Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Early Victorian Mountaineering and the Search for Scientific Knowledge

Victorians came to the Alps for many and varied reasons; but in the first two decades of Victoria's long reign, whatever the reasons might be, sensible English men and women felt obliged to justify what must have seemed to many a foolhardy and futile activity. In the main, this was done by linking it to exploration; the search for knowledge that seemed to obsess so many of the Victorian middle and upper classes. These inquiries were not confined to scientific knowledge, however, for if the world was infinitely explorable, so too was the nature of man; and religion was as great an impulse to the search for knowledge as was scientific curiosity.

The earliest mountaineers would not have thought of climbing without the encumbrance of scientific paraphenalia, particularly barometers, thermometers and theodolites. Imbued as they were with the Victorian middle-class work ethic, the scientists, amateur or professional, would have seen climbing for the sheer joy of the sport as a kind of moral failure. Pleasure could only be a by-product of the eternal search for knowledge.

Two of the greatest mountaineers of this early period were the scientists James D. Forbes and his great adversary, John Tyndall. Both saw the mountains as their laboratory and it was the scientific study of glaciers that brought both men to the Alps. Yet both were captured by the spell of the mountains albeit in different ways and at different times. For Forbes, the pleasure he experienced was "a satisfaction and freedom from restraint" which would "dispel anxiety and invite to sustained exertion." Tyndall, whose theories were diametrically opposed to those of Forbes, nonetheless shared his predecessor's pleasure in the Alps, writing that they "appealed at once to thought and feeling, offering their problems to one and their grandeur to the other, while conferring upon the body the soundness and the purity necessary to the healthful exercise of both."

Both Forbes and Tyndall fell under the sway of the great peaks in precisely the way those who came for religious reasons, or for the sake of personal challenge, did. Once captured, science provided the justification for their climbing. The age was one of scientific and technological advances. It was one of careful scrutiny, cataloguing and measurement, and men like Forbes and Tyndall extended those passions to the mountains. Both tried to encourage scientific pursuits among Alpinists and Forbes, in his later years, often bemoaned the fact that the idea of adventure in mountaineering was gradually displacing the values of science.

Certainly pursuit of the scientific cannot explain Tyndall's solitary ascent of Monte Rosa. He later described how awakening one morning in mid-August of 1858, "the unspeakable beauty of the morning filled [me] with a longing to see the world from the top of Monte Rosa." It was the man of passion, not the man of science, who set out that morning. Whether it was the need to pit himself alone against the elements or whether it was a whim from which, once committed, Tyndall would not turn back is less important than the evidence of his passion for the mountains which clearly transcended the search for scientific knowledge.

The age of scientific climbing received its coup-de-grace at the hands of Leslie Stephen at a meeting of the Alpine Club in 1862. That evening he described his imaginary ascent of the Ober Gabelhorn.

And what philosophical observations did you make? will be the inquiry of one of those fanatics who, by a reasoning process to me uterly inscrutable, have shomehow irrevocably associated alpine tgravellng with science. To them I answer that the temperature was approximately (I had no thermometer) 212 degrees (Fahrenheit) below freezing point. As for ozone, if any existed in the atmosphere, it was a greater fool than I take it for. As we had, unluckily, no barometer, I am unable to give the usual information as to the extent of our deviation from the correct altitude, but the federal map fixes the height at 13,855 feet.

Tyndall, feeling the Ober Gabelhorn speech a personal attack, walked out, resigning shortly thereafter. Yet the speech had some very real value, freeing mountaineering fom the death grip of science and allowing it to stand as a sport on its own. After Stephen's speech, scientists might climb mountains, but mountain climbers no longer felt compelled to play at science.

For some wonderful nineteenth century photographs of Alpinists in the collection of the Alpine Club click here.

No comments: