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.]

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