The Lure of High Mountaineering


‘RED with cutaneous eruption of conceit and voluble with convulsive hiccough of self-satisfaction,’ the mountaineer strides into his hotel, back from his peak or his pass, no doubt jostling Ruskin in the doorway and so stirring him to this little masterpiece of descriptive vituperation. To-day Ruskin is almost forgotten; in his place (no more welcome in his eyes than the climber with his axe and rope and uncouth footwear) now stands the tourist, very often an American, who, if he has not the same feelings about the figure that shambles noisily by, is usually as hard put to it to explain why a reasonable soul should want to do just this, or what anyone gets out of it that he should keep at it with such stupid pertinacity. To go up one mountain would be possibly an interesting experience, especially if it were the highest; to keep on climbing mountains seems to be mere silliness.

To describe a passion to those that do not share it is a difficult enough task, let alone explaining it. The passion I write of is eminently respectable. The Pope and the new Conservative Member of Parliament for Cambridge — not to mention several kings and queens — have been among its devotees. It is a powerful passion, enthralling many until long past their sixtieth year. It is a serious passion, judged by the test that a considerable number of people have cheerfully lost their lives in its pursuit. They did not know, of course, that they would lose them, but they were perfectly aware of the possibility, and had decided upon the question of ‘Worth while?’ And their fellow fanatics, when one of these calamities occurs, commonly treat it quite as a matter of course without raising questions of justification, unless carelessness or recklessness is suspected. Yet somehow this passion, more than most, does need some explanation. It is surprisingly new, having come in only about seventy-five years ago; and its activities are to the outside eye peculiarly pointless. In this it perhaps stands alone. Games, though no psychologist will claim that he can completely explain them, have at least a good historic standing. We are never really puzzled as to why people play them even when we feel no inclination to do likewise. Hunting, fishing, yachting, gardening, camping, and the rest of the sports can plausibly be regarded as survivals, although of course this is not the whole story. Immemorial antiquity lends them sanction; though I doubt whether many yachtsmen or amateur camping parties were about in the sixteenth century.

To enjoy unnecessary discomfort or insecurity, we must first be bored with comfort. These two sports in part appeal through their contrast with ordinary existence, and to some degree mountaineering shares this attraction. But while the positive lure of yachting and camping — that is to say, the part over and above contrast — links on to ancient and very widespread pursuits, the positive lure of mountaineering, including the impulse to go up to the top of the hill when the way is difficult, has a very meagre history. Unless hunting takes them there, the natives never climb their mountains. Genuine mountaineering — Alpinism, for example — is an entirely new development, appealing only to a moderately sophisticated mind. It is, in fact, a strangely professorial pastime. What blend of what desires and delights will account for it, or what obscure needs and tendencies must we invoke?

Like other passions, this one has stages. And, again like other passions, it has degrees of impurity. We can study it here only at its ripest and purest. The novice, thrilling with anticipatory tremors at the largely erroneous picture which he makes for himself of his first serious climb, mixes in too much that is imaginary and has nothing to do with the matter. I have known one such novice afterward to confess that he ‘got the wind up’ far more on his first big mountain than ever on the battlefield — and this was a man who saw a good deal of nasty fighting.

We must set aside also the confirmed habitué of the mountains, whose early ardor has declined — the man who goes on climbing moderately difficult ordinary mountains by the best known routes in the company of guides who have such a reserve of mountaineering ability that only what the insurance companies style as an ‘act of God’ could prevent the caravan from returning in safety at the appointed time. Let me try to describe instead what happens in the mind of the guideless climber, experienced enough to know what he is doing, when he is engaged upon an ascent which is just within his powers as the leader of his party.

He probably knows a good deal about his proposed climb. The idea of it may have been in his mind for a long while. He will have read about it, studied it, surveyed it from neighboring summits, perhaps. One of the incidental charms of mountaineering is the unexampled opportunity for detailed, intricate, concrete planning which it allows. The mountaineer fanatic spends hours, whole long winter evenings, gazing at maps and photographs and talking to the other members of his climbing party about the expedition. This planning as the day approaches grows more and more responsible. Here is another attraction. There are very few pursuits in which the question of competence comes more sharply to a head. A great ascent shares the glamour of an Arctic journey — a point will come when the climber will need his strength and skill to extricate himself. The factors upon which success depends are varied enough to need careful thought, yet not too numerous or too uncertain to be estimated. In this a big climb resembles a miniature campaign. It is a concentrated form of exploration, with the tedium cut out and the dramatic intensity heightened. The man whose mountain career begins and ends with scrambling up the Matterhorn or treadmilling up Mont Blanc under professional guidance misses so much of all this that he may well conclude that climbing is an overestimated pastime. Mountaineering is a craft which requires years to master, and the sense of increasing competence is no small part of its attraction.


Some of the branches of this craft are never mastered and have therefore an inexhaustible fascination. Weather lore, for example. The condition of the mountain and the difficulty of the ascent vary with the weather and the season in ways which may baffle the utmost sagacity. A stretch of glacier which early in a snowy year would be easy and would take but an hour to cross may a month later, after hot weather, be nearly impossible. Its ice is always cracked here and there, split by fissures which may be no more than a few inches or a few feet in width though hundreds of yards in length. When narrow, these ‘crevasses’ are covered by the carpet of the surface snow and can be crossed if the snow is hard, as it is in the early morning, without anyone being able to detect that the apparently innocent white expanse is actually stretched across what are in effect bottomless abysses of ice-walled darkness. These crevasses widen as the summer wears on. The snow that roofs them grows thinner; first a ripplelike hollow shows, then the ripple splits open; then the crevasse walls appear, smooth, shiny, blue-black, overhung with treacherous bulges of unsupported snow. Here and there the snow roof is more solid, and a bridge is left across which a climbing party can pass, if need be, at certain hours and under certain conditions. But sometimes the crevasse can widen out without clearly revealing its presence, and only the sudden collapse of the snow roof under the weight of one of the party will show that it is there. The crevasse may be several hundred feet deep. Picture yourself walking on a snow blanket stretched across an opening in the Dome of St. Peter’s and you will be able to understand one of the possibilities of glacier travel. This is why the party will be walking in single file as far apart as they conveniently can, and why they will be keeping the rope which links them to one another reasonably taut. Should anyone fall into a crevasse far enough for his head to disappear, it is no easy matter to pull him out again.

The quality of the snow, as much when it is lying upon gentle glacier slopes as when it is draped about the wild upper ridges, or is clinging in seemingly precarious fashion to the steep mountain walls, changes with the hour of the day, the angle at which the sun strikes it, the wind, the weather of the last few days. To plan an interesting expedition wisely, all this must be reckoned with. Early enough in the morning the snow will generally be good. This is why the climber usually starts with the first daylight. But there are other reasons. In the Alps, unless he has slept in one of the many Swiss Alpine Club cabins that are perched for his convenience high up, often upon tiny outcrops of rock surrounded by glacier, he will have two or three hours of steady preliminary walking, on a path if he is lucky, before the difficulties and the high mountaineering proper begin. He has to start early to economize time and to make use of the cool of the day, for he will have from four to eight thousand feet to ascend, and time is precious. Every big climb, and above all every new climb, is a race against the sun.

The weather affects the rocks of the mountain as much as the glaciers. A light sprinkle of snow overnight will give the peaks a fairylike silvery glitter, but will put serious climbing out of the question — not so much because it makes the rocks slippery as because it makes them so cold to the fingers. Only the easiest rocks can be climbed with fresh snow upon them. The slipperiness comes a day later when the new snow has melted and the moisture has refrozen to invisible ice,— Verglas, as it is called, — an abominable substance very difficult to deal with.

Often the descent will need special consideration. It will be late in the day, the snow will be soft, stones which in the morning are firmly bound by frost will be loosened by the sun and ready to begin their awful, hopping, bounding, whirring flight to the valley. Anyone who has loafed away an afternoon in the high Alps will have heard that faint growling, sometimes rising to a roar and rarely quiet for more than a few moments, which means that the miscellaneous débris of the mountains is slipping from them. A stone fall on a great slope is a horrible spectacle whether seen from above or from below, but especially when seen from below. Some mountain sides are death traps for this reason in the afternoon.

A prudent climber will rarely get too close to falling stones, but through bad luck or misinformation he may see more than he cares of them. He will be working down a ridge which stands up in low relief upon the great tilting side of the mountain. To right and left a wide, shallow, dusty gully, floored with worn slabs of rock and broken with zigzagging scree-littered shelves, may offer easier progress. A little rivulet of gleaming water staining the recesses of the rocks and sending a faint tinkle up to his thirsty soul may add to the temptation. He continues down the ridge. Suddenly from far above, where the upper cliffs lean forward and dominate the lower glacis, a single sharp report will sound. He looks up, every fibre tense and quivering. For a moment nothing will be visible; then, exactly like a bursting shrapnel, a tiny cloud will flash out which looks like smoke but actually is dust. The falling missile has struck some scree-covered ledge. Usually the climber will see little more; he will have his head, and as much more of himself as he can, well and safely tucked away in the shelter of some overhanging boulder or cranny. But he will hear the whole slope, as it seems, leap to life, for the falling stone sets a myriad others in motion. Down they come, whirring and humming, taking enormous bounds and ricochetting across the whole width of the gully. By the time they pass him they will often be flying too fast to be visible. Only the scream of the air or, if a large boulder is fairly launched, a rumble not unlike that of an express train will tell him that they are past, and he can look down to see them splash into the snows below or leap into the open mouth of the crevasse which is nearly always there to catch them.

