A group of Icelanders decide to hike along the ancient remains of Hadrian’s Wall in England to connect to the deep history of ancient Romans, Britons and Viking. By Thorarinn Ørn Sævarsson as told to MG correspondent M. Michael Brady
Last spring, longtime Mountain Gazette correspondent and Oslo area resident M. Michael Brady learned that Thorarinn Ørn Sævarsson, a member of the Icelandic diaspora prominent in Norway (as well as in the USA and Canada), was planning a summer hike along Hadrian’s Wall in northern England, just south of the Scottish border. As the hike is one of the classics of Europe that he has long wanted to do, but never has done, he asked Sævarsson to make notes and take photos that via an interview after his return could become a Dateline: Europe column. This is the result. As suits the venue of an activity that has been going on for a few centuries, the terminology is British. What we call a hike in North America is called a walk in Britain.
Thorarinn Ørn Sævarsson:This story starts in the summer of 2014, when my wife Moa and I were surfing in Portugal. There we met an Englishman, Stuart McFayden, who upon learning that we are Icelanders with a penchant for rambling the outdoors, suggested that we “walk Hadrian’s Wall.”
Stuart’s suggestion was well aimed. For we Icelanders, Britain has a fascinating niche in our cultural history. The Icelandic Sagas remain the earliest documentation of the Viking Age, in which Vikings often interacted with the peoples of the British Isles. That all happened a Millennium or so after Roman Emperor Hadrain had the Wall built starting in 122 AD. The chance to tramp through the landscape prominent in the pre-history of our culture was irresistible.
That opportunity is relatively new. People have walked the many paths to, from and along the Wall for centuries. True long-distance walking of the Wall came in 2003, when the paths along it were joined and signposted to become the 15th National Trail of England and Wales. It stretches 84 miles from Wallsend on the East Coasts to Bowness-on-Solway on the West Coast. It’s mostly flat, starting and ending near sea level and reaching a high point of 1132 ft elevation near Whinshields Crags at its midpoint. Most of the Wall and the path run trough open country, but there are sections that pass through the cities and suburbs of Carlisle and Newcastle. Hadrian’s Wall now is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which ensures protection for it and the path.
Stuart’s suggestion also came at the right time. Moa and I had been thinking about activities that we might propose for the next quasi-annual gathering of our circle of thirty some friends, brought together by its women, who had first met in the 1980s, when they spent their summer vacations as seasonal workers at a small hotel in the village of Laugarvatn in southern Iceland. A happening in the UK was just the thing. In 2006, at full strength our circle had rented a castle in Scotland. Rambling the landscape near Scotland resonated well for 2015. Over the next few months, in corresponding with Stuart and visiting him once in London, we opted for a “Walk of the Wall” in July.
Planning the walk was easy, as a Net search brought up several companies that provide services for visitors to the Wall. At Stuart’s suggestion we contacted Hadrian’s Wall Ltd. (http://www.hadrianswall.ltd.uk/) a small local company headed by Gary Reed, a former Royal Marines Officer, outdoor life instructor, expedition leader, lecturer in geography and heritage studies, and Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. He’s a native of Northumberland, the northernmost county of England through which the eastern part of the Wall runs. So for him, it’s home turf. And as we discovered later, he’s a convivial entertainer on all matters concerning the Wall and its surroundings.
We opted for a top-of-the-range four-day, part guided walk of a 50 mile stretch of the Wall. At a price of 475 British Pounds (about $743) per person, it included five overnight stays at country inns, baggage transfer between overnight stops, path pick-up and drop-off service at each inn, and one day of walking with Gary Reed as a guide. We booked for five couples and one pre-teen boy.
The eleven of us started our walk of the Wall with an overnight stay in Carlisle, a city with an urban area population of about 107,000, located ten miles south of the Scottish border. From there, we walked eastward for four days, to Walton, Newton, Saughy Rigg, and finally past the path highpoint to Chester’s Fort. From the walking point of view, covering 50 miles in four days is tame. Yet our walk had its memorable surprises.
At one point, we went astray and didn’t know which direction to go to get back on course. So we asked a local native passing by. He pointed out a direction that we then followed. After about two hours, we noticed that the river alongside the path seemed to be flowing in the wrong direction. Or were we going the wrong way? Out with the maps. The error was ours. We turned around and retraced our steps for another two hours. Fortunately, the day was long.
On a lunch break one day, we were joined by a friendly white horse. What does one do when an uninvited horse shows up at lunchtime? Talk to it; give it a nibble; this is England.
One of the benefits of walking the Wall is that the landscape it traverses has so many cultural history sites that visiting them all would take months. We had only four days. So we selected. Our two most memorable visits were to two museums dedicated to Roman themes. The Roman Army Museum near Walltown Quary is the place to go to gain an appreciation of how advanced the Romans were in armaments, then as now the underpinnings of military power.
The Chesterholm Museum in the village of Bardon Mill features artifacts excavated from nearby Vindolanda, a Roman fort just south of the Wall. Vindolanda is most famed for the 1978 archeological find there of what are now known as the Vindolanda Tablets dating from the first and second centuries AD. They are thin, post-card sized limewood sheets that bear writing of messages in carbon-based ink, the earliest known communication of their sort in Britain. Otherwise at Vindolanda we viewed the remains of a public bath and of buildings with toilets and heated floors, conveniences otherwise unknown in Europe until centuries thereafter.
By the time we parted with the other nine of our walk the Wall party, we realized that we had come to share Stuart’s enthusiasm for it. And like him, we now recommend it to others.
Where are we headed when the most climbed mountain on the planet has free WiFi at the summit? By M. Michael Brady
Mount Fuji, 60 miles southwest of Tokyo, is the world’s most-climbed mountain. It now is the world’s most wired by wireless one, with Wi-Fi coverage at eight hotspots, including the summit.
Fujisan (the transliteration of its name in Japanese) has a summit elevation of 12,388 feet, the highest in Japan. It’s a stratovolcano, which means that it’s built up of alternate layers of lava and ash. It erupted last in 1707-1708 and now is dormant and snow-capped for eight months or more a year. Fujisan is not on public land, but is privately owned by the Sengentaisha Shinto Shrine, which acquired the mountain in 1609 and owns its summit in perpetuity. Despite that title, the Shinto priests regard Fujisan as being a world treasure, not belonging to any one person or group.
The mountain and its beautiful surroundings are well-known symbols of Japan. The UNESCO World Heritage List recognizes 25 sites of cultural interest within the locality, including the mountain itself, shrines, lodging houses, lakes, hot springs, caves and wooded areas.
