A 'Petite Première' in the Mont Blanc Massif
A POUNDING on my door dragged me to consciousness. ‘Merci,’ I murmured sleepily, and reached out to snap on the electric light. Three o’clock of a cold black September morning, and I must pull myself from sleep, leave the gracious warm amenities of my soft bed, haul on heavy clothes, collect rucksack and ice axe, and set out for a climb.
I reflected, not for the first time, on the superior advantages of starting from a climbing hut. There one has passed the earlier portion of the night without enervating luxuries. In a long row of guides and tourists, one has lain fully dressed and wrapped in blankets, on a narrow mattress covered with prickly burlap and inadequately filled with straw. One has slept fitfully and uneasily, in the close air of a room with the windows shut, among the frequent disturbances of comings and goings, footsteps and lantern lights, heavy breathings and stentorian snorings. After a few such hours, it is almost a pleasure to shake off the frowzled closeness and get out into the fresh quiet night.
But among the comforts of civilization, how different it seems! However — I ran to the window to look at the weather. Yes, the stars were out bright and thick above the black needle of the Drus — an auspicious sky for the start.
My nailed boots were in my hand when I finally crept downstairs, for I remembered a notice commonly seen in climbing hotels, once rendered into English as, ‘Guests are forbidden to circulate in the boots of the ascension.’ Tea with bread and butter and jam awaited me in the deserted, dimly lighted dining room, and Camille the guide and Georges the porter were already packing rucksacks and ropes and filling the candle lantern.
Outside, the night greeted us coldly clear and starry overhead. But toward the mountain foot, where Chamonix lay, some thousands of feet below us at Montenvers, all lights were blotted out under low-hanging autumn mists. I trudged slowly on, behind the flickering light of the candle lantern, and recognized one by one the familiar details of the path as it reveals itself to the night, details entirely different from those of the daylight return. Here was the pebbly upslope, grotesquely roughened by the long, black, clear-cut shadows of stones. Here the light flashed on the gnarled roots and trunk of the wellknown night pine — I have never yet noticed that pine on the way back. Here the candle rays picked out the edges of the great fantastically shaped boulder which hides itself completely among the innumerable masses of rock that one clatters by at full speed, coming down. Most of the distinguishing features, and even the total individuality, of any mountain route at night are things strange and secret to the night, unknown to its daytime incarnation.
Slowly my mind settled into the delicious semi-comatose state of the climbing before dawn. Different climbers have different ways of handling this pre-daylight period — when the vital forces are at their lowest ebb, the body moves slowly and mechanically, and the mind, if not summoned to deal with any serious difficulties, swims in a drowsy torpor, somewhere between normal wakefulness and the sleep from which it has been reluctantly and untimely torn. As for me, I generally try to get hold of some idea with a pleasant emotional content, and let my brain float dreamily about it, in a state between feeling and thought. Sometimes I compare the charms of different friends, or suck the full flavor from some past adventure. But my favorite subject for before-dawn meditation is, ‘Why do we climb?’ Every morning, to the slow rhythm of my plodding feet, I evolve a new reason, reasons ranging from the most obvious and cheerful to the most grimly cynical or subtly philosophical or psychological. And since the greater number of these finespun reasons are promptly forgotten when the sun comes up, every day I start again afresh.
This particular morning, however, my thoughts were on a more immediately practical matter — our chances of success on the first ascent ahead. It is a rather exciting thing, a first ascent at Chamonix. The world’s best climbers have for so long gathered there that it is not easy to find a possible new route or an untouched pinnacle. Some premières there are, long and difficult, that have defied for many years all the strength and craft of the attacks of parties organized against them. When at long last they fall before a combination of skill and fortunate chance, they furnish the really great Firsts. Others, humbler but still worth while, are offered by the many apparently unclimbable pinnacles that bristle along the main ridges of the big mountains.
Such a near point was our objective to-day, a brief trip of twelve or fourteen hours, well fitted for the short autumn daylight. In five or six hours, going slowly, we should be up the Nantillons Glacier and on the Col de Nantillons, at the foot of our rocks. Then an hour perhaps on the Blaitière ridge to the bottom of the final pitch, two or three more to plan and launch the attack, and, victorious or defeated, we should be back for tea.
Even a short First like this, however, is not to be too much despised. At Chamonix there is hardly a virgin point without her wooers, and our little pinnacle had already, I was told, turned two strong parties unsuccessful away. The route up the glacier was a common one, the rocks from the snow up to the very foot of the pinnacle were not noteworthy, though sufficiently amusing. The crux of the matter came when it was necessary to lancer la corde (throw the rope). The last forty or sixty feet, the pinnacle proper, were, it seemed, sheer and unclimbable, and could be scaled only by throwing a rope over the top, directly up from a small convenient ledge, climbing around the point to the other side, catching and securing the end, and finally mounting hand over hand.
Of the other parties, according to Camille, the first had hardly done more than spy out the land. But the second, forewarned of the difficulty, had gone elaborately forearmed with weapons of conquest. My understanding of French is not always sure: was it crossbows and arrows with thread attached that they carried? Or some sort of blowgun? Or — in any case, it was, I gathered, something new, ingenious, and interesting. And in any case, I also gathered very surely, the weapon, for all its ingenuity, had not worked. But Camille had, he assured me, much practised throwing the rope, and he put complete confidence in his own right arm.
This was my last climb of the season, which gave a special tenseness to our expedition. Succeed or fail, I must go on, the next day. There would be no other chance. And how well, I could not help thinking, some future largescale map of the ridge would look, with a name on that point which I had given to it!
So the first and most vital question to occupy my thought was the weather. ‘The barometer is not falling,’ Camille had said at breakfast. But I had noticed that it was not rising, either. Still, the night seemed gloriously clear, and all the first part of the path glittered in bright dreams of success. Then, as we rounded a corner of the mountain, ‘I am not,’ said Camille, ‘too much pleased with that bank of clouds in the west.’ The porter grunted his assent. Black gloom immediately descended on our caravan.
Gradually my torpid mind swung from dark thoughts of the future to consciousness of the present. The night was crisply cold. We had left mild early autumn in the valley, but it was winter here on the heights. The earth of the path under the lantern light showed brown, cracked, and parched, all its cracks embellished with a new growth of frost crystals. As we turned the shoulder beyond which one sees Mont Blanc, its great mass gleamed more spectral white than usual under the starlight, bright with the first winter snows.
We passed the night landmarks one by one, and our steps slowed doggedly for the sharp pull up to the glacier. Soon we should reach the little spring. When the light shines on its trickle of water crossing the path, it is a signal for the first halt on the long upward plod. But the ground rang continuously hard and dry under our nails and ice-axe points, and we swung on without a pause. The spring was frozen up for the winter.
The path ended at the Nantillons Glacier, and we started up the gentle slope of ice. On summer mornings many streams rush noisily down their channels in its mounded surface, but to-day everything was quiet. Winter had silenced the voices of the upper ice.
Our boots gripped pleasantly up the hard rough surface. Far above, we watched another little light climbing slowly with the advance of another party. Day was drawing near, and our lantern paled. We felt on our faces the cold wind that rises with the dawn. We reached the beginning of the steep and badly crevassed part of the glacier, and stopped to extinguish the lantern and to rope up.
Camille tied the rope around my chest to the tune of our standardized conversation.
‘You’re pulling it too tight. I cannot breathe.’
‘It must be tight, or if you fell off, and your arms were up, it would slip off over your head.’
‘None of my other guides ever pull it so tight. And I have fallen off. And it has been secure. Why, once — ’ I tell this tale with all the dramatic emphasis of which I am capable. I have told it many times, and each time I fancy I tell it better. ‘Once I was climbing an almost new route. I had both my arms above my head, pulling myself up over an overhang. And one of my handholds — oh, a huge slab! — broke, and I fell off, and swung in the air on the rope. And the rope was secure. That is a true story.’ Camille only hauls the knot a little tighter.
‘Then,’ he says conclusively, ‘then you did not fall off comme il faut!’
Or sometimes he condescends to persuasion. ‘Come,’ he says coaxingly, ‘ be a good little girl.’ (I am older than he.) Or to anger. ’I am bon garçon, but this is too much. I will not go a step farther with you if you will not have it so.’ But whatever his method, the rope is always too tight.
