Monday, June 22, 2020

"Gladys" (7)

Continued: a tale by Charles Gos from the belle époque of alpinism

All of a sudden, a volley of stones came hooting down, melted out by the sun. We looked up. Those ice pillars stood at the end of the snow gable we’d just set foot on. Welded to a wall weeping with moisture, they formed a fragile scaffolding of huge stalactites that resembled a portico supported on columns of crystal. Impressed as we were with this baroque spectacle, we kept quiet and made haste, well aware of our fate should one of those elegant arches collapse.

Cutting steps on the Wetterhorn
(Photo by George D Abraham)

We brushed against the base of the projection and, rounding it to the left, stepped up onto a twist of neve. At its tip, a formidable ice wall stood in our path like a marble slab, hanging over us in the shadow and frost. Its glistening faces shaded from green and blue in the middle to the colour of slate where they lapped against the rocks. Further down, the ice vanished under the snow, to be swallowed up by the void.

There was no way to avoid the obstacle; we had to tackle it or retreat. Fairness, a first-class rock climber, suggested a chimney, but the ice-glazed slabs that we would have to traverse to reach it looked too risky. Should we retreat? This option came to mind, perhaps as a form of chivalry, seeing that we had a young woman with us. We discussed the matter; Gladys was firmly against any idea of retreat and we decided to continue the ascent. So what did it matter if an ice slope stood in our way? It wasn't the first one we’d had to deal with.

Besides, we couldn't wait to escape from this north face with its pale walls of frost and its killing cold. We unroped and tied our two ropes together. I set off, trailing sixty metres of rope, and carrying an extra coil on my shoulder, as well as two iron pitons and a peg hammer in my pockets. It was difficult to judge the height of this face; foreshortened as it was, it didn’t look more than forty metres, fifty at the most. Towards the top, the ice sheet merged into rock-studded snow, and from there to the ridge it was just a steep snow-slope. Our plan was this: I would try to get as far the nearest rocky outcrop, from where I would bring up the others. If that couldn’t be done, I would run out the full sixty metres, drive a piton into the ice, belay the rope around it, bring the others up, and then climb on again.

For two whole hours, I worked my way up that face, clinging to it with my fingers clenched into a ladder of notches, my boots lodged in the steps that I'd just hacked out. The steepness of the ice, as well as its adamantine hardness, made this axe-work both tedious and perilous. I could only sketch out the notches where I had to plant the spikes of my crampons. For two long hours, flattened against the face, I worked my way slowly upwards – there was no turning back now. I felt the bulging slickness of the ice sliding against me; at times, it even at times brushed my face with a gentle but grisly touch. I heard my companions muttering below. Someone was stamping their feet. Someone else whistled a dance tune. Someone shouted up to me, as if from a distance:

"Are you all right?”

“Yes," I replied, through gritted teeth, and without pausing in my work.

And keeping up my series of sketchy little axe-blows, I continued my struggle with the ice wall. Ice splinters went tinkling down with a noise like shards of porcelain. The rope crept upward as I hoisted myself another foot higher with infinite slowness and with but one thought in my mind – to keep my body in balance over two sets of crampon points.

You'd think something compelling might be written about the psychology of a man working his solitary way up an ice slope in the shadow of the abyss, liberating himself move by move from the fatal pull of the void as he climbs towards the light, the sun and the blue sky. Yet, though this picture does have a certain charm, the psychology involved would add up to little more than a few trivial thoughts that owe more to gut feel than reason. As such, this account would be of only modest interest, and hardly worth the effort of setting down.

Suddenly, the slope eased and softer, whitish ice shattered under my ice axe. At last I could stand up and breathe deeply.

“How much more rope?”

“Twenty metres!” was the reply, “Twenty metres!”

“I’m there," I said. “What time is it?”


Nine o'clock! So it had taken me two hours to do those forty metres. I found that incredible, until I looked back and saw the ladder of my footsteps spilling vertiginously away beneath me. At the bottom of the slope, at the other end of the rope that was starting to get noticeably heavier, I caught a glimpse of my companions, still grey shapes against the rock. They were looking up at me. At that moment, a beneficent warmth flooded over me and the sun glared into my eyes.

"Watch me,” I shouted down, “I'm going up another six metres, to the rock.”

Behind me, the rope rasped over divots in the frozen crust as, hacking away lustily with my ice axe, I made my way up to the ridge. A draught of air from the mountain’s southern face wafted over me, and without a glance at the new set of views, I walked quickly along the snow ridge to an outcrop of rocks where I could sit down. Solidly braced, with my hands firmly grasping the rope, which I’d wrapped around a rock, I shouted down:

“That's it, you can come up now!”

The rope swung, stretched and started to thrum gently. A medley of noises came up. Somebody was climbing. The rope slackened a bit. I hauled it in, inch by inch, keeping it taut and sensing with my tensed muscles the life of the companion who was coming up. Suddenly, over there, where the ice slope suddenly relented, Gladys emerged from the void, glowing in the sunlight, which picked out her lustrous profile against the purple shadows of the valley below.

When she reached the snow, she paused a moment, one hand on the rope one hand and the other resting on her ice axe, her shrunken shadow falling around her feet.

“Hello!" she called out.

She turned around, waved to the others, and set off along the footprints I’d left. From a distance, she’d appeared as an outline, pleasing enough, yet no more than a silhouette, but as she approached the entire person came into view, the woman who’d made that haunting appearance at Sir Evelyn S.'s reception.

In a fleeting vision, I saw the Countess again, as she’d been in the glittering setting of that evening reception, confounding me with her dreamy, lofty, noble thoughts. Yet, serious and impassioned as her words had then been, they’d failed somehow to express the deeper meaning she had wanted to give them. Up here, though, in the pure air of four thousand metres, these words came echoing back, taking on a new life, as if some ardent and mystical spirit had awakened them – the same triumphant spirit that had animated her rendition of Beethoven's adagio and stunned the audience into silence. It had taken months of waiting and then the test of this climb to show me how Gladys communed with the mountains, this still centre of her being.

Right there on the ridgecrest, on snow that twinkled with ice crystals, stood Gladys, between the white dome of the Breithorn and the Matterhorn’s dark fin, the sun limning her in a nimbus of light against the blue sky. Her graceful figure harmonised elegantly with the stupendous backcloth that unfolded behind her. And the declivities beneath, those walls of sheeted granite, those vertiginous chimneys, the crack of falling stones, the iced-up couloirs, the pristine snows, the avalanche-raked rocks, the serrated ridges, their pinnacles as if carved into space, those forbidding ice faces shimmering like glass, those palisades of tottering seracs, the tiered glaciers with their delicate pallor, the murmur of streams hidden in their depths, the silent gulfs – and now it seemed that the very abyss poised beneath her, the plunging valleys, the whole solemn procession of the Alps across the horizon, and this entire chaos of rock and ice was rushing magnificently forwards to bear up this ridge of snow set on the edge of eternity, on which this young woman was walking towards me.

A stone's throw from me she unroped, her face flushed under her sunburn, and turned to view the vast spectacle. Her eyes seemed to light up with a single thought, as refined as the alpine air: “And you, ye Mountains, why are ye beautiful?”

The silence was broken by the clatter of the rope, as I threw it down to the others.

(To be continued)


This is an excerpt from Project Hyakumeizan's centennial translation of the second story in La Croix du Cervin (1919), a collection of alpine fiction by Charles Gos (1885-1949). Translation (c) Project Hyakumeizan.

Friday, June 19, 2020

"Gladys" (6)

Continued: a tale by Charles Gos from the belle époque of alpinism

Rising above us, the ice slope ran up to the ridge at a giddy angle. It was a few hours after dawn. Grazing the crumbling ridge of snow, the sunlight fanned out into diffused beams of light and azure. Far below us, the glacier lurked within a clear-cut shadow zone. Crowded into an angle on the north slope and propped against a wall bristling with frosty encrustations, we had paused for a moment before starting our assault on the icy slope, a formidable obstacle that had suddenly blocked our path.

The Täschhorn, seen from the east
(Photo by courtesy of Alpine Light & Structure)

There were five of us, in two ropes; I led the first, with Gladys and the Earl following; my two brothers were on the second. It was viciously cold. Our ropes and boots were rigid with frost; our skin stuck to the steel of the ice axes. Below us gaped the abyss, frozen in the shadows. The distant murmur of the torrent in the valley rose with the icy air exhaled from the walls and the snow. Above us, scarcely a hundred metres away, rippled that cheerful sheet of golden light.

A ray lit up the blue sheen of a snowface - pretty as a hanging garden - with ripples that shimmered with a pristine subtlety. But this was a light without heat, and the cold kept boring mortally into us. Ah, how beautiful life would be on the rocks of the ridge, in that summer morning’s sunlight! Just a hundred yards away; up here, you have no idea how much that can mean to a man’s life!

The appointment made at Sir Evelyn S.'s house last winter had been kept, and we had met the day before in Zermatt. The Fairnesses arrived from the Dauphiné, just as we were completing a foray into the Cogne massif. Dubious weather kept us in the hotel. We used the time to make the appropriate preparations for our climb, renew our friendship and lounge in front of the fire chatting agreeably. Around us in this salon of the Hotel Monte Rosa, which has lodged so many famous mountaineers and launched so many famous climbs, tourists were chatting and they too were readying themselves for their expeditions. Pervading every corner of the room, the reek of English tobacco from their heavy mountain garb mingled with the scent of tea.

Although I somehow hadn’t looked forward to seeing Gladys again, worrying that a second meeting would break the spell of that unforgettable evening in London, I was overjoyed to find her as I had left her. My imagination had added nothing to my memories of her that could either embellish or idealise. The top-flight alpinist that she proved to be was only one side of her enigmatic personality.

An Alpine Club friend, Major H. C. O., was keen to lend us his guide, Franz Lochmatter, but we turned this kind offer down, although we listened gladly enough to this man’s advice. Franz gave us a useful briefing. Raising his left hand to represent the Täschhorn, he traced out the route with his right index finger: here, the couloir; cross the gendarme there, descend and then get back on the ridge by working across the face; skirt this problematic wall; and then you’re on the summit ridge; in good conditions, we’d be there in eight hours.

So now we were ready, indeed very ready, and confident of success. We all but sighed with relief when, after two days of fog, we saw the twin peaks of the Mischabel, the Dom and the Täschhorn, swept by the north wind in a cloudless sky. Our ridge, the Teufelsgrat, stretched away above us, magnificent and feline, its black serrations set off by delicate white undulations. It made a beautiful spectacle and we were raring to get to grips with it. Fortune favoured us. There was not a speck of fresh snow on the rocks; they were dry as a road in Provence after a mistral. In front of the hotel, Franz was inspecting the mountain through a telescope.

“Good enough,” he said, “but there are those pillars. I would turn them on the left.”

Putting my eye to the instrument, I inspected the pillars: they looked like huge bluish ice-blocks leaning against a wall. That little stretch of ridge encircled by the telescope's field of view sent a chill down my spine. The Earl bent down and took a look:

“Yes, better go left,” he said matter-of-factly.

We took a morning train to Täsch and the same evening rested up in a hayloft on the Täschalp.

We were away long before dawn, climbing the grassy slopes and scree by the light of our lanterns in the early morning hours. A pale gloaming, streaked with long dark plumes, chased away the night and we reached the ridge just as dawn broke over a clear horizon. Then came the burgeoning red glow of the sun, the light growing in the silence, the gold and green-tinged peaks glittering into the sky, the blaze of the glaciers, an expanse of space that reached out to the world’s end, and abysses that plunged away beneath us, all more lifeless than death itself.

Slowly but unremittingly, we climbed the jagged ridge, tackling its obstacles directly. The Fairnesses were going superbly. I’d made my appraisal at the outset and I trusted them implicitly. Although we were mere tourists and in no sense pioneers, the ropes thrummed with that heroic spirit of solidarity that inspires a first ascent, filling us with enthusiasm and enjoyment. If we could stand the pace for a while and if conditions continued to favour us, the summit would be ours by nine o'clock....

(To be continued)


This is an excerpt from Project Hyakumeizan's centennial translation of the second story in La Croix du Cervin (1919), a collection of alpine fiction by Charles Gos (1885-1949). Translation (c) Project Hyakumeizan.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

"Gladys" (5)

Continued: a tale by Charles Gos from the belle époque of alpinism

Then, abruptly recovering her poise, she held out her hand to two new guests, who inclined their heads over her ringed fingers.

Moonlight on Lake Geneva, a painting by Albert Gos

I have to confess that I felt myself slightly thrown by this strange confession, from a socialite who had just pronounced anathema on all her caste. And also by the oddly insouciant way she’d invited me to join her on a climb of the Täschhorn via the Teufelsgrat, one of the longest, most arduous ascents anywhere in the Alps. This too took me aback, although I was willing to believe she was serious about her offer. After all, why shouldn’t she be? A woman with a climbing record like hers could not be expected to behave like all the rest. So she must have been in earnest.

