"This is where it all started"

The British are willing to climb in any weather

Many of Britain's leading 20th century climbers have returned to the Swiss Alps to honour the place mountaineering all began and to issue a warning about its future.

This content was published on June 25, 2007 - 15:51

The big day in Zermatt marking the 150th anniversary of Britain's Alpine Club - the first of its kind in the world - began with an ascent of the 4,164-metre-high Breithorn.

Taking part were elite members of the British climbing world.

Some of them, like Stephen Venables and Doug Scott, survived daring firsts in the Himalayas to write about their exploits – how they overcame forbidding walls of rock and ice and made harrowing descents on broken legs.

But the illustrious alpinists had not set their sights on trailblazing new climbing routes in Zermatt – not on this day anyway.

They sat back and enjoyed the early-morning mountain views from a cable car whisking them up to an altitude of 3,800 metres.

The rest of the outing was a mere stroll along a gentle sloping ridge. The only challenge was the sudden squalls that obliterated the path and the field of view of the accompanying photographers.

Still flourishing

"This event is meant to celebrate the fact that mountaineering is still flourishing after 150 years, and our club is still flourishing. This is where it all started," Venables told swissinfo after the modest goal had been reached.

Founded by upper middle class Britons in 1857 during what was considered mountaineering's Golden Age, the club was soon the talk of the nation. The British claimed the large majority of major alpine peaks during this period.

But the conquest in 1865 of the most sought-after mountain, the Matterhorn above Zermatt, was tainted by the deaths of three British climbers and a guide. Expedition leader and Alpine Club member, Edward Whymper, was the sole British survivor.

This sensational exploit sparked greater interest in the Alps and it coincided with a railway and hotel boom that extended into isolated Swiss valleys. The mountains were suddenly accessible to a wider public who could now also afford to travel.

Remote ranges

But it was not long before leading climbers started abandoning the Alps in favour of higher, more remote ranges with endless opportunity for death defying challenges.

At the same time, the tourist industry in the Alps underwent explosive growth, and mountain after mountain was conquered by mechanical means. Today, influential climbers such as Scott and Venables are dismayed by what they find across the Alps.

"Zermatt is a beautiful place but [not] when you see how ski runs chew up the landscape," Venables explains. He is also opposed to the placing of fixed cables, bolts and ladders on rock faces to make climbing relatively safe for a wider public.

"Our fear is that health and safety regimes will always want to make mountains more safe and controlled – almost turn them into theme parks in which anyone can travel safely," he says.


"The whole point about mountains is that they are dangerous. You've got to have places where you can find solitude, where you climb the mountain on its own terms rather than preparing the routes with bolts and so on."

For Doug Scott, the thrill of climbing is to exploit "a line of weakness, wondering what's around the next corner".

He says the routes with the fixed cables and bolts, or via ferratas as they are known, mean climbing has been "dumbed down in the name of money".

But the average British tourist does not seem to care. As far as nights spent in Zermatt's hotels are concerned, the British have climbed to third behind the Swiss and Germans.

"This event should help push summer business since mountaineering is a summer activity and most of the increase from Britain so far has been in winter," says Daniel Luggen from the Zermatt tourist office.

And more than 300 Alpine Club members could not resist taking part in the ceremonies which included the unveiling of a statue of a 19th century British climber. It was the best-attended gathering in the club's history.

"The Alps still feel like home," Venables admits. "It's the place you want to keep coming back to because it's familiar and the mountains have such a familiar history."

"And they are very beautiful mountains."

swissinfo, Dale Bechtel in Zermatt

Key facts

Britain's Alpine Club was founded on December 22, 1857 by nearly a dozen men at Ashley's Hotel in London's Covent Garden.
Early members included Edward Whymper who in 1865 became the first to ascend the Matterhorn, and author and critic Leslie Stephen, who was also father of Virgina Woolf.
The Alpine Club used the anniversary to announce a commendation for alpinists who put the rescue of others before their own ambitions.

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The Whymper rope

Zermatt's revamped museum, zermatlantis, showcases rural mountain life as well as the exploits of climbers and their importance to the village's development.

The centrepiece of the multi-million franc museum is a reconstructed village, with various themes highlighted within the walls of the small wooden structures.

Pride of place goes to a rope placed on a red cushion behind glass. It broke during Edward Whymper's descent of the Matterhorn, sending four members of his party to their death.

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