The record of a remarkable climb of Monviso (3843m) survives in the municipal library at Garessio in Piedmont. The account, in English, dated 22 September 1898 records the ascent of the mountain over two days, 31 August to 1 September 1898, by H.H. West and his sister-in-law Mrs R.W. West. Her husband was the well-known Dublin born artist Richard Whately West (1848-1905) who lived permanently in Alassio from 1890 and had married Gertrude Ellen Ragg, the daughter of the Anglican vicar of Bordighera, in 1895. The Wests lived for several years in a villa directly facing the beach at Alassio, and 76 of his paintings are on show at the Richard West Memorial Gallery built in 1907 in the town. His elder brother H. H. West describes himself as a member of both the newly established (1897) ‘Circolo Alpino’ Garessio, and the London Alpine Club (1857). Garessio was increasingly popular as a cool summer resort for international tourists; this was helped by the building of the railway which linked the town to the coast at Savona.
The railway also meant that keen walkers and climbers could head for the Alps. Mr West and his sister-in-law took the 6am train from Garessio to Saluzzo, an eight hour journey, and then a carriage to Crissolo where they stayed overnight at the Albergo di Gallo where the landlord, Sign. Pilatone was ‘extremely obliging and pleasant’ but charged ‘exorbitantly’ for provisions. They hired a well-known local guide Claudio Perotti with two porters and set off the next morning at 9am. When they stopped for lunch at mid-day they saw a ‘curious spectacle – a chamois up on the hill-side running away, pursued at a distance by Perotti’s “cane da caccia”, a favourite dog which always accompanies him on the mountains’. There is a photograph of Perotti with his dog in the archive.
After lunch they kept climbing upwards: ‘up, up, up, “Excelsior, Excelsior”’ writes West quoting Longfellow’s poem ‘Excelsior’, which, set to music by Michael Balfe was an enormously popular duet in the late Victorian period, and reached the “Lago grande di Viso” (2593 m). There were several “ice-bergs” floating in the lake and West took advantage of the icy water to refresh himself ‘by an instantaneous plunge’. When they reached the top of the ‘laborious’ “Passo Della Sagnette” they saw ‘oh welcome sight! – the HUT’ or “Rifugio Quintino Sella” (3000m)” at 6pm. They slept the night there, leaving at 4.30am to climb the south face of Monviso in three hours. The climbers made good use of the “Guida Delle Alpi Occidentali” Vol I, published in 1889 by the Turin Section of the Italian Alpine Club, which ‘fully and admirably’ described this well-established route.
They stayed for one and a half hours on the summit ‘enjoying a most magnificent panorama’ and the ‘whole Pennine Range from Mont Blanc to Monte Rosa’ stood out clearly although dense clouds ‘concealed most of the Levantine and Ligurian Alps.’ The climbers were fascinated by the huge “uomo di pietra” at the summit and the ‘large iron cross’ which ‘had been erected there a few years ago by some of the guides’. This, and the bronze Madonna below it had been ‘consecrated in the presence of a large company of Alpinists, guides, officers, and peasants’ by Don Giacomo Lantermino, the parish priest of Crissolo, who had ‘climbed to the summit to say mass, notwithstanding his 70 years’ in July 1892.
They took a shorter route down the mountain passing two lakes ‘the laghetti of “Chiaretto” (- ancora un bagno!-) and “Fiorenza”’ the latter of which they crossed in a small boat. They stayed the night at the ‘primitive “Albergo Alpino” on the Pian del Re near the source of the river Po.’ The next morning they took the opportunity to visit the ‘colossal’ Rio Martino Cavern ‘which penetrates the mountain to the length of about 600 metres’ and which had many stalactites and stalagmites and an underground lake and cascade: ‘a most impressive and interesting natural phenomenon.’ At Crissolo they called in to see Don Lantermino the local priest who they found to be ‘a most interesting old gentleman and a musical genius with a gift of mechanical invention.’ West concluded his account by pointing out that the ascent was ‘very long and fatiguing, especially for ladies’ and that his sister-in-law was the only lady who had accomplished the ascent right to the summit this summer’.
West strongly recommended the excursion to members of the “Circolo Alpino.” It is not clear whether other members followed his recommendation, but the records do show that members actively undertook many climbs nearer to Garessio, and were keen on botany and celebratory dinners. The account confirms the very well established network of advice and assistance available to foreign visitors keen on climbing through professional guides, guidebooks and porters. It also shows the level of interaction between the visitors, enthusiastic Italian amateur climbers, priests and inn keepers.