The first ascent of the summit was made in 663 by an anonymous monk. The first ascent by a foreigner was made in 1868 by Ratherford Alcock (1809-1897), the first British diplomat to live in Japan. Today, the annual two-month climbing season is in summer when the peak is snow-free. It attracts record numbers of hikers, some 285,000 in the summer of 2014, according to official statistics. In climbing terms, it’s a walk-up, on the four trails to the summit, named for their lowest elevation trailheads: Yoshida, Subshiri, Gotemba, and Fujinomiya. Along the trails there are huts that provide food services and overnight lodgings, which are popular with hikers who want to view sunrise from the summit.
The mountain is divided into ten stations, of which the first is at its foot and the tenth at its summit. There are paved roads to the four 5th stations, from which most people start their hikes to the summit. Compared to ascents of mountains elsewhere, those of Mount Fuji are well served by public transport. For instance, the Fujinomiya 5th station is closest to the summit and is easily accessible from the railway stations of the Tokaido Shinkansen high-speed rail line.
Mount Fuji was first made known in the USA by University of Chicago professor and populist educator Frederick Starr (1858-1903), who gave several lectures on his ascents of its summit at assemblies of the Chautauqua (adult educational movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries).
Today, NTTdomco, a telecommunications company, has teamed up with the Shizuoka and Yamanashi prefectures (districts) in which the mountain is located, to offer Wi-Fi service, as part of an incentive to attract more foreign visitors, that in turn is part of Japan’s expansion of its Wi-Fi coverage ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. During the summer climbing season, users may access the Wi-Fi by entering a user ID and password provided in fliers in English, Chinese, and Korean that are distributed at trailheads. The service is available for 72 hours from the time a user first logs in.
Otto Sverdrup was one of the greatest pioneers of polar exploration alongside Amundsen and Nansen. But we are guessing you never heard of him. By M. Michael Brady
Otto Sverdrup (1854-1930) is considered to be one of the three Norwegians prominent in the history of the golden era of polar exploration. The other two are Fridtjof Nansen and Roald Amundsen. Nansen certainly originated much and inspired others. Amundsen is most remembered as the man who beat Scott to the South Pole in 1911. In comparison, Sverdrup’s polar achievements and leadership seem unheralded.
In his unpublished autobiography of 1962, Arctic explorer Henry A. Larsen sought to change that low ranking, writing that: “in my opinion, Otto Sverdrup was the most competent and practical of all the Norwegian explorers of that era. But being both shy and reticent, he was satisfied with taking a back seat and was of course overshadowed by such men as Nansen and Amundsen. From my own personal knowledge of the Arctic, there is no doubt in my mind today, but that Sverdrup was the most versatile and competent of the three.” [Quoted in Ships of wood and men of iron, p. xvi].
Larsen’s assessment may be the best available. He was born, brought up, and educated at the maritime academy in Norway and had met and been inspired by Amundsen in 1923 in Seattle before emigrating to Canada in 1928. In “Otto Sverdrup, Never Baffled”, Sverdrup’s definitive biographer, Per Egil Hegge echoes Larsen in observing that “Otto Sverdrup completely lacked the ability to publicize himself.” The picture that then emerges is of Sverdrup as the quiet man of polar exploration.
By his full name, Otto Neumann Knoph Sverdrup was born the second of ten children of a tenant farming family on the Horstad gård, a large farmstead in the municipality of Bindal at 65°N in the fjord indented mountainous landscape of northern Norway. The Sverdrups were of a family that traced its lineage back more than two centuries to its progenitor, Peder Michelsen Sverdrup, a royal tax collector appointed in 1624 when Denmark ruled Norway. The surname Sverdrup came from that of a small village in the Southern Jutland region of Denmark that borders on Germany.
Otto and his elder brother Peter Jakob were tutored by their maternal grandfather, whose teaching methods were direct. He taught the boys to swim by rowing them out on the Bindal Fjord and tossing them into the water to find for themselves how to get to land. Otto got his first rifle when he was ten years old. Then he and Peter Jakob went hunting, on foot in summer and on skis in winter. At age 14, he shot his first bear.
At age 17 in 1872, Otto Sverdrup went to sea. He studied in Trondheim and then Christiania (now Oslo), where he qualified as a mate in 1875 and as a shipmaster in 1878. In that year, at the age of 24, he became captain of the Trio, one of the first steamships in coastal traffic in mid Norway. In the following decade, he sailed as a merchant ship officer to destinations in Norway and abroad, including the USA. As he was pursuing his maritime career, his father had bought and in 1874 moved the family to the Trana Farm at Ogndal just east of the small city of Steinkjer, one degree of latitude south of Bindal. So Steinkjer had become Sverdrup’s home on land. At the time, the Sverdup family’s legal advisor was Alexander Nansen, a lawyer who lived and worked in Namsos, just north of Steinkjer. That connection was to change the course of Sverdrup’s career.
Early in 1888, Sverdrup learned from lawyer Alexander Nansen of the search of his elder by one year brother Fridtjof Nansen for members of an expedition then being planned to cross Greenland on skis. So on February 8, he wrote Fridtjof Nansen in Christiania to indicate his interest in taking part in the expedition. On February 20, Alexander sent Fritjof a telegram recommending Otto Sverdrup as an ideal expedition member. The rest is history.
Nansen chose Sverdrup for the Greenland crossing expedition. The four other members were two other explorers, Oluf Christian Dietrichson, and Kristian Kristiansen, and two Sami reindeer herders, Samuel Johannesen Balto and Ole Nilsen Ravna, chosen in part because the expedition had been initially planned using reindeer and because they were superb long-distance skiers with an innate ability to get along in snow-covered landscape. The six-man party sailed on the sealer Jason to the east coast of Greenland, and then rowed two small boats northward for 12 days and nights to Umivik, a village near the Gyldenlöve Fjord at 64°24’N. They left Umivik on skis on August 15, 1888 and arrived at the Ameralik Fjord on the west coast at 64°7’N on September 29 to complete the first documented crossing of Greenland.
In 1891-92, Sverdrup advised Nansen in the building in Larvik of the Fram (“Forward”), a polar exploration ship designed by Scottish naval architect Colin Archer to withstand freezing into the drift ice in Nansen’s planned three-year Arctic science expedition that included an effort to reach the North Pole.
The Fram was launched on October 26, 1892. Sverdrup was given command, and she sailed from Christiania on June 24, 1893 and finally from Vardø in North Norway in late July. On October 5, she reached and was frozen into the drift ice at more than 79°N. After two winters drifting with the ice, in March 1895, Nansen and Hjalmar Johansen left the ship to ski with a dogsled team to reach the Pole, and Sverdrup assumed command of the expedition. By April 7, Nansen and Johansen had reached 86°14’N, but turned around as they reckoned they couldn’t reach the Pole and return before the end of the Arctic summer. Their return was arduous, and they were obliged to overwinter in a makeshift shelter on Franz Joseph Land. By mid June they had reached Cape Flora. On the 17th, they experienced what was to become the most famed chance encounter of Polar exploration. Nansen first caught sight of and approached British polar explorer Frederick George Jackson, who had assumed that the Nansen expedition had perished, as there had been no word from it for three years. The two men stood for a few moments staring at each other. Then Jackson asked: “You are Nansen, aren’t you?”, to which Nansen replied, “Yes, I am Nansen.” Thereafter, Nansen and Johansen returned with the British expedition to north Norway, where they rejoined Sverdrup and the Fram in August 1896.
