150 years of alpinism: How Swiss and English climbers celebrate this event

150 years of alpinism: How Swiss and English climbers celebrate this event

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Activities Activities: Mountaineering

Swiss and english climber celebrate 150 years of alpinism

On the glacier

This is a funny background story written in the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung (23rd December 2007). I translated this story in parts and added some own comments as I think it´s really funny and interesting!


It happened at a Tuesday evening, the 22nd December 1857 in the dining hall of the Ashley Hotel in London´s Covent Garden: 11 men with hairy beards sat on a table, ate, drunk, discussed and from time to time you could hear the word “mountains”. They spoke about the “advancement of the mountaineers good comradeship”, about “Mountaineering and mountain research all over the world” and about better knowledge of the mountains by literature, sciences and art. Finally they raised their sherry glasses, wished a merry Christmas and set the seal on the foundation of a very Victorian institution: a club. At this evening the British Alpine Club was founded, the eldest mountain sports union of the world. It was not founded in Zermatt, Chamonix or Innsbruck but around 1000 km northwards in the topographically unspectacular flat England! And so they celebrated next to Christmas the foundation of their Alpine Club.

This curious club affiliated at that time surely only men (the first women were affiliated first in 1974), and even only men who climbed above 13.000 feet (3.960 m) which was not so easy at a time were there were no ropeways like to Aiguille du Midi, Jungfraujoch or Kleines Matterhorn! Soon they realized that this standard is too high and so they also affiliated men who wrote about the Alps or who had a special interest in the Alps.
1863 the membership roster contained 57 judges, 34 clergymen, 23 barristers, 19 freeholders and 15 university lecturers. For many of them climbing was only to raise the highest rung of a ladder in the library. From this place Mathew Arnold, one of those members, argued that every body shall see the Alps at least one time to experience what they are.

150 years of Alpine Club is a pretty anniversary. That because of this Switzerland celebrates then “150 years of alpinism” and the “invention of the alpinism” and that they point this up by press articles, broadcasts , specially created logo and special presentations overshoots the marks. The FAZ Sonntagszeitung compares this great celebration with the equalization of the invention of the wheel and the foundation of the ADAC (the German Automobile Club).
They say that this celebration disclaims the prehistory which gives rise to the Alpine Club.


The history of alpinism certainly started earlier and when we look at it we could say that the history of alpinism rather ended than started in 1857. The way which started with Petrarca on Mont Ventoux already in 1336 (epoch of pre-alpinism), continued 1785 on Mont Blanc and in the first half of the 19th century and which had as well as for England and Switzerland significant highlights, it was rather well-worn in 1857.
All this which marks alpinism also today existed still at that time: It was practised for ends in themselves, tools like crampons, ropes and climbing bars were used, accidents like the “Hamel-disaster ” at Mont Blanc in 1820 were in the medias and also the ideal climber was described by a small climbing man with the name Belsazar Hacquet.

Also the list of the captured mountains was still very long in 1857:
Triglav (1777)
Mont Velan (1779)
Mont Blanc (1786)
Rheinwaldhorn (1789)
Hochstuhl (1794)
Grossglockner and Watzmann (1800)
Hoher Göll (1801)
Ortler (1804)
Jungfrau (1811)
Finsteraarhorn (1812)
Monte Rosa and Zugspitze (1819)
Tödi (1824)
Dachstein (1832)
Wildspitze (1833)
Grossvenediger (1841)
Wettersteinhorn (1844)
Piz Bernina (1850)

Only 39 summits remained in 1857, so it is impudent to speak about the invention of the alpinism in 1857.
The meeting on this December evening in the Ashley Hotel caused something else: The mass tourism! The British declared the Alps as Europe´s playground and started so the “Golden Age of Alpinism”. From the 39 unclimbed mountains British climbers climbed 31 in imperial capture style. This climbs were mostly made with the escort of locals. The locals were happy to earn money with this curious new Alps tourists. It was so much money that they created a new business: Mountain guide.

Grand Sagne and Ecrins

Sir Leslie Stephen, one of the pioneers of the Alpine Club, traced the success in the time back to a mixture of the competence and bravery of the Swiss mountain guides and the ambition of their employers. But all started with a touristic cheating: When the British barrister Alfred Willis climbed the summit of Wetterhorn in 1854 and had a look over the glaciers and snow- and icefields of the Bernese Oberland the mountain guides congratulated him for the conquer of the 3962 m summit – and concealed that the mountain was first climbed already 10 years before. There the mountain guides realized how business works and so for many Britains the “Golden Age of Alpinism” started with this small cheat, for many Swiss began the golden age of tourism.

