THE BIRTH OF ALPINISM
The English Alpine Club began in 1857
This new ‘Gentleman’s Club,’ formed by a few wealthy young men in London caused immediate interest in the Alps of Switzerland. Twenty-seven year old Leslie Stephen became one of the charter members. Having finished Cambridge, he immediately followed his ambition to conquer many Swiss glacier-laden mountains. Stephen was one of the most prominent figures in the Golden Age of Alpinism (the period between 1857 and 1875). During this time many major alpine peaks saw their first ascents. Stephen made nine of these in thirteen years. From the summits of his first ascent in 1858 of the three peaked Wildstrubel, he could see the majestic Bietschhorn, and decided it would be his next conquest.
150th Anniversary Celebrated in Lötschental Valley of Switzerland
Since the closed Lötschental Valley had no entrance until 1924, Stephen had to cross a mountain pass from Kandersteg to find the majestic 12,907 ft Bietschhorn in August, 1859. On August 13, he made his climb in twelve hours led by three Lötschental guides with very little and inadequate equipment. The re-enactment of this First Ascent took place August 13, 2009, 150 years later, with a week long festival.
For the Anniversary, the Lötschental provideded guides to all of the thirty-two participants who wanted them, as they had furnished the three original guides to Stephen. By climbing three hours and staying at the Bietschhorn Hut (8,416 ft) the night of August 12, 2009, twenty-five climbers set out at 3:00 am to scale the West and South faces. These two different routes from the Hut gave choices, one more rock and one more glacier. The last person from the Hut arrived at the summit at 9:20 am.
Seven approached the mountain from the southern slope’s town of Ausserberg, staying at the Wiwannihütte (8,107 ft) on the 12th. Their scaling of the sheer rock faces on the North face called for more roping together, axes, picks and crampons. They arrived together on top by 9:40 am.
Current English Alpine Club Members Participate
Gus Morton and Dave Wynne-Jones from the English Alpine Club joined the climb, honoring their early member who made that First Ascent. An interesting aspect of this Club is that to be a member, one must have climbed at least twenty of the over 12,000 ft mountains of the club’s worldly list. These two had never met until the day before the climb, but because of the Club’s precise records, (Gus had climbed over sixty-one of the peaks and Dave twenty more than that), they were familiar enough with each other’s achievements and expertise resulting in complete trust of each other. They went on the Bietschhorn together with no guide. Neither had climbed in the Lötschental before. Their comments as they arrived back in Ried at 5:45 pm: “Spectacular!” Later in the evening when asked how they felt about the Bietschhorn, both agreed with respect, “It is a hard mountain!” When pursued on the difficulty, they concluded, “the loose rock” as they had encountered a rock slide and had to change their route at one point.
Gus mentioned at the banquet, that sometimes with that many climbers, it can become crowded causing a few problems, but this group created such a friendly, comradely atmosphere, it became a pleasure to be on the same mountain with them. The only time different that space became a problem was when all gathered on the small summit for the special mass at 10:00 am. That proved to be very crowded and a safe square to stand without the backpack hitting someone else was scarce.
Lötschental Mountain Guiding Was Born 150 Years Ago
Brothers Johann and Anton Siegen from Ried and their nephew Josef Ebener were the original guides for Stephen, whose story about his conquest created a keen interest for Englishmen to take part in the new sport of mountaineering in Switzerland. This popularity for climbing caused other Lötschentalers and many Swiss to become guides.
Due to difficult access, there were limited family names in the Lötschental. A monument in the village of Blatten lists the forty-four Lötschental’s courageous mountain guides who have lived and died, but with only fifteen different last names. The Siegen family had three, four with Ritler, seven with Rubin, four with Bellwald, seven with Kalbermatten, eight with Henzen and three with Lehner. If the list included the names of the current living guides who guided in August, 2009, even more of these same family names would make the counts higher. Some have died climbing, but most lived to be an old age of between seventy and ninety-four, with Stefan Kalbermatten, one of the early guides, living to be one hundred. The last one died on the Bietschhorn in 2006 – a master climber, Christoph Lehner, not from a fall, but a heart attack. With his backpack still on, he sat down 100 yards from the summit and died. He had climbed this mountain over fifty times in his life. A beautiful ending for a dedicated guide! Another twist to this is that Christoph was taking a note and bottle of Schnapps to leave at the summit for his guide friends. His nephews, both guides, took the items up for him in August, 2008. Swiss TV filmed this event.
These valley guides offer their services for many other mountains in the area. Just in the Lötschental alone, there are these: the Breithorn at 12,418 ft, the Nesthorn at 12,540 ft, the Petersgrat Glacier at 10,509 ft, the Wilerhorn at 10.850 ft, the Balmhorn at 12,133 ft and the Hochenhorn at 10,804 ft. All can be climbed from the same hotel stay. Built in 1868 for the mountaineers, the Nest and Bietschhorn Hotel in Ried, continues to be the temporary home of climbers. Stephen did stay there in 1871 and 1873 and it was the center of the 150th anniversary party in August, 2009. Leslie Stephen’s statue dressed the way he climbed the mountain in 1859, with starched white shirt with collar and cuffs, greets everyone daily as they enter the dining room.
One of Switzerland’s best-kept secrets is the Lötschental…a pristine valley in the south-central Valais. Its many peaks of the Bernese Oberland Alps line the south and north rims, with the Beitschhorn being the highest. At the Lötschental’s train stop, Goppenstein, the valley entrance begins through a road tunnel. The narrow, dead-end road follows the churning Lonza river through five tiny, picturesque villages, affording views of as many as nine glaciers, some deep blue. Largest of these is the enormous Langgletscher blocking the canyon’s east end. This glacier is connected to Europe’s largest, Grosser Aletschgletscher, which starts at the top of the Jungfrau and empties into the Rhone River east of the town of Brig. From the top of the Aletschgletscher into the Lötschental and down to bottom of the Long Glacier can be done as a ski/climb, which is gaining in popularity in Europe.
Even UNESCO has realized the beauty of this delicate valley. The Jungfrau–Aletsch-Bietschhorn area is the most glaciated area in the Swiss Alps and was declared a Natural World Heritage Site by decision of UNESCO on December 13, 2001, including southern and eastern parts of the Lötschental.
Equipment & Guides:
CH-3918 Willer, VS, Switzerland
Tel: +41 (0) 27 939 1584 or +41 (0) 27 939 2300
More about Leslie Stephen:
Sir Stephen was an English author, critic and scholar, but he loved to climb mountains. He made nine First Ascents in his life between 1858 and 1871. Because of his writings of these events, he opened the ‘Golden Age of Alpinism,’ causing many others to follow his foot steps and introducing the occupation of being a Mountain Guide. He was President of the English Alpine Club from 1865–1868 and made these seven important first ascents in Switzerland listed below:
- Rimpfischhorn – September 9,1859
- Alphubel – August 9, 1860
- Blüemlisalphorn – August 27, 1860
- Schreckhorn – August 16, 1861
- Monte Disgrazia – August 23, 1862
- Zinalrothorn – August 22, 1864
- Mont Mallet – September 4, 1871
Patda Jim is an author and journalist; lived in nine countries and has visited one hundred and eighty-one. Her quest is always to find something special to interest her readers in. She lives in Lakewood Ranch, Florida