In the early sixties an ex-fighter pilot named John Harlin lived and
worked in Leysin at the American College of Switzerland. A very
determined and charismatic mountaineer, he was eventually joined there
by Royal Robbins. Leysin became the 'basecamp' for leading American and
British alpinists of the day, such as Gary Hemming, Layton Kor, Dougal
Haston and Don Whillans. They began exploring the Leysin Tours
(limestone towers above Leysin up to 500ft high) and many of the classic
routes bear their names.
At that time there were still 'last great problems' to be solved in
the Alps. The South face of the Fou was unclimbed and there were no
'Directissimas' on the Dru West Face or the Eiger Nordwand. With
Robbins, Harlin succeeded on the first two objectives; then in 1965 he
made another far-reaching contribution to mountaineering by founding
The original aim of ISM was to introduce Americans to alpine
climbing. The first season was a great success and the future looked
bright when tragedy struck - Harlin was killed when a fixed rope broke
during the ascent of the Eiger Direct.
The group of elite climbers who had worked through the school's first
season decided to keep it running. Haston formally took on the
Directorship in 1967 and ran the school for ten years, building up a
truly international clientele while he himself remained at the cutting
edge of mountaineering.
ISM's fame spread rapidly, even into the movie business! Early in the
seventies ISM was the base for the making of The Eiger Sanction. Clint
Eastwood took the Alpine Introductory course and became so confident in
mountaineering techniques that he insisted on doing his own stunts!
In 1978 Pete Boardman (then the youngest person to have climbed
Everest) took over as Director. Scottish ice expert Gordon Smith worked
with Pete for a season then in 1979 Pat Littlejohn and Steve Jones were
invited to join the team. Pat was expected to provide the rock climbing
expertise and on arrival in Leysin he was escorted to an unclimbed roof
crack on the Tours. Fortunately the 'entrance exam' was passed and
resulted in the route 'Jaws' (British E5 and the hardest in the area for
ISM had always been staffed by leading climbers rather than qualified
Guides, but as President of the newly-formed association of British
Mountain Guides, Pete saw the importance of a professional qualification
and encouraged the ISM team to become Guides. After stunning successes
on Changabang and The Ogre, Pete disappeared while attempting an
unclimbed ridge of Everest in 1982, and once again the people involved
with ISM had to decide on a Director.
Pat Littlejohn accepted the role within a new structure - in future ISM would be run as a co-operative of member Guides.
The early 80's saw new advances in free climbing being applied to big
faces in the Alps which were previously ascended with artificial aid.
Pat and Steve were already leading exponents having free-climbed the
American Direct on the Dru as early as 1971. A decade later they
fulfilled their ambition of free-climbing Harlin's route on the Fou
(which still ranks among the toughest undertakings in the Chamonix area)
before Pat turned his attention to the Greater Ranges and made several
alpine-style first ascents including the NE Pillar of Taweche (with Mick
Fowler) in Nepal.
The eighties saw a steady expansion of ISM. Special courses, such as
treks and ski tours were introduced with great success and Jean
Pavillard led the first ISM Expedition, to Huascaran in Peru. The Leysin
team was strengthened by the addition of several guides, including
Steve Monks (orginally Bristol based and known for his many first
ascents, helping shape the sea cliffs of Pembroke S.Wales and Cornwall
England, more laterly making the first free ascent of the Totem Pole in
Tasmania), Terry Ralphs (a keen rock climber and very experienced
mountain guide and former Training officer to the BMG Guides
Association), Victor Saunders (leading British mountaineer and author
whose ascent of the Golden Pillar of Spantik was a landmark in
alpine-style climbing in the Himalaya), Adrian Nelhams (ice climbing
guru, rock climber and alpinist with many first ascents and hard repeats
in both the Canadian Rockies, Alaska and Central Asia) and Anders
Swensson (an English-speaking Swedish guide and widely travelled climber
who was a founder member of the Guides' Association of Sweden).
Since 1995 ISM expeditions have focused on remote regions of the Tien
Shan and Pamir mountains, making many first ascents and charting
previously unexplored territory. These ranges have only been opened up
to westerners since the collapse of the Soviet Union and ISM has taken a
leading role in their exploration. An adventurous approach, where
members climb 'alpine style' rather than relying on fixed ropes,
characterises these and all other ISM expeditions.
ISM is a great tradition. We hope that everyone who joins us in the
mountains will experience a part of that tradition, and we look to the
future with great enthusiasm and commitment.
Testimonials For ISM
"I loved the course and Terry was great. I learned a lot and had a lot of fun and feel confident and secure in my technique".
Thank for an amazing couple of weeks! Matt and Stu were fantastic. I learned so much but also had a lot of fun. I have come home feeling like a proper mountaineer, having made some great new friends and with some unforgettable memories. I plan to come back next year!