Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The days the rope broke

An eerie fascination with severed cordage cuts across all cultural barriers

On 14th July, 1865, at 3.45pm - the exact moment would be imprinted for ever on the face of a smashed pocket watch belonging to one of the victims - Douglas Hadow slipped from his stance on the Matterhorn's icy upper slopes, cannoned into the expert guide Michael Croz, who was trying to place the young Englishman's boots into secure holds, and precipitated what is probably the most famous disaster in mountaineering history.

The Matterhorn accident 
Edward Whymper and two Swiss guides, the Taugwalders, father and son, survived only because the rope linking them to their falling companions snapped like twine when the load came onto it. The weak rope, which can still be inspected in Zermatt's alpine museum, became a focus of the official enquiry and much subsequent speculation - why had the Taugwalders used it when, according to Whymper, the party still had plenty of stronger cordage on hand?

In the end, the Taugwalders were acquitted of blame, but the lingering damage to their reputations was so severe that the elder man emigrated to America, only returning to Switzerland shortly before his death.

Now, on the 150th anniversary of the Matterhorn's first ascent, a Swiss TV documentary has sought to rehabilitate the Swiss guides. They used the weak rope, so the journalists hypothesise, because Whymper had hastily cut his way out of a "good" rope, a few hours before the accident, so that he could race Croz up the final snowslopes to the summit. So Whymper himself was to blame for the Taugwalders' actions, by ruining one of the party's stronger ropes.

Whymper's ropes in the Zermatt alpine museum

Strange to say, this theory had a previous airing - exactly fifty years ago. To mark the "Matterhorn centenary" in 1965, the eminent ski-mountaineer and travel entrepreneur Sir Arnold Lunn brought out a book with that title. In it, he takes more or less the same line as this year's Swiss documentary makers - that Whymper created the problem for which the hapless Taugwalders took the rap.

For his pains, Lunn earned himself a stern riposte from two writers in the Alpine Journal, the official voice of Britain's Alpine Club. In reviewing Matterhorn Centenary, D F 0 Dangar and T S Blakeney pronounced as follows:-

A story that Lunn seems to wish to accept as true is the yarn that Whymper had himself cut the rope, at the time when he and Croz were preparing to race to the summit of the Matterhorn . Hearsay stuff of this sort cannot be accepted; it came to one of us from G. E. Howard, who had had it from A. E. W. Mason, who said he heard it said by Whymper after a very good dinner, where the wine had flowed freely. Almost anything might be said or thought to be said in such circumstances; we would need to know, before taking it seriously, how sober the diners were, Mason as much as Whymper. Did Mason hear Whymper aright? Did he recount what he heard aright? Considering the utter needlessness of cutting the rope on this occasion - it would be much simpler to loosen the knot than to have to grope for a knife and then cut the rope and considering the improbability of Hudson standing by silently, and not objecting to the cutting taking place, we submit that, unless it can be well authenticated, to accept this story is simply absurd.

Far be it from this blogger to rekindle a controversy that is best allowed to smoulder out. Instead, the aim of this post is to highlight the emotions and symbolism that swirl around the humble alpine climbing rope. What is it about a rope? The idea that one might break is enough to send a frisson down the spine of any climber. As for deliberately cutting the rope - embodying as it does the ties of trust and mutual reliance that bind a mountaineering party together - the mere thought conjures up a sensation of almost metaphysical horror.

Be that as it may, scholar-alpinist Claire Éliane Engel noted in 1950 that the Zermatt affair had touched off an entire subgenre of mountain literature, all of it revolving around severed ropes. According to her seminal A History of Mountaineering in the Alps:

The Matterhorn accident suggested a new and exciting notion to non-climbers. Alpine ropes are liable to break or be cut, though it is surprising to think of the violent jerks they can sustain. Thus it came about that the cut rope became one of the typical features of novels written by non-climbers, and occasionally by a climber. In Tartarin on the Alps, Alphonse Daudet has the rope simultaneously cut by the two men who are tied to it. The cut rope makes a majestic reappearance in one of the short stories of La Croix du Cervin, by Charles Gos - a story which greatly agitated the guides of Zermatt. It comes out again in the fantastic setting of Rex Warner's Aerodrome, where the villain of the plot, having had his rope duly cut by his rival, falls an unrecorded number of hundreds of feet without being killed.

