A diverting, popular history of the first men and women who scrambled among the Alps, from Time-Life editor and novelist Fleming (Barrow’s Boys, p. 322).
As the author tells it, the first explorers to the Alps were more likely to be carrying crucifixes and charms than ropes and ice axes. As late as the 1930s, the mountains were shrouded in myth and superstition and seen as a land of interstellar cold, bearded vultures, dragons, aliens, and at least one “black goat that rose up from the abyss” to bite the legs of mountaineers. But “doing mad things in strange surroundings” is what explorers are all about, and the Alps witnessed more than their share, seemingly all introduced here by Fleming. Much of the early activity in the mountains revolved around Mount Blanc and the jealousies, rivalries, and backstabbings that accompanied the first attempts on the peak (eventually scaled by Michel Paccard in 1786), which ushered in the modern age of mountaineering. Brisk and informal, the author goes on to tell of the parade of royalty that swept into the region, and of Shelley’s and Byron’s disparaging comments on the Swiss. There are profiles of the well-known scientists who came to study the mountains (from Louis Agassiz to James Forbes), along with numerous comments snipped from the letters and journals of various unknowns. We close with Edmund Whymper’s ascent of the Matterhorn and the deadly struggle to climb the north face of the Eiger.
A fine job: Fleming makes it clear that the climbers climbed for many reasons, but almost always returned with good stories to tell.