The Countess introduced me to her acquaintances. At once, I recognised one of them as the monocle-wearing officer, the Countess’s companion from the previous day’s exhibition at the Alpine Club.

“This is my cousin,” she said, “Captain Hugh McPherson.”

As the Countess struck up a conversation with the other guest, the officer turned to me. “I am quite sure, sir,” he began, "that you were talking about mountains with my fair cousin. I could see that look on her face, sick as a palsied parrot, that she has whenever she gets back from a season in Switzerland, but she’ll get over it by and by. What a strange creature she is; it’s a pity really! You're a mountaineer too, no doubt?”

“Yes, sir, a mountaineer and a passionate devotee of mountain beauty.”

“Well, that goes for my cousin too. I could understand it if she was a man, but she’s a woman! And why her, of all things? She affects to be tired of society balls or theatre-goings, and yet she’s the life and soul of the party wherever she goes. She's one of the prettiest, most elegant young women in society, and (here he leaned towards me) would you believe it, a perfect wife too. No affairs, nothing. But her thing for mountains; it’s too bad, really. Besides, her husband shares her alpine obsession. That's it, really, they love each other. So she’s got no time for admirers! Though this too could be some sort of pose, like any other, even if it gets a special twist from my cousin’s ardent and poetic nature. Women! What funny things they are!”

The conversation rattled on in this light-hearted manner. All the same, I read in Captain McPherson’s remarks another tribute to the Countess's virtues. His revelations strengthened my faith in her, confirmed my admiration.

At this moment, the Earl appeared, accompanied by somebody who looked like a musician. “Madam," said this person obsequiously, "won’t you play for us tonight? A bit of Chopin, perhaps?”

Seeming not to hear, the Countess said, “Oliver, I've invited this man to climb the Teufelsgrat on the Täschhorn with us, in July.”

“Did you, indeed?” the Earl replied in a matter-of-fact way. “I hope you don’t mind? It should be a pleasant tour. We both of us adore your country. Did I not hear that you and your brothers climbed a new route on the Aiguille Verte, but where did it go exactly?”

“Countess,” the artist beseeched her, “the nocturne in F sharp minor, the one that Pugno played at the Queen's Hall.”

“Huh!" exclaimed the officer, adjusting his monocle and looking at his pretty cousin, “I'll wager twenty pounds that after you get up your Devil’s Ridge or whatever, you’ll get a column in the Times, an article in the Alpine Journal and your picture in the Illustrated News. I’ll say it again – it’s just a pose, even if it’s one that not every girl can indulge in. Let’s just say, Gladys, that you have a very individual way of expressing yourself. Well, I take my hat off to you.”

She waved her impertinent cousin away and asked if I liked music. Very much, I replied.

“Would that be Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Debussy?” she enquired. I confessed a distinct inclination towards Bach, that master of the well-tempered harpsichord. She smiled.

“Me too," she said, "but we can’t play him here, you know. Oliver, do you remember, Olivier, that sweet young girl at the Couttet hotel in Chamonix? How she played that eighth andante, and to listen to it the night we got back from eight days in the mountains. How beautiful it was, and how it suited our mood. Now, if you like, I'll play you the Moonlight Sonata.”

At this moment, her expression changed, as if she was already thinking through the piece she was about to interpret. And, suddenly sombre, she walked away on the musician’s arm.

The Countess Gladys played for us in a sort of penumbra. She liked to wrap her music in mystery and, by this simple device, to prolong the entrancement of our rapt souls.

The chandeliers had been put out. Only a few torches flickered here and there, reflected and diffused in the dark depths of the mirrors. A shimmering figure seated at the black bulk of the piano, the Countess played a few chords, silencing the hum of last conversations with her first few arpeggios. She held her audience in thrall, as if hypnotised. A breath of air wafted in through an open window, stirring a spray of white roses against a buttress. One could hear the petals fall, all but imperceptibly.