In 1898, Sverdrup again sailed on the Fram, as captain of the ship and leader of a four-year scientific expedition to northwestern Greenland and eastern Canada, an area on the globe then poorly mapped. He chose five scientists—a cartographer, a geologist, a botanist, a zoologist, and a medical doctor—and a crew of ten. Interestingly, one man that Sverdrup asked to join the crew was Hermann Smith-Johannsen, who could not accept as he wished to finish his engineering studies in Berlin. Later, Smith-Johannsen emigrated to Canada in 1907 and there became a well-known cross-country skier nicknamed “Jackrabbit.”
From the start, the expedition was successful. It explored Ellesmere Island and mapped an area of some 65,000 square miles in the Canadian Arctic territory of Nunavit. Flora and fauna were observed and documented, and geological and oceanographic observations were recorded. Like polar expeditions of its time, it tested and proved the hardiness of its participants, not least of its leader. One night during the first winter, Sverdrup had imbibed a bit much in celebrating his 45th birthday and fell asleep outside his tent without his mittens, at a temperature of minus 35°C (-31°F). When he awoke, he just went back inside the tent and continued sleeping, apparently completely uninjured.
The expedition was comprehensively documented in Sverdrup’s own words in New Land. As described in the Prologue of Sverdrup’s Arctic Adventures, Sverdrup compiled the book in the winter of 1902-1903. With the diaries and charts of the expedition spread out in front of him, he dictating to a shorthand recorder provided by the Norwegian government, to speed publication of the book. Arctic historian Gerard Kenney considers Sverdrup’s second Fram expedition to be one of the greatest ever of polar exploration. In the Acknowledgements of Ships of wood and men of iron, he remarks that upon their return to Norway, the members of the expedition “came back with a record of geographic and scientific discovery, the richness of which is unparalleled in the annals of Arctic exploration.”
After the stunningly successful New Land expedition, Sverdrup continued to sail Arctic waters. One of his lesser known exploits was his search and rescue mission for the Imperial Russian Navy. In 1914-15 on the Eclipse (a Dundee whaler built in 1867),he sought two missing Russian Arctic Expeditions, one led by Greorgy Brusilov on the Santa Anna schooner and the other by Vladimir Rusanov on the Hercules ketch. In retrospect, the enormity of Sverdrup’s search is reflected in an account of survival in the Arctic written by the navigator of the ill-fated Brusilov expedition, who after having been at odds with his commander for months, left the Santa Anna in April 1914 and after a 235 mile trek to Cape Flora in Franz Josef Land, survived to write In the Land of White Death, an account of his ordeal published in Russian in 1917 (translated into German in 1925 and into English in 2000). Sverdrup’s rescue mission for the Imperial Navy was unsuccessful. The fates of the two expeditions remained unknown until many years later, when the Soviet Arctic Institute found relics of the Rusanov expedition in 1937 and explorers found remains of the Brusilov expedition in 2010.
Sverdrup went on his fourth and last voyage in Siberian waters in the summer of 1921. From the bridge of the Soviet ice-breaker Lenin, he led an experimental convoy of four cargo vessels from England to the Ob and Yenisei rivers, replicating a trade route proved feasible by Nansen in 1913 (the centennial of which was observed in 2013 by a Norwegian-Russian expedition, reported in Through Siberia with Nansen, Mountain Gazette, March 4, 2015). Sverdrup’s cargo convoy to the Kara ports and back again was a commercial success. In the in the years that followed, larger convoys were sent along the Arctic sea route that Sverdrup had helped pioneer.
In 1908, Sverdrup had bought Villa Walle on a hill overlooking the town of Sandvika, a southern suburb of Oslo. It had become his home on land, which he called “Homewood.” It was there he died on November 26, 1930.
Memorials to Sverdrup abound. A crater near the South Pole of the Moon is named Otto Sverdrup. The archipelago of the northern Queen Elizabeth Islands in the Arctic Ocean west of Ellesmere Island that he discovered and mapped on the second Fram expedition are is now known as the Sverdrup Islands. In mid 1957, Crown Prince (and later King) Olav unveiled a statue of him by sculptor Carl E. Paulsen in Steinkjer, where he lived in his youth. Sculptor Per Ung created two Otto Sverdrup works in bronze, a bust in Bindal, where he was born, and a statue in Sandvika, where he died. In 2004, upon the 150 anniversary of Sverdrup’s birth, Norway, Canada, and Greenland had a joint issue of commemorative Sverdrup stamps. One of the Royal Norwegian Navy’s five Fridtjof Nansen class frigates is named the HNoMS Otto Sverdrup. The LN-DYO, a Boeing 737-300 in the Norwegian (airline) fleet of passenger airliners featuring tailfin portraits of the famed, honors Otto Sverdrup.
Had men’s magazines existed in Sverdrup’s time, he probably would have been a regular feature on covers. With his fiery red beard, piercing blue eyes, and muscular build, he personified the powers needed to prevail in polar exploration. But just as time travel has yet to happen, that will not come about. Otto Sverdrup remains one of the greatest and most enigmatic of polar explorers.
Further reading (books mentioned in text):
Ships of Wood and Men of Iron: A Norwegian-Canadian Saga of Exploration in the High Arctic, by Gerard Kenney [Toronto, Natural Heritage Books, 2005, 139 page paperback, ISBN 978-1897045060].
New Land: Four Years in the Arctic Regions by Otto Sverdrup, translated by Ethel Harriet Heam, [original edition: London, Longmans, Green & Co., 1904, 2 volumes hardcover; republished 2014 by Cambridge University Press, 518 page paperback, ISBN 978-1108071109.]
Sverdrup’s Arctic Adventures, adapted with explanatory notes from Sverdrup’s New Land, by T.C. Fairley [London, Longmans, 1959, 305 page hardcover].
Otto Sverdrup, Aldri Rådløs (“Otto Sverdrup, Never baffled”), by Per Egil Hegge [Oslo, JM Stenersens Forlag, 1996, large format (9.6 x 12.4 inch), 264 page hardcover, ISBN 988-82-7201-198-6], the definitive Sverdrup biography, with a 52 page addendum by mariner Asbjørn F. Aastrøm (in Norwegian only). Author Hegge also published an equivalent biography of Fridtjof Nansen in 2002.
