In 218 BC, Carthaginian general Hannibal took a group of elephants over the Alps in order to fight the Roman Empire in style. Since then, people have speculated as to the route he took. In 1959, a small group of people with an elephant decided to conduct a test.
Hannibal wasn’t always a famous fictional murderer. At one point he was best known as a tragic historical figure. He was a prominent citizen of Carthage, one of the powers warring with the emerging Roman empire. At one point he brought over 200 elephants from Spain into Rome, a feat that involved marching them over the Alps. This worked surprisingly well, and he managed to raise hell in Italy for over a decade until the Roman invasion of the territory near Carthage forced him back home. The rest of his life involved a depressing alternation between military defeats or betrayals until he committed suicide by poisoning himself.
No wonder people prefer to focus on the elephants. Elephants are inherently funny animals, as this image of one trying to look casual after clearly having fallen on its ass proves. They are best known for being huge, needing a lot of food and water, and having inflexible knees and flat feet from walking around a level plain for the last several million years. Natural mountain climbers, they are not. And so many people have spent two millennia wondering how they got over the Alps.
Many routes have been suggested, and some have been rejected on the grounds that no elephant could make either the climb or the descent. In 1959, John Hoyte, a student at Cambridge University and amateur mountain climber, decided to prove at least one route passable by the simple method of grabbing an actual elephant and walking over the actual Alps.
Hoyte got the elephant, a female known as Jumbo, from a zoo in Turin. He put together a team of cooks, mule drivers, and a veterinary science professor and World War II veteran, Colonel John Hickman, to come along. Hickman pointed out that Jumbo wouldn’t find it comfortable to get over the Alps after a lifetime spent in the circus. To keep the elephant from getting hurt, Hickman designed boots for the expedition. To keep Jumbo from getting cold, he made her a giant coat.
Outfitted right, and sponsored by Life Magazine, which ran a photo spread of the expedition, they started out in Montmelian, France. Hoyte had spent a summer navigating the Alps, and he was sure that Hannibal had gone through the Clapier Pass. He might have proved that it was feasible, if he had managed to get the expedition together one year earlier. The season he set out, the Clapier Pass experienced a landslide. If it once had been passable for elephants, it wasn’t anymore.
Fortunately for the expedition, other routes were open. They backtracked and made it through the Mt. Cenis Pass. The expedition took ten days, with Jumbo losing about fifty pounds each day. At the end of the trip, they came down into Susa, Italy.
There’s no way to prove which route Hannibal took (unless someone finds an elephant coprolite or something). However, Hoyte did manage to show that elephants can make the trip over the Alps.