Wednesday, October 5, 2022

Arctic dreams in Autochrome (2)

Continued: the chequered origins of polar photography in colour

... Alas, Captain Scott was not impressed. In his journal entry for 25 April 1911, he wrote that “Ponting has taken some coloured pictures, but the result is not very satisfactory and the plates are much spotted”. There was nothing personal in this judgment, by the way. On Scott’s previous expedition in 1901–04, his surgeon Reginald Koettlitz had produced the first colour pictures ever made in Antarctica, using an even more laborious method than Autochrome. But these too were rejected for publication.

A colour picture of the Endurance by Frank Hurley, 1914-15
By courtesy of the State Library of New South Wales (via Wikipedia)

Another contender for Best Polar Colour Image of the Belle Époque was Frank Hurley. Accompanying Ernest Shackleton on his aptly named Endurance expedition (1914-17), the Australian photographer made a number of colour images of the expedition’s ship stuck fast in the ice. He used a process marketed by the Paget Prize Plate Company, a would-be rival of the Autochrome. When the expeditioners had to abandon their ice-shattered ship, Hurley thought well enough of the results to take some of these images with him. But the photographs that made his name are all black-and-white.

The fact is, Captain Scott was right. As a way of efficiently representing the world in colour, neither the Autochrome nor the Paget process was ready for prime time. Indeed, Scott’s rival and nemesis, Roald Amundsen, had no truck with it. In his race for the South Pole, in late 1911, the Norwegian explorer didn’t even bring along the expedition’s large-plate camera. This left his sledgemate Olav Bjaaland (1873–1961) to document the journey with his amateurish Kodak 3 x 3, in plain black-and-white.

Amundsen's expedition at the South Pole (hand-tinted slide) 
Image courtesy of the Fram Museum, Oslo

After his return to civilisation, Amundsen may have had cause to regret this photographic parsimony. Slide lectures, which were critical for defraying the costs of an expedition, depended on good imagery. And colour would make the images yet more compelling. The Norwegian explorer made up this deficit at his first homeward port of call. Taking the expedition’s negatives to a local photographer in Hobart, Australia, he had them made into hand-coloured glass positives. More were produced later. Not everybody was impressed. Scott’s widow, Kathleen, who went to one of Amundsen’s lectures, thought the hand-coloured slides looked ‘faked’.

Like Amundsen, the Swiss expeditioners were left with substantial debts to repay after their return to Zurich in the autumn of 1912. And, whether or not they actually knew of Amundsen’s gambit, they ultimately followed in his photographic footsteps.

Hand-tinted glass slide of Inuit children, by Arnold Heim
Courtesy of ETH-Bibliothek, Zurich

Probably, it was the Swiss geologist Arnold Heim (1882–1965) who actually showed them the way. On his way to inspect mineral deposits in Disko Bay, Heim had travelled with Alfred de Quervain on the latter’s first trip to Greenland in 1909. Together with the botanist Martin Rikli (1868–1951), Heim wrote up his trip in a popular book that came out in 1911. It was illustrated with hand-coloured photos showing the island’s inhabitants and landscapes.

Landscape in Greenland by the Swiss 1912 expedition
Courtesy of the ETH-Bibliothek, Zurich

In the end, none of the 1912 expedition’s Autochrome plates appeared in de Quervain’s book, except for that lone frontispiece. Instead, he took the black-and-white images to Wilhelm Heller, a professional retoucher working at Sumatrastrasse 3, Zurich, and had them hand-coloured. 

Igner Ohlsen: the hand-painted glass slide version
Courtesy of the ETH-Bibliothek, Zurich

One of these was the image of Igner Ohlsen that was eventually to appear in de Quervain’s book (above). She looks notably more relaxed in the hand-coloured version, which probably reflects the shorter exposure time for a black-and-white picture.

As Heller had never been near the Arctic, he had to take his colour cues from de Quervain’s instructions. In this sense, the resulting lantern slides are tricked out in the very hues of memory itself.


Alfred de Quervain, Quer durchs Grönlandeis, 1914, now available in translation as Across Greenland’s ice cap, McGill-Queen’s University Press, May 2022, with more than sixty colour images from the expedition.

Patricia M Millar, "Filtering ‘ways of seeing’ through their lenses: representations of Antarctic exploration by lesser known Heroic Era photographers", MSc thesis, University of Tasmania, 2013.

Tamiko Rex, South with Endurance: Shackleton's Antarctic Expedition 1914-1917 ( the Photographs of Frank Hurley), BCL Press, January 2001.

Liz Watkins, “Mapping the Antarctic: Photography, colour and the scientific expedition in public exhibition”, Chapter 24 in Lindsay W MacDonald, Carole P Biggam, Galina V Paramei, Progress in colour studies. cognition, language and beyond, John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2018.

Friday, September 30, 2022

Arctic dreams in Autochrome (1)

How the polar pioneers pursued photography in colour – and then sidestepped its challenges

Captain Scott was cool on colour. The Antarctic hero saw to it that, photographically, his expeditions were documented in black-and-white. If colour illustrations were needed at all, they could come from the deft paintbrush of Edward Wilson, the expedition’s doctor.

