Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

Killing Dragons

The Conquest of the Alps

by Fergus Fleming

“Excellent popular history, with its proper share of mad dogs and Englishmen. . . . dramatic and masterful.” –Anthony Brandt, National Geographic Adventure

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 416
  • Publication Date March 22, 2002
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-3867-5
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $22.00

About The Book

Today the Alps are the playground of the world’s most densely populated continent. Until modern times, however, they were a wilderness of fear and superstition. Above the pastures of Switzerland, it was believed, dragons and ghosts inhabited the realms of ice and snow. No one in their right mind considered climbing into the Alps—and certainly not for pleasure. Eventually, however, scientists and mountaineers began to explore the mysterious summits. Their exploits ranged from the heroic to the tragic to the hilarious, and in Killing Dragons Fergus Fleming recounts the conquest of the Alps and the fascinating characters who accomplished it.

The adventures began in the late eighteenth century, when scientists tackled the peaks seeking knowledge of glacial formation, the atmosphere, and the earth’s origins. A few decades later, the romantics celebrated the Alps for their savage beauty, inspiring tourists to flock to the region. Then, in the 1850s, came the climbers. Vying with each other to conquer ever higher and more impossible mountains, they raged through the Alps in a frenzy of conquest. They fought each other on the peaks and in print, entertaining a vast public smitten with their bravery, delighted by their animosities, and horrified by the disasters that befell them.

It is impossible not to relish Fleming’s descriptions of these personalities with their eccentricities and astonishing egos. There was Marc-Theodore Bourrit, singer, snob, and endearing coward with a genius for promoting the Alps. There was Albert Smith, the Victorian showman who made a fortune from putting the conquest of Mont Blanc onto the London stage. There was the physicist John Tyndall, who struggled to capture the Matterhorn, and Edward Whymper, printer turned monomaniacal mountaineer, who beat him to it. And there was William Coolidge, the American Oxford don who could turn a spelling mistake into a lifelong feud.

The great mountains fell one by one to these and other extraordinary characters. By the 1930s only the suicidally dangerous north faces of the Eiger and Matterhorn remained to be climbed by the prot”g’s of Hitler and Mussolini. The conquest of the Alps, a central chapter in the history of mountaineering, is a hair-raising and thrillingly bizarre tale, captured here by a remarkable storyteller.


“Excellent popular history, with its proper share of mad dogs and Englishmen. . . . dramatic and masterful.” –Anthony Brandt, National Geographic Adventure

“In this energetic, wry look at the history of Alpine exploration, Fleming explores the contradictions at the core of man’s relationship to [the Alps]. . . . Delightful.” –Lorraine Korman, Forbes FYI

‘showing a remarkable ability to mix well-research history with engaging depictions of the people who made it, Fleming chronicles the many frigid explorations that brought much of the world its first scientific knowledge of Europe’s highest peaks. . . . Fleming’s work stands out for its deft combination of humor, fact and Technicolor description.” –Publishers Weekly

“A diverting popular history. . . . A fine job: Fleming makes it clear that the climbers climbed for many reasons, but almost always returned with good stories to tell.” –Kirkus Reviews

“A gripping study of man’s conquest of the Alps . . . Fleming’s mix of heroic adventure and gloriously eccentric characters makes this a book that even someone without the remotest interest in mountaineering would find difficult to put down.

” –Peter Donaldson, The Bookseller (UK)

“This is an epic of non-fiction that has all the exuberance of the best thrillers. . . . As an account of the conquest of the Alps, Fleming’s book is both as exciting as one would expect and also very funny.” –Publishing News (UK)



In 1541 the naturalist Conrad Gesner made an extraordinary decision. “I am resolved,” he wrote to a friend, “that as long as God grants me life, I will each year climb some mountains, or at least one, at the season when the flowers are in bloom, in order that I may examine these, and provide noble exercise for my body at the same time as enjoyment for my soul.”1
Gesner’s decision was unusual for several reasons. In the short, uncertain and uncomfortable lifespans of the time, most people did not seek extra toil; climbing a mountain even once, let alone every year, was an unnecessary and profitless burden. Then there was the very fact of mountains; they were steep, nasty, cold, frightening and potentially hazardous. They were also high, and height was anathema. What could one do with height? Nothing. One could not till its thin soil. One could trade only with difficulty over its rocky passes. One could hardly even invade one’s own neighbour if height intervened. It was a worthless and obstructive thing. All these factors made Gesner’s decision unusual.