The prudent climber, I repeat, keeps well away from falling stones. Occasionally, however, circumstances may force him to run the risk of crossing such dangerous ground. He may be late in leaving the summit; hard pressed for time to work out the intricacies of the glacier before night falls, he may have no other way of avoiding a night spent à la belle étoile, an experience which is nearly always miserable and sometimes dangerous in itself. For a tired man may not be in a state to resist the great cold of the night high up without shelter, and the weather may be changing or the wind rising.

When for any such reason dangerous ground has to be crossed, the climber may hurry, but hurrying is otherwise something which he sedulously avoids. From one point of view he is the most leisurely of sportsmen; he takes a great deal of exercise, but he takes it as gently as he can. He cannot afford to hurry in an expedition which will probably take fifteen hours to complete and may take twenty. On the other hand, he cannot, afford to waste any odd minutes. All successful parties develop an elaborate technique for saving seconds — at first a conscious effort, later on an unconscious habit. The beginner gives himself away by the time he squanders. He wants to stop to fix his puttee, or to put cream on his face, or to get out his gloves, or to put them away. A dozen little jobs arise and half a dozen little calamities befall him which the more experienced man has foreseen the last time the whole party stopped to feed or to put on the rope.

But there is more in time-saving than this, difficult though this trick of not stopping seems to be to acquire. Consider the management of the rope alone. We are tied on, if there are three of us, one at each end and the third in the middle. There will be thirty or forty feet of loose rope between us. Most of the time we shall be all moving together. The rope must be kept moderately taut whenever there is any possibility of a mishap to any of the party. This is not so difficult when we are walking in the leader’s footprints across a snow field. But suppose we are working up a fairly steep face of rock. Fairly steep means an angle of about fifty degrees. This looks like sixty-five degrees until one measures it, and is usually talked of as eighty degrees. This face will not be smooth — few faces are. If it were, we should be moving one at a time, gathering the rope in and letting it out as required. More probably, like most big precipices that get climbed, it will be built up of a chaos of jammed blocks of all sizes at all angles, held in place by the weight of the blocks above. Over such ground experienced climbers can pass with great safety and speed, but the loose rope must be kept from catching among the innumerable spikes which jut out everywhere. To keep it free while himself moving with special care to avoid dislodging any of the rubbish with which all such faces are strewn, the climber must give a continual series of nicely adjusted flicks. In time this becomes automatic. Usually he will carry a few coils of the rope — enough to control it—in one hand, the same hand also holding his ice axe; he climbs with the other hand and with his feet and with a knee now and then.

This sounds like one of the dreariest and least inviting of imaginable exercises, and so it is until the knack has become second nature. But when everything is going as it should the very fact that all this tiresome detail is being dealt with without effort, by the mere sweet-running mechanisms of the nervous system, yields a peculiar exhilaration. I should ascribe a great deal of the fascination of mountaineering to this sense of successful technique. The good effect of doing anything that one can do well radiates throughout the whole personality. One’s other faculties benefit, one is at peace with one’s self, and the illusion of a complete mastery of existence grows strong. Add to this the slight tension which the situation, the drop below, and the constant need for care impose, and it is not hard to see how this routine part of climbing can acquire a charm.

More difficult rocks have another fascination. The technique of overcoming them without delay and without undue fatigue has much in common with the technique of the arts. Mediocre performers, for example, resemble one another in their procedure, but the masters of the craft develop individual styles. The difference between a breathless muscular struggle and an easy, balanced movement is often too subtle to be analyzed, but every golfer will understand how powerful the appeal of success here may become. And because the movements called for in rock-climbing are perhaps more varied and their nicety not less than those of any other sport, the spell cast is the stronger. To go lightly up a rock wall when the only hold is the friction of the forearm pressing against the sides of a vertical crack while the feet push gently yet firmly upon roughnesses not much bigger than a thumb nail is an achievement which allows a good deal of innocent self-flattery to develop. And if meanwhile the glance which is seeking for suitable roughnesses can travel past the poised foot and see nothing beneath but the glacier some hundreds of feet below, there is nothing in this to impair the pleasure, provided that equanimity is maintained. Calm control and alert, deliberate choice of pose are the essence of good rock-climbing; the exhilaration which accompanies it is as much made up of a sense that one’s judgment is trustworthy and one’s intelligence clear and unflurried as it is of any physical delights. And the final movement of such a passage, when the climber reaches handholds like the rungs of a ladder (no higher praise is possible), a roomy ledge to stand upon, and a spike of rock round which he can ‘belay’ the rope, and so guarantee both his own safety and that of his companions who will now follow him, brings a quiet glow of triumph which is much more than a mere relief of tension or a sense of escape. A good cragsman, it may be remarked, can almost always retrace his steps and return to his companions if the passage should prove more difficult than he anticipated. It is, in fact, only on this condition that he is justified in assuming the responsibility of leading his party. There are plenty of borderline cases, of course, in which a climber may not be perfectly certain whether he should proceed or return, and it is just here that his judgment is tested.

