Monday, November 29, 2021

Fact into fiction

How a mountain writer of the belle époque borrowed from real life

Mountain writers who climb at a high standard often seem to emphasise the dark side of alpinism. Think Joe Simpson in Touching the Void, or Mark Twight in Kiss or Kill: Confessions of a Serial Climber.

The Matterhorn's west face, seen from the Dent d'Herens
Photo by Vittorio Sella, courtesy of Andrew Smith Gallery

n an earlier generation,the Swiss author and alpinist Charles Gos (1885–1949) was no exception to this pattern. Alpine Tragedy, his account of 25 selected mountain accidents, delivers amply on its lugubrious title; a subsequent novel has two of its three protagonists fall to their deaths from a north face, and Gladys, the heroine of the eponymous short story translated for this blog, meets her end in a rockfall.

For the time – Gladys is set at the end of the belle époque – Gos's creation is an unusual figure, even in fiction. We are first properly introduced to her as an accomplished concert pianist, playing at a soirée hosted by a senior personage of Britain’s Alpine Club, but it is in the mountains that her star burns brightest. With her husband, the Count of Fairness, she blazes a trail across the Alps. And what a trail:

… the couple continued a brilliant series of ascents: the Aiguille Verte by the Moine ridge, the Géant by the north face, the Dent Blanche by the Ferpècle ridge, the Dent d'Hérens by the hanging glacier that leads up to the Tiefenmattenjoch (the latter, a new route, if I'm not mistaken), and many other expeditions, all first-rate …

What is more, all these first-rate expeditions are conducted without guides – a more remarkable circumstance before the First World War than in the cash-strapped years that followed it. Gos even permits himself a brief disquisition on authentic guideless climbers as compared with less qualified ones:

A true guideless climber must bring together physical stamina and moral strength, which is a fundamental quality as necessary, if not more so, than instinct (which cannot be learned) when it comes to finding the least dangerous line or the best chimney in the middle of a cliff, or the strongest snow bridge on a glacier, or the slope least prone to avalanches.

Guideless climbers fall into two categories, the real ones and the make-believes. The former are as good as the best guides, or almost so; the second kind are just favoured by luck; let’s call them honorary guideless climbers. The Fairnesses clearly belonged to the first category, demonstrating their mastery, almost coquettishly, with a boldness that bordered on heroism.

Alas, fate all too soon catches up with the guideless couple. Descending from the Matterhorn’s Z’mutt Ridge one autumn afternoon, they are avalanched in the Penhall Couloir, a snow gully that seams the mountain’s western face. The Count staggers away to find help, while the heroine is left unconscious in the snow…

The Penhall Couloir on the Matterhorn's west face
Photo by Vittorio Sella, courtesy of Andrew Smith Gallery

It’s hardly surprising that Gos was well-qualified to describe this scene. He knew the terrain well, having himself led what was probably the first guideless ascent of the Z’mutt ridge. And the accident to which he subjects his heroine came straight from a real-life disaster that happened some decades before.

Just like the Count and Countess of Fairness, the Austrian alpinist Guido Lammer and August Lorria – two leading proponents of guideless climbing – were descending the Penhall Couloir when they were avalanched. And just like the fictional couple, Lammer had to leave his companion lying senseless in the snow while he hastened down the glacier to find help at the Staffel Alp hut. Like Gladys, Lorria was rescued, recovered and later wrote up his experience, in his case as “An accident on the Matterhorn in 1887”.

Of course, fiction is very far from fact. In some respects, Charles Gos cleaves closely to the historical accident – the effects of severe concussion are one detail that he carries over into his short story. But other aspects of the 1887 accident – such the NDE-like thoughts that pass through Lammer’s mind as the avalanche carries him down – are left unexploited. As must always be the case, the consummate artist abstracts as much as he borrows from the real world.


Gladys, the second story in La Croix du Cervin (1919), a collection of alpine fiction by Charles Gos (1885-1949). Translation (c) Project Hyakumeizan.

An account of the 1887 accident taken from the English edition of Guido Rey’s The Matterhorn introduced and with two additional chapters by R L G Irving:

The aspect of the wall Penhall climbed is anything but encouraging, and Messrs. G. Lammer's and A. Lorria's experience of it on August 3rd, 1887, confirms the report of its difficulty and also shows up its danger. Dr. Guido Lammer described the events of that terrible day in the Oesterreichische Alpen Zeitung,vol. ix. no. 188, p. 205.