Yet, in April 1912, probably just a few days after Scott and Wilson breathed their last, a small Swiss expedition took ship for Greenland. Led by Alfred de Quervain (1879–1927), they made the first west-to-east crossing of the island’s ice cap – and recorded their adventures in a trove of colour images. One of these photographs, now preserved for posterity at the ETH Library in Zurich, captures something of the leader’s rugged and energetic personality:

So how did this expedition immortalise itself in colour, more than two decades before the advent of Kodachrome?

When the Swiss explorers reached Godthaab on Greenland’s west coast, de Quervain records that “We had a chance to use the darkroom of the Greenlander Jon Möller to develop our colour photographs.”

We? Who exactly was it who developed those colour images? Skilled photographers were not lacking on this expedition. Its most senior member, August Stolberg (1864–1945), was also the expedition’s most practised and professional photographer. As early as 1888, he’d hauled his camera around the cathedrals of France for a noted series of handbooks on architectural monuments.

August Stolberg (lower right) with the other members
of the Swiss 1912 expedition to Greenland (Wikipedia)

Appropriately for a photographer, his interests spanned both arts and sciences. He’d studied art history in Munich, Zurich, Bern and Strassburg, then a German city, but also attended lectures in geography and geophysics. From 1900, he was active as a scientific assistant in the meteorological service for Alsace-Lorraine.

With his boss Hugo Hergesell, Stolberg took part in Germany’s first piloted balloon flights for scientific purposes. In May 1900, they flew from Friedrichshafen over the Zugspitze and landed in the Tyrol, thus completing one of the earliest transalpine flights.

Later, Stolberg worked in an international committee for coordinating weather balloon observations, also under Dr Hergesell. It was here, in Strassburg, that he made the acquaintance of Alfred de Quervain, who served as the committee’s secretary up to 1906.

Launching a weather balloon in Greenland, 1912

A decade and a half older than de Quervain, Stolberg became a kind of mentor to him. Under Stolberg’s tutelage, the Swiss scientist qualified as a balloon pilot. And in 1909 the two men joined forces to make a first foray to Greenland’s west coast. This experience paved the way for the later expedition. But, as we shall see, he was probably not responsible for the expedition’s colour photos.

In 1912, colour photography was still in its nascent phase. The Lumière brothers of Lyon had patented a mosaic-screen process in 1903, launching it commercially in 1907. Their Autochrome plates continued to be the most widely used way of making colour prints until colour films appeared during the 1930s. And it was an Autochrome that was developed in Godthaab.

Although Autochromes needed much longer exposure times than black-and-white emulsions, one of the expedition’s photographers took at least one more on their journey up Greenland’s west coast. Later in April, the party interrupted their sea voyage at Sarfanguak, where they stayed with David Ohlsen, the local representative of the Danish authorities.

Ohlsen would be critical to the Swiss expeditioners’ success. He had taken upon himself the almost impossible task of teaching them how to drive dog sledges – in less than a month. Yet, in a bootcamp lasting just ten days, he did manage to instil sufficient polar travel skills to ensure their survival.

The company of Ohlsen’s daughters meant a lot to the expeditioners: “Agatha and Igner helped or entertained us with their harmonica playing, a talent possessed by David Ohlsen too,” records de Quervain.

The above Autochrome photo of Igner Ohlsen was made during this visit. An image of Igner would be one of just two colour illustrations to grace the first edition of de Quervain’s book about the ice cap crossing. But, as we shall see, it would not be this one.

The photographer who brought that wry smile – or is it a grimace – to Igner’s lips was Wilhelm Jost (1882–1964). As de Quervain records, “Jost was also an excellent colour photographer, whose most thankful subjects were the Holstensborg beauties in their flamboyant costumes.”

As a glaciologist and expert alpinist, Jost’s role was to stay behind on Greenland’s west coast, together with Stolberg and Professor Mercanton. While de Quervain’s four-man party dashed across the ice cap, this scientific triumvirate would make weather observations and survey a glacier. And to document the latter, Jost would wield a large-format camera to expose plates measuring a generous 13 by 18 centimetres. Researchers are still using some of these images today, as they assess the melting rate of Greenland’s coastal glaciers.

Wilhelm Jost (seated, right) with other members 
of the "Western Party" and two porters, 1912

By early August, de Quervain’s traverse party had completed their traverse, reaching safety at the settlement of Angmagssalik on the east coast. Driving their sledges some 640 kilometres in just 31 days, they had worthily vindicated themselves as graduates of Ohlsen’s crash course in dog handling. Unsurprisingly, they had no time to take Autochromes along the way.

After the traverse team and Professor Mercanton had returned to Europe, Stolberg and Jost overwintered at the Danish Arctic Station in Godhavn. There they completed their series of weather observations, making a total of 120 weather balloon launches into the winter night skies. One balloon, they estimated, may have reached the staggering altitude of 39,000 metres.

Jost also continued to experiment with Autochrome photography. It was during this sojourn that an Autochrome photo showing the first sunrise after the polar night was taken. In 1914, this photo supplied the colour frontispiece for the first edition of de Quervain’s book:

Frontispiece to Alfred de Quervain's
Quer durchs Grönlandeis (1914)

Jost’s sunrise – at least, we assume it was Jost’s – may be one of the most compelling colour images to be made on a pre-1914 polar expedition. Although there could be some competition for that appraisal. 

Autochrome image by Herbert Ponting, 1911
(National Gallery of Australia)

Captain Scott’s talented and energetic photographer Herbert Ponting also experimented with Autochrome. Taken on 1 April 1911, his study of the evening afterglow from Camp Evans (above) makes the most of the dreamy, hazy quality of this new medium.