In the Land of White Death by Valerian Albanov [New York, Modern Library, 2000, 243 page paperback, ISBN 978-0679783619], the account of survival in the Arctic, by the navigator of the ill-fated Imperial Russian expedition led by Brusilov.
Persons mentioned in text (in addition to Otto Sverdrup, in alphabetical order by surname)
Asbjørn F. Aastrøm (1944- ), Norwegian Arctic mariner
Valerian Albanov (1881-1919), Russian navigator, one of two survivors of Brusilov expedition
Roald Amundsen (1872-1928), Norwegian polar explorer, first to South Pole.
Colin Archer (1832-1921), Scottish naval architect and shipbuilder, lived and worked in Larvik, Norway.
Samuel Johannessen Balto (1891-1921), Sami reindeer herder, on Greenland crossing with Nansen.
Step back to the Golden Age of English mountaineering when William Cecil Slingsby pioneered routes in Norway, including Storen, which was believed to be impossible to climb at the time. By M. Michael Brady
The golden age of mountaineering among English-speaking peoples arguably started in 1857 with the foundation of the first Alpine club in London, described as: “a club of English gentlemen devoted to mountaineering, first of all in the Alps, members of which have successfully addressed themselves to attempts of the kind on loftier mountains.” (The Nuttall Encyclopaedia 1907).
It was the Victorian Era, in which Englishmen of means and wanderlust explored countries abroad and upon returning published travelogues of their adventures. One of them was Edward Whymper (1840-1911), the English mountaineer who led the first ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865 and included an account of it in Scrambles Amongst the Alps in the Years 1860-69 published in 1871 in London. (The book has since been republished several times, most recently in 2002 by National Geographic Books.)
News of Whymper’s exploits drew many to mountaineering, including a young Yorkshireman, William Cecil Slingsby (1849-1929), then a teenager with a penchant for hiking and outdoor life. He was the oldest of six children, born into the Slingsby family that owned and operated the Carleton Mill, built in 1861 for spinning cotton.
At age 23 in 1872, Slingsby embarked upon his first expedition to Norway, in which he made a circuit of the central mountain cordillera. In the Hurrungane Range of the Jotunheimen Mountains, he caught sight of Storen, also known as Store Skagastølstind (“Big Skagastøl Peak”), then said to be unclimbable. He took the peak’s reputation as a challenge; he would be the first to climb Storen.
The mountaineering challenge of Storen was quite like that of the Matterhorn that had faced Whymper. Both peaks are massive pyramids with similar prominences (minimum vertical climb from col), 3,310 feet for Storen compared to a bit more, 3419 feet for the Matterhorn. Both peaks are the only ones in their massifs that on all approaches require what now is called technical climbing. Only their summit elevations differ: 7,890 feet for Storen, compared to 14,692 feet for the Matterhorn. The 6,802-foot difference in summit elevation reflects a topographical dissimilarity: The mountain chains of Norway rise from sea level, while those of the Alps rise from high continental strata. Save for acclimatization to higher elevations, climbing in Norway can be as challenging as climbing in the Alps.
In 1874, Slingsby returned to Norway, with a crammed itinerary of climbs including one first ascent. Upon returning from the mountains via coastal steamer, he met educator Emanuel Mohn (1842-1891), known for his writings on and illustrations of mountains. The two men found that they had much in common, particularly their quests for first ascents.
In 1875, Slingby returned again, to the Jotunheimen range, with his sister Edith, who became the first woman to climb Glittertind, Norway’s second loftiest peak with a summit elevation of 8,087 feet. At Mohn’s suggestion, he described her experience in an article, “An English Lady in the Jotunheimen”, published in The Norwegian Trekking Association’s yearbook that year. In the winter of 1875-76, Slingsby and Mohn wrote each other to plan a major climbing effort the following summer.
In July 1876, Slingsby and Mohn met in Oslo and traveled by carriage to Bygdin Lake in the Jotunheimen Range where they met up with Kunt Lykken (1831-1891), a local farmer, reindeer herder, and mountain guide. The three then spent five days making five first ascents, a record that still stands in Norwegian mountaineering. On July 21, they set out to be the first to climb Soren. The weather was foul, but they were successful, with Slingsby climbing the final stretch to the summit solo, as he was more skilled in rock climbing than Mohn or Lykken.
Thereafter, Slingsby returned to the Jotunheimen five times. In 1888 and 1899, he climbed in Northern Norway. In 1900 he again climbed Storen, and in 1903-1912 he again climbed in Northern Norway. In all, he is credited with 50 first ascents, the last in 1912. His zeal for climbing in Norway was matched by his ability to get along in the country. As a Yorkshireman, he felt a common bond with Norway that stretched centuries back to the days when Vikings raided eastern English shores. In the course of his many visits, he became fluent in Landsmål, the language of the rural districts he frequented; now called Nynorsk, it’s one of the two official languages of the country.
In 1921 he visited Norway twice. On the second visit, his last in Norway, he was accompanied by his daughter Eleanor, an enthusiastic climber who had founded the predecessor of the Pinnacle Club, a women’s climbing association in the UK. That year in Oslo, King Haakon 7 granted Slingsby an audience.
In addition to his climbing accomplishments, Slingsby documented what he did, in more than 30 articles in the Alpine Journal, the Norwegian Trekking Association Yearbooks, the Climber’s Club Journal and the Norwegian Club Yearbooks. His book, Norway, the Northern Playground, was first published in 1904 in Edinburgh and since has been republished several times, most recently in 2010 by Nabu Press of Charleston, South Carolina.
After his last climbs in Norway, Slingsby continued climbing in the UK, and when well into his 70s, was climbing on Gimmer Crag and Pillar Rock in the English Lake District, known for its challenging rock climbs. Sports were his life, to its end. On his deathbed at age 81, he looked out through a window to see boys playing cricket outside. A boy at bat swung well and sent the ball for a six (in cricket, the equivalent of a home run with the bases loaded in baseball). “Well played, well played, my boy!” he cheered. Those six words were his last.
After his death, The Times of London observed in his obituary that “For a mountaineer and explorer, he had the ideal equipment—a magnificent physique, exceptional hardihood, grace and agility, an unerring judgment, coolness and courage.”
In his native England, he is remembered along with other Slingsbys of history, geography, literature, and business. There’s a Slingsby Day, commemorating the execution in 1658 of Yorkshire landowner Sir Henry Slingsby for his adherence to the Royalist cause during the English Civil War (1642-1651). In North Yorkshire, there’s a small village named Slingsby. American-born, British naturalized poet TS Elliott (1888-1965) wrote a poem about Miss Helen Slingsby. English naval administrator Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) mentions a Slingsby in his famed diaries. Today, Slingsby Aviation makes hovercraft, two of which appeared in Die Another Day, a James Bond movie released in 2002.
