Getting to the Top; the Conquest of the Great Peaks
Meyer, E. Y., UNESCO Courier
Getting to the top
ANYONE who studies the historyof the opening up of the Alps might by forgiven for thinking that until the eighteenth century these mountains were a deserted wilderness. Writers on the subject are fond of quoting from early travellers who describe the mountains as "dreadful', "repellent', even "hideous' stretches of bare rock and ice, reactions which today seem astonishing. Such was the accepted view from Roman times until the eighteenth century. The great Italian poet and humanist Petrarch, who in 1336 wrote an enthusiastic description of a journey he had made to Mont Ventoux in Provence, was for centuries a notable exception to this general rule. Even the Zurich municipal doctor Johann Jakob Scheuchzer (1672-1733), otherwise an enlightened scientist and scholar who is regarded as one of the founders of modern paleontology, seriously maintained that the mountains harboured dragons!
This was how the mountains appearedto the occasional travellers from outside --scholars, merchants, soldiers-- who came from the lowland cities and towns. However, a history of the Alps written "from the inside' would tell a different story. Many big Alpine Valleys were already inhabited in pre-Roman times, and it is clear that this mountain population had a different, much more natural, relationship with the mountains where they lived. By the early Middle Ages, many valley farmers owned "alps', pastures high up on the sides of the valleys where they grazed their cattle during the summer. From the twelfth to the fifteenth century still higher mountain regions--up to about 1,600 metres-- were permanently settled and farmed, in many cases by the Walser, an ethnic group which migrated from the Swiss Valais and established farming communities in wide areas of the central Alpine region (see article page 14). It is also known that at a very early stage a number of Alpine passes were regularly used for trading--and also occasionally for military --purposes. Finally, the Alps were mined for salt, iron ore, and silver, an activity which brought wealth to some and provided a means of subsistence for many more.
This mountain world cannot, therefore,have been as terrible as the travellers' tales cited above would have us believe. But even if there are no dragons, life in the mountains is hard even today, full of privations and fraught with danger. It is also true that until very recently the snow-covered peaks, which are for us the most important and fascinating feature of the mountain landscape, were of no interest to anybody. Until the eighteenth century, they were shown on maps in a very summary fashion and many were unnamed. Only villages, passes and Alpine pastures were indicated. Even where the description "mountain' or its Latin equivalent mons appears, it usually signifies not a mountain but a pass or a pasture. Perhaps one or two peaks had been climbed by local people, but such ascents had not been reported and so the world took no notice.
The eighteenth century brought a bigchange, marked at the outset by a new approach to nature. People became not only more sensitive to the attractions of nature, but also, under the influence of the writings of authors such as Albrecht von Haller (1708-1777) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), showed a fresh interest in the real or imaginary charms of country life. Stimulated by this romantic longing, the European elite then began to travel to the Alps, thus laying the foundations for Alpine tourism, which expanded rapidly in the nineteenth century.
Once the attractiveness of mountainsand their inhabitants was recognized, sporting feats soon began to be accomplished, the first of which was doubtless the ascent of Mont Blanc (4,807 metres) in 1786 by a doctor, Michel Paccard, and a hunter and mountain guide from Chamonix, Jacques Balmat. Thus the conquest of the highest Alpine peak took place, not at the end but right at the beginning of a long series of mountaineering exploits. (The ascent was repeated in the following year by a leading Geneva naturalist, Horace-Benedict de Saussure [1740-1799] who inaugurated the era of scientific research in the Alps with a series of interesting experiments and measurements, including the barometric determination of the height of the peak.)
After the conquest of Mont Blanc,mountaineers turned to other of the highest and most challenging Alpine peaks. The first to be conquered--almost a quarter of a century after Mont Blanc-- were the two highest Austrian peaks: the 3,797-metre-high Grossglockner (1800) and, four years later, the Ortler (3,905 metres, now in Italy). The latter would probably have been climbed first were it not for the fact that people then believed the Grossglockner to be the higher of the two. The ascent of the Grossglockner was a full-scale expedition in which sixty-two persons took part. The Ortler ascent was much more like modern Alpine mountaineering in the sense that the chamois hunter Joseph Pichler who made the ascent was accompanied by only two fellow climbers.
These achievements were soon followedby other feats, outstanding among which were the first ascent of the Jungfrau (4,158 metres) in the Bernese Alps in 1811 by two industrialists and naturalists from Aarau, Johann Rudolf and Hieronymus Meyer, and the first ascent of the Zugspitze (2,962 metres), Germany's highest peak, in 1820, as part of a cartographical mission by Lieutenant Karl Naus and two companions. These expeditions were followed in 1850 by the ascent of the Piz Bernina (4,049 matres), the only peak in the Eastern Alps higher than 4,000 metres and in 1855 by the first ascent of Switzerland's highest peak, the 4,634-metre Dufourspitze in the Monte Rosa massif. In 1865 the first ascent of the Matterhorn (4,478 metres), reputedly the most beautiful mountain in the Alps, hit the headlines because a tragic accident occurred during the descent, in which four members of the expedition, led by the Englishman Edward Whymper, perished. This was the first catastrophe of the early days of Alpine climbing but-- typical of this sport--it acted not as a deterrent but as a spur to further feats by climbers who, after the highest peaks had been conquered, began to undertake ever more difficult climbs.