Alas, Captain Scott was not impressed ...

Friday, September 23, 2022

The dog days of Dr Hans Hössli, MD

Compiling the annual Jahresbericht of the Academic Alpine Club of Zurich can be a thankless task. “We can’t publish the promised report,” fumed its editor two years before the First World War, “because H. Hoessli is too lazy to write it up and says we should just read the NZZ articles.”

Hans Hoessli (left) and other members of the Swiss
Greenland expedition of 1912

Lazy or not, Hans Hössli MD did have a tale to tell. In the autumn of 1912, he and his companions had just returned to Switzerland after making what was only the second successful crossing of Greenland’s icecap.

As the expedition’s doctor, Hössli could be proud that everyone had come through safe and sound. They’d covered 640 kilometres in just 31 days, yet this was more than a sporting feat. “We can be satisfied with our scientific results,” wrote Alfred de Quervain, their leader, pointing to the trove of topographical and meteorological data they’d brought back.

Weather was, in fact, de Quervain’s profession. After studying natural sciences in Bern and helping to discover what would soon be called the stratosphere, he became adjunct-director in 1906 of Switzerland’s national weather service. His first visit to Greenland in 1909 showed him that serious work remained to be done there. A better understanding of the island’s upper atmosphere would help to explain Europe’s weather systems. Besides, the icecap was still largely unexplored.

Indeed, nobody had succeeded in skiing right across Greenland since Fridtjof Nansen in 1888, although several explorers had managed to lose their lives or digits in forays since. When de Quervain proposed a longer, more northerly traverse line than Nansen’s, experts warned that he was biting off more than he could chew.

The Swiss expedition's track across Greenland,
as planned and executed in June/July 1912

Moreover, this privately financed venture would have to be light and fast, to avoid the need to overwinter in Greenland. This would mean starting from the more populated west coast, then navigating with exquisite precision to a pre-placed cache of supplies. This awaited them on the sparsely settled east coast, at a spot where the map could not be trusted. If they didn’t find the depot, nobody would ever hear of them again.

As a scholar and a risk-taker, de Quervain looked for like-minded companions. Besides Hössli, these were Karl Gaule, an ETH Zurich-trained engineer, and Roderich Fick, an architect. A supporting party mustered three additional scientists, who would stay on the west coast and make weather observations. One of these, Wilhelm Jost, a physicist-turned-glaciologist, was a member of the Academic Alpine Club of Bern.

The expeditioners: Roderich Fick, Karl Gaule,
Alfred de Quervain and Hans Hössli (l. to r.)

For his part, Hössli was impeccably qualified. His father was a doctor in St Moritz who’d served many years as the president of the Swiss Alpine Club’s Bernina section. Having himself passed the state medical examinations in 1908, Hössli worked in Basel for Professor Fritz du Quervain, the meteorologist’s brother, and later pursued studies in surgical orthopaedics for a further academic qualification, the “Habilitation”, in Zurich.

Equally to the point, his CV featured an impressive roster of alpine climbs and first ascents. He’d accomplished four new routes just in the summer of 1903, two with the hard-climbing, cigarillo-chomping railroad engineer Paul Schucan, a leading light of the AACZ and two more with Christian Klucker, the veteran guide from Val Fex.

As de Quervain said, “In Hössli, I appreciated above all, besides his skills as an alpinist, his medical and surgical knowledge, which turned out to be very helpful.” Yet that, as it turned out, was scarcely half of the doctor’s eventual contribution to their joint success.

Roderich Fick in one of the expedition's kayaks

To weld his crew together, de Quervain sent them to the Engadine in winter. Given their alpine experience, they took this shake-down trip in their stride. Kayaking was another matter: a practice session on Lake Zurich ended ignominiously after Gaule and Fick went swimming and had to be rescued.

This was not the only “x” in de Quervain’s plans. To get across Greenland during the short arctic summer, they’d need dogs to haul their sledges. Man-hauling them, as Nansen did (after his party had to prematurely eat their pony), would be too slow. But none of them knew how to drive dogs.

Breaking their steamer journey up Greenland’s west coast in late April 1912, the traverse party gave themselves barely a month to learn this difficult art. Instructed by David Ohlsen, a local Greenlander, they soon got to grips with the basics: “If the dog on the right side of the team doesn’t want to pull, don’t hit the one on the left.”

Alfred de Quervain gets to grips with a dog team
West Greenland, May/June 1912

Alas, practice did not make perfect. Learning how to wield a whip like a Greenlander hurt them more than it did the hounds. They were appalled and intimidated by a dog pack’s everyday savagery. But then de Quervain had an extraordinary stroke of luck. His expedition doctor turned out to have an unusual talent for dog-handling.

By default, Hössli also became the specialist in patching up the sledge gear. This skill would prove crucial, as, once on the icecap, the dogs would chew up their harnesses and traces whenever they got the chance. The party ran out of spares half-way across the icecap; after that, their success, not to say their lives, depended on Hössli’s ability to improvise with whatever he had on hand.

The traverse party takes leave of the support group
on the Greenland ice cap, June 1912

We fast-forward to Midsummer’s Day, or thereabouts. A photo shows the traverse party established on the icecap, taking leave from the support group – the expedition doctor, a gentle smile on his face, as in most other photos of him, sits underneath the Swiss flag, flown from an ice-axe.

