“Excellent popular history, with its proper share of mad dogs and Englishmen. . . . dramatic and masterful.” Anthony Brandt, National Geographic Adventure
The Conquest of the Alps
978-0-8021-3867-5 • $14.00 • Paperback • Mar. 2002
Today the Alps are the playground of the world’s most densely populated continent. Until modern times, however, they were a wilderness of fear and superstition. Above the pastures of Switzerland, it was believed, dragons and ghosts inhabited the realms of ice and snow. No one in their right mind considered climbing into the Alps—and certainly not for pleasure. Eventually, however, scientists and mountaineers began to explore the mysterious summits. Their exploits ranged from the heroic to the tragic to the hilarious, and in Killing Dragons Fergus Fleming recounts the conquest of the Alps and the fascinating characters who accomplished it.
The adventures began in the late eighteenth century, when scientists tackled the peaks seeking knowledge of glacial formation, the atmosphere, and the earth’s origins. A few decades later, the romantics celebrated the Alps for their savage beauty, inspiring tourists to flock to the region. Then, in the 1850s, came the climbers. Vying with each other to conquer ever higher and more impossible mountains, they raged through the Alps in a frenzy of conquest. They fought each other on the peaks and in print, entertaining a vast public smitten with their bravery, delighted by their animosities, and horrified by the disasters that befell them.
It is impossible not to relish Fleming’s descriptions of these personalities with their eccentricities and astonishing egos. There was Marc-Theodore Bourrit, singer, snob, and endearing coward with a genius for promoting the Alps. There was Albert Smith, the Victorian showman who made a fortune from putting the conquest of Mont Blanc onto the London stage. There was the physicist John Tyndall, who struggled to capture the Matterhorn, and Edward Whymper, printer turned monomaniacal mountaineer, who beat him to it. And there was William Coolidge, the American Oxford don who could turn a spelling mistake into a lifelong feud.
The great mountains fell one by one to these and other extraordinary characters. By the 1930s only the suicidally dangerous north faces of the Eiger and Matterhorn remained to be climbed by the protégés of Hitler and Mussolini. The conquest of the Alps, a central chapter in the history of mountaineering, is a hair-raising and thrillingly bizarre tale, captured here by a remarkable storyteller.