Bellingham man to celebrate his 1959 trek over the Alps with Jumbo the elephant

Bellingham resident John Hoyte plans to attend a 50th reunion this summer that is a world apart from the standard high school or college get-together.

He plans to rendezvous soon with colleagues from the British Alpine Hannibal Expedition.

That was Hoyte's headline-grabbing, 1959 trek over the French Alps with an elephant to explore where Hannibal might have crossed more than 2,000 years earlier with an army and elephants to attack Rome. The expedition led an 11-year-old, female Indian elephant from a small town in France back to her home in the zoo in Turin, Italy.

"Our theme song was 'Walkin' My Baby Back Home,'" said Hoyte, showing the light touch so abundant in "Alpine Elephant, In Hannibal's Tracks," his charming 1960 book.

Hoyte moved to Bellingham 11 years ago with his wife, Luci Shaw, to be near her daughter's family. Now 76 and semi-retired, he commutes regularly to California to oversee the environmental-instrument manufacturing firm he founded more than 40 years ago.


Moving around, with and without elephants, has played a big role in Hoyte's life. His British father and American mother were medical missionaries, and he was born in China, where he spent four years in a school-turned-prison during the Japanese occupation in World War II.

After the war, his folks settled near London. Hoyte served two years in the British army, then enrolled at Cambridge University to study engineering.

Also a fan of history and mountain climbing, he paid extra attention when the London Times published a debate between two professors about the route Hannibal, a general from Carthage, might have used in 218 B.C. to lead perhaps 50,000 troops and at least 37 elephants over the southern French Alps.

Intrigued, Hoyte and some friends studied classical writings about Hannibal - not much of a writer, himself - and spent the summer of 1956 exploring the Alps to find which passes best matched details about Hannibal's nine-day ascent to the spot where he found a morale-boosting view of the Po Valley and a steep drop into Italy.

They decided Hannibal's likely route was Col de Clapier, a nearly 8,200-foot pass.

A few years later, while an apprentice engineer in England, a friend asked Hoyte about testing his theory with an actual elephant.

"I didn't get to sleep that night," Hoyte recalled. "If only we could get an elephant over a pass."

So he dashed off letters to British consuls in Lyons, France; Geneva, Switzerland; and Turin, Italy. Much to his surprise, he received a quick response from the consul in Turin saying the zoo owner there would loan the use of an elephant, and even provide food and a trainer.

The elephant's name was Jumbo.

"We wanted to call her Hannibella," Hoyte said, "or Bella for short."

Supported by several media sponsors and much good fortune, Hoyte led the nine-person expedition with surprisingly few mishaps and many good feelings. Along the way, villagers greeted them with parades, bands and tables brimming with local wines.

Jumbo, a circus elephant by training, proved steady afoot and showed her mischievous side, playing a mouth organ and spraying villagers with water.

"We were really attached to her by the end of the trip," Hoyte said.


Hoyte's journey could only hint at what Hannibal accomplished and endured. Hannibal crossed the Alps in the winter with thousands of soldiers and many elephants, without modern roads and facilities, and while under attack by mountain tribes along the way.

Nonetheless, Hoyte's venture was a hit. Life magazine published a seven-page story, one of more than 1,000 news stories worldwide, and Hoyte and his colleagues were featured speakers at a university in Rome.

Patrick Hunt, a Stanford University faculty member who has made numerous trips to the Alps to find archaeological evidence of Hannibal's journey, said the 1959 expedition rekindled interest in Hannibal's march and drew fresh attention to a "highly probable" route.

Short of someone finding irrefutable evidence, Hoyte knows his adventure 50 years ago won't settle the debate about where and how Hannibal entered Italy.

"I'm sure in 100 years people will still be studying this," he said.

For Hoyte, there's a larger lesson to be gained, one that transcends the particulars of history.

"Life is not boring," he said. "Go out and do something interesting."