Wednesday, January 29, 2020


Project HaMo (translation): the club's Christmas party proves intimidating for a tyro climber

Weihnachtskneipe! This is when all our club’s mountaineers get together for a cheerful Christmas drink. There is singing and drinking in the lofty guildhall, while mountain memories waft along in the blue smoke of many a summit pipe.

Original illustration from Ihr Berge (1916)

I join them as the club’s youngest member.

What a band of warriors is gathered here! There is the black-bearded giant, here the blond colossus, the quiet and serious ones in between, a head of grey hair on the one who is already getting along a bit.

Many of them I’ve never set eyes on before, and yet I know their names and mountaineering records better than I know my next-door neighbour. And what I know is this – these men have seen the mountains in a way I might never be privileged to.

When the worthiest of this high company shows us some of his most exquisite pictures, a chorus of seniors voice their approval: “Great stuff, well done.”

When they tell of battle and victory, when I hear from their own mouths all the epic ventures that resound among us striplings like sagas of the heroes – then how small this makes me feel by comparison. How likely is it that I’ll ever carry off anything like these feats of theirs? And how these sacred incantations of the club cut into my heart. What use to me is high ambition, spades of daring and an iron will?

For it is Titans I see in front of me, wrestling with giant mountains. I shiver as in a dream. The evening that looked so enticing does yield all it promised – and yet not so much. I must leave the room and, down at heart, I stride away through the dark night.


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.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Alpine vignettes

Project HaMo (translation): three mountain sketches by Hans Morgenthaler

Winning through to the Finsteraarhorn's summit
(Photo by courtesy of Alpine Light & Structure)
Summit joys

Did you ever win through to the summit of a cold snowy peak that glows in the early light of a high-altitude morning, before the sun even starts to purge the night fogs from the deep valleys? After those hard hours of climbing, your iron-shod steps suddenly found their way so easily. Effortlessly, you promenaded atop the bare crest of your hard-won summit.

Now you could hold your head high, as proud as a commander’s after some victorious battle? Didn’t that set your heart racing, near fit to burst with this surge of summit joy? And then you had to retrace your steps, down the hard-frozen snow slope. Reluctantly and a touch bitter at heart, you let yourself take one last look upwards into that deep blue sky, infinitely far overhead, before you took leave of your liberating summit, and its brief joys.

(For the mountaineers who served in the Great War.)


Original illustration
from Ihr Berge (1916)
In the valley, burdened with an irrepressible longing, my hapless soul quivers for the high mountains, cheers on the day that brings me back to them, and builds up the resistless force that will snap the fetters which keep me from them, yearning just to wander abroad for ever.

Yet, after a hard struggle with the mountains, after weeks of body-bruising encounters, tussling with the rocks and ice in good earnest, my fervent wish is once again for the valley, a bed, sweet milk and freshly-fragrant bread.

Struck to the heart

Have you ever seen how the mountains can capture a tyro climber?

It’s half past five on a May morning. We stand in bright sunlight, four thousand metres up on a peak in the Bernese Oberland, the first "big mountain" that my friend from southern Italy has ever climbed. And I myself have never seen a day dawn quite so clearly in the mountains. Crisply and cleanly the vanquished giants rise up around us. Today, from Mont Blanc’s summit, you could probably pick out each individual top in the far-off Bernina range.

All of a sudden, my swarthy Sardinian friend looks and talks quite differently. Shaken to his core, as if astonished, and gazing all around him, he seems to have woken from some deep slumber: "Is such beauty even possible!" his black eyes twinkle, "and all the time I’ve been frittering away my priceless time at cards and dances." He shakes my hand.


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, January 24, 2020

Images and ink (42)

Image: The crags of the Matterhorn during the storm, midnight, August 10th, 1863, woodcut by Edward Whymper, from Scrambles among the Alps in the years 1860-69.

Ink: Account of a storm on the Matterhorn, as told by mountain guide Fredy Biner to Kurt Lauber, in Matterhorn, Bergführer erzählen: Gipfelgeschichten gesammelt von Kurt Lauber, Droemer HC, 2015.

