Mountains are unlike other landscapes. They stand in dominating isolation, have their own strange and unpredictable weather patterns, are idolised and deified in many cultures and, for some, present an irresistible challenge to their courage and physical prowess, sometimes with terrible results. Take the Matterhorn.
Edward Whymper was the first to climb it, in 1865. It wasn't his first attempt. It was his eighth. These were the days when people went up the Matterhorn wearing plus fours and a hat with a feather in it. The rest of their kit was similarly robust, the most worrying element in Whymper's case being the rope. According to my ski-mountaineer husband (climb up 'em, ski down 'em) it was pitifully thin. We found an example of it in the Matterhorn Museum in Zermatt and even I could see it was pretty flimsy.
And so it turned out. After the successful ascent to the summit, on the way down, the rope broke when one of the seven climbers slipped and three of them plummeted to their deaths on the glacier. Huge controversy followed and the guides (Taugwalder, pere et fils) were held responsible for the disaster by many but acquited in a formal investigation. The tragedy haunted all the survivors for the rest of their lives, including Whimper, of course (below, pictured at the age he climbed the Matterhorn).
Nevertheless, more people followed in his footsteps. Liverpudlian Lucy Walker (below with her father who accompanied her) went up just six years later wearing a white print dress. She'd taken up walking as a cure for rheumatism. Her success was celebrated in Punch magazine by a poem:
No glacier can baffle, no precipice balk her,
No peak rise above her, however sublime,
Give three times three cheers for intrepid Miss Walker,
I say, my boys, doesn’t she know how to climb!
The reference to the sublime is telling. The philosopher Edmund Burke put forward his ideas on the Sublime and the Beautiful in 1757 - ideas that would fire up the Romantics and send generations of young British aristocrats on Grand Tours to the Alps. The underlying thesis posits Beauty as aesthetically pleasing but Sublime as that which moves us most deeply by its vastness, infinity and magnificence.
But it you go to the Alps looking for solitude, elemental nature, a sense of the divine, you might be wise to avoid the Gornergrat. The Gornergrat cog railway climbs steeply from Zermatt (1608m) to the Gornergrat (3089m) viewing platform. En route you pass deep gorges, cascading waterfalls, glaciers and alpine meadows overflowing with flowers. When you get there, though, you'll find huge tour groups, mostly Korean and Japanese taking endless selfies. Not much of the sublime there then.
The good news is you only have to go one stop down to have the mountains pretty much to yourself. There are a few serious walkers and mountain bikers and otherwise it's just you and those alpine flower meadows, grazing sheep, glaciers, waterfalls and the Matterhorn. Oh, and marmots.
And even chamois.
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