In Norway, Slingsby is regarded to be the father of Norwegian mountaineering. Two topographic features bear his name: Slingsby Glacier, below Storen, and Slingsby Peak in the Jotunheimen, formerly Nordre Urdanostind (“North Urdanos Peak”), of which he made the first ascent on July 10, 1876. The Norsk Fjellmuseum (“Norwegian Mountain Museum”) in the village of Lom, just north of the Jotunheim Mountain range has a modest collection of Slingsby memorabilia, including many of his diaries, notebooks, sketchbooks, paintings and articles on climbing in the Alps and in Norway.
Ever wonder where some of those terms you use while climbing come from? Our European correspondent is here with some mountaineering etymology for you. By M. Michael Brady
The lingo of mountaineering reflects the pursuit of it in many cultures. Many mountaineering terms in English result from the intermingling of languages over time, as with French. The word “avalanche” is a loanword directly from French. It first appeared in English in 1769, in “A Tour in Scotland” by Welsh naturalist Thomas Pennant (1726-1798). The adoption of many other terms has been more arbitrary. The word “rappel” is an intriguing example.
Like “avalanche”, “rappel” is a loanword from French. But English adopted just two of its eight meanings. Until the mid 19th century, “rappel” in English meant the ceremonial roll of drums to summon soldiers to arms. In 1931, an article in The Times (UK) Literary Supplement added the second meaning of roping down by mentioning the rappel as a technique used in climbs of Mont Blanc in France. With time, the first meaning apparently fell into disuse, as today it’s not in the desk edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), though it survives in the Complete OED. Today, in American as well as British English, “rappel” is used only in its mountaineering sense.
Not so in French. Today, the mountaineering use of the word is the seventh of its eight meanings. The first and most prominent use of the word “rappel” is as the imperative form of the French transitive verb rappeler, which means “to remember”. It appears alongside roads on rectangular regulatory plates under speed limit signs to remind drivers of the maximum allowable speeds within a speed control zones.
In the timeline of mountaineering, rappelling is French. It was first done in 1876 by Chamonix guide Jean Charlet-Straton (1840-1925) in a failed solo attempt of Petit Dru, a needle in the Mont Blanc massif. After several more unsuccessful solo attempts, in 1879 he attained the summit in a party of three with two other Chamonix guides.
By the turn of the last century, rappelling had become a standard mountaineering technique, called abseiling by British climbers, after abseilen, a descriptive term used by German-speaking climbers. In 1911, German climber and inventor Otto Herzog (1888-1964) first used a “carabiner”, so respelled in English, from the German Karabinerhaken, a descriptive term for a snap link based on a rifle hook. In turn, the use of the carabiner was linked to the first invention of the piton by Austrian guide Hans Fiechtl (1884-1925) and the testing of it by German climber Hans Dülfer (1892-1915).
Other German words followed into English in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, most prominently two loanwords, “rucksack” in 1866 and “kletterschuh” in 1920. The adoption of the word “kletterschuh”, a special rock climbing shoe with a cloth or felt sole, reflected the travels of the mountaineers of the time, as it was sometimes described as a variant of scarpetti, an equivalent Italian shoe with rope soles first used in the Dolomites. Both terms remain in English today.
The languages of the British Isles also contributed terms to mountaineering lingo. In mountaineering, the most familiar one perhaps is “cairn”, the term for a pile of stones used to mark a trail. It’s a Gaelic word that first appeared in English in 1535, in a description of a memorial pyramid of rough stones in Scotland. And there’s at least one instance of an Englishman inadvertently promoting the use of a loanword in the geography of mountains.
In 1921, upon first seeing a huge cirque on Mount Everest, English mountaineer George Leigh Mallory (1886-1924) named it the “Western Cwm”, with “”cwm” being the Welsh word describing a bowl-shaped hollow formed by a glacier. That brought cwm into the lingo of mountaineering, to compete with synonyms “cirque”, a loanword from French, and corrie” a loanword from a Gaelic term used to describe terrain in the Scottish Highlands.
As English has adopted words from other languages, it also has contributed to them, sometimes in odd ways. Thanks to the writings of Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400), English speakers are familiar with many ribald words, such as “fart.” But before Chaucer’s time, in the mix of English with Nordic and Teutonic languages, “fart” also meant “to send forth.” It was Chaucer that gave the word the meaning of sending wind forth from the anus, but there were other meanings still evident today. In modern Norwegian, the word fart” translates to “speed” or “travel”, as in sakte fart (“low speed”) that’s used at all elevations on road and waterway signs advising vehicles and vessels to slow down. That usage has had a side effect. In the port of Kragerø in Telemark County, an old footbridge at the entrance to the harbor that has a “SAKTE FART” warning sign to boats on the underlying waterway has become one of the more popular city scenes for young English-speaking tourists taking photos of themselves.
Photos Credits: #1 and #2 by M. Michael Brady. Canton of Côte Vermeille coastal highway, Mediterranean France, April 2015. #3 Petit Dru in Mont Blanc Massif, Chamonix, France; rappelling first done here in 1876. By Eturisto at French Wikipedia, Wikimedia Commons free documentation license,
The ancient tradition of shepherds taking their flocks up to the hills and living with them is dead in the U.S., but can “transhumance” hold on where it has been practiced for generations in Europe?
By M. Michael Brady
Shepherds have tended their flocks and herds for centuries. In the lingo of agriculture, what they do is part of pastoralism. In countries with mountains, pastoralism includes transhumance (loan word from French), the seasonal movement of livestock that exploits differences in climate with elevation, with herds and flocks moving up to high elevation mountain pastures in summer and down to lowlands in winter. In countries where livestock farming has been industrialized, pastoralism has nearly died out. But it has survived elsewhere, until recently including the USA.
In 2001, Montana rancher Lawrence Allested followed the practice of generations of his Norwegian American family. Assisted by two hired hands, he took his sheep 200 miles into the Absaroka-Beartooth Mountains on a federal grazing permit. In so doing he became the last person to practice transhumance in Montana, an event culturally so significant that a documentary was made on it. The film was directed by Lucien Castaing-Taylor, an anthropologist at Harvard University and produced by his wife, Ilisa Barbash. After eight years of cinematic work, it premiered at the New York Film Festival and at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in Missoula. Entitled Sweetgrass, after the name of the county in which much of it was shot, this is a film to see and savor; view the official trailer here.
Rancher Allested’s penchant for pastoralism most likely is ancestral, as in Norway, pastoralism is as old as agriculture. The Norwegian languages (there are two) reflect that in specific words, including seter, or its variants sæter and støl, which is a herder’s cabin, and budeia, meaning “milkmaid at a seter”. Tales of life at a seter are deeply ingrained in the folklore of the country, and the best-selling Norwegian post card of all time is Seterjentens fridag (“Milkmaid’s holiday”), featuring a black-and-white photo taken in 1932. More than two million have been sold. The Maihaugen outdoor folk museum at Lillehammer (site of the 1994 Olympic Winter Games) has a collection of seter buildings and a regular program on their use.
