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TraveLit--A blog about travel literature. 

     Even with the best of maps and instruments, we can never fully chart our journeys.

Book Review

Scrambles Amongst the Alps
By Edward Whymper. Revised and Edited by H. E. G. Tyndale. With additional illustrations and material from the author’s unpublished diaries. With photographs by John Cleare. First published in 1871. Peregrine Smith Books, 1986, 262 pp.

Recent climbing fatalities in the French Alps drew me back to Edward Whymper’s classic work, an account of his many excursions and victories in the Alps and most notably the story of the first ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865 and the expedition’s tragic descent.

Whymper, an engraver, first arrived in the region in 1860, hired by a London publisher to make some sketches of “the great Alpine peaks.” These were early days in modern mountaineering, and he himself, he says in his preface, had “only a literary acquaintance with mountain-climbing.” He took to it at once, returning in 1861 to make a first ascent of Mont Pelvoux, urged “by those mysterious impulses which cause men to peer into the unknown.” But it was the grandeur of the Matterhorn, considered the “most completely inaccessible of all mountains,” that truly gripped him, and over the next years he would make seven attempts to conquer it before finally, on the eighth try, he reached the summit.

Inevitably that fatal trip in which four men died hovers over the entire work. Indeed, as H. E. G. Tyndale observes in his preface, the 3rd edition of the book dealt almost entirely with Whymper’s “repeated attempts to ascend the Matterhorn,” which he calls “one of the great epics of Alpine history.” But following editions, including this, the sixth, restored the original text, which provides a broader view of Whymper and of climbing itself.

As Whymper takes us on his first ascents of the Grand Cornier, the Aiguille Verte, the Pointe des Ecrins, the Grandes Jorasses, the Aiguille de Trelatete and the Aiguille d’Argentiere (among others), he shares details of the routes chosen, the particular difficulties encountered—whether of snow, ice, rocks, or avalanches—and lively poirtraits of his companions and guides whose personalities and skills were so much a part of every journey. The book’s illustrations are wonderful: Whymper’s sketches are full of warmth and playful humor, and the new photographs are not only beautiful but informative, the captions pointing out the glaciers, couloirs, and other features encountered in the climbs.

The final chapter, a sober and sobering account of the accident, is devastating. Whymper describes the lineup of the seven men, the sudden fall of the least experienced climber, and the breaking of the rope that doomed the four in front. The death of the guide Croz, who we have come to know through previous excursions and who had never wanted to climb the Matterhorn, is especially moving. It all happens so quickly it’s hard to believe that this rock of a man is really gone.

Throughout the book, Whymper brings to life the joys he experienced in his scrambles, and he concludes that in the end, these pleasures couldn’t be effaced. Nonetheless, he writes,“there have been griefs upon which I have not dared to dwell; and with these in mind I say, Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are nought without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime.”

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