A History of British Mountaineering, by R. L. G. Irving. 240 pages, with 65 illustrations. London: B. T. Batsford, Ltd., 1955. Price, 25 s.
There are few places in the world where British have not climbed, and this is becoming true of other nationals as well. The evident difficulty in such a work, therefore, is to know what to leave out. Thomas Johnson, who botanized in Wales and ascended Snowdon in 1639, could not have imagined that he would be set down at the start of British achievement in this field, and a generation ago there was no certainty that Everest could be climbed.
In recent years the pioneer work of the Alpine Club founders has been overshadowed by expeditions beyond the Alps, so that the time is ripe for this book. The early chapters deal with Chamonix and Zermatt, and for the necessary background one finds brief mention of early climbers, such as Mile. d’Angeville, who were not British at all, and this, except to the historian, is a bit confusing. In the Bernese Oberland we learn of the attempt to storm the Jungfrau from Rotthal which Slade and Yeats Brown made in 1828.
J. D. Forbes forms the chief link between Saussure and the founders of the Alpine Club. It was the small dinner at the Leasowes, home of William Mathews, Sr., on November 6, 1857, at which the project was discussed, and the first meeting of the club took place on December 22. The proposed rule that "a candidate shall not be eligible unless he shall have ascended to the top of a mountain 13,000 feet in height,” was objected to by Albert Smith and others, and was rejected. No one conceived that the organization "would be the parent of fruitful children, some of them more prolific than itself.” John Ball was the first president. Peaks, Passes and Glaciers was succeeded by the Alpine Journal. The books of Wills, Hinchliff, and Hudson and Kennedy did much to increase interest in mountaineering.
Zermatt had become the fashionable center as the popularity of Chamonix declined. Monte Rosa was the objective, soon to be eclipsed by the Matterhorn and its tragedy. And so the quickening enthusiasm spread to more distant terrain: the Caucasus, North America, the Southern Hemisphere, the Himalaya. Anglo-Saxon climbers at least, will be in agreement with the author’s creed "that there is an influence more purifying than danger in the beauty of the snows; and that among the countless ridges and recesses of the Alps we shall find an outlet for the energies of youth without having constantly before our eyes immediate prospects of dissolution.”
J. Monroe Thorington