Then the notes of the immortal adagio rang limpidly through the room’s dusky recesses. Against the crepuscular backing of the chords, the melody stood out in a soft, serene and harmonious clarity, like some ancient bas-relief on a marble frieze. Evanescent, unhurried and unfailingly measured, the notes flowed and rippled away, borne up by the swell and ebb of the bass, which seemed to lend or soften its voice to bring out the composition’s full beauty. Reaching the final allegretto, the last notes died away. The pianist’s outstretched arms fell back inert. The Countess lowered her head, rested her hand on her knees, and slumped as if she was in pain - or in some radiant trance.

Stunned by this extraordinary conclusion, the audience sank into an even deeper state of contemplation, a more gratifying tribute than any sudden burst of applause. No facile compliments were murmured; nobody for an instant thought of clapping. In this timeless moment, we were abashed to silence.

(To be continued)


This is an excerpt from Project Hyakumeizan's centennial translation of the second story in La Croix du Cervin (1919), a collection of alpine fiction by Charles Gos (1885-1949). Translation (c) Project Hyakumeizan.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

"Gladys" (4)

Continued: a tale by Charles Gos from the belle époque of alpinism

Conversing about the mountains amid the drawing room chatter seemed to us a strange contradiction. All around us the talk was of trivia, gossip and sports. Women giggled; the blades of the fans softly modulated the dissonant hum of voices; jewels glittered; and chandeliers bathed all the black suits and the glamorous turn-outs in a wash of light. I admit quite frankly, even at the risk of sounding like a fool, that our private and all but flirtatious conversation appealed to me far more than did the surrounding babble.

The Dom and the Taeschhorn, a painting by Albert Gos
The Countess was full of animation. The natural grace of her gestures seemed to come from her innermost thoughts, suggesting to me that she deplored coarseness in all its forms. She spoke a very pure French. The way she rolled her ‘r’s’, her slightly exotic accent added something indefinable to her charm.

I listened to her, delighted, as she shared her thoughts with me, ingenuously, without posturing or artifice and, remarkably, without any emotional twists, something that the women described by Paul Bourget or Marcel Prévost have not accustomed us to. There are certain women, sensitive and passionate, who are transformed by love. The beauty of the feelings they carry in them irradiates, even transfigures them. And such a one was Gladys, infused as she was with her twofold love for her Earl and the mountains, which her soul reflected as if in a crystal lake.

I looked at her. As she sat back slightly in her armchair, her shoulders emerged from an exquisite Chantilly gown, its delicate tracery lapping over her bare arms. No jewellery encumbered her golden hair; two solitary pendants glinted from her ears. Large, violet, dreamy eyes; a short, straight nose, slightly turned up; dazzling teeth in a very small mouth; a delicate chin completed this picture of a society woman, as if as painted by Paul César Helleu. She was twenty-four years old, yet looked scarcely older than twenty.

Captivated by her spirit as much as by her charm and overwhelming attractiveness, I was starting to wonder if all this society stuff wasn't just nonsense, perhaps - when the Countess seemed to read my mind:

“Don’t you think so?” she smiled, “But it really is like that. Ah! How vain and selfish people are! Come on, you men are all the same! Because we're pretty, because we look frivolous, scatterbrained perhaps, because you like to admire us, you think we’re just here to divert you or liven up your life with flirting or an affair when you're bored; or add a bit of grace and poetry to your to your home or heart. Yes, it’s like that.”

She curled her lips scornfully and, without waiting for my reply, went on bitterly, as if speaking to herself:

“I hate “society”... I hate it. Everywhere, women are the target of looks that defile them. And what looks! If men knew how much contempt we have for them, they might even give up desiring us and creep back into their shells, just to preserve their own self-worth. Yes, I hate “society”. The looks on my face burn like my thoughts. I feel defenceless against this secret groping. If only I could – but what can a woman do? I’d rather live in an alpine valley, somewhere I could let my feelings bloom, lead my inner life, safe from the baseness here.”

She paused after her soliloquy, then turning to me:

“Why did I have to tell you this nonsense? Was it amusing? It’s odd, though, you're the first man, after my husband, to whom I’ve dared to say anything like that. Do you know what Oliver calls it? He calls it my romantic childishness..."

I wanted to say something, to break the awkward silence to which her words had reduced me, but she didn't give me time, and looking me straight in the eyes, somewhat like a supplicant, she asked:

“You do take me seriously, don’t you?

And then she suddenly came out with:

“Have you done the Täschhorn by the Teufelsgrat?

