Scattered chalets and villages at the foot of the Jungfrau.

"[M]ost describers of scenery seem to dwell too little on what may be called the human side of the pleasures of the scenery," says Leslie Stephen in his Playground of Europe (1871). "The snows of Mont Blanc and the cliffs of the Matterhorn would have their charm in the midst of a wilderness," he admits, "but their beauty is amazingly increased when a weather-stained chalet rises in the foreground; when the sound of cowbells comes down through the thin air; or the little troop of goats returns at sunset to the quiet village" (48). Mountaineering is not such a solitary pursuit as it might seem, and, despite his natural reserve, Stephen responded to the "human side" of his Alpine adventures both in the scenery itself and in the camaraderie involved.

The Alpine Club

The Alpine Club

Left: "The Club-room on Zermatt in 1864." Source: Whymper, following p. 218.

Stephen was one of the earliest members of the Alpine Club, the very first mountaineering club, and one whose formation in December 1857 "heralded the beginning of systematic mountaineering, the dominance of English climbers in the mountain playground, and the arrival of the sport's golden age" (Ring 62). Its origin tells much about the early days of the sport. It was the idea of the Cambridge man, climber and botanist William Mathews (1828-1901), shown in the group picture above, standing just left of centre with his hand on his hip, and it was originally proposed in Mathews's correspondence with another climber, the Reverend Fenton Hort. Like Stephen's elder brother James, Hort was a member of the highly intellectual group of "Cambridge Apostles." He had attended Rugby under Thomas Arnold's headship and was influenced by Charles Kingsley and Frederick Maurice (see Hansen, The Summits of Modern Man, 183). This was to be a select club, then, a cross between the kind of gentleman's club found in London's clubland, and one of the learned scientific societies. Stephen joined it in 1858, the year after it was founded, when he was already an experienced climber.

Close-up of Stephen

By now, too, climbing had already gained a high profile. One of the club's founder members was the showman Albert Smith, and his one-man show about his own ascent of Mont Blanc had run for six years and 2000 performances at the Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly, before closing in 1858. He had even given "several [royal] command performances" (Hansen, "Albert Smith," 305). But now the sport went from strength to strength.

Stephen himself continued to climb enthusiastically. Among his most noteworthy conquests were the Eiger Joch in 1859, and the Schreckhorn, already mentioned above, in 1861. He became President of the club in 1866-68. He was in excellent company. In the close-up on the right, he is listening to another seated figure, Reginald Macdonald (c.1840-76), a man from the Colonial Office who was the "companion of many of the pioneers" (Unsworth 149). Other members were drawn from the legal profession, business, teaching and so forth (see Hansen's chart in "Albert Smith," 310). The literati were represented too. Matthew Arnold joined early on and kept up his subscriptions, taking regular holidays in the region (Murray 79), while John Ruskin was elected to the club in 1869 because of his writings on the Alps (Hansen, "Albert Smith," 321). Yet another member was John Murray, who brought out numerous editions of his Handbook for Travellers in Switzerland and the Alps of Savoy and Piedmont throughout the period, as well as publishing John Tyndall's Glaciers of the Alps in 1860, and perhaps the most famous of all early mountaineering books, Edward Whymper's Scrambles amongst the Alps in 1871. In such works, people at home were treated to dramatic accounts of the climbers' exploits as "peak after peak fell before the furious onslaught of the youthful enthusiasts" (Coolidge 235).

There were setbacks, it is true. Whymper himself was a member of the ill-fated expedition that made the first ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865. The descent, which sent four of the party hurtling to their deaths, administered a severe shock to the public and raised questions about the sport that are generally thought to have marked the end of the "golden age." But, thanks partly to Stephen's reassurances, the effect was only temporary: "Fresh challenges were sought, new areas were discovered and developed, aspirations grew bolder, and mountaineering activities during the second phase of the Golden Age were no less impressive than those of the first" (Braham 19). The Alpine Club survives and thrives to this day.