Three Japanese had been overtaken on the Zmutt Ridge by a thunderstorm, and one had fallen, breaking his hip. So the trio had to be brought down the mountain. When the first thunderstorm had gone by, Leo lmesch and I flew off with Sigi Stangier as pilot and a rescue assistant. Before that, the mountain guides Bruno Jelk and Ludwig "Lutschi" lmboden had already been brought to the accident site. Because of the powerful downdrafts, we had to get out of the helicopter as it hovered below the Zmuttgrat’s snow ridge, as Sigi could not fly it any higher up. The next thunderstorm was now coming up from the southwest. Leo suggested leaving our ice-axes here and said "If you have any gold teeth, they’ll be blown right out of your mouth today!" And as he climbed, he sent up a quick prayer: "God save us and the other punters."

We climbed up through the towers on the ridge and joined the others further up. Bruno Jelk and "Lutschi" had already put the casualty on the rope, and we took the other two between us and followed them. Now we were in the middle of the storm. Heavy snowfall and downpours alternated, strong gusts of wind did their utmost. Huge bolts of ball lightning, up to 50 meters across, exploded with deafening thunderclaps right next to us. Every time they did that, blocks of rock started rolling, and it reeked of sulphur. Again and again, the static kept building up in the air, which felt as if a cat was biting the back your neck.

Leo took the lead back through the towers, with me belaying him. Then one of his crampons came loose. He came back to fix it. At that moment, there was another explosion, even more powerful. Just where we’d been before, two man-high boulders slowly tilted out of the ridge. They would have taken us with them down the west face. So God did save us punters. Below, from the snow ridge, Sigi was able to fly first the casualties and then ourselves back to the village.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

“Alpine writing is the lowest form of literature”

A long-ago conniption raises live questions about the state of mountain writing

It’s safe to say that this mid-Victorian Englishman did not enjoy his sojourn, one wet summer during the 1870s, in a fog-bound Swiss mountain hotel. When writing up the experience, he dipped his pen in acid to sketch out grotesque caricatures of his fellow guests and countrymen. Businessmen on holiday, clergymen, matrons, spinsters – all are ruthlessly lampooned.

English "Alpine Clubbists" at Grindelwald, c. 1900
Artist unknown. 

But the scholar’s most corrosive grade of bile was reserved for the “Alpine Clubbist”. The mountaineer “is not an imaginative man,” the writer sneers. Instead, he is a bit of a gear freak (“His one grief in life seems to be the failure of his new portable cooking apparatus …) with social skills to match: “Alpine talk is the lowest variety of conversation as the common run of Alpine writing is the lowest form of literature.”

And then we hear the mid-Victorian intellectual work himself up into a screech of exasperation as he piles into the quality of that literature:

What is it which makes men in Alpine travel-books write as men never write elsewhere? What is the origin of a style unique in literature, which misses both the sublime and the ridiculous, and constantly hops from tall-talk to a mirth feeble and inane? Why is it that the senior tutor, who is so hard on a bit of bad Latin, plunges at the sight of an Alp into English inconceivable, hideous? Why does page after page look as if it had been dredged with French words through a pepper-castor? Why is the sunrise or the scenery always "indescribable," while the appetite of the guides lends itself to such reiterated description? These are questions which suggest themselves to quiet critics, but hardly to the group in the hotel …

These were the criticisms that were suggested by one John Richard Green in his Stray Studies from England and Italy, a travel journal published in 1876 (the remarks quoted are from the chapter entitled “Hotels in the clouds”).

Had J R Green not been one of the era’s most prominent historians, the Alpine Clubbists could probably just have shrugged. But, finding themselves attacked by the Niall Ferguson of their day, they doubtless felt obliged to respond. Appropriately, this duty fell to Douglas Freshfield, himself a prolific alpinist and mountain writer. His riposte appeared in the seventh volume of the Clubbists’ own Alpine Journal, in the same year as Green’s tirade.

Like the lawyer he was between mountaineering forays, “DWF” opens his defence by redefining the terrain. The Alpine Journal itself and its predecessor, Peaks, Passes and Glaciers, were only ever intended for an “inner public”, he writes. Thus, “it would be preposterous to select [them] as by themselves fair representatives of our literature, and no competent and candid critic would venture on such an absurdity.”

Then he moves to the offensive: “we are ready to submit Alpine writing to a comparison with any portion of the larger literature of travel of which it forms a division” – although he does not deny that the Alpine Club also includes a “sporting element” whose productions “may not bear examination by any high literary standard”.

As for Green’s charge that most alpine writing “misses both the sublime and the ridiculous”, DWF raises the ingenious excuse that many mountaineering authors might wish to avoid courting ridicule by attempting to rival “Mr L Stephen’s description of a sunset from Mont Blanc, or Professor Tyndall’s of that seen on the spurs of the Weisshorn”.

