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".

No comments: