Mountaineering, mountain hiking or just being in the mountains plays for many of us an important role in our lives. This website, the number of members and the innumerous contributions illustrates this very well. For approximately two centuries people have been attracted by the mountains, just like we experience this today.
However, this hasn’t always been the case. On the contrary, most time in history people stood very hostile against the mountains, and they tried to avoid them as much as possible. But, at the end of the eighteenth century this hostile image of the mountains started to change gradually. People (mostly from the upper social classes) started to look differently towards the mountains, and they even started to visit them occasionally. They visited the mountains, but they remained on a safe distance, down in the mountain valleys. Surely they didn’t climbed mountains. Only some scientists and an individual romanticist climbed this or another mountain during this period (from the end of the eighteenth century till the middle of the 1850’s). It’s therefore not possible, for this period, to speak of mountaineering as we know it today. Modern mountaineering didn’t existed yet. However, from the 1850 onwards we see the mountaineering as it stands now appearing in the Alps. But then, the question comes to mind, where did modern mountaineering come from? Who started it and why did they start climbing? That’s where this article is about. It’s about who, and specially why modern mountaineering was created. It’s an important question, as in the past people have always looked very negative towards the mountains, so why did this changed and who came up with the idea of mountaineering?
II. And then the British came...
From the 1850s onwards more and more British went to the Alps and started climbing, exploring and conquering the high mountains. Before the 1850s British only rarely visited the Alps, and when they did it was even rarer to see one of them climbing one or another mountain. But this wasn’t only the case for the British, mountaineering in general was something rare, something that was preserved to a small group of scientists who were climbing in order to explore the Alps and to do several scientific surveys on subjects like glaciology, botanica
, geology, cartography, etc. Their main characteristic was that they didn’t climb for pleasure, for sport or in a search of adventure (although these might -and surely will- have been additional reasons), but that they climbed in the name of science. Among them their were only few British, like for example John Ball or James Forbes. During this time, from the end of the 18th century until the middle of the 19th century it were mainly Swiss, Italian and a few French scientists who dominated mountaineering, with men like Gottlieb Studer, Louis Agassiz, the Meyer family, Désor, F .J. Hugi, P. Giordani, G. Gnifetti, J. N. Vincent,… The presence of these Italians can still be seen in several names of the Monte Rosa chain on the Swiss-Italian border.
But around the middle of the nineteenth century something rather strange happened in the Alps. From this time on British middle class alpinists started travelling towards the Alps. Not just for travelling, or for being in the mountains to enjoy the sublime
, but for climbing mountains. On its own this can’t really be called strange or remarkable, because during the decades before other people (scientists mainly) also climbed some mountains. That the arrival of British mountaineers surely can be called remarkable is due to their numbers and their motivation for mountaineering. First the number of British mountaineers exceeded the number of earlier climbers by far (the time before ca. the 1850s), and secondly because they didn’t only climbed for scientific purposes, but for whole other reasons.
As I have said in a previous article, from the 1850s onwards more and more British alpinists found there way to the Alps. Rather quickly and for various reasons these British climbers gained a dominant position in the Alps. This period (1850s-1860s) most climbers were British: ‘A Courmayeur, Vallée d’Aoste entre Mont Blanc et Cervin, le nom généralique d’anglais désigne tout amateur de grimpade.
In the previous article the question was posed: how could this British dominance have influenced the development of mountain guiding? Now we’re not looking at how British climbers influenced the profession of mountain guiding, but we’re going back in time and we’ll be looking at how British mountaineers succeeded in becoming so dominant in the Alps during the 1850s and 1860s and, in the first place, why they went on exploring, climbing, and in a way conquering the Alps.
Why did they ‘invent’ modern mountaineering?
III. … But why did they come?
When we will be looking at why British mountaineers went to the Alps and why they started climbing almost all the high peaks, it is important to note who is meant when talking about British mountaineers. This because these mountaineers didn’t come from all strata of the British society. When looking at the social background of these climbers it is clear that no lower or upper class members were alpinists, but that all of them were members of the middle class, more specific the upper middle class. This (upper) middle class was growing fast during the first half of the nineteenth century. Mainly thanks to the Industrial Revolutions, who made it possible for the tertiary sector or service sector to develop strongly, with the growth of a relatively new middle class as a consequence. The fact that most of the first British alpinists were from this class can easily be demonstrated when looking at the composition of the Alpine Club (founded in 1857)(appendix I). Important to say is that not all alpinists were members of the Alpine Club, and so that exceptions on this rule did occur. Nevertheless it seems clear that almost all mountaineers were upper middle class members. This remark about the social composition of the Alpine Club, and of British mountaineering in general, is important because the social background of these alpinists meant a major motivation for them to go to the Alps, scale most mountains, and, in a way, invent modern mountaineering as will be explained later.
In some other countries the same trend can be seen. Although this trend only occurred much later (1870s-1880s). ‘... La première leçon qui se dégage est le déclin précoce, ..., du groupe aristocratique. Dès la fin de 1875, la bourgeoisie a conquis la place, la “grande bourgeoisie”n’ayant qu’une part modeste…
In other countries like for example Austria and Germany this wasn’t the case. The German and Austrian alpine associations contained members with very different social backgrounds. There were middle class members, but there were lower and upper class members as well. This was possible because future members didn’t need to have done ‘besonderen Leistungen, nur reges Interesse für die Alpenwelt.
’ Everyone was able to join the DAV and OAV -there weren’t any sport or social related restrictions. Thanks to that these alpine associations could turn into a mass movement. This, however, could not be said about the Alpine Club.
