“Exploration conjures up images of obsessive men—typically British—doing mad things in strange surroundings. The Alpine explorers were no different.” —Fergus Fleming, in Killing Dragons
A lively history of early exploration in Europe’s Alps, Fergus Fleming’s Killing Dragons: The Conquest of the Alps (2000) gives us an unforgettable cast of characters who were, as Fleming says, “always fixated and sometimes peculiar.” Although some of these men (and nearly all of them were men) hardly seem heroic—fearing heights and suffering from indigestion or insomnia—their explorations challenged the once-popular perception of the mountains as places of terror and superstition. As a result, poets, artists, climbers, and tourists began to invent new ways of thinking about them. Reverence for and fascination with the mountain landscape developed; obsession soon followed.
Prior to the eighteenth-century, the upper slopes were thought to harbor dragons or demons or an unknown humanity. But when early scientists set out to uncover their secrets, they not only demystified the place but also sparked an interest in mountain climbing. Soon, this new passion overshadowed scientific interests. Instead of wondering what kind of creatures were resting in their mountaintop lairs, people in the valleys started wondering: who would be the first to climb Mont Blanc? and then the Matterhorn? the Meije?
Besides captivating us with the stories of an eclectic group of early explorers, Fleming’s book is well-researched and contains loads of good schol butt (a.k.a. scholarly buttressing). For anyone interested in Alpine history or climbing, the book is a must-read. And for anyone else wanting to know more about these things, your time reading Killing Dragons will be time well spent.
Tracing the sun—Days until next sunset: 3.