Friday, 20 December 2013

A little low practice on the peaks

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 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". 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.

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 Reverend 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 egotism of the people competing to get up them, makes a record at least as ugly as it is inspiring.
David Craig: An extract from an article which appeared in The Independent.Dec 30th 2000