Had Mrs Engel published her history a few years later, she could also have mentioned Japan's best-known mountaineering novel in the paragraph above. For Inoue Yasushi's Hyōheki (The ice wall) also hinges on the failure of a climbing rope.

The story was serialised in the Asahi Shimbun for two years before Shinchōsha published it in book form in 1957. Later, the novel was to spawn two different TV dramas and a full-length feature film. Commercially speaking, it was almost certainly among Inoue's most successful productions.

The action unfurls when top alpinists Uozu Kyōta and Kosaka Otohiko attempt a first winter ascent on the fearsome east face of Mae-Hodaka. Just before they reach the summit, in a blizzard, Kosaka takes a fall - and vanishes into the abyss. The rope has broken! Or has it? The climbers were using one of the new nylon ropes, supposedly indestructible, and people soon start to suspect that the rope didn't break of itself. Was it cut, indeed?

Just before the accident, Kosaka had confided in Uozu that he was having an affair with a wealthy businessman's wife, and soon Uozu too finds himself more closely involved with the glamorous Minako than is altogether prudent. Meanwhile, it emerges that the company that employs Minako's husband supplied the nylon fibres to the manufacturer of the lethal rope...

Leaving these romantic and melodramatic embellishments aside, Inoue took the mainspring of his plot directly from real life. On the second day of 1955, first-year university student Wakayama Goro was climbing with two colleagues on the east face of Mae-Hodaka when he slipped. The 8mm nylon rope, guaranteed to take a strain of one ton, parted where it ran over a rock above Wakayama's head, causing him to fall to his death.

Scene of the real-life 1955 accident on Hodaka-dake

A public controversy now erupted. The victim's brother, an engineering graduate, demonstrated that an 8mm nylon rope would fail under just body weight if it ran over a sharp edge. For its part, Tokyo Rope insisted that its nylon ropes were many times stronger than the old-style hemp climbing ropes, and held a public demonstration in April 1955 to prove the point. This made it seem as if Wakayama's mountaineering club, the Ganryō-kai, had been mistaken to question the safety of nylon ropes.

The Ganryō-kai's next step, in July 1956, was to self-publish a 310-page report on its concerns about nylon ropes, which it sent to mountaineering organisations and publishing companies. At first, official bodies including the Japanese Alpine Club, took little notice. However, Inoue Yasushi appears to have heard of the report and to have interviewed Wakayama's brother and another member of his party while researching Hyōheki.

Hyoheki: the Saturday TV drama version

Meanwhile, the Ganryō-kai's case was strengthened by several more accidents involving rope failures. Japan's Ministry of International Trade and Industry later estimated that up to 20 climbers might have lost their lives in such accidents. Yet it wasn't until June 1975, more than twenty years after Wakayama's fatal fall, that Japan became the first country in the world to introduce official safety standards for climbing ropes. By that time, it was no longer regarded as safe to climb on 8mm ropes, even if they were doubled up for use as twin ropes.

There is a curious echo of the "nylon rope affair" in Nihon Hyakumeizan (One Hundred Mountains of Japan), which like Hyōheki, was published by Shinchōsha. The chapter on Hodaka-dake ends with a threnody on the mountain's dangers:-

Not a few have failed to return. Ōshima Ryōkichi and Ibaraki Inokichi are just two who gave up their lives on Hodaka. Winter climbing too takes its annual toll. Kosaka Otohiko and Uozu Kyōta are two more names, albeit fictional, in a roll that will never end. And with its cruel beauty the mountain will continue to lure men to their doom.


Schweizer Radio und Fernsehen, Tatort Matterhorn, documentary broadcast on 13 July 2015

A Word For Whymper: A Reply To Sir Arnold Lunn, by D F 0 Dangar and T S Blakeney, Alpine Journal, 1966

Hyōheki (The ice wall), by Inoue Yasushi - available in German translation as "Die Eiswand".

Nihon Hyakumeizan by Fukada Kyūya, translated into English as "One Hundred Mountains of Japan", University of Hawaii Press, 2014.