American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

James Waddell Alexander, 3d, 1888–1971

  • In Memoriam
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1972


James Alexander was born at Sea Bright, N.J., September 19, 1888, and died in Princeton, N.J., on September 23, 1971. In early life he described himself as socialist and atheist, and, to be in character, intermittently wore a full beard. The authorities, however, called him “a brilliant member of a distinguished Princeton family; a profound mathematician of great originality, and one of the creators of modern topology.”1 His great-grandfather was in the Princeton class of 1820 and his grandfather graduated in 1860. His father, John White Alexander, was a noted artist, sometimes called the “pale Sargent,” who, among other works, painted murals for the Library of Congress and was given an Hon. A.M. by Princeton in 1902.

Jim received his B.S. from Princeton in the class of 1910, maxima cum laude and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. He then entered the Princeton Graduate School and continued his studies there for two years, gaining an M.A. in 1911 and a Ph.D. in 1915. He also did work in the universities of Paris and Bologna. He became an instructor in mathematics at Princeton in 1913, continuing in that position until the beginning of the War. On January 15, 1917, he married Natalie Levitzkaya, a Russian whom he had met in Italy, by whom he had a daughter and a son, and, eventually, six grandchildren.

Commissioned lieutenant in the New Jersey National Guard, and later transferred to the 111th Machine Gun Battalion, in November, 1917, he was ordered to Washington and attached to the technical staff of the Ordnance Department. Sent abroad in 1918, he came out of the service with rank of captain.

He was assistant professor of mathematics at Princeton, 1920–25, associate professor, 1926–28, and full professor, 1928–33. In the latter year he and Albert Einstein were appointed professors at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. Princeton conferred on him an Hon. D.Sc. in 1947 and he retired in 1951. He served on the Princeton Advisory Council, 1954–55.

He was a member of the American Mathematical Society, the Mathematical Society of America, the American Philosophical Society, a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and Chairman of the National Research Council on Analysis Situs. In 1929 he was awarded by the American Mathematical Society the Bocher Prize for mathematical research, and delivered in 1931 an annual Rouse Ball lecture in Mathematics at Cambridge, England. He produced fourteen technical papers during 1915–20, while the Institute for Advanced Study lists an equal number by him during the period 1930–54, all of them formidable, even the titles being incomprehensible to anyone other than a specialist.

Suddenly, with little apprenticeship or guidance, the Alexanders emerged in the forefront of American mountaineers. Jim had the build for it, tall and slender, with a long reach. As a climber in the 1920s few of our countrymen were his equal. In 1921, when he was 32, he went to the Colorado Rockies for relief of allergy, ascending Longs Peak because, as he said, he was “afraid of heights.” Like many others he fell under the spell of this mountain, in three summers making a total of 20 ascents2 without climbing any other Colorado summit. His usual equipment was tennis shoes and ice axe; nailed boots and rope are seldom mentioned.

In 1922 he made nine ascents, including east face, solo, by Alexander Chimney; east face, chimneys and Staircase (with Moomaw); east face, solo, via Notch couloir. In 1924 he made ten ascents, among them: northwest face with Smith (first time by Keyhole ridge); east face again; north face (with his wife); east face, solo (Lamb descent); southwest ridge (Mills route via couloir above Shelf trail).3 In all other seasons, from 1923 to 1930 he ranged through the Pennine Alps (Mont Blanc to the Simplon) and Bernese Oberland, his wife climbing with him from 1925 on.

In 1923, his first season in the Alps, Alexander made 22 ascents in the Zermatt-Saas Fee area, ten of which were traverses: Laquinhorn; Fletschhorn; Südlenzspitze-Nadelhorn-Stecknadelhorn-Hohberghorn; Täschhorn-Alphübel; Rimpfischhorn; Obergabelhorn; Lyskamm, Monte Rosa (Zumsteinspitze-Grenzgipfel-Dufourspitze); Matterhorn (Zmutt and Italian arêtes). During much of the time his guide was Ignaz Zurbriggen of Saas Fee.

