Friday 21 June 2019

In Hanging Garden Gulley

When halfway up I heard the voice of a good child enduring, with effort, a painful call upon its patience. "Any Lloydia yet?" it wistfully said. Between my feet I saw Darwin below. Well, he was certainly paying the rope out all right, as I had enjoined; but he did it "like them that dream." His mind was not in it. All the time he was peering hungrily over the slabby containing walls of the gully, and now he just pawed one of them here and there with a tentative foot—you know how a puppy, when first it sees ice, paws the face of the pond. "These botanists!" I thought, "These fanatics!" You know how during a happy physical effort—a race or a hunt, a fight or a game—you think, with a sort of internal quiet, about a lot of old things. There came back to my mind the old lines that I had once had to make Latin verse of: How vainly men themselves amaze To win the palm, the oak, or bays, And their incessant labours see crowned from some single herb or tree. Meanwhile I took a precaution. I first unroped myself. Then I passed the rope, from below, through the space behind a stone that was jammed fast in the crack. Then I roped myself on again, just at my old place on the rope. A plague of a job it was, too, with all those 60 feet of spare rope to uncoil and re-coil. But you see how it worked: I had now got the enthusiast moored. 

Between him and me the rope went through the eye of a needle, so I could go blithely on. I went. In the top of the crack I found a second jammed stone. It was bigger than number one: in fact, it blocked the way and made you clamber round outside it rather interestingly, but it, too, had daylight showing through a hole behind it. Sounds from below were again improving my natural stock of prudence. You can't, I thought, be too safe. Once more I unroped, just under this chockstone, and pushed the rope up through the hole at its back. When the rope fell down to me, outwards over the top of the stone, I tied on again, just as before, and then scrambled up over the outer side of the stone with an ecstatic pull on both arms, and sat on its top in the heaven that big-game hunters know when they lie up against the slain tiger and smoke. If you have bent up your mind to take in the details, you will now have an imposing vision of the connections of Darwin and me with each other and with the Primary or Palaeozoic rocks of Cambria. From Darwin, tied on to its end, the rope ran, as freely as a bootlace runs through the eyelets, behind the jammed stone 30 feet above his head, and then again behind my present throne of glory at the top; then it was tied on to me; and then there were 60 feet, half its length, left over to play with. 

Clearly Darwin, not being a thread, or even a rope, could not come up the way that the rope did, through the two needle-eyes. Nor did I care, he being the thing that he was, to bid him untie and then to pull up his end of the rope through the eyes, drop it down to him clear through the air, and tell him to tie on again. He was, as the Irish say of the distraught, "fit to be tied," and not at all fit for the opposite. If he were loose he might at any moment espy that Circe of his in some place out of bounds. There seemed to be only one thing to do. I threw down the spare 60 feet of the rope, and told him first to tie himself on to its end, and then, but not before, to untie himself from the other. I could not quite see these orders obeyed. A bulge of rock came between him and my eyes, but I was explicit. "Remember that fisherman's bend!" I shouted. Perhaps my voice was rather austere; but who would not forgive a wise virgin for saying, a little dryly, to one of the foolish, "Well, use your spare can"? As soon as he sang out "All right" I took a good haul on what was now the working half of the rope, to test his knot-making. 

Yes, he was all right. So I bade him come up, and he started. Whenever he looked up I saw that he had a wild, gadding eye; and whenever he stopped to breathe during the struggle he gasped, "I can't see it yet." He came nearly half-way, and then he did see it. He had just reached the worst part. Oh, the Sirens know when to start singing! That flower of evil was far out of his reach, or of what his reach ought to have been. Some twelve feet away on his right it was rooted in some infinitesimal pocket of blown soil, a mere dirty thumb-nailful of clay. For a moment the lover eyed the beloved across one huge slab of steep stone with no real foothold or hand-hold upon it—only a few efflo-rescent minutias small as the bubukles and whelks and knobs on the nose of some fossil Bardolph. The whole wall of the gully just there was what any man who could climb would have written off as unclimbable. Passion, however, has her own standards, beyond the comprehension of the wise: His eye but saw that light of love, The only star it hailed above. My lame Leander gave one whinny of desire. Then he left all and made for his Hero. 

