Monday, March 9, 2020

Climate pioneer

How Alfred de Quervain took the measure of Greenland's icecap

Just like Greenland, we thought when we first set eyes on the Claridenfirn – so vast and open were the views across this icy altiplano in the Glarus Alps of Switzerland.

Back in Zurich, a quick Google suggested that the comparison wasn’t so wide of the mark. For a link does exist between our local icefield and the world’s largest, most heavily glaciated island. It turns out that the Claridenfirn was first researched by a Swiss explorer who, just over a century ago, also led the first west-to-east Greenland crossing. Now a special exhibition at the Swiss National Museum in Zurich commemorates this feat.

Alfred de Quervain
Alfred de Quervain (1879-1927) may be the most famous arctic explorer that few outside Switzerland have ever heard of. Ironically, in these warming times, it was fears of a renewed freeze-up that helped to launch his career. When the young de Quervain finished his meteorological studies in Bern and Paris around the turn of the last century, Europe had just emerged from the “Little Ice Age” and the Swiss authorities were keen to understand what drove such climatic variations.

View of Grindelwald at the end of the "Little Ice Age"
The ice continued to occupy de Quervain’s thoughts after 1906, when he took up an appointment as Adjunct-Director of Switzerland’s nascent meteorological agency. Inspired by Fridtjof Nansen’s pioneering crossing of Greenland in 1888, de Quervain wondered what conditions would be like further north, closer to the icecap’s midriff.

A reconnaissance was made in 1909, reaching a point some 85 kilometres from the coast. This was a salutary test: the party met with all the usual dangers and annoyances that face Greenland travellers, including crevasses, meltwater lakes, and winds that threatened to blow their tents away.

Crevasses in Greenland
In April 1912, the Swiss expeditioners came back to make a full crossing – west to east, in the opposite direction to Nansen, so that they could avoid overwintering. Keeping the costs down was key: as for Captain Scott around the same time, support from the public purse was limited.

Instead, funding came from scientific institutions, private donations and a newspaper sponsorship by the Neue Zürcher Zeitung. The government did step in later to guarantee the expedition’s debts. And, as companies made contributions in kind, the party consumed a lot of Maggi soup.

The expeditioners came from varied backgrounds: Roderich Fick was an architect, Karl Gaule an engineer and Hans Hössli, a doctor as well as a member of the Academic Alpine Club of Zurich. To weld this team together, de Quervain took them on a shakedown climb in the wintry Engadine. But learning how to drive dogs had to wait until they arrived in Greenland.

In the preface to his expedition book, de Quervain says “On the one hand, we took great risks. But on the other, we were so exact in devising and working out our preparations that perhaps some interesting but avoidable situations did not occur. Such would have been sensational and not to the credit of a serious undertaking.”

The words may be disingenuous. Like any expedition, they had their share of interesting situations. In the first few days, the sketchiness of their driving skills led to near-disaster, when two of their three sledges broke through thin ice into a glacier lake, complete with dogs and drivers.

Fortunately, all was retrieved. The sleeping bags stayed dry in their waterproof packing and – much to the credit of this serious undertaking – de Quervain had arranged for the all-important supply of matches to be welded into tins and dispersed between all three sledges. His Ulysses Nardin chronograph – vital for navigation – did get waterlogged, but he managed to fix it.

In the end, their resourcefulness saw them through. Despite several more mishaps – the dogs kept eating their traces – they covered 640 km in 31 days, reaching Ammassalik on the east coast in late July. On the way, they reached an altitude of 2,510 metres, gathering a trove of geographical and weather data. Two colleagues who’d stayed on the coast made more detailed meteorological observations, once tracking a weather balloon up to 39,000 feet.

Another expedition result may resonate with an even stronger vibe today:-

Among the insights […] we gained is the realization that we […] in fact have become slaves of our slogans “faster, faster” and “more and more”. Do we believe that the quality of our lives is improved tenfold by going ten times as fast, or hearing and doing ten times as much every day? What if the value of our impressions turns out to be correspondingly superficial as they grow more fleeting? What do we win? […] But we stand here at a threshold. From here on the law of our souls will always say: If the sensations reach us ten times faster, their impression will diminish tenfold, with the result that we will be the poorer the hastier we live. That is a small truth I have learned from the icecap, from the midnight sun and the hundreds of little wrinkles in old Kitsigajak’s face. It is another of the expedition’s results that I must not suppress.

