Monday, August 31, 2020

Mountain heritage

A Swiss exhibition celebrates the creative legacy of an alpinistic family

Centenaries are there to be commemorated. Some century-old stories by the Swiss alpinist and author Charles Gos have recently appeared in translation on this blog. Meanwhile, an exhibition at his home town in Switzerland is now celebrating the artistic oeuvre of the entire Gos dynasty. “Les Gos: une montagne en héritage” opened at the Médiathèque Valais at Martigny in June and runs until 16 January next year.

Pictures at an exhibition

On a rainy August afternoon, we are welcomed into the exhibition by larger-than-life portraits of a talented quartet. These show Albert Gos (1852-1942), the mountain painter and his three sons, François Gos (1880-1975), the eldest and likewise a painter, Charles Gos (1885-1949), the writer, and Emile Gos (1888-1969), the photographer who made the very portraits we are looking at.

The Gos family

All four men loomed large over the alpine culture of their time. As we turn into the exhibition, an expansive panorama by Albert meets our eyes.

Landscape by Albert Gos

He learned his craft between 1870 and 1872 at the Geneva School of Art under Barthélemy Menn (1815-1893), who introduced the principles of plein-air painting into Swiss art.

Albert Gos en plein air

After absorbing that teaching, Albert Gos ran with it. Preferring to paint in the open air, he left the school before graduating. He concentrated on painting mountains, particularly in the Bernese Oberland and the Valais Alps.

Importantly, he could make a decent living with these works. This mattered even more after 1878, when he married Jeanne Monnerat. François, the first of five children, arrived two years later (there were also two daughters). The couple settled first in Geneva before moving to Clarens, a village near Montreux.

The Matterhorm painter

During his most productive decade, the last of the 19th century, Albert was justifiably known as the “Matterhorn artist”. Indeed, one of these paintings features in Charles Gos’s story “Gladys”.

Landscape by Francois Gos

A painting by François Gos hangs close to his father’s work. Modest in scale, its style is a touch more modern than Albert's, as if the artist had imbibed at the same sources as Félix Vallotton (1865-1925). François studied for five years at the Geneva School of Arts and Crafts and at the city’s art academy before, like Vallotton, moving to Paris. Unlike Vallotton, however, Emil had to work in a factory as a decorative artist.

Poster by Francois Gos

On returning to Switzerland, he gave drawing lessons in Clarens. In 1910, he settled in Munich, and later spent three years in Holland before returning to Geneva, making a living with illustration, sculpture and writing, as well as painting. Travel posters were a forte. In 1913, he helped to start up an art school in Lausanne. Like his father, he showed a predilection for the mountain world, both as a climber and a painter.

Charles Gos, alpinist and author

Charles Gos, after studying in Lausanne and Paris, established himself as an author and journalist, focusing on military affairs and alpinism – mostly the latter in his short stories and novels: Pres des névès et des glaciers (1912), La croix du Cervin (1919), Propos d'un alpiniste (1922), Alpinisme anecdotique (1934), and Solitude montagnarde (1943).

In 1918, he married Edmée de Coulon, who died in 1930. In 1934, he took over the management of the mountain books department at the Victor Attinger publishing house in Neuchâtel. He remarried in 1947, and a son was born two years later.

Mountain photography by Emil Gos

The Gos brothers climbed at a high standard, often without guides. Charles Gos knew everybody in the world of alpinism, from the local guides to the prominent climbers who visited the Alps from abroad. He was elected a member of the Alpine Club in 1935, and once secured a half-hour audience with the “climbing pope”, Pius XI. And this without the benefit of a Catholic upbringing - the Gos family came from a sternly Protestant background.

For his part, the youngest son, Emile Gos, completed an apprenticeship as a photographer in Montreux, in the workshop of Rodolphe Schlemmer (1878-1972). He continued his training in German-speaking Switzerland, in Paris, Munich and London before moving back to Clarens and later starting his own studio in Lausanne. In 1939, he married Claire André, who gave him two children.

Making a living with studio portraits and newspaper photography, he left a more durable legacy in landscape and mountain photography – sampled in the exhibition by a compelling slide show of his medium-format images.

In 1922, he filmed his brother Charles’s short story about the Matterhorn cross (“La Croix du Cervin”). This was one of the first films to be shot in the high mountains. Alas, only fragments of the original footage have survived.

