American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Geoffrey Winthrop Young, 1876-1958

  • In Memoriam
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1959



As boys, G. W. Y. and his brothers lived at Formosa, the family place on the Thames. Their father, who had been a contemporary of Swinburne at Eton and of Leslie Stephen at Cambridge, edited the poems and essays of his uncle, Winthrop Mackworth Praed, and participated in the first complete ascent of the Guggi Route in 1865. He married the young widow of Sir Alexander Lawrence, son of the defender of Lucknow. To see the Youngs at Formosa, in the course of their years, came guests whose names belong to the history of the time—the Laureate Tennyson, Mrs. Henry Sidgwick of Newnham, Baden-Powell after Mafeking. The brothers Young must have had a glorious time: adventures on the river, the best of company at home. The eldest had in later years a distinguished career as a diplomat; he figured, too, in the mysterious workings of Room 40 O.B. at the Admiralty. The youngest entered Parliament; he lost an arm at Zeebrugge, serving in Vindictive on St. George’s Day, 1918. But who more than G. W. Y., the second brother, has shown what it is to bring mind and body, graciously, gallantly, into full play?

He went from Marlborough to Trinity College, Cambridge—“our beloved Trinity,” as he once wrote, “the real home of our thinking lives.” His father, Sir George, had known G. O. Trevelyan there. Now the sons met; and in G. M. Trevelyan, who was to become Master of Trinity (1940-51), G. W. Y. found a lifelong friend. The two walked together from Trinity to the Marble Arch, in less than 13 hours; and they "invented and initiated” the great game known in its original form as the Man Hunt and kept up by succeeding Trinity generations as the Lake Hunt. Before the turn of the century, G. W. Y. had made his first climbs in the Alps; and he became, Dr. Trevelyan writes in An Autobiography, “the centre of a mountaineering group at College.” Experience of another sort of climbing led to publication (anonymous) of The Roof-Climber’s Guide to Trinity and Wall and Roof Climbing. The latter (which G. W. Y. described in 1909 as a “very old joke”) collects apt passages in various languages, chiefly from the poets. Twice, G. W. Y. himself won the Chancellor’s Medal for English Verse.

From 1900 to 1905 he held an assistant mastership at Eton; from 1905 to 1913, an inspectorship of secondary schools. During vacations he journeyed in the eastern Mediterranean or revisited the Alps. His great decade in the Alps began on the southeast face of the Weisshorn and on the Furggen Ridge, in 1905, after he had formed the famous climbing partnership with Josef Knubel. To that decade “he stands in much the same relationship,” Sir Arnold Lunn suggests, “as Whymper to the Golden Age and Mummery to the Silver Age of mountaineering.” The listing of a few ascents is enough to show why: 1906, Charmoz-Grépon- Blaitière traverse in 16½ hours, and new routes (by south faces) on Täschhorn with V. J. E. Ryan, on Weisshorn and Dom with R. G. Mayor; 1907, Midi-Plan traverse in 14¾ hours, and new routes (by east faces) on Rimpfischhorn and Zinal Rothorn with C. D. Robertson; 1909, Nesthorn by Unterbächhorn and southeast ridge, guideless, with Robertson and G. H. Leigh-Mallory. In the glorious summer of 1911, with H. O. Jones and R. Todhunter, he swept on, after a traverse of La Meije, to Courmayeur: Mont Blanc by the Brouillard Ridge, descent of the east ridge of the Grandes Jorasses to the Col des Hirondelles, ascent of the west ridge from the Col des Grandes Jorasses, Grépon direct from the Mer de Glace. The day on the Grépon completed “the most perfect season of our alpine lives”: “All the world seemed to be open, shining.”

But there were countless other happy days. It is impossible to think of G. W. Y. without calling to mind the many companions with whom, characteristically, he shared the joys of being in the Alps or on the British mountains. His parties at Pen-y-Pass, in the shadow of Snowdon, began early in the century: “Gorphwysfa became the very place,” he decided, “to assemble friends.” Once a year, then twice a year, the band came together, to enjoy the mountains and one another’s company; and it grew (since “good society is composed of three elements”) to include women and children. “In the result,” G. W. Y. wrote, "the meets of the halcyon years came to represent an almost ideal social fabric; and their recollection survives with us, apart in memory”—crags to explore, and cold llyns to plunge in, and the Gorphwysfa filled in the evening with “rhymesters, wits, singers, players on many and unknown instruments, all at the top of their form and spirits”:

There are days upon Lliwedd beyond all desire,

And conflict with cavern and crack.

There are thoughts of the songs by the smoking-room fire,

And talks after twelve in the Shack…

To the ear of imagination, G. W. Y. still sings the well-known refrain.

