The Alpine Clubs
( Originally Published 1914 )
THOUGH the palm for Alp-climbing is not held by the Swiss themselves—one unkind critic has said that " in this as in all other things the Swiss show their invincible mediocrity "—and the Swiss Alpine Club was not the pioneer among climbing clubs, its work has been of very great value in safeguarding the Alps against desecration and Alpine climbers against accident. In the year 1913 it celebrated its jubilee year, and the occasion was marked by great festivities in Lucerne. Unlike the British Alpine Club, which is of a somewhat aristocratic constitution, the Swiss institution is of a very " democratic " character, not exacting high subscriptions and welcoming all to its ranks who can pay the very moderate subscription.
The objects for which the Club was originally founded were " to explore the Swiss Alps, to study them more accurately from every point of view, to make them better known, and to facilitate access to them." This programme has been interpreted in a very liberal sense, for it has been made to include not merely the construction, furnishing, and maintenance of huts, but also the training and insurance of guides, the organisation of rescue parties, and the publication of guide-books, of accurate maps, of an annual, and of two periodicals, one in German and the other in French. The Swiss Alpine Club now numbers 13,496 members (the German and Austrian 100,023, the Italian 7500, the French about 6500, and the British about 730). A British section of the Swiss Alpine Club exists, and its members last year presented the parent club with funds to erect and furnish a new hut, the Britannia Hut, situated above Saas Fee, a district of Switzerland to which British climbers most frequently go.
That section of the work of the Swiss Club which is worthy of the most praise is devoted to urging upon visitors a standard of good conduct and respect for the rights and convenience of others. Its recently issued " Mottoes for Mountaineers " are put up on the walls of railway stations, in mountain inns, or anywhere else where they are likely to attract the notice of those whom it is hoped to educate. They exhort, in particular, to the avoidance of all alcoholic drinks when in the mountains ; to suitable equipment ; to quiet behaviour and refraining from bawling and shouting ; to the clearing up of all litter after a meal, leaving no soiled paper or tins about, and, above all, not throwing away or breaking any bottles. They likewise appeal for merciful treatment of Alpine wild flowers.
We are all of us familiar with a " tourist resort " of some kind, so general is the habit of travel for curiosity's sake to scenes of beauty or of renown ; and we are all of us aware, there-fore, of the need there is for popular education to contend against the vulgar defacement of natural beauties and of historic monuments. No place is spared by a type of visitor eager to perpetuate a worthless name, and careless to stain a revered shrine with his untidy litter. An historic grove has its tree-trunks marked with knives ; a famous meadow or a field of renowned beauty has its surface scarred with rubbish ; a grand cathedral or hall of renown has its stones scratched, its floors littered. All praise to the Swiss Alpine Club for its work to protect Alpine meadows from bottles and tins, Alpine cliffs from scratched and painted inscriptions. And if, perhaps, it one day takes heart of grace and decides to make a stand against the undue extension of railways and palace hotels upon beautiful peaks, it will earn still warmer praise, and will act, too, in the best interests of Switzer-land, which gains from tourists now £12,000,000 a year, and is in danger of driving some of the pilgrims of the picturesque away to the Carpathians or the Balkans by allowing the Swiss peaks to be spoiled with too much "modern improvement."
Before the growth of the influence of the Swiss Alpine Club, the Swiss did not indulge in mountain-climbing as a sport on their own account to any very great extent. But the Club is working to arouse a national " amateur " (as opposed to mercenary) interest in the national mountains, and the quick growth of its member-ship seems to argue well for its success. Will a climbing knowledge of the mountains lead to a better appreciation of them on the part of the Swiss and a better determination to protect them against railway and hotel vandalism ? It is a moot point. Sir Martin Conway, who has climbed mountains in three continents, seems to think that familiarity brings increased respect at first, but that afterwards the aesthetic interest begins to fade
Almost universal is the feeling aroused by a first sight of a great snowy range that it is unearthly. Mystery gathers over it. Its shining majesty in full sunlight, its rosy splendours at dawn and eve, its pallid glimmer under the clear moon, its wreathed and ever-changing drapery of cloud, its terrific experiences in storm, all these elements and aspects strike the imagination and appeal broadly to the aesthetic sense. Nor are they ever quite forgotten even by the most callous of professional mountaineers.
But with increase of experience on the mountains themselves come knowledge and a whole group of new associations. . . . The mountain, judged by the scale of remembered toil, grows wonderfully in height. The eye thus trained begins to realise and even to exaggerate the vast scale on which peaks are built. But along with this gain in the truthful sense of scale comes the loss of mystery. The peak which was in heaven is brought down to earth. It was a mere thing of beauty to be adored and wondered at ; it has become something to be climbed. Its details have grown intelligible and interesting. The mind regards it from a new aspect, begins to analyse its forms and features, and to consider them mainly in their relation to man as a climber. As knowledge grows this attitude of mind develops. Each fresh peak ascended teaches something.