Filming La Croix du Cervin

On the way out, we pick up a copy of the well-produced brochure that accompanies the exhibition (CHF 20, including both French and German versions of the text, with photos).

An article by the art historian Maéva Besse points out that, in its day, the Gos family was by no means unique in passing the torch of mountain culture from father to son. On their own doorstep, there were the Töpffers and the van Muydens of Geneva, whose artistic productions spanned two generations. And, over in Chamonix, the Tairraz and Gay-Couttet clans presided for even longer in the world of mountain photography.

Even so, the truly golden age of the mountain artist may have ended with the first world war. From the biographical sketches given in the exhibition brochure, one surmises that François and Emil Gos had to scrabble harder than their father to eke out a living from mountain art.

Writer with a saturnine streak?

As for Charles, his fiction dwells frequently on human fallibility and the dark side of mountaineering, even while recreating the glittering social and alpinistic scenes of the belle époque. And one non-fiction work concerns itself entirely with mountain accidents. This might signify no more than a saturnine streak in the author's personality. Or was he oppressed by a sense that the civilisation he grew up in, and its genial ways of living, were sliding into the abyss, never to be retrieved?


Exposition: Les Gos: une montagne en héritage, Médiathèque Valais - Martigny, Av. de la Gare 15, 1920 Martigny, Suisse.

Website of the Gos family: Une famille d'artistes

Monday, August 17, 2020

The case of Séraphin Mochay, alpine guide (4)

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

"When I came to, slumped against the rock, the sun was tinging the peaks, and my nemesis was still there, lying motionless on the snow. A shiver ran through me and my head throbbed feverishly. "At the twelfth shooting star, you will cut the rope!" The hideous thought flashed back into my mind. Should I die with the dead man, or cut the rope? Die with the dead? The sacrifice would be useless; so cut the rope! But can a guide cut the rope, the bond that ties him to his guest?"

Climbers on a ridge: photo by Marcel Ichac (1906-1994)
Source of photo: John Mitchell Fine Paintings

"Yet that is what I did. With one hand grasping the granite, I opened the largest blade of my military knife with my teeth, and slowly cut into the rope where it was wound tightly around the rock. The strands snapped apart one after the other, and then came a sudden rasping noise as the rope whipped through the air, and Herr Bartmann's body plunged away head-first, his arms splayed out, his legs flailing limply. The rest you know. I spent a second night on the ridge of the Dent Blanche, half-frozen and starving, shattered by that night of horror, and the next evening I arrived in Zermatt, completely speechless, still with the end of the cut rope tied around my waist. Then they took me to court, sentenced me to two years in prison, and stripped me of my guide's diploma, disgraced me. Am I a murderer, a coward, for having cut a rope that tied me to a dead man?"

The smuggler fell silent. Sharing the same fellow-feeling, we stretched out our hands to him. He squeezed them with emotion, but made no other move. He stared at the fire, seeming to see the tragic spectacle dancing in the flames. Two large tears beaded on his eyelashes, trickled down his weatherbeaten cheeks and lost themselves in the hairs of his moustache. After a long time, he seemed to shrug off the visions that were creasing his forehead.

“Now come on, old Séraphin, your conscience is clear, get a grip and stand up. Gentlemen, goodbye. I'm sorry if I've bothered you with my nonsense, but you know how these things get to you, and thank you for your kind hospitality – it was very good of you.” He heaved up his heavy bundle, lit his pipe again, looked up at the lowering sky, and vanished into the gloom.

The sound of his footsteps faded into in the distance. We talked for a while longer, our voices hushed, as if the story we’d heard had stayed with us, casting its shadow of anguish over the company. Then we said good night to each other and huddled into our sleeping-bags.

From time to time, the fire flared up again, rekindled by the wind slipping through the cracks. Or sparks jetted out, lighting up the cave. The embers crackled dryly from time to time. Haunted by the smuggler’s story, I could not sleep, replaying in my mind all the scenes of this eerie drama as it had unfolded, high on the Dent Blanche. The guide clinging to the wall, his eyes stark, his hands bloodied, the rope stiff as a steel cable scouring the snow, and pendant from it, the dead man lolling on his back, the corpse slowly but inexorably dragging the survivor down to his death. The heavens are remarkably calm, a-glitter with stars. The Milky Way is up there, a broad thoroughfare for souls on their way to paradise - and sometimes a shooting star streaks silently by. The guide counts eleven of them, at the twelfth, he will cut the rope - the rope that binds him to a dead man.

