Friday, July 31, 2020

Images and ink (43)

Image: View of the Hörnli Ridge (Photo courtesy of Alpine Light & Structure)

Ink: From The cross of the Matterhorn, being Project Hyakumeizan's centennial translation of La Croix du Cervin (1919) by Charles Gos.

On the Zermatt side yawns the terrifying abyss, its sheer drop streaked with snowy edges, glazed with patches of shimmering ice, and plated with blackened walls. The cliff falls away, steepens, curves downwards and drops into nothingness. The pallid gleam, far below, is the glacier onto which Whymper’s unfortunate companions tumbled, shattered in every limb. Further off, and to the right, are discerned the tawny chalets of Zmutt and, lower still, the village of Zermatt straddling the Visp, with its smudges of building activity. No other summit in the Alps, perhaps in the world, gives such a chilling sensation of emptiness as does the Matterhorn. In its splendid isolation, the peak simply stands there, seeming to touch the sky, like some great reef engulfed and battered by the void....

Face à Zermatt, dévale le monstrueux abîme: à pic formidable, tacheté de franges neigeuses, poli de plaques glacées miroitantes et barbelé de murs noircis. La pente file, se raidit, arque son échine et s'éclipse, c'est le vide... puis, le glacier d'une blancheur candide, où roulèrent, fracassés, les infortunés compagnons de Whymper. Plus bas, en ligne droite, on distingue les chalets bronzés de Z'mutt, et plus bas encore, Zermatt, à cheval sur la Viège, avec ses pâtés de constructions... Nulle cime dans les Alpes entières — dans le monde peut-être ! — ne donne autant que celle du Cervin la frissonnante sensation du vide. Dans son splendide isolement, la pyramide du mont est là, comme un écueil géant cerné par la mer, cernée, elle, par le vide, battue par le vide béant de tous côtés, et sem- ble toucher le ciel....

Monday, July 20, 2020

"Gladys" (9)

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

No one replied, but we saw a flake of ice shining in the small of her back, embedded in the flesh, that seemed to rise and fall all but imperceptibly. Gladys was breathing!

The Matterhorn at sunrise, a painting by Albert Gos
Opening her mouth, which was frighteningly slack, we poured brandy down her throat. Her complexion was completely white. Her nostrils didn’t twitch, her eyes stayed closed and her ears frozen white. The expression of sheer terror on her face spoke eloquently of the torments she’d endured. It was the grimace of a corpse. We tried in vain to lift her leaden weight: the ice had welded Gladys to the glacier, as if they were one and the same thing.

This was ghastly. To release her from that monstrous embrace, and to avoid hurting her, we had to patiently dig her icy body out of the snow that gripped it and to cut away her tresses. Then we set her down on a blanket, putting a coil of rope under her head, and started to rub her down with alcohol. The clots of snow on her started to melt, all too slowly.

What grim and dismal work this was. And what a picture we must have made, we three men, silently kneeling on the glacier around this lifeless figure, half unrobed, under the flickering light of the lanterns hanging from our ice axes! The light reflected in glints from her golden tresses, mingling in the snow, amid a patch of darkness, a remnant of beauty abandoned to the glacier.

A hint of dawn started to flow around the horizon, projecting the outline of the ridges more clearly against the sky. And as if climbing back from death to life, in a kind of trance, Gladys opened her eyes under the fading stars.

For ten months after this hazardous rescue, Gladys made a slow recovery from pneumonia with complications, hovering a long while between life and death. She came close to losing her frost-bitten feet and hands, but in the end only the little finger of her right hand had to be amputated. On medical advice, the Earl set out with his wife for the island of Ceylon. Only there could the sun finally triumph over the fatal malady she’d contracted in the icy grip of the Tiefenmatten Glacier.

Towards the middle of the following spring, a letter from Gladys reassured me that she had made a good recovery and gave me a rather remarkable account of that terrible night on the glacier. As it documents her state of mind at that time, it might be worthwhile for me to reproduce the letter here, to accompany the above outline of the story of her first accident:

Kandy (Ceylon), Spring 19...

My dear friend, you will doubtless be surprised to receive this letter instead of the promised impressions of our trip to the Temple of the Moon Festival; but let that be as it may. Oliver says you would be interested, and that I should have written about this a long time ago. He may be right. But, you know, I still feel uneasy about this shred of the past, and I’m somehow reluctant to revisit it. Sometimes, I can’t stop this sense of dread overtaking me, and dark images come back to torment me, before subsiding into the depths of whatever subconscious lurks beneath our souls. And then, leaving the sense of dread aside, there is my right hand, my poor little finger, as a hideous reminder.

