Thursday, August 16, 2018

Mountains in the mind

How high must a mountain be? You decide ...

This you might have missed. England recently acquired a new mountain after two amateur surveyors found that a hill is one metre taller than originally thought. So Miller Moss, an eminence in the Lake District, becomes the 446th official mountain in England and Wales after it proved to be 610.1 metres high, rather than 609 metres. The official UK threshold, by which mountains are sorted from mere hills, is 609.6 metres or 2,000 feet.

The survey team atop Miller Moss
(photo courtesy Graham Jackson via BBC)

The discovery was made by John Barnard and Graham Jackson, retired chemists, who have spent a decade checking the height of summits that are promisingly close to the mountain/hill borderline. Using a Leica GS15, a fancy GPS set, they occasionally demote mountains instead of promoting hills.

This was the depressing outcome when they checked out a brace of “Munros” – a list of Scottish peaks supposed to exceed 3,000 feet high. As a result, Scotland now only has 282 Munros, down from 284. In Wales, by contrast, they discovered that Glyder Fawr did top 1,000 metres after all, so that it now has to feature in the Welsh 1,000-metre challenge hill race.

Inevitably, Messrs Barnard and Jackson have invited comparison with The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill and Down a Mountain. In this 1995 film starring Hugh Grant, a Welsh village foils two visiting mapmakers, who want to demote the local mountain into a hill, by piling a mound of earth on its top.

Strange to say, something like that almost happened in Switzerland. At the start of the twentieth century, the Fletschhorn, a mountain in the Valais Alps, was shown on official maps with a height of 4,001 metres. Thus, Karl Blodig had to visit its summit in 1900 on his quest to climb all the sixty or so four-thousanders of the Alps.

Alas, when resurveyed later in the century, the Fletschhorn had subsided to only 3,993 metres. A melting ice-cap, erosion and more precise measuring methods were probably responsible. Mont Blanc has suffered similar indignities.

But the local community didn’t take the demotion of their local four-thousander lying down. In February 1988, the municipality of Saas Grund applied to the cantonal authorities to "restore the original height of the mountain” by piling up rocks on the summit in the manner of a drystone wall.

Close, but not the whole cigar: the Fletschhorn seen from the Lagginhorn north ridge
(Photo by courtesy of Alpine Light & Structure)
An international controversy ensued – Wikipedia says that some opposed the plan on religious grounds – and in October 1990 the cantonal building authorities finally rejected the plan. More recently, the Fletschhorn has been further demoted – to just 3,985 metres.

Of course, the Fletschhorn’s status as an actual mountain has never been in doubt. SwissTopo, the country’s official cartographic agency, formally defines a mountain (“Berg”) as any eminence over 1,600 metres. Anything lower is a hill (“Hügel”). Place names, though, defy this convention: for example, Zurich’s Uetliberg, a wooded ridge on the edge of a city, never rises above 810 metres.

Zurich's Uetliberg: mountain or mere hill?
(Photo courtesy of Alpine Light & Structure)
Such is the difficulty of sorting mountains from hills that most countries don’t even bother. In America, for example, the US Board on Geographic Names once stipulated that the difference between hill and mountain was 1,000 feet of local relief, but this rule was dropped in the early 1970s.

These days, the US Geological Survey side-steps the whole question by identifying only “summits” in its database of natural features and their names. Similar hassles arise, it points out, if you try to differentiate “streams” from “rivers”, or “ponds” from “lakes”.

The point is that mountains are almost impossible to define by any objective criteria. The authors of an essay on geo-semantics tell it like it is:

“There is no human-independent true definition of mountain (or forest, river, city, etc). Consequently, the definitions will vary between places and cultures, and it is important to represent local definitions appropriately … As a result, the principal mountains of England, such as Scafell Pike, the tallest mountain in England at a relative height of 912 meters, would barely be hills in the Himalayas.”

This refreshingly subjective approach would have appealed to Fukada Kyuya (1903-1971). Famously, the Hyakumeizan author looked solely to his own taste in drawing up his one hundred mountains of Japan. An eminent mountain, he thought, should have character, history and an "extraordinary distinctiveness". And, ideally, it should be more than 1,500 metres high. But two of his selected summits come in well under that limit. A mountain’s stature, Fukada believed, was more important than its height.