“No, indeed.”

“Well, neither have I; let’s make a date for next July.”

(To be continued)


This is an excerpt from Project Hyakumeizan's centennial translation of the second story in La Croix du Cervin (1919), a collection of alpine fiction by Charles Gos (1885-1949). Translation (c) Project Hyakumeizan.

Friday, June 12, 2020

"Gladys" (3)

Continued: a tale by Charles Gos from the belle époque of alpinism

In the crowded drawing room, Mr. W. E. R. F. introduced me to Oliver, Earl of Fairness, and his wife. Making short work of the usual banalities, we soon found that we had common interests and that we would get on very well together. I slyly congratulated the Countess on her history lesson about the Matterhorn yesterday. Surprised and amused, she said she hadn't noticed me there, which didn't surprise me.

Red Matterhorn, a painting by Albert Gos (1852-1942)
Then, quite naturally, we went on from the Matterhorn in art to the Matterhorn itself. Having climbed the mountain four times over its four ridges, they planned to climb it again next summer with the aim of descending the vertiginous Z'mutt ridge and repeating the feat performed by Miss Bristow, Mummery's sister-in-law, and her guide, Joseph Pollinger.

Here the Earl, begging us to excuse him, left us to ourselves. We went out onto the veranda. Already on the best of terms, thanks to our mutual passion for the mountains, we reeled off the names of guides, friends, places and the peaks we’d all climbed. It turned out that I had been a day ahead of them at the Weisshorn hut; that their guides were good friends of mine; that we’d probably seen each other in the restaurant on the Riffelalp; and that they had met the novelist Edmondo de Amicis - a Valtournanche enthusiast - and Guido Rey, at the Hotel du Giomein at Breuil, on the day when I passed through with my brothers, coming down empty-handed from the Dent d'Hérens. These details amused her, but she was astonished when I casually asked her some perceptive questions about their memorable ascent of the Aiguille Verte via the Charpoua. She finally caught on that the Petit Dru, where we were that day, had served as the perfect lookout point. On returning to the Montanvert, we’d found out who these astonishing climbers were.

From these memories, we turned to a discussion of how mountains influence art. She had a very extensive knowledge as well as some original ideas about works of art, music and literature inspired by the alpine landscape. In his La Montagne, Jules Michelet had summed these matters up in a grand synthesis, we agreed – without even going to the mountains, he’d understood their character and incomparable grandeur. Only a genius could resolve such a contradiction in terms.

Emile Javelle’s Memories of a Mountaineer had delighted her. We touched on Ruskin's aesthetics and his admirable spiritual testament written "beneath the cloudless peace of the snows of Chamonix". And so we came to the headstrong Byron. The parallels she deftly drew between the musical score of Schumann's version of Byron's Manfred and the poem impressed me immensely. But, for her, mountains would continue to elude human speculation until the end of time. Mysterious, inaccessible and numinous, they would never cease to occupy the sacred terrain assigned to them by mythology.*

Byron's Manfred at the Jungfrau
“Do you remember?" she asked, as if reframing her thoughts into a poetic cast. And slowly she quoted Manfred's lyrical apostrophe in front of the Jungfrau’s cliffs: “And you, ye Mountains, why are ye beautiful?” She fell silent then, as if choking back a sudden pulse of emotion, and stood motionless and grave, her gaze distant, seeming to gaze out on some distant vision of snow ridges that rose up in the depths of her fancy, somewhere infinitely far away….

* Footnote: Her way of thinking here recalls the title that Chateaubriand set out for the fourth part of his third volume on The Genius of Christianity: "Harmonies of the Christian Religion with Scenes of Nature and the Passions of the Human Heart", although taking into account here only the mystico-religious aspects. It’s possible that Gladys was a mystic or a theosophist, but I personally don't think so. Her turn of thought suggested a distinctly pantheistic bent. We only once discussed the idea of God. "If God exists," she said, "then where? In us, perhaps, latently, or unconsciously, or is he the genius of classical times? But it's not up to Him to come down to us, it's up to us to go up to Him. Isn't it so human of us that we have to imagine God when we sit down to pray? Christians pray, but as a pantheist, I meditate. After all, what difference does it make? I don't see any difference. We all need to free ourselves from weakness and gird up our strength, and we all aspire to the same goal: you have your faith; I, my ideal of perfection and beauty. One is like the other, judging by their morals and inner discipline: they’re both a form of auto-suggestion.”(I have taken care to quote this profession of faith in full, without which it would be impossible to fully round out Gladys’s character.)