But what made it extraordinary was his decision to climb not just mountains but Alps.
The Alps were – and are – Europe’s most majestic mountain range. Springing in the west from the Tenda Pass above Nice, the main chain of summits ran in a 700-mile arc to the south-west of Vienna. Lesser offshoots poked southwards to the Adriatic and the Balkans, but it was the main chain, and especially the western part of the main chain, in the regions of Piedmont, Savoy and Switzerland, that first sprang to mind when anybody mentioned the Alps.
Lying at the cultural crossroads of Europe, where French, German and Italian influences met, the western Alps should theoretically have been a vibrant, cosmopolitan area. And to an extent they were: in the sixth century BC they had witnessed the brilliant Celtic culture of La T”ne; the Romans had marched over them, as had Hannibal and his Carthaginians; since the second century AD Christian missionaries had proselytised in the valleys; pilgrims from as far afield as Iceland had crossed the Great St Bernard Pass and other of the twenty-three major passes which led to Rome. For a brief period they were controlled by Saracen bandits. Every conceivable nationality had either passed over the Alps or settled below them. One region was proud of its Scandinavian heritage, another of its Prussian; one area venerated an Irish monk; in others the place names were clearly Arabic in origin; neighbouring valleys spoke different languages, held different political allegiances and embraced different religious beliefs.
Yet for all this diversity, for all this coming and going, the Alps were a blank on the map. Apart from a few pockets of civilisation such as Geneva, Berne and other cities which prospered in the mountains’ shadow, and apart from the well-trodden passes (which had once been well maintained but since the fall of Rome had become increasingly ruinous), nobody cared about the rest. Scattered agricultural communities, inbred and disease-ridden, grazed livestock on the upper pastures. And that was all people knew or wanted to know about the place. The culprit, as usual, was height.
The Alps were, indeed, tremendously high. Within the central range, which was in places 120 miles wide, there were hundreds of peaks higher than 10,000 feet, dozens higher than 13,000 feet and one, Mont Blanc, which at 15,771 feet was the highest in western Europe. So high were the mountains that they formed one of the continent’s great climatic barriers, wringing the moisture from prevailing winds to divide Europe into cold, wet north and warm, dry south. They were rough as well as high. Thrust up by the tectonic collision which welded Italy onto mainland Europe, they displayed the earth’s crust in all its rawness. There were crags of black granite and sharp needles of pink; there were piles of disintegrating shale whose shards left silvery dust on the hands; there were vast, orange columns of limestone. On Alpine cliffs one could trace the swirls of petrified mud and hack from them the skeletons of tiny, fossilised fish. Veins of gold, silver, iron, lead, zinc and copper came to the surface; marble, slate and salt could be hewn from the hills; grottos yielded valuable crystals.*
Above all, however, the Alps were cold. Beyond the treeline lay a world of frigidity into which humans rarely ventured. In summer it 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. But for most of the year the high peaks were clamped in snow, and between them lay field after field of year-round ice whose offshoots dribbled menacingly into the valleys below. In the first century AD a Roman chronicler wrote that “everything in the Alps is frozen fast”2 – and this was a relatively warm period. Three centuries later St Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, feared that the ice would suffocate all civilisation. By the Middle Ages monastic orders had erected hospices at the top of every pass to succour pilgrims and, in the case of the Great St Bernard hospice, to rescue them with snow-trained hounds. In 1690 the villagers of Chamonix, beneath Mont Blanc, imported the Bishop of Annecy to exorcise the glaciers which threatened to obliterate them. (It worked: allegedly the ice retreated one-eighth of a mile, thereby showing God’s greatness and also justifying the large sum the Bishop charged for his services.)
The Alps were a world to themselves: they produced flowers found nowhere else on the continent, tiny plants that had shrunk to cope with near-Arctic conditions, yet which retained in miniature all the beauty of their lowland equivalents; hidden by snow for much of the year they emerged in spring and summer to carpet the mountainside. There was an equally rare set of fauna: the chamois was unique, so were the Bouquetin ibex, the lammergeier, or bearded vulture, and the marmot, a burrow-dwelling member of the squirrel family which looked like a rabbit-beaver cross and emerged from its annual hibernation with a chorus of whistles – to be quickly knocked on the head and eaten.
Such was the ignorance surrounding the mountains that most of them had no names – if they did, they were called things like Accursed or Unapproachable – and the very 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. Thus the name which appeared on world atlases became an unwitting reminder of just how little Europeans knew of the wilderness in their midst – and of how radical Gesner’s decision was.
By Gesner’s time the Alps were a source of terror and superstition. Plains-dwellers still shuddered at the thought of Hannibal’s march in 218 BC. Philemon Holland, a sixteenth-century translator of Livy, painted a terrifying picture of the campaign, in which Hannibal’s men smashed their way through the Alpine passes, shattering boulders with fire and vinegar before dragging their protesting elephants, “ever readie and anone to run upon their noses’, towards Italy. He described the invaders’ fear at “the height of those hills ” the horses singed with cold ” the people with long shagd hair” and the horrors of the journey where “the snow being once with the gate of so many people and beasts upon it fretted and thawed, they were fain to go upon the bare yce underneath and in the slabberie snow-broth as it relented and melted about their heeles’.3 And if Holland was not enough there were the words of Master John de Bremble, a Canterbury monk who had braved the Alps in 1188. “I put my hand in my scrip that I might scratch out a syllable or two,” he wrote to his subprior, “lo, I found my ink-bottle filled with a dry mass of ice; my fingers too refused to write; my beard was stiff with frost, and my breath congealed into a long icicle. I could not write the news I wished ” Lord, restore me to my brethren that I may tell them that they come not to this place of torment.”4 True, like many other pilgrims, Master John had chosen to cross the Alpine passes in early spring, the most changeable season as far as the weather was concerned. But this in no way diminished his message of woe.
One or two souls had braved the forbidding peaks. In 1358 a knight named Rotario of Asti climbed Roche Melon near Susa and deposited a bronze triptych on its 11,600-foot summit. In 1492, the year Columbus discovered America, Charles VII of France passed by Mont Aiguille near Grenoble – Mont Inaccessible as it was then called – and ordered his chamberlain to climb it. The chamberlain did so, surmounting its rocky, 7,000-foot mass by ‘subtle means and engines’ -which seems to have involved a rickety chain of ladders – to erect three crosses on the top. The feat was considered so astounding that it produced a flurry of official correspondence.
At one undetermined time in the fifteenth century, Leonardo da Vinci climbed what may have been Monte Rosa, near Zermatt, and recorded his impressions:
