Friday, July 29, 2022

South side story (3)

Continued: Abbé Amé Gorret's first-hand account of the Matterhorn's second ascent

Starting our climb to the Col du Lion at about nine o'clock, we were at the height of the Whymper Couloir by one, where the snow falling in heavy flakes had stopped us last year. As we had stashed some wild hay in a crevice there, Bich now stuffed his shirt with it, increasing his burden by this amount. 

Below the Pic Tyndall
Image is from The Matterhorn by Guido Rey, Basil Blackwell 1946

The gullies that one has to traverse above along the Col du Lion are often very dangerous when there is a lot of snow. Such traverses over precipices don’t agree with me; I much prefer to climb. This year, however, the couloirs were easy, the snow was gone, and you just had to make sure to plant your feet solidly. Nevertheless, we thought it best to rope up a few metres apart on a long line; this greatly relieved my burden. 

Finally we got across the dip of the Col du Lion and reached the Matterhorn’s pyramid. The mountain now confronted us, and we were determined to give it our last, best efforts. I was greatly impressed and my companions too. My heart was beating violently, I could no longer keep my thinking clerar, I was all a-tremble. In fact, I was almost ready to throw my arms around this Matterhorn!

The first stretch over the pyramid is quite easy; one climbs for half an hour over the kind of loose rubble that one meets with on any mountain. We followed the ridge and in this way avoided the stonefall in the couloirs, but at the end of this stretch you have to get up through a notch that is three or four metres high. Climbing like a chimney sweep, you make progress with your elbows, knees, feet and hands. We called this place the Ciarfou or Chimney.

At one o'clock we arrived at the place where the tent had been pitched during the previous expedition. Since it was still early in the day and we were consumed by our desire to reach the summit, we wanted to pitch the tent higher up, at the Cravate or the Collier de la Vierge. But Carrel, didn’t think we could do this, since he knew the mountain better than we did. And here was the best and most comfortable place. In any case, on the following day, we would all take a blanket with us, in case we could not return to this excellent campsite and had to sleep higher up. Everyone set down his load. We unroped and got to work putting up the tent. It was pitched in a moment. But was the cook ready? And what about a drink? Let’s get ourselves a drink, and a good one!

We roped up again and climbed up along the rocks with a tin bucket to catch a small stream of water from melting snow. Water that has been flowing over the rocks is scarcely potable. It is bland, tasting like the rock itself, and must be made more palatable by mixing it with wine, sugar or lemon juice. After the meal, our two porters went down, and we contemplated the rock above us. This was an immense, almost vertical tower, flanked on either side by the void, the abyss.

"But how do we get through tomorrow?" asked Bich. "That should be obvious since we have to go uphill, up over this rock." "You’d have to be a monkey or squirrel?" "Well, let’s give it a try." For the rest of the day we gazed out over the immense panorama that unfolded before our eyes in a succession of mountains, glaciers, peaks and rocks, which were separated from each other by something hazy and indistinct so that we could not tell them apart.

In the evening, although we were on rock and at such a high altitude, the cold didn’t trouble us in the least. Our tent was very small, the four of us could only get into it when two were already lying flat on either side. The thermometer showed six degrees in the tent and a mere one and a half degrees in the open air. When the weather is fine, an evening on the Matterhorn is glorious; you see the shadows slowly rising and flooding the valleys, and when the moon rises, you can see the same valleys indistinctly, far below and at a great distance. And then you suddenly realise how high up you are .... 

(To be concluded)


Translated from a German version of Abbé Amé Gorret's original account in French, entitled "Victory of the Italians" in Matterhorn-Geschichten: Bergsteigerelebnisse am Traumberg, compiled by Fritz Schmitt, Bruckmann, 1991

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

South side story (2)

Continued: Abbé Amé Gorret's first-hand account of the Matterhorn's second ascent

On the morning of the 15th, everything was different. The scouts were back, sad, dejected, confused, disappointed and discouraged. They had only reached the shoulder, a few steps this side of Pic Tyndall, when Whymper and his men shouted down to them from the top of the pyramid. How must the leaders of Valtournenche have felt at that moment? We can all imagine their feelings – how they looked at each other in silence, averted their gaze and started downwards without a word. Had they spent too much time chattering and cheering before that moment?

The Matterhorn from the Dent d'Herens at 13,708 feet
Photo by Vittorio Sella, courtesy of Andrew Smith Gallery

Mr Giordano made no reproof; rather he sought to alleviate their gloom. He said only that they must at least have solved the question of whether an ascent from the Italian side was possible. But on this question they were no wiser than before the expedition. It seemed to me that the problem was now tending towards a negative solution. The engineer said to the guides: "Up to now, I have worked for the honour of being the first to make the ascent, but fate was against me and they have beaten me to it. If I make some sacrifices now, it is for you, for your honour and benefit. Do you want to make another attempt to decide the question? Then at least you’ll have no more illusions about this point!" The answers were incoherent, embarrassed, witless and discouraged.

