An Eccentric in the Alps, the Story of the Rev. W. A. B. Coolidge, the Great Victorian Mountaineer

Publication Year: 1960.

An Eccentric in the Alps, the Story of the Rev. W. A. B. Coolidge, the great Victorian Mountaineer, by Ronald W. Clark. London: Museum Press, 1959. 217 pages; 23 ills. Price 35s.

Hero of many a peak and pass,

Not born to die in a crevasse;

A scholar, critic most severe,

Content to burrow, year by year,

Under the Bernese summits hoary Where you re-edit Alpine story,

And thunder forth to friends at home Letters as fierce as Bulls of Rome…

So wrote Douglas Freshfield in a dedication to Rev. W. A. B. Coolidge. the curmudgeon of Grindelwald, who in his earlier days had been known as "the American who climbs with his aunt and his dog.” It is evident from Ronald Clark’s well-written volume that this singular alpine historian and writer of guidebooks had a lifetime devotion to "his aunt, the Alps and his dog, possibly in that order.” But that is not the whole story of the eccentric American who was born near New York, briefly attended St. Paul’s School, became a Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1875, editor of The Alpine Journal from 1880-89, and spent his last 30 years in Switzerland.

During his lifetime Coolidge made more than 1200 mountain ascents and apparently had at least as many quarrels; but, far more important, he became the greatest of alpine historians and a superb editor of alpine guidebooks. Ronald Clark gives us insight into how some of these developments occurred, but even he cannot explain this odd character. An important influence on Coolidge throughout his life was his aunt, Miss Brevoort, who introduced him to mountain climbing and with whom he made many early ascents. Miss Brevoort, her nephew’s senior by 25 years, not only climbed Mont Blanc in 1865, when she was 40, but even danced a quadrille on the summit and sang the Marseillaise. The third member of the "climbing team,” a large beagle named Tschingel, was given to Coolidge in 1868 by his guide to soften his disappointment after verglas had turned them back on the Eiger. Both Coolidge and Miss Brevoort dearly loved this mountaineering dog, who by the end of her career had "carried out 66 grandes courses and 11 first ascents!”

This climbing trio was broken up in 1876 by the untimely death of Miss Brevoort. Although considerably shaken by his aunt’s death, Coolidge continued the climbs in the Dauphiné and the winter mountaineering which he and his aunt had pioneered. Year after year he visited more peaks, until he knew the Alps more intimately than any climber of his day. Despite the efforts of Ronald Clark, these later years of the expatriate American are less interesting than the earlier ones. We hear that Coolidge was "studiously rude,” and would take personal offense at the smallest point. There was, of course, the quarrel with Davidson that threatened to split the Alpine Club; and there were many others.

In this biography the "medieval ferocity” of this eccentric is more in evidence than his kindly aid to all who sought it.” Ronald Clark has not written a popular book, but he has contributed to alpine history by telling the story of its greatest historian, a mountaineer who loved the Alps passionately, but never climbed in England, in Scotland, or in any other area.

Robert H. Bates