Old Kitsigajak

Back in Switzerland, de Quervain wrote an expedition book that has been reprinted several times – although not yet, alas, in an English translation. Remarkably, he was able to illustrate this account with colour photographs.* Together with a series of public lectures, these efforts helped to pay off the expedition’s debts.

Meanwhile, the expeditioners worked up their scientific results. These have gained in importance over the years. De Quervain’s profile of the icecap now serves as a baseline for researchers (several of them Swiss) who are trying to establish how fast Greenland is melting.

De Quervain never forgot the ice. Having developed a keen interest in glaciology, he took part in official studies of several glaciers in eastern Switzerland. His survey of the Claridenfirn started in 1914, making this glacier the longest continuously studied ice-stream in the world.

But how far into the future will it continue to be studied? A few summers ago, the Sensei and I took our niece to see the Claridenfirn. We wanted her to see the glacier in something like the state that de Quervain found it. In recent years, the lake at the glacier’s tongue has been growing fast.


 “Greenland 1912”, Exhibition at the Swiss National Museum, Zurich, 6 February – 19 April 2020.

William Barr, "Alfred de Quervain’s Swiss Greenland expeditions, 1909 and 1912," Polar Record, 51 (259). Map is reproduced from this article.

Alfred de Quervain, Quer durchs Grönlandeis: Die Expeditionen 1909 und 1912/13, Verlag Neue Zürcher Zeitung, edition 1 January 1998.


The previous year, at the other end of the planet, Herbert Ponting had failed to impress with similar efforts. Captain Scott’s diary for 25 April 1911 notes that “Ponting has taken some coloured pictures, but the result is not very satisfactory and the plates are much spotted.” See Liz Watkins, “Mapping the Antarctic: Photography, colour and the scientific expedition in public exhibition”, Chapter 24, in Progress in Colour Studies: Cognition, language and beyond, edited by Lindsay MacDonald, Carole Biggam and Galina Paramei, John Benjamins BV, 2018.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020


Project HaMo (translation): time to turn in, but first ...

Just as night falls, ahead of you there’s the fiery spectacle of the sun sinking, a blood-red ball into the haze of distant mountains. And, behind you, the earth’s ghostly shadow creeps upwards – while you sit in that sheltered spot outside the hut, peaceful, appreciative – and two minutes later you’re safe inside again, next to the toasty oven.

Sunset in the Bernese Oberland
(Photo by courtesy of Alpine Light & Structure)

You’ve drained this day to the dregs; now, overexcited, almost in a fever, you need your sleep to recover. Drained by the sunglare, you’re glad to turn in; onto that wondrously soft pallet of straw. Now listen, outside, how the mountain wind icily heralds the dark night’s chill.

Which moves you most – that spectacle of the sinking sun, ever renewed, or that stealthy shadow, unbelievably fast-growing, with all its eerie accoutrements – when you see them at sunset from a high peak’s godlike seat?

The mightier your mountain, the higher and steeper it is, the more magically the light fades, and so much the greater too the grim looming of night’s onset. But you need strong nerves if you hanker after some yet higher vantage point, so as not to miss the twin spectacles of the radiant fire and the spectre of shadow. For most of us worry ourselves sick, tremble with fear even, just to think about the descent – be that as it may, you need to get a move on.

Before the night goes pitch-black on you, while some light lingers, you need to get down as far as you can, get down the ridge, tackle the steepest bits, the water-slimed rocks, get across the snow cone or the glacier’s crevasses cutting this way and that.

Already you seem to be clueless how, before dawn today, you worked your way through the night and, with your lantern’s help, found your way through a chaos of rubble by a feeble light’s gleam. But, all of a sudden, you don’t trust yourself any more – so much sun have you had through the blazing day that you’re fainting for sleep and a rest. So, down as fast as you can, and you’ll get away without a bivvy.


