Wednesday 29 September 2021

Sir Leslie Stephen: Spirit Of The Age


Father and Daughter : Leslie Stephen and Virginia Woolf.

Fleetest of foot of the whole Alpine brotherhood’ Edward Whymper

This country is almost unique in the number of climbing clubs that exist throughout Britain, unlike other countries where the sport has a major presence, France, Italy, Germany etc; almost every city in the UK has its own climbing club. There are also the long established organisations which draw their membership nationally, the Scottish Mountaineering Club, the Climbers’ Club, the Fell and Rock, and the Alpine Club. The BMC has 280 clubs in membership and the Mountaineering Council of Scotland 160.

How did this come about?; it really has its origins during the Victorian era when so many organisations were formed and the world’s first mountaineering club, the Alpine Club was founded in 1857. The men (and they were all men in what was then still a most patriarch society) who were responsible were all from the upper/professional class. They were the ones who had the income and leisure time to follow what was then seen as a new sport; a new challenging activity in what they believed themselves to be the experts. It was a Golden Era for many of the peaks were still unclimbed in the Alps, and the Public’s interest was aroused by the 2000 performances over 6 years by Albert Smith in the Egyptian Hall Piccadilly, of his illustrated ascent of Mont Blanc which began in 1862, and was attended by thousands of people.

One of the earliest mountaineers to join the Alpine Club was Leslie Stephen, the year after it was formed. He was already a mountaineer, who with the Mathews’s had pioneered ascents in Austria and North Italy. He was educated at Eton and Trinity Hall Cambridge where he had also been ordained as a priest. At school he had been somewhat sickly and physically weak but at Cambridge he took up rowing and this built up his physique and he started to visit the Alps.

The first ascents which he made in the years 1858 to 1871 stand out, especially in the Valais and Oberland, and mark him out as one of the outstanding early pioneers, but he did not always win favour with his fellow alpinists, who believed in his writings he gave his guides too much praise who he credited with so much of his success. Melchior Anderegg born near Meiringen was one such, who was lauded as the ‘King of the Guides’. In 2014 a statue of Anderegg and his adventurous ‘Herren’ was unveiled in that town.

I suppose Stephens success in completing the Eiger and Jungfrau Joch’s in 1859 made his fellow Alpine Club members aware that a new force was in membership. The number of first ascents he was to make over the next decade highlighted this, Mont Blanc from St Gervais, the Schreckhorn, Zinalrothorn, Alphubel, Wildstrubel, Monte Disgrazia, Obergabelhorn, Bietschorn, Rimpfischorn, Mont Mallet, and he made many second ascents the Weisshorn, Obergabelhorn, and the Fletschorn plus many other successful climbs. He was elected Vice President of the Alpine Club 1863 to 1865 and President 1866 to 1868.

In 1862 he had a personal rejection of being a clergyman; he resigned his position at Cambridge, his fellowship depending on this. Eventually he was to publish a book on this change in belief, ‘Agnosticism and Aetheism’ confessing he had never really believed in the Christian message, swayed by his family, who were evangelicals of the Clapham sect. His father had been the Under Secretary of State for the Colonies for which public service he had been knighted. Stephen moved to London and from thereon was a journalist and editor of some renown, initially contributing to the Saturday Review and the Pall Mall Gazette. 

1865 occurred, the accident after the first ascent of the Matterhorn when four of the party were killed on the descent. Alan Lyall’s impressive book of almost 700 pages gives full details of this, especially the aftermath; the enquiry, the main figures who were involved and the media reaction. I do not think any event in mountaineering history has received such coverage, even the Monarch was reported to comment as one of those who died was distantly related. Much of the media coverage initially was anti, so much so that Whymper the sole survivor of the amateur climbers had to defend himself and write a full account of the disaster in the ‘Times’. Stephen, who was then a Vice President of the Alpine Club spoke up for the sport, and he defended the role of the senior guide who to survive was accused of either cutting the rope, or purposely using a weak one to save his own skin.

