Theodore Roosevelt was adamant about pursuing things worthwhile. He believed in spending time on activities that built up strength and character. When we speak of Roosevelt’s hobbies and adventures, these activities include boxing, hunting, horseback riding, etc. But on occasion, he took on one activity that we seldom discuss - mountain climbing. Mountaineering was increasingly popular during the Victorian Era and sported all of the things that appealed to Roosevelt. He was prone to pursue the physical exertion of climbing, the thrill of exploring seldom visited places, and the accomplishment of reaching the summit. Several of Roosevelt’s early letters describe his most memorable experiences climbing mountains.
When Roosevelt traveled to Europe as a child, he ascended Mount Vesuvius. The trip was taken on carriage, pony, and foot. Young Roosevelt stated, “I put my Alpine stick in one of the craters and it caught on fire.” Then, upon descending in dense dirt, he was very fatigued.
Letter from Theodore Roosevelt to Dora Watkins and Thomas Watkins, January 6, 1870.
Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University.
Electronic copy sponsored by the Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University.
For reproduction or publication permission, contact the Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Houghton Library.
As Roosevelt grew older, he accepted similar challenges with more perseverance. During his college years, just after his father passed away, Roosevelt climbed Maine’s Mount Katahdin. After losing a shoe and hiking in “moccasins,” Roosevelt wrote, “I got pretty foot sore while climbing the mountain; but nevertheless I was the only one of the three that reached the summit.”
And just a few years later, Roosevelt returned to Europe, on a tour with Alice Lee Roosevelt. On this trip he climbed the Matterhorn. Roosevelt approached the expedition with angst and claimed that “a man who has been up it [the Matterhorn] can fairly claim to have taken his degree as … a subordinate kind of mountaineer.” Earning his fair claim, Roosevelt made it to the top. A letter to his sister demonstrates his balanced appreciation for the physical vigor required to climb and the rewarding natural beauty of the mountain scenescape; “Still there is enough peril to make it exciting, and the work is very laborious, being as much with the hands as the feet … as hard coming down as going up. We left the hut at three-forty and, after seeing a glorious sunrise which crowned the countless snow peaks and billowy, white clouds with a crimson irradescence [sic], reached the summit at seven …”