This is an excerpt from a centennial translation of Ihr Berge (1916), a mountain memoir by Hans "Hamo" Morgenthaler (1890-1928). Translation (c) Project Hyakumeizan.


Project HaMo (translation): the darkest hours are before dawn ...

By lantern-light in the Mischabel
(Photo by courtesy of Alpine Light & Structure)

Fully awake at last, all five senses alert!

By lantern-light, fleeting and unsteady, after barely a nibble at the sleep you needed, you were striding and stumbling about, for hours before dawn. Nailed boots screeched as they sought out traces of a path amid the piles of loose rubble, and too often they missed. Again and again, you slipped. A patch of ice, a slatey slab, and you missed your step in this feeble, flickering gleam.

All at odds in these graveyard hours, you ground and sweated your way upwards. The weather was nagging at you too; what if all this toil was for nothing? You longed for daylight to sort it all out. And at last, at last, the light starts to grow – and the sun rises. Now anything is possible.

Those moraines of despond, these tedious spoil-tips, all are set magnificently aglow in the new-born morning. Unquenchable now, your mountain motivation. You’ve rifted yourself out of the valley, you want nothing more to do with down-below. Lissom are your limbs, your senses clear – up and away is today’s order. And now, with more than twelve hours till night falls, it’s broad daylight again.


This is an excerpt from a centennial translation of Ihr Berge (1916), a mountain memoir by Hans "Hamo" Morgenthaler (1890-1928). Translation (c) Project Hyakumeizan.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020


Project HaMo (translation): the club's Christmas party proves intimidating for a tyro climber

Weihnachtskneipe! This is when all our club’s mountaineers get together for a cheerful Christmas drink. There is singing and drinking in the lofty guildhall, while mountain memories waft along in the blue smoke of many a summit pipe.

Original illustration from Ihr Berge (1916)

I join them as the club’s youngest member.

What a band of warriors is gathered here! There is the black-bearded giant, here the blond colossus, the quiet and serious ones in between, a head of grey hair on the one who is already getting along a bit.

Many of them I’ve never set eyes on before, and yet I know their names and mountaineering records better than I know my next-door neighbour. And what I know is this – these men have seen the mountains in a way I might never be privileged to.

When the worthiest of this high company shows us some of his most exquisite pictures, a chorus of seniors voice their approval: “Great stuff, well done.”

When they tell of battle and victory, when I hear from their own mouths all the epic ventures that resound among us striplings like sagas of the heroes – then how small this makes me feel by comparison. How likely is it that I’ll ever carry off anything like these feats of theirs? And how these sacred incantations of the club cut into my heart. What use to me is high ambition, spades of daring and an iron will?

For it is Titans I see in front of me, wrestling with giant mountains. I shiver as in a dream. The evening that looked so enticing does yield all it promised – and yet not so much. I must leave the room and, down at heart, I stride away through the dark night.


This is an excerpt from a centennial translation of Ihr Berge (1916), a mountain memoir by Hans "Hamo" Morgenthaler (1890-1928). Translation (c) Project Hyakumeizan.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Alpine vignettes

Project HaMo (translation): three mountain sketches by Hans Morgenthaler

Winning through to the Finsteraarhorn's summit
(Photo by courtesy of Alpine Light & Structure)
Summit joys

Did you ever win through to the summit of a cold snowy peak that glows in the early light of a high-altitude morning, before the sun even starts to purge the night fogs from the deep valleys? After those hard hours of climbing, your iron-shod steps suddenly found their way so easily. Effortlessly, you promenaded atop the bare crest of your hard-won summit.

Now you could hold your head high, as proud as a commander’s after some victorious battle? Didn’t that set your heart racing, near fit to burst with this surge of summit joy? And then you had to retrace your steps, down the hard-frozen snow slope. Reluctantly and a touch bitter at heart, you let yourself take one last look upwards into that deep blue sky, infinitely far overhead, before you took leave of your liberating summit, and its brief joys.

(For the mountaineers who served in the Great War.)


Original illustration
from Ihr Berge (1916)
In the valley, burdened with an irrepressible longing, my hapless soul quivers for the high mountains, cheers on the day that brings me back to them, and builds up the resistless force that will snap the fetters which keep me from them, yearning just to wander abroad for ever.

Yet, after a hard struggle with the mountains, after weeks of body-bruising encounters, tussling with the rocks and ice in good earnest, my fervent wish is once again for the valley, a bed, sweet milk and freshly-fragrant bread.

Struck to the heart

Have you ever seen how the mountains can capture a tyro climber?

It’s half past five on a May morning. We stand in bright sunlight, four thousand metres up on a peak in the Bernese Oberland, the first "big mountain" that my friend from southern Italy has ever climbed. And I myself have never seen a day dawn quite so clearly in the mountains. Crisply and cleanly the vanquished giants rise up around us. Today, from Mont Blanc’s summit, you could probably pick out each individual top in the far-off Bernina range.

All of a sudden, my swarthy Sardinian friend looks and talks quite differently. Shaken to his core, as if astonished, and gazing all around him, he seems to have woken from some deep slumber: "Is such beauty even possible!" his black eyes twinkle, "and all the time I’ve been frittering away my priceless time at cards and dances." He shakes my hand.


This is an excerpt from a centennial translation of Ihr Berge (1916), a mountain memoir by Hans "Hamo" Morgenthaler (1890-1928). Translation (c) Project Hyakumeizan.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Images and ink (42)

Image: The crags of the Matterhorn during the storm, midnight, August 10th, 1863, woodcut by Edward Whymper, from Scrambles among the Alps in the years 1860-69.

Ink: Account of a storm on the Matterhorn, as told by mountain guide Fredy Biner to Kurt Lauber, in Matterhorn, Bergführer erzählen: Gipfelgeschichten gesammelt von Kurt Lauber, Droemer HC, 2015.

Three Japanese had been overtaken on the Zmutt Ridge by a thunderstorm, and one had fallen, breaking his hip. So the trio had to be brought down the mountain. When the first thunderstorm had gone by, Leo lmesch and I flew off with Sigi Stangier as pilot and a rescue assistant. Before that, the mountain guides Bruno Jelk and Ludwig "Lutschi" lmboden had already been brought to the accident site. Because of the powerful downdrafts, we had to get out of the helicopter as it hovered below the Zmuttgrat’s snow ridge, as Sigi could not fly it any higher up. The next thunderstorm was now coming up from the southwest. Leo suggested leaving our ice-axes here and said "If you have any gold teeth, they’ll be blown right out of your mouth today!" And as he climbed, he sent up a quick prayer: "God save us and the other punters."

We climbed up through the towers on the ridge and joined the others further up. Bruno Jelk and "Lutschi" had already put the casualty on the rope, and we took the other two between us and followed them. Now we were in the middle of the storm. Heavy snowfall and downpours alternated, strong gusts of wind did their utmost. Huge bolts of ball lightning, up to 50 meters across, exploded with deafening thunderclaps right next to us. Every time they did that, blocks of rock started rolling, and it reeked of sulphur. Again and again, the static kept building up in the air, which felt as if a cat was biting the back your neck.

Leo took the lead back through the towers, with me belaying him. Then one of his crampons came loose. He came back to fix it. At that moment, there was another explosion, even more powerful. Just where we’d been before, two man-high boulders slowly tilted out of the ridge. They would have taken us with them down the west face. So God did save us punters. Below, from the snow ridge, Sigi was able to fly first the casualties and then ourselves back to the village.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

“Alpine writing is the lowest form of literature”

A long-ago conniption raises live questions about the state of mountain writing

It’s safe to say that this mid-Victorian Englishman did not enjoy his sojourn, one wet summer during the 1870s, in a fog-bound Swiss mountain hotel. When writing up the experience, he dipped his pen in acid to sketch out grotesque caricatures of his fellow guests and countrymen. Businessmen on holiday, clergymen, matrons, spinsters – all are ruthlessly lampooned.

English "Alpine Clubbists" at Grindelwald, c. 1900
Artist unknown. 

But the scholar’s most corrosive grade of bile was reserved for the “Alpine Clubbist”. The mountaineer “is not an imaginative man,” the writer sneers. Instead, he is a bit of a gear freak (“His one grief in life seems to be the failure of his new portable cooking apparatus …) with social skills to match: “Alpine talk is the lowest variety of conversation as the common run of Alpine writing is the lowest form of literature.”

