Conquering Iceland’s Mountains: The Alpine Club (Part 2)

Continued from Part 1.

If Longman’s unorthodox address is interesting as a sign of Iceland’s attractiveness to the middle-class British authentic-seeking traveller, the responses to his suggestions are even more so. In a May 18 article The Critic wrote a review of the Longman’s address that effectively summed up the perceived position of Iceland in the global context of travel and exploration. The author suggested that any adventurous Briton who had already “used up Ireland and Scotland” and “[did] not care to ascend Mont Blanc for the dozenth time” might turn to Iceland for their future travels, as it had spectacular scenery equal to Switzerland and critics were growing tired of “oft-repeated tales” in countries they knew intimately through so many books. The contributor continued by explaining that:

Aerial view of Iceland © Sarah Martinet

We do not ask the good-natured traveller to kill gorillas in Africa after Mr. Du Chaillu’s fashion, or hunt bisons on the American prairies with Mr. Grantley Berkeley. Our request is much more reasonable. Iceland may be reached by the expenditure of a single five-pound note: and in that uncockneyfied land a solitary Englishman may pay all his daily travelling expenses, including those which will be entailed on him by a retinue of three horses and a guide, for twenty shillings.

Here we have an explicit comparison of Icelandic travel with the exploits to be had in Africa and America, where exploration was identified with hunting dangerous wild animals that was much too unreasonable for “the good-natured traveller.” Rather, for merely a couple pounds sterling the would-be adventurer could experience an isolated, undeveloped, and rugged—that is, “uncockneyfied”—country just a few days’ sail from the British Isles. Iceland was portrayed as a setting even more authentic than the Swiss mountains the Alpine Club cherished, merely by dint of its relative isolation from cockney influences that infected the Continent.

“Water on the moon, Reykjanes Peninsula” © Jerome Berbigier

As the president of the Alpine Club and editor of its publication Peaks, Passes, and Glaciers excitedly wrote in the preface to the second series, through the efforts of Club members “the blank in the map of Iceland may speedily be filled up.” Mary Louise Pratt, who has analyzed the work of Victorian explorers like Du Chaillu and Richard Burton, points out the colonialist imperial rhetoric in such statements, emphasizing their self-congratulatory tone and the sense of mastery over the land that they implied. The first chapter of the second series of Peaks and Passes consisted solely of Charles Shepherd’s accounts of Iceland for over a hundred pages, while other chapters consisted of ten- to twenty-page essays by various members about different regions or routes in the Alps. The Alpine Club, even within five years of its conception, clearly did not plan to limit itself to the increasingly crowded stage of its origins. Shepherd, after having participated in the Icelandic trip that occupied that first chapter of Peaks and Passes, travelled again to Iceland with two of his friends and attempted to explore some of its less known parts.

Unfortunately for them, they had chosen a point too early in the year for good expedition weather, and were often limited to hunting and fishing in the environs of certain towns or farms. Since Shepherd and his companions were ornithologically inclined, this curtailment of their range did not seem to upset him all that much, and his journal entries are full of the birds and eggs they hunted to add hollowed shells and stuffed skins to their collections. Indeed, despite the fact that they could not attempt the Vatnajökull as they had intended, Shepherd wrote to his father, “we are enjoying ourselves which is the great thing.” In the same letter, he asked for a copy of the latest edition of Peaks and Passes to see if it contained any reviews on his previous trip to the island. He also requested Fortnum & Mason tins of potted meat (“not solid meat, but spreadable meat”).

3 thoughts on “Conquering Iceland’s Mountains: The Alpine Club (Part 2)

  1. Pingback: Conquering Iceland’s Mountains: The Alpine Club (Part 3) | Raxa Collective

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