The Practicalities and Dangers of Mountaineering

In attempting to pass the corner I slipped and fell Alpine Tent Melchior Anderegg in 1864

Three of Whymper's own illlustrations: (a) "In attempting to pass the corner I slipped and fell" (86). (b) "Alpine Tent" (70). (c) "Melchior Anderegg in 1864" (from a photograph, 148).

Stephen's characterisation of the Alps as a "playground" might seem disingenuous. As well as being an arena for pleasurable physical challenges, this was treacherous territory, and these pioneers faced greater challenges than the well-prepared climbers of today. Equipment was basic. Of the Alpine tent, for example, Whymper writes, "It is not pretended that it is perfectly waterproof, but it can be made so by the addition of a mackintosh to the roof" (70; in fact, his tent became known as the "Whymper Tent" and was still being manufactured many years later). Stephen himself addresses the discomforts of this new sport, shrugging off blisters, severe sunburn and difficult nights as a "sauce" for the great pleasures that accrue from climbing amid the "space and the height and the glory of the lofty mountains," but acknowledging that the "sauce" could sometimes be a little too "piquante" for anyone's liking (297).

As for the dangers, neither of these early pioneers ignored them. It was quite impossible for Whymper to do so. In 1862, after just reconnoitering, he narrowly escaped death on the slopes of the Matterhorn when he tumbled head first nearly 200 feet down a slope, to land on a precipice just ten feet from utter destruction in the distant glacier below. He used a lump of snow to staunch the blood jetting from a four-inch wound to his head, and a three-inch one to his forehead, just managing to get to a place of safety before losing consciousness (88). But far worse was the experience of 1865, after the successful ascent, since on this occasion he experienced the loss of climbing-companions at first hand. His full account of this tragedy had been long awaited (see Ring 95). Nevertheless, Stephen insists in his own book that the risks are not excessive, protesting that "[n]o accident has ever yet occurred of which it was not perfectly easy to trace the cause to some assignable piece of rashness" (301). Indeed, Stephen's assertions here did much not simply to bolster morale and encourage future climbers, but also, more generally, to "make mountaineering respectable once again" (see Ring 98).

Sculptural work in progress: Melchior Anderegg and Leslie Stephen

The greatest safeguard of all was, of course, to be accompanied by an experienced guide. Here, Stephen speaks out most strongly:

I utterly repudiate the doctrine that Alpine travellers are or ought to be the heroes of Alpine adventures. The true way at least to describe all my Alpine ascents is that Michel or Anderegg or Lauener succeeded in performing a feat requiring skill, strength, and courage, the difficulty of which was much increased by the difficulty of taking with him his knapsack and his employer. If any passages in the succeeding pages convey the impression that I claim any credit except that of following better men than myself with decent ability, I disavow them in advance and do penance for them in my heart.... Amongst the greatest of Alpine plea- sures is that of learning to appreciate the capacities and cultivate the good will of a singularly intelligent and worthy class of men. [75-76]

Anderegg, who was born near Meiringen, is celebrated in that small town as "The King of the Guides," and, fittingly, is now being commemorated in the middle of town by the life-size sculptural group shown just above. Still in progress at the time of writing, it is the work of Swiss sculptor Clarissa Kessler, and shows him leading Stephen on an ascent. The group was set in place in September 2014 under a temporary shelter, with much ceremony, and when completed will be cast in bronze in Rome. Among the crowds who lined the road on this unusual festive occasion was a someone who kindly explained that while Melchior was "King of the Guides," the man whom he was shown to be guiding was "an English hero."

A Counterbalance

The Aletsch Glacier from the slopes of the Jungfrau.

