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.