Melchior Anderegg: Switzerland’s king of the guides

Posted by Ed Douglas on 14/08/2014

The birth of mountaineering was an extraordinary partnership between English gentlemen and Alpine guides born in the mountains. The greatest of these was Melchior Anderegg. Now, to mark the centenary of his death, a new sculpture is being unveiled near his birthplace in Switzerland’s Haslital. Ed Douglas visits one of the crucibles of alpinism.

Life can seem a little surreal in the Swiss Alpine resort of Meiringen. Stepping into the Parkhotel du Sauvage, I notice a discrete sign explaining that Sherlock Holmes spent his last night here before his apparently fatal encounter with Professor Moriarty in 1891. Outside the Sherlock Holmes museum a few doors down, there’s John Doubleday’s bronze statue of the great man in full deerstalker.

The presence of Holmes in Meiringen is all thanks to the tourist trade. Sir Henry Lunn, Victorian package-holiday pioneer, took his friend Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to the nearby Reichenbach Falls after the writer said he was looking for a grand location to do away with his creation. Conan Doyle liked what he saw.

Now there’s a funicular railway up to the falls, and small knots of Japanese tourists politely scrummaging to have their photo taken with Sherlock’s statue in Meiringen's Casinoplatz. Its knees are shiny where people have sat on them.

Yet Meiringen has its own home-grown hero, and not only is this one real, he has a strong connection with Britain and the invention of a whole new activity which has come to symbolise Swiss tourism like nothing else – mountaineering.

It seems a little strange that the name Melchior Anderegg, König der Bergführer, has until now finished a distant third in the town, behind a fictional English detective and a shadowy Italian called Gasparini, who may, or may not, have invented the meringue.


Melchior Anderegg

That’s now about to change. Near the statue of Holmes, a temporary wooden shack has been built so that local sculptor Clarissa Kessler can work on site protected from the elements. Inside, working drawings and photographs are pinned to the walls but the sculpture itself is wrapped in plastic sheeting. The finished artwork will be unveiled in September at a grand ceremony with representatives from the Alpine Club.

It’s a nice gesture from the local authorities. Inside the small but perfectly formed local museum, there’s a telegram to his son from the Alpine Club, received in the days following Anderegg’s death on 8 December 1914, just as the dark reality of the Great War was sinking in. It reads: “Alpine Club hear with deepest regret of the death of that most distinguished guide your father.”

Given the telegrams being sent to the families of British soldiers killed in action, it must have felt that alpinism’s Golden Age, which ended with the ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865, had, with Anderegg’s passing, finally slipped from view.

Still, it had been quite a journey. In the modern era, with Switzerland easily accessible with trains to every nook and cranny, it’s hard to conceive that the Alps were once as remote as the wilder corners of the Himalaya. Just as the Sherpas provided local knowledge and heft to pioneer explorers in India and Tibet, so the Alpine guides helped early alpinists realise their dreams.

When Anderegg was born in 1828 just outside Meiringen in the hamlet of Zaun, mountaineering had barely started. His father was a farmer and Melchior’s early years were dominated by traditional mountain activities: tending cattle, cutting and processing timber and hunting chamois. The latter activity, along with crystal hunting, gave Swiss guides the kind of physical skills and self-assurance that translated easily into guiding work.

Melchior, for reasons lost to history, didn’t take over the family farm. Aged 20, he took a job at the Grimsel Pass Inn, now flooded by a reservoir, possibly because his cousin was manager. His early guiding work is also lost, because his first führerbuch, the book in which his guiding jobs were recorded, was stolen.

In 1855, Thomas Hinchcliff, one of the founding members of the Alpine Club, hired Melchior to take him over the Strahlegg Pass and was impressed. He introduced Melchior to his friends, notably Leslie Stephen, author of the mountaineering classic The Playground of Europe, father of the novelist Virginia Woolf, and founding editor of the Dictionary of National Biography. All three men climbed the Wildstrubel together, and in 1859, Stephen and Anderegg climbed the Rimpfischhorn, a major first ascent.

The list of Melchior’s significant new climbs is remarkable: the Grandes Jorasses, with Horace Walker, the Zinalrothorn with Stephen and F Crauford Grove and the Dent d’Hérens, again with Grove and several others. Most impressive of all was the first ascent of Mont Blanc’s Brenva Spur, although it was a good job that his less cautious cousin Jakob was in the lead for the crux ice ridge. Melchior always put safety ahead of success.

Charles Hudson, who died following the first ascent of the Matterhorn, said Melchior was “for difficulties, the best guide I have ever met.” Yet it wasn’t just Melchior’s mountaineering skill that endeared him to his many English friends. Tall and powerful he combined all the advantages of great strength – physical and mental – with a reserved courtesy and consideration for his clients.

William Mathews, the man who proposed the idea of the Alpine Club, said that he never heard Melchior Anderegg utter a word “to which the gentlest woman might not have listened.” Which was lucky, since he regularly guided Lucy Walker, the first woman to climb the Matterhorn.

Anderegg’s great success both as a guide and a wood carver who exhibited in London secured the future for his large family. Two of his sons opened hotels in Meiringen and there are still Andereggs guiding in the Haslital. Jakob Anderegg’s great-grandson Patrick took me up one of the peaks first climbed by Melchior and Leslie Stephen in 1860 – the Oberaarhorn (3629m).

Judging by the Oberaarjoch hut book, very few British climbers come this way, but the peak is a good objective for novice alpinists. It’s an easy climb from the hut, up loose rocks to a snow slope and the summit in just a couple of hours with stunning views of the Finsteraarhorn and to the south Monte Rosa and the Matterhorn. And it was fun climbing with a guide from the Anderegg clan. Patrick has drawn up a family tree reaching back to Melchior’s day with over 1,700 relatives on it and is justifiably proud of his heritage.

I asked him about Melchior’s great passion as a young man for wrestling. One of his adventures with Leslie Stephen had to be delayed so Melchior could fight a bout as the champion of Haslital against an opponent from Lauterbrunnen. Wrestling, Schwingen, is still a sort of national sport in Switzerland, Patrick said, with competitors wearing shorts made from potato sacks.

I noticed a glint in Patrick’s eye as he explained all this. Looking at his bearish frame, I asked him if he had ever wrestled. “Oh, maybe just a little bit,” he said modestly.

Patrick will be at the unveiling of Melchior’s statue on 13 September, along with the Alpine Club, reaffirming a long and unique connection, not just in mountaineering but in the history of sport. A new book about the English climbers and Swiss guides, by Meiringen author Natascha Knecht will  be published by Zurich pubisher Limmat. And Meiringen’s great hero will finally have some of the attention he deserves.

Switzerland Tourism

For more information on Switzerland visit www.MySwitzerland.com or call Switzerland Travel Centre on free phone 00800 100 200 30 or e-mail info.uk@myswitzerland.com

SWISS operates over 190 weekly flights to Switzerland from London Heathrow, London City, Manchester and Birmingham with 19 daily flights to Zurich. Fares start from £147 return, including all airport taxes, one piece of hold luggage and free ski carriage. For reservations call 08456010956 or visit www.swiss.com.

The Swiss Transfer Ticket covers a round-trip between the airport and your destination. Prices are £96 in second class and £153 in first class. Call Switzerland Travel Centre on 00800 100 200 30 or visit www.swisstravelsystem.co.uk.

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