The real-life story of the photo on the Seterjentens fridag postcard confirms folklore. Milkmaid Anne Skår (1913-1991) was born at Borgund in Lærdal in Sogn og Fjordane County on Norway’s west coast. At age 12, she began assisting at a summer pasture farm. At age 19, she was a qualified milkmaid working one at Galdestølen, on the road in Mørkedalen on the way up to the Hemsedal massif. The work was hard, the days long and the pay low, giving a monthly salary of just NOK 25, equivalent to $115 in today’s money.
Like other farms of the time, Galdestølen literally was on the road, which ran between the cowshed on one side and the farmhouse on the other side. One day, a sow kept at the farm stubbornly stood in the middle of the road, refusing to move. Traffic on the road was negligible, but milkmaid Anne knew that the sow couldn’t just stand there, blocking the road. Persuasive calls and pushing didn’t budge the animal. So Anne tried the ultimate trick of jumping on its back, to ride it like a horse. A tourist staying in a nearby cabin saw and photographed the curious sight of a milkmaid riding a sow. The rest is history.
The Galdestølen summer pasture farm where the Seterjentens fridag photo was taken now is abandoned, but at this writing the buildings of it still stand. It’s in Sogn og Fjordane County, just to the southeast of Riksvei 52 (“National road 52”) between Borlaug on the E16 highway and Breidstolen to the southeast, GPS coordinates N 61.04350, E 8.00722.
Of the other countries that still practice it, transhumance is most widespread and arguably most vivacious in France. The word comes from French, which also had the adjective transhumant and the noun transhumer, a person involved in the practice of it. The routes followed by sheep herders are called drailles, the oldest of which date from the Neolithic Period, also called the New Stone Age. There’s some evidence that the drailles originally were the tracks of animals followed in their migrations between lowlands and mountains. If so, transhumance predates recorded history.
Today transhumance is part of rural life in several regions of France, most prominently those including or near the major cordillera, the Alps and the Pyrenees. Throughout these regions, transhumance is celebrated when it happens, often with village festivals that have become tourist attractions. Three prominent ones in 2015:
In the early 20th century, Fridtjof Nansen set off on a journey through the Arctic to open up the Northeast Passage. His scientific observations made then may be more relevant now than ever.
By M. Michael Brady
On Tuesday, August 5, 1913, explorer, scientist and later Nobel laureate Fridtjof Nansen (1861-1930) set off from Tromsø, Norway to open a Northern Sea Route across the Eurasian continent. He was on board the Correct, a passenger freighter chartered by Norwegian businessman Jonas Lied carrying a cargo of cement bound for the city of Krasnoyarsk in Krasnoyarsk Krai of Siberia for the ongoing building of the Trans-Siberian Railway.
For centuries, explorers had sought Northern Passages, to the East as well as to the West along the northern coast of North America. Unlike his daring Arctic expeditions of the late 19th century that had tested the limits of human strength and endurance, the 1913 journey was for him a vacation during which he made scientific and other observations while assisting businessman Lied in opening up a regular trade connection with Siberia. The result from prolific author Nansen was a book, Through Siberia, a benchmark account of the geography and indigenous peoples of Siberia.
Nansen is widely known as an explorer. Yet in the sciences he is remembered as one of the great minds that contributed to our understanding of the globe, particularly in oceanography, his principal pursuit. His 1893-96 expedition in an attempt to reach the North Pole is regarded to be one of the major achievements of the heroic age of polar exploration that started in the late 19th century and ended with the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914-1917, led by Sir Ernest Shackleton (1874-1922). That said, Nansen’s North Pole expedition principally was a scientific undertaking. The results of it had a lasting impact on the sciences of the Arctic.
One of Nansen’s seminal scientific findings was triggered in late August 1893, as he sailed the purpose-built Fram polar ship off the Taymyr Peninsula near the Nordenskiöld Arctic Archipelago. Suddenly, the ship came almost to a dead stop, though its engine was at full speed. The Fram had encountered what Nansen called “dead water”, which as he wrote is “a peculiar phenomenon that occurs where a surface layer of fresh water rests upon the salt water of the sea, and this fresh water is carried along with the ship, gliding on the heavier sea beneath as if on a fixed foundation”. It was the first-ever such explanatory hypothesis, though dead water had long been experienced by fishermen in the Norwegian fjords, which are bodies of salt water sometimes also fed by fresh water from glacier runoff. Later research by others proved that Nansen’s hypothesis was correct, and now dead water is fairly well understood.
Scrolling ahead a century to the turn of the Millennium, the Arctic has changed significantly since Nansen’s journeys there. Though it may seem remote and thereby of lesser interest to people living at lower latitudes, the Arctic plays an increasingly vital role in the health of the globe. Just how so concerns the scientists from 20 institutes working at FRAM, the High North Research Center for Climate and the Environment in Tromsø. The eighth annual Arctic Frontiers international conference was held this year. The Arctic Council of eight countries with territory within the Arctic Circle has become the international clearinghouse for debate and discussion on Arctic matters. A scholarly journal in English, the Arctic Review on Law and Politics, now is in its sixth year of publication, and this year the Eighth Polar Law Symposium will be held in Fairbanks and Anchorage.
Vast deposits of oil and gas have been found under Arctic waters, though the recent fall in oil prices has set a stop to thoughts of extraction due to the costs and risks of it in the extreme environment. Perhaps more important, global warming has opened Arctic waters permitting ships to sail the Northeast Passage about two summer months a year.
The relatively recent surge of academic, cultural, and commercial interest in the Arctic raises the intriguing question of what Nansen might have made of it all were he to see the Arctic of today. In 2012, Øyvind Ravna, a professor at the University of Tromsø, speculated that there was one certain way to answer that question: celebrate the centennial of Nansen’s 1913 expedition by replicating it. His suggestion gained support, most encouragingly from the two universities of the High North, the University of Tromsø – The Arctic University of Norway and the Northern Federal University at Arkangelsk, Russia. Research institutes as well as businessmen joined in, reflecting and extending the multidisciplinary purposes of the 1913 journey. It was to be the largest ever joint Norwegian-Russian expedition.
On Monday, August 5, 2013, to the day a hundred years since Nansen had departed from Tromsø, the 20-some strong Norwegian contingent of the expedition team including Prof. Ravna and led b y Jan Gunnar Winter, Director of the Norwegian Polar Institute, left Tromsø by air to fly southeastward to Arkhangelsk to join the Russian contingent and board the Professor Molcanov, an ice-strengthened Russian research ship, to retrace Nansen’s wake through the Arctic Ocean to Siberia. The Norwegians had chosen to fly the first leg of the journey, principally to avoid the delay of customs clearance at sea.
