No 24: Scrambles Amongst the Alps in the Years 1860-1869 by Edward Whymper

What’s it about?

Scrambles Amongst the Alps is an account of the journeys and exploits of a young artist and engraver, Edward Whymper, who arrived in the Alps aged 20 to fulfil a commission from a publisher to illustrate the great vistas of the mountains, passes and glaciers that were gaining popularity among British travellers. Beginning to climb only as a means of capturing the most interesting perspectives for his work, he continued in relentless pursuit of summit after summit, with the Matterhorn – then thought to be an unobtainable peak – his ultimate goal and most famous prize.

What’s it got to do with leisure?

This is an account of the birth of climbing as a sport. While its origins lay in rather more humble and healthy activities such as hill walking, alpinisim was established in the public consciousness by Whymper as an avenue for adventure, excitement and daring. Danger went hand in hand with achievement but, for all the concern among those back home regarding the risks being taken (the Queen wondered whether mountain climbing should be against the law and every newspaper including The Times thundered against such wanton disregard for personal safety), within five years of seeing his first mountain Whymper was a household name and recognised as one of the world leaders of this apparently lurid pursuit. This account of his time in the Alps, which concludes with the fateful summit of the Matterhorn, also serves as one of the first tourist guide books for a region that was of growing interest to Britons looking for the clean air and picturesque landscapes of the romantic movement.

Why should I read it?

For all his alpine prowess, Edward Whymper does not, it must be said, come across as a particularly warm or even particularly likeable individual – his tendency to avoid any suggestion of amusement and his dislike of all things foreign is leavened only by some proper British irony and his compellingly matter-of-fact storytelling – but he could climb better than anyone in the world and write as well as many of the best.

From the opening pages of this account of his travels, Whymper offers useful and often pointed advice for anyone considering travelling in his wake: on particular regions (“The mountainous regions of the Dauphiné, moreover are not supplied like Switzerland, Tyrol, or even the Italian valleys, with accommodation for travellers. The inns, when they exist, are often filthy beyond description. Rest is seldom obtained in their beds, or decent food found in their kitchens, and guides there are none”); on the local populace (“The natives have an almost childish dread of venturing upon snow or glaciers” or “I renewed acquaintance with the mayor of ‘La Ville’. His aspect was original, and his manners were gracious, but the odour which proceeded from him was dreadful. The same may be said of many of the inhabitants of these valleys”); on the provisions available (“I remember the place, because its bread, being only a month old, was unusually soft; and, for the first time during ten days, it was possible to eat some, without first of all chopping it into small pieces and soaking it in hot water”).

But evidence of his endurance and skill in the mountains, all to be inferred from his modest account, is never far away. Although he demonstrates the British Victorian disdain for foreigners and other races, he does not withhold credit where he believes it due, particularly in the case of his guides and companions (“Of all the guides with whom I travelled, Michel Croz was the man who was most after my own heart”; and “Melchior Anderegg… a very Prince among guides”).

Whymper provides fascinating insights into the history of the towns and communities he visits and spares no detail of the many subjects he deems worthy of extended discussion. Such subjects include tent design, the geological effects of glacial erosion and the mysteries of glacial moraines, the sociological origins of “cretinism” in the Alpine valleys, ice-axe design and construction, the best way to use a rope when climbing as a group, engineering techniques for tunnelling, and the various benefits of keeping one’s mouth closed while climbing.

His contribution to the world of travel journalism is discharged admirably if unwittingly and in passing. He comments on the embryonic tourism industry as “the golden harvest” for many Alpine communities, not forgetting the shortcomings of some of its would-be service providers (“… their inns are much inferior to those on the Swiss side. If it were otherwise there would be nothing to prevent the valley becoming one of the most popular and frequented of all the valleys in the Alps” and, perhaps most gloriously, “But I may say, I hope, without wounding the susceptibilities of my acquaintances among the Italian innkeepers, that it would tend to smoothen their intercourse with their guests if request for solid food were less frequently regarded as criminal”). It is also interesting to note the relative ease of travel across the continent. Whymper notes during one abortive attempt on the Matterhorn that he has to be “in London by the end of the week” without any particular sense of urgency or drama.

Above all, and perhaps in spite of himself, Scrambles Amongst the Alps demonstrates Whymper’s prowess in the mountains: the skill, determination, endurance, indomitable spirit of adventure and purpose that came to typify a particular type of Briton in the Victorian age. As one might expect from a professional artist, the illustrations and engravings are of the highest quality and, while we may have to wait for almost 350 pages before finding any attempt at self-deprecating humour, there is much to amuse, engage and thrill the reader on the way. If you find yourself heading for the Alps make sure you put a copy of Scrambles in as an essential part of your luggage.





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