Peaks and Valleys: Leslie Stephen, Mountaineer


Arts & Culture

Leslie Stephen is best known today as the father of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell. But in his day, Stephen was a distinguished critic and author in his own right. And, not incidentally, a pioneering mountaineer who made early and important contributions to the literature of what is known as the golden age of alpinism.

Leslie Stephen arrived in Cambridge University in 1851 with a fair amount of emotional and intellectual baggage. His father, James Stephen, was the colonial undersecretary, a pretty big job at the height of the British Empire. His older brothers, Herbert and James Fitzjames, had preceded him at Cambridge. Herbert had recently died of a fever in Dresden, on his way home from Constantinople, a tragedy that rocked the family confidence and strength, especially that of the overworked elder James, who began heading down a steady decline. James Fitzjames, meanwhile, quickly stepped with authority into the role of eldest son. He was an Apostle at Cambridge (Leslie was not), and moved swiftly to follow in his father’s footsteps toward a distinguished legal career. James Stephen played a central role in abolishing slavery in the British Empire; James Fitzjames Stephen went on to singlehandedly write the criminal code of India.

Leslie Stephen was cut from different cloth: he was a skinny weakling who had become addicted to narrative poetry in early adolescence. Because he was clearly the most sensitive of James Stephen’s sons, his father marked him for the clergy, and he would indeed be ordained in the Anglican Church. Certainly, academia suited him; while he was ever respectful towards his family, Leslie Stephen seems to have been immediately liberated and invigorated upon his arrival at Cambridge, quickly setting out on a journey of self-discovery that turned out to be quite different from his father’s expectations. He flourished, and began the process of building a life and career of which any father would be quite proud.

He even took up physical pursuits, starting with rowing. He wasn’t a good oarsman, but he became shockingly good at running down the path alongside the river, and ultimately would set the Cambridge record for the mile. There was already a strong Stephen walking tradition, in which Leslie’s frailty hadn’t allowed him to participate fully, but he soon took to this, too. His course of adventure had a philosophical bent; having developed into a competent mathematician and “wrangler” at Cambridge, he received a fellowship at his college, and studied philosophy and German. In 1857 he went on a walking tour through Germany, and at the end of it he got his first view of the Alps.

The story of the birth of mountaineering is known well enough, but few people and scholars realize or care that Virginia Woolf’s father was a key participant in this great saga of exploration and adventure. Three factors, and probably more, came together to get the sport going: railroad travel, which made the Alps accessible; the Romantic development of the concept of the Sublime, which drew tourists to the peaks; and the hard-driving Victorian development of exploration, technology, science, muscularity, and leisure. Stephen found himself standing around Interlaken just as the first English tourists were hiring local Swiss as guides to try to climb on the glaciers and into the high country. At twenty-five years old, a Cambridge don who was running ten or twenty miles a day along the river and who had just breezed through a 200-plus-mile tour of Germany, Stephen was ready. He returned to Cambridge, thinking he might return the next summer and have a go.

While Stephen’s career as a mountaineer was relatively brief, it happened to coincide perfectly with the golden age of alpinism, the initial phase of the conquering of the Alps. Stephen climbed for seven summers, arriving in Switzerland in late July and returning to England by early September, and each season consisted of a tour of “peaks, passes, and glaciers” still ambitious by any standard. He came to the sport with an outstanding level of fitness, unperturbed by walking thirty to forty miles or more in a single day, and from spring onwards he would have spent a day or two each week rising at dawn and walking until well after nightfall. In his first season he also found an extraordinary guide, Melchior Anderegg of Meinringen, a small Oberland village near Interlaken, who would later be acknowledged as one of the very best climbers/guides of the era. Stephen and Anderegg were full partners, and they were a self-contained team, spending weeks on their own exploring the high country, establishing new routes, climbing peaks, and bagging first ascents. These included the Rothorn and the formidable Schrekhorn, and they brought Stephen some fame.

Leslie Stephen’s mountaineering pursuits also played a definite role in helping him become a writer. He was a charter member of the Alpine Club, and one of its early presidents. In its first formation, the club consisted of a small group of pioneers gathering to discuss their tours and plans for the following season. This was done with a standard Victorian formality; members read their accounts, and the classic form of the mountaineering narrative took shape. The best and most characteristic accounts were published by the Club in an annual volume, initially called Peaks, Passes, and Glaciers. Shortly afterwards, individuals began to publish the first books about mountain travel, the explosive bestseller being Edward Whymper’s Scrambles Amongst the Alps, which tells the tale of his single-minded conquest of the Matterhorn and the terrible accident on the descent, when a rope broke and seven lives were lost.

The first published work of “the Rev. Leslie Stephen, M.A. Fellow and Tutor of Trinity Hall, Cambridge” is “The Allelein-Horn,” in Vacation Tourists and Notes of Travel in 1860, edited by Francis Galton. This volume contains entries on “Naples and Garibaldi,” “Slavonic Races,” “A Visit to Peru,” “Norway,” and “Syrian Travel and Syrian Tribes,” as well as “Partial Ascent of Mont Cervin (Matterhorn),” by F. V. Hawkins, and “From Lauterbrunnen to the Aeggishhorn by the Lauwinen-Thor in One Day,” by John Tyndall.

At this point, Stephen’s body of non-climbing work was small. His first professional writing consisted of a series of essays published in the Pall Mall Gazettte in 1865 as “Sketches From Cambridge, by a Don.” The small book was reprinted by Oxford University Press in 1932 with a foreward by G. M. Trevalyan, and the first two chapters are “The Rowing Man” and “Athletic Sports,” which says something about the author’s concerns. In 1871 he collected his mountaineering essays for the first time and published The Playground of Europe. The book is a mountaineering classic, and it has been published in different editions over the years, certain essays falling in and out.

Whatever his posthumous reputation in the general literary world, Stephen remains a giant in that of climbing. And his attitude might be summed up by his words, “I believe that the ascent of mountains forms an essential chapter in the complete duty of man, and that it is wrong to leave any district without setting foot on its highest peak.”
Alex Siskin studied for his Ph.D in English at U.C. Berkeley before becoming a film producer at Sony Pictures. He blogs at