Portraits of 19th century British climbers and Swiss guides

Alpine literature abounds with the stories written by, and of the men and women who took on the challenge of conquering the Alps in the 19th century. As these few portraits show, the British were known for their courage and eccentricities, and their guides were often an equal match.

This content was published on August 14, 2001

Sir Leslie Stephen

A leading thinker in his day and father of novelist Virginia Woolf, Stephen wrote "The Playground of Europe" - a classic account of 19th century mountaineering. He claimed many first ascents and traverses, including the Schreckhorn and the Eigerjoch, and waxed lyrical about these and other adventures in his book: "Our method of progression was not unlike that of the caterpillar who may be observed first doubled up into a loop and then stretched out at full length." His opinion that mountains could be climbed for the sake of adventure and adventure alone divided the Alpine Club, which, until his arrival, had been led by scholars who claimed their goal had always been scientific observation. "To them I answer," Stephen said in a famous address to Alpine Club members in 1861, "that the temperature was approximately (I had no thermometer) 212 degrees (Fahrenheit) below freezing point. As for ozone, if any existed in the atmosphere, it was a greater fool than I take it for".

W.A.B. Coolidge

He was once described as one of the most unlikely figures to have made his mark upon the period of alpine conquest, as Ronald Clark described in "The Alps": "As short of breath and of sight as he was of temper, leaning to plumpness even in youth...". Coolidge made more than 1,700 mountaineering expeditions, many accompanied by his aunt and their dog. He secured his place in history as much for his work as an alpine historian as for his accomplishments in the mountains. It was this standing as an academic that made him a feared man in mountaineering circles. He published scores of articles, books and guides on the Alps and was willing to argue over the most minor of points, bringing him into conflict with most everyone who had something to say about the Alps. As Clark explained, he once "condemned an entire book because the author had let one wrong accent slip by". He retired to a chalet in Grindelwald, with a window looking out onto the peaks he loved so much. The Times wrote in its obituary when Coolidge died in 1926 that he was "an adept in the gentle art of making enemies and a man who regarded a hatchet as an instrument not for burying but for use".

Lucy Walker

What was a sensation in Victorian England, Lucy Walker proved that ladies could also climb mountains. She ascended nearly 100 peaks, made one first ascent, and in a race with Coolidge's aunt, became the first woman to climb the Matterhorn in 1871, only six years after Edward Whymper's legendary first ascent. She was introduced to mountaineering by her father and brother, and according to Ronald Clark, she managed to climb despite suffering from "slight mountain sickness" and being limited by always wearing "a white print dress whose shape had to be 'renewed' after each expedition". A Belgian historian was surprised to meet Walker in 1862 in a hut on the Theodule Glacier above Zermatt: "We saw a young woman endeavouring to dry her garments, soaked with water and crisp with frost, in front of a wretched fire. The guides told us she was a young English lady who travelled by herself." Despite her record, she was not allowed to join the Alpine Club or contribute to its respected journal.

Ulrich Lauener

"Swaggering out from the pages of alpine history in a dark green suit and with a high Waldhühn plume stuck in his hat" is the way Ronald Clark describes Lauener, the first of a long line of great guides from the Bernese Oberland. Born in the Lauterbrunnen valley in 1821, he began guiding in his late teens. His reputation eventually spread across the Alps, but it wasn't until 1856 that he began keeping a guide's journal (Führerbuch) to record recommendations by his English employers. He entered alpine history by leading the celebrated 1854 expedition by Sir Alfred Wills to the top of the Wetterhorn, and Sir Leslie Stephen's traverse of the Eigerjoch five years later. Accompanied and challenged by two rival guides from Chamonix for the latter journey, Lauener proved his leadership by choosing the route and spending 12 hours cutting 580 steps across a dangerous ice-slope. According to Stephen, he kept the group's spirits up during the uncomfortable night bivouac that followed with "a variety of anecdotes, beginning with chamois hunting..."

Melchior Anderegg

Edward Whymper, the man who first conquered the Matterhorn, described Anderegg as "an emperor in his own way, and a very prince among guides. His empire is among the 'eternal snows', his sceptre is an ice-axe". Born in 1828 near Meiringen in the Bernese Oberland, Anderegg's skills put him in a class of his own. The Alpine Club journal went so far as to say that, along with guide Christian Almer, he "dominated the Alpine world" between 1860 and 1880. He claimed several first ascents in the company of the elite of the British climbing world. But he was more than a guide. He was a champion wrestler and taught himself the art of woodcarving, eventually having his work shown in London galleries. Sir Leslie Stephen invited Anderegg to London in 1861 and the story of his ability to find his way through the fog is nearly as famous as those of his climbing accomplishments.

Christian Almer

A shepherd from Grindelwald, Almer's guiding reputation was so great that impostors were known to have tried to cash in on his name. His list of first ascents in the Alps is unparalleled as well as his penchant for carrying a fir tree over his shoulder to plant on the summit. He was said to be able to take a quick glance at a mountain, decide that it could be climbed, and then carry out his plan. He claimed "premieres" to the top of the Wetterhorn, Eiger, the Mönch and about a dozen other peaks and passes. He counted Edward Whymper, Sir Leslie Stephen and W.A.B. Coolidge among his regular employers. It was Almer who gave Coolidge his dog that was to accompany them on many ascents, and it was an Almer exploit that was the source of a long feud between Whymper and Coolidge. The combative Coolidge challenged Whymper's claim that Almer had leapt across an eight-foot gap above a deep chasm during a climb in the French Alps in 1864. The dispute lasted for years, doing damage to the reputations of Coolidge and Whymper but not that of the Grindelwald guide.

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