A few nights ago, our son, Danny, telephoned from Chamonix in the French Alps. He had just returned to the valley after climbing Mont Blanc and sounded as elated as I had felt after reaching the same spot too many years ago. On the final snow-crusted crest to the 4,807 metres summit you really are teetering along the ridge tiles of the roof of Europe.
The boy (well, he is 22) was celebrating with a few beers. Mountaineering is not the only vice he has inherited. And why not? I expect Jacques Balmat and Michel-Gabriel Paccard enjoyed a small libation after their first ascent of Mont Blanc in 1786. And since then the bar owners have grown fat on the thirst of countless thousands who have fallen under the lure of a mountain which was, for most of my lifetime, the highest point in Europe. With the end of the Cold War the Caucasus range somehow returned to Europe and a shapeless old volcano, Elbrus (5,633 metres), became top peak. But nothing compares to the Alps for sheer sybaritic mountain enjoyment.
The Alps stretch in a 700-mile arc from scented hills above Nice on the French Riviera to the ramparts of the Leopoldsberg, looking out over Vienna and the Danube. At one end we have brushed through wild lavender and thyme on thirsty scrambles in the Dauphine Alps of south-east France. At the other, after a summer's evening climbing on the limestone crags of the Sud Wienerwald, hurried down in the warm darkness to the ice-cream parlours of Baden, a spa town for the lush-lifers of Vienna. There has been a bit of suffering on the lofty 4,000 metre peaks between.
Winter on the summit of Mont Blanc felt colder than my days on Everest, but there was no call to linger and the ski down the wild Bossons glacier and Vallee Blanche was a dream. And in "white-out" conditions we have navigated blind along the vast glaciers of the Bernese Alps in Switzerland. Compass work got us in the right vicinity but it was the smell of bacon cooking that pin-pointed the Hollandia hut.
Some 130 years ago, Sir Leslie Stephen, the father of Virginia Woolf, entitled his Alpine reminiscences The Playground of Europe. The book remains a mountaineering classic. Among Sir Leslie's string of first ascents was the Schreckhorn, one of the most difficult 4,000ers in the Bernese Alps. Its name translates as the "terror horn", and neatly reflects Virginia's portrayal of her father's character in To the Lighthouse. These things can be mused on whiling away bad weather hours in alpine huts. More often we play liar dice.
The Playground title showed prescience. At the time, the "Golden Age" of alpine exploration and mountaineering was the preserve of leisured gentlemen, vicars and upper-middle-class professionals. Today, about 100 million people a year visit the Alps, to walk, climb, ski, go white- water rafting, play tennis or golf, or drink beer on innumerable terraces, content simply to view. Ten years ago, before travel to more exotic destinations became so mass market, a quarter of the worldwide turnover of the tourist industry was generated in the Alps. At Easter, trying to find virgin powder in a ski resort like Val-d'Isere, or today on mountain paths above Innsbruck or St Moritz, the figures seem all too believable.
Can we continue to regard the Alps as our "playground"? The June 1988 cover of National Geographic magazine featured a coffin bearing the headline "The Alps R.I.P?" Inside was a grim story of valleys choking in traffic and industrial pollution, mountainsides bound with ski lifts, and footpaths eroded and littered with cans and bottles. I recognised much of this, but not its unremitting gloom. There are ugly scars - trees are dying along the concrete corridor of the Brenner Pass through Austria and no amount of baffle work can spare its residents the constant roar of thousands of trans- continental lorries. But for every blot there is the calm of a knoll in, say, Austria's High Tauern, studded with the deep blue of diminutive gentians; for every congested piste, a steep, untracked snow bowl reachable only by half-a-day's climbing. …