It is important to stress that the Alpine club (unlike other alpine associations) was a very strict and elitist association (as it was common with most British societies). It was a very select group and becoming a member wasn’t easy at all. Certainly during the early stages of the Alpine Club becoming a member was rather difficult. Unlike other alpine associations, the Alpine Club used several rules to which a future member had to meet. Rules like ‘a candidate shall not be eligible unless he shall have ascended to the top of a mountain 13,000 feet in height.
Rules like these made it impossible for men who haven’t been climbing in the Alps, to become a member. Besides, the social background of a future member was at least evenly important as these mountaineering related rules. The importance of the social background is shown by a number of admission rules. Not only real mountaineers could be elected to join the Alpine Club, but also those who had ‘shown their devotion to the alps… whether by literary, scientific, or artistic activity
,’ and thus excluding in advance both lower and upper class members. As it was often the case in Britain with many associations: ‘Les Anglais aiment à se retrouver dans des ‘sociétés’ ou des clubs exclusifs qui regroupent des gens choisis, sur parrainage, par un comité.
This social exclusivity of the Alpine Club was, as we will see later, very important. In short, the reason for that was that ‘unlike the continental clubs, its purpose was very largely social.
The ‘invention’ of mountaineering by British mountaineers didn’t came out of nowhere. Now we will have a look at the reasons for those British to start climbing mountains in a way that was very different from the scientific and romantic oriented ‘pre-alpinism’ as it existed from the end of the eighteenth century till the middle of the nineteenth century. The early British mountaineers had different reasons to go to the Alps and start climbing almost all high alpine peaks. The first few –albeit very important- reasons have to do with the social position of the upper middle class and more specific with the exclusivity of the Alpine Club. Other reasons have to be situated within some sort of Athletic Revolution  (stressing the growing importance of sports in general), or are related to the Industrial revolution or to more personal reasons.
As it’s been said most of the first mountaineers (like Leslie Stephen, John Tyndall, F.F. Tuckett, E.S. Kennedy, the Mathews family, C. Hudson, T.W. Hinchcliff, A.W. Moore, Alfred Wills, Albert Smith, etc.) were from the upper middle class. This class was a relatively new class. In order to enlarge and to strengthen their social position it was important for them to distinguish them not only from the lower classes, but from the higher classes as well. To do so, they created a new middle class identity. Not an identity based on the identity and culture of the higher classes, like the industrials and nobility, but a whole new, active identity. This identity would appear to be the driving power behind mountaineering. Important to note is that there was a continuous interaction between mountaineering and this middle class identity. Without this identity mountaineering would have probably never been created by the British. So thanks to this identity a fertile soil was made for mountaineering to develop. On the other hand, mountaineering played a rather important role within this new identity. It was simply a perfect embodiment of this identity.
In short, this identity was mainly based on two concepts, namely Masculinity and imperialism (combined with exploring). Two concepts that can’t be seen apart from each other. The emphasis on masculinity has to be seen mainly in a way that the British wanted to ‘uphold their imagined sense of Britain's imperial power.
Imperialism was off course prominent as Great Britain had the greatest colonial empire in the world, and the middle class members wanted to keep that image and they wanted to expand it beyond their colonies. The mountains would prove to be the perfect place to bring this identity into practice. ‘Mountain climbing helped to legitimize exploration and the broader imperial expansion by transforming imperialism from an abstraction into something tangible and readily accessible to ambitious professional men.
’ The importance of exploration and imperialism can easily be demonstrated when reading through some mountain travel books from the time. Words like ‘conquering’ or ‘victory’ and ‘defeat’, and other words used to describe military feats were very common.
For example James Forbes: ‘An Alpine journey is perhaps the nearest approach to a campaign with which the ordinary civilian has a chance of meeting. He has some of the excitements, and many of the difficulties and privations of warfare, without any of its dis- gusting and dreadful features. He combats only the elements, storms only the fortresses of nature, yet he has continually in his mind the consciousness of the power by which he is surrounded, and at times overawed.
The alps made it possible for normal men to start exploring and even conquering themselves. The Alps, as terra ingocnita
, still had to be explored and conquered.: ‘Alpine travel in my day [the 1850’s] was particulary exciting because the Alps were being explored for the first time. We followed the conquest of the new peaks and passes as we now follow Shackelton at the South Pole and Nansen at the North.
’ It would be this urge for exploration that drove the British before other nations towards outer European mountain ranges at the end of the nineteenth century.
Mountaineering was based on masculinity and imperialism, and it has to be seen within the newly created middle class identity. Alpinism was a perfect embodiment of this identity. An identity used to distinguish themselves from the other social classes in Britain, and so the same can be said for mountaineering itself. Mountaineering as a way to create strong social barriers. Social barriers that were needed for the middle class to built up and to preserve their strong social position in British society. For various reasons (see later) mountaineering managed to be an almost exclusively upper middle class activity. It has to be said that mountaineering wasn’t really created with the direct purpose of distinguishing themselves from the other social classes in Britain. Many of the mountaineering pioneers started climbing because of this imperialism and masculinity, which was largely present within alpinism. Because mountaineering was preserved to the middle class –for various reasons- the indirect consequence of mountaineering was that it helped to create stronger social barriers between the middle class and the other classes. It helped the middle class (more specific the upper middle class) to built up a stronger identity, which was used for a better distinction between them and the others, and thus strengthening their social position within British society.
People didn’t climb in order to distinguish themselves from others, but they climbed because of this masculinity and imperialism, and some other reasons -which will be discussed later- and as a consequence they distinguished themselves from the others. Therefore mountaineering helped building up this middle class identity and the associated social exclusivity, which can easily be seen when looking at the social composition of the Alpine Club and it’s members policy.
