Exploration of the High Alps

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The higher region of the Alps were long left to the exclusive attention of the men 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 Rochemelon 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 two first men who really systematically explored the regions of ice and snow were Horace-Bénédict de Saussure (1740-1799), 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.

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