The longer a climber gratifies his instincts and pursues his sport, the larger becomes his store of reminiscences and the greater his experience. If he confines his attention to a single range of mountains such as the Alps, he is almost always in sight of mountains he has climbed and glaciers he has traversed. Each view shows him some route he has once pursued, some glacier basin he has explored, some pass he has crossed. The labyrinth of valleys and the crests of successive ridges do not puzzle him. He knows how they are grouped and whither they lead. Beyond those mountains is the Zermatt valley ; that peak looks down on Zinal ; that col leads to Saas. Thus there grows in him the sense of the general shape and arrangement of the country. It is no longer a tangled chaos of heights and depths, but an ordered anatomy, formed by the action of definite and continuous forces. So far as his knowledge extends this orderliness is realised. He has developed a geographical sense.
As the seasons go by, it happens that the aesthetic interest, which was at first the climber's main delight, begins to fade. If he be a man of scientific interests it is liable to an even quicker evanescence than if he be not, for problems of geological structure, or of botanical distribution, or of glaciology and the like, are a keen source of intellectual enjoyment. At length, perhaps, the day comes when the loss is felt. There is a gorgeous range of snow mountains with every effect of cloud and sunshine that the eye can desire, displayed about and upon them, yet the climber finds with dismay that his heart is cold. The old glory has vanished from the scene and the old thrill is an unfelt emotion. What is the matter ? Have his eyes grown dim ? Has he lost the faculty of delight ? Is he growing old ? What-ever the cause, the effect is painful in the extreme. It is one that many of us have felt, especially towards the close of a long and successful climbing season, or extensive journey of exploration. There is but one remedy—to quit the mountains for a while and attend to the common business of life. When winter months have gone by and summer is again at hand, the old enthusiasm is liable to return. Sooner or later the true mountain - lover will begin to starve for sight of the snows.
From a tourist-attracting point of view, then, the encouragement of climbing would not seem to be altogether a good thing. But on the other side of the argument it has to be remembered that the population of Switzerland is fairly large for its area, that a generation is not eternal, and that there is no likelihood of a very large number ever getting so much Alpine climbing as to find the mountains an ennui. On the whole it would seem to be good policy on the part of the Swiss Alpine Club to seek to extend its membership and to encourage in other countries similar " democratic " climbing organisations, with the idea of spreading as widely as possible the sport of mountain-climbing in the Alps, not in its highest phase of very difficult and dangerous ascents, but in a moderate form available to people of moderate strength and moderate means. So far as the danger of climbing has to be taken into consideration, all the ascents have been so carefully mapped now that in good weather, with good guides, there is practically no risk to careful and strong climbers. Yet the present summer (1913) has been a very deadly one on the Alps, a fact due to over-much familiarity bringing to climbers some measure of contempt for the dangers of the peaks and inducing fool-hardy attempts under unsuitable weather conditions. During September of 1913 there were eleven fatal accidents to climbers, and five other accidents causing grave injuries. The climbing season was a late one, as the weather had been consistently unfavourable in July and August. In September the weather still continued uncertain, but there was a general tendency among disappointed climbers and guides to take risks so as to get in some ascents before the season closed. To this willingness to take undue risks most of the accidents were due. A characteristic one was on the Zermatt Breithorn when a guide allowed himself to be persuaded against his better judgment to continue an ascent in the face of obvious danger. The details regarding this accident are worth recording as illustrating the actual most pressing peril of the Alps today, that of foolhardiness. Three German climbers, one a lady, set out with the guide Heinrich Julen to attempt to ascend the Zermatt Breithorn-usually¬ easy. When they reached the Gandegg or Lower Theodule hut (10,000 feet), the weather being very threatening, they took with them a second guide, an Italian. The party ploughed through very deep fresh snow for about an hour and a half, after which one of the men and the lady said they would prefer to turn back. The other, however, Dr. Schrumm, of Kempton, Bavaria, insisted on continuing the ascent with the guide Julen, who, it is said, was very unwilling to proceed. Nevertheless he did so. Apparently the party did not leave the Gandegg Hut, owing to bad weather, until 8 A.M., and it was four in the afternoon when Dr. Schrumm and the guide Julen reached the summit. During the descent a violent snowstorm came on, the guide lost his bearings, and, not being provided with a compass, wandered about for a time without making any progress. He scooped out a hole in the snow for shelter. The doctor and guide remained there the night, and the next morning the doctor died of cold and exhaustion. Apparently he was not sufficiently warmly clad.
