The birth of mountaineering, 1802
Who took a broom handle for a walking stick?
The Ledge at the bottom was exceedingly narrow, that if I dropt down upon it I must of necessity have fallen backwards & of course killed myself. My Limbs were all in a tremble…
If I’m not at my desk, I’m generally to be found walking somewhere, preferably in the hills. Walking and climbing in the countryside as leisure activities and ends in themselves – as opposed to being for the necessities of farming, say, or just getting from A to B – only have a clearly documented history back to the 18th century, and I’ve touched on this before. The pioneers in Britain, at least in terms of leaving written accounts, include the precursors and the key names of the Romantic movement.
In fact, what is believed to be the first ever description of a recreational rock climb was written by one of my literary heroes, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834). The first ever use of the word ‘mountaineering’ is also attributed to him by the Oxford English Dictionary and comes from the sequence of letters in which he recorded his adventures.1 These letters describe a nine-day expedition in the Lake District and were sent to Sara Hutchinson (1775–1835) in August 1802. Sara was sister to William Wordsworth’s wife Mary, and Coleridge was obsessed with her, despite having been married himself to another Sara, née Fricker, since 1795. Some of his most well-known poems, including ‘Dejection: An Ode’, were directly addressed to her.
At the beginning of his account, he describes what he took with him (somewhat different to the ultralight backpacking kit of today), including a broomstick he’d nabbed from home, to the annoyance of his wife:
I had a Shirt, cravat, 2 pair of Stockings, a little paper & half a dozen Pens, a German Book (Voss’s Poems) & a little Tea & Sugar, with my Night Cap, packed up in my natty green oil-skin, neatly squared, and put into my net Knapsack / and the Knap-sack on my back & the Besom stick in my hand, which for want of a better, and in spite of Mrs C. & Mary, who both raised their voices against it, especially as I left the Besom scattered on the Kitchen Floor, off I sallied…
It was on Thursday 6th August that he got into a spot of bother on his descent of Scafell (also then known as Scawfell), the second highest peak in England. He described his adventure in a letter written from Eskdale on the following day, and here is most of it.
There is one sort of gambling, to which I am much addicted; and that not of the least criminal kind for a man who has children & a concern. It is this. When I find it convenient to descend from a mountain, I am too confident & too indolent to look round about & wind about ’till I find a track or other symptom of safety; but I wander on, & where it is first possible to descend, there I go—relying upon fortune for how far down this possibility will continue. So it was yesterday afternoon.
I passed down from Broadcrag, skirted the Precipices, and found myself cut off from a most sublime Crag-summit [this is Scafell Pike – see below], that seemed to rival Sca’ Fell Man in height, & to outdo it in fierceness. A Ridge of Hill lay low down, & divided this Crag (called Doe-crag) & Broad-crag—even as the Hyphen divides the words broad & crag. I determined to go thither; the first place I came to, that was not direct Rock, I slipped down, & went on for a while with tolerable ease—but now I came (it was midway down) to a smooth perpendicular Rock about 7 feet high—this was nothing—I put my hands on the Ledge, & dropped down. In a few yards came just such another – I dropped that too, and yet another, seemed not higher—I would not stand for a trifle so I dropped that too but the stretching of the muscle[s] of my hands & arms, & the jolt of the Fall on my Feet, put my whole Limbs in a Tremble, and I paused, & looking down, saw that I had little else to encounter but a succession of these little Precipices—it was in truth a Path that in a very hard Rain is, no doubt, the channel of a most splendid Waterfall.
So I began to suspect that I ought not to go on but then unfortunately tho’ I could with ease drop down a smooth Rock 7 feet high, I could not climb it so go on I must and on I went — the next 3 drops were not half a Foot, at least not a foot more than my own height but every Drop increased the Palsy of my Limbs—I shook all over, Heaven knows without the least influence of Fear. And now I had only two more to drop down—to return was impossible—but of these two the first was tremendous—it was twice my own height, & the Ledge at the bottom was exceedingly narrow, that if I dropt down upon it I must of necessity have fallen backwards & of course killed myself. My Limbs were all in a tremble—I lay upon my Back to rest myself, & was beginning according to my Custom to laugh at myself for a Madman, when the sight of the Crags above me on each side, & the impestuous Clouds just over them, posting so luridly & so rapidly northward, overawed me.
