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".

No comments: