Reflections on Guideless Climbing

Publication Year: 1930.

Reflections On Guideless Climbing

Noel E. Odell

“THE mountains are so kindly and so great that they reject none of those who turn to them, and they are good to all; to the men of science who come to study them; to the painters and poets who seek an inspiration in them; to the sturdy climbers who zealously seek violent exercise, and to the weary who flee from the heat and the turmoil of the city to refresh themselves at this pure source of physical and moral health.” Such was the verdict of that great mountaineer and poetic thinker Guido Rey. And the same true thesis applies to mountains the world over and of all magnitudes.

From all high places of the earth there is to be derived just that store of refreshment and recreation so yearned for, consciously as well as unconsciously, by the large sections of modern populations pent up under urban and industrial conditions. And it is this class of manhood and womanhood that comprises the bulk of our modern alpine and climbing clubs throughout the world. Exiled during the greater part of the year from the sight of much else than bricks and mortar, and entrapped perchance daily within the confines of noisy train and dismal office, even though access to the open, tamer expanse of the country may occasionally be vouchsafed—it is they who, unable to resist the inner impulse, that hidden flame perhaps once lit long ago when fortune revealed to them the vision, make headlong for the high hills, there to worship in varied fashion, but in no uncertain earnestness, at the shrine of Nature so remotely removed from many modern cities.

Earlier mystical philosophers undoubtedly were drawn to the mountains, fully conscious of the spiritual benefit to be obtained by sojourn and solitude amongst the sublimest of Nature’s works; but these were necessarily men of predominantly contemplative habit, dreamers or sentimentalists mainly from religious house or from oriental clime, in whom was no desire to test their strength and nerve on fretted summit and ice-slope. The few who earlier than the 18th Century ventured in Europe to pit their skill against the might of the mountains were in truth ‘rarae aves,’ who would, in consideration of the “useless folly” or “insanity” of their pursuit, be subjected to an even greater amount of incredulity and ridicule than has in more recent times been accorded to advanced followers of the creed. Such of the former were men like Petrarch, Gerner, and Professor Josias Simler of Zürich, the latter figure being of considerable historical interest to mountaineers, since his writings give us first mention of the rudiments of the art of snowcraft as early as the year 1574!

We have to wait until the mid-19th Century to see the advent of a community of virile men and women ready to hold strenuous converse with high mountains, its spirit of romance and adventure restive under the conventions and restrictions of growing cities, yet imbued with a more practical philosophy than that of the earlier mystics. They laid siege to the Alps in particular, a region geographically accessible to the large centres of commerce and industry, and as the years went by and devotees increased, the greater summits were one by one attained. It was the invariable custom for these travellers to be accompanied by local peasants, often mountain hunters, who, as time went on, became recognized as professionals with expert knowledge of the peculiarities of the ascents, and with whom it was deemed inadvisable if not impossible to dispense.

Before long, it was realized by the most keenly active of this band of mountain knights and worshippers, that there were within easier reach of home, just the means, though in miniature, of practicing and keeping acute one of the most important weapons of their warfare. The rock bastions and crags, of Britain particularly and of some other Continental countries too, though built on much smaller lines than those of the Alps, were albeit speedily found to yield ways of ascent that could only be accomplished by the exercise of the greatest skill, and the development of an advanced technique. Moreover, it was soon evident that, apart from rock-climbing, it was possible in addition, during the winter, to obtain conditions of ice and snow sufficient to test the mettle and capabilities of the highest exponent of ice-craft.

But the cult of rock-climbing for its own sake may perhaps be said to have had its inception during the early years of the present century. Gradually, as time has gone on and a deliberate and specialized style has been evolved, local rock climbing has claimed the attention not alone of ultra-gymnasts, but of many with confirmed Alpine habits and propensities. It may well be, like some other forms of human activity, a specialization, often with confines artificially imposed; yet, on the other hand, the mountain devotee may be economically debarred from all but the indulgence of climbing on his own home rocks, his resources not allowing of his visiting the more distant Alpine ranges.

In general, however, it may be stated that the specialization of rock-climbing is only the resuit of natural development, or evolution. For, as Mr. Arnold Lunn has said with much truth and succinctness, à propos of the broad issue of mountaineering specialization: “Mountaineering in its ultimate essence is not merely mountain travel. It is a duel between inanimate nature and the spirit of man, and the first duty of the mountaineer is to preserve the reality of this contest. A virgin peak is a problem, but once the peak has been proved climbable, new conditions must be introduced in order that the struggle, which would lose all significance if its outcome were certain, may be renewed with redoubled zest. Guideless climbing, the forcing of virgin ridges on peaks which are no longer virgin, winter mountaineering, and ski mountaineering, are all modes of the same mental attitude. Difficulties, artificial difficulties if you will, are invented in order that the game may continue, for a game in whch one side is assured of a walk-over will soon cease to find players.”1

Surely this should be a sufficient answer for the most pragmatic sceptic, who asks the purpose of a cult that toys with danger or invites annihilation, and who prefers the demoralizing motto “Safety First!” However, “mountaineering means different things to different people,” and while rock-climbing for its own sake can satisfy the most exacting demands of the gymnast or acrobat, the circumstances and surroundings under which the pursuit is conducted are likely to make a definite appeal to those of healthy philosophic proclivity. For our smaller hills are often no mean hills, and in season have most of the attributes and all of the proportions of real mountains, and mountain lore in many of its varied and fascinating forms can be indulged by pilgrim, student, and mere visitor.

This matter of the historical background of rock-climbing in Europe has been especially emphasized as being the parent in large part of the modern practice of guideless climbing on the higher glacerized ranges, particularly the Alps. The rock enthusiast, perhaps with some years of experience and the attainment of a very high standard of skill in his specialized code, with resource and self-reliance engendered by leading his own expeditions entirely without professional assistance, at last finds his way to the Alps. There, with a confidence born of experience on smaller, harder passages at home, he essays those peaks where rock-climbing is the sole or predominating craft. Should he have climbed under winter conditions on his home hills, then the encountering of icy and snowy passages will but offer the more variety to his rock-craft. He will find the lesser Alpine peaks, the ‘smaller fry’, in numerous cases surprisingly easy and not sufficiently exacting to test his powers and skill. And then naturally, as sure as fate, if he has any “stuff” in him at all, (and should it be a season of good weather and conditions and not, let us hope, his first visit to the Alps) he will be tempted to try the ‘bigger fry’, the greater peaks, and those involving far more in speed, in continuous endurance, and all-round mountaineering knowledge. He may, and possibly in numerous cases will, succeed in reaching his objectives, and, if he goes about his self-tutelage in snow and glacier craft in the right way, he will quite early attain an all-round proficiency, directly proportional to his own inherent ability.

On these lines, not a few young mountaineers have, during the last two or three decades, acquired their training and accomplishment in all branches of the craft. Many of them have scarcely climbed at all with guides, and yet have carried out expeditions involving as high a degree of skill in ice-craft and rock-craft as any ever accomplished by professionally led parties. By reason either of the psychology of the case involving the individual’s independent outlook on his pursuit, or perhaps on account of obligations of economy, he has from the beginning dispensed with guides, though from the best of them he might no doubt have learnt the rudiments of the art of ice and snow work, in any case, more quickly, and probably more thoroughly, than on his own responsibility. For it must be frankly admitted that as far as ice-and-snowcraft is concerned, few amateurs have acquired its finer points except at the hands of professionals. Yet be that as it may, unfortunately such amateur climbers, who have been content to serve their gradual and reasonable novitiate on lesser peaks before essaying the more, and indeed the most, arduous ascents, are all too few.

To that brilliant climber A. F. Mummery is often attributed the distinction of having broken away from the prevailing tradition of climbing with guides. Historically however it is perhaps more correct to say that by his guideless ascent of Mont Blanc the Reverend Charles Hudson, who lost his life in the tragic, and more than amply guided, first ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865, may be called the “Father of Guideless Climbing.” But whichever may rightly hold the title, each in his time, before assuming the responsibilities of conducting his own expediton, had spent several seasons of apprenticeship behind first-rate professionals and, by this, as well as by natural aptitude had necessarily acquired a high degree of skill and resource.

What do we find nowadays? We find, as has been rightly said elsewhere, that “the High Alps are overrun by incompetent guideless parties who have not learned even the elements of mountain craft, and whose sole qualification is an enthusiastic desire to emulate the deeds of expert mountaineers. Many guideless parties coming straight from civilization arrive in the Alps out of training and unacclimatized to altitude; they possess little reserve of stamina and energy to be called upon in the event of any emergency requiring a sustained effort, and they are often insufficiently clad or equipped. Mountains do not suffer fools gladly; hence the accident list, which now runs into hundreds of casualties every year.”

Perhaps as an aftermath of the Great War, to which it is the fashion nowadays to ascribe so many troubles and problems, there seems to have been a large increase in competitive climbing and ascents made merely to emulate the hairbreadth escapes and successes of other parties, or what is worse, the escapades of solitary climbers. Perhaps in the opinion of some “c’est magnifique”; we may add “mais ce n’est pas de l’Alpinisme.” In the recent words of a statesman, “one grows tired of the modern cult of success,” the boomed records, and the advertised stunts. And who can say that alpinism has not been afflicted with these elements, which are not so much a necessary stimulus to courage and high endeavour as a canker in our midst at the present time?

And this is not to throw a damper on initiative and adventure, which never were so necessary as in our present state of excessive civilization. If we need anything in these days of indulgence and comfort, we need a pursuit that calls forth the best of our mental and physical faculties in an atmosphere of adventure and romance. And where, we flatter ourselves, can we find any that provides such a plethora of emotions and sensations for our quickening, as on the grim precipices and the sky-borne heights? Moreover, it is undoubtedly a fact that only in leading and conducting his own expeditions can the mountaineer develop to the full all his faculties and sensitivity.

Linked to a first-rate guide during his novitiate, the traveller will no doubt the more quickly, and perhaps the more thoroughly, acquire a large portion of the technique of mountain craft, i.e. particularly a seasoned judgment as to avalanches, the condition and reliability of the snow, and what not; but it is not until he is faced with the responsibility of conducting his party safely over a complicated mountain terrain, very possibly in bad weather, that he realizes the full import of the game: he himself, perhaps more or less unsupported, versus the combined forces of Nature.

Frankly the writer is not one to deprecate the practice of guideless climbing ‘ab initio’ by the aspiring alpinist, if only the game is played fairly and squarely, and not with the abandoned recklessness and disregard for all graduation in the school of experience that has been so prevalent of late in the Alps. Even the ignominy of eventual rescue by professionals, seems not to have impressed many unfledged acrobatic youngsters, who have been pounded and marooned in places where they ought never to have been until two or three seasons more of experience were behind them. The whole trouble rests with excessive ambition and impatience of serving a due novitiate. An earlier training in home rock-climbing will, as it has been said above, be an immense asset to the alpine aspirant, but this on the other hand easily tempts him to neglect that all important and so oft forgotten branch of our craft, namely mountain reconnaissance. A day or more, according to the particular region, cannot be more profitably and pleasurably spent than in careful examination of the several aspects of a mountain face and the various suggestive routes as seen from distant points of vantage. This is obviously as important with rock peaks as with those involving ice and snow, and is as beneficial for one’s instruction in the case of minor peaks as with Alpine giants, and indeed whether they be seamed with known routes or not. When the guideless leader has duly gained his experience of all branches of the craft on the lesser peaks during his first several seasons, and this must clearly depend on his individual ability and capacity, he may justifiably essay the higher summits, or those involving greater skill and endurance. But it cannot be too strongly impressed that before embarking on such higher courses he should have had ample opportunity to judge of his companions’ ability on less exacting excursions. Too often an experienced amateur has got into difficulties on some high ascent through one or more of his party being less than a novice. Probably there are few amateurs who have such reserves of physical strength and resource to meet emergencies as Alpine guides.

Guideless climbing has, with some notable exceptions, tended to interest itself more and more in recent years with the forcing of difficult routes up rock peaks, and though many brilliant ascents have been admirably carried out, which have, perchance, involved a modicum of ice or snow, the real importance of ice-and-snowcraft has in comparison tended to be slurred over. But the mastership of the latter is equally as important to him who would call himself mountaineer, and there is more than sufficient in its acquisition to engage the guideless climber during his whole career.

How often in our youthful passion for adventure and sensation do we impulsively conclude that it is mainly, and perhaps only, in the rock-climbing branch of mountaineering that the real thrills are to be obtained; that ice-climbing is a frigid and unsatisfactory pastime; and that snow-work is mostly unmitigated boredom! Much has been written on the philosophy of mountaineering in its various aspects, but to the mind of the present writer one of the most significant and timely “outbursts” appeared last year from the pen of a former climbing companion.2 Herein can be seen the process of complete conversion of the egregious doctrine of the ultra-rock-specialist into the mature and mellow philosophy of the mountain seer; the passionate appeal to followers of his own erstwhile narrow cult not to perjure themselves by excessive devotion to a mere limited recreation; the call while there is yet time, and ere “the years that the locusts have eaten are irretrievable”, to take a wider vision and a truer perception of what really matters in a pursuit which to most of us may become nothing less than a genuine and trusty religion; and finally, and perhaps of chief import, an imprecation to spurn the demoralizing lapse into a comfortable and unadventurous type of mountaineering, but rather to adopt the vigorous and stimulating motto, “Toujours l’Audace!”, for our own moral and spiritual salvation.

Mummery in the last chapter of his classic book3 describes the true mountaineer as a wanderer, in the sense of one who loves to be where no human being has ever been before, who attempts new ascents, and who equally, whether he succeeds or fails, delights in the fun and jollity of the struggle. And this be it noted (in spite of sundry expressions of opinion amongst certain of our specialists in craft) must apply to all branches, whether the exploration be of a forest-girt virgin summit, approachable only after weeks maybe of laborious packing, or on the other hand, the scaling of some beetling precipice by the most artificial and sensationally acrobatic ‘variant.’ The same theme has been well expressed lately by Mr. G. W. Young,4 than whom in the knight-errantry of mountaineering none deserves a more attentive hearing: “And we ourselves know at heart that by a mountaineer we mean fundamentally, one who has the feeling for mountains, who has the undefined and unreasonable impulse to see mountains and try conclusions with them at any season and in every fashion ; and that he has the best understanding of mountaineering to whom any and every method of approach seems equally sympathetic, provided that the motive be a genuine desire to be among hills, and that the object remains the mountain and not a personal vanity of success in one or the other technical fashion of approach.” Many by nature and attribute will be specialists in all walks of life, but as true mountaineers should we not take the larger view of our high calling?

For “the mountains are good to all;” the languid and the robust, the specialist and the more catholically minded, are each entitled to ask whatever they require of them in proportion, for their inspiration and restoration and most active operation, whether it be quiet contemplation, less strenuous roving, or more hardy climbing. In the mountains at any rate they will all be enabled to rise above “the foul miasmas that cling to the lowest bottoms of reeking valleys.”

1 British Ski Year Book, 1926, p. 563.

2 “Climbing Philosophy,” by C. F. Holland, in “The Climbers’ Club Journal,” 1929, New Series, Vol. IV, No. 1.

3 My Climbs in the Alps and Caucasus.

4 Foreword to “Climbs and Ski Runs” by F. S. Smythe.