Whymper had said, when he left the hotel of Giomein on his way to Switzerland, that you will never achieve anything with the guides with the guides of Valtournenche, they don't work for their reputations; they are just looking for a day's wage. What at first had seemed to me no more than an irritating slur now appeared to be the truth. Mr Giordano had set out an offer for the sake of my country that would never be made again. My country had suffered an injury to its honour, it had lost a prize. I was in agonies.

"So you renounce the Matterhorn, you won’t make another attempt? Well, I will go, and who will follow me?" he said. Replied Jean-Antoine Carrel, the Bersagliere: "I for one have not given up; if you go or if the others want to go up again, then I am with you at once." - So now we are two, who else is coming? - Not me! - Me neither. - And I wouldn't go up there again if you give me a thousand francs. - Then we'll be we will be only two, but we will go. And so the party mustered itself again.

That was on the 15th around noon. The rest of the day was spent in preparations for the departure, which was set for the morning of July 16th. In the evening we found two new companions, Jean-Baptiste Bich, called Bardolet, and Jean-Augustin Meynet, both domestic servants with Mr Favre, the hotel owner of Giomein.

Mr Giordano wanted to come with us, but the uncertainty of the route, the difficulties that we might encounter in the unclimbed part, which had always turned us back, and the fickleness of the weather forced us to reject his offer. Carrel declared that he did not feel confident enough to guide a client up there at this stage. So I proposed a condition to the group. The engineer, although deprived of the pleasure of making the ascent himself, had supplied us with everything needed. So none of us would work for a wage or any other reward; we would go of our own free will for the honour of our country, as this would be an act of national expiation.

I further proposed that our provisions would be carried up only on the first day, so that we would depend on nobody else until our return and so would not be distracted by any messages from below. We had to cross the ocean and burn our boats! My conditions were accepted. I spent the night in Avouil with my companions to finish our preparations.

We were away at four o’clock in the morning on July 16. After a pause at the chapel of Breuil, everyone garbed and equipped himself as he thought best. For my part, I donned my hunting clothes, stuffing the trouser legs into my stockings so that they wouldn’t hinder me on the climb. Then I took my beloved iron-shod stave in hand, and at half past seven o'clock we began our ascent.

A mule carried our gear to beyond the Mont de l'Eura, at the foot of the of the Tête du Lion, two hours from Giomein. After a very scanty breakfast, we divided the kit among us, since we now had to carry it ourselves. I had the ropes, Carrel his army knapsack, the four others took the rest of the supplies in sacks rigged up so that they coul carry them on their backs without being hindered while walking and to keep their hands free if they had to use them on the rocks. We had two porters with us up to the point where the tent was to be pitched. This way of carrying the sacks amused us very much, as it gave our caravan a most picturesque look ...


Translated from a German version of Abbé Amé Gorret's original account in French, entitled "Victory of the Italians" in Matterhorn-Geschichten: Bergsteigerelebnisse am Traumberg, compiled by Fritz Schmitt, Bruckmann, 1991

Monday, July 25, 2022

South side story (1)

Translation: Abbé Amé Gorret's first-hand account of the Matterhorn's second ascent

The taste for travelling and climbing doesn’t go far back in my country, for, although surrounded by magnificent mountains, we hardly knew them. Only crystal hunters knew their way over the passes, and tourists were gawped at as if they were fabulous beasts. The Matterhorn, this proud and beautiful mountain that stood in our sight all day, striking all visitors dumb with admiration, this Matterhorn said nothing to us. We knew so little about it that I remember hearing on various occasions that what we now call the Col du Lion (between the Tête du Lion and the pyramidal body of the mountain) was a pass over to the Val d’Hérens or somewhere like that.

The Tete du Lion on the Matterhorn
(Image by Vittorio Sella, courtesy of Andrew Smith Gallery)

During the summer of 1857, when travellers were starting to come up to Valtournenche in greater numbers than before, somebody said something about climbing the Matterhorn. I was then in the vacation allowed to me as a seminarian and, although everyone else smiled pityingly and considered it lunacy, this idea appealed to me and to both the Carrels, Jean-Antoine, "the Bersagliere", and Jean-Jacques, too. 

Without daring to tell anybody of the nature of our business, we set out one day from the Chalet d'Avouil, taking a small axe to cut steps in the ice, and with a slab of brown bread in our pockets and a flask of brandy. We scrambled up through the Cou du Monthabert and reached the Tête du Lion. The “Val d’Hérens” turned out to be just the Zmutt valley, and the “pass” an impassable couloir that was almost overhangingly steep. We amused ourselves for some hours by trundling stones into the voids that surrounded us and, without even touching the main pyramid of the Matterhorn, we went down by the same way, which since has become the regular ascent route.

From that day onwards, the ascent of the Matterhorn became an obsession. Carrel had the Matterhorn on the brain, and I too thought of nothing else all day, dreamed of him all night so that the Matterhorn became my nightmare. Every year, we attempted him anew, every attempt ended in a new defeat, and every defeat laid down a fresh challenge. Money was lacking, and instead of encouragement we met only with scorn. For several years I could not take part in these attempts, as my time was not my own.

In 1862, Tyndall and Whymper brought new vigour to the challenge of the ascent, justifying these attempts in the eyes of the people insofar as there was now some money and credit to be won by them. Tyndall conferred his name on the mountain’s shoulder, planting his flag there as if to signify the limits of the possible. As for Whymper, he put his life in play, yet kept his nerve, and his bold and persistent attempts eventually brought him a well-deserved success.

At last, in 1865, I was allowed to take the month of July as my vacation and I at once hastened over to Valtournenche. There, I spoke with the Carrels to organise another attempt; in the meantime, I went to visit my father, who was on the Theodul Pass. When I came down from the pass, the Carrels had just signed up with Whymper to climb the Matterhorn on July 9 and 10, weather permitting. The attempt was to be made from the Swiss side.

The previous day, on July 8, Engineer Giordano arrived from Turin, having engaged Carrel, the Bersagliere, during the past year. This was a great embarrassment for Carrel, as Giordano would never have wanted Carrel to renege on his obligations to Whymper. Carrel, however, could not and would not leave Giordano, to whom he was committed. Finally, the weather solved this conundrum – it turned bad.

Giordano had come to Valtournenche to undertake a thorough and decisive investigation of the Matterhorn. By studying the mountain and tackling the ascent, he would either confirm it as impossible, or rob the peak of its aura of invincibility. Up to now, the probabilities of possible and impossible had weighed equally in the balance. Also, the engineer had equipped himself with all the gear needed for the goal he had set for himself: ropes, irons, crampons, tents and so on. Immediately an expedition got itself together: a group of group of guides led by Carrel the Bersagliere, would seek out the route and report back to Giordano.

Every day, two men were to carry the necessary supplies up from the alpine huts to the tent, which was to be pitched as high as possible at the pyramid’s base. Four guides, with the Bersagliere at their head, would work out the route. Since the guides were the same ones who had accompanied me on the earlier attempts, I introduced myself to Mr Giordano, who received me kindly and wanted to keep me around until his assault team reported back.

The group set off on the morning of the 11th, full of verve and courage, with everything pointing to success. Meanwhile, Mr Giordano undertook with me the ascent of the Theodulhorn to get an overall view of the Matterhorn’s majestic pyramid. We were looking for the guides along the ridge with our binoculars, when on the afternoon of the 14th, at about 2 o'clock, we suddenly saw people on the highest peak. What jubilation ensued. Quickly, preparations were made for their reception. We descended, we meant to raise the flag. The Matterhorn is vanquished, it is ours!

(To be continued)


Translated from a German version of Abbé Amé Gorret's original account in French, entitled "Victory of the Italians" in Matterhorn-Geschichten: Bergsteigerelebnisse am Traumberg, compiled by Fritz Schmitt, Bruckmann, 1991

Friday, July 22, 2022

Musings on mountain names (5)

Even at the time, some frowned at the idea of naming the world's highest mountain after a surveyor...

In a previous post, we suggested that the former colonial powers were wont to bespatter the globe with mountain names that celebrated mainly dead white Caucasian males, such as Rainier, McKinley and Morrison.

But this may be to oversimplify. A reading of Craig Storti’s The Hunt for Mount Everest shows that not all colonialists strove to overwrite local mountain names. On the contrary, the British surveyors who first mapped India during the 1840s and 1850s were careful to respect and preserve the local, indigenous names of most geographical features.

And this rule held until the height of a certain Himalayan “Peak XV” came in as 29,000 feet or so. Thus, when Andrew Waugh, the chief surveyor, proposed to name this mountain after an irascible former boss, he ignited a controversy. A few weeks after Waugh’s announcement, Brian Hodgson, a former British emissary to Kathmandu, objected that he’d heard this mountain regularly referred to as Deodanga.

A further challenge came from the German explorer Hermann Schlagintweit, who had visited Nepal in 1855. He and his brothers had measured the same peak that Hodgson had (mistakenly) identified as the mountain today known as Everest, but claimed that the locals called it Gauri Sankar. And this was the name that they printed on their map of the region published in Berlin in 1862, a decision that was initially endorsed by Britain’s Royal Geographical Society.

Waugh then formed a committee to look into these counterclaims. Naturally enough, it found that the Gauri Sankar/Deodanga alternatives were “indefinite and unacceptable”, leaving the way clear for the official adoption of the Everest name. The case for Gauri Sankar was further undermined when it was found, in 1903, to apply to a completely different mountain, some 36 miles away from Everest.

