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.