In 1871 appeared two books which had a large affect on the subsequent development of mountaineering. Edward Whymper had published ‘Scrambles amongst the Alps’ which included his many attempts to climb the Matterhorn and his eventual success, clouded by the accident on the descent, and the ‘Playground of Europe’ by Leslie Stephen both of which became instant mountaineering classics and played a part in popularising the activity. The first of these ran to five editions in little more than a decade and both books are still in print. In 1868 Stephen became editor of the Alpine Journal, and he was well suited for such a role, his knowledge of the Alpine ranges was probably unsurpassed at that time in Britain, for in 1861 he had translated from the German the best selling, in that country a book which also covered widely many of the less visited areas, ‘The Alps’ and may have led him on to make the first ascent of Monte Disgrazia? He was an early enthusiast for winter ascents, but he made it obvious that he took a very serious view of the dangers inherent in mountaineering, besides the enjoyment and challenge of the sport. Many of the early pioneers suffered serious accident or death who had become friends or rope mates with him. Most of the volumes of the Alpine Journal he edited are still available on the internet.

During the Victorian period the Alpine Club gained in numbers and influence, some of those who joined were enthusiasts for mountain scenery, and commented on this but preferred to view this rather than climb to summits; John Ruskin, Mathew Arnold and the well known publisher John Murray (Byron was one of the poets who he published) were some of these. Stephen became editor at this time of the Cornhill magazine and the writers for that organ were amongst those who were to become household names; Robert Louis Stevenson, Thomas Hardy and William Makepeace Thackeray. Stephen married one of the the latter’s daughters, known to everybody by the nick name ‘Minny’ who bore him four children, two who were to become more famous than him, but who cruelly died whilst the children were still young.

Stephen is best known now as the founding editor and contributor to the ‘Dictionary of National Biography’ of which he edited many of the volumes. This incredible academic work is still being updated and published by the Oxford University Press and is referred to almost daily, particularly in our University and Public Libraries. The original publisher was the same as the Cornhill magazine, and that explains Stephen’s involvement in the whole project? an editorship which was to lead, amongst his other works to a knighthood. At the death of his first wife, Stephen eventually married a lady, a close friend of his wife, a widower who also had four children. One can imagine the noisy atmosphere at his house in Hyde Park Gate, now a blue plaque site, with so many children growing up there. But he did employ several maids to look after this brood.

Obviously with such domestic demands and sadness at the loss of his first wife, plus editorial work, his involvement in the world of mountaineering was limited. But every Sunday along with like minded friends he took off on what became legendary long walks amongst the South Downs and further afield. His band of Ramblers became known as ‘The Tramps’ and 20 to 30 miles were often covered on their outings. In a history of walking in this country, ‘Ramble On’ by Sinclair McKay full detail of ‘The Tramps’ can be found. What is memorable about this was a list of all who took part in these walks, everyone from those who made their living by their pen to Judges and Queen’s Councils.

Stephen died in 1904 but the family’s fame was to rise, and rise for two of his daughters eclipsed his memory. His oldest Vanessa married Quentin Bell, and moved to Bloomsbury, where they were joined by Virginia who had married Leonard Woolf. And this was the beginning of what became known as the Bloomsberry set which included E.M.Forster, Lytton Strachey, John Maynard Keynes and so many other prominent figures of that time. Vanessa Bell and Virgina Woolf in their respective fields are lionised for their achievements, Vanessa in the field of art, particularly abstractions. Virginia is one of the most famous novelists worldwide, a leader of modernist fiction and an archetypal figure in the feminist movement. I was surprised to learn that now her biggest fan base is in the USA. Her father is very much caricatured in her most famous work ‘To the Lighthouse’. He is the Mr Ramsay who leads his family on an adventurous holiday to the Isle of Skye.