No mountain has its base at so great a height as this, which lifts itself above almost all the clouds; and snow seldom falls there, but only hail in the summer when the clouds are highest. And this hail lies there, so that if it were not for the absorption of the rising and falling clouds, which does not happen more than twice in an age, an enormous mass of ice would be piled up there by the layers of hail; and in the middle of July I found it very considerable, and I saw the sky above me was quite dark; and the sun as it fell on the mountain was far brighter here than in the plains below, because a smaller extent of atmosphere lay between the summit of the mountain and the sun.5
If Leonardo had reached the summit – which he almost certainly hadn’t – he would have stood 15,203 feet above sea level.
Generally, however, the Alps were as distant from the normal world as was the moon. Anything could happen in this icy semi-circle of teeth that bit off Italy from the rest of Europe. To many they represented hell, combing the freezing conditions of a Nordic Niflheim with, in summer, the roasting inferno of Christianity. When people approached them, it was only to scuttle over their passes as speedily as they could, alert for impending danger. Many travellers were carried blindfold lest they be overwhelmed by the awfulness of the scenery. Here was a realm whose upper reaches were, by all accounts, home to a race of malformed and malevolent sub-humans. The peaks above were inhabited by demons of every kind. Witches were well attested, their presence being routinely exorcised by one form or other of social purging. It was an undisputed fact that dragons lived in Alpine caves, ready to incinerate any who set foot above the snowline. Now and then, an intrepid traveller might acquire a ‘dragon stone”, which could cure haemorrhage, dysentery, diarrhoea, poisoning, plague and nosebleeds. This miraculous stone could only be obtained by cutting open the forehead of a dragon as it slept in its lair – care had to be taken, however, for should the dragon awake the stone would lose its power. Naturally hard to come by, one specimen was preserved at Lucerne, having been dropped luckily, if illogically, by a passing serpent.
Representative of the rumours was Pilatus, a mountain near Lucerne, that held a pond full of biblical terror. According to legend, Pontius Pilate had committed suicide rather than face the prospect of death at the hands of Emperor Tiberius. His body was weighed down with stones and hurled into the Tiber. The result was a bout of the most atrocious weather the Romans had ever seen. He was hastily recovered and taken to Vienne – in a show of contempt for its inhabitants – where he was thrown into the Rhone. Further storms and tempests ensued, so he was fished out once again and thrown into the waters at Lausanne. Here, too, Pilate worked his malevolence so he was salvaged for a third time and dumped in a lake on a mountain above Lucerne. For good measure his wife Procla was tossed into a nearby pond. The storms were phenomenal.
When the local bishop strode forth to exorcise the lake he met with qualified success. The weather returned to normal but Pilate demanded a quid pro quo. Every Good Friday he would rise from the lake on his judge’s throne, dressed in scarlet robes. Anyone who saw him would die before the year was out. The bargain was struck.
Pilate remained quiet, save that a number of locals died every year from unexplained causes – obviously they had seen the scarlet apparition – and now and then Pilatus would be subject to horrendous blizzards, clearly brought about by folk who taunted Pilate by throwing stones into the lake or by mobbing him in some other disrespectful fashion. To avert calamity the authorities expressly forbade anyone to approach the mountain without an approved guide. When six clerics tried to climb the hill unaided in 1387 they were imprisoned. For centuries Mount Pilatus, as it became known, was forbidden territory.
In the sixteenth century, a number of brave men put Pilatus to the test. In August 1518 Joachim von Watt, Burgomaster of St Gall, obtained permission from the authorities to go up the mountain. Following the advice of his guide he did nothing untoward near the lake and managed to climb one of Pilatus’s peaks. He was followed in 1555 by Conrad Gesner who set out on 20 August with a small body of men – among them the court usher of Lucerne who carried on his back a sustaining quantity of wine – and reached the actual peak without disaster. He marked his conquest with a blast on an alpen-horn. Then, in 1585, Pastor Johann M’ller of Lucerne did the unheard of: he climbed the mountain and deliberately threw stones into the lake. Nothing happened.
Of these three conquests, M’ller’s would appear initially to be the most important. He had set out to quash a superstition and he had been successful. It is Gesner’s climb, however, that deserves most attention. For Gesner was not out to slay dragons. What he wanted to do was see the Alps in a new light, as spiritual totems whose summits would lead him to greater awareness of the world about him. In 1541, far ahead of his time, he declared that “The consciousness is in some vague way impressed by the stupendous heights and is drawn to the contemplation of the Great Architect. Men of dull mind admire nothing, sleep at home, never go out into the Theatre of the World, hide in corners like dormice, through the winter, never recognise that the human race was sent out into the world in order that through its marvels it should learn to recognise some higher Power, the Supreme Being himself.”6 Two years after climbing Pilatus he was able to express himself in greater detail. Writing in Latin, he told his limited readership that the Alps “are the Theatre of the Lord, displaying monuments of past ages, such as precipices, rocks, peaks, chasms, and never-melting glaciers’. And, he added quaintly, even if the walking was tiresome, the accommodation bad and the perils numerous, “it will be pleasant thereafter to recall the toils and dangers; it will gratify you to turn over these things in your mind and to tell them to friends’.7
Gesner was widely ignored and died in 1565. He did, however, set rolling a ball that would be caught almost two centuries later when Johann Scheuchzer, the Professor of Physics at Z”rich University, wrote a definitive study of the Alps. From August 1702 he undertook nine journeys through the mountains and published his findings in 1723 under the title Itinera per Helvetiae Alpinas Regiones. Scheuchzer had a solid reputation in his field – the philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Leibniz was one of his supporters – and he was a notoriously modern thinker: he propagated Sir Isaac Newton’s notions of gravity, for example, and opposed capital punishment for witchcraft. When his two-volume work came out, therefore, people were expecting something special. Scheuchzer did not disappoint. His enquiring mind made a number of botanical and mineralogical discoveries that were of benefit to science as well as a number of personal observations that were not. At F”rstenau he encountered a cheese that had been treated with wine and oil of cloves for so many years that it had become a porridge – “which for connoisseurs of such food has a particularly delicious flavour”.8 From the quarries of Oehningen he received a fossil that he believed was the missing link and which he triumphantly named Homo diluvii testis. (It was later found to be a species of giant newt.) He wondered at glaciers, and came to the conclusion that their movement was caused by the expansion of water trapped in their crevasses. Near Brig he discovered a super-intelligent community, most of whose members shared the surname Supersaxo, who were fluent in German, French, Italian and Latin and descended from a sixteenth-century Italian count who had sired twelve sons and eleven daughters.