Stephen never saw himself as a hero. He gave all the credit to the guides, and especially to his favourite guide, Anderegg himself, who accompanied him on his expeditions from 1858, through seven summers of climbing. The two had been "full partners, ... spending weeks on their own exploring the high country" (Siskin), and becoming fast friends. But Stephen did distinguish himself from the trippers who were soon flocking into this new "playground." Things happened much as Ruskin himself feared, as "[w]hat had remained untouched and seemed inviolable was conquered and tracked" (Hanley and Walton 99). Stephen too decried the vulgarisation attendant on commercial exploitation. For instance, he disparaged those who simply gazed at glaciers through specially constructed windows in tunnels through the rock — as they do still, in ever-increasing numbers. He knew that what they saw was nothing compared to what the mountaineer experienced:

After a long climb you come to the region where the glacier is truly at its noblest; where the surface is a spotless white; where the crevasses are enormous rents sinking to profound depths, with walls of the purest blue; where the glacier is torn and shattered by the energetic forces which mould it, but has an expression of superabundant power, like a full stream fretting against its banks and plunging through the vast gorges that it has hewn for itself in the course of centuries. [288-89]

The effect of such experiences was much deeper and more lasting. "Now to an old mountaineer," wrote Stephen, "the Oberland cliffs are full of memories; and, more than this, he has learnt the language spoken by every crag and every wave of glacier" (296). It was a language that he himself would never forget.

In later life, as an over-burdened editor and essayist, and a prominent agnostic who had to bear more than his share of domestic tragedy, Stephen would become quite a joyless figure. He was characterised in those years as "shy and gaunt, very grave and silent as a rule" (qtd. in Maitland 475), and would haunt the pages of his daughter Virginia's To the Lighthouse as the model for the emotionally demanding Mr Ramsay. Critics of the novel have generally assumed that he was "an ogre of Victorian domestic oppression" (Bell). Yet there is much to suggest that the spirit of the young man who revelled in his own fitness and resilience, relished the unspoiled grandeur of the Alpine "playground," and allowed some humour to creep into the accounts of his adventures there, never entirely disappeared. In particular, he continued for many years to enjoy the long rambles or "Sunday Tramps" which he took with like-minded friends into the gentle Surrey countryside from his home in Kensington. His own belief, that something of what the mountaineer gains "fortunately sticks by him" (296), seems to have been completely justified.

Related Material

Photographs and scans by the author, except for the photograph of Clarissa Kessler's unfinished sculpture, which she very kindly contributed herself. This remains her copyright. You may use the other images without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the photographer or source, and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one.


Bell, Alan. "Stephen, Sir Leslie (1832–1904)." Dictionary of National Biography. Online ed. Web. 1 October 2014.

Braham, Trevor. When the Alps Cast Their Spell: Mountaineers of the Alpine Golden Age. Glasgow: Neil Wilson Publishing, 2013.

Coolidge, W. A. B. The Alps in Nature and History. London: Methuen, 1908.

Hanley, Keith, and John K. Walton Constructing Cultural Tourism: Ruskin and the Tourist Gaze. Bristol: Channel View Publications, 2010.

Hansen, Peter H. "Albert Smith, the Alpine Club, and the Invention of Mountaineering in Mid-Victorian Britain." Journal of British Studies. 34.3 (Victorian Subjects, July 1995): 300-324.

_____. The Summits of Modern Man. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2013.

Maitland, F. W. The Life and Letters of Leslie Stephen. London: Duckworth, 1906. Internet Archive. Contributed by the University of Michigan. Web. 1 October 2014.

Murray, Nicholas. A Life of Matthew Arnold. Pbk ed. London: Hodder and Stoughton (Sceptre Books), 1997.

Ring, Jim. How the English Made the Alps. London: John Murray, 2000.

Siskin, Alex. "Peaks and Valleys: Leslie Stephen, Mountaineer." Paris Review Daily. 26 November 2012. Web. 1 October 2014.

Stephen, Leslie. The Playground of Europe. London: Longman, Green & Co., 1871.

Unsworth, Walt. Encyclopedia of Mountaineering. London: Robert Hale, 1975.

Whymper, Edward. Scrambles amongst the Alps. 6th ed. London: John Murray, 1936.

Last modified 1 October 2014