From then on, the four dog-sledders would be on their own. With the benefit of hindsight, de Quervain would appraise their chances as follows:

“On the one hand, we took great risks. But on the other, we were so exact in devising and working out our preparations that perhaps some interesting but avoidable situations did not occur. Such would have been sensational and not to the credit of a serious undertaking.”

At the time, though, he was asking himself what could possibly go wrong. The answer came the very next day, when two of the sledges broke through thin ice into a glacier lake, complete with dogs and drivers. Only Hössli’s team escaped this “summer-bath”, thanks to some adroit dog-handling by its driver.

Fortunately, all could be retrieved. The sleeping bags stayed dry in their waterproof packing and – to the credit of this serious undertaking – de Quervain had arranged for the all-important supply of matches to be soldered into tins and dispersed between the sledges. His chronometer, vital for navigation, did get waterlogged, but he managed to fix it.

As the expedition settled into a routine, their doctor took on the additional role of quartermaster. As de Quervain records:

“An iron law, whose guardian was Hössli, assigned each one of us his daily ration, measured to the gram and the millimetre. With our cheese alone was he less pitiless. Making an exception to the rule, Hössli distributed it exponentially, calculated on the portion left over. Only on our arrival at the east coast depot – although I am getting ahead of myself here – did the asymptotic cheese curve, owing to our appetites, suddenly drop to zero.”

The iron law also prescribed 40 grams per man per day of salted Danish butter and 125 grams of tinned milk. Trail food included chocolate, dried apples and plums. As on most polar expeditions of the day, the dietary mainstay was pemmican, a mixture of ground-up beef and fat that tasted like soap or, as others said, mixed-up sawdust and Vaseline.

Pemmican fuelled the twenty-nine dogs too. These soon came to recognise the genial doctor as their chief provider and advocate. When, every morning, he crawled out of the tent to relieve himself, the dogs used to salute him by rousing themselves from their beds of snow and raising their own hind legs in unison. Or so Roderich Fick later recalled.

Hössli may have contributed yet more to the team’s success. As in any hard-driven enterprise, a head of interpersonal pressures built up. On de Quervain’s birthday, Gaule led the way to the celebrations holding aloft an ice-axe and a dog-whip – the latter to symbolise their leader’s management style.

As far as history relates, Hössli took no part in this demonstration. Just as he was best able to pacify the riotous dogs, so he may have used these eirenic skills to heal rifts between his human companions. The saintly Edward Wilson, likewise a doctor, had played a similar role in Captain Scott’s ill-fated Terra Nova expedition, which was just then winding down in the Antarctic.

On July 18, Fick spotted a high mountain to the left of their track. This the expeditioners named for Professor F A Forel of Geneva, an eminent limnologist who had helped them to raise funds. There was no question of a closer inspection, of course. The first ascent of Mt Forel would await a later generation of academic alpinists from Zurich.

Three days later, they reached the eastern edge of the icecap. Hössli and Fick now looked after the camp – shooting some of the dogs and caching the meat in case of need – while de Quervain and Gaule went off in search of the supply depot. After a tense few days, they returned to report their success. For a time at least, Hössli could banish his ration book to a far corner of the tent.

It remained to manhandle the sledges down to the coast, and then to paddle southwards down the coast in the kayaks they’d picked up at the depot. On the last day of July, they met a trio of Eskimos, who helped them reach the nearest settlement.

Kayaking to Angmagssalik, July 1912

On their way down Greenland’s east coast, Hössli attended the inhabitants with medical care whenever asked, just as he had done on the inward journey up the west coast. The ministrations of their “Nakorsak” (doctor) helped to earn the party a special commendation from a local official:

This summer on June 9, 1912, members of the expedition reached the inland ice sheet and the Greenlanders loved them, because they were like the Danes; we thank the Supreme Council of Switzerland for having sent us these brave men, and we thank the travellers for having been so good to the Greenlanders. For this, we have a high regard for the expedition. And I ask the Supreme Council to believe that we have treated the expedition well, although it was not Danish.

Arsivik, August 16, 1912
Niels Magnusson”

Back in Switzerland, the expeditioners embarked on a busy programme of public lectures, illustrated with lantern slides. The income they raised from these engagements went to pay off the expedition’s substantial debts. Probably for the same reason, de Quervain published his expedition book with admirable celerity.

Hössli too was prompt in writing up his observations. An article in the 1913 yearbook of the Swiss Ski Association deals with polar expeditions and their equipment. The Swiss Army, he suggested, might benefit from adopting the kamik, a soft Eskimo boot for snow work. In 1914, he came out with a scholarly article on the craniological measurements of Eskimo skulls, building on the ethnographical studies he’d made at remote settlements in East Greenland. The same year, he married Gertrud Haerle, also a doctor of medicine, and two children came along in the next few years.

His academical excursions did no harm to Hössli’s professional career. In 1917, still in his early thirties, he was appointed medical director of the Universitätsklinik Balgrist in Zurich, a top orthopaedic hospital. Just eight months later, the young doctor was dead, a victim of the 1918–19 influenza outbreak. His expedition companion Karl Gaule died during the tail-end of the same epidemic. Within a decade, de Quervain’s traverse team had lost half its members.