This accident caused a good deal of discussion among Alpine climbers, and it is possible that one outcome of it will be to protect guides by more stringent regulations against the urgency of climbers who wish to incur dangers of which they are ignorant.
There are, however, to be enjoyed in Switzerland very many Alpine climbs which come within an ample margin of safety, requiring guides in some cases, but not taking any extravagant toll either on the purse or on the muscles. Thus from Adeloben one may go to the summit of the Gemmi Pass and back within a day : or over the Bonderchrinde to Kandersteg ; or to the Bonderspitze (8343 feet), the Elsighorn (7697 feet), the Elsigfirst (8366 feet), the Albristhorn (8366 feet), the Gsur (8894 feet). Or from the same point of departure with a little more expense, but no more danger, the Wildstrubel (10,715 feet) may be climbed. There is a fine glacier (the Strubel) on this route. From another point of departure, Champery, the various peaks of the Dents du Midi are easily reached. In the Dents du Midi group the highest is the most accessible. To climb the Haute Cime one usually sleeps at Bonaveau, whence one starts off at early morning through the Pas d'Encel, the valley and the pass of Susanfe. With a guide these can easily be done and without difficulty in six hours. From the summit the panorama embraces all of the central and western Alps. From Les Plans (to mention another centre) there are no less than fifty good climbs, most of them suitable for the modest Alpinist. For an example of a " big " climb from this centre take the ascent of the Grand Muveran (10,040 feet). It is a steep and difficult ascent, not dangerous, but a guide is a necessity. The starting-point is Les Plans. From there to the summit takes at least five hours. The expedition is less fatiguing if the climber passes the night at the Rambert shelter. From this hut to the top of the mountain it is a climb of two hours. From the Muveran the view over the Valais is particularly good. The ascent of the Diablerets (10,663 feet), the summit of the Vaudois Alps, is more difficult, but in good weather not attended with any risk.
In bad weather almost any climb can be dangerous, and one needs to be a particularly expert and keen Alpinist to attempt an ascent when storms are likely. But for that expert and keen Alpinist it seems that there is " a music in the thunder and the growling of the gale," and a joy in breasting and overcoming an Alpine storm. A stirring description of such a storm by a famous climber :
The gathering squadrons of the sky grow dark, and seem to hold the just departed night in their bosoms. Their crests impend. They assume terrific shapes. They acquire an aspect of solidity. They do not so much seem to blot out as to destroy the mountains. Their motion suggests a great momentum. At first too they act in almost perfect silence. There is little movement in the oppressively warm air, and yet the clouds boil and surge as though violently agitated. They join together, neighbour to neighbour, and every moment they grow more dense and climb higher. To left and right, one sees them, behind also and before.
The moments now are precious. We take a last view of our surroundings, note the direction we should follow, and try to fix details in our memories, for sight will soon be impossible. Then the clouds themselves are upon us—a puff of mist first, followed by the dense fog. A crepitating sound arises around us ; it is the pattering of hard particles of snow on the ground. Presently the flakes grow bigger and fall more softly, feeling clammy on the face. And now probably the wind rises and the temperature is lowered. Each member of our party is whitened over ; icicles form on hair and moustache, and the very aspect of men is changed to match the wild surroundings. Under such circumstances the high regions of snow are more impressive than under any other, but climbers must be well-nourished, in good hard condition, and not too fatigued, or they will not appreciate the scene. No one can really know the high Alps who has not been out in a storm at some great elevation. The experience may not be, in fact is not, physically pleasant, but it is morally stimulating in a high degree, and aesthetically grand. Now must a climber call up all his reserves of pluck and determination. He may have literally to fight his way down to a place of shelter. There can be no rest, neither can there be any undue haste. The right way must be found and followed. All that can be seen is close at hand and that small circle must serve for guidance. All must keep moving on with grim persistence, hour after hour. Stimulants are unavailing and food is probably inaccessible. All depends upon reserve stores of health and vigour, and upon moral courage. To give in is treason. Each determines that he for his part will not fail his companions. Mutual reliance must be preserved.
It seems certainly a fine experience—to recall afterwards. But I confess that I never really enjoyed a mountain storm except in the case of one that I saw from above the clouds, fighting out its quarrel in the valleys below Mount Kosciusko. To see a storm from above that is a spectacle of grandeur ; and there is no threat of danger or of discomfort to the spectator.
But the idea must not be gathered from the descriptions of the dangers of mountaineering that it is a sport suitable only for the exceptionally sturdy. Any one with fair physique who has not reached old age can join an Alpine Club and enjoy Alpine climbing, so long as actually dangerous and freak ascents are avoided. Mr. Symonds, who went to the Alps apparently a hopeless invalid, was able to enjoy Alpine climbing, and has given in prose and verse some fine pen-pictures of its joys ; this in particular of an ascent of the Schwartzhorn.