The Romantics and the Reality of the Alps

Dakota Jones writes of the literary portrait and the reality of being in the Alps.

By on September 19, 2012 | Comments

As I travel through the Alps I can’t help but be taken in by the grandeur and majesty of the mountains. Such immensity of scale in a range renowned for its striking and dramatic summits leaves me in awe at every turn. Yet I wonder if part of this awe doesn’t stem from a cultural conception. Perhaps my wonder at viewing the Swiss Alps comes in part from the images conjured by that very idea of “The Swiss Alps.” That term automatically conjures images of bell-laden cows grazing in green pastures below icy glaciered peaks; bearded men with walking sticks and tobacco pipes trekking through the valleys; and quaint villages with small wooden homes and gardens crisscrossed by narrow cobble-stoned streets. I want to view this place with an air of objectivity, but I can’t forget the associations I have gained from society. Consider this passage from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein:

“Immense glaciers approached the road; I heard the rumbling thunder of the falling avalanche, and marked the smoke of its passage. Mont Blanc, the supreme and magnificent Mont Blanc, raised itself from the surrounding Aiguilles, and its tremendous dome overlooked the valley”

In the story this is meant as a motif of the extreme emotions brought about by events in the book. But reading it as a 17-year-old who had never traveled abroad, how could a line like that not summon an extreme longing for a fantastical world? Having never traveled abroad I could create in my mind the world that I dreamt of, the world given me by the stories. Here’s Victor Frankenstein again as he climbs into the “Chamounix valley”:

“…as I ascended higher, the valley assumed a more magnificent and astonishing character. Ruined castles hanging on the precipices of piny mountains; the impetuous Arve, and cottages every here and there peeping forth from among the trees, formed a scene of singular beauty. But it was augmented and rendered sublime by the mighty Alps, whose white and shining pyramids and domes towered above all, as belonging to another earth, the habitations of another race of beings”

Europe is unique in that its mountains are some of the largest in the world, yet they are situated in the midst of one of the most highly developed areas on the planet. Mont Blanc rises about 12,000 feet above the valley of Chamonix. By comparison, Mt. Everest rises 11,400 feet above base camp. The mountains of Europe may be lower, but they are similar in size base-to-summit. But Europe’s unique history has resulted in countless villages dotting the alpine valleys, creating a sort of paradox in the 21st century wherein one can traverse mountains as serious as any in the greater ranges in the morning and enjoy gourmet meals and a bed at night. These villages have all been commercialized to a great degree, but the image remains of the iconic European village perched high in the Alps. To see these towns is to consider the audacity of primeval man, dwarfed by the landscape yet nevertheless carving out an enclave of his own, a home to defend against a vast, visibly powerful wilderness.

Europe is old culturally, and many of these towns date back thousands of years. Passing through the large valleys, many of which now host veritable cities, one can spy ancient castles on the hillsides high above, strategically placed to allow for the best views of approaching danger; or tiny church spires peering over craggy summits, indicating the presence of towns improbably balanced nearly out of sight and certainly out of reach of primitive invaders. Sights like these naturally draw me back to my high-school fantasy world invoked by the images in Frankenstein. I can look past the changes and see only what I choose.

But that’s not the whole truth. Europe is as technologically advanced as anywhere in the world and therefore hosts a high standard of living. Thus the quaint little villages are not the only sights to see – high-rise hotels and apartments stand like needles thrust into the ground from above, pushing aside like a wedge the picturesque scenes of antiquity. Highways, not roads, line the fertile mountain valleys, and cable-cars thread the rocky summits. The iconic ringing fields of bell-clad cows often stink of manure and poison the rivers, besides mowing the grass nearly bare. Hordes of tourists throng in villages that are a bit too quaint and charming, kind of Disney-esque, as if they are playing into the image of what they are “supposed” to look like. Most damning of all, the great glaciers – those immense symbols of nature’s dominance – are steadily melting and receding to reveal rock that crumbles in the unanticipated heat. Despite my desire to see the natural paradise of Romantic depiction, I can’t ignore the changes of time.

“From the side where I now stood Montanvert was exactly opposite, at the distance of a league; and above it rose Mont Blanc, in awful majesty. I remained in a recess of the rock, gazing on this wonderful and stupendous scene. The sea, or rather the vast river of ice, wound among its dependent mountains, whose aerial summits hung over its recesses. Their icy and glittering peaks shone in the sunlight over the clouds. My heart, which was before sorrowful, now swelled with something like joy…”

Our surroundings often influence our accomplishments, and as humans we feel a natural tendency to tie our accomplishments to such visibly striking physical features. Indeed, as Frankenstein shows clearly, mountains are perfect metaphors for fierce emotions or extreme passion. Artists since time immemorial drew comparisons between their violent emotions and the violent geology of their landscape. I continue the tradition today, but I don’t want to ignore the dirty realities of the modern world. From the uninformed passions which consumed me in high school to the more reality-based understanding of today, I am doing nothing more than commenting on my observations of the world around me. The world is rarely like the stories, but that doesn’t mean it is not rewarding. Reality is usually grittier and more painful than imagination, but ultimately more concrete and meaningful. And the Romantic ideals? They go the other way – coming from reality and blending into the world of imagination, cleansing themselves of the grime of reality in the process. Truth is born of objectivity, and objectivity is gained through experience. My Alps are not Mary Shelley’s Alps. They are something else entirely and perhaps more powerful because I now have a sense of what they are really like. I can’t completely discard the lens through which I have viewed this world until now, but I can look beyond it and use the comparison for perspective. Thus, my Alps are as magical as ever, because I finally get to experience them for myself. They may not be the “sublime” mountains I dreamt of, but now they include my own observations, and that makes them less of an idea and more of an experience. And despite the differences, the experience has proven by far to be the best part.

Dakota Jones
Dakota Jones explores the wild places of the world on foot and tells us about it every few weeks. He runs for Salomon and Clif Bar.