A century later, an exhibition at the Swiss National Museum has revived the memory of the expedition's achievements. As before, the doctor’s contribution remains understated. It probably doesn’t help that the AACZ Jahresbericht’s editor never did receive that personal expedition report. In its place, then, we offer this belated tribute to “H. Hoessli”, the Greenland pioneer.


William Barr, “Alfred de Quervain’s Swiss Greenland expeditions, 1909 and 1912”, Polar Record, vol 51, no 259, pp 366–385.

Hans Hössli, «Polarexpeditionen und ihre Ausrüstung», in: Ski, Jahrbuch des schweizerischen Skiverbandes, IX, 1913, pp 4–25.

Hans Hössli, «Kraniologische Studien an einer Schädelserie aus Ostgrönland», Neue Denkschriften der Schweizerischen Naturforschenden Gesellschaft, LIII, 1916.

Stephan Orth, Opas Eisberg: Auf Spurensuche durch Grönland, Malik/National Geographic, 2015.

Lea Pfäffli, «Das Wissen, das aus der Kälte kam: Assoziationen der Arktis um 1912», doctoral thesis, ETH Zurich, 2019.

Alfred de Quervain, Quer durchs Grönlandeis: Die Expeditionen 1909 und 1912/13, Eingeleitet von Peter Haffner Mit einem Nachwort von Marcel de Quervain Mit Fotos, Verlag Neue Züricher Zeitung, 1998. Quotations are from a translation by Alfred de Quervain’s descendants, E. Q. Schriever and W.R. Schriever.

Alfred de Quervain, Across Greenland's Ice Cap: The Remarkable Swiss Scientific Expedition of 1912, with an introduction by Martin Hood, Andreas Vieli and Martin Lüthi, McGill-Queen's University Press, May 2022.

Thursday, September 22, 2022

"Across Greenland’s Ice Cap"

How a ski-tour engendered the English version of a book by Switzerland’s polar pioneer

The Claridenfirn is a genial altiplano of ice and snow within easy reach of Zurich. Google it, as Project Hyakumeizan once did after a ski-tour there, and you’ll find that it has yielded the longest unbroken series of yearly survey measurements of any glacier on the planet – more than a century’s worth of data.

Alfred de Quervain in Greenland, summer 1909

The first to survey the Claridenfirn, back in 1914, was Alfred de Quervain (1879-1927), an uomo universale of Belle Époque scientific circles in Switzerland. A meteorologist by trade, he helped to discover the stratosphere in his early twenties, set up his country’s first network of seismological stations, piloted balloon flights to investigate what would soon be known as cosmic rays, and established the high-altitude observatory on the Jungfraujoch.

But, in Switzerland at least, de Quervain is best remembered for his crossing of the Greenland ice cap. Leaving Zurich in the spring of 1912– around the time that Captain Scott and his crew were perishing in Antarctica – he and his companions took ship in Copenhagen, aiming to achieve the first west-to-east traverse of the central Greenland ice sheet.

Few gave much for the chances of the young and inexperienced Swiss quartet. Yet, in just 31 days that summer, they traversed 640 kilometres of snow and ice, bringing home a trove of scientific results and photographs. Nobody fell into a crevasse or suffered so much as a frost-bitten finger.

Despite this lack of drama, the expedition’s principal sponsor, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, was glad to serialise de Quervain’s expedition write-up. In 1914, these articles came out in book form, as Quer durchs Grönlandeis, making a play on the author’s name.

In the 1980s, the book was translated by de Quervain’s daughter for her children, as her family had settled in Canada. And now, in time to mark the expedition’s 110th anniversary, this English version of de Quervain’s book has recently calved majestically from the McGill-Queen’s University Press as Across Greenland’s Ice Cap.

Like many adventurers, the Swiss expeditioners had weighty debts to pay off. To raise money after their return, de Quervain and his expedition doctor Hans Hoessli toured Switzerland, giving slide lectures to the alpine clubs and anybody else with a taste for tales of polar derring-do. And for added impact, they had their black-and-white glass slides hand-tinted by a professional colourist.

Across Greenland’s Ice Cap republishes more than sixty of these plates, all in full colour – a lavishness enabled by generous support from the Swiss Polar Institute and the Swiss Committee on Polar and High Altitude Research. The book is dedicated to the eminent climatologist, the late Konrad Steffen, who helped to found the Swiss Polar Institute among his numerous other achievements.

By coincidence, the English version of de Quervain’s book came out just at the start of one of the hottest summers on record. In the introduction, two Zurich-based glaciologists, Andreas Vieli and Martin Lüthi, describe how they have used results from the de Quervain expedition to resurvey Greenland’s Eqip Sermia glacier – the starting point for de Quervain’s traverse of the ice sheet.

The melting rate for Greenland’s ice cap as a whole is shocking enough – Professors Vieli and Lüthi compare it to losing more than twice the mass of all the glaciers in the European Alps every year. But the long-baseline data from the Eqip Sermia deliver an additional sting. That is, they “support the view that the Greenland ice sheet was roughly in balance for a century or more before the onset of today’s rapid mass loss.” 

In other words, so far from wasting away gradually over the past century, Greenland has started shedding its ice on a dramatic scale only during the last few decades.

Of course, it’s not only Greenland that has had a torrid summer. Recently, we revisted the Claridenfirn. Since our last encounter, the lake at its foot has doubled in size. Fragments of ice, broken away from the glacier’s front, were drifting on the ash-gray waters. For a moment, before the morning mists cleared, we could have imagined ourselves standing rapt beside some remote Greenlandic fjord, a hundred and ten years ago …


Alfred de Quervain, Across Greenland's Ice Cap: The Remarkable Swiss Scientific Expedition of 1912, with an introduction by Martin Hood, Andreas Vieli and Martin Lüthi, McGill-Queen's University Press, May 2022.