Scheuchzer shunned the peaks. He was not, by inclination, a climber. At the s’gnes Pass he warned that people prone to giddiness should try another route. At the Gemmi Pass he decided that its name came from the sighs (Latin gemitus) of those who tried to cross it. And at Leukerbad he became exasperated: “we have already climbed sufficient mountains, but we must get over one today which will give us enough to do’.9 His visit to the St Gotthard Pass was endurable only because it gave him an opportunity to talk about the formation of crystals. He had a stab at Pilatus but “partly because of bodily fatigue and partly because of the distance remaining to be traversed”10 he did not reach the summit. ‘very few care for this laborious kind of pursuit, which is by no means lucrative,” he commented. “It is not everyone who can take pleasure in climbing hills which reach the clouds.”11 Nevertheless, he did cover a lot of ground and if some of his observations seemed absurd – such as his belief that certain chamois possessed a stone in their bellies which rendered them immune to bullets – others did not. His theory of glacial movement would not be bettered for almost 150 years. Above all, he set at rest a question that had haunted people for a long time. Yes, the Alps did contain dragons.
From a number of reliable witnesses, Scheuchzer compiled a list of these creatures. There was one that had the body of a snake and the head of a cat. Another had four short legs and a coxcomb. A third was a snake equipped with bat’s wings. Some had crests. (Were crested dragons the cock of the species? he wondered.) The best specimen of all had the head of a ginger tom, a snake’s tongue, scaly legs and a hairy, two-pronged tail. Its eyes sparkled horribly. All it lacked was physical stature, being a mere two feet long.
Scheuchzer dismissed most of the dragon tales. But those in which he believed – including all the above – were accorded full respect. The ginger tom, for example, came from the Grisons, an area, according to Scheuchzer, that was ‘so mountainous and so well provided with caves, that it would be odd not to find dragons there”.12 One could tell the real article from the false by the number of birds they inhaled during their flight. Without wishing to seem alarmist, he concluded that “from the accounts of Swiss dragons and their comparison with those of other lands ” it is clear that such animals really do exist”.13
Not everybody believed him. But for several years thereafter a respectful silence fell over the Alps.
The hush was broken in 1741 by two Britons, Messrs Pococke and Windham. In that year they led a small party of fellow countrymen to Chamonix, a valley in Savoy overlooked by Mont Blanc. It was an uneventful excursion by modern standards. The travellers entertained themselves by cracking whips and firing pistols to hear the echoes rattle off the mountains. They went up the Montenvers, marvelled at the “terrible havock” made by avalanches, and gaped at the views, which were now ‘delicious’ and now “terrible enough to make most people’s heads turn”.14 Windham, the party’s main chronicler, was amazed by his first glaciers, and was quite taken aback by the Mer de Glace, a tremendous snake of ice that curled away below the Montenvers into a distance of needle-like peaks. “I own to you that I am extremely at a loss how to give a right idea of it,” he wrote to a friend in Geneva, “as I know no one thing which I have ever seen that has the least resemblance to it. The description which travellers give of the seas of Greenland seems to come nearest to it. You must imagine your lake put in agitation by a strong wind, and frozen all at once, perhaps even that would not produce the same appearance.”15 Witches, he was told, came to “play their pranks on the glacieres [sic] and dance to the sound of their instruments’.16
They saw no witches; they saw no dragons; nor did they see any of the bandits they had been assured roamed the region, although Windham advised future visitors to go armed – “”tis an easy precaution ” and oftentimes it helps a man out of a scrape”.17 In fact, the worst shock they received was of a dietary nature – “there are some places where one can get no provisions, and the little there is to be had in other places, is very bad”.18 Pococke, who had recently visited the Middle East and was a bit of a show-off, filled empty moments by dressing as an Oriental potentate, thereby causing the guides some anxiety. But otherwise a cheery time was had by all. They were unabashed tourists, and Windham did not try to hide it: “a man of genius might do many things we have not done. All the merit we can pretend to is having opened the way to others who may have curiosity of the same kind.”19
Others would indeed come to Chamonix, drawn as much by Pococke and Windham as by a new flourish of Alpine literature. In 1732, the Swiss naturalist and philosopher Albrecht von Haller had published the poem Die A/pen. Haller was widely respected throughout Europe and beyond. Such was his renown that, according to one story, when pirates once captured a ship carrying a case of books addressed to him they deposited the parcel at the next port with instructions that it be forwarded. His poem, which addressed the moral aspects of mountains rather than mountains themselves, was treated with similar reverence. It was reprinted thirty times during his lifetime and was recited by heart in the salons of France and Germany. Then there was the French writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the apostle of noble savagery, who was one of the first to suggest that powdered wigs and court glitter might not be the only measure of human worth. Rousseau favoured natural beauty over the artificial and slightly squalid fashions of the time, and in doing so started a craze for rugged scenery and rustic simplicity that has yet to abate. The Alps were the closest example of ruggedness to hand and, although Rousseau never did more than dally beneath them, his 1761 novel La Nouvelle H”lo’se contained a long section describing their emotional impact. “There is something magical and supernatural in hill landscape which entrances the mind and the senses,” ran one typical passage. “One forgets everything, one forgets one’s own being; one ceases to know where one stands.”20 Like Haller before him, he became one of the century’s bestselling authors.
Rousseau and Haller drew people to the Alps for their spiritual qualities. Pococke and Windham did the same in respect of their physical beauties. The mountains became a place of pilgrimage for literary-minded Europeans and for wealthy young Britons doing the Grand Tour. The Alps were painted and written about and marvelled at, and their glacial waters were quaffed by the gallon by those who had heard of their supposedly health-giving properties. People became aware that mountains need not be feared but could actually be enjoyed. The medieval attitude, which had hailed towns as oases of comfort in a harsh world, was replaced by an anti-urban trend. Parisians, for example, became conscious that in certain conditions travellers could smell their city before they even saw it. Other centres were the same. Pure air, clear skies and green trees suddenly became valuable and nowhere were these qualities more plentifully available than in the Alps. But although people came to the Alps they did not climb them. The new wave of tourism lapped no higher than the snowline. Pococke and Windham, for example, had trampled through Chamonix without once mentioning their constant companion, Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the Alps. Height, it seemed, was just as intimidating as ever.
Artists, writers and philosophers had popularised the Alps – or at least certain, easily accessible segments of them – but they had done little to explore them. Dragons, for all anyone knew, and hosts of demons and whole species of unknown humanity might yet inhabit the upper slopes. Nobody had a clue about glaciers, those monstrous seas of ice, constantly and inexplicably sliding downhill, whose snouts poked into most valleys; it was very seriously believed that they were the agents of the devil, and priests were routinely summoned to keep them at bay. The area remained a mystery, comprising “great excrescences of earth, which to outward appearance indeed have neither use nor comeliness’.21 It needed a scientific mind to probe its secrets, a mind such as belonged to a Genevan aristocrat named Horace B”n’dict de Saussure.


A feature of eighteenth-century Geneva was its extraordinary number of suicides. Citizens hung themselves, shot themselves, poisoned themselves and flung themselves into either the lake or its inflowing rivers with weary regularity. One inhabitant hesitantly put this down to the influence of the English, who flocked to Geneva as an orderly, non-Catholic centre of the Enlightenment; an Englishman declared that this view could be ‘summarily dismissed”,1 but did not offer an alternative diagnosis; and a Frenchman wondered whether it might not be caused by the oppressive landscape – a comment that the same Englishman thought preposterous.
Horace B”n’dict de Saussure did not himself commit suicide -although several of his friends and relatives did – but he was undoubtedly influenced by the two supposedly disposing causes. Born in 1740, one year before Pococke and Windham entered Chamonix, he grew up in an English-style Genevan mansion built by his father in imitation of those he had seen on a visit to Yorkshire; he started his career in the then typically English fashion as a lawyer, hoping not to have anything to do with law but “to gain knowledge of affairs’; and when he abandoned law in favour of a career as a geologist, he met and corresponded with his English counterparts, many of whom were among Geneva’s regular visitors. A small, feisty state whose 1781 census counted some 25,000 inhabitants (of whom a staggering 6,000 were watchmakers), Geneva was one of the more prosperous members of the Swiss Confederation and prided itself on being the equal of any nation in every respect save pomp, cuisine and authoritarianism – the very virtues that eighteenth-century Englishmen considered to be the distinguishing features between themselves and their vainglorious French neighbours.
More than Englishness, however, Saussure was swayed by the other demon of self-destruction – the oppressive landscape. In general, Genevans had two things to look at: the lake and the mountains. For some this might have been depressing but Saussure found the sight invigorating. “From childhood, I have had an absolute passion for the mountains,” he later wrote. “I still remember the sensation I experienced when, for the first time, my hands touched the rocks of the Sal’ve [in nearby Savoy] and my eyes enjoyed its vistas.”2 His love of the mountains was more than a passion: it was an obsession. In 1760, while still a student at the Geneva Academy – in two years’ time he would be appointed its Professor of Natural History – he became frustrated with the smaller hills available to him. He wanted to expand his scope to include the giant peaks visible in the distance. As he described it, “I was desperately anxious to see at close quarters the great Alpine summits which look so majestic from the top of our mountains.”3 So, at the age of 20, he walked the 50 miles to Chamonix on the trail of Pococke and Windham.
Saussure had not only read Albrecht von Haller’s poem on the Alps but knew the old man personally. The ostensible purpose of his journey was to collect plants for Haller’s collection. He was not particularly successful in this regard, for which he blamed the lack of specimens to be found. In all likelihood he was not looking very hard. “I fear, eager as you are, that on your excursions you walk a little too quickly,” Haller chided him. “One ought to go as slowly as possible, and above all on the alps to sit down from time to time, even to lie down, so as to get a close view of the growing plants.”4 Lie down? No thought could have been further from Saussure’s mind.
As a youth he had heard stories about the mountains surrounding Chamonix, the largest of which was Mont Blanc. Its icy slopes and those of its adjoining chain of peaks were said to have been placed there to punish the sinful folk who lived below. The moment he entered the valley of Chamonix, however, Saussure was entranced. “The fresh air one breathes ” the good cultivation of the soil, the pretty hamlets met with at every step ” give the impression of a new world, a sort of earthly paradise, enclosed by a kindly Deity in the circle of the mountains.”5 As for the ice, it was to him not a punishment but a gift. “These majestic glaciers, separated by great forests, and crowned by granite crags of astounding height cut in the form of great obelisks and mixed with snow and ice, present one of the noblest and most singular spectacles it is possible to imagine.”6
From the house of the local cur” – the only decent lodging available – Saussure roamed his new-found paradise with enthusiasm. Where no plants were to be found he carried a gun and excused his expeditions on the ground of collecting Alpine birds. He climbed the Br’vent, an 8,287-foot mountain opposite Mont Blanc. He crossed the Mer de Glace to visit a shepherd on one of the more distant and threadbare pastures and marvelled at the needles of rock which rose around him dizzyingly into the sky. When not exploring, he studied the locals. The women, he noted, did most of the agricultural work while the men busied themselves in the dangerous trades of chamois-hunting and crystal-gathering. (Rock crystal was a major component of eighteenth-century costume jewellery.) The Chamoniards were also renowned cheese-makers and in summer hired themselves out to other valleys, thereby diminishing the population considerably*. From those that remained, Saussure picked one, Pierre Simon, to help him through the wondrous but unknown landscape. “He is short of stature,” wrote a contemporary, “his head buried in a large hat; small bright eyes, a short coat, heavy nailed shoes, and a spiked stick, a peculiar language as difficult to understand as to speak for everyone ” he was experienced, prudent, courageous and faithful.”7 Little else is known about Pierre Simon, but he stands on record as one of the first Alpine guides, a breed whose knowledge and ice craft would later steer their employers through the glacial approaches to the summits themselves.
