Friday, July 13, 2018

Alpine readings (3)

George Mallory on the orchestral flow of a great alpine climb

A day well spent in the Alps is like some great symphony. Andante, andantissimo sometimes, is the first movement - the grim, sickening plod up the moraine. But how forgotten when the blue light of dawn flickers over the hard, clean snow. 

Weisshorn at sunrise
(Photo by Alpine Light & Structure)

The new motif is ushered in, as it were, very gently on the lesser wind instruments, hautboys and flutes, remote but melodious and infinitely hopeful, caught by the violins in the growing light, and torn out by all the bows with quivering chords as the summits, one by one, are enmeshed in the gold web of day, till at last the whole band, in triumphant accord, has seized the air and romps in magnificent frolic, because there you are at last marching, all a-tingle with warm blood, under the sun. 

And so throughout the day successive moods induce the symphonic whole - allegro while you break the back of an expedition and the issue is still in doubt; scherzo, perhaps, as you leap up the final rocks of the arete or cut steps in a last short slope, with the ice-chips dancing and swimming and bubbling and bounding with magic gaiety over the crisp surface in their mad glissade; and then, for the descent, sometimes again andante, because, while the summit was still to win, you forgot that the business of descending may be serious and long; but in the end scherzo once more - with the brakes on for sunset. 

Expeditions in the Alps are all different, no less than symphonies are different, and each is a fresh experience. . . . But every mountain adventure is emotionally complete. The spirit goes on a journey just as does the body, and this journey has a beginning and an end, and is concerned with all that happens between these extremities .... 

The glory of sunrise in the Alps is not independent of what has passed and what's to come; without the day that is dying and the night that is to come the reverie of sunset would be less suggestive, and the deep valley-lights would lose their promise of repose. Still more, the ecstasy of the summit is conditioned by the events of getting up and the prospects of getting down ....

It seemed perfectly natural to compare a day in the Alps with a symphony. For mountaineers of my sort mountaineering is rightfully so comparable; but no sportsman could or would make the same claim for cricket· or hunting, or whatever his particular sport might be. He recognises the existence of the sublime in great Art, and knows, even if he cannot feel, that its manner of stirring the heart is altogether different and vaster. But mountaineers do not admit this difference in the emotional plane of mountaineering and Art. They claim that something sublime is the essence of mountaineering. They can compare the call of the hills to the melody of wonderful music, and the comparison is not ridiculous.


This essay appeared in March 1914, in a remarkable number of the Climbers' Club Journal edited by Trevenen Huxley. Text here is as quoted in David Robertson's biography, George Mallory, Faber & Faber, 1969 (paperback edition 1999 with foreword by Joe Simpson)

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