(To be continued)


This is an excerpt from Project Hyakumeizan's centennial translation of the second story in La Croix du Cervin (1919), a collection of alpine fiction by Charles Gos (1885-1949). Translation (c) Project Hyakumeizan.

Monday, June 8, 2020

"Gladys" (2)

Continued: a tale by Charles Gos from the belle époque of alpinism

“What ho! So what do you think of the Countess?”

“The Countess?”

“The Countess of Fairness? Weren't you with her?”

“That young lady? No, I haven’t had the luck to be introduced.”

“Oh, I beg your pardon, I thought... she's one of our best climbers, you see.”

Fairness, Fairness: it's a name I've heard before, I said to myself, searching my memory.

“Certainly,” replied Mr W. E. R. F., a member of the club, “you must have heard of her in Chamonix, Courmayeur, Zermatt or Grindelwald. She and her husband have done the entire Alps.”

“Now I remember”, I exclaimed, “yes, I’ve seen her too, from a distance at least, two years ago, when she was climbing the Aiguille Verte by the Charpoua couloir and we were on the Dru. So that's who she is... how could this be? How extraordinary.”

The Glacier des Bossons by Gabriel Loppe

I looked for the enigmatic Countess, but she had vanished. And, as if reading my mind, Mr. W. E. R. F. said that, if I would allow him, he would be happy to introduce me to her tomorrow evening, at Sir Evelyn S.'s house. I assured him of the great pleasure this would give me, and, while chatting with him, took the chance to ask a few questions.

It seemed that Gladys was the only daughter of an old English family. At the age of eighteen, she’d married Oliver, Earl of Fairness, a Welsh gentleman a little older than she was, in what was by all accounts a love match. As they’d visited Switzerland on their honeymoon, they’d had themselves guided up some famous mountains, the Breithorn at Zermatt, the Jungfrau and Mont Blanc, just to say they’d done them. Easy as they were, these mountains were enough to captivate them, in the end fatally, alas. And so it was these peaks that served, with their alpine beauty, to unite the souls of those still untainted by society, just as their love had brought them together in the first place.

Seen from below, the Alps are pretty and decorative, putting on a show that pleases, just as the sea does when seen from the shore. But to penetrate that beauty involves a terrible and magnificent pilgrimage that brings one to the tip of a rock spire, or onto some snow ridge poised on the brink of eternity...

In the course of the next four years, the Count and Countess paraded their youth and enthusiasm on all the famous peaks of the Pennine Range, accompanied by famous guides such as the Lochmatter brothers or Pollinger from St. Nicholas. As a sportsman by nature, the Count may have been more passionately interested in these alpine climbs for their own sake. Gladys had literally given herself - the word doesn't sound too strong to me - to the mountains, with a kind of fascinated rapture and absolute trust. She felt that nothing could disappoint her in this march to the ideal where she found, as if synthesized into some symbolic greatness, the eternal thoughts and noble emotions of art. And she brought to this harsh way of life an admirable streak of toughness and, above all, the will to win, a determination that women more usually bring to bear in the strategems of love, hiding their tenacity under the guise of a superficial frivolity.

Under the tutelage of their guides, true virtuosos in the art of climbing, they quickly acquired, as if by a natural predisposition – which almost all the English have in their blood - what a mountaineer needs to know in order to dispense with the services of professionals. As we all know, learning to climb mountains is difficult. It is not enough to wield a rope and an ice axe, or to climb a rock face properly without knocking down too many stones, or take a party across a glacier without falling into a crevasse.

No, indeed. A true guideless climber must bring together physical stamina and moral strength, which is a fundamental quality as necessary, if not more so, than instinct (which cannot be learned) when it comes to finding the least dangerous line or the best chimney in the middle of a cliff, or the strongest snow bridge on a glacier, or the slope least prone to avalanches.

Guideless climbers fall into two categories, the real ones and the make-believes. The former are as good as the best guides, or almost so; the second kind are just favoured by luck; let’s call them honorary guideless climbers. The Fairnesses clearly belonged to the first category, demonstrating their mastery, almost coquettishly, with a boldness that bordered on heroism.

