ISM Celebrating 50 years

ISM Celebrating 50 years of alpinISM


In 1965 John Harlin, a leading mountaineer of his time founded the ‘International School of Mountaineering – ISM’ in Leysin. (In 1962 Harlin made the first American ascent of the classic ‘1938’ route on the North Face of the Eiger and the first ascent of the American Direct on the Dru).

Harlin was a leading light in the American mountaineering circles and a US Air Force fighter pilot. He then started teaching at the Leysin American School (LAS) and in his down time taught rock climbing to students on the Leysin tours. The courses expanded to the mountains of the Swiss Valais and as his love of being in the mountains increased, he left LAS to guide full time. ISM ran its operations from the infamous Club Vagabond, which was central not only to life in Leysin, but also known throughout Switzerland as ‘the place to visit when in Europe!’ It was a hostel, bar, late night watering hole and disco rolled in one. Travellers came, stayed, sometimes for months, then left, locals would party, ISM students would try and get some rest there in-between days out climbing on the Leysin tours and mountaineering in the main alpine massif.

Sadly, Harlin died while attempting a direct line up the North Face of the Eiger when his rope broke and he fell to his death.


At the time, his good friend and climbing partner Dougal Haston, who was there attempting the climb with Harlin, joined forces with Jörg Lehne, Günther Strobel, Roland Votteler and Siegfried Hupfauer (who were also on the climb) to complete the route in Harlin’s memory. They named the route the ‘Harlin Direct’

Dougal Haston, who was born in Currie on the outskirts of Edinburgh, naturally then became Director of ISM in 1967. In 1970, Dougal along with Don Whillans and Chris Bonington made an historic first ascent of the South Face of Annapurna, the first big Himalayan face on an 8000m peak to be climbed. Then, in 1975, he and Doug Scott were the first to conquer Mount Everest by the South West Face also on a Bonington led expedition.

Back in Leysin Dougal spent much time with Arianne Giobellina, they climbed and skied together making the first winter ascent of Cascade du Dar in Diablerets, the first icefall to be climbed in Switzerland. Unfortunately, an avalanche killed Dougal in January 1977 while he was skiing alone above Leysin on the northeast face of La Riondaz. He is buried in Leysin. Arianne still lives in Leysin and runs Chalet Ermina, a B&B that ISM uses as a base and meeting area for its guides.


At that time Pete Boardman was also living and climbing around Leysin and helping out at the school. Pete was another key figure in the world of modern mountaineering and best known for a series of bold and lightweight expeditions to the Himalayas, often in partnership with Joe Tasker. Pete took over the directorship of ISM in the summer of 1977.

By 1979, with the help of Pat Littlejohn, Steve Jones and Gordon Smith, ISM was still based at Club Vagabond and ran courses for an ever-growing number of clients - reaching 25 that summer! ISM’s first client was Larry Ware who you will still see around Leysin and is always keen to talk about the days when ISM was based at Club Vagabond.

Sadly, in 1982 Pete disappeared on the North East Ridge of Mount Everest along with Tasker. The Boardman Tasker Prize for Mountain Literature was established in their memory.

Exert from the AMGA archives:

The History of the AMGA (American Mountain Guides Association)

The story of American guides goes back many years and can almost be traced to the year its international partner, the International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations (UIAGM/IFMGA) was founded, 1965. It was in this same year that American John Harlin founded the International School of Mountaineering in Leysin, Switzerland. Soon other guides joined the ISM, familiar names such as Royal Robins, Gary Hemming, Layton Kor, and Brits Dougal Haston and Don Whillans. Even though the ISM did not officially require instructors to be UIAGM certified guides until about 1980 (largely through the urging of then-President Pete Boardman), certainly both organizations had long been keenly aware of each others’ developments. But, it wouldn’t be until 1997 that the two organizations would be officially tied together.


In 1983, Pat Littlejohn picked up the reins and took on the directorship of ISM. Pat was very well known in the climbing world for his hard traditional routes on Cornish and Pembroke sea cliffs in the UK, including alpine routes such as an almost free ascent of the Hemming-Robbins route on the W Face of the Dru in 1971 and a decade later the South Face of the Fou. In 1995 with Mick Fowler, they make an audacious ascent of the NE Pillar of Taweche in Nepal. In 2008, Pat was awarded an OBE for services to mountaineering, for his achievements and untiring efforts to ensure that mountaineering’s unique ‘spirit of adventure’ is kept alive within the sport.

Pat along with his partner Eira, Steve Jones and Steve Monks all grew the school keeping the passion and adventurous spirit of mountaineering alive through the courses that ISM ran. The team grew with Terry Ralphs, Adrian Nelhams, Anders Swensson and Thomas Hallen all joining ISM as the client numbers grew. The summer programme was expanded to include a winter icefall climbing programme and ski touring courses and adventurous exploratory expeditions to virgin summits in Kyrgyzstan and the Andes quickly followed.

ISM grew from strength to strength becoming known as the foremost English speaking mountaineering school in the Alps. The Vagabond closed its doors and ISM moved to the Hotel Grand Chalet, which became and still is ISM’s home in Leysin today.

ISM grew to a point where the old ‘Co-op’ style of running the school did not really fit anymore so ISM became a Limited Company with the then ‘co-opted’ members becoming directors. Pat continued at the helm, running ISM and being the overall figurehead.

In 2013, for the first time in ISM’s history a director out-lived his role and retired from post. He, along with Steve Jones, who also retired with him, were awarded a Piolet D’or for their tireless enthusiasm and commitment to ISM.


That same year Adrian Nelhams then took over the directorship of ISM. Adrian's been part of ISM and the Leysin scene for almost twenty years and has early ascents to his name including the first Solo British ascent of the North Face of the Matterhorn and the first winter ascent of the Bonatti Pillar on the Dru. Adrian has climbed routes including the Salathe’ Wall in Yosemite, through to new routes in Alaska, Canada and Kyrgyzstan. He is known for his specialism in climbing frozen waterfalls around the world and his knowledge and experience is second to none. Adrian, along with his wife Sally drive the new face of ISM from their home in the Lake District, UK. ISM continues to run a comprehensive programme of instructional summer alpine courses for which ISM is famous for, guided climbing courses, private guiding, winter icefall climbing, and ski touring, off-piste skiing and expeditions to Kyrgyzstan and the Andes.

ISM’s roots are still very much in Leysin with Jacky Bonelli now running the Grand Chalet from his retired father Vivio and Blaise Hefti now in charge of Hefti Sports having taken over from his father Monsieur Hefti. A generation on, Leysin is still a thriving mountain village in the Pre Alps, close to Geneva and ISM continues as a thriving mountaineering school which is still run by guides that are at the top of their game, well-respected and at the leading edge in the field of mountaineering, with a passion for adventure and exploration within the sport of climbing.

We have a number of new guides coming through the school who we hope will pass on their passion and love for the mountains to the clients who join us today. Stuart McAleese, Paolo Intropido and Gary Dickson make up a strong team of experienced and very well, qualified guides, which we hope, will allow ISM to grow and continue long into the future.

Adrian Nelhams – Director, ISM