Saussure visited Chamonix again and again. By 1778 he had been there eight times – twice in 1776 – and still he wondered at everything he met. Even the approach thrilled him. At Balmes, for example, a local guide took him aside and in hushed tones informed him that fairies and other supernatural beings had once ruled the land. Moreover, he could show him the proof. There were places, he said, where they had turned snakes, snails and a variety of indescribable creatures into stone. Hastening to the spot, Saussure found nothing but ammonites and other fossils. Interestingly, however, he did not discount his guide’s “fairies’ until he had seen the evidence for himself. Even to someone like Saussure, it seems, the existence of dragons and the like was not an impossibility. There was more to come. When the supernatural transmogrifications failed to convince his employer, the guide told Saussure of a palace the fairies had carved into the mountainside. It contained chambers lined with glittering columns and in the vastness of its main reception room lay a fathomless pit containing untold wealth. Saussure sallied forth to investigate. The Caverne de Balmes, as expected, was a lengthy grotto of stalactites and stalagmites. The only excitement for Saussure was walking on a layer of crystals that had formed on the surface of long since evaporated water to produce a shelf that was equidistant from floor and ceiling. Apart from this the cavern was unexceptional and Saussure recorded, disappointedly, that it did not even measure up to Pool’s Hole in Derbyshire.
But the pit, down which he could not go because exploration of its 600-foot depth required ropes made to special order, remained a tantalising mystery. People had thrown stones into it and had heard them bounce off metal. On descending to find the fairy gold they had been driven back by a black goat that rose up from the abyss to bite their legs. Saussure dismissed the tales when he interviewed a man who had actually gone to the bottom of the pit. He was the surviving member of a twelve-strong team that had descended, clothed in crucifixes and other charms, to bring up the fairy treasure. What they had found was two copper bracelets, a number of chamois skeletons and some broken skulls of unidentifiable origin.
Saussure very much wanted to investigate the pit, especially when his informant told him that a man-made tunnel, on the wall of which was carved the image of a violin, led off to yet another cave. But the ropes were not available and he had to content himself with throwing rocks to judge its depth. It was small consolation. In his precise fashion he wrote that he could not be certain how far the rocks had dropped because they bounced off the sides on their way down. Once again, however, he did not dismiss superstition out of hand: when he wrote of the black goat in his journal he did so in respectful capitals.
Chamonix and its approaches were fine. But what captured Saussure’s imagination more than anything else was Mont Blanc. Its presence had eluded Pococke and Windham – perhaps because from Chamonix it appears foreshortened and little more impressive than any of the adjacent peaks – but Saussure had seen it from Geneva and had recognised its importance. In his opinion it was the highest mountain in Europe, Africa or Asia and one that he must conquer. He was so besotted with Mont Blanc that he chose his auberges on the way to Chamonix not for their comfort but for the view they afforded of the peak. When he left Chamonix at the end of the summer of 1760 he had a notice posted in every parish of the valley. In it he offered a reward – the precise sum is not known – for the first person to climb Mont Blanc. In addition, he promised to recompense anybody for the time they spent on a failed attempt. On a second visit to Chamonix, in 1761, he repeated the offer. It was maybe a whim, a gesture by a well-meaning youngster with money to hand. But it was enough to set the Chamoniards thinking.
While Saussure was tinkling his purse at the locals, another man, Marc-Th”odore Bourrit, was igniting the world with his visions of Mont Blanc. Bourrit, the Precentor of Geneva Cathedral, was an extraordinary man. Artist, singer, womaniser, snob and interminable raconteur, he was an endearing coward with a genius for self-promotion. One traveller portrayed him as “long and thin, his complexion as dark as a negro’s, his eyes burning and full of genius and life; his mouth marked by a touch of mobility and good nature which inspires confidence”.8 Physically, this description fitted the bill. It omitted, however, Bourrit’s various other attributes – such as his vocal chords, of which he was immodestly proud. “I have been told in Paris that my voice can compete with the finest in Europe,” he said. “I daresay that when my passion for music gets the better of me, I may feel tempted to make myself known to the world.”9 He could paint, too – although not particularly well – and made a small name for himself as an Alpine artist, selling his watercolours to a gratifyingly important clientele that included the royalty of France, Russia, Sardinia and Prussia. And he could talk, squeezing from the smallest opportunity a lengthy torrent of words accompanied by gesticulations and, frequently, tears. But here his genius ended and a tetchy insecurity took over. He was touchy, and when crossed did not hesitate to use libel, slander and poison-pen letters against his perceived enemies.
Bourrit’s one redeeming trait was his fascination with the Alps. He painted them, wrote about them and spoke about them. He travelled through them extensively. He dubbed himself the “Historian of the Alps’ and the “Indefatigable Bourrit”, and did all he could to make people – preferably wealthy, well-connected people – acquainted with their beauty. The one thing he could not do with the Alps was to climb them. He tried again and again – between 1869 and 1819 he made several attempts each year – but was thwarted by three debilitations: he dreaded cold, he disliked rain and he suffered from vertigo. He was the despair of his companions. He would wear impractical fur-lined shoes that had no grip; he would walk through pastures of cattle wearing a red cloak and carrying a large red umbrella; on slopes beyond a certain gradient he would lean so heavily on his guides that they almost collapsed. He would arrange a climb, delay it and then cancel it if the weather was not right. Even when painting he displayed a regrettable lack of surety. Approaching a glacier, he dithered at its edge, then decided the cold was too extreme for inspiration. On one rare occasion when he did climb a hill he planted his easel on the summit and took out his watercolours; after a while he noticed that he had sunk waist-deep in snow, and had to be dug out. He had no scientific accomplishments whatsoever: “It may be wished he had explained himself with more precision,” complained a translator, having struggled to make sense of Bourrit’s borrowed theories concerning glaciers. “[It is] a point in which he leaves the mind not fully satisfied.”10 Instead, he was happier pottering over the foothills, exploring undiscovered valleys – which he did with some success -and telling female tourists how things should be done.
