropical sort. Their walls are not silent as in the Central Andes, nor thundered over by continual avalanches like those of the upper Baltoro. They are of medium size also. In a single day almost any of them may be ascended from snout to snow-field, and descended again. To explore their remotest recesses no elaborately equipped expedition is required. Yet they are large enough to be imposing, and penetrate deep enough into the heart of the hills to isolate their votaries completely from the world of human habitation. It is to this medium quality that the Alps owe much of their charm. This, too, it is that makes them an almost perfect mountain playground. Were they but a little smaller, how much they would lose that is most precious ! Were they larger, how many persons that now can afford the cost and the strength to explore them would have to linger at their gates wistfully looking in. In area, too, they are large enough for grandeur and yet small enough for easy access. No part of them is beyond the range of a summer holiday, yet a commanding view of them is as apparently limitless as is the view from the greatest Asiatic peaks which, thus far, have been climbed. They are the only range of snow-mountains in the world thus blessed with moderation.

The Alps to-day attract geologists and meteorologists from all parts of the world, but their first earnest student was a Genevan, Horace de Saussure, whose writings about his native mountains have a charm from their style as well as from their record of exact observations. Born in 1740, he was appointed at the age of twenty-one Professor of Philosophy at Geneva University. He ascended Mount Blanc in 1760 at the age of forty-seven, and spent all his leisure before and after that date in geological exploration of the various peaks.

” The one aim,” he writes in his journals, ” of most of the travellers who call themselves naturalists is the collection of curiosities. They walk, or rather they creep about, with their eyes fixed upon the earth, picking up a specimen here and a specimen there, without any eye to a generalization. They remind me of an antiquary scratching the ground at Rome, in the midst of the Pantheon or the Coliseum, looking for fragments of coloured glass, without ever turning to look at the architecture of these magnificent edifices.”

This pioneer of geology died in 1799. There had been before him some few Alpine climbers, and there were after him some few more ; but the twentieth- century tourist to Switzerland—who is chiefly interested in the Alps as difficult mountains to climb, presenting great problems of ice and cliff traverses, seasoning the joy of difficult achievement with a pronounced spice of danger—follows a sport so modern that there are men now living who were born before the passion for Alpine climbing came to birth. Certainly the Alps were traversed of old. But strictly not for pleasure. The most accessible passes, not the most difficult peaks, were sought out ; and the burdens and terrors of the passage, not the joys of it, were uppermost in the minds of travellers. There is not extant any expression of pleasure from Hannibal, Caesar, Napoleon, Suwarow, or any other of those famous conquerors of this mountain barrier. If any references at all to the crossing of the Alps come down from past times they are of complaint. An English monk of the Middle Ages, for example, writes to his brethren of Canterbury :

Pardon me for not writing. I have been on the Mount of Jove—on the one hand looking up at the heaven of the mountains, on the other shuddering at the hell of the valleys, feeling myself so much nearer heaven that I was more sure my prayer would be heard. Lord, I said, restore me to my brethren, that I may tell them, that they come not into this place of torment. Place of torment indeed, where the marble pavement of the stony ground is ice, and you cannot set your foot safely ; where, strange to say, although it is so slippery that you cannot stand, the death (into which there is every facility to fall) is certain death. I put my hand in my scrip that I might scratch out a syllable or two to your sincerity to ! I found my ink-bottle filled with a dry mass of ice ; my fingers too refused to write, my beard was stiff with frost, and my breath congealed into a long icicle. I could not write the news I wished !

In the days, nearer to our own time, of the salons of Coppet and Ferney, no one of the distinguished writers and thinkers who visited Switzerland gave a thought to mountain-climbing as a pleasure. Indeed all seemed insensible that there was any particular charm in the mountains’ grandeur. The first of the great company of hill-climbers for pleasure, so far as I can discover, was that very typical Englishman, Mr. Albert Smith, who in 1851 climbed Mount Blanc, and devoted six years of profitable life afterwards to describing how he did it, to audiences at the Egyptian Hall, London. A nation which had already invented Arctic exploration was quick to seize upon Alpine climbing as an outlet for superfluous energy and love of danger. Mr. Albert Smith was the forerunner of a great herd of climbers from this country and—the fashion spreading, as all English fashions do, to Europe —from many other countries : though truly I suspect that the Continental mind approves at heart more thoroughly the spirit of that amusing satire, Tartarin de Tarascon sur les Alpes, than the solemn records of the Alpine Club.