In 1913-14 he shared with Will Arnold-Forster a house in the hills near Fiesole. On the terrace at Monte Fiano, in the sun, while W. A. F. painted and talked, G. W. Y. worked at the poems for Freedom and at a book about modern mountain-craft. They would go down to Florence occasionally, to look at old pictures or to talk with interesting friends. At the end of June 1914, G. W. Y. made his way northward to the Alps. He achieved the first ascent of the Gspaltenhorn west ridge with Siegfried Herford, went on to Zermatt for the only ascent of the Zmutt Ridge that season, and returned to London to be George Mallory’s best man on July 29th—which happened also to be the day hostilities commenced between Austria-Hungary and Serbia. G. W. Y. promptly recrossed the Channel, as war correspondent for the Daily News. In October he joined the Friends’ Ambulance Unit, in which he served through the devastating battles of Ypres. Then he joined G. M. Trevelyan in the First British Ambulance Unit for Italy. On the Isonzo front, during the attack on Monte San Gabriele in 1917, nel mezzo del cammin, he was badly hit; he lost his leg above the knee.

“I never believed in Geoffrey so much as now,” George Mallory wrote to Lady Young. In thus seeing truly, the good friend was not alone: he had the pleasure of writing, six months later, to congratulate G. W. Y. on his approaching marriage to Eleanor Slingsby. Early in 1919, the Youngs were “gloriously enjoying life” in Florence, and G. W. Y. wrote to G.H.L.M. : “I am keen to revive all the hill activities at once … We will do the social side, if you will set the climbing standard.” So there was a party at Pen-y-Pass that Easter, and on Tryfan G. W. Y. set about the adventure of climbing “with a difference.” It was a mighty struggle. Contriving the “peg” took ingenuity and patience; climbing with it meant working out new ideas of balance, pace, and the limits of endurance. But in 1923 he ascended Dungeon Ghyll with a family party that included his father, his father-in-law (Cecil Slingsby), and his own son Jocelin; and in 1927, with the Elliotts and other old friends, he returned to the Alps. The great ascent was Monte Rosa—an 18-hour day. No less astonishing, no less inspiring, were his later ascents of the Matterhorn, the Dent du Requin, the Grépon, and finally, in 1935, the Zinal Rothorn.

By that time, as a writer, too, G. W. Y. held a secure place among those whom mountaineers most honor. “You take the whole idea into a region where no one else has ever approached,” Mallory wrote in 1920; “the old story-tellers are clean out of it.” That October, Mountain Craft came out, dedicated “To the Memory of Gallant Comrades in the Mountains”; it has been recognized as the masterwork in its field. In 1923 a third volume of poems appeared, April and Rain, to stand beside Wind and Hill (1909) and Freedom (1914)—

I have not lost the magic of long days:

I live them, dream them still.

Still am I master of the starry ways, and freeman of the hill.

An article in the Cornhill for August 1923, “Mountaineering and Its Prophets,” dealt with the great Victorians, particularly with Whymper and Leslie Stephen, and raised the question, How can we best write of the mountain experience now? Completing revision of his own reminis- censes, in 1926, he acknowledged how impossibly difficult it is to convey in words the simultaneousness, during a mountain day, of the doing, the seeing, and the feeling. But his own way of weaving the strands of experience had made On High Hills a book to be cherished, with Whymper’s Scrambles and Stephen’s Playground of Europe and Slingsby’s Norway.

Thus G. W. Y. carried on the old tradition; he also helped to create a new one, for a changing world. In Freedom he had expressed his hopes, his wishes, “For Any Boy” ; after the War, he gave thought to the future of education for boys. During the Twenties and Thirties, he acted as Consultant to the Rockefeller Foundation and as Reader in Comparative Education at the University of London. Always he kept in touch with younger people—notably at Pen-y-Pass, before the war-clouds gathered again. His combination of interests, in education and in mountaineering, became a strong force. In Kurt Hahn’s concern, at Gordon- stoun School, for skillful action and Samaritan service, he recognized the right imaginativeness at work. As a war-time President of the Alpine Club (1941-44), he encouraged development of mountain training and took the leading part in creation of the British Mountaineering Council. Then, in the post-war years, his old hopes took new form in the Outward Bound Movement. Able now to walk only with difficulty, he rejoiced in the success of the Eskdale Mountain School, opened in 1950; for there boys from industry, commerce, schools might learn “what a lot mountaineering can do, for a life.”

In his last decade, the beloved doyen finished two more books: Mountains with a Difference (1951), The Grace of Forgetting (1953). He contributed an essay on “Courage, and Mountain Writing” to The Mountain World 1955 ; he spoke on mountains and human intelligence, as the W. P. Ker Memorial Lecturer at Glasgow in 1956; he prepared the chapter called “From Genesis to Numbers” for Snowdon Biography (1957). He joined in the celebration of the Alpine Club’s Centenary. All this activity can not have been easy, but it showed the old magic; G. W. Y. never lost his power to enchant. One wanted the children, of yet another oncoming generation, to see the clear eyes and hear the voice of a man whom their parents and grandparents loved. For the youngest, as for readers of all ages, it is a blessing that his books will always be there. And yet the very best books of Geoffrey may be, after all, two special personal treasures of the Youngs: the book of photographs taken at Pen-y-Pass through the years, and the book of messages sent from many lands on his 80th birthday. How many better selves are forever indebted to him!

David Allan Robertson, Jr

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