The Discovery of the Mountain The Conquest of the Alps
Credit: Jacques Descloitres, MODIS Land Rapid Response Team, NASA/GSFC The Alps are Europe’s most majestic mountain range. Springing in the west from the Tenda Pass above Nice,the main chain summits ran in a 700-mile arc to the south-west of Vienna.
Greece Macedonia Olympus Mountain Peaks AreaMountains were for long time not of interest for mankind.During Ancient Time peaks were considered sacred places “out of this world”, places reserved to Gods, close to heaven. Far away from the inhabited valleys, the height of the mountains offer an ideal shelter for the God’s rest.
When one thinks of explorationone thinks primarily in terms of the poles and Africa, of ice caps and deserts, of furs and snake boots. But in Europe, in the middle of the world’s smallest, most densely populated continent, was a wilderness which was not properly mapped until the late 19th century.
The Alps lacked the sullen gravitas of the Arctic ...
...or the dry weirdness of the Sahara but they had the same aura of inaccessibility.
The higher zones of the Alps were unknown and around them had been woven a web of myth and superstition. In the eighteenth century a respected scientistquite seriously enumerated the different species of dragon to be found there.For a long while people believed that the peaks were home to an alien race. They did not even know if humans could survive at such altitudes. It was a closed world.
The term “Alp” was itself a misnomer:when early geographers had pointed at the peaks and asked what they were called, locals had replied “alpes”.But this referred only to the high-level pastures on which they grazed their stock: they had no word for the mountains themselves.
Above all, however, the Alps were cold.Beyond the treeline lay a world of frigidity into which humans rarely ventured. In summer was possible to put cattle and sheep up there, and farmers decamped to temporary stone shelters called “Chalets” from which they kept an eye on their herds.
From the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries many wealthy noblemen completed their education with a period of European travel known as the Grand Tour.The main destination was Italy, considered one of the birthplaces of classical civilization, to see ancient Roman monuments and wonders of nature like the volcanic eruptions of Mount Vesuvius, near Naples. Samuel Johnson observed in 1776 that "A man who has not been in Italy, is always conscious of an inferiority, from his not having seen what it is expected a man should see“.
The Eighteen Century saw an incredible grew in the number of tourists. The earlier “classical Grand Tour” linked to galleries, museums and high cultural artefacts, eventually shifted to the “romantic Grand Tour” wich saw the emergence of “scenic tourism” and a new taste for mountain scenery. This change in tastes and the development of centres in the alpine regionthus paved the way for the subsequent growth of sports activities such as climbing, hiking and skiing.
The Alps flourished, attracting more tourists than ever before. Nobility from all over Europe came to the mountains: Poles, Russians, Italians, French and Germans struggled to find hotel space among the hordes of British aristocrats who had made it their summer home from home. Dukes, earls, lords, counts and bishops of every descriptiongathered with their wives and mistresses in popular spas such Évian and Leukerbad.
In the 1850s Britain was on a high. This was the decade of the Great Exhibition,the decade when British supremacy in almost every area was acknowledged across the globe. Britain was the most prosperous, most technologically advanced nation in Europe. It was the stablest one too, having been spared the revolutions which swept Europe in 1848. The popular mood was expressed by Queen Victoria after a visit to the Great Exhibition. “We are capable, she wrote in her diary on 29 April 1851, of doing anything” It was the right and the duty for Britain to stamp its mark on the world. A select band exercised their divine right –and themselves- by conquering the Alps. They called it the Golden Age of Mountaineering.
By common agreement, the Golden Age of Mountaineering began in 1854 with the ascent of the Wetterhorn by Alfred Wills. and ended when Edward Whymper conquered the Matterhorn in july 14th, 1865. During the Golden Age thirty-six alpine summits above 4,000 m were reached for the first time,thirty-one of them by British parties, who were also largely involved in ascents of 120 others peaks, in addition to the crossings of new alpine passes during the same period.
At the begining of the 20th Century Alpine Tourism reach a remarcable development, but it was restricted to a few major resorts, such as Zermatt, Grindelwald, Chamonix and St Moritz;away from the major destinations individuals could still wander across barren glaciers and through untouched valleys whose villagers and chalet-dwellers were not much different from those of the previous century.