Bourrit did, however, have an undeniable feel for the Alps. Whereas Rousseau and the like were content to describe the hills from below, Bourrit did his best to tell people how they looked from above. On encountering his first glacier he was smitten.
A new universe came into view; what words can I use to describe a spectacle which struck us dumb?” The richness and variety of colours added to the beauty of the shapes. Gold, silver, crimson, and azure were shining everywhere, and what impressed me with a sense of even greater strangeness were the arches supporting snow-bridges over the crevasses, the apparent strength of which encouraged us to walk cross. We were even courageous enough to stop in the middle and gaze down into the abyss.11
Of the surrounding peaks that he could not reach he remarked only that they “were serrated in innumerable ways’. When in 1775 he eventually managed to climb one of the smaller hills, Le Buet (it took him two years simply to locate it), he burst into such an extravagance of speech and song that a large boulder was named “La Table au Chantre” in his honour.
His fellow countrymen mocked him, his fellow climbers abhorred him and the authorities noted crossly his continued absence from the cathedral. Yet his presence was inescapable, his knowledge seemingly endless and his enthusiasm so patent that people were drawn to the Alps if only to meet their most fanatical publicist. One such pilgrim was Prince Henry of Prussia, who paid a visit to Bourrit’s studio, an episode that Bourrit never tired of relating. ‘m. Bourrit pointed out to us his little staircase, which, in fact, is very narrow,” wrote an English visitor. “He said that while going down it Prince Henry had said to his suite, “How many great staircases there are for little men! I am delighted to have found at last a great man with a little staircase.” I hope for M. Bourrit’s sake that there is a real disproportion between his staircase and himself, and that the prince’s antithesis is sound ” On looking at him I saw that his sleeve had a hole in it.”12 Come nightfall, Bourrit camped in his courtyard on a little iron bedstead to prepare himself for conditions higher up. For all his faults it was hard to despise him.
Saussure was the very opposite of Bourrit. At the age of 24 he was, according to one acquaintance, “already – without knowing it – a great savant, witty with a particular touch of naivete which could not fail to please, and though he was not easily embarassed, he almost invariably blushed when spoken to by a girl or young woman”.13 Unlike Bourrit, who cut a dashing figure, Saussure had a pinched, prim look that reflected his methodical, scientific approach to the mountains. He wrote of his excursions that he ‘made all these journeys with a miner’s hammer in hand, merely for the purpose of studying natural history, climbing all accessible summits which seemed to promise interesting observations, and always carrying off specimens from the mines and mountains, especially those which threw any light on physical theories’.14 He made it a rule to take notes on the spot and then transcribe them that evening in a journal that he would later rewrite for publication. He was painstakingly exact, at times overly so. “[He] instructs you frigidly, and sometimes sends you to sleep,”15 complained one German writer.
Bourrit, in contrast, liked to pounce on unsuspecting victims and bore them to death. On one occasion he encountered an unsuspecting group of English tourists at Chamonix and waxed lyrical to their guides. “Put yourself in the place of the strangers,” he began, “who come from the most distant lands to admire the marvels of Nature in these wild and savage aspects, and justify the confidence they place in you “”16 He carried on in similar vein, flanked by a visiting princess and the local chief of police, shedding the occasional tear as his fervour mounted. His audience goggled in bewilderment. In 1787 Baron de Frenilly happened to meet Bourrit – “a man of volcanic imagination” – in an Alpine hospice. Bourrit began to describe a mountain sunrise. “I believe that I listened to Bourrit for half an hour without falling asleep,” wrote the Baron. “But at last, fatigue got the better of me, and I know not if he succeeded in getting the sun to rise.”17
Bourrit and Saussure, albeit at opposite ends of the spectrum, were in the vanguard of Alpine exploration. Initially, however, their efforts were fruitless. Saussure’s bounty on Mont Blanc resulted in two desultory failures by Pierre Simon and for a while thereafter not much else. And for all Bourrit’s raving and painting – he travelled throughout Europe trying to sell his pictures – he could not tempt tourists from the safety of their literary excursions. It was left to two Genevan brothers, Jean-Andr” and Guillaume-Antoine De Luc, to make the first serious investigation of a mountain.
Born in 1717 and 1729 respectively, Jean-Andr” and Guillaume-Antoine were amateur scientists of some renown. They were also admirers of Rousseau and in 1754 had rowed him and his mistress around Lake Geneva. Rousseau did not think much of the brothers, finding them rather boring, but this did not stop him pumping them for Alpine information that later found its way, unacknowledged, into La Nouvelle H”lo’se. Whether or not this upset the brothers is unknown. At any rate, they joined their love of science with their love of the hills and decided to make some experiments at high altitudes. They had two aims: to determine by means of a barometer the differences in air pressure at the top of a mountain and at its base -thereby, they hoped, being able to calculate its height; and to measure how long it took a kettle of water to boil at various heights above sea level. The importance they attached to these simple goals speaks volumes of their lack of information regarding the Alps. They chose Le Buet, an impressive but untaxing mountain of 10,167 feet, as a suitable site for their experiments.
