Most of England has no mountains; East Anglia has only gently rolling hills, and consequently the climbing of mountains has not featured greatly in my life. I have seen Ben Nevis from a train on the way to Fort William, and only last year I went through the Canadian Rockies in a car from Calgary. I have even been by coach through the St Gotthard Pass in the Swiss Alps, in the days before it was penetrated by a road tunnel. I am therefore familiar with mountainous terrain; but I have only ascended one mountain by foot, and that was many years ago. At 950 metres it was the third highest peak in England, Helvellyn. (I have also been to the top of the highest mountain in Wales, Mount Snowdon, but that was on the rack railway.) Walking along Striding Edge as the mist swirled around far below was an exciting experience. Striding Edge is quite a dangerous bit of walking, and occasionally people are killed falling off the ridge. Nevertheless the whole mountain path up Helvellyn can be done by hill walkers, and it requires no climbing gear. At least I have gone to the top of a mountain, and I am sure that this is something that most of my fellow East Anglians cannot claim to have done.
So I was never a great mountaineer; but I was a great enthusiast for mountaineering literature. I still have a bibliography of mountaineering books, although it is now very out of date. The most impressive book must be Edward Whymper’s account of the first ascent of the Matterhorn. This great achievement ended in tragedy; four of his companions were killed on the way down. This pyramid-shaped mountain rises steeply above the alps and looks all but unassailable. It was only conquered in 1865. This was long after Mont Blanc was first ascended, in 1786. Although it is the highest peak in the Alps Mont Blanc is a much easier climb. It was even climbed by a dog in the early nineteenth century. The animal made the ascent with human companions, but unaided. Today over 20,000 tourists make it to the summit every year.
The conquest of Mont Blanc marked the beginning of the modern mountaineering age. Before the eighteenth century mountains were not regarded as objects of beauty and grandeur; they were places of terror and brooding menace. Even the much smaller mountains in England were ignored by travellers when they were not positively dreaded; the most that can be said it that such places were looked on with awe. Scafell, this country’s second highest peak, was not climbed until 1802, when the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge was the first person known to have reached the summit. (Some anonymous shepherd may have ventured up looking for lost sheep years before that.) Coleridge set out on a nine-day expedition alone, and with no encouragement from his wife – quite the opposite. Among the necessities he took with him in an improvised oilskin knapsack were a cravat, a night-cap and a set of quill pens. To assist him in his climb he took as a stick the handle of a broom from the hall cupboard. His perilous descent from Scafell seemed to be leading him to certain death, but the prospect only made him marvel at the sublimity of his situation. The letter he wrote on his return to civilisation must count as one of the earliest works of mountaineering literature.
My reading made me quite an expert on the delights and perils of mountaineering, all from the safety of my armchair. You might think I had a corresponding longing to climb another mountain, but this thought never entered my head. It was the great writing that inspired me.