After nearly three weeks covering more than 3000 miles, eastward through the Barents Sea and the Kara Sea and then southward up the Yenisei, Siberia’s largest river, the journey ended at Krasnoyarsk, as had that of 1913. On the way, the international team of experts observed changes since Nansen’s time in the Arctic climate, the landscape and its peoples. Few of their observations could more vividly describe the effect of global warming of the Arctic than the brief anecdote of team members sunning themselves on deck on August 11, as the Professor Molcanov glided effortlessly across the ice-free Kara Sea, at a point where Nansen had been obliged on the same date to change course a century earlier due to impenetrable sea ice. The ethnographic observations are as poignant. Industrial pollution has ruined the traditional grazing lands of the once nomadic Enets south of the industrial center of Norilsk. Now numbering just 200, they risk extinction. The same fate awaits the slightly more numerous Kets, the only people still speaking a language of the Yeniseian family, living further south up the Yenisei River.
Ravna has collected these and myriad other observations in a book illustrated with his color photos as well as vintage black-and-white photos of the 1913 expedition, many of them previously unpublished. He’s the right man for that task in more ways than one. He was born, brought up and now works north of the Arctic Circle, in Finnmark, Norway’s northernmost county that borders on Russia and has a large subpopulation of the once nomadic Sami reindeer-herding people. Like many residents of Finnmark, he is of Sami heritage. In addition to his native Norwegian, he is fluent in English and proficient in Russian and Sami. His wife, Zoia Vylka Ravna is of a Nenets reindeer herding family, born in western Sibera and educated in St. Petersberg. They met in 1995, when he was working on a book on the indigenous peoples of Siberia, My Russian North (published in 1996).
This book is his eighth photo documentary work. As the editor of the Arctic Review on Law and Politics, he has an in-depth familiarity with the subject matter. He’s a freelance photographer (His photo of Norwegian reindeer herders illustrated “Dateline Europe: Norway’s Snowmobile Laws Headed to Court”, Mountain Gazette, January 6, 2015). That said, this landmark book may be the last of its sort for a while. The unrest in the Ukraine of 2014 has altered relations between Russia and the rest of Europe. The journey that was possible in 2013 would have been difficult in 2014 and even more so now. So until the war rhetoric subsides, Nansen’s vision of Siberia as “The land of the future” may remain a dream.
Between the Arctic and Scandinavia, this island beckons climbers with vast, untrodden terrain.
By Michael Brady
Svalbard is an Arctic archipelago about halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole. It has the world’s northernmost permanent population, mostly in two settlements, the administrative center of Longyearbyen and Ny-Ålesund, a research station. It recent history has an American connection: Longyearbyen was established by and named for John Munro Longyear (1850-1922), a developer from Michigan and the principal founder of the Arctic Coal Company that developed and started mining coal fields on Spitzbergen Island in 1905 to 1916.
Today Longyearbyen is a thriving town with a population of more than 2,000. Research and tourism have become key business sectors. The University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS), the Global Seed Vault, and SvalSat, the world’s largest ground station serving polar-orbiting meteorological and earth observation satellites are located there. Ships call at Longyearbyen, and there’s scheduled airline service between its airport and the Norwegian mainland. Longyearbyen may be the world’s most wired community, as it’s connected to the mainland by broadband submarine cables. Everyday life there is much that of towns on the mainland. Outside town, there are few signs of civilization, as Svalbard is a vast Arctic wilderness, 60% covered by glaciers. Mountains and fjords abound, and there are seven national parks and 23 nature reserves. The climate definitely is Arctic, though considerably milder than other land areas at the same latitude. Understandably, outdoor sports are popular, particularly hiking, mountaineering, and ice caving.
In mountaineering, Svalbard arguably is unique in having more untrodden terrain than comparable mountain areas elsewhere. In April 2007, a mixed Slovenian, Swiss and German climbing team made first ascents in seven climbing areas of the Atomfjella chain on Spitzbergen Island (further reading), yet there remain many yet-to-be-done first ascents of routes and summits.
The name Atomfjella (“Atom Mountain”) reflects a penchant for naming the mountains in the archipelago after the terms of the natural sciences. There are mountains named after the Electron, the Neutron and the element Radium. The second highest peak in the archipelago, Perriertoppen (“Perrier Peak”) is named after French zoologist Edmund Perrier (1844-1921), and the highest, Newtontoppen (“Newton Peak”) is named after English mathematician Isaac Newton (1642-1726).
Newtontopen on the northeast coast of Spitzbergen island not only has the loftiest summit. It is the largest massif, with its base is at sea level. So its prominence, the minimum height of climb to the summit is the same as the summit elevation, 1,717 meters (5,633 ft.). That makes it an ultra prominent peak, or “Ultra”, designating a prominence of at least 1500 meters (4920 ft.). There are more than 1500 Ultras in the world, but some famed peaks, including the Eiger and the Matterhorn in the Alps, are not Ultras because they rise from high-elevation cols.
In contrast, McDonald Peak in the Mission Mountains of Montana is an Ultra, because it has a prominence of 1722 meters (5650 ft.), about the same as that of Newtontoppen. In that topographical statistic lies a clue to an advantage of climbing in the archipelago. Climbs in the USA start from high elevation plateaus or cols; the key col for McDonald peak is at an elevation of 4180 ft. But summit climbs in Svalbard start from sea level or at elevations of a few hundred feet. So you don’t need altitude acclimatization to climb.
There’s one challenge in Svalbard that’s not found in comparable mountaineering areas elsewhere. Polar bears, of which there are some 3000 in the archipelago, more than the human population. The polar bear is the world’s largest land carnivore, and humans are intruders in its traditional habitat. A polar bear will attack without warning. Accordingly, people who go on extended trips outside town are required to register and are advised to take precautions including carrying and knowing how to use a big-game rifle.
Climbs are best in summer, when there’s daylight round the clock, and least practical in midwinter during the polar night that lasts from mid November to early February. This year it may be wise to avoid the week of Friday, March 20, when Svalbard will be one of two places (the other is the Faroe Islands) where you can stand on land to watch the total solar eclipse (further reading) that day. But if you want to watch the eclipse, book travel and lodging early, as crowds are expected.
Further reading and viewing:
Svalbard Guide by Pål Hermansen, 288 page paperback, German edition 2008 by Travel Media GmbH, ISBN 978-3930232598 (listed by Amazon.com), English edition 2013 by Gaidaros Forlag, ISBN 978-8280771551.
Svalbard Atomfjella new routes in Spitzbergen climbing expedition, by Gregor Kresal, on Planet Mountain website , selectable in Italian or English.
