One of the most important mountaineering biographies to have been published in recent years gives a unique insight into the mind of a Victorian alpinist
The Ascent of John Tyndall
by Roland Jackson
Published 22 March 2018 by Oxford University Press
Review by Alex Roddie
The Golden Age of Alpinism: what does that phrase mean to you? Perilous deeds on unclimbed peaks, substandard equipment, superstitious guides, the rope that broke, Whymper’s arrogance, crevasses and lightning. It’s a period that has passed into the mythology of mountaineering. For a decade or so, from roughly the 1850s to 1860s, romanticism and the Victorian spirit of progress combined to create an irresistible cocktail as the main 4,000m peaks of the Alps were climbed for the first time.
There were surprisingly few actors in this drama: mostly British and Irish mountaineers, wealthy, and often with scientific backgrounds (it took a while before the joy of climbing became seen as a valid reason in its own right to climb mountains). One of these figures was John Tyndall.
In 1868, Tyndall was in the team to first traverse the summit via the Lion and Hörnli ridges, a stunning achievement for a period when the Hörnli Ridge was still mired by superstitious dread
Today, Tyndall’s name means different things to different people, but his reputation has suffered from relative obscurity. He was a pioneering 19th-century scientist who made breakthroughs on radiant heat and the physical properties of air, and was the first to explain the physics of what is now known as the Greenhouse Effect. He also succeeded in explaining why the sky is blue.
Tyndall was a pioneering glaciologist who often clashed with his peers on theories regarding the movement of glaciers. But to outdoor enthusiasts and Alpine historians, Tyndall is primarily known as the first climber to reach the summit of the Weisshorn in 1861, one of the greatest peaks of the Alps. He was one of the earliest climbers to court that dangerous mistress, the Matterhorn – he first attempted the mountain in 1860, and a shoulder on the Matterhorn is named Pic Tyndall to this day in his honour. In 1868, Tyndall was in the team to first traverse the summit via the Lion and Hörnli ridges, a stunning achievement for a period when the Hörnli Ridge was still mired by superstitious dread following the 1865 Matterhorn catastrophe in which four climbers famously fell to their deaths on the descent.
Roland Jackson’s biography of John Tyndall is not only a tour de force of scholarship, it’s also an eminently readable book that animates Tyndall as a living character on the page. It does not dwell exclusively on either his scientific or climbing life, but treats each as part of the whole – because you can’t understand Tyndall the mountaineer without understanding Tyndall the scientist and Tyndall the man. As a scientist, he was obsessive, driven, focused, and quite happy to stand his ground against aggressors such as James Forbes, an early pioneer in glaciology who resented what he saw as an attack against his own work. Tyndall’s complex romantic entanglements are painted in great detail and help to illustrate a man who often seems surprisingly immature in his personal life, driven by adolescent impulses and not quite able to appreciate women as thinking beings.
But outdoor enthusiasts will be particularly interested in the chapters on climbing. Tyndall’s correspondence and other writings are analysed and quoted to produce a unique insight into one of the greatest Alpine pioneers of the 19th century. This is by no means the first biography of John Tyndall – the first was published in 1945 – but this goes much deeper and brings the character to vivid life. It’s a magnificent piece of work and a must-read for every scholar of Alpine history.
The Ascent of John Tyndall (Oxford University Press, £25)