At the foot of the smugglers' pass, a solitary figure is laboriously climbing the slope, bent double under his heavy burden. The glows of dawn start to paint the mist-wracked sky and, who knows, the customs officers may be lurking among the rocks on the ridge, their rifles at the ready. Or could it be the avalanche slope that is primed, ready for its plunging ride into the abyss.

As if to drown these reveries, the murmuring of the streams pouring from the Valsorey glacier grew louder in the night.


This is an excerpt from Project Hyakumeizan's centennial translation of the third story in La Croix du Cervin (1919), a collection of alpine fiction by Charles Gos (1885-1949). Translation (c) Project Hyakumeizan. This was the story that, in the words of an alpine historian, "greatly agitated the guides of Zermatt".

Thursday, August 13, 2020

The case of Séraphin Mochay, alpine guide (3)

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

It happened on the Dent Blanche. I was climbing with a German client, Herr Bartmann, and I assure you I’ve not forgotten his name. We’d already done some tours together and we got along well. This year, the Dent Blanche was in very bad condition: fresh snow powdered the rocks and we had a lot of snow: the ridges were all corniced. The climbing had been difficult and we’d only reached the summit at two o'clock in the afternoon. To tell the truth, I was a bit apprehensive about the descent because of the soft snow, but we were young, we had the bit between our teeth, and we wouldn’t have given up the climb for anything in the world.

The Dent Blanche: detail from a photo by Gabriel Loppe (1825-1913)

After a short rest at the top, we started down. High up, everything went well, but as we descended, the wet snow sloughed away in small avalanches or clogged up the rock. For safety's sake, we moved very slowly. At five o'clock in the evening we turned the Grand-Gendarme. I remember the time, because the accident happened twenty minutes later. Then we doubled up the rope to come down the middle of the slabs where the Lochmatters came to grief in eighty-two, together with their English client. This was now a sheet of snow-covered ice, into which we had to cut steps. It was hard work, but my guest carved them out like a real mountaineer. Spikes of rock poked out through the ice, marking our passage. The pitch wasn’t so difficult, but it was dangerous enough.

My guest was then twenty meters below me, on a good stance. He was waiting for me to join him and watching the ropework. Suddenly, just as I turned towards the cliff to go down, I got a violent jolt on my back, as if I’d been grabbed by a brutal hand that meant to toss me out into space. I fell a few feet, scraping down the wall, terrified – surely I was gone. But my hands instinctively went for a rocky edge, where I was able to stop myself. The rope was still pulling me viciously, stretched like a steel bar, but I couldn’t see anything below.

“Herr Bartmann! Herr Bartmann!” I yelled, “What’s happening? Get a grip and hold on!”

No answer. I yelled down again. Still nothing.

After five minutes in this position, I couldn't take it anymore. My legs were shaking and my torn-up fingers were stiffening, slowly letting go of their hold.

For the second time, I knew I’d buy it if I didn’t do something. This was nightmarish! By some extraordinary effort, I managed to get up on the slab I’d been hanging off, and the first thing I saw, to my horror, was my guest, hanging on the rope like a sack, head lolling back, arms hanging out, face towards the sky. My first thought was that he was dead. Or, if he’s just passed out, I thought, it wouldn’t be long before he came round again.

“Herr Bartmann! Herr Bartmann!” I shouted again. But what had happened? Will we ever find out? Anyway, gentlemen, as I said on the day I was sentenced, nothing had fallen on us, not a stone, not an ice-block. Herr Bartmann must have had some sort of attack and slumped over, without saying a word.

A thought struck me: I swung the rope, but the body just trembled a bit and then was still; I tried again, and it was the same. So you can see how I was placed. It was absolutely impossible for me to do what had to be done to rescue my guest – either haul him up to me, or let myself down to him. Oh, this corpse who was dragging me into the abyss! For a moment, I thought I’d go mad. I screamed, I sobbed, I groaned... An hour passed, the most terrible hour of my life. My strength was fading, and I all but let myself fall rather than draw out the agony. Then I managed to hitch the rope around a rock. I thought I was almost saved. Evening came, then night and its solemn silence amid the peace of these great white glaciers and the serried mountains!