One of the miracles of today’s Europe is that the European Union (EU) works. With 27 countries that together speak 23 languages and have a population of 495 million, the EU has faced innumerable challenges. There have been problems aplenty, not least the ongoing financial turmoil within the single-currency Eurozone of 17 countries. Though less newsworthy, the triumphs of many manageable measures have changed aspects of everyday life between and within the countries of the continent. One of the most pervasive is Natura 2000, a network in step with the EU implementation of the Convention on Biological Diversity, a part of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit.
The EU implementation came about in the form of the Habitats Directive released two weeks before the Rio Earth Summit opened. Within the EU, a Directive is not a law, as lawmaking remains the province of the member countries. It’s a legal tool that the member countries use to transpose its requirements into their national laws. That nuance is essential. Laws in different countries are harmonized but nonetheless retain national characteristics.
Natura 2000 involves a uniform designation of sites called Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) that include existing areas and areas that can be restored. The SACs come about in a process designed to ensure the survival of prioritized species and habitats throughout Europe. It starts with a country listing its Sites of Community Interest (SCIs), goes through review in biogeographical seminars and ends with an SCI list issued by the European Commission (EC) from which SACs are designated. Natura 2000 also includes sites called Special Protection Areas (SPAs) for birds, established according to the Birds Directive of 1979 and consisting of two parts, habit conservation and species protection.
One of the advantages of Natura 2000 is its latitude of administration and application. It was governmental in origin but relies on external expertise and welcomes contributions from non-government organizations (NGOs). The Directives that initiated it were top-down, but much of the upkeep of the sites takes place at the grassroots level. Its prime focus is on the protection of birds and animals within specified habitats, but it also covers vast estuaries, forests, cave systems and marine environments. It is a conservation incentive, but not exclusively conservationist. It permits logging that in some cases may be beneficial, as forests may be managed to remove invasive tree species and restore woodland tracts to their original habitats. Likewise, outdoor recreation that does not degrade conservation is permitted in some areas, while other vulnerable areas may be closed to the public.
The countries that have sites bear most of the burden of financing their management and upkeep. Even so, other funding sources are available, principally through LIFE, the EU financial instrument for supporting environmental and nature conservation projects. Commercial ventures in logging and ecological tourism also may provide income.
The program that implemented Natura 2000 was relatively short. It peaked in 2004-2006 and terminated in 2007. But Natura 2000 lives on, in part sustained via Eurosite, a network of public and private organizations and non-government organizations. So the Natura 2000 network has yet to be completed. Today it consists of more than 27,000 sites, varying from 35 on Malta to more than 5,200 in Germany. Together, the sites cover 17.5%, or close to a fifth of the total area of the EU countries. Clearly, the conservation of biodiversity is a European priority.
M. Michael Brady is a translator living in a suburb of Oslo. A natural scientist by training, he takes his vacations in France. This column marks the end of Dateline: Europe’s two-year-plus run in Mountain Gazette.
Mont Blanc seen from Rébuffat Platform at Aiguille du Midi above Chamonix, elevation 12,000 feet (as may be seen by hikers or skiers on Haute Route). Credit: Nicolas Sanchez
The lingo of mountaineering in English has borrowed much from other languages, particularly French. A mountaineer may cross a glacier to a col, descend a couloir, and on the way rappel down a face to rendezvous with friends. One of the newest additions is haute route, first used in English in June 1912. Literally it means “high route” and designates a traverse made entirely at high elevation. It’s a generic term now, but as a proper name, Haute Route, retains its original meaning. It’s the trans-Alpine traverse between Chamonix in France and Zermatt in Switzerland.
Yet an English connection lurks behind that bit of lexicographic simplicity. In 1911, French skiers reported the first traverse of the Haute Route on skis. Understandably, they wrote in French and consequently were reluctant to use “The High Level Glacier Route from Chamonix to Zermatt”, the name in English under which it was first described in 1862 in “Passes and Glaciers”, a publication of The Alpine Club, founded in 1857 in London. Why the English readily embraced the French name in 1912 remains unknown. Most likely, the acceptance of the name in French reflected the warming of Anglo-French relations of the time. Railroads had brought Paris closer to London, and travelers flocked in both directions across the Channel. Moreover, Haute Route was the shorter term, more easily dropped into casual conversation upon returning to England from a mountaineering vacation in the Alps.
The classic hike starts in the hamlet of Le Tour, at the end of the road northeast of Argentière just north of Chamonix. Here the vertical scale is awesome. The two-stage gondola of the Argentière ski area is among the world’s tallest, serving slopes with a total vertical drop of 1.3 miles. Mont Blanc, with a summit elevation of 15,782 feet — the highest in the Alps — towers nearby. The elevation gain of the first day’s hike is more than 4,000 feet, up to the Albert Premier cabin, named for Prince Albert the First of Belgium, an avid mountaineer who was killed in a rock climbing accident in 1934. From then on, the trail goes up, to a high point of 10,379 feet at the Trient cabin, to a low point of 4,820 feet at the town of Champex in Switzerland. On the average, the hike to Zermatt takes 11 to 12 days, or longer whenever hikers take alternate routes over surrounding summits. In winter, the ski route takes an average of seven days.
Unsurprisingly, both the summer hiking and winter skiing routes invite competition among mountaineers, principally for the fastest time from the Church in Chamonix to the Church in Zermatt, or the other way round. The current record of 21 hours and 11 minutes was set in May 2008 by French mountaineers Stéphane Brosse and Lionel Bonnel, who combined hiking and skiing on the route.
The trails that the Haute Route follows are well marked, and the topography of the surrounding peaks unmistakable. You can do it on your own, using a guidebook (see Further Reading). But it’s more enjoyable if you hire a guide, particularly if you don’t speak or read French or German. There are many guide services based in Chamonix, Zermatt and the surrounding towns. One of the better-known is run by an American couple, Mark Houston and Cathy Cosley (who retained her maiden name in marriage). They first met in the seventh grade in Seattle, fell in love with the mountains and then with each other. Guiding became their lifestyle, first in the USA and then with international certification, from their home in Les Houches, France, a town down the valley from Chamonix; details on their website at www.cosleyhouston.com.
M. Michael Brady lives in a suburb of Oslo, where he works as a translator. A natural scientist by training, he takes his vacations in France. Dateline: Europe appears monthly in MG.
There are many books on the Haute Route, in English as well is in the languages spoken along it. Two popular paperbacks in English for summertime hiking are:
Chamonix to Zermatt: The Walker’s Haute Route, by British mountaineer and guide Kev Reynolds, London, Cicerone Press, 4th edition 2007. 240 pages, ISBN 978-1852845131, author’s website at www.kevreynolds.co.uk .
The Walker’s Haute Route: Mont Blanc to the Matterhorn, by adventure traveler Alexander Stewart, London, Trailblazer Books, 256 pages, ISBN 978-1905864089; author works for World Expeditionary Association (WEXAS) travel company, www.wexas.com .