As we’ve just seen, mountaineering in a way emerged as a manner for the (upper) middle class to distinguish themselves from the other social classes in Victorian Britain (although this social distinction wasn’t really the purpose of mountaineering, it was a very important consequence). However, mountaineering can also be seen in a completely different way, totally opposite to the way we’ve been looking towards mountaineering up till now. Alpinism not as a manner of creating strong social barriers, or to emphasize on differences between themselves and other classes, but simply as a manner to escape from such a strict and vigorous social system. In the Alps, British middle class mountaineers could enjoy a freedom they didn’t had in Britain. Thanks to this way out, the rigorous social system in Britain was made more liveable for (some) British middle class members. As they could occasionally escape from it, they were able to emphasize more on these social differences when they were back in Britain.
This thesis can be demonstrated by how British mountaineers mixed with the mountain guides they often hired when climbing in the Alps. These mountain guides were mainly (if not all of them) from the lower classes. Mindful of the first reasons we could expect that British alpinists would look at them similar to the way they looked and act with the british lower classes. However, this does not appear to be so. Many mountaineers saw their mountain guides as their equals, and, in short, social barriers were, in large degree, broken within the world of mountaineering.
‘One can really believe that in this way at least some of the Victorians did practise the theory that all men are born equal.
The fact that in the Alps these social barriers weren’t as present as in Britain, on the contrary, we could conclude that alpinism in a way was created as a manner to escape from the rigorous, vigorous social system in Great-Britain.
These first reasons were strictly social related reasons for many middle class members to start ‘conquering’ the Alps, and thus starting with something that would eventually lead to the modern mountaineering as we now it today. A next reason is still related to the social aspect of the life in Victorian Britain, but not as strictly as the reasons given above. This one’s about the importance of sport and leisure in Great Britain in the nineteenth century. Immediately we need to stress that the importance of sport wasn’t really a reason for some men to start climbing, but that it’s importance to mountaineering lies more in the fact that many British middle class members were very sport minded, as a part of some sort of ‘Athletic Revolution’ that occurred in the nineteenth century in Britain. Their interest in sport made it possible for something as mountaineering to emerge. The same can be said for leisure and holidays.
Apart from that the importance of sport and leisure can also be seen from a more social point of view: ‘Deux obstacles psychologiques s’opposent à la démocratisation d’un sport: il tend à se constituer des noyaux fermés, réservés à une élite, et des préjuges tenaces écartent des milieux modestes, ayant des revenues suffisants, mais craignant de ne pas être à leur aise, de ne pas être dans “leur milieu”.
’ Even though men (and women, although on a smaller scale) from all different classes in Britain did practice one or another sport, sport remained in large degree class-bound. Certainly sports like mountaineering (many mountaineers saw alpinism as a pure sport: ‘Still it is strictly a sport –as strictly as cricket, rowing, or knurr and spell- and I have no wish to place it on a different footing,
’ says Leslie Stephen.) could be class-bound as the financial possibilities and the amount of spare time played a large role for people to be able to practice this kind of sport. The possibilities of creating social barriers through sport could therefore be seen as a reason for the upper middle class to start climbing in the Alps. However, this reason didn’t played a large role for the ‘invention’ of mountaineering, on the contrary, this was more a consequence of mountaineering than a real motivation to start scaling mountains. The importance of sport and leisure had more to do with the upper middle class ideal of a mens sana in corpore sano, and alpinism offered some great opportunities to try and attain that goal.
Now at the end of this short bit of social history it’s important to resume the preceding. Modern mountaineering was in a way ‘created’ by British upper middle class members, the bourgeoisie, as a part of their active construction of an upper middle class identity, which was created to distinguish themselves from the lower as well as the upper classes, and to claim an important role in British society (in which they succeeded as they became the most important group around the middle of the nineteenth century in Britain). Within this identity imperialism and masculinity took a central place, whereas sport and leisure only played a minor role for the creation of mountaineering. Mountaineering has to be seen as something were masculinity, imperialism (exploring and conquering), leisure and sport all came perfectly together.
The next few reasons can’t be seen as reasons that have really contribute to the ‘invention’, or the beginning of modern mountaineering as the previous social related reasons have. They are more to be seen as things that made it possible for these upper middle class people to go and scale almost all high mountains in the Alps. Alpinism did already exist, it was already ‘created’, but thanks to reasons like the ones below, mountaineering could grow and develop rapidly. As they didn’t contribute as such to the birth of modern mountaineering these cases will be treated rather short.
On of the most important reasons for mountaineering to grow was the growing economical and financial power of the upper middle class. As there importance in British society grew during the 19th century their financial power grew as well. This growing financial power made it possible for many upper middle class members to spend money on sporting, leisure and holidays. At the same time the amount of spare time grew as well. So the combination of a growing financial power and an increasing amount of spare time made it possible for many of them to travel to the Alps, and in many cases to climb mountains. One of the pioneers of mountain climbing, John Ball, could serve as a perfect example: ‘...[John Ball] a gentleman of leisure, treading the familiar path from university to Bar and then devoting himself to those useful pursuits in which men of less time and less money could not indulge.
