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Killing Dragons: The Conquest of the Alps Paperback – 22 Aug 2001
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Flemings impeccable research makes for infectious reading -- Good Book Guide
Full of eccentric characters, "Killing Dragons" is the story of the first British mountaineers to tackle the Alpine summits of Switzerland during the late 18th century. Originally the explorers of this area were poorly equipped, wearing ordinary shoes and no protective clothing. The British arrived intent on reaching every Alpine summit, and "mountaineering" was born. The title refers to the legend of dragons inhabiting these peaks: "here be dragons", quoted the old maps.See all Product description
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It also charts how the British mapped the Alps and re-opened them to trade and tourism after the many centuries when the high mountain passes and valleys had lapsed into no-go areas haunted by the 'Dragons' mentioned in the title, following the end of the prosperity of Roman times.
This is the sort of book one manages to find the time to read regardless of what else is going on, if one has an interest in walking or skiing or climbing or other mountain activities. The illustrations are poignant and sometimes chilling, and over the years I have visited several of those scenes on my holidays; reading this book has added an extra dimension to the reality of being there. However if mountains are not of interest to a potential reader then the book might well not appeal because, alas, there are no actual dragons.
third or so but which improved greatly towards the end.
First, a few words about the style of the book, which was not exactly
what I had expected. It seems to me that Fleming is, first and
foremost, a historian: he obtains his sources, surveys & absorbs them,
and distills them into a work of his own. This is testified to by two
things: the extensive bibliography of books, journals, and letters at
the back of the book, and the frequest references to that bibliography
throughout the text. Indeed, you really get the feeling that
virtually every statement Fleming makes has its source on another
sheet of paper somewhere. That's fine, in fact it's probably better
than an unsubstantiated stream of commentary, but it did take a bit of
getting used to, personally.
Now for the subject matter. In general, the book is concerned with
two things: the "opening up" of the Alps, from before the Napoleonic
era until just prior to the second world war, and the development of
mountaineering as a pastime and concept. More specifically, the book
tells this story by concentrating (though not exclusively) on a small
number of key players and events. Although a lot of ground is
covered, there are three major sections, each concerning a particular
"phase" of mountaineering development.
The first major section concerns the conquest of Mont Blanc, the Alps'
highest peak, and mainly involves the characters Saussure, Pacard,
Bourrit, and Balmat. The second major section concerns the
Matterhorn, and mostly looks at Tyndall and Whymper. The third
section considers the post-Whymper world, looking at Coolidge,
Davidson, the Meije, and the Eigerwand. These are generalisations -
many other characters and mountains are mentioned, but these the
primary subject matter.
To my mind, the most interesting parts of the book were the accounts
of actual climbs, which got much better as the book went on. Early
on, I found it hard to picture Saussure and Pacard struggling up Mont
Blanc - the descriptions didn't quite "come to life". By the time of
Tyndall and Whymper's attacks on the Matterhorn, the mists were
clearing and I could imagine the scenes - and appreciate their scale -
much better. The last chapter, concerning pre-war attacks on the
perilous north face of the Eiger, had me absolutely gripped and was
undoubtedly the most vivid and exciting section of the book. Whether
this development was due to Fleming finding his stride, or me finding
my imagination, I couldn't say, but I suspect the former.
The least interesting aspects (again, to me, others may differ), were
the accounts of arguments and disputes between the various players
concerning who had done what when. Clearly this is important from a
historical point of view, but on the whole I found it tedious. This
was particularly bad in the (long) Mont Blanc section, and a third of
the way through the book I was in danger of giving it up, but I'm now
very glad I persisted, as the book improved greatly.
Between these two extremes, the other major themes of the book -
namely the gradual transformation of the Alpine region from "badlands"
to tourist-trap, and the corresponding transformation of
mountaineering from an indication of insanity, through being an
occupation of gentlemen, to a competetive international sport -
unfolds naturally and enjoyably.
In summary, despite some initial difficultly I found this to be a
fascinating and occasionally gripping account of a remarkable period.
If you have no interest in history or mountaineering, you probably
won't enjoy it. If you have an interest in either (especially
mountaineering), you probably will. If you are a mountaineering
historian, don't miss it!
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