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Sunday, 26 August, 2001, 07:36 GMT 08:36 UK
Alpinism: Then and now
By BBC News Online's Kate Goldberg

The idea of dressing up like 19th Century English gentlemen to climb the Swiss Alps may seem absurd, but it's precisely what a group of British and Swiss climbers are doing this week.

climbers ascend the Monch
Climbers ascend the Monch/ Heimatmuseum Grindelwald
They are forsaking breathable jackets, fleece caps and waterproof trousers to don tweed jackets, trilby hats and plus-fours, complete with braces and bow-ties.

The seven climbers are trying to draw attention to the changes in mountaineering - and to the Alps themselves - in the last 150 years.

They are retracing the now well-worn routes of some of the early pioneers in a 10-day expedition.

But far from being isolated from the outside world, they are charting their journey on the internet, sending daily e-mail despatches to BBC News Online and taking part in a live forum from Mount Eiger.

The age of tourism

The British were the first to turn Alpine mountaineering into a leisure pursuit in the second half of the 19th century.

Male attire:
Norfolk jacket
Pocket watch
Shirt and collar
Cufflinks and tie
Breeches or plus-fours
Long woollen stockings
Lace-up garters
It became fashionable for the rich and famous - including the poets Byron and Shelley - to hire Swiss guides to take them up previously unconquered peaks.

But with the development of mountain railways in the early 20th century, the Alps became more accessible.

Climbers today complain that even the highest peaks are overrun by crowds of camera-clicking tourists, who have been delivered to the mountain summits by the vast network of cable-cars, ski-lifts and trains.

Receding glaciers

The expedition, sponsored by the news and information multimedia group, aims to retrace some of the most famous routes, and document the ways in which the sport and landscape have evolved.

Glaciers are invaluable for climate change research
"We are retracing the steps of the early pioneers. But to some extent this is impossible as the environment has changed so much," said project leader Dale Bechtel.

"We will be crossing glaciers that are already some 200 metres lower than they were then.

"And as glaciers retreat, they often cause mudslides and floods. So some villages that were built close to the glaciers have been washed away."

Frocks and bloomers

The swissinfo group has spent months researching their costumes to make the experience as authentic as possible.

This posed a particular challenge for the female member of the party, British climber Alison Henry.

19th century women
Women often used to travel with their fathers
She is wearing a full-length tweed skirt over silk underwear and long johns, a tweed jacket, a knee-length canvas poncho and a wide-brimmed felt hat.

"I imagine I'll always be too cold or too hot or too wet," she said before setting out.

"But until I've had the experience of a heavy wet tweed flapping around my ankles, it's difficult to imagine what it'll be like."

The Swiss guides are wearing the uniform of the Grindelwald guides from the latter half of the 19th century, which was designed in the same style as the mountaineering costume of the British climbers.

"The Swiss guides wanted to travel with the English because they were gentlemen, and so they also wanted to look like them," said Mr Bechtel.

Safety concerns

Although the group say they are not taking unnecessary risks, several people have died recently on the same route.

If you take one wrong step on a steep snow slope you could slip and fall, and pull others with you

Dale Bechtel
"It's a low-risk route, but there are always unknown factors," said Mr Bechtel.

"We are spending eight days in the high Alps - between 2,500 to 3,500 metres above sea level. And we're getting up between 3am and 5am each morning, and climbing for up to 12 hours a day.

"If you take one wrong step on a steep snow slope you could slip and fall, and pull others with you."

BBC News Online is tracking the progress of the climbers, and will be printing daily e-mail despatches.

They will also answer your questions live on 3 September, after climbing the Eiger summit.

Click here to read more about the expedition at the swissinfo site.

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