In 1925 there were 25 ascents between Chamonix and, along the High Level Route, Arolla, Zermatt and Saas Fee: Grands Charmoz (traverse); Grepon (first of his six ascents); Aiguille de Blaitière (north summit); Aiguille du Moine (guideless); Dent de Veisivi; Pigne d’Arolla (guideless traverse with his wife); Mont Collon (traverse). His 23 ascents of 1926, many of them guideless, included two lower Aiguilles du Diable; Petit and Grand Dru (traverse); Südlenzspitze-Dom-Täschhorn (traverse); Matterhorn and other Zermatt peaks, with ski ascents of Strahlhorn, Rimpfischhorn and Allalinhorn.

In the 1927 season 23 peaks fell to him, both in the Zermatt area, where he repeated Matterhorn (this time with his wife), and the Bernese Oberland: Aletschhorn (new route direct from Mittel Aletsch glacier) and Bietschhorn (new route on east face). 1928 added 20 summits, embracing higher Oberland peaks, as well as a large number between Zermatt and Saas Fee, done guideless with his wife.

The Alexanders were centrists, and Chamonix, where for a number of summers they had a chalet, had become their favorite spot. More than once they had with them Jim’s classmate, Lawrence Lowe, then an instructor in French at Princeton. Larry was an agile but frustrated climber who invariably succumbed to mountain sickness and neverreached a summit. At Chamonix, however, he once gained notoriety by riding a bicycle across the Mer de Glace at the peak of the tourist rush hour. Hoi-polloi at Montanvert were amazed, and the old retired guides, who had been expiating on the dangers of crevasses, were on the verge of mutiny.

1929 was devoted to the Chamonix area, with more than 15 peaks which began with Mont Blanc (traverse), followed by such exacting expeditions as Aiguille des Deux Aigles with Aiguille du Plan (traverse); Mummery and Ravanel; Grands Charmoz (first ascent by the République ridge; also left-hand traverse, twice, guideless) and Grépon (twice; once with his wife). In 1930, again at Chamonix, he made the first ascent of the final wall of Aiguille du Peigne without aid from above; Grépon (Mer de Glace face); Aiguille de Blaitière (south and center summits); Aiguille du Fou (descending by Col du Fou and Blaitière glacier); Mont Blanc (with his wife), finishing the season with Aiguille du Géant (guideless) and a guideless traverse of Charmoz- Grépon (his fifth ascent of the latter). All of the foregoing is but a partial list.

Alexander did not record his ascents after 1930; there are no diaries or notes. We know, however, that he and his wife were again at Chamonix in 1931, 1932 and 1933, sometimes with companions and presumably maintaining their high standards of climbing. In 1934 they visited the Canadian Rockies, ascending Mounts Assiniboine and Victoria. In 1935 he is said to have been invited to join a Himalayan expedition, but did not accept. They were back in Chamonix in 1935 and 1936, in the former season nearly losing their lives on the Grépon when a porter fell and dragged the party into a crevasse. They encountered bad weather in 1936, did little or nothing and seem not to have returned to the Alps thereafter, ending as they began mountaineers of great style and skill. They ascended Mount Rainier in 1937 but then became more interested in winter skiing and pursued this sport at Stowe, Vermont, through 1941.

He and his wife joined the American Alpine Club in 1927, proposed by B.S. Comstock and B.F. Seaver. His record in the Alps comprises more than 200 climbs, most of them major ascents. It will be seen that, as he gained proficiency, he was attracted to increasingly difficult objectives, looking for new routes and showing preference for guideless climbing. If, as has been said, the measure of a mountaineer rests in his willingness to repeat climbs, one may cite the following: Longs Peak (20), Grépon (6), Charmoz (4), Südlenzspitze (4), Matterhorn (3), Täsch- horn (2), Aiguille du Moine (2), Mont Blanc (2)

Alexander did not entirely recover from an attack of polio, which made walking difficult, and, after his wife’s death in 1967, his health slowly failed. The spark was rekindled momentarily, scarcely two years ago, when Alfred Bush and I drove him around the Princeton campus and Jim pointed out various routes he (and his wife) had put up on the dormitories when he introduced roof-climbing there more than half a century before. We were all in a happy frame of mind. It was a day to remember.


1This subject deals with geometric analysis. Topology, formerly called Analysis Situs, is defined as “the study of the properties of geometric configurations invariant under transformations by continuous mappings.”

2Dudley Smith to John L.J. Hart, July 26. 1924.

3P.W. Nesbit, Longs Peak (5th edit.. 1963).

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