Albert Frederick Mummery, (September 10, 1855 to August 24, 1895), was one of the great mountaineers during the late nineteenth century, dominating British and alpine climbing for 20 years. Mummery was a bold visionary climber who pushed the ethic of climbing without mountain guides, putting up many classic first ascents in the Alps and becoming one of the first climbers to attempt an 8,000-meter peak.
Mummery was Passionate about Climbing
Albert Mummery at first glance appears to be an unlikely climber. Photographs of Mummery show a fine-featured thin man with a high forehead and thick wire-frame glasses dressed in a Tweed coat and vest with a high-collared white shirt and tie rather than a rough-and-tumble grizzled mountain man in worn rustic garb. Indeed, Mummery was a somewhat frail child with a weak spine who even as an adult was unable to carry heavy packs in the mountains. One of his colleagues remarked, “He could not carry heavy loads – he simply had to go fast and light.” While he was not athletically inclined, Mummery compensated for any shortcomings by having a passionate love for mountains and climbing. He also possessed an ideal climber’s body-type with a tall skinny build, long arms with a positive ape-index, and massive hands.
Visited Matterhorn as a Schoolboy
Mummery was born and raised in the seaport of Dover on England’s southeast coast. He came from a prosperous family in the tanning business and his father was mayor of Dover, allowing him to pursue academic studies as well as climbing. After visiting the Swiss Alps as a schoolboy, Albert Mummery was smitten with mountains. The image of the Matterhorn glimmering high and inaccessible in the moonlight stayed with him until he returned in 1874 at age 19 and repeated Edward Whymper’s daring route up the Hörnli Ridge.
First Ascent of Zmutt Ridge
Starting in the late 1870s, Mummery, accompanied by various guides, did many first ascents in the Alps, including the first ascent of the Zmutt Ridge on the Matterhorn in 1879. Mummery and his three companions bivouacked at the base of the red, huddling under blankets and drinking their provisions, including cognac, beer, and red wine. The next day they climbed the ridge and descended the Hörnli Ridge.
First Ascent of Col du Lion
Albert Mummery did many more climbs in the Alps over the following years, including the impressive first traverse of the Col du Lion with guide Alexander Burgener in 1880. The pair swapped leads up a steep ice gully until Burgener broke his ice axe. Mummery sent his up the end of the rope but when Burgener threw the rope down, it snagged on rocks so Mummery had to solo up tiny steps chopped in the ice to free the rope. Later that summer they did a new route on the Grands Charmoz, climbing and descending from Chamonix in a fast 14-hour day. Upon returning they ran to the railway station and took the train to Zermatt, where two days later the pair climbed the Furggen Ridge on the Matterhorn, with a finish up the Hörnli Ridge.
Other Notable Alpine Climbs
Mummery’s other notable Alps first ascents include the Dürrenhorn, Teufelsgrat on Täschhorn, Dent du Requin, the West Face of the Plan, the first guideless ascent of the Brenva Face on Mont Blanc, and the now-classic Aiguille du Grépon with its classic Mummery Crack. The only photo of Mummery in climbing action is on this namesake crack. Albert married Mary in 1883, who was also a climber, and he often climbed with Mary and her friend Lily Bristow, who took the Mummery action photograph. Bristow was probably the leading woman climber at the time, usually leading pitches on her climbs. Bristow and Mummery’s climbing partnership ended in 1893, probably at Mary’s insistence.
Climbs in the Caucasus
In 1888, Albert Mummery began exploring the Caucasus in the wilds of southeastern Russia, a wild and remote region of high mountains including Mount Elbrus, highest mountain in Europe. Mummery and guide Heinrich Zurfluh traveled eight days by train and then another three days on ponies to a base camp at Bezingi. They explored the mostly unmapped range and settled on attempting 17,074-foot (5,180-meter) Dych Tau, the highest unclimbed peak in the Caucasus. The pair climbed icy couloirs and then worked up a steep ridge of crumbling rock to the lofty summit.
Mummery was a Modern Climber
Albert Mummery, the precursor of the modern alpinist, not only attempted difficult technical routes and first ascents but also climbed often without guides. He wrote of an ascent of the Charmoz: “This time we were without guides, for we had learnt the great truth that those who wish to really enjoy the pleasures of mountaineering must roam the upper snows trusting exclusively to their own skill and knowledge.”
Small Expedition to Himalayas in 1895
In June of 1895, Albert Mummery went to the Himalayas in central Asia with only two other climbers, Norman Collie and Geoffrey Hastings, in a bid to climb a high mountain in today’s sparse lightweight alpine style with no supplemental oxygen, a small climbing party, and no fixed ropes or camps. Mummery’s lack of knowledge, however, of the world’s highest mountains and their particular and dangerous challenges doomed the expedition. Mummery drastically underestimated the difficulties of Himalayan climbing, viewing them as just mountains higher than the Caucasus and the Alps.
Attempted to Climb Nanga Parbat
The team’s objective was the first ascent of 26,660 foot (8,125-meter) Nanga Parbat, the ninth highest mountain in the world. The mountain was high, accessible, and impressive. Mummery appears to have viewed it as merely a larger version of Dych Tau. After exploring different aspects of the mountain, the party settled on attempting the Diamir Face. After reaching about 20,000 feet, the party retreated with altitude sickness, although Mummery did fine. Collie wrote, “…Mummery never felt the least fatigue. He led the whole way—sometimes in deep powder snow; sometimes he had to cut steps for nearly an hour at a time… Certainly that day the rarified air had not the slightest effect on him.”
Mummery Dies in Avalanche
After failing on the Diamir Face, Mummery decided to attempt an easier route from the Rakhiot Valley. To reach the upper Rakhiot Glacier, the 40-year-old Mummery set out with Raghobir Thampa and Goman Singh, two Gurkhas, on August 24, 1895 but disappeared. It is thought that the three, the first recorded climbing fatalities in the Himalayas, perished in an avalanche. Their bodies were never found until the 1990s when a climber found a boot with a foot bone inside that possibly belonged to Albert Mummery.
Buy Albert Mummery’s classic book: My Climbs in the Alps and Caucasus