The two skilled mountaineers, without guides, were ascending the Tiefenmatten face by Penhall's route. At 1 p.m. they were on a level with the teeth on the Z'mutt spur. The face was glazed with black ice, and in a most dangerous condition. They decided to turn back. About five o'clock they were crossing the Penhall couloir when a small snow avalanche fell towards them from above. It did not strike them, but flowing down at their feet, it made them lose their balance and carried them down in a leap of 150 to 200 metres (500 to 600 feet).

Dr. Lammer related that during those very short moments a crowd of the most varied thoughts flashed through his mind with extraordinary clearness; and, while the consequences of such a fall were thoroughly evident to him he had time to think of his home, of a certain Alpine and literary controversy, of india-rubber balls rebounding with prodigious elasticity, etc. etc., all which led him to the conclusion that death by falling must be quite painless.

When at last they stopped Lammer felt an intense pain in his foot, which had been dislocated. His friend was lying motionless a short distance away. He had a terrible wound on his forehead and a broken leg; the rope, which had become much entangled during the fall, was compressing his neck; he was unconscious, and when he recovered consciousness he was seized with delirium, unbroken by any lucid interval.

Dr. Lammer attempted to drag him down-hill over the snow, but his companion howled with pain, cursed imaginary assassins, clutched himself with his hands, and rolled about on the avalanche snow. Lammer was prevented by his own condition and the difficulty of the place they were in, from making any other efforts to convey his friend downwards; he laid him on a mound of snow, threw his own jacket over his shoulders, and put his hands into a pair of stockings. He wished to tie him to a rock with the rope, but it seemed to him cruel to make it impossible for his friend to move if he should recover consciousness.

He shouted loudly and frequently for help, but no voice was heard in reply. He then descended alone, without an axe, without his coat, and without a hat; he dragged himself across the glacier to the Stockje hut on the opposite side. Finding no one there he resumed his journey, and limped and crawled, as best he could, down the long Z'Mutt glacier, till at nightfall he was knocking, quite exhausted, at the door of the Staffel Alp.

The relief party which he sent off reached the spot where Lorria was lying at eight inthe morning, and found him still unconscious. In his delirium he had torn off his clothes. Lorria suffered long from the effects of his fall.

This event was followed by a violent controversy. Some firmly maintained that the accident was due to the absence of guides, while others were convinced that it would have occurred just the same if a guide had been with the climbers. [Dr. Guido Lammer's writings show him to have had a morbid attraction for dangerous situations; hence, perhaps, the choice of Penhall's route. – R.L.G.Irving.]

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

No recovery for Switzerland's glaciers

The annual audit of snowfall, glacier wastage and permafrost depth in the Swiss Alps, as reported by the Cryospheric Commission of the Swiss Academy of Sciences

At low altitudes, the winter of 2019/20 saw the lowest level of snowfall ever. The loss of ice volume in Swiss glaciers continued in the summer of 2020, during which temperatures reached record highs. The influence of climate change on the cryosphere is very evident.

Meltwater channel on the Kanderfirn, 2018
Image by courtesy of Alpine Light & Structure

Weather and snow: little snow at low altitudes

In the winter of 2019/20, the mountains were covered with snow about two weeks earlier than normal, at the beginning of November. Record snowfalls for November occurred in some locations on the southern slopes of the Alps. 

Temperatures then reached record highs from December to February, more than 3°C over the long-term average.The following spring was also clearly too warm and characterised by a lot of sunshine. Below 1,000 metres, precipitation fell mostly as rain during the entire winter half-year. In terms of mean snow depth, this led to the winter with the least snow since measurements began, just ahead of 1989/90 and clearly ahead of 2006/07. 

At several stations, for example in Marsens/FR (718m), Einsiedeln/SZ (910m) or Elm/GL (965m), there had never before been so few snow days (days with at least 1 cm of snow). At some low-lying stations on the northern side of the Alps (eg Stans, Basel and Lucerne), no snow at all was recorded for the first time ever.