Freed from the supervision of their guides, the couple continued a brilliant series of ascents: the Aiguille Verte by the Moine ridge, the Géant by the north face, the Dent Blanche by the Ferpècle ridge, the Dent d'Hérens by the hanging glacier that leads up to the Tiefenmattenjoch (the latter, a new route, if I'm not mistaken), and many other expeditions, all first-rate. Sometimes a friend accompanied them, but they preferred to be on their own. For sometimes all it takes to disturb a harmonious state of mind is some stray thought that obscurely weighs on you.

But the greatest accolade to their alpinistic talents came from the guides, especially the so-so ones, who are known to be hostile to guideless climbers. Yet the guides saluted them wholeheartedly. In short, the Fairnesses had conquered not only mountains but hearts too – something far more difficult. Their graciousness, their breeding, their straightforwardness, their charming simplicity seemed to flow out and envelop anybody who happened to be staying at the same hotel or hut.

Quite unlike those stereotypes of the English mountaineer that you see in the satirical magazines, toothily grinning under their cloth caps, Gladys was attractive and, what is more, blended the character of a sportswoman with an exquisitely feminine grace. And this I would see for myself tomorrow, at the reception given at the home of Sir Evelyn S, the distinguished president of the Alpine Club.

(To be continued)


This is an excerpt from Project Hyakumeizan's centennial translation of the second story in La Croix du Cervin (1919), a collection of alpine fiction by Charles Gos (1885-1949). Translation (c) Project Hyakumeizan.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

"Gladys" (1)

Translation: a tale by Charles Gos from the belle époque of alpinism

Dedication: For Mrs E. Sawyer.

The tragic death of Gladys, Countess of Fairness, together with those of the Earl and their two guides, who were overwhelmed on the Italian side of Mont Blanc by a fall of stones in the vicinity of the Brouillard glacier, reminds me with extraordinary clarity of the occasions in my life when I had the privilege of meeting her.

The Matterhorn, a painting by Albert Gos (1852-1942)

The first time I saw her was in London, about ten years ago, at the opening of the mountain art exhibition at the Alpine Club. An elegant young woman at once caught my attention as she stood in front of one of my father's Matterhorn pictures and pointed out to her companion, a monocle-wearing cavalry officer, the various routes up to the famous summit. Illustrating her explanations with gestures, she confidently walked her thin little hand, gloved in white, index finger outstretched, over from the Hörnli to the Z'mutt ridge, pausing on the north face, on the part of the summit block known as the Red Rocks where Whymper's unfortunate comrades fell to their deaths in 1865 after making the first ascent.

Then, dropping down to the Furggjoch, she traced the profile of the Furggen ridge upwards with fastidious precision. At the projection, she paused again before gently swerving away under the mountain’s huge summit block and, with a quick oblique movement of her fingertip, returning to the Shoulder on the Hörnli ridge. To my surprise, she had limned out the very route taken by the illustrious Albert Mummery and his guides Alexander Burgener and B. Venetz, who were the first to venture this way in 1880.

However, my amazement was complete when, her hand pointing at the Furggen's bracket, the young woman began to explain in crisp detail the manoeuvre carried out in 1899 by a dear friend of mine, the Italian alpinist and author Guido Rey, who tried to traverse the immense unexplored cliff to the east, underneath the summit.

Standing as I was a bit behind the couple, and what with the bustle of other people passing by, the  mysterious lady's commentary reached me only in snippets. Yet the movements of her finger were eloquent enough for me, as a passionate admirer of the Matterhorn. Now here, the guide Daniel Maquignaz fixed a knotted rope and paid it out into the abyss, and there Anthoine attempted to force the horrendous chimney, flattening himself against the rock, towards that yellow smear, while Guido and Ange waited ...

Just then she was interrupted by the officer, who had been listening only half-heartedly to this unfamiliar tale, and the young woman turned away. Moving briskly towards a group of friends, she was led towards a canvas by Gabriel Loppé which portrayed gigantic blue seracs. As if stunned, I watched as this astonishing society lady moved away, wondering at her extraordinary fascination with four thousand-metre affairs. At that moment, a hand touched my shoulder and made me jump.

(To be continued)


This is an excerpt from Project Hyakumeizan's centennial translation of the second story in La Croix du Cervin (1919), a collection of alpine fiction by Charles Gos (1885-1949). Translation (c) Project Hyakumeizan.