Monday, August 1, 2022

South side story (4)

Concluded: Abbé Amé Gorret's first-hand account of the Matterhorn's second ascent

On the morning of the 17th, we drank our coffee after melting some pieces of ice with our spirit stove. Then, roping up at the tent’s door and taking with us only the most necessary gear, we starting climbing again. It was a beautiful day. The first pitch, climbing the tower, was difficult: the water seeping down the rocks in the sun had frozen during the night. We had no idea how to get a hold, our knees would slip, and our fingers were stiff with cold. Even the sun seemed to be waiting for a bit of warmth before venturing out. 

The fixed rope underneath Pic Tyndall
Image from Guido Rey's The Matterhorn

Only one of us moved at a time, the others standing fast and winding the rope around some rocky spike to prevent an accident. We followed this system for the rest of the day; it has the advantage that the one who is climbing has three men to watch over him and make sure that he plants his feet solidly and gets a good grip with his hands, because if anybody were to miss a hold, there is no way he could recover from the slightest slip. The others, who would otherwise be unable hold a fall, even if they were well positioned, can now oppose any shock; this can be quickly done in the most dangerous places, even over endless gulfs like those surrounding us.

After climbing the tower, we left the ridge and regained the Valtournenche side through a very dangerous funnel-like couloir. From there we crossed a small plateau covered with very hard snow, then a few minutes later we reached the fixed rope. This was the rope that Tyndall had left behind during a previous attempt. Our four scouts from Valtournenche had found it in good condition. As it was completely bleached by the sun, however, they didn’t dare rely on it completely. They replaced it with a stronger rope, but when they descended they left behind only a thin line. So we first had to pull through a narrower rope, and then a hawser, so that we had a double rope. Then, one at a time, we tied in to one end of the rope while the others pulled the other end down. In this way, we clambered up more than 20 vertical metres. 

At this height, there is a rock window where the wind always blows vigorously, and next to it is the so-called Cock’s Comb. From there to the pyramid at the shoulder the route was easy; we were once again on the ridge.

At nine o'clock we were at the pyramid of the Shoulder. From there over to Pic Tyndall, the trail is quite awkward for anybody who suffers from vertigo. You walk horizontally over a knife’s edge with precipices on both sides, and one is forced to look downwards the whole time.

By ten o'clock, we had Pic Tyndall behind us. We took Tyndall's staff with us so that we could fly our flag with it. We took a short rest on a rock beside the brèche between the Shoulder and the summit block. Now we were venturing into unknown territory; none of us had previously gone beyond this point.

It seemed to me obvious that we would continue the climb as best we could along the ridge, but Carrel was taken by some somewhat redder-gleaming shelves of rock; he thought we’d need to follow this line to reach the Swiss side. Now we set off again, leaving all our gear behind at our rocky resting perch, except for two ropes, one of which we were tied into and the other reserved for unforeseen incidents. 

Crossing the brèche after the Shoulder is rather ticklish. You have to scramble across, climbing more than a metre from one rock to the next. Thus we bridged ourselves over the abyss, not always on sound rock. Creeping along, flattened against the wall, we were already almost halfway across the flank that overlooks the Zmutt valley when we were alarmed by fragments of ice and rock falling from the direction of the summit. We could see no way out of there, and so we moved up again through the vertical face. This was the pitch that cost us the most time and effort. 

Finally, we reached the base of the final block, which leaned out a bit. The ice fragments we saw falling past our head couldn’t touch us here; we saw them shatter on the section of rock we had just climbed through. This place is no wider than two metres and slopes away at 75 percent, yet we still graced it with the name of corridor, gallery, railroad and so on. Clutching the rock above us, we crept along this gallery. "No way here," cried Carrel in the lead. "So much the better then,” replied Meynet, who was taking up the rear. He had misheard Carrel’s words as "all safe". 

A hitherto unseen couloir, a few metres wide, cut us off from the ridge, from where the climbing was easy and without danger. We took a look at the place and saw that seven or eight metres below we could get to the ridge and hence our goal. Let’s rope down, we decided. Yes, but how? We had no time to drive an iron ring into the rock. But without one we wouldn’t get any further, and yet it was only a matter of a few paces. This was the last obstacle. 

We thought about it. I was the heaviest and the strongest, yet I wouldn’t have given in if I had been paid my weight in gold. But a sacrifice was called for here, and I had to make it. Bracing my heels over the precipice, and propping my back firmly against the rock, I wedged my hands against my chest and let two of my companions down on the rope. The third chose to stay with me, to my relief.

A few minutes later, my companions were out of danger, on an easy route. They could practically run now. Yet my sacrifice weighed on me. I watched them as I sat astride the ridge, and cheered them on. And I kicked my heels into the Matterhorn, as if to impress on it that it was vanquished: "Now we have we have you!” I was looking for a way to abseil down this couloir and to make it accessible to future climbers when the others came back. I pulled them up on the rope and they pressed my hand. After a few words of congratulation, I tied into the rope again, and we started our descent.