The conquest of peaks gave way to thatof certain rock faces--in 1872 the 2,000-metre east face of Monte Rosa, and in 1881 the almost equally high east face of the Watzmann. The first winter ascent of Mont Blanc was made in 1876 by an Englishwoman, Mary Isabella Straton, accompanied by guides from Chamonix.
In the nineteenth century mountaineeringbegan to spread from Europe to other continents. The volcanic mountains of Mexico were conquered at a very early date--Popocatepetl (5,452 metres) in 1827, the Pico de Orizaba (5,700 metres) in 1851, Iztaccihuatl (5,286 metres) in 1889. The highest mountains in Africa, Kilimanjaro (5,895 metres) and Mount Kenya (5,200 metres), were climbed for the first time towards the end of the nineteenth century.
In our time, mountains everywherehave become places of refuge, not only for many animal and plant species, but also for millions of human beings in search of relaxation from the stress of the modern world. Winter, previously endured as a season of cold, darkness and privation, has suddenly become attractive. And in few places does winter, apart from its dangers, display so many pleasant features as in the mountains. The snow is better and more plentiful than in the lowlands, and there are more sunshine and fresh air, commodities for which there was already a great demand in industrialized, urbanized Europe of the mid-nineteenth century.
Again it was the British who gave thelead. When they first started to slide down the Swiss mountainsides on long, narrow laths of wood, they drew smiles from the local people. But soon they were being eagerly imitated. Naturally they could not have foreseen the extraordinary popularity which skiiing would eventually achieve. By the 1930s there was already a boom in winter sports, but it was cut short by the Second World War. As soon as the War was over, winter tourism began to develop more rapidly than ever. Other forms of winter sport, such as curling, tobogganing, ice-skating, and cross-country skiing, soon developed alongside downhill skiing, but none of them has ever equalled the latter in popularity.
Nowadays the Alps--this sweep ofmountains extending for 1,200 kilometres from Vienna to Nice--have reached saturation point. People must realize that they cannot get all they want from this unique region unless they accept certain disciplines. Development possibilities are now exhausted. The space still available belongs to nature, to the world of Alpine plants and animals. Only if they are allowed to live and breathe will the Alps survive as an irreplaceable recreation area.
Photo: Above, the Vrsic Pass in the People'sRepublic of Slovenia (Yugoslavia) crosses the Julian Alps not far from Yugoslavia's frontier with Italy and Austria. The mountains towering above the pass, some 2,400 metres high, are rocky bastions of jagged dolomitic limestone. For centuries such magnificent Alpine scenery filled travellers with fear and even revulsion.
Photo: In this terrifying depiction of an avalanchefrom a 16th-century chronicle, a massive ball of debris and flailing branches crushes everything in its path.
Photo: Drawing of the "Lindwurm', an evil dragonwhich, according to a legend from the tiny Alpine country of Liechtenstein, once terrorized the people of Mals, a little town near the Rhine. After vainly trying to get rid of the Lindwurm, the townsfolk begged the Virgin Mary to help them. Their prayers were answered and the dragon disappeared from the face of the earth. (Even today, certain crevices in the rocky cliffs overlooking Mals are known as "dragon holes.') Located between Switzerland and Austria, Liechtenstein is an independent principality (160 km2) with a Germanspeaking Catholic population. The capital is Vaduz (5,000 inhabitants).
Photo: This humorous depiction of "An Alpclimber'kitted out for a mountaineering expedition appeared as an illustration in Mark Twain's travel book A Tramp Abroad (1880). The Alpine tourist is carrying an alpenstock, a long iron-tipped stick once widely used by hikers and mountaineers.
Photo: Above, Storm Breaking over a Village inthe Foothills of the Alps, a drawing by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519). With Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Albrecht Durer (see colour pages), who both crossed the Alps on their way to Italy, Leonardo was among the first European painters to depict the grandeur of high mountain scenery.
Photo: Drawing of the Via Mala by Johann Wolfgangvon Goethe (1749-1832), dated 1 June 1788. This Alpine route leading to the Splugen Pass was extensively used in medieval times, although it was known as "the bad road' because of the gorges through which it passed. It has come back into use since the opening of the San Bernardino road tunnel.
Photo: The Geneva-born writer and philosopherJean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) was one of the first Europeans to celebrate the beauty of mountains. Engraving, left, by the French artist Jean-Michel Moreau the Younger, illustrates an episode from Emile (1762), Rousseau's treatise on education. It shows Rousseau and the Savoyard vicar, a composite portrait of two priests whom Rousseau had known, contemplating the river Po and the Alpine range beyond.
Photo: Competitors in a cross-country ski marathonin the Engadine, Switzerland, trace their way like ants across the snowy landscape. Cross-country skiing was practised before the development of Alpine, or downhill, skiing.
Photo: The traditional Alpine house
Five examples of traditional domestic architecture in the Swiss Alps. (1) An apartment house for two families at Evolene in the canton of Valais, built in 1543. (2) House with steeply sloping roof at Einsiedelin, canton of Schwyz, dating from 1802. (3) Two-family house with adjoining living quarters at Ernen in the Valais. It dates from 1686. (4) Another two-family house with separate entrances at Lenk, canton of Berne. It was built in 1777. (5) Group of stone-roofed houses including a large house for two families, at Vrin, canton of Graubunden.…
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Publication information: Article title: Getting to the Top; the Conquest of the Great Peaks. Contributors: Meyer, E. Y. - Author. Magazine title: UNESCO Courier. Publication date: February 1987. Page number: 24+. © 1984 UNESCO. COPYRIGHT 1987 Gale Group.
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