Getting to the Top; the Conquest of the Great Peaks

By Meyer, E. Y. | UNESCO Courier, February 1987 | Go to article overview

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. …

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