Also arguable was the end of this alpine period in 1865. Only one prestige summit was left – the Matterhorn, the embodiment of a mountain, steep and repellent, the mountain which seemed to be unclimbable. The English climber Edward Whymper and his partners reached the summit via the Hörnli ridge and won this last footrace against the Italian Carrel who tried to reach the summit from the Italian side. During the descent a rope ripped, 3 Englishmen and 1 mountain guide from Chamonix fell to death and with them the “Golden Age”.

Monte Rosa

But tourism advanced. So special travel guidebooks were available, ropeways were built (1854: the Semmering ropeway was the first) and more Alpine Clubs were founder: the Austrian Alpine Club in 1862, the Swiss and Italian Alpine Club 1863 and in 1869 the German Alpine Club). In 1863 the businessman Thomas Cook offered the first organized journey to Switzerland and so he gave the adequate organisational setting.

The only one who did not like this development were those explorers, adventurers, poets and painters who travelled through the Alps over 100 years and so made tourism possible.
They felt harassed by the touristic upstairs who run on the mountains while following their guides. Evelyn Waugh wrote disgusted in 1878: “The tourist is the other fellow” and Mark Twain parodied the genre of the expedition reportage: In “I climb the Riffelberg” he had a team of 198 persons including the mules respectively 205 including the cows, it was the most impressive expedition which ever started in Zermatt.

The supplies list included:
16 boxes of ham
2 barrels of flour
22 barrels of whiskey
1 barrel of sugar
1 barrel of citron
2000 cigars
1 barrel pastries
1 ton of pemmican
143 pairs of crutches
2 barrels of arnica
1 bag of dresses
27 bottles of opium tincture

25 spring mattresses
2 horsehair mattresses
Bedclothes for all
2 mosquito nets
29 tents
Scientific instruments
97 ice axes
5 boxes of dynamite
7 boxes of nitroglycerin
22 ladders of 40 feet
2 miles of rope
154 umbrellas

At the end I should not forget to say that the Riffelberg is a perspective mountain near Zermatt, which you could reach even at that time on a hiking trail easily in two hours…


Additionally to this I would like to notice that women, unfairly denied membership in the Alpine club, formed their own "Ladies Alpine Club" in 1907 (Thanks Einjnar for this information).

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Viewing: 1-12 of 12

Ivona - Jan 11, 2008 9:47 am - Voted 10/10


and nice written!
Good job My Friend!:)


schmid_th - Jan 11, 2008 10:14 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Interesting

I´m glad you like it!
Cheers, Thomas

vancouver islander

vancouver islander - Jan 11, 2008 11:22 am - Hasn't voted


Hope you've got permission from the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung for this article. Translated or not, you could be on shaky ground here. It's not clear from your piece how much is yours and how much from the FAZ.


schmid_th - Jan 11, 2008 5:49 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Copyright?

Most of the article is from the newspaper. Do you think it´s not enough to write where it is from?
I´m glad for a suggestion that everything is ok. I don´t want any trouble because of this article.


Nanuls - Jan 11, 2008 8:52 pm - Voted 10/10

Nice work

I like your article thanks for translating it. I read a book last summer called 'Killing Dragons: The Conquest of the Alps' by Fergus Flemming, it's a really well written, interesting account of the pioneers of climbing in the Alps. I highly recommend it!



schmid_th - Jan 12, 2008 5:03 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Nice work

I´m glad you like it! Thanks for your info, I´ll have a look for this book - sound good! Cheers Thomas


hiltrud.liu - Jan 12, 2008 3:47 pm - Voted 10/10

A collection...

of nice pictures. Very interesting!
Cheers, Hiltrud


schmid_th - Jan 14, 2008 3:19 am - Hasn't voted

Re: A collection...

Thanks for your kind comment! Cheers Thomas


mvs - Jan 21, 2008 6:00 am - Hasn't voted

that was funny

Great article, thanks for the translation. Mark Twain wrote some great stories about germany and the alps.


schmid_th - Jan 22, 2008 3:30 am - Hasn't voted

Re: that was funny

I´m glad you like it! Yes, Mark Twain is a good story writer! Also like him.

Ejnar Fjerdingstad

Ejnar Fjerdingstad - Jan 24, 2009 1:04 pm - Voted 10/10

Nice story,

Perhaps you should mention, that the women, unfairly denied membership in the Alpine club, formed their own "Ladies Alpine Club" in 1907. Long before that there were very active women in climbing, not only in Britain.


schmid_th - Jan 26, 2009 9:26 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Nice story,

You are right! Thanks for your information. I will add this.
Cheers Thomas

Viewing: 1-12 of 12