Leslie Stephen was very much a product of his time, when everybody had beards like the Taliban, and Victorians of his background did not worry too much about their privileged existence. But they did leave a society that was capable of change. The Alpine Club is a prime example of this, to be a member now depends on ones climbing record, not social standing. And so Sir Leslie Stephen set the sport on its path for which today’s climbing fraternity should be grateful.


Dennis Gray: 2021. 



Tuesday 7 September 2021

Olympic Dreams

It's climbing but not as we know it! Photo- Eddie Fowkes.

Citius, Altius, Fortius’

To represent a country at the Olympics is the ultimate dream of a games player and a participant in the athletic events. I am still in awe of the Czech athlete, Zatopek who won the 5000m, 10000m, and the Marathon at the Games in Helsinki in 1952. I was privileged to meet him when young and this feat stands as likely to be unrepeated. I am a supporter of the Games, but I believe the inclusion of ‘Sports Climbing’ at the recent Tokyo Olympics begs questions at least with the old timers like me.

The modern Olympics were brought about by the initiative of the French nobleman, Baron de Coubertin, and the first of these was held in Athens in 1896. Mountaineering was one of the physical activities that he envisaged should be recognised as an Olympic discipline and the members of the 1922 Everest Expedition were awarded a gold medal at the 1924 Winter Games held in Chamonix. Awards continued until the Dyhrenfurth’s in 1936 for their Himalayan explorations but were then discontinued. It is interesting to report how climbing was seen by commentators and artists to almost modern times, let us be dog in a manger about this and Ernest Hemingway could opinion there are only three sports; ‘bull fighting, flying and mountaineering......the rest are merely games’. I guess what brought him to such a view was that the sports he nominated were undertaken for keeps. The obituary section in the Alpine Journal at this time would illustrate where he was coming from?

In my own times I have to ponder on the many who so felt ‘the romance of mountaineering’ that they pushed the boat out, were caught out by a run of bad luck and they paid the ultimate price. But we survivors paid our respects and kept alive their feats and memories. One of the salient facts being there was little or no money in it, recognition such as it was, mainly was by one’s own peers. I still think of how we all, in our milieu greeted the news that Brown had climbed the Boulder on Cloggy; and he had run out 270 feet of rope in a single lead, on sight because none of his companions could follow him because of the conditions. So how come that such a committing activity can be cut down to racing up an artificial wall, on plastic holds, safe because such ‘climbing’ is done on top ropes.

At the 1972 Olympics held in Munich was the first time that ‘speed climbing’ was a demonstration sport. This by a group of climbers from Soviet Russia, wearing on their feet what appeared as galoshes to us western climbers who witnessed this, on a limestone crag outside the city. It transpired that the climbers had spent some days practising the route/s and their ascents were at speed on top ropes. All who witnessed this (including many different nationalities) thought this style of climbing was rather pointless and preferred to climb the excellent traditional routes that were on offer at this cliff. One can understand a group of climbers, moving fast up routes in a friendly, rivalry, but to make this an Olympic sport/discipline is surely bringing such an activity down to a questionable level? And yet some of the-none climbing commentators thought this was like the wacky races, and conferred on some of the participants instant recognition, and liking. 

Shauna Coxsey in competition mode.Photo- BMC

I suppose it will go well when those involved are collared by agents and sponsors. And that is a problem for those so involved, are they to declare that this really has nothing to do with ‘real’ climbing or do they milk this surprising turn of events. For the first time real amounts of money is involved, when one is apprised by UK Sport that one of the Olympic programmes of the National sports bodies was under-written by £27 millions. And any of those who might win a medal, their day to day living is being under-written, as are their coaches, medics and dieticians. It is being estimated that each gold medal is costing around £1 million and the athletes involved can if they wish it become full time professionals. Such designation leads on to sponsorships, deals with equipment firms, and large amounts of money changing hands.