We went back along our ledge and returned to the ridge that looks out on the Val Tournanche and which we should have climbed on our way up. From there to the shoulder is not far and it is without any danger too. After we had picked up the supplies we’d left behind on our rock (we had no time to eat, it was too late), we saw a phenomenon that cheered us. The air was clear over Switzerland, and we saw ourselves in the centre of a rainbow-hued halo. This fata morgana encircled all our shadows as if in a wreath. We left the rope in place for future ascents. 

As night started to fall, we were back at the funnel. It was already dark when we abseiled down the tower, and we reached our tent at nine o’ clock. Since we couldn’t find any dripping water to collect, we melted a piece of ice and mixed it with the rest of our wine. We ate with healthy appetites, and after we had done all that had to be done, we laid ourselves down to rest at midnight.

Sleep after such a day's work does one good, and I slept very deeply. In the morning I felt something cold on my head, pressing down with an icy weight. I asked Carrel what he’d put on my head, but nothing was the answer. I put a hand to my head and realised that we lay at least a foot deep in hailstones. A storm had broken out overnight, and our tent was almost covered. The whole mountain was white and the weather was ugly.

We lost two hours trying to melt hailstones for our breakfast. I never imagined that hailstones would be so difficult to melt and yield so little water. After a miserable repast ,we tied into the rope again and set off, leaving our supplies in the tent which we tied up tightly. Without Carrel, who knew this part of the mountain like the back of his hand, we would hardly have made it down this time. We could scarcely see where to put our feet or what to grip with our hands. Everything was iced up.

From the Col du Lion we saw one flag fluttering out over Giomein, then two, then three more. Our fatigue vanished, we were out of danger and everybody had seen us. A surge of jubilation came over us when, at last, we felt grass under our feet on grass again. We found we could speak again, having said almost nothing all that time on the mountain except get a grip, easy now, have a care! I now confessed to my companions that I had never dared to let myself think of turning back, and I found that their thoughts had been the same.

People came up to meet us. Our return was like a triumph. At noon on July 18, we entered Giomein. Only then did we learn of the misfortune that had befallen the Englishmen who had pipped us to the post.

The ascent of the Matterhorn will always be a considerable undertaking, but with some preparation it should be within the reach of those with mountain sense and experience. In several places, you would need to drive iron rings into the rock and pass a rope through so that climbers can secure themselves. And I’m pleased to hear that the Turin Alpine Club is seriously considering Canon Carrel’s proposal to dig out a recess in the rock, either at the Cravate or at the Collier de la Vierge. A hut up there would provide a safe refuge and the option of sitting out bad weather. This, however, would make an ascent not only possible, but I would almost say easy.


Translated from a German version of Abbé Amé Gorret's original account in French, entitled "Victory of the Italians" in Matterhorn-Geschichten: Bergsteigerelebnisse am Traumberg, compiled by Fritz Schmitt, Bruckmann, 1991

Friday, July 29, 2022

South side story (3)

Continued: Abbé Amé Gorret's first-hand account of the Matterhorn's second ascent

Starting our climb to the Col du Lion at about nine o'clock, we were at the height of the Whymper Couloir by one, where the snow falling in heavy flakes had stopped us last year. As we had stashed some wild hay in a crevice there, Bich now stuffed his shirt with it, increasing his burden by this amount. 

Below the Pic Tyndall
Image is from The Matterhorn by Guido Rey, Basil Blackwell 1946

The gullies that one has to traverse above along the Col du Lion are often very dangerous when there is a lot of snow. Such traverses over precipices don’t agree with me; I much prefer to climb. This year, however, the couloirs were easy, the snow was gone, and you just had to make sure to plant your feet solidly. Nevertheless, we thought it best to rope up a few metres apart on a long line; this greatly relieved my burden. 

Finally we got across the dip of the Col du Lion and reached the Matterhorn’s pyramid. The mountain now confronted us, and we were determined to give it our last, best efforts. I was greatly impressed and my companions too. My heart was beating violently, I could no longer keep my thinking clerar, I was all a-tremble. In fact, I was almost ready to throw my arms around this Matterhorn!

The first stretch over the pyramid is quite easy; one climbs for half an hour over the kind of loose rubble that one meets with on any mountain. We followed the ridge and in this way avoided the stonefall in the couloirs, but at the end of this stretch you have to get up through a notch that is three or four metres high. Climbing like a chimney sweep, you make progress with your elbows, knees, feet and hands. We called this place the Ciarfou or Chimney.

At one o'clock we arrived at the place where the tent had been pitched during the previous expedition. Since it was still early in the day and we were consumed by our desire to reach the summit, we wanted to pitch the tent higher up, at the Cravate or the Collier de la Vierge. But Carrel, didn’t think we could do this, since he knew the mountain better than we did. And here was the best and most comfortable place. In any case, on the following day, we would all take a blanket with us, in case we could not return to this excellent campsite and had to sleep higher up. Everyone set down his load. We unroped and got to work putting up the tent. It was pitched in a moment. But was the cook ready? And what about a drink? Let’s get ourselves a drink, and a good one!

We roped up again and climbed up along the rocks with a tin bucket to catch a small stream of water from melting snow. Water that has been flowing over the rocks is scarcely potable. It is bland, tasting like the rock itself, and must be made more palatable by mixing it with wine, sugar or lemon juice. After the meal, our two porters went down, and we contemplated the rock above us. This was an immense, almost vertical tower, flanked on either side by the void, the abyss.

