If you are in the Scottish hills one winter’s day and you see a Victorian climber step cutting his way up an ice gully don’t panic, you’re not seeing a ghost and haven’t inadvertently walked into a glen lost in the mists of time. It’s just Alex Roddie, mountaineer, author and Victorian climbing enthusiast reliving one of the great climbs of yester year.
This is a cyber-interview with Alex. As a fellow outdoors writer I’m always keen to explore new talent and in this conversation Alex talks about his unique fictional take on the Golden Era of mountaineering.
How did you become interested in Victorian Mountaineers?
I read “The White Spider” by Heinrich Harrer – the classic account of the first ascent of the North Face of the Eiger in 1938. This remarkable book, while not quite touching on the Victorian period, ignited my interest in the history of climbing and helped me realise what an enormous depth of culture and heritage underpins the modern world of mountaineering.
From that point on I devoured every book I could find on the history of climbing, gradually going backwards in time but with a strong focus on the 1860s – 1910s. More recently my research has tended towards the 1790s – 1840s. I’ve studied the 1940s and 1950s to a lesser extent, notably the works of W.H. Murray, but this period doesn’t hold my interest to such an extent largely because the climbing world was starting to come under the sway of modernisation and the earlier romantic ideals were waning. The 19th century pioneers left a huge legacy of written work behind them, and we’re lucky to be able to dive effortlessly into their world from the distant perspective of the 21st century.
What made you think it would be a good subject for fiction?
It’s almost the perfect subject! The early years of mountaineering have everything you could possibly require for a good story: larger-than-life characters, tales of heroism, sublime triumphs galore, a grand backdrop of natural splendour, and of course numerous examples of grisly tragedy. Conflict, the lifeblood of every story, is in abundant supply. There are obvious heroes and villains and characters of every possible shade of grey in between.
Perhaps most importantly, the story of mountaineering has an overarching narrative of almost inconceivably epic scale. What other human endeavour, other than the process of industrialisation itself, has a history stretching from the late 18th century to the present day without pause?
What drew you to Jones?
I first came across Owen Glynne Jones in the pages of “The Mountain Men” by Alan Hankinson. This excellent book is a summary of the history of rock climbing in North Wales, and in that narrative the name of Jones stands head and shoulders above all the others.
Jones is a complex person and I think it took me several years (and at least two drafts of my novel) to fully understand him. In some respects he is one of the first modern, 20th century climbers, although he did not live to see the dawn of that century; in other respects he is typical of his era. For me Jones came to represent the winds of change that were blowing through the tiny mountaineering community in Great Britain during the 1890s.
Jones is not cautious or traditional in outlook like most climbers of his era. He doesn’t stick to the old fashioned routes; he frequently climbs alone and in terrible weather; he uses techniques considered cheating at the time, such as top roping; he is irresistibly drawn to the exceptionally severe climbs that have no purpose or function but to be difficult in their own right. He is often described himself as a “rock gymnast”, which I think sums up his disruptive personality in a world of mountaineers who usually sought out the easiest route to the summit. He didn’t quite fit in, but his career was meteoric.
What do you think are the main differences between climbing then and now?
Like many other aspects of life, I think the primary difference between climbing in the late 19th century and the early 21st century is *information*.
Techniques and equipment have changed beyond comparison, but these changes have largely been made for three reasons: to improve safety, comfort, or efficiency. These innovations could not have happened without the knowledge and experience built up over generations of mountaineers. The history of mountaineering is a pyramid built on a vast foundation of knowledge, passed down from climber to climber since the dawn of our sport. We have gradually learned how to travel safely on snow, how to avoid avalanches, how to safeguard a rock face; we have built up the confidence to tackle harder and harder routes, emboldened by the achievements of our forebears.
In the early 21st century we have limitless quantities of information at our instant command: detailed guidebooks, web forums, conditions reports, maps. In the 1890s they had nothing of the sort beyond early OS maps and the very first guidebooks which were beginning to emerge – largely thanks to the pioneering efforts of O.G. Jones.
Today, the climber stands on the shoulders of generations of giants. In the 1890s, rock climbing in the UK was an intrinsically heroic endeavour (in much the same way that Alpine mountaineering was intrinsically heroic in the 1850s).
Do you think it was a Golden age?
Absolutely. For the British mountains, the 1890s – 1910s was a period in which most of our cliffs were unexplored, and yet (for those who had the inclination) climbing was within the means of most middle class people. The revolution in working class climbing came later, and I don’t think the sport became truly egalitarian until the 1930s – 1970s. Standards have improved since then, but the bulk of the exploration has already been done. Our mountains are documented to within an inch of their lives and adventure, by its old definition, becomes more difficult to find.
On the other hand, I am a great believer in the idea that every generation has its own heroes, final frontiers, and great adventures. It’s still possible to climb new routes of quality in the UK to this day and have a good old fashioned adventure away from the crowds – if that’s what you want. Like everything else, the sport of mountaineering is in constant evolution and I certainly don’t think we should constantly be looking to the past or wishing we could turn back the clocks.
What do you plan to do in the future?
At the moment I’m focusing on the late 1840s, a period when the Alps were on the very cusp of their own Golden Age – and mountaineering in Scotland was in its prehistory. I am currently working on two projects, the first of which I hope to release by the end of the summer.
*The Forbes Challenge* is set in the Cairngorms in 1847. Professor James Forbes, the man who wrote the book on Alpine glaciers five years previously, suffers from chronic illness and is supposed to be convalescing at his summer retreat in Strathtay. When one of his former students appears exhausted at his door, telling stories of murderous ghillies and a lost glacier in the heart of the Cairngorms, he can’t resist the chance for another adventure. However, he soon finds himself up against the failings of his own health and the Duke of Atholl’s men, determined to find the trespasser and punish him. Will Forbes discover the rumoured glacier of Bràigh Riabhach, or will his failing health finally catch up with him?
*Alpine Dawn* resumes the story six months after the events of *The Forbes Challenge*. The central character to this piece is Thomas Kingsley, an unemployed journalist living a debt-fuelled lifestyle in Victorian London. He is the least likely champion for the cause of Alpine mountaineering imaginable, and yet in this book I hope to depict an alternative vision of how the Golden Age of Alpine exploration may have begun under slightly different circumstances!
Where would you like your writing to take you in the next ten years?
I doubt I will exhaust the possibilities offered by mountaineering any time soon, but as I develop as a writer I find that I am becoming more and more drawn to the broader context surrounding mountaineering at any given time. My new projects are less easily classifiable as “climbing fiction” and more clearly historical fiction inspired by mountain heritage and culture.
How have people responded to your work?
I’m very fortunate to have received a large number of five star reviews for “The Only Genuine Jones”, and I’m glad to say that the response has been almost universally positive. Given the changes I have made to history in my book I was worried that it might be a “Marmite story”, but to date I’ve only heard negative feedback from one reader … and, after all, it’s never going to be possible to please everyone!
“The Only Genuine Jones” on Kindle or in paperback: http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Only-Genuine-Jones-ebook/dp/B009R2BBN2
Or visit http://www.alexroddie.com/