How Arctic exploration gave rise to Alpine mountaineering, rather than the other way around.
The Arctic has been out of my reach so far this year as I’ve been carrying out a fellowship at the Centre for Apocalyptic and Post-Apocalyptic Studies at Heidelberg University in Germany. Instead, I’ve been able to visit the Alps: a fast-melting, high-altitude region of the global cryosphere within reach by train. Coincidentally, my path from the Arctic to the Alps parallels the counterintuitively southward history of cryospheric exploration. Long before people mapped these European mountains and stood atop the most iconic of them all, the Matterhorn, they sighted the distant shores of Greenland and the narrow, icy straits that promised the Northwest Passage.
Spring skiing in Switzerland: snowy views, depending on where you look
Last spring, the railways that sped members of the Alpine Club, the world’s first mountaineering club founded in London in 1857, to the Swiss Alps delivered me to Zermatt, the village at the base of the peak that graces all Toblerone packaging (at least until last month, when production began in Slovakia as a cost-saving measure, making Toblerone no longer “Swiss” enough to qualify for branding itself with a national symbol).
Alpine glaciers are melting like a chunk of Toblerone left out in the sun. The Alps are warming twice as fast as the global average (in comparison, the Arctic is melting 3-4 times the global average). The speed of climate change in Europe’s highest peaks is enough to potentially cause their glaciers to lose over 80% of their mass by 2100.
For now, there is still enough snow and ice above Zermatt to support year-round skiing. One day after arriving in Zermatt, I was skiing over the Theodul and Furg glaciers, which hug the sides of the Pennine Alps in a dying embrace. I hopped off the ski lift at Matterhorn Glacier Paradise, situated at a whopping 3,883 meters (12,740 feet) above sea level, and started my long descent down the mountain. Having only skied on powder before, carving across icy blues was magical. Glassy hunks of the shrinking but still sublime Theodul glacier jutted out of the snow and into the swirling mists, like icebergs lofted into the stratosphere.
While the snow and ice kept my skis afloat, the world of white is fast dissipating. Climate change has caused the Theodul glacier to retreat, bringing its watershed with it. This has geopolitical implications, for the border between Switzerland and Italy, which runs across the glacier, is determined by the “drainage divide”: the line through the glacial watershed that separates the water flowing towards Switzerland from the water flowing towards Italy. When the Rifugio Guide del Cervino, a mountain lodge and restaurant that sits (or now, nearly floats) atop the glacier, was constructed in 1984, it was entirely in Italy. Now, an awkward two-thirds of it is in Switzerland. Italian and Swiss authorities are redrawing their climate-changed border, with the outcome to be determined this year.
This geopolitical consequence of climate change might attract geographers. But in the Swiss Alps, it is the Matterhorn that attracts tourists from all over the world. The iconic peak rises prominently above its surroundings, a fairytale illustration brought into stunning relief. When I visited, the pyramidal mountain did not disappoint, particularly when viewed from a Swiss mountain lodge at around 2,000 m (6,561 feet) with an apple strudel and a Radler.
What was disappointing, however, was the view in the opposite direction of the ski slopes behind the lodge. While the snow covering the pistes was being maintained, the rest had melted away, leaving dead grass and mud in its wake. This exposed hillside, roused far too early from its winter slumber by the springtime sun, was hardly the stuff that beckoned legions of well-heeled travelers in previous centuries.
How a volcano prompted quests for the Northwest Passage
In the Romantic period stretching from the late eighteenth through mid-nineteenth centuries, the Swiss Alps represented the pinnacle of purity and morality, a place free from the squalor of Europe’s cities. In 1816, the British author Mary Shelley journeyed to Switzerland for a vacation with three other literary travel companions, among them Lord Byron. Her experiences in the icy mountains would inspire her to write Frankenstein.
Shelley and her friends were in Switzerland during the “Year Without Summer.” The year before, in 1815, the Indonesian stratovolcano Mount Tambora had cataclysmically erupted. Ashen skies caused temperatures to plummet in Europe, leading to failed harvests, famine, and outmigration from hard-hit countries like Switzerland.
Disappointed by the dampness of her holiday but materially unaffected, Shelley and her friends spent their summer traipsing across heavily glaciated alpine landscapes. Byron described the Grindenwald glacier in Switzerland as a “frozen hurricane.” Painting a picture of the Glacier des Bossons in the southwest Alps in France, Wollstonecraft Shelley and her already-married lover (and later husband) Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote in their joint diary:
“We saw this glacier which comes close to the fertile plain, as we passed, its surface was broken into a thousand unaccountable figures: conical and pyramidical crystalizations, more than fifty feet in height, rise from its surface, and precipices of ice, of dazzling splendour, overhang the woods and meadows of the vale.
This glacier winds upwards from the valley, until it joins the masses of frost from which it was produced above, winding through its own ravine like a bright belt flung over the black region of pines. There is more in all these scenes than mere magnitude of proportion: there is a majesty of outline; there is an awful grace in the very colours which invest these wonderful shapes–a charm which is peculiar to them, quite distinct even from the reality of their unutterable greatness.”History of a Six Weeks’ Tour through a part of France, Switzerland, Germany, and Holland; with Letters Descriptive of a Sail Round the Lake of Geneva and of the Glaciers of Chamouni (1817), by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley & Percy Bysshse Shelley. Oxford University. (pp. 154-155)
Just as remarkable as the glacier’s monumentality was its proximity to farmland and forests. Even in the years preceding Tambora’s eruption, encroaching glaciers were causing Swiss farmers to abandon their high pastures. This is hard to fathom in our climate-changed age in which the Alpine ice is retreating to its aeries. In the early nineteenth century, Switzerland’s apparent loss of arable land compounded by the volcanic winter prompted the Swiss Natural Sciences Society (now the Swiss Academy of Sciences) to issue as one of its 13 questions in its 1816 research funding competition: “Is it true that our higher alpine regions have been turning into wilderness during the last few years? What are the causes of this and how could one take preventive measures?”
A volcanic spark for Britain’s Arctic expeditions
During the “Year Without Summer,” back in England, Sir John Barrow, Second Secretary to the Admiralty, began advocating for the British to organize expeditions to finally find the Northwest Passage after the country’s first effort over three centuries prior, in 1497. Britain had numerous able-bodied naval officers and seamen who no longer had much to do after Napoleon’s defeat the previous summer in 1815 at the Battle of Waterloo. (One geologist suggests that the clouds and wet weather spurred by Tambora’s eruption were partly responsible for the French loss.)
Barrow’s call to find the mythical shortcut to Cathay was given more immediacy by the many reports from whalers, traders, and missionaries to Greenland in the months and years following Tambora’s eruption of a massive shift in ice floes.
Ships on their way back from Halifax, Canada reported passing, according to Barrow, “a mountain of ice, nearly two hundred feet high, and at least two miles in circumference.” Meanwhile, another navigator reported that the surface of the Greenland seas between 74° and 80°N were “perfectly void of ice, all of which had disappeared in the last two years” following the eruption. In other words, ice was moving towards the Atlantic’s mid-latitudes while disappearing in the high Arctic.
Writing in 1817, one lieutenant in the British Royal Navy returning from a voyage to Hudson’s Bay made the connection between the cataclysm on the other side of the world and changes in the western seas: “The convulsion of an earthquake and the eruption of a volcano force themselves into notice by the dismay and devastation with which, in a greater or less or degree, they are almost always attended: but the event to which we allude has been so quietly accomplished, that it might have remained unknown, but for an extraordinary change which a few intelligent navigators remarked in the state of the arctic ice, and the reports of the unusual quantities of this ice in the atlantic.”
An Indonesian volcano’s fiery eruption spurred shifts in the ice floes on the other side of the world, inspiring dreams of a finally-open Northwest Passage. Tambora, it can be said, was the volcano that launched a thousand ships – all the way up to the ill-fated voyages of Sir John Franklin’s Erebus and Terror in 1845, whose disastrous disappearance brought an end to a heady period of British Arctic exploration. As the sun set on Britain’s quest to weave a way through the icy Arctic, it would rise on its countrymen’s efforts to become the first to scale the frozen Alps.
Finding the Arctic frontier in nineteenth-century Switzerland
Reports from the dozens of British expeditions that set off for the Arctic between 1818 and 1845 gripped the national imagination. A young engraver from London named Edward Whymper was particularly dazzled. He had read about the futile quests to locate Franklin’s missing ships in the late 1840s, which he recounted in a diary cited by mountaineering historian Peter H. Hansen, as “exceedingly interesting as it describes a portion of Greenland which has never before been visited” (by Europeans, at least).
At the same time, Britain’s military was facing numerous crises in the 1850s and 1860s, spurring fears of a decline in British power, as Hansen argues. Climbing mountains became seen as a way to restore national glory. The development of railroads across Europe was also bringing the continent’s mountains with reach of more people than those who could dream of setting foot in the Arctic. As one Pocket Guidebook published by the Alpine Club noted, the “The luxury of discovery, the excitement of treading on virgin ground, and encountering and overcoming strange and at first sight insurmountable obstacles, was brought suddenly within the reach of men of moderate means and leisure.”
The rush of private expeditions to ascend the Alps inaugurated the “Golden Age of Mountaineering.” The era is said to have commenced in 1854, when British climber Alfred Willis first climbed the Wetterhorn above the Swiss village of Grindelwald (pictured in the painting above).
In 1860, Whymper, the young engraver, got his own chance to travel to the French Alps to make illustrations of the mountains for a member of the Alpine Club. The engraver later recalled that he went “in the hope that I might acquire such a knowledge of snow and ice as might perhaps procure me a post upon some future English Arctic Expedition.”
While his hope would not be realized, for years, he continued his alpine scrambling. In 1865, after eight failed attempts, he and six other climbing partners (four of whom fell and died on the descent when their rope horrifically snapped) became the first to summit the Matterhorn. That achievement marked the beginning rather than the end of Whymper’s glacial endeavors. His ultimate objective was to gain experience on ice for an expedition he was planning in Greenland, whose interior he had heard was “completely and absolutely covered up by glaciers,” as he wrote in the Alpine Club’s journal. He would later go on to carry out this venture in 1867, successfully testing out and introducing sledging as a technique used in Arctic exploration.
From the 1850s onward, mountaineering efforts also helped map the the ice-covered Alps at a time when parts of the Arctic were better documented. The glaciers of Austria’s Alps, for instance, only began to be mapped in detail beginning in the 1880s.
Looking back on his numerous endeavors in 1873, Whymper offered, “Remote as the possibility is that another Arctic expedition will leave our shores, I nevertheless hope that Polar exploration will not be abandoned by our countrymen; and as a member of this Club, I wish that they may attain the highest latitudes and climb the very Poles themselves.”
While mountains make the territory, mountaineering makes nations.
How British Arctic expeditions inspired British Swiss mountaineering expeditions
Whymper’s wish echoed the opening lines of Shelley’s Frankenstein, written 60 years before. In it, a letter from a fictional British Arctic explorer named Captain Robert Dalton to a woman named Mrs. Saville expresses, “I try in vain to be persuaded that the pole is the seat of frost and desolation; it ever presents itself to my imagination as the region of beauty and delight.”
Dalton later encounters Frankenstein traveling across the frozen Arctic Ocean. Shelley’s monster had made his way there after starting in the Alps, whose uneven glaciers are likened to “the waves of a troubled sea.” The glaciers are monsters in their own right, terrifying the trifling mountains beneath them. Shelley describes, “The thunder sound of the avalanche or the cracking, reverberated along the mountains, of the accumulated ice, which, through the silent working of immutable laws, was ever and anon rent and torn, as if it had been but a plaything in their hands.”
Fear of glaciers dissipated in the nineteenth century as they grew into more familiar and even desirable objects that people traveled to see. Two years before Whymper summited the Matterhorn, on June 26, 1863, a group of seven people comprising the Junior United Alpine Club and participants in the first-ever “conducted tour of Switzerland,” offered by travel company Thomas Cook, departed London on a train bound for the alpine confederation. (The tourists didn’t visit the Matterhorn, however, as the railway from the Swiss town of Visp to Zermatt only opened in 1890.)
As I followed in the footsteps of generations of Swiss tourists before me, I found myself wandering crowded, narrow streets and passing by a McDonald’s. Zermatt, whose population of 6,000 is 15 times larger than what it was in the late 1800s (and, with 35,000 people in peak season, almost 90 times larger), is not exactly the European “urban squalor” that nineteenth-century visits were trying to escape. Yet with a McDonald’s and various nightclubs on the main street, it is not exactly a respite, either.
To get away from it all, I had to stay overnight on the mountain – something people in the age of Tambora probably would have thought was crazy. On my second night in Zermatt, I booked myself a bed at the ski-in Hotel Schwarzsee. That evening, as the sunset, I sat on a bench facing the mountains. All I could hear in the whole mountain valley was the sound of two snowcats grooming the trails for the next day. That morning, when I woke up under a fog-shrouded Matterhorn – a peak conquered long after much of the Arctic was probed and mapped – I finally felt away from it all.
Skiing down the mountain before the lifts opened, I thought how Switzerland’s glaciers and snowfields must have inspired Europeans to venture even farther afield. Little did I realize how failed efforts to find the Northwest Passage, themselves set off by a volcano, were in fact what sent people scrambling to conquer extremes much closer to home.
Two hundred years ago, people tried to find a silver lining to Tambora’s after-effects: perhaps a finally-open shortcut to Asia thanks to ice floes pushed southward in the Atlantic. Now, as climate change accelerates, hopes are again being pinned on Arctic passages. Yet this time, the ice isn’t just shifting: it is disappearing. Two hundred years after the “Year Without Summer,” we now face a century without winter.