Another important reason why alpinism could develop itself from the 1850’s onwards had to do with the development en growth of transport by train. Improved railways made it possible to travel fast and comfortable to the Alps (and elsewhere). Whereas a journey from Great Britain to the Alps at the beginning of the nineteenth century took ages (ca. five days were needed to get to Switzerland), it only took about 20 hours to get there in the 1870’s. This enormous improvement made it possible to travel to the Alps for a shorter period of time, and thus a larger group of British were able to do so. Not only the speed improved rapidly, the same can be said of the cost, which diminished as fast as the speed was going up. Thanks to the growing number of travellers railway companies were able to reduce their ticket prices. Which off course made it possible for more and more people to start travelling, and for some of them to start climbing.
Furthermore there was the increasing quantity of travel books and guidebooks. These provided for many British very useful information for travelling to the Alps. Next to information ‘they could also give the push to undertake the journey.
’ Specially with mountaineering this was the case as numerous travel books, written by mountaineers, were published during the 1850’s and 1860’s. For many men reading these books could provide that final push for actually travelling towards the Alps and to climb this or another mountain. The same effect came from various shows and lectures given by mountaineers. The best known example is Albert Smith and the show he had created around his ascent of Mont Blanc in 1851 (which was in fact the only ascent he made in his life, but that hasn’t withhold him from creating his show). As long as ten years he would perform his show, attracting numerous spectators, and thus making many men enthusiastic towards mountaineering.
This was very important because most people stood very hostile against mountaineering, as for most people alpinism was something that was simply not-done, they mostly thought of alpinism as something foolish and dangerous:
‘While he was in Switzerland he found that there was amongst our fellow-countrymen an Alpine Club, the qualification for admission into which was that a man should have put his life into the greatest possible danger. Only those could belong to it who had done something enormous in mountaineering, such as hanging over the most dangerous precipices and climbing up perpendicular rocks. (Laughter.) The Working Man’s Club was of a different character, as its design was to keep its members out of every possible danger, by giving them light, warm rooms, cheerful society, and wholesome papers to read.
Many of these early alpinists were confronted with this hostility as for example Hudson and kennedy experienced after their –guideless- ascent of Mont Blanc in 1856: ‘They blame us for having risked our own lives in an entreprise without aim or purpose, and for now holding out to others any inducement to tread in our footsteps; and they jestingly intimate that we must be prepared to defend ourselves in the Criminal Court against a charge of manslaughter.
’ Shows and lectures, like for example Albert Smith his show, where very important for that reason. They needed to make mountaineering look good. The same purpose can be given to the numerous number of travel and guide books written during the ‘Golden Age of Mountaineering.’
Before the 1850’s, during the time of the so called pre-alpinism, science was one, if not the most important reason for climbing mountains. Therefore it would not be illogical to assume that science would remain an important reason for the British middle class to start climbing. Certainly because science was very important in British society, and more specific amongst the upper middle class. However, this wasn’t the case at all. Science was important within the world of mountaineering, but for almost no British mountaineer from the 1850’s onwards, science was the driving force behind their mountaineering exploits. The role of science lies elsewhere. In short, science was used to give mountaineering a socially accepted purpose. As we’ve seen, most people stood rather hostile against mountaineering, because it was simply dangerous and it had no use at all. Only mountaineering in the name of science could count on some approval, as many people thought that ‘any failure to record a multitude of facts, figures, and dates, would be a back-sliding in social and moral duty.
’ Therefore many of these early mountaineers claimed that they climbed for science, although they had actually whole other reasons for doing so. Science was more a sophism than a real reason. The fact that most of these alpinists did some scientific experiments while climbing has to been seen from such a point of view, as one of Albert Smith’s companions on his Mont Blanc ascent testifies: ‘I strongly recommend anyone who may feel ambitions of ascending Mont Blanc to consider well before he attempts an expedition which cannot be productive of any good to himself or others, and which is attended with fearful risk…
It’s there that the real importance of science lies, and not as a real reason to start climbing (although this was the case with some individual climbers like for example John Tyndall). On the other hand, there were also some mountaineers who repudiated this scientific approach, like Leslie Stephen when he said: ‘“And what philosophical observation did you make?” will be the inquiry of one of those fanatics who, by a reasoning process to me utterly inscrutable, have somehow irrevocably associated alpine travelling with science.
It would take still very long for the public opinion to change on the matter of mountaineering. Although the scientific element diminished rapidly from the late 1860’s onwards, the public opinion remained rather hostile and it would take still long time for that to change. Several serious accidents, the best known off course being the fatal accident after the first accent of the Matterhorn in 1865 by Edward Whymper, during the second half of the nineteenth century strengthened this hostile attitude, represented very well by mountaineering reports in various journals:
‘Among those who have lately taken to Alpine-climbing are, no doubt, some eminent scientific men, who have a purpose in their enterprise and skill and intellect to Carry it out. Those we can honour and applaud for the risks they run in the cause to which they are devoted. But what scientific purpose inspires three fourths of the young men who have lately taken to Alpine-climbing,…, for the mere excitement of the thing? How many are there who take it not even for excitement, but simply because it is the fashion to do it? … We cannot see that science or the mountain peaks stand in need for the fatile and perilous expeditions of untrained Londoners… Warning against danger, people say, is lost on Englishmen. But we cannot think the voice of public opinion would prove wholly ineffectual if, strengthening itself with the moral of this late appalling tragedy, it were to protest against a purposeless and senseless risk of life on the part of those who have no scientific object to pursue and, even if they had, have no trained intelligence to follow it.’
At the end of this short historical overview there’s only one last sort of reason to give. It’s the last one, although it might be the most important of them all. This one’s about the more personal reasons for people to go and climb mountains, or simply to be in the mountains. These reasons are probably the same for mountaineers back then, then they are for climbers now.