Switzerland has not so far raised a national memorial to Mr. Albert Smith, nor do Swiss hotel-keepers make pilgrimages to his grave in Brompton Cemetery. But he has his monument surely in Mount Blanc, the mountain which he ” invented,” according to the sober pages of the Dictionary of National Biography. Sir Leslie Stephen, of whom it was said ” He walked from Alp to Alp like a pair of one-inch compasses over a large map,” systematised, though he had not invented, Alpine climbing. He was one of the leading spirits of the Alpine Club, which encourages, records, and organises the climbing of Alps.

So firm a hold on the British imagination has this sport of creeping over slippery ice-masses and fly-crawling along the face of precipices in pursuit of peaks, that the Swiss Alps do not give sufficient scope for their energies. Ascents of the Andes and the Himalayas are attempted. Every year quite a number of travellers cross to Canada to encounter the dangers of the Rockies and the Selkirks there. To far-off New Zealand the Alpinists go ; and I have encountered in Sydney an enthusiastic English lady who had climbed peaks in all corners of the earth and had come to Australia for the conquest of the Australian Alps. On learning of their contemptible height, and that it was possible to drive up to their very summit in a carriage, she took the first boat away, convinced that a country without dangerous mountain – climbing was utterly unworthy of any attention.

What is the chief charm of this mountain-climbing ? The joy of the scenery ? The exaltation of the keen high air ? These are factors no doubt, but not essential nor even the chief factors. The chief appeal it makes is to the joy of combat and the pride of achievement. Some of the peaks which once were difficult have now been made easy : funicular railways run to spots which were once inaccessible except to keen mountaineers. These spots the mountain-climber shuns. It is not the wish to see the dawn from this peak or the sunset from that point which spurs him on, but the sense of danger and difficulty to be overcome, the urging of his human pride to show that he can conquer the obstacles which Nature has put in his path.

The motive of the mountain-climber is one that lends itself easily to ridicule. But an fond it is the motive of human progress, the spirit which spurs man on to explore the sea, and the depths beneath the sea ; the land, and the air above the land. And perhaps there comes to the climber a keener, finer sense of the beauties of the scenery which he has come to see with so much effort and danger. So Sir Martin Conway (The Alps, A. & C. Black) insists, describing dawn on the Alps as it comes to the ” active mountaineer, keenly awake, with the blood alive within him and a day of hopes ahead.” He writes :

The night is dying. Her rich darks and whites grow pallid. Each moment a layer of darkness peels off. The sky turns blue before one knows it : the rocks grow brown : there is blue in the crevasses, and green upon the swards—all low-toned yet distinct. Faint puffs of warm air come, we know not whence, touch our faces, and are gone. The lantern has been extinguished ; we stride out more freely ; the day awakens within us also.

Now is displayed in all its magnificence the daily drama of the dawn. While the mists yet lie cold and grey in the deep valleys, they glow against the eastern horizon, where all the spectrum is slowly uprolled, more and more fiery beneath, as it tends to red, and cut off below by the jagged outline of countless peaks, looking tiny, away off there on the margin of the world. Low floating cloudlets turn to molten gold. The horizon flames along all its fretted eastern edge, a narrow band of lambent light, a smokeless crimson fire. The belt of colour grows broader ; it swamps and dyes the cloudlets crimson. Long pink streamers of soft light strike up from where the sun is presently to appear.

The great moment is at hand. All eyes rove around the view. At last some near high peak salutes the day ; its summit glowing like a live coal drawn from a furnace. Another catches the light and yet another. The glory spreads downwards, turning from pink to gold, and from gold to pure daylight, and then—lo ! the sun himself upon the horizon ! a point of blinding light, soon changing to the full round orb. The day has come, and the long shadows gather in their skirts and prepare to flee away.

Before such enthusiasm who dares to urge that the Alpine dawn may be as well seen from a point to which the railway will take you ? Or that the climber’s penalty before the dawn is night in a hut which has but elementary ventilation to counteract the fumes of lamps, stoves, and steaming clothes ? Going to the Alps, climb most certainly if you can climb. But supposing want of ability or inclination to climb, it is yet possible to enjoy most of their beauties.