Albert Frederick Mummery, a myopic, stooped tannery owner from Dover, England, with a cheeky wit and a forceful climbing ability, is often credited with writing the manifesto of modern alpinism. “The essence of the sport lies, not in ascending a peak, but in struggling with and overcoming difficulties,” he wrote. In other words: It was the way to the summit, rather than the summit itself, that was important – a radical assertion in the Victorian period.
Mummery had begun his alpine climbing career traditionally enough, employing guides and tackling the famous peaks, but he soon blossomed into a new breed of self-reliant climber by dispensing with their services and setting his sights on new and challenging routes. Mummery’s magnetic personality attracted a talented entourage of climbers, amongst them Norman Collie, Geoffrey Hastings and Cecil Slingsby. In 1891 he almost pulled off the futuristic ascent of the North Face of the Aiguille du Plan, a huge cascade of steep ice which was not climbed for a further 33 years. This epitomized Mummery’s bold style, which may have had something to do with a physical deformity to his spine. It meant he could not carry heavy loads – he simply had to go fast and light. He was also intensely short-sighted, which possibly accounted for his legendary hopelessness at route finding. This seems to have caused him to blunder into ground-breaking technical situations from which he then had to climb his way out.
From 1892 Mummery embarked on a long campaign of difficult rock routes, often accompanied by talented climber Lily Bristow, a good friend of his wife, leading to his famous ironic comment, “All mountains appear doomed to pass through three stages: An inaccessible peak, the most difficult ascent in the Alps, an easy day for a lady.”
Mummery went on to lead the first guideless ascent of the steep Italian side of Mont Blanc and pioneered climbing in the Caucasus and Greater Ranges, engaging the 8,126m beast Nanga Parbat in 1895, the first expedition in recorded history to have attempted one of the Himalaya’s 8000ers. It was here that he disappeared, probably the victim of an avalanche while trying to pioneer a route on its Rakhiot Face. It was a mountain that would go on to earn a fearsome reputation – with 31 men losing their lives on its slopes before a dramatic first ascent by the legendary Austrian alpinist Hermann Buhl. Returning from the summit in 1953, it was Mummery, chief among others, that Buhl praised in his moment of triumph, describing him as “one of the greatest mountaineers of all time.”
This Historical Badass is excerpted from the book Mountain Heroes: Portraits of Adventure, by Huw Lewis-Jones. For more information and to purchase signed copies, See polarworld.co.uk. To follow Lewis-Jones on Twitter check out @Polarworld.
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