Personal motivations are probably the most important, because without these personal reasons, in spite of the importance of the middle class identity based on imperialism and masculinity, in spite of the importance of sport and leisure and other social related reasons, and in spite of the growing financial power of these men, men (and women) wouldn’t go to the Alps, and they would certainly not be climbing mountains. In short we could maybe say, ‘pour comprendre l’alpinisme, il faut comprendre l’alpiniste,
’, ‘to understand mountaineering, we need to understand the mountaineer.’
When thinking of personal reasons, motivations as religion, the sublime, adventure, science (for some men), simplicity, tranquillity, sport, comradeship, etc, etc. come to mind, but this list is actually endless, as every mountaineer, now and back then, has his own personal reasons for climbing.
Reasons like these are very personal, but, as we’ve said, non the less very important. Without reasons like these no Briton -or any other man or woman from any nation- would have gone to the Alps to scale so many mountains, to pass so many mountain passes or to cross so many glaciers or valleys. In what follows some mountaineers of the ‘Golden Age of mountaineering’ will have their say on why they went to the Alps to scale numerous mountains.
‘To see at a glance, all round the most stupendous barriers of nature, and be present, as it were, at the same moment in two different valleys, leagues apart, which belongs to different kingdoms, where different languages are spoken, and whose waters flow into different seas, such novelty of combination among familiar elements excites the imagination, and gives rise to that feeling of admiring surprise which persons possessing the smallest share of the poetic temperament have usually felt in such situations.’
‘… it may yet perhaphs be the means of inducing some reader or another to visit scenes, the memory of which may one day help him to bear cheerfully and gently the trials of life.’
‘The fact is that that which gives its inexpressible charm to mountaineering is the incessant series of exquisite natural scenes, which are for the most part enjoyed by the mountaineer alone.’
‘My Joy was in the wilderness, to breathe
The difficult air of the iced mountain’s top.
Where the birds dare not build, nor insect’s wing
Flit o’er the herbless granite.’
‘We left England early in May 1866, hoping to escape the cold winds that still lingered about our English spring, and to find the lower Alps in all their fresh beauty, never to be so keenly enjoyed as at the moment when the latest snow seemingly melts away in an hour’s sunshine, and changes, as by a magical touch, into flowers and greennes.’
‘In attempting the ascent, we were simply actuated by love of adventure, by the hope of breaking through the exclusive Chamounix system, and by the desire of making ourselves familiar with the beauty and topography of the Alpine regions. We went abroad for recreation: it was pleasure that we sought; and we gave but little thought to useful discovery. True it is, that the pleasure was of a noble and an elevating character;… Regarding, then, these mountain excursions as a temporary relief from arduous duties or indoor confinement…’
And many more…
IV. How could they succeed in dominating the Alps?
For various reasons some British upper middle class members went to the Alps and started ‘conquering’ almost all high mountains, glaciers and mountain passes. After trying to understand some of these reasons, another question comes to mind, namely how did the British managed to become the dominant force in the Alps during the ‘Golden Age of Mountaineering’, and why not some other Alpine country, like Switzerland or Austria? This is even more remarkable because England is more or less a flat country. In the first it’s remarkable that some British went to the Alps for climbing (which we tried to understand earlier on), but it’s even more surprising that they even managed to become the dominant force in the Alps, way ahead of the alpine nations.
One of the most important reasons why they succeeded in becoming so dominant was thanks to the structural weaknesses of the other alpine nations during the 1840’s till the 1860’s. Even if people from these different countries wanted to climb, they mostly didn’t had the possibilities for doing so. Almost all European nations were confronted with the Revolutions of 1848 and its consequences. Thanks to these revolutions most people were more occupied with surviving or with trying to make the best out of this situation, while these revolutions were accompanied by series of more or less profound changes in society. Therefor not many people were able to ‘waste’ money and time on traveling, let alone on climbing. This was something most alpine nations were confronted with. Apart from the revolutions of 1848, there was the Sonderbundkrieg in Switzerland in 1848, the unification and all additional problems of Germany in 1871 and Italy (the Resorgimento) in 1861. In France there was the creation, decline and fall of the Third Empire followed by the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871, while Austria-Hungary was confronted with numerous problems with nationalist movements from all corners of the empire, and this list can go on and on. It makes clear that not much nations knew a quiet and peaceful development as Great Britain, and therefore they weren’t able to pose a serious treat on this British dominance in the Alps during the 1850’s and 1860’s. Only later on the British dominance would start to decline in favour of the alpine nations (most of all France, Germany and Austria).
This might be one of the most, if not the most important reason why the British could dominate the Alps for something about twenty years around the middle of the nineteenth century. Other reasons, beside this more political one, are situated more on a social and economical level. The Industrial Revolution which began at the end of the eighteenth century in Britain, was responsible for the development and growth of a relatively new social class, the middle class. This middle class in Britain, as we’ve seen, was off course very important for the ‘invention’ of mountaineering. However on the continent, the Industrial Revolution took off only some decades later, and so this new middle class aroused equally later. Thus around the middle of the nineteenth century there wasn’t a strong (financially) and influential middle class on the continent as there was one in England, which had some consequences on mountaineering in these nations. They would only start climbing from the 1860’s-1870’s onwards, when there power (specially financially) started to rise within society. The same moment when the British dominance started to decline.
A little, albeit important, remark has to be made here. The two reasons I give here regarding why the British managed to become so dominant during their golden age of mountaineering are off course not all reasons. These two reasons are just two of much more reasons, and the image I’ve made here might therefore be a bit of a simplification of an otherwise very complex matter. But it would be go way to far to elaborate too much on this matter. Than it would seem necessary to have a look at the complete social and economical development of the different alpine nations, and more specific the role of the respective middle classes within these societies. And that would simply go to far. Therefore I have just given two –short- reasons who seems to me to be of great importance in regard to this matter.
