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A Century of Mountaineering

A Century of Mountaineering. 1857-1957, by Arnold Lunn. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1957. 263 pages; 8 plates in color; 16 plates from photographs. Price 25 s.

This handsome volume, uniform in size and style with “The Mountain World” series, was sent to all members of the Alpine Club as a “Centenary Tribute” to the Alpine Club from the Swiss Foundation for Alpine Research. In a preface, Othmar Gunther, of the Foundation, says: “In our attempt to achieve a real understanding of mountaineering epochs and trends we should be guided by two prominent beacons: mountain and man.” In the search for a writer, he continues, the Foundation decided upon one "who could combine the factual approach of the historian and the personal interpretation of the essayist.” The choice of Arnold Lunn was a happy one, for he is an accomplished writer and his experience with mountains and the men who seek them has been life-long. As a youth he rejoiced in mountains, from the precincts of Oxford he led his fellow- students to them, and in maturity he has kept abreast of all that goes on in Britain and the Alps. Moreover, it has been his privilege to know many of the pioneers about whom he writes. We should expea to find, therefore, a book full of life and ideas rather than a mere chronology ; and such indeed is the case. Throughout the book he seems to say: “I am writing from my own point of view, and when I have finished someone else may go on and tell the story in another way.” If this is not a history, it is full of the material out of which histories may be written. The book is built around people and the people come to life.

As soon as we get into the body of the book we begin to meet people. First come the British pioneers: Forbes, Albert Smith, Tyndall, Alfred Wills, Kennedy, the Mathews clan, and John Ball—men of the Golden Age; then, Whymper, Leslie Stephen, Mummery, and Coolidge, of the Silver Age; later, “Four Great Mountain Explorers”—Freshfield, the Duke of the Abruzzi, Vittorio Sella, and Martin Conway. There is a chapter on “The Guides of the Golden Age.” Geoffrey Winthrop Young, Schuster, Amery, and others come later. There are many anecdotes, including Lunn’s own experiences with the Alpine Club. Foreign climbers are introduced, rather more than in most British books ; even a few ladies are admitted to the book, if not to the A.C. There is a chapter on “Ski and Winter Mountaineering”—here the author speaks with more than ordinary authority, for he has been president of the Ski Club of Great Britain and editor of the British Ski Year Book. In “The Iron Age” there is a lively discussion of the ethics of artificial aid, in which Sir Arnold shows himself to be rather more tolerant of the “moderns” than are some of his contemporaries.

It is hardly to be expected of one man that he should be able to cover the whole world of mountaineering with equal authority. It would have been better perhaps if the author had frankly conceded this. It would have been better, for instance, to say nothing rather than treat the Canadian Rockies, the Andes, and New Zealand in a total of three pages. It would certainly have been better if he had left out the page and a half on “The North American Ranges” (meaning Alaska), for in them is found not only error of omission (How can one speak of Mount McKinley and not mention Herschel Parker and Belmore Browne?), but there is an unsightly blemish. The latter is not entirely the author’s contribution, although he should have checked a little before placing sole reliance on Ullman’s The Age of Mountaineering. The chapter that Lunn calls “excellent” is very unreliable, and in the account of the “Sourdough” climb of 1910 positively slanderous. A reading of reviews in the Alpine Journal (Vol. 53, May 1942, pp. 271-3; and Vol. 61, November 1956, pp. 426-8) would have given warning. However, let us not end on this note, for there is so much that is good in this unique “tribute” from one mountaineering organization to another that small defects should not distract attention from its merits.

Francis P. Farquhar