Alpine trek reveals ordeal that faced 19th-century climbers

The Alps Walk team, with pack mules in tow

With their tweed jackets draped over the ends of their long alpenstocks, Les Swindin and Philip Martineau set the pace up for the group on the first day of the expedition, hiking up the steep mule trail from Mörel in the valley to Riederalp, 1,200 metres higher in altitude.

This content was published on August 28, 2001 - 13:32

For centuries the trail was the only way for villagers to reach the summer Alp with their livestock. It is rarely used nowadays - most people take advantage of the cable car, which has been carrying visitors up since 1950.

Sunday's climb went smoothly, although the mountaineers certainly earned the refreshments waiting for them at the top. They were greeted with chilled wine and cheers from the assembled guests, who were invited to observe the start of the ten-day expedition.

Temperatures reached 30 degrees and for most of the climb buckets of sweat poured down the faces of the British climbers and their Swiss guides. The woollen and linen clothing, replicas of the standard kit of 19th-century climbers, turned the three-hour hike into an ordeal.

"I'm not used to wearing a hat or anything tight around my neck," said Alison Henry, "I thought I was going to explode."

"Hardly suitable gear"

She made her costume based on pictures of 19th-century women climbers and has missed few details. A close look at her tie reveals an edelweiss pattern and she has put a frilled handkerchief in the large pockets of her ankle length skirt. Very becoming, said one observer, but hardly suitable gear for a taxing 1,200 metre ascent.

But as the walk wore on, she took to pulling up the skirt to allow the scant breeze to cool her legs. "I don't have to hold it up so I don't trip over it, but just to keep my legs a bit cooler, it's more comfortable."

Philip Martineau bore the discomfort philosophically. After trekking through fields and stands of pine trees, he observed: "Les and I were discussing what we normally wore on the way up to the mountain huts and I think the consensus was that trainers and running shorts were preferable to what we are wearing now.

"Perhaps we could teach a thing or two to the 19th-century climber, at least on the hut approaches."

The heavy costumes worn by the guides brought home to Johann Kaufmann just what his great-great grandfather and other guides had to endure in the 19th century.

Bernhard Stucky, the only member of the expedition from the (Aletsch) region was upbeat, despite the heat. Pausing in the shade of some pine trees, he said the expedition would likely help attract people back to the sport.

Looking ahead to the ascents in the days to come, he said there "is nothing more wonderful than standing on top of a 4,000 metre high mountain".


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