Above about 1,700 metres, however, snow depths were average in the northern Ticino and in the southern Valais, which was mainly due to the large snowfalls at the beginning of winter and in February.

Very warm between July and September 2020

With the exception of the measuring stations in southern Valais, the snow melted everywhere one to four weeks earlier than normal. The months of July to September 2020 were once again characterised by above-average temperatures. In contrast to the two previous hot summers, snow fell twice in August to just below 2000 metres. On the last weekend of September, the snowfall line on the north side of the Alps fell to as low as about 1,000 metres. Above that, 20 to 80 centimetres of fresh snow were recorded, which is unusual for this time of year, leaving the Alps in a thick white mantle.

Ice collapse on the Morteratsch Glacier, November 2011
Image by courtesy of Alpine Light & Structure

Glaciers: another 2% of ice volume lost

Between the autumns of 2019 and 2020, glacier loss continued relentlessly, but was somewhat less dramatic compared to the previous three measurement periods of 2016/17, 2017/18, and 2018/19. After average snow amounts were measured at the glaciers' elevations in early May, the summer melt was once again substantial. 

Over the entire year, low-lying shallow glaciers (eg the Glacier de Tsanfleuron/VS) showed an average reduction in ice thickness of two metres. Glaciers in southern Valais as well as in Ticino and the Engadin (eg the Findelgletscher and the Ghiacciaio del Basodino) lost only about half a metre in thickness, which can be attributed to the large amounts of snow in early winter as well as the positive effect of the summer snowfalls. 

The amount of snow on the Silvretta glacier in Graubünden was about the same as the average for the past decade. This shows that 2019/20 was not an extreme year in terms of the current situation - despite massive losses of about 2% of the remaining glacier volume in Switzerland. 

All glacier tongues are receding

The shrinkback of glacier tongues reflects weather conditions over a period of several years rather than the effects of a single year. Climatic conditions affect the position of the tongue with a varying lag depending on the tongue’s location. The fact that the autumn measurements showed a further reduction in the length of glaciers is therefore hardly surprising. 

With two exceptions, the glaciers showed a shrinkage of up to 25 metres. Massive recessions of more than 50 metres were seen at Kanderfirn/BE and Sankt Annafirn/UR. In both cases, the tongues have thinned out increasingly in recent years and have now literally disintegrated.

Block glacier in Val Sassa, 2021
Image by courtesy of Alpine Light & Structure

Permafrost: 11 metres of thaw layer on the Schilthorn 

On the 20th anniversary of the Swiss Permafrost Measurement Network Permos, all permafrost measurement parameters have reached or exceeded the record values posted in 2015.

Due to the early snowfall in autumn 2019, the permafrost accumulated a lot of heat. As a result, surface temperatures were above average, especially during the winter, while annual averages were in the range of the extremely warm years of 2003, 2015 and 2018. The high surface temperatures led to an increase in the depth of the thaw layer – the uppermost metres above the permafrost that thaw each summer. 

The previous record values were reached or exceeded everywhere, from 2.8 metres at Flüela/GR to 11 metres on the Schilthorn/BE. The latter is the deepest thaw layer ever measured in Swiss permafrost. Since the beginning of measurements in 1998, the depth at this location has more than doubled. Across Switzerland, the increase on the previous year ranges from a few centimetres to half a metre.

End of the short recovery

The short break in the warming trend that was seen after the snow-sparse winter of 2017 is definitely over. Permafrost temperatures are again similar to or even higher than in the previous record year of 2015. But the permafrost reacts to the changes at the surface only with a long lag time, implying that the warm conditions of recent years have not yet fully penetrated into the depths. 

The creep rates of rock glaciers generally follow the trend of permafrost temperatures. Compared with the previous year, they have again increased by an average of 20% on the previous year, exceeding the previous record values from 2015 in some cases.

Text: Matthias Huss, Christoph Marty, Andreas Bauder und Jeannette Nötzli

Retreat of the Forno Glacier
Image by courtesy of Alpine Light & Structure

Appendix: New radar system used to measure glacier ice depth 

Data on the extent of glaciers and their ice thickness are of interest not just to alpinists but also to forecasters of future glacier retreat and runoff, as well as for the assessment of glacier-related natural hazards. In close cooperation with Swisstopo, the Swiss Federal Office of Topography, the Swiss Glacier Monitoring Network Glamos has therefore compiled a new detailed inventory of the country’s glaciated areas. In 2016, glacier ice covered 961 square kilometres or 2.3% of the country's surface.