After the Matterhorn tragedy in 1865 almost all high alpine peaks were scaled, mostly by British mountaineers with their local mountain guides. The first ascent of the Matterhorn marks the end of a mountaineering era. Gradually the influence and dominance of the British in the Alps started to diminish, and their place was taken by German, Austrian, Italian, Swiss and French mountaineers. Not only the mountaineers changed, the look of mountaineering changed as well. Whereas British mountaineers mostly tried to explore, and in a way conquer, all high mountains, this was no longer possible after almost all peaks were scaled and explored. Instead of just climbing mountains more and more mountaineers (specially the elite alpinists) started seeking other, more difficult, longer or more direct routes on mountains. A process which is still going on today. From the 1870’s onwards alpinism would became more and more popular, specially in the different alpine nations. A simple look at some statistics concerning alpine associations membership numbers can prove this. The DÖAV (Deutscher und Österreichischer Alpenverein) for example around 100.000 members around 1900. The other alpine associations weren’t as big, but compared to the number of alpinists during the 1850’s and 1860’s when the British dominated the Alps, their numbers were still enormous. And so mountaineering became from a small ‘sect’ a –relatively- mass movement. The distinction British mountaineers wanted to make with other social classes lost most of its meaning during this shift, as mountaineers started to come from all different classes.
‘We know ourselves to be a small sect, and to be often laughed at; we reply by assuming that we are the salt of the earth, and that our amusement is the first and noblest of all amusements.’
During the last quarter of the nineteenth century another shift occurred. Slowly British mountaineers started to move their action area from the Alps towards other mountain ranges all over the world, like the Andes, Kaukasus or the Himalaya, where the same process as earlier in the Alps, occurred. Exploring and conquering –masculinity and imperialsm- stood once again at the centre of British mountaineering, something the Alpine Club still proclaims today: ‘La raison d’être de l’Alpine Club a toujours été de conquérir des voies dures et nouvelles. ... Si l’exploration des Alpes est terminée depuis longtemps, les members de l’Alpine Club continuent de réaliser plus de ‘premières’ que n’importe quel pays.
In this article we’ve tried to give some of the reasons for British upper middle class members to start scaling mountains. Socially, as well as political and economical reasons were given. Alpinism was ‘invented’ by these upper middle class men in order to strengthen their middle class identity and thus their social position, with the important consequence of distinguishing themselves from the lower, as well as the higher classes in British society. Thereby concepts like masculinity and imperialism were of great importance. Although, in the end, personal reasons remained the ultimate motivation.
Within this short historical article not all reasons for mountaineering are given. This is just impossible as this list is simply endless. Nevertheless, I’ve tried to write a decent historical overview on why British mountaineers started climbing, and thus why they ‘created’ the mountaineering as we still know it today.
One can say that mountaineering existed already before the British came in, and therefore the British haven’t created mountaineering as such, and it’s hard to disagree with that. Still, it’s mainly thanks to these British mountaineering pioneers that mountaineering has become the way we know it today. For the first time in history mountaineering became somehow organized. It was only thanks to the foundation of the Alpine Club in 1857 other alpine association would be founded, and thus organize mountaineering and helping it to develop and to grow fast. The same can be said for the non-scientific reasons British mountaineers give to alpinism. It was thanks to them that a non-scientific form of mountaineering became socially accepted. Finally British mountaineers were somehow able to spread mountaineering all over the world, mainly thanks to the innumerable amount of –often excellently written- travel and guidebooks concerning mountaineering exploits. Thanks to them the Alps and more specific mountaineering became known to so many. And therefore I think it’s right to say that around the middle of the nineteenth century British upper middle class members created modern mountaineering.
1. Seylaz L., ‘Les origins de l’alpinisme suisse’, in: Alpes, 39, 1963, p.84.
2. One has to keep in mind that there weren’t altogether much British mountaineers in this period. But in comparison to the time before there numbers exceeded those of the scientists from earlier times by far. Another remark is that mountaineering tourism (without actual climbing) was much more popular. The number of British tourists in the Alps was much higher that that of the real mountaineers.
3. Chamson M., ‘le roman de la montagne’, Etrépilly, C. Bardillat, 1987, p. 154. Vertaling: Courmayeur, Val d’Aosta, between Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn, the name Englishman assigns all amateur-climbers.
4. Relatively new, as this class existed already for a very long time, from the middle ages, but it was only thanks to the Industrial Revolution that this middle class could grow a lot, with its influence on and their power within the British society rising fast, and became more or less the way we know it today. That’s why it’s called relatively new here.
5. The Alpine Club was the first alpine association to be founded. This meant an extra boost for British mountaineering in the first place, but not much later it would have a major influence on the establishment of all other alpine associations and on alpinism in general.
6. ‘Membership was drawn from a limited social class, excluding, on the whole, the aristocracy, and those ‘in trade’, and concentrating on the upper middle class, particulary the professions.
’ From Bennet C. S., ‘The Golden Age of Mountaineering: 1850-1870’, Alpine Club
Archives, 1922/C146 , 1950, p. 8.
7. Lejeune D., ‘Histoire sociale et alpinisme en France à la fin du XIXe et au début du XXe
siècle', in: Revue d’Histoire Moderne et Contemporaine, 25, 1978, p. 114. Translation: 'The first lesson to be learned is the early decline,..., of the aristocracy. From the end of 1875 onwards, the Bourgeoisie has conquered that place, the high society [industrials and such] onlu occupied a modest place.
