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When the Alps Cast Their Spell: Mountaineers of the Alpine Golden Age

When the Alps Cast Their Spell: Mountaineers of the Alpine Golden Age. Trevor Braham. Glasgow, The In Pinn (Neil Wilson Publishing), 2004. 314 pages, colored plates. Hardcover. $30.00

When the judges gave the 2004 Boardman-Tasker Award for the best mountain literature to When the Alps Cast Their Spell, they knew what they were doing. It is a gold mine of scholarship about a critical period in the history of mountaineering.

Today, when mountaineering in all its many emanations, exploratory, alpine, rock, ice, bouldering, and even indoor, is practiced around the world by hundreds of thousands of climbers, it is hard to realize that the gym rat as well as the alpinist evolved from a single source, a group of Victorian Englishmen. Although a few people had climbed a few mountains in various parts of the world, giving a claim by their various countries to early mountaineering achievements, the sport itself was invented by the British in the 19th Century.

There have been many books on the Golden Age. Most of the scholarly histories are long out of print, and many recent ones are superficial reads providing an overview, but lacking the depth necessary to give the reader a feeling for the richness of mountaineering tradition. When the Alps Cast Their Spell does provide such a feeling. It is not an easy book, but it is smoothly written and well researched. As a mountaineer who has climbed in both the Alps and the Himalaya and as a former editor of the Himalayan Journal, who also has lived in Switzerland for many years, the author is one of the few persons who could write such a book.

Braham starts with a succinct but thorough chapter on the beginnings of mountaineering. The heart of the book is chapters on seven mountaineers, five of whom epitomized the Golden Age: Alfred Wills, John Tyndall, Leslie Stephen, A. W. Moore, and Edward Whymper. Braham then discusses subsequent developments through chapters on Albert Mummery and Emmanuel Boileau. As Braham says in his introduction, he chose subjects to illustrate the history of mountaineering, not explain it. Historians have considered Wills’ ascent of the Wetterhorn in 1855 to have opened the Golden Age, while Whymper’s ascent of the Matterhorn ten years later closed it. Mummery and Boileau represent the next stage of mountaineering, pioneering new routes of increasing technical difficulty in which the challenge is more important than the summit, an era Sir Arnold Lunn called The Silver Age.

What comes through in the book is the similarity between these pioneers and modern climbers, not the obvious differences. They were on a pilgrimage and in their own way were overcoming difficulty, accepting risk, and pushing the envelope, as an extreme climber today does. And they were like us as well. As Braham writes, “There exist today mountaineers with Stephen’s ethical standards, Moore’s exploratory ardor, Mummery’s pioneering spirit, Tyndall’s taste for risk, Wills’ trust in guides, Whymper’s craving to predominate.”

Those familiar with this history will recognize many of Braham’s stories. But he has combined well-known material with original research, making this an important book even for those who think they know the history. By describing the lives of these men, he gives a compelling picture of why, as well as how, the traditions of mountaineering arose.

Besides relating the accomplishments of the five principal subjects, Braham discusses the contributions of others, making his book a comprehensive history, not just a collection of biographies. There is concise but good coverage of the importance of W.A.B. Coolidge, the mountaineer-scholar about whom it was said, “The only way he knew how to bury the hatchet was in someone’s back.” When necessary, Braham chooses detail over simplicity, thus providing an extra richness to his account.

The chapter I most appreciated was about Emmanuel Boileau and the first ascent of the Meije, the highest peak in the Dauphine. Prior histories in English have not given this story the attention it deserves. When mentioned, it appears to be an afterthought. I have always been curious about the elusive Meije, on which the famous Emil Zigsmondy died. This book does it justice.

Braham covers alpinists who may have otherwise been omitted in the chapter, “There Were Many Others,” which includes Leading Ladies, Eminent Europeans, and Great Guides. Again, like the first chapter, it is concise, dense, and informative. There also is an excellent bibliography and a thorough, accurate list of Alpine First Ascents from the 13th through 19th centuries. If this is not enough, one can read the chapter endnotes, a treasure trove of obscure but fascinating information.

Besides facts, the book is infused with Braham's observations and judgments. He concludes, “Whatever might be the future of mountaineering it is to be hoped that certain essentials will remain. Such as the first spellbound moment of a youthful spirit stepping across the threshold into an awareness of the mountain world, and the birth of a desire to preserve what it has discovered.”

While all forms of climbing have their own rewards, a knowledge of the heritage of mountaineering adds to one’s satisfaction, as one becomes more aware of his or her relationship to the past. Braham’s book is superb account of the pioneering era when mountaineering became a sport. Climbers unfamiliar with our rich traditions will obtain an understanding of them, and those who are well versed in the literature will gain new knowledge and insights. Every mountaineer should have a copy. It will almost make a rainy day seem worthwhile. Take it on your next attempt on Mt. Robson.

Nicholas Clinch