Ed Douglas reports on Melchior Anderegg, King of the Guides

Ed Douglas has travelled to the Swiss Alps to celebrate the centenary of Melchior Anderegg’s death. Dubbed ‘The King of the Guides’, Melchior achieved many first Alpine ascents, often escorting British climbers, aristocrats who had begun to travel for adventure. Among his clients was Lucy Walker, the first women to climb the Matterhorn. There is no doubt that the availability of paid work in the mountains encouraged the development of Alpine climbing, and the relationship between tourism and cutting edge Alpinism is a fascinating one. Below is an extract from Ed’s report.

Ed is an enthusiastic amateur climber and mountain traveller, Guardian Columnist and a former editor of the Alpine Journal. Until recently he was the co-opted MHT trustee member of the BMC.

‘Inside the small but perfectly formed local museum, there’s a telegram to his son from the Alpine Club, received in the days following Anderegg’s death on 8 December 1914, just as the dark reality of the Great War was sinking in. It reads: “Alpine Club hear with deepest regret of the death of that most distinguished guide your father.”

Given the telegrams being sent to the families of British soldiers killed in action, it must have felt that alpinism’s Golden Age, which ended with the ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865, had, with Anderegg’s passing, finally slipped from view.

Still, it had been quite a journey. In the modern era, with Switzerland easily accessible with trains to every nook and cranny, it’s hard to conceive that the Alps were once as remote as the wilder corners of the Himalaya. Just as the Sherpas provided local knowledge and heft to pioneer explorers in India and Tibet, so the Alpine guides helped early alpinists realise their dreams.

When Anderegg was born in 1828 just outside Meiringen in the hamlet of Zaun, mountaineering had barely started. His father was a farmer and Melchior’s early years were dominated by traditional mountain activities: tending cattle, cutting and processing timber and hunting chamois. The latter activity, along with crystal hunting, gave Swiss guides the kind of physical skills and self-assurance that translated easily into guiding work.

Melchior, for reasons lost to history, didn’t take over the family farm. Aged 20, he took a job at the Grimsel Pass Inn, now flooded by a reservoir, possibly because his cousin was manager. His early guiding work is also lost, because his first führerbuch, the book in which his guiding jobs were recorded, was stolen.

In 1855, Thomas Hinchcliff, one of the founding members of the Alpine Club, hired Melchior to take him over the Strahlegg Pass and was impressed. He introduced Melchior to his friends, notably Leslie Stephen, author of the mountaineering classic The Playground of Europe, father of the novelist Virginia Woolf, and founding editor of the Dictionary of National Biography. All three men climbed the Wildstrubel together, and in 1859, Stephen and Anderegg climbed the Rimpfischhorn, a major first ascent.

The list of Melchior’s significant new climbs is remarkable: the Grandes Jorasses, with Horace Walker, the Zinalrothorn with Stephen and F Crauford Grove and the Dent d’Hérens, again with Grove and several others. Most impressive of all was the first ascent of Mont Blanc’s Brenva Spur, although it was a good job that his less cautious cousin Jakob was in the lead for the crux ice ridge. Melchior always put safety ahead of success.

Charles Hudson, who died following the first ascent of the Matterhorn, said Melchior was “for difficulties, the best guide I have ever met.” Yet it wasn’t just Melchior’s mountaineering skill that endeared him to his many English friends. Tall and powerful he combined all the advantages of great strength – physical and mental – with a reserved courtesy and consideration for his clients.

William Mathews, the man who proposed the idea of the Alpine Club, said that he never heard Melchior Anderegg utter a word “to which the gentlest woman might not have listened.” Which was lucky, since he regularly guided Lucy Walker, the first woman to climb the Matterhorn.’

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