8. Grupp P., ‘faszination Berg: die Geschichte des Alpinismus’, Keulen, Böhlau, 2008 p.160 (from: Müller, p. 30)
9. The French and Swiss alpine associations stood somewhere in between a very strict society and a mass movement like in Germany and Austria. However, in time their member policies turned more and more towards the German and Austrian model. Grupp P.,'faszination Berg', p.160
10. Bonhème P., ‘Member of the Alpine Club I presume?’, in: Alpes Magazine, 89, 2004, p. 54.
11. Band G., ‘Summit: 150 years of the Alpine Club’, Collins, 2006, p. 14.
12. Bennet C.S., 'The Golden Age of Mountaineering’, p. 9.
13. Bonhème P., ‘Member of the Alpine Club I presume?’, p. 54. Translation: Englishmen like to meet up in societies or exclusif clubs, consisting of people elected by a committee, based on patronage.'
14. Bennet, The Golden Age of Mountaineering’, p. 8.
15. Smelser N. J., ‘Social Paralysis and Social Change. British Working-Class Education in the Nineteenth Century’, Oxford, University of California Press, 1991, p. 45.
16. Hansen P. H., ‘Albert Smith, the Alpine Club, and the Invention of Mountaineering in Mid-Victorian Britain’, The University of Chicago Press , in: The Journal of British Studies, Vol. 34, 3, Victorian Subjects (Jul., 1995), p. 304.
17. Ibidem, p. 304.
18. Ibidem, p. 322.
19. Forbes J., ‘Travels through the Alps’, Londen, Black, 1900, p. 473.
20. Het gaat hier over Oscar Browning. Uit Bennet C. S., ‘The Golden Age of Mountaineering', p. 8.
21. Van Loocke K., 'Geld, vriendschap en sociale tegenstellingen: een onderzoek naar de paradoxale relaties tussen gidsen en alpinisten in de 19de eeuw', master dissertation, Ghent University, Ghent, 2010.
22. Clark R., ‘The Victorian Mountaineers’, Londen, B. T. Batsford Ltd., 1953, pp. 88-89.
23. Holt R., ‘Sport and the British: a Modern History’, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1989, pp. 396.
24. Lejeune D., ‘Histoire sociale et alpinisme en France’, p. 122. translation: ‘Two psychological obstacles obstruct a democratization of sport: Sports have the tendency to create closed circles, reserved for a certain elite, where persistent prejudices are keeping out people from a more modest environment. Even though they have a sufficent income, they fear they will not feal themselves at home [that they will not be accepted].’
25. Stephen L., 'The Playground of Europe', San Rafael (Californië), Archivum Press, 2007, p. 218.
26. ‘Das Auftauchen der Englischen Erststeiger im westlichen Alpenraum hat seine Ursachen unter anderem in der finanziellen Unabhängigkeit vieler angehöriger des britischen Bürgertums vor der Jahrhundertwende, während der sogenannten goldenen Ära des Alpinismus.’ From: Tubbesing U., ‘Traumgipfel aus Fels und Firn’, in: berge, 42, 1990, p. 18.
27. Clark R., ‘The Victorian Mountaineers’, p. 95.
28. Tissot L., 'How did the British Conquer Switzerland?', Journal of Transport History, 16, 1, march 1995, p. 29.
29. Ibidem, p. 37.
30. Ibidem, p. 23.
3 . ‘A London Club for Working Men’, in: Reynolds’s Newspaper, Londen, 28 oktober 1860, nr. 533.
32.Hudson C. en Kennedy E. S., ‘Where there’s a will there’s a way: an ascent of Mont Blanc, by a new route and without guides’, Londen, Spottiswoode & Co., 1856, p. VII.
33. Clark R., ‘The Victorian Mountaineers’, p. 99.
34. Bennet C. S., ‘The Golden Age of Mountaineering: 1850-1870’, p. 6.
35. Stephen L., ‘The Playground of Europe’, p. 39.
36. Written by the rev. Joseph M’Cormick, ‘The fatal accident on the Matterhorn’, in: Penny Illustrated Paper, 29 july 1865, nr. 200.
37. Grünwald R., ‘Les Anglais et la conquête des Alpes: (chronique des premières ascensions [1811-1887, dans les montagnes du Haut-Valais]) Trad. par Vittoz P.’, in: Alpes, 42, 1966, p. 116.
38. Forbes J., ‘Travels through the Alps’, pp. 517-518.
39. Wills A., '"The Eagle’s Nest" in the Valley of Sixt', Longman, Green, Longman, and Roberts, London, 1860, p. X.
40. Stephen L., ‘The Playground of Europe’, p. 231.
4 . Poem by Alfred Wills in his book ‘Wandering among the high Alps’. Wills A., ‘Wandering among the high Alps’, Londen, R. Bentley, 1858.
42. Tuckett E., ‘Pictures in Tyrol and elsewhere: from a family sketch-book’, londen, Longmans, Green, and Co., 1867, p. 3.
43. Hudson C. en Kennedy E. S., ‘Where there’s a will there’s a way: an ascent of Mont Blanc, by a new route and
without guides’, p. VII-VIII.
44. Coolidge W.A.B., ‘Les Alpes dans la nature et dans l’histoire’, Parijs, Payot et Cie, 1913, pp. 547.
45. Stephen L., ‘The Playground of Europe’, p. 220.
46. Bonhème P., ‘Member of the Alpine Club I presume?’, p. 55. Translation: ‘the rationale of the Alpine Club has always been to conquer difficult and new routes… Even if the discovery of the Alps has long past, members of the Alpine Club remain to realize more first ascents than any other country.’