You know the way that a man, who has no idea how badly he bats, will sometimes go in and hit an unplayable bowler right out of the ground, simply because the batsman is too green to know that the bowler cannot be played. Perhaps that was the way. Or perhaps your sound climber, having his wits, may leave, at his boldest, a margin of safety, as engineers call it, so wide that a madman may cut quite a lot off its edge without coming surely to grief. Or was it only a joke of the gods among themselves over their wine? Or can it be that the special arrangements known to be made for the safety of sailors, when in their cups, are extended at times to cover the case of collectors overcome by the strong waters of the acquisitive instinct? Goodness knows! Whatever the powers that helped him, this crippled man, who had never tried climbing before, went skating off to his right flank, across that impossible slant on one foot and one stilt, making a fool of the science of mountaineering. I vetoed, I imprecated, I grew Athanasian. All utterly useless. As soon could you whistle a dog back to heel when he fleets off on fire with some fresh amour. I could only brace myself, take a good hold of the rope in both hands, and be ready to play the wild salmon below as soon as he slipped and the line ran out tight. While I waited I saw, for the first time, another piquant detail of our case. Darwin, absorbed in his greed, had never untied the other end of the rope. So he was now tied on to both ends.

The whole rope made a circle, a vicious circle. Our whole caravan was sewn on to the bony structure of Wales with two big stretches, one at each jammed stone You see how it would work. When Darwin should fall, as he must, and hang in the air from my hands, gravitation would swing him back into the centre of the chimney, straight below me, bashing him hard against the chimney's opposite wall. No doubt he would be stunned. I should never be able to hoist his dead weight through the air to my perch, so I should have to lower him to the foot of the chimney. That would just use up the full 60 feet of rope. It would run the two 60-foot halves of the rope so tight that I should never be able to undo the bad central knot that confined me. Could I but cut it when Darwin was lowered into provisional safety, and then climb down to see to him! No; I had lost my knife two days ago. I should be like a netted lion, with no mouse to bite through his cords: a Prometheus, bound to his rock. But life spoils half her best crises. That wretch never slipped. He that by this time had no sort of right to his life came back as he went, treading on air, but now with that one bloom of the spiderwort in his mouth. 

Apologising for slowness, and panting with haste, he writhed up the crack till his head appeared over the chockstone beside me. Then he gave one cry of joy, surged up over the stone, purring with pleasure, and charged the steep slope of slippery grass above the precipice we had scaled. "You never told me!" he cried; and then for the first time I noticed that up here the whole place was speckled with Lloydia. The next moment Darwin fell suddenly backwards, as if Lloyd himself or some demon gardener of his had planted a very straight one on the chin of the onrushing trespasser in his pleasaunce. You guess? Yes. One of his two tethers, the one coming up from behind the lower jammed stone, had run out; it had pulled him up short as he leapt upon the full fruition of his desire. It was easy to field as he rolled down the grass. But his tug on the rope had worked it well into some crevice between the lower jammed stone and the wall of the crack. We were anchored now, good and fast, to that stone, more than three fathoms below. What to do now? Climb down and clear the jammed rope? Leave that lame voluptuary rioting upon a precipice's edge? Scarcely wise—would it have been? Puzzled and angry, I cast away shame. I knew well that as Spartan troops had to come back with their shields or upon them, or else have trouble with their mothers, a climber who leaves his tackle behind in a retreat is likely to be a scorn and a hissing. 

Still, I cast away shame. Ours was no common case; no common ethics would meet it. I untied us both, and threw both ends of the rope down the chimney; then I let Darwin graze for a minute; then I drove him relentlessly up the steep grass to the top of the crag, and round by the easy walking way down. As we passed down the valley below, I looked up. The whole length of our chimney was visibly draped with the pendent double length of that honest Scots mountaineer's rope. "I don't really know how to thank you enough," Darwin was babbling beside me, "for giving me such a day!" But I felt as if I were one of the villains in plays who compromise women of virtue and rank by stealing their fans and leaving them lying about in the rooms of bad bachelors. Much might be said for climbing alone, no matter what the authorities thought. A good time it would be, all to myself, when I came back to salvage that rope. 