In 1921, the first British expedition to what was by now confirmed as the world’s highest mountain entered Tibet. And they soon discovered that the local people already had a name for the peak. Remarkably, this name, or a variant of it, had already appeared on a map of China published in Paris as far back as 1733 by Jean-Baptiste Bourgignon d'Anville – on which the mountain is identified as “M. Tchoumour Lancma”. But, by 1921, the name of “Everest” was already too well established for “Chomolungma” to get a look in on western maps.

It is unclear what Waugh’s boss, the original owner of the Everest name, really thought of his successor’s blatant act of sycophancy. Wikipedia says that he at first raised an objection, on the grounds that “Everest” might be impossible to write in Persian or Hindi. But Storti says he was “gratified”. Both may be right: Everest's protestations may have been no more than perfunctory.

In any case, the mountain’s connection with the original Sir George Everest (1790-1866) is fading fast. Probably few who approach the mountain remember that he was Surveyor General of India, not to mention a member of the Neptune Lodge of Freemasons. And even fewer will recall that his name was once correctly pronounced as “Eev-rist” (/ˈiːvrɪst/) rather than “Everest”. Attached to the world’s highest mountain, the name has taken on a new life of its own.


Craig Storti, The Hunt for Mount Everest, Nicholas Brealey, 2021

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Musings on mountain names (4)

In Japan too, an aversion to naming mountains after people has its limits...

Like the Swiss, the Japanese have historically hesitated to call their mountains after people. This reluctance seems to have extended to summits in the country’s overseas territories too. In Japan’s colonial era, Yushan on Taiwan, for example, was rebranded as “Niitaka-yama” (distinguishing it as the pre-war empire’s ‘New Highest Mountain’), but no Taiwanese mountain seems to have been renamed after any historical personage.

The massif formerly known as Nutakukamuushupe
(Photo from Wikipedia by courtesy of Koda6209)

The same principle holds in Hokkaidō. When modern maps were drawn up for this northern island, early in the twentieth century, Japanese-language names – but not those of people – overwrote some of the original Ainu names for mountains, rivers and other features. Not everybody approved, though. In the Tomuraushi chapter of One Hundred Mountains of Japan, the Hyakumeizan author Fukada Kyūya makes a plea for the original nomenclature:

The name too has a certain charm …. There are many fine Ainu names for Hokkaidō’s mountains. I find it deeply regrettable that these have been mangled by representing them through an arbitrary selection of Japanese characters which distort the original word.

Mountain nomenclature becomes even more complicated in the Daisetsuzan chapter. As Fukada records, the first modern maps of Hokkaidō identified the massif as Nutakukamuushupe, its Ainu name, with “Daisetsuzan”, the Japanese name, in brackets. Yet ...

It seems that “Daisetsuzan” wasn’t the only candidate for a Japanese name at that time. Writing under the name of Hokkaidōjin in a 1907 edition of the Japanese alpine club’s journal, somebody proposed that Hokkaidō’s highest mountain should be called “Shiroginu-yama”. But the Daisetsuzan name prevailed when the eponymous national park was promulgated, in 1934.

Again, Fukada regrets this “progress”:

For traditionalists like myself, the Ainu names have a familiar, even nostalgic, ring to them, but there’s no standing in the way of progress, I suppose. … As for the meaning, the indigenous people hit the mark exactly with their artless and direct way of naming features of the landscape. Two great rivers, the Ishikari and the Tokachi, do indeed rise in these mountains and flow around their feet.

Strange to say, it was also within the sprawling massif of the Daisetsuzan – or Nutakukamuushupe –that Japan’s modern mapmakers briefly overcame their reluctance to name natural features after real people. For on a plateau called Kumonodaira or “The Field of Clouds”, a name lifted from a mountain range on Honshū, are found a scatter of minor peaks that commemorate historical figures.

There is a Keigetsu-dake that commemorates an ascent by the poet Ōmachi Keigetsu (1869-1925), a Matsuda-dake for Matsuda Ichitarō, the first Japanese explorer of the Ishikari River during the 1850s, and Koizumi-dake for Koizumi Hideo (1885-1945), a teacher and pioneer of the massif. In like fashion, Mamiya-dake is named for Mamiya Rinzō (1775-1844), the circumnavigator of Sakhalin.

All these names are associated with explorers of the Daisetsuzan or at least visitors. As such, they seem to fit the landscape. Since they appear on the official maps, the government’s surveyors must have approved them, even if they didn’t come up with the names themselves. And, in this case, although a traditionalist in mountain nomenclature, the Hyakumeizan author seems to have passed on without raising any objection.

Monday, July 18, 2022

Images and ink (47)

Image: Luis Trenker in the film "Liebesbriefe aus dem Engadin", photo by Ernst Baumann as published in In die Berge! Alpine Fotografie der 1920er und 1930er Jahre, morisel Verlag, 2019.

Ink: From Nick Paumgarten, "Survivor's Guilt in the Mountains", The New Yorker, February 2020 edition.

