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.

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