The De Lucs’ first expedition, in 1765, was a failure. Acting on the advice of peasants who were acquainted only with Le Buet’s grazing, they climbed a long slope of grass and found themselves thwarted by precipices. It was useless to continue and anyway their thermometer had broken. In August 1770 they had another go, taking with them a local guide who was both cheese-maker and “apprentice to a hunter”18 – he liked to load his gun twice down the same barrel, he explained, so that he could get in a second shot if necessary. After a number of wrong turns they found themselves once again at a dead end. To salvage something from the day Jean-Andr” set up his kettle and began to boil water. Their guide burst into laughter and took the opportunity to have a rest. He sat down heavily on Jean-Andr”‘s foot, spraining his employer’s ankle. Then, suddenly remembering that his cows had not been milked, he left the De Lucs to their own devices and went down the mountain. Guillaume-Antoine helped his crippled brother as best he could – which was not much according to Jean-Andr”; he described with feeling the sensation of sliding on his back ‘down 1,500 perpendicular feet”19 – but they were unable to reach shelter and had to spend a night in the open. Their only blanket was the cloth in which they had bundled their provisions and which, when spread out, barely covered their legs. They slept badly and were so stiff and cramped on waking that it was some time before they could hobble to safety. Jean-Andr” later explained, with forbearance, that the guide “was not the expert we required”.20
Undeterred, they made a third attempt in September 1770, and this time they secured a man who knew the way if not to the peak then at least to the point from which it could be attained. They climbed ever higher, “enjoying a multitude of agreeable sensations’, until they reached the snowline. Here they felt slightly nervous. “We were not shod for such an enterprise,” Jean-Andr” explained. “But our guide, with his thick, hobnailed boots, kicked the snow sideways as he ascended. In this way, he made little steps in the crust of snow which supported him, and by means of these we climbed up after him, supporting ourselves with our poles [until] we discovered the immense chain of the Alps, stretching for a distance of more than fifty leagues.”21
At once, Jean-Andr” lit a fire and put the kettle on. While waiting, thermometer in hand, for the water to boil, he had time to admire the stupendous view. And as he did so he became aware of an uncomfortable fact: he was conducting his experiment on a cornice, a perilous, wind-blown coif of snow that projected from the summit without any support save that of its binding molecules. Five hundred feet of vertical space separated him from the rocks below. Nowadays, cornices are known to be inherently unstable, likely to break at any given moment. In his innocence, Jean-Andr” took a different view. The weight of ice and snow was already so great, he reasoned, that a mere human and his kettle could not possibly affect matters. Teetering on the brink of disaster he boiled away, alternately consulting his watch and dipping his thermometer into the water. At his leisure he also took barometric readings. Then he packed his equipment and ambled back to the security of the summit.
The De Lucs’ climb was an achievement. This was not because Le Buet was a particularly high or challenging hill to climb. According to one authority, “the mountain is nothing but a long grind up meadows, steep scree slopes and a small, almost level glacier. The going is never difficult but extremely tedious.”22 Even Bourrit later managed to climb it. Their ascent, however, was important in that it was the first time Le Buet had been climbed, and the first time that the vogue for scientific inquiry had penetrated above the lower slopes.
The De Lucs would make other water-boiling expeditions from which they returned – if their thermometers and barometers did not break, as often happened – with data that were original if not particularly useful. But they never climbed a really high peak. That privilege was left to the Abb” Murith, a priest of the Great St Bernard hospice. Murith was an amateur botanist and natural scientist who determined in 1779 to climb the V”lan, at 12,353 feet the highest mountain in his locality. Setting out on 31 August with two Chamois hunters, he successfully reached his goal. The hunters proved spineless guides, complaining of heat, tiredness and homesickness. That the party reached the summit intact was due only to Murith’s browbeating; once, the Abb” had to personally hack steps in a steep ice slope and drag his companions after him. Along the way he dutifully took measurements with his barometer and his thermometer. He also listed the number and species of plants to be found at various altitudes. But what truly amazed him was the view from the top.
Had he been with him, he wrote to Saussure, “You would have enjoyed the most splendid spectacle of mountains and glaciers you can imagine; you would have been able to gaze on a wide circle of peaks of different heights, from Turin to the Little St Bernard, from the St Bernard to the Lake of Geneva, from Vevey to the St Gotthard, from the St Gotthard to Turin.”23 He expounded further in a letter to Bourrit. While admitting for the touchy Precentor’s sake that the view from Le Buet was extremely fine, he avowed there was nothing to match that from the V”lan: “you would have seen the universe under your feet, the points and needles of the highest hills looking like a tumultuous sea”.24 By his calculations the summit was “hardly less than 100 toises [650 feet] lower than the highest point of Mont Blanc ” I believe I ascended one of the first great peaks ever climbed in Europe.”25
Officially, of course, the view Murith enjoyed and the height he attained were less important than his contributions to science. Nevertheless, he took a wry pleasure in underlining his achievement to Saussure. “I cannot promise I will help you enjoy so ravishing a view,” he wrote. “In spite of my own intrepidity, I had too much trouble in gaining the summit of this wintry giant.”26 It was, he said, without going into details, “a terrible climb”.
Steadily, the men of science were inching their way towards something important. They paid lip service to tales of dragons and demons and stories of witches who danced on glaciers, but what concerned them most were hard facts: the measurements of thermometers and barometers; the extent of electrical activity; the speed at which sound travelled; the quality and composition of rocks; the diversity of flora and fauna; the formation of glaciers; and the effects altitude had on the human frame. Yet even the sternest hearts experienced a near superstitious awe when considering the world they had set out to conquer.
“The high summits,” wrote Guillaume-Antoine De Luc after one expedition, “could be descried, all white with fresh snow, through the gaps between the clouds; they appeared as many giants of an enormous size, as old as the world, who were at their windows looking down upon us poor little creeping creatures.”