Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Ye mountains!

Project HaMo (translation): Hans Morgenthaler's invocation to the Swiss Alps

And so the centuries gushed forth from their limitless source, like the shock waves of eternity. New ones rolled in, old ones passed, one by one they came and passed, raising in their train countless generations of men. Ye mountains! Feared, ignored, you kept your sad vigil, waiting and watching for the dawn to break when finally you would touch the fate of men.

Original illustration from Hans Morgenthaler's Ihr Berge

Yet, bastioned by faith in your future deliverance from death’s rigid spell, you defied endless ages of assaults from the stormwinds, the burning sun, the grinding ice-fangs, and the water’s gnawing, all to fulfil your destiny as benefactors of mankind.

And you stood fast!

At last, when you had already half-crumbled to grey ruins, men came to their senses and finally opened their eyes to you, ye castles of freedom, woke to a burning love for mountains.

Like a sacred torch, you touched off in the human race first a few paltry sparks, then steady flames, before whipping a wildfire of mountain passion that blazed to heaven.

Your fatal splendour, the mysteries lurking within your death-dealing glaciers, shunned by older generations, were suddenly sought out by the young. All of a sudden, you lured them irresistibly in. The wonders of the high mountains lifted them from the tedium of their circumscribed lives, as if with a single jolt, onto the plane of a nobler existence.

Ye mountains! Can you know what you mean to so many today? That your mere existence enriches so many lives? That legions of good men think of nothing higher or nobler than devoting themselves to mountains, in their strength and obduracy? To serve you for the rest of their lives, to the last breath?

To them, you have become as gods.

Nothing in this world is more sacred to these men. Besotted, smitten, none can wrench themselves free of your love. You hold them in your iron grip. And even when your abyss yawns for them, even as the pulverising rockfall roars and thunders and takes their lives, still they keep their troth in you.


This is an excerpt from a centennial translation of Ihr Berge (1916), a mountain memoir by Hans "Hamo" Morgenthaler (1890-1928). Translation (c) Project Hyakumeizan.

Friday, September 20, 2019

The mountains of my home

Project HaMo (translation): how a Swiss mountaineer was made

I can’t recall when it lighted on me, the spark that ignited my deep love for the mountains. But the flame it lit flared up very early in my life.

"The Jungfrau was the one I liked best"
Photo by courtesy of Alpine Light & Structure

It was while I was still in the pram, or very soon afterwards, that the mountains first swam into my ken. My home view then comprised a hoary old castle nestling cozily into a small town, and best of all, a hilly green valley flanked with spacious pine forests. But only later did I make this important discovery.

Far, far in the distance, beyond my old home valley, there rose up on a sudden – this was on a clear summer evening – a host of white pinnacles. Today I would call them the mountains of the Bernese Oberland, from the Wetterhorn to the Blümlisalp. And from that moment onwards they have always kept a special place in my heart.

It seems like yesterday to me – I could already name a few of them, and this meant a lot to me. The Jungfrau was the one I liked best. The mountains were hard to tell apart, yet this name was worthy of them all.

One thing was for sure: I already respected these mountains deeply; they held me in awe. If some wretch came along and tried to make fun of my mountains, I took their side, and never would I have let slip their names to anybody I deemed unworthy, like a little girl.

From that time on, all I wanted was to hear more about mountains.

Soon I got to know my first mountaineer. He was remarkable most of all for his long, bandy legs, which took him stalking past our home every day. For a while, he rather scared me. It was only when, one fine evening, I saw him gazing with longing at those rose-tinged peaks that I started to warm to him. From then on, there were two kinds of people: mountaineers, and the common run of folk, with whom I’ve even now not wholly come to terms.

Then I was allowed to get to know the mountains better and better, or at least look at them from closer and closer. What yearnings they awoke in me! And what intimations came to me from those grassy green hilltops that my father sometimes now and then took me to on a Sunday.

I was always taking refuge in them. When I was sad, the mountains stayed cheerful; when I was beaten down, they stood fast, when I was miserable, they still greeted me, bright and amiable, over the green treetops along our quiet valley.

When they glittered through the schoolroom window, the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau, what should I care about tedious mensa, mensae, Pythagoras and the July Revolution? We soon became well acquainted, thanks to many a splendid book.

When, on some gloomy autumn day, I’d almost forgotten what might await me above that pall of fog, I used to run up some hill near the town after school, and even if I was too late ten times, then on the eleventh try, I’d be on top in time to see the sunset. Then I drew its red glow right into my heart, and this small happiness would tide me through the dark winter.

Since then, I have come to know a good many mountains, and I hope to sample a good many more. All have their beauty. But you, my mountain comrades from all over the world, from Africa, Australia, South America, who rate all mountains equally, from Mont Blanc through to the Ortler, can you guess now why I rank these ones highest, our Bernese Oberlanders, the mountains of my home?