The USGS gambit: specify "summits" to avoid defining "mountains"
(Photo by courtesy of Alpine Light & Structure)

Japan’s official mapmakers also refuse to define mountains by their height. Indeed, they refuse to define them at all. In a Q&A on its website, the Geospatial Information Authority points out that “As every mountain is different, it’s impossible to specify that they must have an elevation of so many metres above ground level, or a slope angle of so many degrees.”

 So how do you tell where a mountain begins and ends? In replying to that question, the Geospatial Information Authority suggests, “If you need to know where a mountain begins, you should stand in front of it and judge for yourself whether or not it begins there.”

You know, that’s sound advice. And you don’t even need a Leica GS15 to apply it.

Monday, August 6, 2018

A stormy traverse of La Meije (3)

Concluded: Swiss guide Sam Brawand's account of an epic climb in the mid-1920s with alpinists Matsukata Saburō and Uramatsu Samitarō

What followed, I can hardly describe. As soon as I try to put it into words, it fades into a mere shadow of what we went through. It was as if all the mountain spirits of the Dauphiné and all the devils of hell fought a huge battle over La Meije that afternoon. For four hours, they shot yellow bolts around our heads, dozens of them.

With every flash of lightning, we felt as if somebody had put a giant match to our hair. I don’t mind saying that I ducked my head as deep and quickly into my collar as I could when the sulphurous blasts flashed by. You may object that, every time, I would have been too late to duck, but you try offering your head to lightning strikes for four hours and see if you don’t bat an eyelid. Well, we did flinch, and right often too. And how it thundered! Not pleasantly as on an evening in the Ochsental Hut, where the rolling and rumbling and reverberations go on for ever. Up here, it thundered without echo or reverberation, vicious, shrill, vindictive almost as the devil. It was as if the spirit of the Meije wanted to drive us off the ridge with a giant whip. And the storm howled on, and the snow lashed our faces. Where on this Gallic field would the wild hunt end?

There’s no way off the ridge on La Meije. To the south, the cliffs fall plumb-sheer, and it doesn’t look much better to the north. So all we could do was pull ourselves together and climb. We dealt with tower after tower. Now we’d got this mountain between our teeth, we were determined to hold on. I’ve seen some weather in the mountains since that day, but never again have I met with such a hellish storm, thank God. But even this one came to an end.

The lightning was now less frequent, and the last flash struck down just as Emil and Mr Uramatsu reached the summit of the Pic Central. The air smelt sulphurous. But how was it with our two friends? A moment ago, they’d just been standing there! I was speechless with worry. Anyway, shouting wouldn’t have been much use in that storm. We pressed on. And there they were, safe and sound. Emil was standing on the nearest rock ledge down from the summit. For Mr Uramatsu, the outcome was less comfortable. He’d rescued himself with a well-judged leap into the somewhat less steep north face, where he sat on a stone with his head down, like a goalkeeper waiting for the next shot. But this did not come.

Afternoon clouds from La Meije
We hurried down the last unpleasantly snowed-up rocks to a chimney, which we thought would lead to the way off the ridge towards the glacier. Once again, we fed the reserve rope into a sling and we swung over the bergschrund to the Glacier de Tabuchet, where we were finally sheltered from the cruel wind.

Our watches showed six minutes past four. Fog sat heavily on the glacier, so that we couldn’t see two meters ahead of us. It snowed and snowed. We’d left the Grand Pic on dry rock; now there were 20 centimetres of fresh snow on the glacier. Quickly, I scanned my mental map of the ground. On the right must be an icefall, and not far left of this was the hut, on the Rocher de l' Aigle.

We roped up quickly, leaving our reserve rope in place for the two Austrians. Where could they be? Now we trudged downhill into the thick of the fog. I kept right, intending to go left as soon as any sign of the icefall appeared and look for the hut. Then, lo and behold, the wind blew the fog aside for a moment and we could see, just 50 meters and slightly to our left, the outlines of some crags and a hut.

A warm feeling that we were home and dry suffused us. A few more steps and we would be able to shut the hut’s door on the cold and snow outside. Already I could hear the crackling of the fire, see the steaming teapots and feel the soft flannel of my dry shirt. And my pipe – I could sense it there in my pocket. Everything would be splendid, and surely we’d deserved it.

We stamped the snow off our boots and opened the hut door. And there, if you’ll pardon the expression, we saw our come-uppance. Not a strand of straw was left on the sleeping platform; all of it had obviously gone the way of all mortal things via the stove. There was no wood, and not a single blanket could be found.