Alas! I can’t get used to this mutilation, and I have stopped playing the piano for good and all. Sometimes I used to forget myself, but suddenly one note or other wouldn’t play. Then I remembered, but those were dreadful moments and I burst into tears at the keyboard. Then the doctors said I shouldn’t practise anymore because of my nerves, and I did as I was told. I feel like I’ve reached the summit of my life’s trajectory, and now I’m rapidly slipping down the descending arc. 

But let me return to the accident. How can I talk to you about it when, around me, bamboos and palm fronds rustle in the musky airs of this Hindu land? Isn’t it some nightmare that I am about to summon up? My husband told you about our fall. So you have already heard how an avalanche took us in the Penhall Couloir, carrying us down onto the Tiefenmatten glacier, at the foot of the Z’mutt face.

Lifted by a wave of snow, I slid on my back, arms crossed, while the cataract burst around me. Then nothing. Oblivion. When I came to, I found myself alone in the rubble of the avalanche. Crushed by the silence, battered and half buried, I couldn’t grasp what had happened, so much did the horror of the situation dull my senses and, feeling my whole body float away as if under the sway of an anaesthetic, I fainted again. From then on until I regained consciousness, thanks to you, at the end of that tragic night, my mind was so shattered by the fall, exhaustion and shock that it was taken over by some sort of hallucination.

This is what I saw: I was lying limply in a meadow at the foot of a cherry tree in full bloom. The sky was a pure blue and the sun projected onto the green grass the oval shadow of the tree with its exquisite white blossoms. A silver-glinting stream meandered away between mossy banks. Suddenly, by some sleight that seemed perfectly natural to me, another blossoming tree appeared, and then three, four, five, and five and six more, until the previously empty meadow was full of trees. 

Now it was a shimmering vault of white and pink flowers, all under the tender blue of the sky. A delicious freshness wafted from the snowy branches; the flowers were filled with an enervating sweetness, while their petals, as if freighted with dreams, slowly floated away down the stream. I was bemused by this feast of light, of smells, of flowers and colours. A voluptuous numbness flowed through me. It was enchanting just to be alive.

Yet, I didn’t feel alone. Someone else was lying not far from me, someone who was like a stranger to this landscape that I alone could see. I could sense this presence without being able to define it. But who was with me in this paradise? Who was there? I wanted to know, but I could not. As if half asleep, and in spite of some hidden urge to regain consciousness, I was all but unable to respond, almost drowning in this intoxicating torpor. My willpower was slipping away, my thinking became drowsier and drowsier, washing away any shreds of energy that I could summon to make the mental efforts to find out...

Suddenly, the illusion vanished. I no longer felt this presence weighing on my delirious imagination; that enigmatic somebody was no longer there and I found myself alone in the enchanting meadow. And suddenly the light of the sun reddened. A ruddy glare now lit the white blossoms. The blue sky gave way to a leaden one, streaked with long pale plumes. The air caught fire, choking me. The meadow turned red, withering the blossoms and parching the waters of the stream under the desiccated trees. 

Astonished even more by this unaccustomed heat than by the landscape’s sudden transformation – nothing surprises one in a dream, does it? – I begin to strip off my clothes. A pink flame stretches out towards me, burning. I have to escape, run somewhere, to breathe, to cool myself ... but find myself rooted to the spot, transfixed by this searing pink flame; and to escape it I’m stripping off my clothes to the waist. I throw out my arms to push it back, but expose my whole front to the flame. A sensation of heat sears through me, unbelievably brutal. No more than half-aware in my unconsciousness, I somehow sense that this flame, although no hotter than before, has wrapped itself, coiled itself around me, crushing me...

I want to struggle, I claw, I bite, but my strength gives out at once, paralysing me. I choke as the noose tightens. I want to scream, but no sound comes out of my throat. The noose tightens, tightens, crushing me. Then I have the distinct sensation that, in the midst of my swoon, I am fainting away.

When I opened my eyes again, you were bending over me by the light of lanterns and in the dark of night. I have often tried to explain this nightmare to myself, which is more of a hallucination than a dream. A friend of ours from here, an officer that I’ve talked about it, told me that in the course of a geographical expedition to the mountains of Kashmir, he experienced something quite similar. Exhausted, at the end of his tether, he fell asleep on his feet while staggering through the scree of a moraine. A phantasmagorical landscape appeared in front of him, obliterating the real world so completely that he forgot who his companions were and even his own name. He called this a “paranormal mirage”. In explaining my own “paranormal mirage”, I feel it’s simpler to call it a “landscape of lies”.