Mountain climbing is a modern curiosity, a bourgeois indulgence. It consists mostly of relatively well-to-do white people manufacturing danger for themselves. Having been spared war, starvation, mass violence, and oppression, its practitioners travel great distances and endure great sacrifices to test their bodies and minds, encounter beauty, and experience the precariousness of existence and the terror and whatever revelations, fleeting or otherwise, may come of it. Though the whole enterprise may seem crazy or stupid or pointless, to many people it represents a necessary extreme of human endeavor, that combination of excellence and aberrance which propels a sliver of the population to set about going to the moon or writing symphonies, or dropping out entirely, as latter-day hermits and monks.

Friday, July 15, 2022

Images and ink (46)

: Monastery in the Khumbu district, Nepal Himalaya (Photo courtesy of Alpine Light & Structure). 

Ink: From The Eight Mountains, by Paolo Cognetti, translated by Simon Parnell and Erica Segre, Penguin/Vintage

It was an old Nepalese man who told me, afterwards, about the eight mountains. He was carrying a load of hens up the valley below Everest, heading to one of the refuges where they were destined to become chicken curry for tourists: he had a cage on his back which was divided into a dozen separate cells, and the chickens, still alive, were flustered inside them. I had not yet come across a contraption of this kind. I had seen panniers full of chocolate, biscuits, powdered milk, bottles of beer, of whisky and of Coca-Cola, going along the trails of Nepal to cater for the tastes of Westerners, but never a portable henhouse. When I asked the man if I could photograph it he put it down on a low wall, removed from his forehead the band with which he was carrying it and struck a pose, smiling, next to the chickens.

Then while he was getting his breath back we talked for a while. I'd visited the region he came from, which astonished him. He understood that I was not a casual walker, and discovering that I could even string together a few phrases in Nepalese, asked me why I was so interested in the Himalayas. I had a ready answer to that question: I told him that there was a mountain where I had grown up, and to which I was attached, and that it had fostered in me a desire to see the most beautiful mountains in the world.

“Ah,” he said. “I understand. You are doing the tour of the eight mountains.”

“The eight mountains?”

The man picked up a small stick and drew a circle with it on the ground. You could tell he was used to drawing it; he executed it so perfectly. Then, inside the circle he drew a diameter, and then another perpendicular one bisecting the first, and then a third and a fourth through the point of bisection, thus creating a wheel with eight spokes. I thought that if I had drawn that figure myself I would have started with a cross - that it was typical of an Asian to begin with a circle.

“Have you ever seen a drawing like this?“ he asked.

“Yes,” I replied. “In mandalas.”

“That's right,” he said. “We believe that at the centre of the earth there is a tremendously high mountain, Sumeru. Around Sumeru there are eight mountains and eight seas. This is the world for us.”

While he was speaking he drew outside of the wheel a small peak for each spoke, and then a little wave between one peak and the next. Eight mountains and eight seas. Finally, at the centre of the wheel, he drew a crown which I thought might represent the summit of Sumeru. He assessed his work for a moment and shook his head, as if to say that this was a drawing that he had made a thousand times but that of late he had begun to lose his touch a little. Be that as it may, he pointed the stick to the centre and concluded

“We ask: who has learned most, the one who has been to all eight mountains, or the one who has reached the summit of Sumeru?”

Monday, July 11, 2022

Notional summits

Getting to the top is sometimes a matter of interpretation ...

In her recently published Imaginary Peaks, Katie Ives finds that much of what we call mountaineering takes place in the head. Taking as her starting point a famous hoax – the faked-up Riesenstein range that appeared in a 1962 edition of a now defunct mountaineering magazine – she pursues this idea illuminatingly through the history of alpinism.

Project Hyakumeizan was particularly taken with the discussion of fact-checking in Chapter 23 – a subject that must be close to Ives's heart in her day job as editor-in-chief of Alpinist magazine. You’d think that, even if mountains themselves are hard to define, summiting them should be easy enough to pin down objectively. After all, what is hard to understand about the highest point?

For the highest summits in the world, the record-keeper was, for decades, the Kathmandu-based journalist Elizabeth Hawley (1923-2018). Such was the authority of her unofficial yet universally respected Himalayan Database that one alpinist declared “It doesn’t matter if you’re Reinhold Messner or Ed Viesturs; your summit never happened unless Elizabeth Hawley says it did.”

Yet, as Ives relates, in mid-2019 an international team of researchers “ascertained that many mountaineers didn’t actually reach the real apex of the mountains they claimed to have climbed”. Often, simply by mistake, they’d stopped instead at lower points that looked like summits.

The problem lies in the ambiguous topography of several eight-thousanders, Ives explains. On Dhaulagiri I, the summit landscape includes a metal pole stuck in the wrong place. Annapurna I’s “immense summit ridge” has numerous bumps, the lowest of which is just 26.8 metres below the tallest. And the uppermost ridge of Manaslu – “Japan’s eight-thousander” – has a right-angled bend that hides the real summit from view. Small wonder that most climbers stop short of that point.