This is an excerpt from a centennial translation of Ihr Berge (1916), a mountain memoir by Hans "Hamo" Morgenthaler (1890-1928). Translation (c) Project Hyakumeizan.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

From the life of a snowflake

Project HaMo (translation): meditation on a winter sky

It's snowing. Gently and quietly, soft snowflakes flutter from a grey-speckled sky – the grey speckles are young snowflakes, newly born. One after another, they swirl down together, mingling and mixing, brushing each other. A quick one hastens ahead of a hesitant one, a heavy one clings to a light one, as if it would slow its onrush to the pace of the slowly hovering one. How they leap and gyre. But of course they do! They delight in their very being, sailing round like little birds of paradise. Can you hear them sing? What a joy it must be, to be a soft little flake among snowflakes.

Snowshower at the Aua da Zeznina, Swiss Engadine
Photo courtesy of Alpine Light & Structure
Tender as a maiden, snowflakes cast a quiet glow ahead of them as they drift softly and easily down. To be young forever is what they wish for. What infinite happiness: a life of dancing!

But woe is us. In all their softness and delicacy, they fall to the warm earth. How they tremble! One breath, and they are ruined. One sigh of air and, hardly wakened to life, they have already perished, in their hundreds and thousands, all at once. Hundreds of thousands of snowflake souls fly up to heaven. Alas, poor snowflakes!

It's snowing. The wind whips sharp ice-needles from the wild clouds. Hard knives cut your cold face. Today, the snowflake tribe is in a grim mood. Ice-cold in its furious intent, every flake makes war on the earth. In endless hordes, they drive down like polished projectiles, in dense phalanxes, spoiling for the fight. Showering down like spray, they close ranks, multiplying their force a thousand times, as legions of brave pellets drive after them. How they scour and rush, harried by the wind into slanting files. Try following one with your eyes, and a hundred hit you, thousands of henchmen to every leader, bold and quick, sifting down like sand.

What savage joy, to be a snowpellet among snowpellets!

How they defy the earth, these rough warriors. They prevail by sheer weight of numbers. Grim as a conquering army, they cover the earth, piling up thicker and thicker.

Yet they too will yield. One gleam of sun will vanquish the weakest and drive the stronger ones into each other’s embrace. Now the sunlight strengthens, and even the proudest are wilting. The grey-white masses, tough as they are, melt away; bold snow-spirits ascend to heaven. Did you hear their high, defiant song. What a farewell was that!

Did you see how the snowflakes died? Each knows it will rise anew, invisibly, so that it can lay down its life again and again. Is it because they know something we don’t that they die so easily and cheerfully?


This is an excerpt from a centennial translation of Ihr Berge (1916), a mountain memoir by Hans "Hamo" Morgenthaler (1890-1928). Translation (c) Project Hyakumeizan.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Hapless mountains

Project HaMo (translation): a very short story from the Swiss Alps 

In front of the hotel, the old man sits in a cane chair, his left leg slung over his right. This gentleman’s hair is snow-white. He has his gold watch and a telescope out on the table in front of him. “It’s still too early,” you can hear him murmuring to himself.

On the traverse from Morgenhorn to Wyssi Frau
Photo courtesy of Alpine Light & Structure

Several hundred metres above, a little white path comes vaulting out of a side valley on a slope – there, by the black rock next to the pluming waterfall. The path and the torrent hurry down to the valley, now alongside each other, now crossing over, until they suddenly part ways, one zigging left, the other right.

“Still too early!” says the old man. His telescope follows the path. “Yes that was a long and tough one, that route, we got back pretty late.”

“But, hello, there they are. They’ve done it, by Jove!” Still lithe, despite his years, he jumps to his feet, beaming his warmth towards them. He loves his boys.

“The icefall! The icefall! Did you get through all right? Bravo! That couldn’t have been easy. It took us more than three hours to get through to the edge of the rocks on the other side.”

“Good evening, Papa! No, that was easy enough. We found somebody’s footprints, hardly a day old, still quite fresh.”

“So how was the rock-step from the ice onto the ridge? My, that was hard. And difficult to find too! I won’t ever forget how rotten and slippery those rocks were. Just that place took us more than an hour.”

“Hmm, it wasn’t anything special, father. Almost a footpath. Steps in the rock and some solid iron stanchions.”

“Was there a lot of ice, on top of the ridge?”

“All ice, from bottom to top.”

“Really, and you’re back already? That’s really something!”

“No, father, everything was already chopped out for us, a staircase right up to the rocks.”

“The summit rocks aren’t half bad, are they? When we made the first guideless climb – this was with my friend W. – we almost had to back off there. We struggled for hours. That was a fight; we didn’t know whether it would go until we finally made it!”

“Well, the rocks were pretty steep. They took us twenty minutes. There’s a fixed rope there now.”

“That’s shameful, damn it. But you soaked in that great summit view, didn’t you? I took a look in my old climbing diary: we sat on top for two full hours.”

“Father, you know, it was unspeakable up there. A whole bunch of people came up the normal route. One of them – the guides kept calling him ‘Mr President’ – went droning on about mountain sport and the opening of the Alps – so we just went on our way. But this evening, if you don’t mind, do tell us how the mountains were in the old days!”


This is an excerpt from a centennial translation of Ihr Berge (1916), a mountain memoir by Hans "Hamo" Morgenthaler (1890-1928). Translation (c) Project Hyakumeizan.