- Appia H., ‘Les Anglais et la decouverte des Alpes’, in: Journal of the British Institute, Paris, 12, 1991, pp. 77-93.
- Ball J., ‘A guide to the Western Alps’, Londen, Longmans, Green, and Co., 1866, pp. 404.
- Bennet C. S., ‘The Golden Age of Mountaineering: 1850-1870’, Alpine Club Archives, 1922/C146 , 1950.
- Band G., ‘Summit: 150 years of the Alpine Club’, Collins, 2006, pp. 256.
- Bonhème P., ‘Member of the Alpine Club I presume?’, in: Alpes Magazine, 89, 2004, pp. 48-55.
- Chamson M., ‘le roman de la montagne’, Etrépilly, C. Bardillat, 1987, p. 154.
- Clark R., ‘The Victorian Mountaineers’, Londen, B. T. Batsford Ltd., 1953, pp. 232.
- Coolidge W.A.B., ‘Les Alpes dans la nature et dans l’histoire’, Parijs, Payot et Cie, 1913, pp. 547.
- Fleming F., ‘Killing Drangons: The conquest of the Alps', Londen, Granta, 2000, pp. 398.
- Forbes J., ‘Travels through the Alps’, Londen, Black, 1900, pp. 572.
- Grünwald R., ‘Les Anglais et la conquête des Alpes: (chronique des premières ascensions [1811-1887, dans les montagnes du Haut-Valais]) Trad. par Vittoz P.’, in: Alpes, 42, 1966, p. 116.
- Grupp P., ‘faszination Berg: die Geschichte des Alpinismus’, Keulen, Böhlau, 2008, pp. 391.
- Hansen P. H., ‘Albert Smith, the Alpine Club, and the Invention of Mountaineering in Mid-Victorian Britain’, The University of Chicago Press , in: The Journal of British Studies, Vol. 34, 3, Victorian Subjects (Jul., 1995), pp. 300- 324.
- Holt R., ‘Sport and the British: a Modern History’, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1989, pp. 396.
- Hudson C. en Kennedy E. S., ‘Where there’s a will there’s a way’, Londen, Spottiswoode & Co., 1856, pp. 95.
- Lejeune D., ‘Histoire sociale et alpinisme en France à la fin du XIXe et au début du Xxe siècle', in: Revue d’Histoire Moderne et Contemporaine, 25, 1978, pp. 111-128.
- Macfarlane R., ‘Mountains of the mind’, New York, Pantheon Books, 2003, pp. 306.
- Murray J., ‘A hand book for travelers in Switzerland, Savoy and Piemont’, Londen, Murray, 1838, pp. 367.
- Raymann A., ‘Evolutions de l’alpinisme dans les Alpes françaises’, Grenoble, Brunswick, 1912, pp. 578.
- Ring J., ‘How the English made the Alps', Londen, Murray, 2001, pp. 287.
- Scharfe M., ‘Berg-Sucht: eine Kulturgeschichte des frühen Alpinismus 1750-1850’, Wenen, Böhlau, 2007, pp. 382.
- Seylaz L., ‘Les origins de l’alpinisme suisse’, in: Alpes, 39, 1963, pp. 82-86.
- Smelser N. J., ‘Social Paralysis and Social Change. British Working-Class Education in the Nineteenth Century’, Oxford, University of California Press, 1991, pp. 499.
- Stephen L., 'The Playground of Europe', San Rafael (Californië), Archivum Press, 2007, pp. 243.
- Tissot L., 'How did the British Conquer Switzerland?', Journal of Transport History, 16, 1, march 1995, 21-54.
- Trevor B., ‘When the Alps cast their spell: Mountaineers of the Alpine Golden Age’, Glasgow, The In Pinn, 2004, pp. 314.
- Tubbesing U., ‘Traumgipfel aus Fels und Firn’, in: berge, 42, 1990, pp. 16-25.
- Tuckett E., ‘Pictures in Tyrol and elsewhere: from a family sketch-book’, londen, Longmans, Green, and Co., 1867, pp. 313.
- Tyndall J., ‘The glaciers of the Alps, being a narrative of excursions and ascents, an account of the origin and phenomena of glaciers, and an exposition of the physical principles to which they are related’,Londen , Murray, 1860, pp. 444.
- Tyndall J., ‘Hours of exercise in the Alps’, New York, D. Appleton, 1872, pp. 473.
- Van Loocke K., 'Geld, vriendschap en sociale tegenstellingen: een onderzoek naar de paradoxale relaties tussen gidsen en alpinisten in de 19de eeuw', master dissertation, Ghent University, Ghent, 2010.
- Whymper E. 'Scrambles amongst the Alps : in the years 1860-69', Philadelphia, J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1872, pp. 164.
- Whymper E., ‘The valley of Zermatt and the Matterhorn: a guide’, Londen, Murray, 1900, pp. 224.
- Wills A., ‘Wandering among the high Alps’, Londen, R. Bentley, 1858, pp. 426.
- Wills A., '"The Eagle’s Nest" in the Valley of Sixt', Longman, Green, Longman, and Roberts, London, 1860, p. X.
- ‘A London Club for Working Men’, in: Reynolds’s Newspaper, Londen, 28 oktober 1860, nr. 533.
Rev. Joseph M’Cormick, ‘The fatal accident on the Matterhorn’, in: Penny Illustrated Paper, 29 july 1865, nr. 200.