C E Montague

First Published in Fiery Particles in February 1923 

Friday 7 June 2019

First on the Rope....Reviewed

FIRST ON THE ROPE’ Roger Frison-Roche. Perfect bound Paperback. 256 pages. Re-Published by Vertebrate. £8.99

Originally published in 1942, when its author was living in Algiers, this is one of a few climbing novels to have retained a wide readership, having sold over 3million copies. Frison-Roche was born in Paris in 1906, of Savoyard parents, but returned to their roots, to Chamonix where in 1930 he became the first none locally born mountaineer to become a mountain guide. The Chamonix guides are one of the oldest such professional bodies in the Alps formed in 1821, and a list of their members since that date includes some of the best known names in mountaineering history; Croz, Charlet, Simonds, Payot, Lachenal,Terray,Rebuffat, and in the modern era Profit, Renault and Gherson etc. 
Frison-Roche besides his climbing exploits had also always wanted be a writer, and following the publication of some of his stories about being an alpine guide he was offered work in Algeria first as a reporter, then an editor. Whilst in that country he made several exploratory trips to the Hoggar Mountains; but returned to Chamonix in 1943, joined the Chasseur Alpin, and hooked up with the Maquis (The Underground Resistance).

Climbing themed novels are rarely successful either because they simply do not sell, or their stories are less ‘true’ than the real life ones such as to be found in books like ‘Touching the Void’, ‘The Bond’ or ‘Into thin Air’ . Yet many climbers do decide to tackle this difficult art form, and in the past everyone from Wilf Noyce, Dougal Haston and Lucy Rees/ Al Harris took this on. But maybe I am being too critical for five novels have so far won the Boardman/Tasker literary award; ‘Climbers’ by M J Harrison, ‘Mer De Glace’ by Alison Fell, ‘The Ascent’ by Jeff Long, ‘Hazard’s Way’ by Roger Hubank and ‘The Fall’ by Simon Mawer of which the first such ‘Climbers’ is for me the most outstanding read. Although it does require a deep concentration due to its complex story, but nonetheless it is a well observed tale of how climbers do become obsessed by their alternative experiences ‘on the rocks’ ignoring life’s other responsibilities. 
Within the climbing novel field there are many genres, Sci-Fi, Horror, Thriller etc but a one off was/is (still in print) ‘The ascent of Rum Doodle’. Its author Yorkshireman Bill Bowman was not a Himalayan mountaineer, but somehow he produced in 1956 the most popular comical satire of expedition mountaineering ever penned. It is known and read so widely abroad that a bar/restaurant in Kathmandu is named ‘The Rum Doodle’ as is a mountain in Antarctica, courtesy of the members of a 1959 Australian expedition to that continent. There are Rum Doodle brand sleeping bags, a climbing company and a Rock Band so named. It was even recommended in the list ‘1000 novels everyone must read’ by the Guardian. 
But here I would also like to note two novels that made it ‘BIG’ as films, ‘The White Tower’ by James Ramsey Ullman and ‘The Eiger Sanction’ by Trevenian (Professor Rodney Whitaker). Both were made into blockbuster adventure movies, the first not long after the end of the Second World War, redolent with racial stereotypes, and the second in the 1970’s a sort of James Bond in the mountains, both of which would now provide a struggle for the reader to accept their institutional view of women as mere sex objects. However despite serious failings both these novels do explore how the wilderness experience often provides a test of human character? 
FIRST ON THE ROPE’ is a much more straightforward story, set in Chamonix and the Mont Blanc Range in the 1920’s and the 1930’s, which must have been a truly golden period in which to be climbing there. It tells of the life of the Servettaz family, the father Jean is a long standing, well known guide and his son Pierre who wishes to also follow in his father’s profession, but who is being dissuaded from this by his family who wish for him to become a Hotel manager. During recent winters Jean has worked hard to improve his families living conditions into a ‘Pension’, taking in paying guests which hopefully will eventually provide hotel type accommodation to be developed and administered by his son.

The novels action is forever swiftly moving on, and with his knowledge of a mountain guides life, set in the Mont Blanc Range, Frison-Roche makes us understand the depth of tragedy and its ramifications that besets the Servettaz family, when Jean whilst guiding an American climber to the summit of Les Drus is struck dead by lightning on the descent. His Porter (now in modern parlance an accompagnateur) George, manages in the teeth of a storm to shepherd the client safely down but suffers severe frostbite in doing so. A team of guides assemble at the Charpoua hut to attempt to climb up and to retrieve Jean’s body, but to no avail and they retreat. Pierre and his uncle Joseph Ravant, a senior guide, join a second attempt to reach Jean’s body, but refusing to turn round again despite the route being totally out of condition, Pierre pushes into the lead ignoring the advice of his seniors and he takes a huge fall and badly fractures his skull. Resulting in him becoming the object of a full scale rescue by his father’s friends and guides, his life saved by them acting decisively and abandoning their attempts to reach Jean’s body.

