Sunday, June 10, 2018

A stormy traverse of La Meije (1)

By Samuel Brawand, mountain guide of Grindelwald: an account of a climb in the mid-1920s with the Japanese alpinists Matsukata Saburō and Uramatsu Samitarō 

A deep-blue sky arched over the mountain village of La Bérarde. We had slept wonderfully after the bumpy car ride and were now quickly getting together our food supplies in the hotel. We discovered only too soon that we had to do without our usual Swiss delicacies. All the same, it was possible to find the ingredients for a tolerable menu. Although Maggi soup is unknown here, and we only half-trusted the cheese.

Looking up to the Promontoire Hut on La Meije
(photo by Alpine Light & Structure)
At 10:45 am we left for the Promontoire. Our objective, the proud Meije, rose grandly up in front of us. Like a huge wall, it seals off the northern end of the Val des Étançons. I was to remember this sight when I later admired the Marmolada from the Kontin Valley. But La Meije is the mightier and more regal mountain. I could quite understand why even Edward Whymper thought it unclimbable and why the guide Almer tackled it from the Brèche, for who could have believed that the terrible wall below the Glacier Carré could be climbed?

Yes, yes, it’s easy enough to talk from today’s standpoint. That said, La Meije would certainly be a first ascent for us, in the sense that we were meeting her face to face for the first time. But we were climbing in the knowledge that others had gone before us, which halves the difficulty of even the toughest route. We can reach greater heights because we stand on the shoulders of our fathers, as Fischer once said.

We plucked out the highest-growing juniper shrubs and tied them onto our rucksacks as fuel. At our smart pace, we left the rocky expanse of the Val des Étançons behind us and stepped onto the Glacier des Étançons just below the Promontoire. A little later, at a quarter to four, we were at the door of the Promontoire hut. One last look at the massive mountain above us, and the hut door closed behind us.

Despite the dirt and the sparseness of the hut’s furnishings, we managed to cook a decent dinner. To eat it, we had to use all our aluminum tins as plates. But we didn’t let the poorly appointed hut put us out of sorts. On the contrary, our two clients enjoyed themselves enormously. Mr Matsukata loved such primitive conditions, and Mr Uramatsu made a joke of the notable lack of creature comforts.

In the morning, there was no need to look outside for the weather. The sound was all too familiar. Steady, continuous rain drummed on the tin roof. I don’t know if other mountain climbers feel the same way, but on mornings like this I’m always pulled in two directions. Part of me is only too happy with rain and bad weather: let’s go back to sleep, I say, it’s still so early! The other part of me is upset by thwarted plans, chafes about missing a glorious climb and the princely rewards of a summit. Depending on the planned ascent, one or other part prevails. I remember that the second part of me got the upper hand that morning. To have to give up La Meije because of this tiresome downpour, that was too much. So, gnashing our teeth like thunder, we turned over and thought of snowed-up ridges, cruddy summers and aborted climbs.

It was good for the hut that we had to stay there. A-sweeping and a-cleaning we went. Half an inch of dirt lay on the table, nay, cleaved to it. Behind the stove, the rubbish heap spilled almost out into the entrance passage. While Emil Steuri set to work, I boiled water and started scrubbing the table. I can still I see Emil’s mighty brush strokes driving this playground for bugs and fleas out of the door. Then we beat out the blankets, cleaned up the storeroom, washed the dishes, and after all this hard work, finally won back a cosy little room for ourselves. And, quite by the way, we suddenly found ourselves understanding why our dear wives go into a frenzy of cleaning every Saturday, and we both firmly resolved to keep our tempers when that periodic frenzy should next break out.

La Meije from Val des Étançons
(photo by Matsukata Saburō)
Around noon the sky brightened up and we decided on a little excursion to the Brèche de la Meije. Forty minutes later we were on top and rejoiced at the magnificent view. To the north, the village of La Grave lay deep down in the valley, and to the south and east stood the giants of the Dauphiné, mountain on mountain. Silver-white clouds chased round their heads. Closer to us, the rocks of La Meije towered up into the mightiest mountain of them all. We couldn’t quite get rid of the idea that, earlier in the day, she had intimated to us, frankly if without excessive politeness, that she was in no mood to receive visitors.

Emil and I made our observations for the ascent of the West Ridge, and I reckon that if we hadn’t had along with us two other people for whose lives we were responsible, we would have had the nerve to go on climbing, despite the late hour. We were capable of anything in those days.

In quarter of an hour, we were back down at the hut. It was a welcoming sight, so spick and span that one could almost smell the scent of Persil and soap.

In the meantime, some company had arrived. Two Austrians had arrived in the hut, without guides. Just at that moment, they were going through their gear: all the hut’s chairs were festooned with pitons, hammers, rope slings, carabiners and crampons. A glance at this exhibition was enough to suggest that they had designs on La Meije. But the main thing was that they were two decent young lads.

Next morning, instead of the rain drumming on the roof, the foehn wind was howling round it. At least this made a change from those tiresome showers. Now the better part of my nature was chafing at the bit: were we really going to waste that long drive-in and all that anticipation of this splendid mountain? But we knew to a dead cert that, once the foehn let up, snow would follow.

But, lo and behold, at dawn the sky brightened up. At 7.30 am, we were outside the hut, ready to leave.

(To be continued)

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