Restored 125-year-old footage reveals how Victorians used to mountaineer

1899 mountaineers on Mont Blanc
(Image credit: historycolored / Instagram)

“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there,” wrote author LP Hartley in his novel The Go-Between. He may well have been referring to mountaineering, if this newly-resorted and colorized vintage footage is anything to go by.

Originating in 1899, it shows a team of Victorian climbers on the Mer de Glace on Mont Blanc in France, dressed like they’re about to pop into the local bank and ask for a loan, with satchels rather than backpacks and equipped with variously topped walking sticks that look alarming likely to snap at any moment.

But that’s Victorian adventurers for you. A spot of mountaineering is no more of a trifle than a Sunday afternoon promenade. (Here’s what hiking a glacier on Mont Blanc Massif looks like today.)

The restored footage was posted on the Instagram account History Colored. The original film comes from the Lumiere Archives, and History Colored has used AI to clean it up, increase the frame rate* and colorize it.

(* “Increase the frame rate”, by the way, doesn’t mean “speed it up” as some viewers of the clip seem to think – it means adding more virtual frames between existing frames to make the action appear smoother; in other words, there will be more frames per second, avoiding the jerkiness that characterizes a lot of early film footage.)

One things that’s really noticeable is that they’re climbing in a pre-crampon age, but it was guys like this who popularized mountain trekking as a leisure activity, who paved the way for crampons being invented.

They would become popular after 1908, when English climber and bouldering pioneer Oscar Eckenstein designed what is generally considered the prototype for the modern-day crampon. Eckstein worked with a blacksmith to design a steel device with 10 long, sharp spikes that could be attached to regular hiking boots. (Thing is, we’re not even sure these guys are wearing hiking boots…)