"But how do we get through tomorrow?" asked Bich. "That should be obvious since we have to go uphill, up over this rock." "You’d have to be a monkey or squirrel?" "Well, let’s give it a try." For the rest of the day we gazed out over the immense panorama that unfolded before our eyes in a succession of mountains, glaciers, peaks and rocks, which were separated from each other by something hazy and indistinct so that we could not tell them apart.

In the evening, although we were on rock and at such a high altitude, the cold didn’t trouble us in the least. Our tent was very small, the four of us could only get into it when two were already lying flat on either side. The thermometer showed six degrees in the tent and a mere one and a half degrees in the open air. When the weather is fine, an evening on the Matterhorn is glorious; you see the shadows slowly rising and flooding the valleys, and when the moon rises, you can see the same valleys indistinctly, far below and at a great distance. And then you suddenly realise how high up you are .... 

(To be concluded)


Translated from a German version of Abbé Amé Gorret's original account in French, entitled "Victory of the Italians" in Matterhorn-Geschichten: Bergsteigerelebnisse am Traumberg, compiled by Fritz Schmitt, Bruckmann, 1991

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

South side story (2)

Continued: Abbé Amé Gorret's first-hand account of the Matterhorn's second ascent

On the morning of the 15th, everything was different. The scouts were back, sad, dejected, confused, disappointed and discouraged. They had only reached the shoulder, a few steps this side of Pic Tyndall, when Whymper and his men shouted down to them from the top of the pyramid. How must the leaders of Valtournenche have felt at that moment? We can all imagine their feelings – how they looked at each other in silence, averted their gaze and started downwards without a word. Had they spent too much time chattering and cheering before that moment?

The Matterhorn from the Dent d'Herens at 13,708 feet
Photo by Vittorio Sella, courtesy of Andrew Smith Gallery

Mr Giordano made no reproof; rather he sought to alleviate their gloom. He said only that they must at least have solved the question of whether an ascent from the Italian side was possible. But on this question they were no wiser than before the expedition. It seemed to me that the problem was now tending towards a negative solution. The engineer said to the guides: "Up to now, I have worked for the honour of being the first to make the ascent, but fate was against me and they have beaten me to it. If I make some sacrifices now, it is for you, for your honour and benefit. Do you want to make another attempt to decide the question? Then at least you’ll have no more illusions about this point!" The answers were incoherent, embarrassed, witless and discouraged.

Whymper had said, when he left the hotel of Giomein on his way to Switzerland, that you will never achieve anything with the guides with the guides of Valtournenche, they don't work for their reputations; they are just looking for a day's wage. What at first had seemed to me no more than an irritating slur now appeared to be the truth. Mr Giordano had set out an offer for the sake of my country that would never be made again. My country had suffered an injury to its honour, it had lost a prize. I was in agonies.

"So you renounce the Matterhorn, you won’t make another attempt? Well, I will go, and who will follow me?" he said. Replied Jean-Antoine Carrel, the Bersagliere: "I for one have not given up; if you go or if the others want to go up again, then I am with you at once." - So now we are two, who else is coming? - Not me! - Me neither. - And I wouldn't go up there again if you give me a thousand francs. - Then we'll be we will be only two, but we will go. And so the party mustered itself again.

That was on the 15th around noon. The rest of the day was spent in preparations for the departure, which was set for the morning of July 16th. In the evening we found two new companions, Jean-Baptiste Bich, called Bardolet, and Jean-Augustin Meynet, both domestic servants with Mr Favre, the hotel owner of Giomein.

Mr Giordano wanted to come with us, but the uncertainty of the route, the difficulties that we might encounter in the unclimbed part, which had always turned us back, and the fickleness of the weather forced us to reject his offer. Carrel declared that he did not feel confident enough to guide a client up there at this stage. So I proposed a condition to the group. The engineer, although deprived of the pleasure of making the ascent himself, had supplied us with everything needed. So none of us would work for a wage or any other reward; we would go of our own free will for the honour of our country, as this would be an act of national expiation.

I further proposed that our provisions would be carried up only on the first day, so that we would depend on nobody else until our return and so would not be distracted by any messages from below. We had to cross the ocean and burn our boats! My conditions were accepted. I spent the night in Avouil with my companions to finish our preparations.

We were away at four o’clock in the morning on July 16. After a pause at the chapel of Breuil, everyone garbed and equipped himself as he thought best. For my part, I donned my hunting clothes, stuffing the trouser legs into my stockings so that they wouldn’t hinder me on the climb. Then I took my beloved iron-shod stave in hand, and at half past seven o'clock we began our ascent.

A mule carried our gear to beyond the Mont de l'Eura, at the foot of the of the Tête du Lion, two hours from Giomein. After a very scanty breakfast, we divided the kit among us, since we now had to carry it ourselves. I had the ropes, Carrel his army knapsack, the four others took the rest of the supplies in sacks rigged up so that they coul carry them on their backs without being hindered while walking and to keep their hands free if they had to use them on the rocks. We had two porters with us up to the point where the tent was to be pitched. This way of carrying the sacks amused us very much, as it gave our caravan a most picturesque look ...


Translated from a German version of Abbé Amé Gorret's original account in French, entitled "Victory of the Italians" in Matterhorn-Geschichten: Bergsteigerelebnisse am Traumberg, compiled by Fritz Schmitt, Bruckmann, 1991