The white blossoms can only recall the snow that passed over my retina during the fall. As for the rest of the scenery, that must have been dreamed up by my hallucinating mind. You can imagine what sort of physical and mental state I was in after being avalanched all the way down from the Z’mutt ridge. The presence that I couldn’t recognise, that must have been Oliver lying next to me; and I started to feel alone when he went off by himself. The crimson sun reddening the white blossoms was surely a kind of transformation of the setting sun’s glare on the snowy flanks of the Dent d’Hérens – which I somehow picked up on. Just then, in a fit of madness brought on by the fever, I no doubt started to strip off my clothing. And, immediately, the snow touching my skin brought about the burning sensation corresponding to the pink flame. You can imagine how this terrifying drama should have ended, the struggle of a crazed, half-naked woman, struggling in the grip of the snow at the bottom of a remote glacier, and slowly freezing to death.

And then this postscript, by way of a preface to her impending doom: “We plan to return to England, via Genoa and the Alps next July. (Alas, this time without a climb!) But Courmayeur might tempt us. Could we meet up there?”

Alas, no, my dear and precious friend, never were we able to meet again, except at your little grave nestling in the shadow of the glaciers. Wounded on the Matterhorn and fallen on Mont Blanc. Poor Gladys. My imagination, darkened at first, brightens again as your luminous memory blossoms in me.

And I try to imagine that you died amid the struggle and exaltation of achieving some high peak, just as you liked them, real or allegorical. I remember you, Gladys, on that radiant morning, on the snowy heights of the Teufelsgrat, silent and ecstatic, when those words came to your lips – and now I repeat them on the other side of your tomb: “And you, ye Mountains, why are ye beautiful?”


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.

Saturday, July 4, 2020

"Gladys" (8)

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

That evening, my brothers and I were the only guests at the small hotel on the Staffel Alp. The season was coming to an end. Although the fine weather had lasted longer than usual, the tourists were thinning out. The high pastures were deserted. Near the hotel, three cows without bells were grazing among the dried-up rhododendrons and the blueberry plants with their reddening leaves. The early twilights smelled of autumn. The evenings were cool and the nights cold. Every morning, frost would whiten the tawny grass. But, during the day, what a rich array of colours there was in that splendid October radiance, where the shadows flow like light itself. Now completely bare of snow, the glaciers sparkled, as if scoured and polished.

The Matterhorn by moonlight: a painting by Albert Gos

For a few days, we had been strolling, aimlessly and listlessly, through the pastures and the terraced moraines below the Matterhorn. Seen from the Staffel Alp, from so close and so low down, the Matterhorn looked twisted, heaving itself laboriously upwards like some colossal ruin. The season’s melancholy only added to its monstrous splendour. But we’d decided to leave, and the next day we would go over the Breuiljoch and down our beloved Valtournanche during the peaceful evening hours.

It might have been ten o'clock that night. We were about to retire to our rooms when a violent hammering on the door of the inn halted us in our tracks. Footsteps creaked along the hallway. Words were exchanged through the bolted door. Perhaps some benighted party arriving from Schönbühl? A key grated in the lock and the door opened. We heard an exclamation of horror. At the same time, we heard another voice, gasping, disjointed, a voice we recognised. We looked at each other in wild surmise:




Fearing the worst, we hurled ourselves down the stairs, four at a time. In the dining room, a guttering lamp revealed a maid, wringing her hands, and in front of her, there stood Fairness, without a jacket or waistcoat, his shirt in tatters, hatless, his hair a mess, face pallid and grim, trousers ripped and mud-stained. Pack, ice-axe and rope were nowhere to be seen. A bloody gash lacerated his forehead, dried blood and dirt streaked his hands. This is what death in the mountains looks like. Fearfully, we rattled out our questions:


“The Countess?”

“An accident?”

As if dazed and staring blankly, Fairness stammered out:

“We’ve had an accident. No, not dead - Gladys isn’t dead!”

Draining off a cognac in one gulp, he ran his red hand over his red forehead, like an automaton. Then the pain must have jarred him awake: looking up, he only then seemed to see and recognise us, apparently astonished as we were at this extraordinary meeting.

After our traverse of the Täschhorn by the Teufelsgrat, we'd gone our separate ways. The Fairnesses had moved to Cogne, and we had left for the Bernese Oberland. Now, after two months, this unheard-of chance had brought us together again at the foot of the Matterhorn, but this time under such unfortunate circumstances. But this was no time for reminiscences or narratives.

