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:
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:
(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.