It was a beautiful summer night, crowded with stars. I could see everything very clearly – and how my life would end, as a bundle tied to a rope lying the snow. Well, sirs, one curious detail comes back to me: I counted eleven shooting stars that night, as they arced over me through the dark sky, so bright but so quick to snuff out that they somehow touched me to the heart. And I said to myself that, when I saw a twelfth shooting star, I would cut the rope. But I never did see a twelfth, as I then fainted away.

(To be concluded)


This is an excerpt from Project Hyakumeizan's centennial translation of the third story in La Croix du Cervin (1919), a collection of alpine fiction by Charles Gos (1885-1949). Translation (c) Project Hyakumeizan. This was the story that, in the words of an alpine historian, "greatly agitated the guides of Zermatt".

Monday, August 10, 2020

The case of Séraphin Mochay, alpine guide (2)

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

We had been sitting round the fire for barely an hour, smoking our pipes, when all of a sudden we were surprised to hear a strange noise. It sounded as if some animal, attracted by the glow of the bivouac, had paused in its tracks, startled after sniffing a human spoor.

Engraving of the Valsorey environs
Image courtesy of the Cantonal and University Library of Lausanne (Viaticalps)

We sensed an invisible presence. Something was spying on us, watching us – we didn’t know how, but we could feel it. The same sixth sense made us turn towards the opening. We saw nothing but the night and the streaks of snowflakes wavering in the fleeting light of the campfire. A chamois, somebody said.

But no chamois could have been there, so late on a snowy night like this one!

We strained our ears in vain; the noise did not come again. Even so, I couldn’t relax. An indefinable something told me that someone was watching and spying on us, that an alien somebody was out there, disturbing our peace.

Suddenly, the noise came again, footsteps crunched on the pebbles, and a voice rang out, making us jump:

“Evening, all!”

A snow-dusted man appeared, bent down under the archway, threw a huge grey bundle to the ground and walked towards the fire.

Quickly recovering from our surprise, we greeted the stranger politely. We made a space for him; he pulled a bottle out of his pocket and took a nip of brandy.

“I took you for Italian customs officers at first," he said, "and we saw them prowling up to the camp at Roz last week, those carrion-eaters! Also, I didn’t want to be judged by my profession, but when I saw your axes and ropes, I said to myself they’re good people; you can trust them. And so here I am: Séraphin Mochay, formerly a guide.

Tall and well-built, the man was getting on for fifty. A broad kerchief of greying beard framed his honest face. The snow was slowly melting in the folds of his robe and on his shoes. As he spoke, he tamped tobacco into his pipe and lit it up with a twig from the fire.

We quickly warmed to each other’s company. Our new acquaintance, who had been smuggling for years, was about to cross the Valsorey Pass, alone, at dawn, in order to carry 45 kilos of prohibited foodstuffs over to the other side. He was undaunted by the fog and snow. On the contrary. He told his story with a natural bonhomie and a sober simplicity that I had to admire. What a man!

More than once, he said "When I was a guide", as if proudly highlighting this allusion to former times. And then I suddenly remembered: this Séraphin Mochay, smuggler, must be the same Séraphin Mochay who’d been sentenced to gaol and struck off from the roster of guides for having cut the rope during a mountain accident. I had heard this hoary story told a number of time: the agonising moral dilemma it raised seemed to be beyond the power of reason to resolve. Attempting a neutral tone of voice, I ventured to ask when he’d been a guide? But wasn’t that a long time ago? And wasn’t it you who... He interrupted me, his face creased into a frown.

“That's me, yes. They accused me of cutting the rope; and that's true; I did cut the rope; but (here the smuggler took the pipe out of his mouth), but I swear to you, gentlemen, that when I cut it, my client was already dead. But the scoundrels wouldn't believe me, or, if they did, they still wanted to blame me. And the rest of them hounded me out of the valley and banned me from being a guide again!”

His voice trembled; the colour had drained out of his face.

“Oh! if I could give you my side of this case, as I would give it to a tribunal, shout it out to the whole valley, this man would be innocent, do you hear? Innocent!”

I can still see him crouching by that bivouac fire, in the full red light of the flames, as he told his story. And when somebody speaks like that, you have to believe them. There are moments in life that bring home the facts with a force that is more certain than actual experience itself. And there, a stone's throw from the glaciers, amid the snow and the wind, the old guide could not lie. And so, quite straightforwardly, he told us his story.

