Superficially, Sir Leslie Stephen, author of Sketches from Cambridge, by A Don, Hours in A Library, Essays on Freethinking and Plain Speaking, Social Rights and Duties, etc. etc. etc., would seem to be the most desk-bound author imaginable. But, in fact, he was a keen mountaineer, and though not an original member of the Alpine Club of Great Britain (founded in 1857), he joined it in 1858, and his first published book (in 1861) was a translation of The Alps, or, Sketches of Life and Nature in the Mountains, by Hermann von Berlepsch.
Among other mountain-climbers of the mid-Victorian period were the theologian F.J.A. Hort (indeed, it was in correspondence between him and one William Mathews of Birmingham that the idea of the Alpine Club was first mooted) and his Cambridge colleague and fellow editor of the Journal of Classical and Sacred Philology, J.B. Lightfoot (later bishop of Durham). One is tempted to make a weak joke about exemplars of muscular Christianity (and Hort in particular was a friend and supporter of J.D. Maurice), but one won’t – although a fascinating aside given in the ODNB’s ‘biography’ of the Alpine Club is that its members were responsible for the beard-growing fashion which began to replace side-whiskers and moustaches in the second half of the nineteenth century.
Unsurprisingly, scientists, especially geologists, were also among the ‘first wave’ of alpinists. John Tyndall (1820–93), the Irish physicist, published not only Six Lectures on Light, The Forms of Water in Clouds and Rivers, Ice, and Glaciers and The Glaciers of the Alps, but also Hours of Exercise in the Alps (the exercise in his case included the conquest of the Weisshorn, and one of the earliest ascents of the Matterhorn). Sir Andrew Crombie Ramsay, author of The Geology of the Island of Arran, and successor to Sir Roderick Murchison as director of the Ordnance Geological Survey (founded by Henry de La Beche), and the mathematician Arthur Cayley were both members of the Alpine Club, as were Charles Weld, historian of the Royal Society (married to a niece of Sir John Franklin and hence brother-in-law to Tennyson), Francis Galton (Charles Darwin’s cousin), and (briefly) Matthew Arnold. Gertrude Bell, by the way, was a skilled alpinist, but of course the Alpine Club admitted women only in 1974…
But I started tracing these connections after picking up a copy of The Alps from End to End, by William Martin Conway (1856–1937), which records in diary form an expedition to walk the Alps from (roughly) south to (roughly) north in 1894, climbing most of the peaks along the way. This is not usually my sort of thing: fear of heights and a very bad sense of balance (the two presumably connected) limit for me the attractions of climbing any mountains, let alone ski-ing or ‘glissading’ down them. But Conway writes, engagingly and with a nice line in self-deprecating humour, about the people encountered en route, the scenery and the plants, the food and the wildlife and the weather. The actual climbing is rather downplayed, and some horrendously gruelling and dangerous-sounding exploits are treated with the sort of nonchalance no doubt obligatory in the English gentleman of the period.
Conway (who began climbing while an undergraduate at Trinity College, Cambridge) was an art historian by profession. He had married American railway money (breaking off a previous engagement to do so), and though he had been appointed professor of art at University College, Liverpool, in 1885, he resigned in 1888, and spent most of the rest of his life as an ‘independent scholar’, researching and writing books, travelling and climbing. With W.A.B. Coolidge, a fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford (famous in his youth as the ‘American who climbs with his aunt and his dog’), Conway wrote several climbing guides to the Alps; he also published on woodcuts, early printed books, Dürer, Reynolds and Gainsborough, and was Slade professor of art at Cambridge in the 1900s. An expedition to the Himalayas in 1892 may have set an altitude record for the time, and two years later, he devised his Alpine adventure, taking with him two Gurkhas who, it was hoped, would become useful Himalayan guides if they added experience of climbing in snow to their existing abilities as ‘scramblers and weight-carriers’. The party also included E.A. FitzGerald, an American climber, the distinguished Alpine guide Matthias Zurbriggen, who had also climbed in the Himalayas, the Andes and New Zealand, and two more local guides.
The journey took 86 days, of which 65 were spent ‘on the march’; the rest were ‘devoted for the most part to writing, though one or two were absolute holidays, and perhaps half a dozen were days of halt caused by storm’. Conway estimated that they walked 1,000 miles: on the map, the distance covered was about 900 miles, but, as he points out, there is a lot of zig-zagging involved in mountain walking, and in any case ‘the horizontal projection of a route … is shorter than the up and down hypothenuses [sic] actually traversed’. Conway’s other life as an art historian and critic is evident in the beauty of his descriptions of land- (and cloud-)scapes, and the narrative also reminds us of the long-gone political configuration of nineteenth-century Europe – French troops are massing on the Italian border, and the party are continually assumed to be spies, in spite of their efforts to procure all the right paperwork in advance; they are trapped by bad weather in a Tyrolean inn, and compelled to have their photo taken while drinking the health of the Emperor Franz Josef in champagne that they also had to pay for. (Though some things don’t change: after their return to London, the Gurkhas are sent to rejoin their regiment, heading for Abbottabad and an expedition into Waziristan.)
Some passages in this book are (I think!) laugh-out-loud funny, it is beautifully written, and it’s never not interesting (though it helps (me) that the technical details of each climb are confined to footnotes). However, it has definitely confirmed me in my view that alpine travel is more enjoyable in summer, and below the snow-line.