The novel then moves on to six months later, the Guides have retrieved Jean’s body but Pierre has been both physically and mentally damaged by his accident, and now suffers from vertigo. Poor George the Porter is in a nursing home in Geneva having lost all his toes, and is learning to walk again in specially constructed short boots (this is what happened to Louis Lachenal post the Annapurna Expedition in 1950). As the spring approaches Pierre takes off by himself up onto an easy climb on the Brevent Peaks. On which he experiences a torrid time, suffering from vertigo and nearly falling to his death, and this makes him begin to accept that he will never be able to climb freely again.

There is of course a love interest, an understanding young lady who tries to do her best to comfort him, but he sinks into a black despair spending his days and evenings drinking and keeping low company in Chamonix’s lesser known bar districts. A welcome break means a come together when their friends and families meet up as the cattle are moved out and up onto the high Alps to graze for the summer. A time of feasting, singing and a competition between the fighting cows of the area.
George returns to the fold from Geneva and he and Pierre meet with their friends to celebrate his recovery. He surprises them all by announcing he intends to become a guide despite his injuries, and eventually he persuades Pierre to accompany him on some easy outcrop climbs and short routes. Slowly his vertigo becomes less severe, and subsequently they plan a major, but secret come back climb; ‘The North Face of the Verte’. Leaving separately and meeting up on the Grand Montets they bivouac near the foot of the route, and early the next morning they set out. The crossing of the bergschrund almost turns them round, but once onto the face they find that they can cut steps and climb ice as well as before. Turning the cornice at the head of the face is achieved by Pierre tunnelling through and they then spend another night out on the descent before arriving at a Refuge early in the morning. Much to the surprise of Pierre’s uncle Joseph, who having reached the age of 60 years has been retired from the Guide’s rota, and is now into his new profession of hut warden.

So in the end all is happy ever after, Pierre has recovered his health and will shortly marry, and George has shown he can manage major climbs once more. Both can now begin their training to become Chamonix guides. In the 1930’s to have been such must have been to be acknowledged as an aristocrat of that profession. So ‘FIRST ON THE ROPE’ is not a novel to search within for a meaning of life, but it stands the test of time and its descriptions of life in the Chamonix Valley and its environs in that era is obviously so true as are the descriptions of the routes and mountain areas described in the book. It is an easy read but truly worthwhile. I first read ‘Premier de Cordee’ in 1950 as a 14 year old and later met its translator into English Janet Adam Smith, and as someone who tried to read it in French I must observe she made an outstanding job of this work. 
I think that a time travelling visitor to Chamonix now would find it so different than it was in the 1920’s and 1930’s, for it is today a 24hour action town, a major ski resort and the Chamonix guides now offer Hang Gliding, Wing Suit Flying, Snow Boarding, Mont Blanc Tours besides classic Mountaineering, Skiing and Rock Climbing outings. I have keen memories of friendships I made with some of the holders of their carnet, first meeting Gaston Rebuffat at the foot of the West Face of the Blatiere and he plying us with cake and coffee (well laced with brandy), being with Lionel Terray in the Ardennes at Christmas/ New Year time, at Bas Cuvier (Fontainbleau) with Alain Gherson and climbing in the Peak with Andre Contamine. Frison-Roche became a major figure in their world, as a Chief Guide and later President of the UIAGM (The International representative body of mountain guides), he died in December 1999.

 Roger Frison-Roche: Image-Companie des Guides de Chamonix

Whilst writing about climbing novels I cannot finish without a consideration of ‘Mount Analogue’ published in 1952. This by French writer and poet Rene Daumal is unlike any other mountaineering book that has ever been published, of that I feel certain? It is unfinished at only 106 pages, but tells of assembling a team to find and climb a hidden peak that reaches inexorably towards heaven. Harold Drasdo sent me his copy urging me to read same and think on its meaning. You do not need to do this with ‘FIRST ON THE ROPE’ but with ‘Mount Analogue’, twenty climbers could read this book and everyone would come up with a different view of what is its significance? I read it as an allegory of man’s search for himself...... The motion picture ‘The Holy Mountain’ by Jodorowsky is based on the Mount Analogue story. So I finish with recommending you to read ‘FIRST ON THE ROPE’ whilst journeying to the mountains, and in your bivouac or a tent in the Himalaya study Mount Analogue to try to find the meaning to life?

Dennis Gray:2019