‘The Alpine Club helped mould Swiss identity’

It is thanks to the SAC that the Swiss discovered their mountains AFP

The 150-year-old Swiss Alpine Club (SAC) is one of the oldest and most successful associations in Switzerland. Its influence extends far beyond sport, journalist and author Daniel Anker told

This content was published on July 18, 2013 - 11:00

“More than a Mountain Sport” -- the motto chosen by the club to celebrate 150 years in existence is certainly appropriate. The club, founded 15 years after the birth of the modern federal Swiss state, has played an important role in forging a national identity, according to mountaineering specialist Anker.

Anker has notably edited the 280-page book Helvetia Club, recently published to mark the SAC’s sesquicentennial. The book for the 150th celebrations is called Helvetia Club. Is the SAC the Swiss club par excellence?

Daniel Anker: It is definitely a club that has done a lot for Switzerland and made the country well known. You only have to think of the topographical maps of the country or the planning of land use in mountain regions.

Then there is a whole series of details that show how this club became anchored in the genes of Switzerland. Shortly after it was founded in 1863, there were already four members of the [seven-member] cabinet in the SAC. More recently between 1993 and 1995, four ministers were members. Today Economics Minister Johann Schneider-Ammann is still a member. The SAC was set up 15 years after the foundation of the state. To what extent is the club part of Swiss history?

D.A.: On the one hand it has allowed us to take complete ownership of the territory. At that time the country had the so-called Dufour maps. But the scale of these maps was too low at 1:100,000. And they lacked accuracy in the mountains.

The first SAC president Rudolf Theodor Simler considered it important to make these maps more readable and accurate. In that sense it was not just a club whose members simply wished to spend time in the mountains.

On the other hand, the club contributed to the creation of a Swiss identity, for example with its panorama maps and observation towers in many areas. That helped communicate mountain names. Then came the building of the mountain huts that made access to the Alps easier. Was the club also a kind of patriotic answer to the British dominance in the Alps?

D.A.: Yes, the founding of the SAC cranked up the competition. Simler was bothered by the fact that Swiss people had to read English publications to get information about the mountains. That’s why he – together with 34 other men – didn’t just set up a club but also published the Swiss Alpine Club Annual, so that the Alps would be better known.

SAC in figures

There are 111 sections in the SAC which manage 152 huts with 9,200 beds. In 2012 the huts catered for 310,000 overnight stays.

Apart from operating the mountain huts, the SAC organises courses, day-trips and ski tours. The club is also dedicated to promoting sports at a high level. Climbing has been promoted since 1994, ski tour competitions since 1997.

With 140,000 members, the SAC is the fifth largest sports club in Switzerland.

End of insertion The SAC was also set up with a scientific goal. What is its contribution apart from the development of topographical maps?

D.A.: The protection of mountain zones and the beauty of the landscape in general. Back in 1872 for example, the Pilatus section from Lucerne campaigned to save a large erratic rock, the Honigstein near Roggliswil. Years later the SAC campaigned against a railway on the Matterhorn. The different sections of the SAC have often had no united position in relation to protection of the landscape. How do you explain that?

D.A.: The SAC is quite simply a mirror of society. Someone from [canton] Valais will be more favourable to tourism while someone from Basel might have a more radical approach to the preservation of the mountain environment.

These differences are not just found inside the SAC but are also often to be seen in the political decision-making process. You only have to think of the recent second homes initiative that was widely accepted in urban centres and rejected in Alpine tourist regions. In what other ways is the club a mirror of Swiss society?

D.A.: In its dealings with women! In Switzerland women only got the vote in 1971. But women were only accepted as members of the SAC in 1980, when the club merged with the Swiss Women’s Alpine Club, founded in 1918. With its 140,000 members the SAC is the fifth largest sports association in Switzerland. How to you explain this success?

D.A.: Members pay less to stay in the Alpine huts and receive a nice magazine and so on. But there is also another aspect: the mountain world is experiencing a real boom. A typical example is that the Bern section alone has around a dozen tours every weekend for every taste.

Mountains are however not just a success in Switzerland. The Austrian Alpine Association has an even higher number of members and the German Alpine Association, with one million members is the most successful mountain sport association in the world. How will the Swiss Alps look in 20 or 30 years’ time?

D.A.: They will still be there, just a little greyer because so many glaciers will have melted. Some mountain routes will be somewhat harder to follow because of global warming.

On the other hand it won’t be necessary to rope up when there are no more glaciers. One could climb to new heights previously less well known. But you don’t fear an invasion?

D.A.: Of the high mountains – no. Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau don’t care whether there are more or fewer people. And in Switzerland you can still find places to be alone. Otherwise you can always head to Italy or other mountain regions, where there are lots of other mountains we don’t know.

Winter, with the possibility of skiing and other similar activities, is another story. There the pressure on nature, especially animals, is much stronger.

Not Olympic

The International Olympic Committee recently dropped mountain climbing form the shortlist of possible new sports to be included in the 2020 Summer Olympics.

An application had been lodged by the international umbrella group for mountain climbing.

Softball, wrestling and squash  are now competing for the last remaining place for a new sport in 2020.

It is still not known whether the mountain climbing application will be resubmitted for the 2024 Summer Games.

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