BERN, Switzerland — Alpinism, named after the European mountain range where its climbing traditions took hold, won recognition on Wednesday from UNESCO as a celebrated pursuit with an “intangible” cultural heritage worthy of safeguarding.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization agreed to put alpinism on its global list of traditions that require urgent measures to keep alive. The protection was sought by Alpine communities in France, Italy and Switzerland with long mountain guiding traditions.
Though enthusiasm for alpinism does not appear to be in any danger of dying out, the pursuit itself is threatened by melting glaciers and permafrost, irregular snowfall, and other changes tied to global warming.
Benefits of UNESCO protection include an internationally agreed upon definition to avoid misuse of the term, additional means of promotion and more “engagement” by concerned nations to support alpinism, according to the International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation, or UIAA, based in the Swiss capital Bern.
Paris-based UNESCO noted that alpinism involves physical, technical and intellectual abilities, and the use of specific techniques, tools and gear, such as climbing ropes, carabiners, ice axes and crampons.
“Alpinism is a traditional, physical practice, characterized by a shared culture made up of knowledge of the high mountain environment, the history of the practice and associated values, and specific skills,” the U.N. agency said in a statement.
It was one of a number of cultural traditions added to UNESCO’S “intangible” heritage list during the annual meeting of an intergovernmental cultural panel in Colombia’s 2,640-meter-high capital, Bogotá, this week.
UNESCO noted that alpinism today “is also based on aesthetic aspects: alpinists strive for elegant climbing motions, contemplation of the landscape, and harmony with the natural environment. The practice mobilizes ethical principles based on each individual’s commitment, such as leaving no lasting traces behind, and assuming the duty to provide assistance among practitioners.”
Another essential part of the alpinist mindset is a team spirit, the U.N. agency observed, as represented by the rope that often connects climbers — though some leading alpinists, such as Americans Colin Haley and Jim Reynolds, are known for soloing, sometimes unroped. The late Swiss phenomenon Ueli Steck blew people’s minds with his pioneering speed and solo ascents, often unroped, on many of the biggest alpine challenges.
The first known technical climb occurred in June 1492 on France’s Mont Aiguille, a striking 2,072-meter limestone mesa sometimes called Mount Olympus of Dauphiné. King Charles VIII of France saw it during a pilgrimage and heard flying angels protected it. He ordered a military engineer, Antoine de Ville, to make the first ascent with 10 companions, ropes and ladders.
They spent six days on the summit where they built a hut and found “no divinities but only a charming meadow covered with flowers,” J. Monroe Thorington, an American opthamologist, mountaineer and historian, wrote in the 1965 American Alpine Journal.
The history of modern alpinism is closely linked to the rise of tourism, exploration and scientific studies. Centuries before indoor gyms turned into the favored gateway to climbing, farmers became guides in the Alps to earn a living from well-heeled foreign tourists, explorers and scientists.
Later, guiding became a highly prestigious and well-regulated profession around Europe, and adventurous young climbers sought to explore the outdoors and challenge themselves by climbing in the Alps. Many climbers now belong to alpine clubs that offer support, spread knowledge and preserve traditions.
L'#Alpinisme inscrit sur la Liste représentative du #PatrimoineCulturel immatériel #PCI de l'humanité de l'#UNESCO: découvrez le film ⬇️. #LivingHeritage #PatrimoineVivant @ClubAlpinSuisse @AlpinesMuseum @CulturaCHhttps://t.co/Mdj5wnBFqe via @YouTube
— UNESCO Switzerland🇨🇭 (@UNESCO_ch) December 12, 2019
The alpine ‘natural playground’
In many mountain communities, farmers and other locals had long feared the heights were possessed by spirits. But with the Age of Enlightenment philosophers laying the groundwork for reason and empiricism, more people looked at the Alps’ natural wonder as a place to explore.
English explorers William Windham and Richard Pocock ventured to Chamonix, France, now a global epicenter of alpine climbing, in 1741 and wandered around the glaciers extending from the north side of the Mont Blanc massif.
In 1760, Geneva naturalist Horace Bénédict de Saussure offered a reward to anyone who could climb Mont Blanc. Two local mountaineers — crystal hunter Jacques Balmat and Chamonix doctor Michel-Gabriel Paccard — laid claim to the prize after summiting Mont Blanc on August 8, 1786. A year later, Balmat returned to lead de Saussure and more than a dozen others to its top.
La Compagnie des guides de Chamonix, the world’s oldest mountain guiding outfit, was launched in 1821 after an accident on Mont Blanc killed three guides. Rail travel grew in Western Europe over the next several decades, bringing wealthy tourists to the Alps in the mid-19th century — the “golden age” of mountaineering first ascents.
The U.K.’s Thomas Cook organized the first package tour to Switzerland in 1863. The tragic first ascent of the Matterhorn on July 14, 1865, which killed four climbers but was survived by father-son Zermatt mountain guides Peter Taugwalder Senior and Junior and British alpinist Edward Whymper, captured the world’s imagination. They beat out Italian mountain guide Jean-Antoine Carrel and his team on an alternate route.
Trains expanded in Switzerland, which opened its first Alpine railway at Gotthard Pass in 1882. German and English photographers popularized Italy’s Dolomites at the end of the 19th century. Attention turned to first ascents of the 14 peaks higher than 8,000 meters in Asia’s Himalaya and Karakoram ranges by the end of the 19th century, starting with the 1895 attempt on Nanga Parbat by Albert Mummery and J. Norman Collie.
Polar and scientific exploration at the start of the 20th century helped fuel the rise of alpinism worldwide. The American Alpine Club, for example, was founded in 1902 by a geologist, naturalist and explorer, Angelo Heilprin, who immigrated to the U.S. from Europe and supported Robert Peary’s North Pole expeditions.
The Alps’ six great north faces were first climbed in the 1930s: Matterhorn, 1931; Cima Grande di Lavaredo, 1933; Petit Dru, 1935; Piz Badile, 1937; Eiger, 1938; and Grandes Jorasses, 1938. Between 1950 and 1964, nations competed to reach the summits of all 14 eight-thousanders, including Mount Everest in 1953, by supporting elaborate climbing expeditions, usually with tons of gear carried by high-altitude porters.
In the latter half of the 20th century, expedition-style ascents on the big peaks gave way to a simpler but sometimes highly committing style of light and fast alpine-style climbing. Alpinists increasingly sought out more difficult and aesthetic lines on lower peaks in the Alps, Alaska, Andes, Himalaya and Karakoram.
UIAA welcomed the decision by UNESCO, which last year also recognized avalanche risk management as an “intangible” cultural heritage based on a Swiss and Austrian request. Founded in 1932, UIAA now spans six continents and represents more than 90 alpine club member associations and federations in 68 countries.
“Alpinism is not only a physical activity requiring athletic qualities and technical expertise. Defining it simply by pursuits like the exploration of fascinating landscapes or the quest for personal achievements is incomplete,” French mountaineer Claude Eckhardt, an honorary member of UIAA, said in a statement.
“It is all of these features and furthermore characterized by a frame of mind of personal engagement, sense of self-responsibility, knowledge of — and respect — for its natural playground, and strong solidarity and social relationships,” he said. “These exceptional characteristics, [and] its historical and cultural backgrounds, make alpinism worth identifying as an intangible cultural heritage of outstanding and universal human and social value.”
The author is a former mountaineering instructor for the Colorado Outward Bound School and a former board director for the American Alpine Club from 2012 to 2018 who led the rewriting of its mission, vision and core values statements. He reached about 7,000 meters on the North Ridge of K2 and climbed the Matterhorn on the 150th anniversary of its first ascent.