At 82 years of age, Trevor Braham no longer climbs but has reached a new summit with an award-winning book on mountaineering’s golden age.
“When the Alps cast their spell” has won the prestigious Boardman-Tasker prize for mountain literature.
“They don’t cast the same spell anymore,” says Braham, who has lived in Switzerland for the past 30 years. “They don’t raise the same passion as they used to in those [Victorian] days.”
Braham is talking about the reason he wrote his book as we walk along a snow-dusted ridge below the peaks of the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau.
We have come up by train from the resort of Grindelwald, as hundreds of thousands of tourists do every year. He says it is the ease with which people can travel in the Alps today that makes them take the mountains for granted.
Braham’s book turns back the hands of time in order to explain the attraction for the Victorians of the 19th century.
But I want to know why a man who grew up at the foot of the Himalayas and took part in many pioneering expeditions in the world’s highest range would devote a book to the Alps.
Birth of mountaineering
“I was very conscious of the fact that the golden age really represented the birth of mountaineering,” he explains.
"The people who began it, I always looked on them as a heroic group of men,” said Braham. “I was fascinated with them, then I began to read their books and learn more about them and this is what led me on.”
He says his fascination with mountains began as a schoolboy at a Jesuit school in the Indian hill station of Darjeeling.
“One of my most poignant memories was looking through a telescope at the south face of Kangchenjunga and seeing the wind driving snow across that face,” he recounts.
“Waking up in the morning seeing that face again, I wondered what it would be like to have a camp up there.”
He got his chance in 1954 as a member of a reconnaissance expedition that paved the way for the first successful ascent of Kangchenjunga, the world’s third highest peak, a year later.
Swiss Himalayan expedition
A few years earlier, in 1947, he was invited to join a Swiss expedition which claimed many first ascents including Kedarnath in the Garhwal Himalaya.
This was the start of a friendship with Swiss mountaineers, which led Braham to Switzerland the following year to climb in the Alps.
He hired a guide for the entire climbing season, as had been the practice among Victorians a century earlier, and followed some of the routes of the men he has now written about.
“There was one particular section of the ridge below the Monte Rosa summit which Tyndall describes in great detail,” Braham says about the passage in his book dedicated to scientist John Tyndall, who made the first solo ascent of Monte Rosa in 1858.
As Braham says in the book: “He seems to have embarked on this venture in a strangely rash and overconfident mood, driven not by any scientific curiosity but by: ‘the unspeakable beauty of the morning which filled him with a longing to see the world from the top of Monte Rosa’.”
“He had a fright there as he ought to have,” Braham says referring back to his own experience on the mountain.
“He could have killed himself on the narrow and tricky part of the upper ridge. I was roped [to a guide], he wasn’t.”
Braham captures the spirit of the alpine golden age by focussing on the characters as much as the exploits of men like Tyndall, Leslie Stephen and Edward Whymper.
The author quotes Stephen recalling “with something like a sense of shame, how on one of the loftiest peaks of Switzerland I spent the precious moments [on the summit] in having my trousers mended by a guide, who happened to be also a tailor”.
“They saw the funny side of it all and [I wanted] to show that they were just ordinary people,” Braham says. “They reacted as you or I would react.”
As we make the first tracks in fresh snow with the mountains towering above us, Braham points below, where the railway line disappears around a corner to a place called Wengernalp.
“In Leslie Stephen’s day, it was completely primitive. He regarded it as a sacred place,” he says reverentially. “It was just at the foot of the Jungfrau and Mönch. The glaciers were much bigger in those days.”
“For him, it represented the spirit of the high mountains, and this is what attracted a man like Leslie Stephen to the Alps.”
And men like Braham.
“I come to the mountains because I love the mountains. They never fail to raise my spirits, even today.”
swissinfo, Dale Bechtel above Grindelwald
The book “When the Alps cast their spell” has won the 2004 Boardman-Tasker prize for mountain literature.
It tells the story of the beginnings of mountaineering by focusing on the lives of six pioneering climbers.
The prize is named after two British climbers who wrote acclaimed mountaineering books and who died together on Mount Everest in 1982.
The book is the second by Trevor Braham. His first was “Himalayan Odyssey” (1974) about his adventures in the world’s highest mountain range.
Braham was born in British-ruled India in 1922 and eventually took over his father’s business in Calcutta. He later lived in Pakistan.
He moved to Switzerland in 1974 with his Swiss wife and two sons.