Exploration of the High Alps

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The higher region of the Alps were long left to the exclusive attention of the inhabitants of the adjoining valleys, even when Alpine travellers (as distinguished from Alpine climbers) began to visit these valleys. It is reckoned that about 20 glacier passes were certainly known before 1600, about 25 more before 1700, and yet another 20 before 1800; but though the attempt of P.A. Arnod (an official of the duchy of Aosta) in 1689 to "re-open" the Col du Ceant may be counted as made by a non-native, historical records do not show any further such activities until the last quarter of the 18th century. Nor did it fare much better with the high peaks, though the two earliest recorded ascents were due to non-natives, that of the Rocciamelone in 1358 having been undertaken in fulfilment of a vow, and that of the Mont Aiguille in 1492 by order of Charles VIII of France, in order to destroy its immense reputation for inaccessibility – in 1555 Conrad Gesner did not climb Pilatus proper, but only the grassy mound of the Gnepfstein, the lowest and the most westerly of the seven summits.


Early 19th century

The first men who really systematically explored the regions of ice and snow were Horace-Bénédict de Saussure (1740–1799), [1] as regards the Pennine Alps, and the Benedictine monk of Disentis, Placidus a Spescha (1752–1833), (most of whose ascents were made before 1806), in the valleys at the sources of the Rhine. In the early 19th century the Meyer family of Aarau conquered in person the Jungfrau (1811) and by deputy the Finsteraarhorn (1812), besides opening several glacier passes, their energy being entirely confined to the Bernese Oberland. Their pioneer work was continued in that district, as well as others, by a number of Swiss, pre-eminent among whom were Gottlieb Samuel Studer (1804–1890) of Bern, and Edouard Desor (1811–1882) of Neuchâtel. The first-known English climber in the Alps was Colonel Mark Beaufoy (1764–1827), who in 1787 made an ascent (the fourth) of Mont Blanc, a mountain to which his fellow-countrymen long exclusively devoted themselves, with a few noteworthy exceptions, such as Principal J.D. Forbes (1809–1868), A. T. Malkin (1803–1888), John Ball (1818–1889), and Sir Alfred Wills (1828–1912).

In the Eastern Alps the serious exploration began with the first ascent of the Großglockner in 1800, initiated by Franz-Xaver Salm-Raifferscheid, archbishop of Gurk. Around Monte Rosa, the Vincent family, Josef Zumstein (1783–1861), and Giovanni Gnifetti (1801–1867) did good work during the half century between 1778 and 1842, while in the Eastern Alps the Archduke John (1782–1850), Prince F. J. C. von Schwarzenberg, archbishop of Salzburg (1809–1885), Valentine Stanig (1774–1847), Adolf Schaubach (1800–1850), above all, P.J. Thurwieser (1789–1865), deserve to be recalled as pioneers in the first half of the 19th century.

Late 19th century

In the early fifties of the 19th century the taste for mountaineering rapidly developed for several very different reasons: A great stimulus was given to it by the foundation of the various Alpine clubs, each of which drew together the climbers who dwelt in the same country. The first was the English Alpine Club (founded in the winter of 1857–1858), followed in 1862 by the Austrian Alpine Club (which in 1873 was fused, under the name of the German and Austrian Alpine Club, with the German Alpine Club, founded in 1869), in 1863 by the Italian and Swiss Alpine Clubs, and in 1874 by the French Alpine Club, not to mention numerous minor societies of more local character. It was by the members of these clubs (and a few others) that the minute exploration (now all but complete) of the High Alps was carried out, while much has been done in the way of building club huts, organizing and training guides, &c., to smooth the way for later comers, who would benefit by the detailed information published in the periodicals (the first dates from 1863 only) issued by these clubs.

First ascents of major peaks

The following two sub-joined lists give the dates of the first ascent of the greater peaks. apart from the two climbed in 1358 and in 1402 (see above).

Before 1858


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  1. "Chamonix: History of Alpinism". www.chamonix.net. Retrieved 17 November 2015.