So should we stay here? No, never! As we were already soaked to the skin, it wasn’t a difficult decision. We’d held out this far, and things couldn’t get any worse. So out we went again into the fog and snow. Down to La Grave, our final destination! But where to find the way? We went quickly down over the glacier and thought we could see an old track here and there. But then the glacier broke up with crevasses, while the fog lowered and the wet snow kept falling. We didn’t want to get lost on this unknown glacier and chose instead to continue our descent via a rock ridge on its right bank. So we worked our way downwards, lower and lower, over loose rock, ledges and gullies. At last, the fog lifted or rather we came out below it. To our great relief, we could now see the end of the glacier right below us. As quickly as we could, we trundled down the slope and could finally put the wet rope into a rucksack. Then we rushed down into the valley over snowed-up grass and screes. Snow had fallen until well below the level of the glacier tongue.

La Meije from the north
At half past eight, we arrived in La Grave. At the hotel we got rid of our dripping wet clothes and wrapped ourselves in blankets, tying them together with our braces like a monk’s cowl, and enjoyed a delicious victory feast in our clients’ room.

In the morning, La Meije shone white in the sunshine.


Translated from the original German text of Samuel Brawand (1898-2001), alpine guide of Grindelwald, Switzerland. As a guide, Brawand is best known for his first ascent of the Eiger’s Mittelegi Ridge in September 1921 together with Maki “Yūkō” Aritsune as his client. Originally entitled Stürmische Fahrt Zur Meije; the memoir was collected in the anthology Schweizer Bergführer erzählen (Stories from Swiss mountain guides), Orell Füssli, Zurich, 1950. Appropriately, the translator happened across this book at the remote SAC Grialetsch Hut during the annual geezers’ ski-tour.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

The Eiger reloaded

The repercussions of a famous ascent sound an uncomfortably contemporary note

Eighty years ago, yesterday, four alpinists topped out on the Eiger, after making the first ascent of the mountain’s notorious north face. The anniversary has raised no more than a murmur in Switzerland’s media – which may not be too surprising, as this milestone in mountaineering history was notched up by two Bavarians and two Austrians. One of the latter, Heinrich Harrer, later immortalised the climb in The White Spider.

The Hinterstoisser Traverse: chipping away the ice

Yet one Swiss newspaper, Zurich’s Tages Anzeiger, did choose to mark the occasion. In an article entitled Bergsteigerhelden im Dienste Hitlers (Climbing heroes in the service of Hitler), journalist and historian Petra Stöhr recalls how the Reich’s propaganda machine hijacked the mountaineering achievement for its own ends.

Easy ground low on the north face

Or was it hijacked? According to Stöhr, it was Heinrich Harrer himself who unfurled a swastika flag to mark the team’s arrival on the summit. Whether or not he did so, all four climbers were received by Hitler, feted in the press, and even written up in an official commemorative book.

During their climb, the Bavarians and the Austrians – originally two rival rope teams – had joined forces to battle through a storm. This narrative particularly pleased the propagandists, reflecting as it did a measure of alpinistic glory on the March 1938 “Anschluss” between Germany and Austria.

Stöhr’s article appeared in a column called “History reloaded”. And, indeed, more or less everything reloaded here is a matter of record, whether it is Heinrich Harrer’s political affiliations, the post-climb propaganda tour, or the ultimate fates of the four mountaineers – tellingly, they never again climbed together.

Andreas Heckmair and Ludwig Vörg on the way to an official reception

So should we just move on? Well maybe, but not without first reading the comments underneath the article’s online version. Some are illuminating. One reader says that the mountaineers were “primarily sportsmen” and not political figures. Another takes issue with Stöhr’s characterization of Harrer as the party’s weakest member: surely he would have been as fast as Andreas Heckmair, the de facto leader, if he’d worn the most modern type of crampons.

Werner Munter, a retired guide and avalanche safety expert, weighs in too. For more background on how alpine clubs were drawn into pre-war politics, he recommends reading Rainer Amstädter’s Der Alpinismus, especially Chapters 7 to 10 on Die Faschisierung des Alpinismus, Der Weg der alpinen Vereine zum Nationalsozialismus and Der Grossdeutsche Wahn des Alpinismus. Thanks, Werner, I will certainly follow up on that valuable hint.

For my money, though, it’s one Thomas Wittenmeier who hits the nail on the head. Commenting on a photo of the four climbers posing with Hitler, he writes “Only the jerseys with the words ‘My Führer’ are missing. See the Özil-Erdogan team.” That last remark refers to a German footballer with Turkish roots who recently caused a kerfluffle by posing for a selfie with the Turkish president.

Surprisingly, there seems to be no recent full-length biography of Heinrich Harrer in English – indeed, if a quick scan of Amazon is to be trusted, nobody has even translated his autobiography, a surprising gap given the global popularity of The White Spider and Seven Years in Tibet.

This is a pity. Now that world events are moving in a distinctly 1930-ish gyre, we could use books like these to refresh our memories on how swiftly politics and nationalism can corrupt mountains and mountaineering.


Images are from Um die Eiger-Nordwand (right), published by the Zentralverlag der NSDAP, Munich, fifth edition, 1943.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Alpine readings (5)

Gaston Rébuffat on climbing as a natural instinct - and how not to lose it

I had, first of all, to learn how to climb.

I knew how to climb as a child. Instinctively, without having learned, all children climb walls, windows and trees. They do so for the pleasure of climbing and for the joy of discovery, of seeing further. Is this not exactly the same reward that climbers seek in high mountains?

It happens very often, however, that between our fifth and our twentieth birthdays, education, society and easy living weaken and little by little kill the instinctive desires and spontaneous impulses of our childhood. Farewell climbing, escape and discovery!

And if by chance one day, kindled by some wondrous and unexpected spark, these desires and impulses of childhood reappear, the instinct is dead and we must learn to climb all over again. This happened to me, as it does to many boys.

Thus it is that the climbing instincts of our childhood develop. The windows, trees and walls which we cheerfully climbed at the age of five or ten have now become the Matterhorn, Mont Blanc or the Himalayas. Our puny, childish muscles have grown stronger, and so has our will. In like measure has the need in us for fresh air, discovery and conquest crystallized. Austerity has become our way of life, and to make room for it, we have put aside sensitiveness and softness, resolved to remain strong on the threshold of life.

In quenching this thirst for discovery, in guiding this fervour which inspires the early part of a man's life, the mountains have provided for me what others have found in the sea, the air, the desert or the polar regions. These "wide open spaces," which allow a man to find the truth in himself and to develop it in all its fullness, are as close to each other in spirit as they are different to outside view. The externals matter little; are not mountaineers, sailors, airmen and explorers closely akin, for all the variety of their clothes? Are not they all carried forward by the same impulse?


Gaston Rébuffat, Starlight and Storm, translated by Wilfrid Noyce and Sir John Hunt, Modern Library edition, 1999.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Alpine readings (4)

Lionel Terray on why the useless might be worth conquering

But on the icy flanks of the Caiman I had had to employ all my resources for hours on end, and had only just avoided disaster on at least two occasions. Never before had I given so much of myself or run such risks. Safely back in the valley I remained profoundly affected by the experience, which seemed of a different nature from all I had known up to then.

I began to question the unconscious motives which had impelled me to prefer certain books and certain courses of action. I began to realise that the mountain is no more than an indifferent wasteland of rock and ice with no other value than what we choose to give it, but that on this infinitely virgin material each man could mould, by the creative force of the spirit, the form of his own ideal.

"There is not just one but a hundred different kinds of mountaineering," said Guido Lammer. For some, as Henry de Segogne has suggested, ''the flanks of the sterile peaks become the ideal of an aesthetic, even an embodiment of divinity". For others they are "simply the background of their favourite sport", for others still "a gigantic opportunity to flatter their own vanity", and for yet others, like Maurice Herzog, "a bit of all that and something more besides": one of the few doors the modern world has left open on adventure, one of the last ways out of the armour-plating of humdrumness in which civilisation imprisons us, and for which we are not all very well adapted.

From that time on, my passion for the hills took a more precise direction, and bit by bit I worked out for myself an ethic and a philosophy of mountaineering. But, in practice, the risk and suffering involved in picking the roses that grow on the borders of the impossible call for exceptional moral strength. Doubtless, for some, it is always present; but for others it can only be summoned at rare intervals and in exceptional and perhaps fortuitous circumstances, and it is to this latter breed that I belong. In fact it was to be many years before I again committed myself to a fight as total as that which won the narrow ice-gully of the Col du Caiman.


Lionel Terray, Conquistadors of the Useless, translated by Geoffrey Sutton, Baton Wicks.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Alpine readings (3)

George Mallory on the orchestral flow of a great alpine climb

A day well spent in the Alps is like some great symphony. Andante, andantissimo sometimes, is the first movement - the grim, sickening plod up the moraine. But how forgotten when the blue light of dawn flickers over the hard, clean snow. 