Intelligence, not of a low order, is exercised at many points in any interesting ascent. The choice of route constantly demands it. A fine mountain is a succession of problems to be solved on the spot. Few who have not climbed can realize how very intricate a mountain face may be. Rocks by themselves can require varied enough evolutions, for most cliffs are more like highly tilted labyrinths, when you come close to them, than the solid walls which from a distance they appear to be. And often the choice of one fissure rather than another, of one shelf or shoulder or buttress rather than its neighbor, will make a difference in time to be counted in hours and spell success or failure for the whole expedition.

But the complexities of rock-climbing are matched by those of ice and snow. A broken-up glacier can present a maze which only a mixture of good luck and happy opportunism will unravel. It is a strange experience to come down in the late afternoon, one’s heels sinking deep into a vast bulge of snow, — like a swelling sail, but more dazzlingly white, — to survey, as the slope curves over and what is below is revealed, the wild, contorted chaos of waves and chasms into which the glacier ice is riven as it descends. Through this chaos, often by a series of carefully planned leaps interspersed with thoughtful performances upon bridges of snow, — an all-fours position which distributes one’s weight over the fragile structure is not unusual, — and as a rule by much chopping of steps along the slopes of the ice waves, an intricate way is forced. It is astonishing how often the way followed will seem the only one that is possible, and how rare it is for no way to be found.


I have lingered somewhat over the technical attractions of mountaineering because this side of the sport is the one least easy for the layman to imagine, though some knowledge of it is necessary if the climber’s passion is to be understood. If I have said enough to show that a great climb is not a rash adventure but a campaign in which prudent strategy and skillful tactics have both been required, I shall have gained my purpose. I have said nothing about the view from the summit — the excuse which the nonclimber usually provides for the climber, who is often lazy enough to accept it. The view from the summit is as a rule no more interesting than the other views. And I have said nothing as yet about the beauty of the high peaks. Before attempting to say what little can be said about this there is another fact, less often mentioned, which must be indicated.

Few climbers are for long exempt from a certain modicum of anxiety — a watchful apprehension which rarely rises to the point of distress, but remains as a background of consciousness giving a special dramatic quality to each incident. It is tempting to speculate further upon this feeling, for it may have an intimate connection with the beauty which the climber sometimes sees. With fatigue or indisposition this sombre tinge easily develops into a clouding dread, more or less well controlled. When this happens the whole expedition changes from a joy to a nightmare. For some climbers this is not an infrequent occurrence, though it may be but for a moment. With the unloosing of anxiety the whole character of the landscape is transformed. ‘The eye altering alters all. ’ There are always plenty of sights in the high mountains which are capable of taking on a hideous aspect. Gaunt, disintegrating black cliffs that can be contemplated without horror only by a mind which is perfectly in possession of itself; obscene convolutions of grimy glacier which stir nothing but nausea unless one is able to hold one’s self in check; sinister gray curtains of ice, furrowed by stone falls, that hold no hope for any living thing for thousands of feet; monstrous gaping jaws of crevasses fanged above with sharp blue icicles and lipped with treacherous bulges of soft snow. Even the transcendental sparkle of the snow on the upper ridges turns easily to a mere grim glitter. The instant this anxiety slips loose, beauty vanishes. Naturally it does, for this holding down of tremors, this serenity amid stress, was its very source and being. Perhaps even the man who deeply feels the beauty of a great mountain from the valley is doing something similar. He is holding in control a set of feelings which if they broke loose would distress him. Let his equanimity be sufficiently destroyed, let some grief or harshness throw him off his balance, and he will not find peace among the hills, he will not see beauty in them, but only a hateful, discomforting presentation of that side of the universe which is least the concern of man.

The climber is not less susceptible to the ordinary beauty of the mountains, if I may call it such — this power they have to stir such subtly mingled feelings when they are seen from below; and his privileged enjoyment of their extraordinary beauty, the still more mingled thrill which they awaken in him when he is actually upon their ridges, does not, in spite of all that Ruskin had to say, betoken a lack of sensibility. In the best instances the closer, the more intimate, experience is an amplification of the other. It is possible, of course, to climb for a whole day, or for a week, or a lifetime, with scarcely a moment of the genuine awareness; just as it is possible to perambulate miles of galleries or listen to the best orchestras in the world without any result which is worth mentioning. But it is the claim of the mountaineer that the very conditions of his sport do tend to make a more fully awakened response likely. The passion, like others, can go astray, and bogus forms are not uncommon. There are collectors of peaks, for example, who know as little of the genuine worship as mere collectors of pictures. Fortunately, perhaps, they rarely know what they are missing.