A worry is how this came about without the traditional defenders of the British way of climbing not really taking an interest. Their attitude being if a group within the mountain world wish to do this, ‘let ‘em get on with it’. Without at least discussing how in the long run it might affect the activity, which as recent as the 1980’s was a new kid on the international climbing scene. We came to accepting organised competitions after months of argument and discussions at the BMC in 1988, but we were only willing to accept them as long as they were held on artificial walls and not on the natural outcrops and crags. This decision was influenced by what was happening on the natural cliffs; Ron Fawcett was despatched to competitions held in Russia and reported back that many of the routes involved in these, were chipped and manufactured and visiting CzechSlovak climbers who had taken part that year in competitions held in Arco reported that the final route of that event was similarly prepared specially for that competition.

Despite the above what finally swung the then British climbing fraternity behind supporting competitions but only on artificial walls was the attempt to hold a major competition at Malham. Those involved were leading climbers of that era, the BBC were interested in covering the event and this was in opposition to the wishes of the locals, the RSPB and the National Park. The view we came to at the BMC was this could damage climbing in the future and I was tasked to contact all concerned and use what argument we could against such an ill thought initiative? Pointing out that if it rained and conditions changed the whole competition could become unfair and farcical; to say nothing of the safety of the inevitable spectators roaming around an area like the Cove. We had to go almost to the head of the BBC to head off the interest in covering the event. Fortunately our arguments were soundly based and eventually all came round that competitions should be held in the UK only on artificial walls. Since when the growth of competition climbing and climbing walls has being impressive with over 400 noted in the last complete survey. Many run bouldering competitions in the winter, and the Leeds Wall did that when I was the Chair of its Board.

However we never expected, but it is now a fact, that some of the attendees at climbing walls never climb outside, and for their own personal reasons have no wish to do so. If I was still an active climber, selfishly I would declare ‘good on ‘em! ’ for that would mean less traffic on popular crags but frankly they do not know what they are missing, a special activity that as the web master on this site has opined is life enhancing going to the hills to refresh ones soul. Easily dismissed as romantic gibberish but it is true as those who experience such feelings bear witness.

International Competition Climbing became a fact in Leeds in 1989, this organised by the BMC and DMM the equipment firm on behalf of the then recognised body, the UIAA for such an international event. It was in Leeds because that is where I live and friends interceded for us and we managed to obtain the Queen’s Hall, which previously had staged massive rock concerts and the Rolling Stones, the Beatles and the Who had strutted, their stuff on its stage. The women’s event was won by the American, Robyn Erbesfield and the men’s by Jerry Moffat. It was very much a learning event for such a competition, and it made me think that whilst the finals were electrifying the events leading up to them were so boring that I could never believe it a spectator sport. In fact one of the sports journalists collared me after some of the preliminary rounds to declare ‘he was departing......this was like watching paint dry’. I could understand this as the majority of the participants did not get very far up the routes. It is a mystery to me that climbers can sit and watch such a competition whilst close by, for instance at Arco is excellent climbing on natural rock. But as Cyndi Lauper warned us ‘money changes everything’ and I suppose there is a vicarious pleasure in watching the winner and losers. 

Malham Cove. Venue for a proposed speed climbing competition that thankfully never got off the ground.

Finally my reaction to the Olympic climbing is ditch, the speed competition, it is a cuckoo and not only has no place in such, and in the long run it may damage the sport? None climbers will think that is how we proceed on the natural crags and outcrops and the land managers may react in ways that no one has yet experienced. The walls should be designed like crags to be more realistic, I have been lucky to climb at such in dozens of countries and have never found features as those that were a part of the Olympic bouldering competition. Dali would have been exercised by their design. I am very aware that by expressing such views that I will be the subject of criticism and gales of laughter, the wish to compete is part of the psyche in a lot of humans, and we must accept that climbing is changing and a part of mainstream sport, no longer the preserve of a band of clubbable types. But we have to point out what is worth preserving, and that the rock faces and mountains of this world we expect will always be there posing a challenge and enjoyment to those who answer their call.

Dennis Gray : 2021