“What ho! So what do you think of 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.