I lay in a state of almost prophetic Trance & Delight—& blessed God aloud, for the powers of Reason & of the Will, which remaining no Danger can overpower us! O God, I exclaimed aloud—how calm, how blessed am I now. I know not how to proceed, how to return but if I am calm & fearless & confident—if this Reality were a Dream, if I were asleep, what agonies had I suffered! what screams!—When the Reason & the Will are away, what remain to us but Darkness & Dimness & a bewildering shame, and Pain that is utterly Lord over us, or fantastic Pleasure, that draws the Soul along swimming through the air in many shapes, even as a Flight of Starlings in a Wind.
I arose, & looking down saw at the bottom a heap of Stones—which had fallen abroad—and rendered the narrow Ledge on which they had been piled, doubly dangerous. At the bottom of the third Rock that I dropt from, I met a dead Sheep quite rotten—This heap of Stones, I guessed, & have since found that I guessed aright, had been piled up by the Shepherd to enable him to climb up & free the poor creature whom he had observed to be crag-fast—but seeing nothing but rock over rock, he had desisted & gone for help—& in the mean time the poor creature had fallen down & killed itself.
As I was looking at these I glanced my eye to my left, & observed that the Rock was rent from top to bottom—I measured the breadth of the Rent, and found that there was no danger of my being wedged in, so I put my Knap-sack round to my side, & slipped down as between two walls, without any danger or difficulty—the next Drop brought me down on the Ridge called the How. I hunted out my Besom Stick, which I had flung before me when I first came to the Rocks—and wisely gave over all thoughts of ascending Doe-Crag—for now the Clouds were again coming in most tumultously—so I began to descend, when I felt an odd sensation across my whole Breast—not pain nor itching—& putting my hand on it I found it all bumpy—and on looking saw the whole of my Breast from my Neck & exactly all that my Kamell-hair Breast-shield covers, filled with great red heat-bumps, so thick that no hair could lie between them. They still remain but are evidently less—& I have no doubt will wholly disappear in a few Days. It was however a startling proof to me of the violent exertions which I had made.
I descended this low Hill which was all hollow beneath me—and was like the rough green Quilt of a Bed of waters—at length two streams burst out & took their way down, one on [one] side a high Ground upon this Ridge, the other on the other—I took that to my right (having on my left this high Ground, & the other Stream, & beyond that Doe-crag, on the other side of which is Esk Halse, where the head-spring of the Esk rises, & running down the Hill & in upon the Vale [Eskdale] looks and actually deceived me, as a great Turnpike Road—in which, as in many other respects the Head of Eskdale much resembles Langdale—& soon the channel sank all at once, at least 40 yards, & formed a magnificent Waterfall—and close under this a succession of Waterfalls 7 in number, the third of which is nearly as high as the first. When I had almost reached the bottom of the Hill, I stood so as to command the whole 8 Waterfalls, with the great triangle-Crag looking in above them, & on the one side of them the enormous & more than perpendicular Precipices & Bull’s Brows of Sca’ Fell! And now the Thunder-Storm was coming on, again & again!
… I found an imperfect Shelter from a Thunder-shower—accompanied with such Echoes! O God! what thoughts were mine! O how I wishes for Health & Strength that I might wander about for a Month together, in the stormiest month of the year, among these Places, so lonely & savage & full of sounds!
After the Thunder-storm I shouted out all your names in the Sheep-fold—when Echo came upon Echo…
On the subject of Scafell Pike – England’s highest peak – we happen to have a description of a climb there by another key Romantic figure, Dorothy Wordsworth (William’s sister), recorded in her journal in 1818 – and then plagiarised by her own brother in his own famed guidebook to the Lakes! You can read it here – and in fact next week I’ll take a brief look at another instance of how Dorothy perhaps inspired her brother.