And then we hear the mid-Victorian intellectual work himself up into a screech of exasperation as he piles into the quality of that literature:

What is it which makes men in Alpine travel-books write as men never write elsewhere? What is the origin of a style unique in literature, which misses both the sublime and the ridiculous, and constantly hops from tall-talk to a mirth feeble and inane? Why is it that the senior tutor, who is so hard on a bit of bad Latin, plunges at the sight of an Alp into English inconceivable, hideous? Why does page after page look as if it had been dredged with French words through a pepper-castor? Why is the sunrise or the scenery always "indescribable," while the appetite of the guides lends itself to such reiterated description? These are questions which suggest themselves to quiet critics, but hardly to the group in the hotel …

These were the criticisms that were suggested by one John Richard Green in his Stray Studies from England and Italy, a travel journal published in 1876 (the remarks quoted are from the chapter entitled “Hotels in the clouds”).

Had J R Green not been one of the era’s most prominent historians, the Alpine Clubbists could probably just have shrugged. But, finding themselves attacked by the Niall Ferguson of their day, they doubtless felt obliged to respond. Appropriately, this duty fell to Douglas Freshfield, himself a prolific alpinist and mountain writer. His riposte appeared in the seventh volume of the Clubbists’ own Alpine Journal, in the same year as Green’s tirade.

Like the lawyer he was between mountaineering forays, “DWF” opens his defence by redefining the terrain. The Alpine Journal itself and its predecessor, Peaks, Passes and Glaciers, were only ever intended for an “inner public”, he writes. Thus, “it would be preposterous to select [them] as by themselves fair representatives of our literature, and no competent and candid critic would venture on such an absurdity.”

Then he moves to the offensive: “we are ready to submit Alpine writing to a comparison with any portion of the larger literature of travel of which it forms a division” – although he does not deny that the Alpine Club also includes a “sporting element” whose productions “may not bear examination by any high literary standard”.

As for Green’s charge that most alpine writing “misses both the sublime and the ridiculous”, DWF raises the ingenious excuse that many mountaineering authors might wish to avoid courting ridicule by attempting to rival “Mr L Stephen’s description of a sunset from Mont Blanc, or Professor Tyndall’s of that seen on the spurs of the Weisshorn”.

The reference here is to John Tyndall’s Hours of exercise in the Alps and Leslie Stephen's Playground of Europe, both published in 1871. DWF might also have mentioned Edward Whymper, who in the very same year came out with his Scrambles Amongst the Alps in the Years 1860-69. But Whymper’s relationship with the Alpine Club was always an edgy one, which may explain why DWF passed over him in silence.

With the benefit of a century and more’s worth of hindsight, DWF can be seen to have won his case handsomely. While Green’s works have sunk almost without trace, those of Tyndall, Stephen and, yes, Whymper have stood the test of time – or, at least, they are still regularly read and reprinted. (There were never any hard feelings, by the way, between the Clubbists and the eminent historian: Leslie Stephen later edited J R Green’s collected correspondence.)

So, case closed? Well, not quite. Long after this mid-Victorian debate, mountain writers have continued to sound a defensive note. “Time has gone on; and the discontent with mountain publications seems to be repeating itself,” admitted Geoffrey Winthrop Young in 1955 ("Courage, and mountain writing").

Nor, two decades later, could Michael Ward be more sanguine: “In general, mountain literature is rich and varied within the bounds of a subject that tends to be esoteric. It is not easy to transpose great actions into good, let alone great literature.” ("Mountain literature – then and now", Alpine Journal 1976).

Might it be then that J R Green was on to something with his diatribe back in 1876? Douglas Freshfield certainly thought so. “Caricatures … have a value,” he wrote in his reply to Green, “and especially for their subjects. Having faced the attack, we may do well to consider how we may render its repetition impossible. Let us all bear consistently in mind the faults of which we are here accused…”


Illustration is from Gabriele Seitz, Wo Europa den Himmel berührt: die Entdeckung der Alpen, Büchergilde Gutenberg, 1989.