The reference here is to John Tyndall’s Hours of exercise in the Alps and Leslie Stephen's Playground of Europe, both published in 1871. DWF might also have mentioned Edward Whymper, who in the very same year came out with his Scrambles Amongst the Alps in the Years 1860-69. But Whymper’s relationship with the Alpine Club was always an edgy one, which may explain why DWF passed over him in silence.

With the benefit of a century and more’s worth of hindsight, DWF can be seen to have won his case handsomely. While Green’s works have sunk almost without trace, those of Tyndall, Stephen and, yes, Whymper have stood the test of time – or, at least, they are still regularly read and reprinted. (There were never any hard feelings, by the way, between the Clubbists and the eminent historian: Leslie Stephen later edited J R Green’s collected correspondence.)

So, case closed? Well, not quite. Long after this mid-Victorian debate, mountain writers have continued to sound a defensive note. “Time has gone on; and the discontent with mountain publications seems to be repeating itself,” admitted Geoffrey Winthrop Young in 1955 ("Courage, and mountain writing").

Two decades later, Michael Ward was hardly more sanguine: “In general, mountain literature is rich and varied within the bounds of a subject that tends to be esoteric. It is not easy to transpose great actions into good, let alone great literature.” ("Mountain literature – then and now", Alpine Journal 1976).

Might it be then that J R Green was on to something with his diatribe back in 1876? Douglas Freshfield certainly thought so. “Caricatures … have a value,” he wrote in his reply to Green, “and especially for their subjects. Having faced the attack, we may do well to consider how we may render its repetition impossible. Let us all bear consistently in mind the faults of which we are here accused…”


Illustration is from Gabriele Seitz, Wo Europa den Himmel berührt: die Entdeckung der Alpen, Büchergilde Gutenberg, 1989.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

“What I learned in avalanche school”

Why human factors have to complement snow analysis in avalanche safety courses

Again, the New York Times demonstrates its unfailingness. In a recent edition of the NYT magazine, novelist Heidi Julavis writes up an avalanche course that she attended in January last year. What she learned was that avalanches from on high aren’t the primary threat. In nine accidents out of ten, the avalanche is triggered by the victims themselves.

Shredding it: a decision-maker on Piz Calderas
(Photo courtesy of Alpine Light & Structure)

“The problem” she writes “is that people are susceptible, prideful, bullheaded, egotistic, dumbstruck and lazy. Add to this doomed slurry a little avalanche training (or what used to qualify as avalanche training, and its focus on analyzing the snowpack) and people make terrible decisions with greater frequency and confidence.”

Her course instructor confirms this bleak analysis. The demographic most likely to die in an avalanche, he says, is male, late 20s, intermediate-to-expert skiing experience, combined with some formal avalanche training.

As if to ram this point home, a friend texts to Julavis a newspaper article posted on the very afternoon that her course ends. The headline reads: “Colorado’s first avalanche death of 2019 came during an advanced avalanche-safety course on Red Mountain Pass.”

Why is it that experts fall victim to avalanches as often – or perhaps more often – than novices do?

In her write-up, Julavis refers to Human Factor 2.0, a “seminal” 2016 article by David Page about the trend in avalanche education towards better decision-making. Page, in turn, cites six human factors identified by a previous researcher into avalanche accidents. These “decision-making traps” make up the acronym FACETS:

   Familiarity: I’ve skied this line a dozen times and it’s always held.

   Acceptance: I’m not gonna be the one to chicken out/ruin the day.

   Commitment/consistency: Now we’ve come so far, we might as well carry on.

   Expert halo: The guide or the local guy must know what he’s doing.

   Tracks/scarcity: Let’s shred this untouched powder before somebody else does.

   Social facilitation/proof: Those other guys are shredding it – clearly, it’s safe.

Page goes on to cite an expert who explains that, for novices, any gains they make in learning to analyse snow are still going to be fraught with lots of uncertainty. “So we’re teaching people risk-management systems that accommodate uncertainty. We’re trying to get away from teaching people to think they know things they don’t, to teaching people how to make reasonable decisions, assuming many sources of error in the system.”

A long time ago, a veteran Swiss alpinist put matters more succinctly: “Remember,” he said, “the avalanche doesn’t know you are an expert.”