By an exquisite irony, it now appears that Elizabeth Hawley’s successor, Billi Bierling, has fallen victim to just this topographic ambiguity. Bierling has directed the Himalayan Database since 2017, splitting her time between Kathmandu and her native Garmisch-Partenkirchen, which lies beneath what is unarguably Germany’s highest point, the Zugspitze.

Like Hawley, Bierling has a journalistic background. Unlike Hawley, though, she also practises the activities that she monitors. Besides her work with Swiss Humanitarian Aid, she leads treks and climbs big mountains. She is the first German woman to summit and safely descend Everest, and has topped out on eight-thousanders on seven occasions – including two visits to the summit ridge of Manaslu, the second of them without using bottled oxygen.

These climbs came up in an interview with Bierling that recently appeared in the quarterly customer magazine of a mountaineering goods retailer. “You stand on the ridge at Manaslu and have the feeling that you can't go any further. Up there, it's very hard to assess how far the cornice extends. And then you see the drone footage that an Australian climber took last fall, and you see that it does continue, even higher,” she commented.

To the question whether she reached the actual summit, she replied “No. As I can assess it today, both times I was not on the point reached this year by Mingma G and his team.” The Himalayan Database will adjust its parameters accordingly, she added: “Starting in 2022, we will … then accept only the main summit as the summit. In the future, anyone who turns back at the pre-summit will then be will be recorded as ‘pre-summit’.”

On a planet with much bigger problems, does any of this actually matter? Eberhard Jurgalski, who once worked with Hawley and now maintains his own mountain database, thinks that it does. For that reason, he worked with the researchers who highlighted the misleading summit claims on some Himalayan summits. As quoted by Katie Ives, he says that “This is history. Why not tell the truth to people?”. 

And, as Ives herself notes, after the 2016 US presidential election, both climbers and non-climbers have become particularly aware of fabricated stories and the dangers they pose. For as long as they remain so, the reliability of information will continue to concern people. And they will continue to value well-researched resources such as the Himalayan Database as "the reference point”, to borrow Billi Bierling's words.


Katie Ives, Imaginary Summits: The Riesenstein Hoax and Other Mountain Dreams, Mountaineers Books, 2021

We are the reference point”, interview with Billi Bierling by Stephanie Geiger, published in Inspiration 2-2022, the quarterly mountain magazine published by Bächli Bergsport, Switzerland (German and French language versions)

More to read


“We are the reference point”
Insights from the Inspiration interview with Billi Bierling

Although (or because) mountaineering is a sport without much in the way of governing bodies, mountaineers can be obsessive about records of achievement (first this, fastest that etc). Billi Bierling’s interviewer points to that paradox with an illuminating question: why is the Himalayan Database needed at all? After all, nobody keeps a list of Matterhorn and Eiger ascents…

“Really, there’s no actual need for a database, and that’s why they don’t have one on the Matterhorn or the Eiger,” Bierling admits. But the Database is the only source when it comes to information about mountaineering in Nepal, she points out. It shows, for example, exactly how many people have died descending Annapurna IV.

Above all, it lists first ascents. Expedition organisers can find out if somebody from Uruguay, for example, has ever topped out on Everest (Only one Uruguayan has succeeded, as it happens, and this was as recently as 2019.) The Database also makes it possible to see trends: the success rate on Mount Everest used to be 10 percent; today it's 60 percent.

Unfortunately, another trend – the rise of social media and the possibility of making a living from them – have added to the incentives to cheat. As Bierling remarks: “Some respect for the mountains seems to have gone missing. Everything has become so easy. (…) Books and social media have made the mountains so much more accessible. But no one can turn back this clock. Quite a few people go climbing to build up their profiles.”

This, in turn, increases the pressure on Bierling and her colleagues to verify claims. “Someone once showed me a photo of the summit of Kangchenjunga, but the summit was reflected in the background on his ski goggles. So you could clearly see that he hadn’t been on the top,” she recalls. “A year later, he went back to the mountain and unfortunately died on the summit. This was tragic and I still feel infinitely sorry for him.”

Monday, July 4, 2022

Thoughts of an extreme anthologist

Reinhold Messner takes a distinct stance on mountain literature

After carving out a place in history as an extreme alpinist, Reinhold Messner segued into a second career as a director of multiple museums. But why stop there? On the evidence of a book procured from a local second-hand shop, he’s also put together a unique collection of mountain literature.

By the standards of most alpine anthologies, this is an extreme one. For in his “Lesebuch” (reader), Messner takes as his remit the whole of mountain literature – not just mountaineering. As he explains in his introduction, “Fortunately, alpine literature is not simply the books that alpinists read; rather it is everything that concerns the mountains and our relationship to them.”

So, if breadth and variety are what you’re looking for, this collection won’t disappoint. “What I want to make visible and tangible,” says Messner, “are the different levels of experience that mountains all over the world represent – in short, what they mean to people everywhere.”