(To be continued)


This is an excerpt from Project Hyakumeizan's centennial translation of the third story in La Croix du Cervin (1919), a collection of alpine fiction by Charles Gos (1885-1949). Translation (c) Project Hyakumeizan. This was the story that, in the words of an alpine historian, "greatly agitated the guides of Zermatt".

Monday, August 3, 2020

The case of Séraphin Mochay, alpine guide (1)

Another tale by Charles Gos from the belle époque of alpinism

For Guido Rey

There was no Valsorey Hut at that time.

This was one of my first alpine tours, with my brother and a friend. We were climbing without a guide. I was a novice, and my two seniors, both excellent mountaineers, were training me up on difficult routes. The season had started badly: June was coming to an end and in two weeks we hadn't seen three fine days. It snowed every night down to the edge of the pastures, and still the heavy grey clouds came piling in from the east, lowering over the valleys and sending down flurries of snow.

Smugglers on the Grand St Bernard Pass (old postcard)
Photo by courtesy of

One evening, with another storm on our heels, we came up into the Valsorey valley. God! What a grim amphitheatre of peaks, and we were going to spend the night there. Shrouding the Velan and the Combin, the fog drifted dolefully on the wind. Snowpatches streaked the monotonous grey of the scree and moraines and, up there under the glacier, yesterday’s snow carpeted the boulder terraces, picking out their contours; some stray rays of sunlight had melted everything underneath. Sodden rakes of grass covered the valley bottom. We would have much preferred to bed down in some chalet, on hay perfumed with fennel and mint, rather than the uninviting bivouac that awaited us. But instead of retreating, we kept on upwards. Some black birds, standing ponderously on a rock, flapped away on silent wings, and suddenly it started to snow. That was all we needed! We quickened our pace towards the dark loom of a rocky shoulder, where surely we would find some niche to bivouac in. And there indeed we found a place, more hospitable than we’d dared hope, dry grass and shingle on the floor, and a solid granite roof three metres thick. We’d fallen on our feet.

Now to make some soup. The wood was wet, the fire wouldn't take, but finally, the flames licked out, crackling and cracking, chasing away the smoke that was making us cry.

On the pallid slopes, a spectral light filtered through a rift in the fog, vaguely illuminating the hollow of the valley, where night was already creeping in. It was no longer snowing. The dripping rocks were dark. From outside, a voice called to me:

"Let’s take a look at the smugglers' pass!”

“The smugglers' pass, where’s that?”

I went out, and my companion motioned for me to follow. We walked for a few minutes, heading for the fantastic landscape created by this unexpected play of light.

“The smugglers' pass: it's that ice-slope over there, in the clear patch. It’s actually the Col de Valsorey, but I’m calling it like it is, because this is the smugglers' favourite way over. And quite a few have snuffed it there. Just a winter ago, six of them fell into those crevasses. They’re rough and ready folk, though good people in their way in spite of what they do. They don’t get much sympathy around here, so they deserve a mention in this bleak patch of earth that’s buried so many of them.”

The snowy cliffs were gradually fading, as the mists pierced by the ray of light thickened again. Here and there, the snow piled up on outcrops of rock. Ridges cut into their arched spines. Little snow-slides had made regular smears down the flanks of the Velan. You could still make out the glaciers by the chaos of their snow-covered pinnacles and sagging crevasses. Then night came on and the darkened mists slithered towards the valley.

We made our way back to the bivouac in a sombre mood. But the red gleam of our fire, relieving the darkness, cheered us up. Under the rock, the flames crackled and the soup smelled appetising. We sat down on our sheepskins, the warm bowls clutched in our hands, and everyone took his share of cheese and his slice of brown bread. While eating, we talked about smugglers. In this vile weather, they had a good game. “Wouldn’t be surprising,” my brother said “if we didn’t get a visit from them tonight!”

Little did he know what he was saying.

(To be continued)


This is an excerpt from Project Hyakumeizan's centennial translation of the third story in La Croix du Cervin (1919), a collection of alpine fiction by Charles Gos (1885-1949). Translation (c) Project Hyakumeizan. This was the story that, in the words of an alpine historian, "greatly agitated the guides of Zermatt".