A Mountaineer’s Imagination

John Ruskin, The Matterhorn, 1849

by Veronica Tomasic

            Zermatt lies at the end of a narrow valley, near the base of the Matterhorn, and life in the village unfolds in the mountain’s majestic presence. Throughout a day, if it is not completely obscured by clouds, the Matterhorn’s pyramidal, sculptural shape is subject to myriad transformations as sunlight reflects on its surface and clouds move across its face.

            Climbers have travelled to Zermatt for over 150 years to summit the mountain, one of the tallest in the Alps and Europe. They start before dawn from a hut at its base and, if all goes well, they return by afternoon. It is not the most difficult climb, but the Matterhorn can become treacherous at any moment. Each year approximately 3,000 climbers attempt to reach its peak and several die on their way up or down.

            The village has two cemeteries, one known as the local’s cemetery and the other known as the Mountaineer’s Cemetery. American cemeteries are often located in out-of-the-way or out-of-sight places, which suggests that we don’t like to think about death. Zermatt’s cemeteries are near the center of the village, just off its meeting square and by the St. Mauritius church. Families who have lived in the area for centuries are buried in the local’s cemetery. Whenever I pass it I see people gathered by one or another grave, tending to flowers or standing pensively.

            The Mountaineer’s Cemetery is a museum of sorts and a tribute to mountaineering. Alfred Spratt of Hampstead, who died climbing in 1868, at age 34, is buried here. As is 17-year-old New Yorker Donald Williams, who died climbing the Breithorn, a nearby peak, in 1975. His ice axe is permanently attached to his gravestone that proclaims: “I chose to climb.” According to her stone, 24-year-old Freda Currant “passed into fuller life” at dawn on the Matterhorn in 1936. Michel Croz, the distinguished Swiss mountain guide who fell to his death on the descent, after leading the first party to successfully climb the Matterhorn, in 1865, is buried here. As are Peter and Peter Taugwalder, father and son Swiss guides who survived that climb. Buried together are three young friends from Oxford – William Bell, age 23, an editor and poet, James McKean, 22, and James Ogilvie, 23 – who together fell from the mountain in 1948. A photograph of them taken the day before their climb is on the Web. They pose for the photographer, smiling, vigorous, excited, and proud. Walking through this cemetery, reading the headstones and reflecting on the stories they tell, I think of the extreme physical and mental challenges posed by climbing and, especially, of the spirit of mountaineering.

            What is known as the Golden Age of Alpinism began in 1854, when Alfred Wills became the first person to summit the Wetterhorn. It ended in 1865 when, led by Edward Whymper, seven men reached the top of the Matterhorn for the first time but four fell to their deaths on their way down. The British public had been following news reports of the ascent of this steep-sloped, till then unconquered mountain with its air of invincibility. People were horrified to learn of the tragedy and many, including Charles Dickens, vociferously questioned the point of what was then the new sport of mountain climbing.

            In the Golden Age’s 11-year span, mountaineers summited almost all of the tallest Alpine peaks for the first time. They were mostly British and led by Swiss guides. Most had graduated from Cambridge and Oxford and mountain climbing had gripped their imagination. This was an era of exploration, of belief in science and fascination with its ability to explain nature. The early climbers were inspired by the work of the geologist Horace-Bénédict de Saussure. They were also inspired by art and literature. They had probably seen Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings of mountains and J. M. W. Turner’s alpine watercolors. They had almost certainly read John Ruskin’s treatise on modern painters, in which he devoted an entire chapter to the aesthetic properties of mountains. They had likely read the Romantics – Wordsworth, Byron, and Shelley – on mountains. These men, and even some women who climbed in ankle-length skirts and corsets, had been raised with a Victorian belief in physical fortitude as a virtue. Tied together with thin hemp rope, they faced biting cold and wind and ice in wool jackets and hobnailed boots.

            Leslie Stephen, the esteemed biographer, literary critic, and father of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell, was a prominent Cambridge-educated English mountaineer of the Golden Age. He was the first person to summit a number of significant Alpine peaks and he was the fourth president of the elite Alpine Club. This daunting intellectual and intensely-browed man loved mountains. He wrote about mountaineering in ways that transcended traditional, purely technical accounts of climbs. In his essays we find impassioned descriptions of light, and alpine glow, and vistas. He wrote of the “sublime” and “exquisite” and “solemn” beauties of the “noble” mountains that had “cast their spell” on him. He described the “eternal” wilderness silence and recounted “wandering amongst the glorious solitudes of the Alps.” Climbing afforded him, as it did many of the mountaineers, profound joys that exceeded what any art could inspire: “even the most eloquent language is but a poor substitute for a painter’s brush, and a painter’s brush lags far behind these grandest aspects of nature,” he declared.

            George Mallory was a mountaineer who famously took part in the first British attempts to climb Mount Everest in the early 1920s. He began climbing in the Alps at 18, in 1904, when a teacher took him to Switzerland for the summer. At Cambridge he studied history and was a friend of artists and intellectuals known as the Bloomsbury group. He let his hair grow, became involved in campus political debates, and was admired for his beauty and his physical abilities.

            Mallory fought in and survived the horrors of World War I at the front. He was a close friend of Geoffrey Young, another Cambridge-educated mountaineer-writer, who climbed the Matterhorn with a prosthesis that replaced the leg he had lost in the war when he was in Italy as an ambulance driver. Writing about two young men killed at the front who had climbed in the Alps before the war, Mallory reflected that “many of the younger members [of the Alpine Club] who have shared the common lot of young men at present, who have lived in grim and desolate scenes [have] been comforted by mountains. For it may happen that mountains too distant to be seen present themselves beautifully to the imagination for wholesome cheer; and it has seemed to me that an expedition, the memory of which has been a friendly companion, ought properly to be connected with those unbeautiful places where I have best remembered it.”

            I think of war memorials, which represent bravery and violent deaths. And of the sleepy village churchyard cemetery, which leaves a visitor with the impression that the cycle of birth to adulthood to dying in a small village is as tranquil and peaceful as its surroundings. And then there are the cemeteries one sees off the side of an American freeway, stuck between endless traffic and other roads. Vast, grey, polluted, they seem to ask how much longer they will exist before progress replaces them with asphalt and concrete, the people buried there anonymous and forgotten. Zermatt’s Mountaineer’s Cemetery is different. It evokes a time and place when men and women took immense risks for the sake of an activity that stirred their minds and souls, the memory of which might temporarily compensate them for any “grim” and “desolate” experiences they would subsequently have.

Veronica Tomasic writes about end-of-life issues. She has a Ph.D. in American Studies from Yale and she practices law in New Haven, Connecticut.