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Byron’s Epic Swims: The Alps

The Swiss AlpsTo this day, no one has been able to recreate the feat of naiant heroics that Byron managed in the dark fall of 1816.

Having finished buggering Percy Bysshe Shelley senseless, Bryon decided to spend the winter in Venice. He also determined that he would swim there, OVER the Swiss Alps.

The first part of his journey was relatively straightforward. He did the backstroke up Lake Geneva (Leman) to the burbling Rhone, heading east towards the headwaters of the famous river. Once in the current of the river itself, Byron was forced to use the front crawl almost exclusively.

Through difficult rapids, he developed a new kind of stroke in which his body made a dolphin-like wave motion, with synchronous leg kicks and arm strokes.  This was not named until later in the century, when a young Australian Sidney Cavil “invented” the Butterfly or “fly” stroke.

It is a good thing he had this stroke in his aquatic arsenal, because the Rhone was a torrent from Brig all the way to Valais, where the river began as an effluent of the Rhone Glacier.

Here though, Byron faced a major challenge. How to penetrate the divide between the Western and Eastern Alps. As he shivered by the deep blue wall of the Rhone Glacier, Bryron was met by what he relates in a letter to his friend: “A wizened, and strange man, with white fur covering his feet.”

This “eldritch long-bearded creature” told Bryon there was a way to swim underneath the glacier and through the mountains, to emerge in Val Bedretto, on the Ticino River.  He promised to tell Byron the way, and in exchange, Bryon would write a poem for him. Byron supposed odd little person was either mad, or one of the lost fairy folk of Europe, but he had no other options. He could seek his help, or end his swim at the glacier. He agreed, and wrote a poem for the creature — a poem that is lost to us today. All we know is that Byron called it “The Berbagazi”. (Probably named for the Swiss folk creature, the Barbegazi.)

Byron never related what happened to him as he swam under the mountains, but later, he wrote the poem “Darkness” which opens with the ominous, cold and claustrophobic lines:

I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguished, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy Earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;
Morn came and went–and came, and brought no day

Many believe this poem was about the darkness in Europe caused by the massive eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia, and Bryon even says this was the inspiration in his journal, but now we know otherwise.

Byron Swims the Alps, Circa 1816

Once he had traversed the bowels of the Alps, it was an easy matter for Byron to swim downstream to Lake Maggiore, out through the Ticino, where it eventually runs into the Po. Compared with the earlier part of his journey, the Po was a relatively easy swim.

Byron followed the Po to its estuary, which led to the Adriatic Sea, and his goal, the fabled city of Venice.

Alltop also has hairy white feet. Alps photo by Artur Staszewski on Flickr.