George and Ashley Abraham, also known as the ‘Keswick Brothers’ were climbers, authors and photographers who lived in Keswick, in the English Lake District. They kept written and photographic records of climbing exploits during the pioneering years of alpinism. Their accounts, especially between 1890 and 1920, have bequeathed us a valuable record of this early evolution.
Three Points of the Compass has been enjoying reading advice contained within a classic volume, though it would perhaps be wise to ignore most of this these days. Written by George Abraham, The Complete Mountaineer, published in 1907, offers historical anecdote and sage advice from an expert of the period. A friend of George’s, having read the manuscript, proposed an alternative title for the book- “How not to break your neck on the mountains, by one who has tried it”.
The book is liberally illustrated with seventy-five contemporary photographs of classic climbing destinations, the two brothers and their climbing companions, in particular Owen Glynne Jones. Their photography is amongst the brothers’ greatest legacy. George referred to the camera as “probably the most important member of the party”.
Unknowingly, I visited their old Lake District photographic studio in Keswick. It is now the George Fisher outdoors shop (with an excellent cafe). I won’t quote from the book in detail but offer instead just a flavour of the wonderful content.
“…. a useful hint for drying the boots thoroughly after a wet day on the mountains is to fill them with oats or even straw. Next morning they will be found to have retained their shape and suppleness. Judicious oiling will further improve them. Various forms of ” foot grease” are used in different mountain resorts. Any kind of fatty refuse is often considered good enough, and as the laces generally receive a liberal smearing, it will be obvious that after breakfast is the best time to don one’s pedal gear. At home one can use a more cleanly substance, such as sperm oil, and I have always found that this serves the purpose well.”
“… others have an idea that in some way the rope is thrown up somewhere, and the climbers swarm up it. In fact we are supposed to rival the wonderful Indian fakirs who, so travellers say, take a coil of rope, throw it into mid-air, climb up it, and then pull the loose end after them. Unfortunately, this is a lost art in Europe at the present day, and we have to content ourselves with more ordinary methods.“
“… the Norfolk jacket is undoubtedly the best form of coat, and it should contain at least six pockets made by preference of strong flannel…. some of these might be lined with oilskin or other waterproof material. Bank of England notes are useful in the Alps, and they look more respectable if presented in a dry and recognisable condition.... a muffler of Shetland wool which is long enough to tie around one’s neck and over the ears and head, thus also securing one’s hat, is a genuine luxury. An ordinary cricket sweater might be included in the outfit; it is best made of dark -coloured Shetland wool. On a cold night in an Alpine hut it proves a pleasant companion…. puttees are mostly used nowadays by the experts, and they have many advantages. They can be carried in one’s pocket until the snow is reached, they are easily put on or off, and if necessary they can be used as mufflers, or to secure one’s hat“
“…. at the beginning of a climbing holiday it is a good plan to wash one’s face in water as seldom as possible, and shaving is an inadvisable luxury. On returning to the hotel after the first few excursions above the snowline, it is grateful and comforting to perform the facial ablutions in warm milk, and complete the operation by drying the tender skin with a very soft towel. Boric acid powder or ointment is an excellent recuperative for those various abrasions of the skin that are prone to annoy the too energetic climber…. the eyes often grow painful after long exposure to the bright light on a snowfield ; a few drops of a solution of cocaine will generally relieve the irritation immediately.“
“… many of the higher Alpine resorts are in a most insanitary condition, and Englishmen staying in them are subject to a troublesome sore throat, or in many cases an attack of diarrhoea, which may spoil a whole holiday. For the former chlorate of potash tabloids are recommended, and for the latter chlorodyne can be used, but the best plan is at once to retreat to a healthy hotel in a lower valley. Other simple medicines will suggest themselves, but those that can be obtained in tabloid form are to be preferred; for instance, opium, quinine, and some vegetable laxative might be useful.“
“… the question of what to drink on the mountains is an important one. Of course the ideal would be to eschew all liquid refreshment, for the transit of such things in the Alps is a troublesome matter. The drinking water in Switzerland is mostly of doubtful purity, and even teetotallers would be well advised to take in preference the vin ordinaire, either red or white. A mixture of red wine and lemonade is a favourite beverage with many climbers who cannot tackle either of these separately.“
On unwise glissading:
“the slope did not belie its appearance, but the impetus gained above was sufficient to sweep me over the easier part, and I made a precipitate acquaintance with the screes beyond the snow. But the end was not yet. The sudden stop caused me to describe an undignified series of somersaults in mid-air, during which performance my ice- axe arose and smote me between the eyes. Then there was peace for a time. My next view of the snow-slope was some minutes later when consciousness returned, and I discerned my companions hurrying downwards. My wounded forehead bled profusely, and no doubt my friends’ worried looks were fully warranted, for the sight must have been a gory one. Strange to say no bones were broken, but for several days I felt like a mass of bumps and bruises.“
On the frequency of meals:
“before leaving the hut a light breakfast should be taken, and the second one about two hours later. The beginner scarcely ever knows when he is hungry, and it is an excellent plan to take light refreshment every two hours during the ascent and a rest of at least fifteen minutes meanwhile. Many climbers find great difficulty in eating at all at the greater altitudes, but the discomfort of so doing should be overcome as far as possible, for the man who eats best is generally the most successful and best able to enjoy his sport.“
“dipping the fingers in boiling glue has saved the digits of some well-known climbers, and as in the extreme cases which require such treatment, all sensation has left the affected parts, the operation is not at the time painful.“
Enough. Find a couple of hours to dip into his words and view those amazing photographs from another time. You don’t even need to purchase the book because it is published in full online and can be read here.
The Complete Mountaineer by Abraham, George D. (George Dixon), 1872-1965 pub. 1907
All of us have a few books that we like to rely on, or to which we frequently return. Here are links to some of mine.