In addition to the inventory, a project at ETH Zurich, a new type of helicopter-borne radar was used to measure the ice depth of all larger glaciers. Ice depth measurements are now available along a total track of more than 2,000 kilometers, which makes it possible to determine the total ice volume.

The volume of all Swiss glaciers for the reference year 2016 is estimated at 58.7±2.5 cubic kilometres. Distributed over the area of the whole of Switzerland, this corresponds to a water layer 1.3 metres deep. In line with the extent of the glaciers, ice volume is concentrated mainly in the Bernese and Valais Alps, but considerable volumes are also found in central and eastern Switzerland. 

The Great Aletsch glacier – the largest Alpine glacier at just under 80 square kilometres – accounts for 11.7 cubic kilometres of ice. Thus, it alone stores about 20% of Switzerland's glacier ice. By combining these results with annual measurement data, it is possible to determine what proportion of the existing ice has been lost. The numbers are impressive: since 2000, Swiss glaciers have lost just under a third of their remaining ice mass, and in an extreme year the loss can amount to more than 3% in a single year. 

The extent of glaciers and their depths can now be can now be viewed directly on the official online map of Switzerland at The map shows the most important most important parameters such as area, volume or the maximum and the average ice thickness for the respective glacier.


© Die Alpen, journal of the Swiss Alpine Club, 06 2021 edition. Originally published in German. This is an unofficial translation by MAGE/Captain. Images and charts of original article are not reproduced here. 

Monday, November 15, 2021

Honouring the Hyakumeizan author's memory

Half a century has passed since Fukada Kyūya collapsed on a hike “among the mountains he loved” –the very words that should be used to describe such a fate, as he himself had once written. To mark this anniversary, an exhibition at the Fukui Museum of Literature (福井ふるさと文学館) will run until January next year.

Some might flag up an act of cultural appropriation here. For the Hyakumeizan author was born at Daishōji in neighbouring Ishikawa Prefecture, he lived for decades in Tokyo, and he died on Kaya-ga-dake (1704 metres) in Yamanashi. But Fukada’s mother came from Fukui, he went to school there, and he later anointed Arashima-dake, a Fukui meizan, as one of his hundred mountains. So this prefecture too has a claim on him.

The exhibition casts its net widely. As one might expect, mementoes of the Hyakumeizan author are on loan from the Fukada Kyūya Memorial Museum (深田久弥 山の文化館) at Daishōji. These include a manuscript of Nihon Hyakumeizan, as well as the author's pen. Awkwardly, his passport, also on show, reveals that officialdom chose to spell his family name as “Fukata”. Well, we’ll stick with the usual version here.

Other mountain authors are featured too. There is a manuscript of Nitta Jirō’s Tale of a Mt Fuji Porter (強力伝) and items related to Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, whose “Kappa” (1927) is set in the Japan Northern Alps. And there are paintings by Kushida Magoichi, who is best known for his Mountain thoughts (Yama no pensée), and images by the present-day photographer Ishikawa Naoki.

For alpinists, the holiest relic of all will be the very notebook in which Matsunami Akira scribbled his last words. Posthumously published as Fusetsu no Biwak (Bivouac in a blizzard), this is the account of a fatal attempt to traverse the entire Hodaka ridgeline in midwinter. Found by a search party on Matsunami’s body in the spring, the notebook is visiting Fukui by courtesy of the Ohmachi Alpine Museum.

Supporting events include a speech on mountains and literature by Fukui’s doyen of mountain writing, Masunaga Michio, an exhibition of photography by Ishikawa Naoki, and a showing of Hyōheki (Ice wall), the film of a novel by Inoue Yasushi that takes a broken rope as its mainspring. To round things off, there is a comedy film about people who go on a hike to a waterfall and get lost. Surely, everyone can relate to that.

“Yama ga aru kara” (Because it’s there), an exhibition at the Fukui Museum of Literature (福井ふるさと文学館), opened on 30 October 2021 and will close on 23 January 2022. See the exibition webpage for details and a programme of events.