“We were coming down the Z'mutt ridge,” Fairness went on in that matter-of-fact way of his, “Just Gladys and I. From the Italian hut, we’d topped out by Carrel’s route. Conditions were fine on the descent as far as the couloir, but we couldn’t get down further, as there was verglas everywhere, so we kept to the face. Then we were avalanched in the Penhall couloir; it threw us onto the Tiefenmatten glacier. The fall was terrible – I was out for a while. When I came to, Gladys was still unconscious... I wrapped her in my jacket and got here as quickly I could. She's a hundred metres below the rimaye.”

We resolved to leave at once on our rescue mission. After throwing our gear together and lighting our lanterns, we went out into the night, ahead of Fairness and a porter. That unfortunate man, with all his sprains and bruises, followed us at a distance, making a desperate effort to overcome his sufferings. The gnarled limbs of the last pine trees loomed in the darkness. Pebbles grated harshly under our feet on the path. Sheep bleated as we disturbed them; a bell tinkled somewhere. The grass gave way to scree. And before us, like a coastal dune, the black mass of a moraine rose up against the stars. Beyond it lay the icy expanse of the Z'mutt glacier. We wove our way between boulders, stumbling over the ice and the scree, leaping over crevasses, the noise of water rumbling up from their black depths. No breath of wind ruffled the night. The stars twinkled in the still and utterly pure air.

Under the Matterhorn’s dark bulk, we could just about make out the white slash of its glacier, from which sounded the dull murmur of torrents. As we climbed, there were fewer blocks, and the rubble gave way to broader stretches of rough ice. The slope steepened, then eased again. The sky opened up, revealing a new set of constellations. The Tiefenmatten gully loomed in front of us.

We’d come up here in one push, driven by our fears for Gladys, who was dying or perhaps dead. Mountain veterans as we were, inured to fear, we trembled at the thought of having to retrieve a shattered body, pitiful and broken. Exhausted by our efforts, we took a moment's rest on some rocks that had fallen from the Z'mutt ridge. The frigid air cooled our sweating faces and we felt the blood hammering in our veins. A long way below us, we could clearly hear the Count's party moving up and we saw the glow of their lanterns.

Now we uncoiled the ropes and put on crampons. Roped up and widely spaced, we set off again over the hard snows of the Tiefenmatten Glacier. Was she dead or was she alive? The Matterhorn kept its counsel, browbeating us with its dark menace. Quickly arriving on the edge of the first terrace, we struggled to get our bearings. We tried to penetrate the darkness with our lanterns held high, but all we could see was a vague expanse of gray, sloping up into the gloom. Hard by, the Matterhorn loomed majestically into the night, its enormous bulk blotting out the stars in a whole quadrant of the sky. Even so, our eyes were getting used to the pallid light reflected from the snow. Now we could make out the mouth of the couloir and its bounding rimaye, bridged by the avalanche track. It was this below this sinister chasm, stretching from the Dent d'Hérens to the Matterhorn, that we had to make our search for Gladys. No sound of water broke the petrified silence. The darkness hovered thicker there, and the cold bit more deeply into us.

To assuage our fear in the face of this nothingness, I shouted out her name at the top of my voice. We waited, breathing hoarsely and with our hearts pounding. Then, attenuated by the night, the echo reached us - “Gladys” - the syllables of that pleasant name reverberating through space from the rocks lodged among the stars.

Now, more full of fears than ever, we launched ourselves into the darkness, scrambling over crevasses and across snow-bridges, scoring the ice with our sharp crampons. A hundred metres under the rimaye, we reached the avalanche zone, a chaos of snow boulders, pulverised ice, stones and earth. The snow had cascaded out of the couloir, which was now hanging right above us, and, fanning out, had ploughed a sort of giant trench with smooth, hard walls. We clambered up this rim, stopping every five paces to lift our lanterns and search the track of the snowslide. This extraordinary sight brought home to us the avalanche’s destructiveness, and we asked ourselves how Fairness could have escaped alive – and if his companion would too. We would soon find out. We hadn’t been searching for more than an hour, when one of us shouted:


In the gleam of the lanterns, at the centre of the patch of light surrounded by darkness, a body lay flat on its stomach, stiff as a corpse, and exposed to the hips. It was Gladys, one leg bent under her, her arms flung out towards the Matterhorn in a gesture of supplication or self-defence. Around her the snow was indented with strange tramplings, as if some violent struggle had taken place. Garments, cloths, a pack, a rope, a hat were strewn about. Footprints and bloodstains showed the way the earl had gone. And there was the woman, leaning on her cheek, her lovely, finely drawn profile, the delicate features, the clenched fingers, her sunburned colour, that beautiful golden hair now disarrayed, muddied and matted with earth, looking as if she’d died in agony. We stood there and felt the pity of it, this tragic martyrdom of a mountaineer. Somebody spoke:

“She’s dead.”

(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.