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British climbers relied on their Swiss guides

(Grindelwald Heimatmuseum)

A Bernese Oberland guide once scolded his British employer with the famous words: "Herr, you are master in the valley, I am master here". But the relationship between the guide and climber in the 19th century was much more complex, shaped as much by the strengths and weaknesses of the personalities and egos involved as by the mountains climbed.

In "Murray's Handbook for Travellers in Switzerland 1838", tourists are told that "for the most part, the guides may be said to be obliging, intelligent, and hard-working men. Few who have employed them but can bear testimony to their coolness, intrepidity, and tact, in moments of danger..."

The Swiss guide of 1838 was paid six French francs a day, and for that sum was also expected to carry out the duties normally handled by domestic servants.

By the time Murray's Handbook appeared, the guides in the French town of Chamonix - at the foot of Mont Blanc - had already been organised. Elsewhere, travellers seeking the way over an alpine pass or up a mountainside had to rely on recommendations from innkeepers or word of mouth.

Great consumers of meat and drink

In the opinion of some notable British climbers, some of these locals chosen for the task were not always reliable. Edward Whymper once complained that they were "pointers out of paths and great consumers of meat and drink, but little more".

Whymper later changed his opinion and a former president of the Alpine Club, Lord Schuster, defended the early guides in a nostalgic reference to the golden age of mountaineering: "They began in a world without maps, with few paths above the high pastures, with no alpine huts, and they had to invent and perfect the technique of mountaineering."

There is no question that it was the British who encouraged the locals to develop the craft of guiding. In his book, "The Early Alpine Guides", Ronald Clark says the "peasants would never have become such all-round mountaineers had it not been for the demands of the new amateur adventurers".

Two-sided affair

While Clark says it was the "amateurs" who often had to lead the way during expeditions, the cooperation between climber and guide was "very much a two-sided affair". He stresses that the very best climbers of the 1840s and 1850s would have been "very nearly helpless" without their aid.

Thanks to the writings of these British mountaineers, a portrait of the "peasants" who lead them over passes and up mountains has survived. And even in the biased opinion of these "English lords", it is clear that the skills of the top guides equalled and often surpassed those of their employers.

The records show that in some cases, climbers hired the same guides every summer for as many as 40 consecutive years.

On a human level, the relationship often became that of equals, unusual in the Victorian age when such a bond between a "gentleman" and a member of the working class was unthinkable.

This was explained by the fact that climber and guide had to rely on each other in extreme mountain conditions for days or even weeks on end. Mistrust could mean failure to reach a peak, or worse, result in death.

Race of supermen

Geoffrey Winthrop Young, a great climber in the later Edwardian period, summed up the relationship as such from the British perspective: "...they wrote of their chosen guides as of a race of supermen apart...".

Few of these supermen became wealthy, but as a reward for their loyalty, many received gifts from their employers. It often came in the form of money or inscribed silver watches. In one case, a guide was presented with a cow in appreciation for saving the life of his employer.

The feeling was often mutual. Guide Christian Almer from Grindelwald gave W.A.B. Coolidge a dog in compensation for a failed climb. And Swiss guides were known to speak of a difficult mountain as only good for "Switzers or Englishmen".

Like Almer, a disproportionately high number of guides stemmed from the Bernese Oberland. These Oberland men travelled widely in the Alps - in the pay of their British employers, who put more faith in their abilities than those of the local guides who may have known the mountains of the region better.

London fog and chimney pots

Some Oberland men even travelled as far as London, as was the case of Melchior Anderegg, who made the trip at the invitation of Sir Leslie Stephen. Anderegg proved his skills by finding his way through the London fog and on one occasion, an equal to Stephen in making thought provoking statements.

As Stephen related in "The Playground of Europe", he pointed out to Anderegg the "dreary expanse of chimney pots through which the South-Western Railway escapes from this dingy metropolis.

"I remarked with an appropriate sigh, 'That is not so fine a view as we have seen together from the top of Mont Blanc,' 'Ah sir!' was his pathetic reply, 'it is far finer'!"

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