Simon Brett on Ian Smith, Slightly Foxed Issue 32

The Man Who Climbed the Matterhorn

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I have known three mountaineers, but I feel funny standing on a chair to wind the clock if I have nothing to hold on to. Given my fear of heights, it may seem surprising that, as a teenager, I read mountaineering books. But we read, not least in youth, partly to find out who we are and who we are not. I read about what terrified me – Hunt on Everest, Herzog on Annapurna and, most memorably, bridging the gap from childhood, James Ramsey Ullman. Ullman was an adventure-story writer with an eye for film rights who for several decades was the objective but inspirational voice, in history and in fiction, of mountaineering literature, a field dominated by first-person memoirs. His Banner in the Sky (1954) told the Matterhorn story for children, while The White Tower (1950), a fine Second World War mountaineering novel, wonderfully evokes the space, the weather and the neck-craning heights.

Of course, I would never be a mountaineer. I left mountaineering books and became a wood-engraver, than which there is no more sedentary or desk-bound occupation. The image of mountains and fluttering, broken rope had been in my mind since childhood but I thought I’d left them behind.

However, as I learned the history of my trade, I discovered that Whymper the celebrated nineteenth-century wood-engraver and Whymper the mountaineer, the man who climbed the Matterhorn, were one and the same. The family wood-engraving firm made enough money for this young English artisan to finance trips to the Alps, and later to Greenland and Ecuador. Indeed, it was because he went on a sketching trip to Switzerland that he discovered mountains and thought of climbing them in the first place. His book Scrambles amongst the Alps in the Years 1860–69 (1871) became the most famous mountaineering book of all time; it was also ground-breaking as a piece of book-production in its integration of word and image; and it has hardly been out of print since.

The techno

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About the contributor

Simon Brett is currently illustrating Byron. Though he has lived at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo mountains in New Mexico, he has never seen the Alps.

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