The book has four sections. First come the myths and origins of alpinism, taking in some old chestnuts such as Petrarch’s ascent of Mont Ventoux and Konrad Gesner’s Pilatus climb. But also included are Livy’s account of Hannibal crossing the Alps and a snippet by Mao Tse-tung.

Then follow the “classics and romantics”. According to Messner, a distinct genre of alpine writing emerged from the scientific and travel literature of the late 18th century, subsequently becoming more specialised. This section spans both the literary men such as Goethe and Schiller and scientists like Humboldt and Darwin – although, of course, there was only a single culture in those days.

And here too we encounter Georg Büchner’s Romantic hero Lenz, who in the eponymous story “forged on into this vastness... completely alone, wanting yet unable to talk to himself, indeed hardly daring to breathe, his mere footfall sounding like thunder beneath him”. Is it possible that Messner the high-altitude soloist sees a fellow spirit here?

The third section covers what Messner calls “expressionism”. These are the writers of alpinism’s classical age, here represented by Guido Lammer (1863–1945) and Ludwig Purtscheller (1849-1900), both pioneers of guideless climbing. The more literary contributions of Ludwig Hohl and René Daumal, the author of Mount Analogue, also get an airing.

Finally comes the age of postwar “realism”. As you’d expect, this section includes writings from Messner’s immediate predecessors and peers, such as Walter Bonatti (1930-2011), Gaston Rébuffat (1921-1985) and Kurt Diemberger (b.1932).

More surprisingly, it also embraces writers who probably never drove a piton in their lives. Ernest Hemingway is there, and so are Bruce Chatwin, John Steinbeck and Simone de Beauvoir – of course, you knew she was a hard-driving solo mountain walker. And, as this is the most cross-cultural of extreme anthologies, Milarepa (1052-1135) and Inoue Yasushi (1907-1991) get a look-in too.

Who’s out is as significant as who’s in. Readers will search in vain for Paul Bauer, Luis Trenker and Fritz Bechtold, those prominent alpinists of the 1930s. Messner deplores their “alpine triumphalism”, by which he means mountaineering fired up for nationalist purposes. And he has little taste for modern mountain novels, even if they win literary awards. As Messner explains:

However competent alpinists may be as climbers, their writings have to measure up to the standards of literature. In selecting these extracts, therefore, I’ve placed more emphasis on the quality of the writing and less on the historical significance of the deed it describes.

If applied rigorously, that principle would galvanise any compilation of other people’s writings. Sadly, though, Reinhold Messners Lesebuch doesn’t seem to have attracted much in the way of reviews and commentary since it was published in 1985. That’s a pity. As a bold attempt to redefine the alpine anthology, it could shake up thinking about what constitutes the essential literature of the mountains.


Reinhold Messners Lesebuch, Bruckmann Bergsteiger Bibliothek, Munich 1985 (German language).


Literature about the mountains – excerpts from the introduction to Reinhold Messners Lesebuch

Mountains are as elemental as seas. Yet mountains don’t seem to resonate through literature as the sea does. Why not, one might ask. But my purpose with this book isn’t to answer a question, but rather to choose among the host of mountain writings and verses, gathering together what I think is worth reading about the mountains. So this anthology follows the timetable set by the history of literature and of mountaineering, as sketched out by the book’s partition into four main chapters ...

When Hannibal crossed the Alps in 218 BC with 60,000 soldiers, elephants and horses, it was the boldest mountain expedition of all time. What came next is less improbable, up to and including the first ascent of Mount Everest without an oxygen mask. Dante and Petrarch, with their sense of form and space, brought the mountains home even to folk who found all peaks forbidding and sinister. The former climbed the Bismantova near Reggio as the mountain of his penitence, the latter Mont Ventoux in Provence, which he ascended in 1336, urged on “by the desire to see for myself the singular altitude of this place on earth”.

The versatile Leonardo da Vinci did not climb the mountains as a painter. Instead, like Charles Darwin and Alexander von Humboldt after him, he approached the mountains scientifically. As botanists, mineralogists and topographers, these men picked out and recorded key facts. It was from this scientific and travel literature, which took root at the end of the 18th century, that a distinct genre of mountain literature emerged during the Romantic era and subsequently became more and more specialised.

The young Goethe may have found Switzerland’s St Gotthard Pass “desolate as the valley of death” with its “naked rock and moss and storm wind and clouds”, but that didn’t stop the adventurers that soon afterwards thronged to the highest peaks of the Alps, spurred on by ambition and the spirit of exploration. In their minds, they blended the “conquest of the mountains” with patriotism, and later with idealism too, and from this heady mixture they distilled the alpine literature of the times.

In another sense, though the mountains are beyond human comprehension. As depicted by Caspar David Friedrich, they embody utter desolation, like the painter’s solitary “Watzmann”, or Georg Büchner’s hero in his eponymous story “Lenz”, who “forged on into this vastness... completely alone, wanting yet unable to talk to himself, indeed hardly daring to breathe, his mere footfall sounding like thunder beneath him”. These mountains are severe, they shrug off humanity. For all they cared, Lenz “could have left the earth behind him”.

Friedrich Hölderlin too found something sublime in the “divinely built palaces” of the peaks, and “heaped up all around” they became a source of spiritual solace for him. But expressionism, which coincided with the classical age of alpinism, yielded little in the way of lasting literature. Any attempt we make to explain what we do in the mountains pales in comparison with Büchner, who among his other achievements was the true originator of modern alpine literature. As his hero Lenz exclaims: “I can’t stand it anywhere but around there … If I couldn’t sometimes climb a mountain and look around, and then go back down … I’d be great! great! Leave me alone!”

Ludwig Hohl, the Swiss writer whom readers long chose to ignore, wrote in his Bergfahrt (Ascent) what a thousand other mountain books left unsaid. For this, he gave up his alpine days for years as an author, scribbling away in a basement.

As for the mountaineers, from Edward Whymper to Hermann von Barth and Ludwig Purtscheller, they have expressed themselves better by their deeds than through their writings. Even so, some of their books on rock and snow are worth reading. For anybody who wanted to depict the mountains before photography was discovered had to be able to write or paint. With numerous reservations, some successful descriptions can be found in the likes of Eugen Guido Lammer’s Jungborn and Oskar Erich Meyer’s Tat und Traum. And the same can be said for Leo Maduschka, although his Junger Mensch im Gebirg contains both literature and kitsch.

Even today, in the era of modern realism, alpinists have contributed little to true literature. Again, we have to look to more casual mountaineers if we seek the essence of mountains. Ernest Hemingway, for example, creates a whole world in just a few pages of An alpine idyll. Likewise, Max Frisch and Martin Walser convince one with their atmospheric renderings, and Werner Herzog’s Of walking in ice provokes more thoughts than all the hiking books of the last hundred years put together.

Among the few exceptions, Gaston Rébuffat, that humanist among the climbers, does have something to say to me, as does the existentialist Pierre Mazeaud, and Lionel Terray too. By representing mountaineering as the “conquest of the useless”, the latter comes out convincingly against the mere exploitation of the world. Walter Bonatti is as much author as alpinist, and Reinhard Karl demands as much of himself in writing as he did in climbing (...)

None of this century’s books of alpine triumphalism have been chosen for this selection because I find it deeply repugnant to read about a mountain characterised as the enemy. When Paul Bauer or Oskar Günther Dyhrenfurth describe their expeditions, they read like a report from the front. When Luis Trenker hears the mountains calling and Fritz Bechtold will not rest until the swastika flag flies at the summit of Nanga Parbat, they are not only children of their time but they are the exponents of a dangerous ideology (...)

But must we trash all those stories that depend on heroic self-sacrifice, just so that our critics can see that we are neither masochists nor death addicts? And how much longer must we genuflect towards that idol of “mountain comradeship”, and when will alpine club officials or magazine editors learn to discriminate between Grub Street and genuine literature?

(...) So, in making the selections for this book, I took heed neither of reviewers nor of bestseller lists. Nor did I refer to the likes of the German alpine federation’s DAV Book Prize, an otherwise praiseworthy institution (...)

Books and biographies based on personal experience represent a third genre of this type of cult literature. Most aim for some kind of self-gratification, even if quite a few weren’t even written by the protagonists themselves. After all, a mountaineer can only number among the “greats” if he has written a book. And who can resist the temptation of being a great climber?

But climbers may sometimes express themselves in more than one way. In my case, though, my climbing has nothing to do with my writing. Both may be creative acts, but each is subject to a completely different set of rules.

However competent alpinists may be as climbers, their writings have to measure up to the standards of literature. In selecting these extracts, therefore, I’ve placed more emphasis on the quality of the writing and less on the historical significance of the deed it describes. To fully appreciate a first ascent, I have to repeat it. But in order to judge a book, I need to read it as a literary work....

The crisis of alpinism is above all a crisis of its literature. Rather than overwriting, its real malady is to idealise. The exaggerated self-portrayal that mountaineers – whether extreme climbers or weekend tourists – like to project is one reason why one finds so little good literature among those countless mountain books. In the face of these mountainous reams of alpine literature - comprising tons of lyrical kitsch, nature worship that degenerates into empty phrases, self-discovery delivered in soundbites – I sometimes feel like Büchner’s Lenz in the mountains: “the only thing that bothered him is that he couldn’t walk on his head.”

This is why, although I am a mountaineer, I haven’t put together a collection of mountaineering stories for mountaineers. For I’m more interested in how mountains affect people and then in how these effects are reworked into literature.

My aim with this selection is to entertain, and to make you think and ask questions. I want to show you that there really is a literature about the mountains, and one which in Büchner’s words can “rise like a deep blue crystal wave into the sunset”.

(Unauthorised translation)