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Climbers to relive historic alpine adventure

Grindelwald guide, Johann Kaufmann, is the latest in a long line of guides in his family, beginning with his ancestor Rudolf Kaufmann


For the first time, the Internet is accompanying a party of climbers as they set out to conquer alpine peaks and explore the rich history of mountaineering.

In 19th century dress, the swissinfo group of climbers and guides plan to trace alpine exploration from its roots to the developments which allowed mountaineers to open isolated parts of the Swiss Alps to the outside world.

The expedition begins on August 26 in canton Valais. For 10 days, they will cross glaciers and mountain peaks, spending nights in mountain huts and inns where earlier alpine travellers stayed.

The early expeditions were far from humble as adventurers explored uncharted and formidable territory right in the heart of Europe. Though some were small-scale adventures, others featured dozens of porters equipped with ladders, telescopes, mutton, and champagne. One Swiss guide insisted on a fir tree, which he lugged to the top and planted. Others dragged iron flags to pound into the summit.

British at the forefront

After the first scientific explorers, came writers and painters of the Romantic age, then mountaineers, climbing for pleasure. The British marched at the forefront of this alpine exploration, and before long, tourists followed. The Alps were open to everyone.

Now, more than two centuries after the first expeditions, the swissinfo party will trek the same inspiring landscape - still, of course, dominated by 4,000-metre peaks and mighty glaciers. Over time though, man has altered the landscape.

Railways and cable cars reach for the summits while helicopters buzz in with provisions for visitors to once-isolated huts. And the glaciers are not as imposing as they once were. They have receded, advanced and receded again, at times disgorging the remains of unlucky climbers.

As they traverse frozen fields studied by pioneers of the ice age theory, the swissinfo party will examine evidence that could show that the latest glacial recessions are among the most rapid and largest ever, another effect attributed to manmade emissions which drive up temperatures around the world - global warming.

Attempting Jungfrau ascent

The swissinfo party will attempt to ascend the famed Jungfrau and see first-hand the natural wonders of the region (Jungfrau - Aletsch - Bietschhorn), which Switzerland has urgently requested that Unesco declare a World Heritage Site.

If Unesco accepts the Swiss bid in December, the region will be protected for future generations.

Unlike the glaciers, many of the grand hotels along the alpine route, reminders of the Belle Époque, show no sign of withering. Designed to meet the exacting standards of early British climbers and intrepid tourists, they remain well-preserved relics whose walls once sheltered the legendary alpine wayfarers of the past as they stopped briefly during their great adventures.

by Dale Bechtel

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