Weisshorn at sunrise
(Photo by Alpine Light & Structure)

The new motif is ushered in, as it were, very gently on the lesser wind instruments, hautboys and flutes, remote but melodious and infinitely hopeful, caught by the violins in the growing light, and torn out by all the bows with quivering chords as the summits, one by one, are enmeshed in the gold web of day, till at last the whole band, in triumphant accord, has seized the air and romps in magnificent frolic, because there you are at last marching, all a-tingle with warm blood, under the sun. 

And so throughout the day successive moods induce the symphonic whole - allegro while you break the back of an expedition and the issue is still in doubt; scherzo, perhaps, as you leap up the final rocks of the arete or cut steps in a last short slope, with the ice-chips dancing and swimming and bubbling and bounding with magic gaiety over the crisp surface in their mad glissade; and then, for the descent, sometimes again andante, because, while the summit was still to win, you forgot that the business of descending may be serious and long; but in the end scherzo once more - with the brakes on for sunset. 

Expeditions in the Alps are all different, no less than symphonies are different, and each is a fresh experience. . . . But every mountain adventure is emotionally complete. The spirit goes on a journey just as does the body, and this journey has a beginning and an end, and is concerned with all that happens between these extremities .... 

The glory of sunrise in the Alps is not independent of what has passed and what's to come; without the day that is dying and the night that is to come the reverie of sunset would be less suggestive, and the deep valley-lights would lose their promise of repose. Still more, the ecstasy of the summit is conditioned by the events of getting up and the prospects of getting down ....

It seemed perfectly natural to compare a day in the Alps with a symphony. For mountaineers of my sort mountaineering is rightfully so comparable; but no sportsman could or would make the same claim for cricket· or hunting, or whatever his particular sport might be. He recognises the existence of the sublime in great Art, and knows, even if he cannot feel, that its manner of stirring the heart is altogether different and vaster. But mountaineers do not admit this difference in the emotional plane of mountaineering and Art. They claim that something sublime is the essence of mountaineering. They can compare the call of the hills to the melody of wonderful music, and the comparison is not ridiculous.


This essay appeared in March 1914, in a remarkable number of the Climbers' Club Journal edited by Trevenen Huxley. Text here is as quoted in David Robertson's biography, George Mallory, Faber & Faber, 1969 (paperback edition 1999 with foreword by Joe Simpson)

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Alpine readings (2)

Heinrich Harrer on the concept of a character-forming climb

The "White Spider" on the Eiger is the extreme test not only of a climber's technical ability, but of his character as well. Later on in life, when fate seemed to spin some spider's web or other across my path, my thoughts often went back to the "White Spider". Life itself demanded the same methods, the same qualities, when there no longer seemed to be any possible escape from its difficulties, as had won us a way out of the difficulties of the Eiger's North Face - common-sense, patience and open-eyed courage. Haste born of fear and all the wild stunts arising from it can only end in disaster.

I remember a saying of Schopenhauer's: "Just as the wayfarer only surveys and recognises the road he has come when he reaches some high place and can look back over it in its entirety, so we ourselves are only able to recognise and value a stage in our life when it is over." The North Face of the Eiger and the crossing of the "White Spider" were for me an expedition and a stage in my life at one and the same time; though I only realised it a good deal later.

Today I have no doubt whatever about the invaluable contribution a difficult and, in the eyes of many, an incredibly dangerous climb on a mountain can make to a man's later life. I do not believe in a blind Fate which dominates us; nor can I unreservedly agree with Schopenhauer's statement-" Fate shuffles the cards, we play them." I am quite certain that we have a hand in the shuffling. There is nothing new to be said about the behaviour of man in exceptional circumstances of danger or crisis. It has all been thought and said already.

But if I had to write an entry in the autograph-album of the worshippers of blind Chance and inevitable Fate I could not find better words than those used by the Athenian, Menander, more than two thousand years ago. "A man's nature and way of life are his fate, and that which he calls his fate is but his disposition." This truth was brought home to me clearly for the first time on the slope of the "White Spider". Perhaps all four of us were the fortunate owners of a disposition which was the basic factor in our successful climb; training, scientific preparations and equipment being only very necessary adjuncts.


Heinrich Harrer, The White Spider, translated by Hugh Merrick,  Rupert Hart-Davis, 1961