I have now come to yield with a protest that is only formal. (Camille would be suspicious if I made none at all.) For every guide has something about him which the tourist would wish different. So I accept the tight rope as Camille’s contribution to the imperfection of human — and guide — nature, and loosen it a bit after we start.
We now moved up and across a very steep ice slope. Ahead of us we could see in the gray light the party whose lantern had led up the glacier. ‘It is well,’ said Camille; ‘they will cut our steps for us.’ And we balanced with speed and ease along the neat nicks that the swinging ice axe of their guide had made.
The route we followed takes one to various ascents, and earlier in the season many parties pass over it every day. It was my own sixth trip of the year, so my feet went almost of themselves. Here was the place where one sat on the side of a crevasse and reached one’s feet down on to a ledge cut out of its wall. Then a stretch and stride across the chasm, to climb the ice steps hacked out of its other wall. Next came the twists and turns and ups and downs over the great ice blocks that had fallen from the towering séracs above, a place where you must hurry your best on the warm afternoon return, lest new blocks melting and tumbling off should land on you, but where you may loiter as you like at dawn. Finally the narrow snow bridge across the bergschrund, which leads on to the rocky outcrop of the Rognon.
Tradition rules the climbing craft as rigidly as any other craft with an apprentice system, and it is hard to conceive of a guided climb that would not stop half an hour for second breakfast by the hut at the top of the Rognon. So here, on the flat rocks that are known as the ‘Salle à Manger,’ we found the other party just finishing and moving off. We exchanged greetings, and ourselves sat down to eat, on the same spot where every great climber, coming to do the classic Grépon, or to seek new routes among the other peaks, has partaken of his second breakfast, since first rock climbing began.
We were on the top of a rock islet, in an amphitheatre of glacier. Below our feet, in the direction from which we had come, the rocks dropped away almost perpendicularly out of sight down toward the Chamonix Valley, with the low bare range of the Rochers Rouges, now ruddy in the first sunshine, beyond. At our left and behind us, ice and rock towered up to the high black ridges of the Blaitière, whither we were bound. At the right, over the tall splintered peaks of the Charmoz, in whose shadow the whole amphitheatre lay, the sky was still glowing with the last sunrise gold.
‘How does the weather promise now, Camille?’
‘It looks very safe, very good.’ And my earlier mood of depression drifted away and vanished over the ranges.
It was bitter cold, as we sat munching tough bread and cold meat in the dawn shadow. Our breaths steamed up, spectacularly visible against the sunlit valley, and a drop of lukewarm tea, spilled as I poured it from Camille’s canteen, froze on my coat in a thin crackling film before I could wipe it off. While we ate, Camille sorted over the food, and, after consultation, some of the heavier articles were left beside the hut for our return.
Now we stood shivering, ready to start, but he held us yet a moment to point out to us our pinnacle and goal. Up it rose ahead, bold but tiny against the distant sky, where the steep glacier sweeps up to the Blaitière ridge. From the long rock line of the ridge it projected like a stony finger, crooked at the end, beckoning us on to conquest.
‘Not so bad, is it?’ said Camille, with proprietary pride.
It was good to get in motion again. We followed in the steps of the other party along the steep hard ice just above the Rognon.
‘Notice well,’ Camille instructed, as we crossed an ice slope dropping spectacularly out of sight beside us, ‘this is a place to be very specially careful. For if one should slip, one sees where one would go.’ As a matter of fact, that is just exactly what one did not see! But one could imagine.
Soon we came up with the other party, where the little French girl, their tourist, was teetering in hesitation on the hither end of a narrow snow bridge across a sufficiently wide and yawning crevasse. My tastes happening to be such, I peered with interest over the edge, and enjoyed the exquisite clear blue shades of the icy depths. But she felt differently.
‘Oh,’ she cried, ‘j’ai peur, j’ai peur, j’ai peur!’ And it was a long time before the reassurements of her guides, plus the absolute security of the rope held taut before and behind her, could persuade her to cross.
‘Why,’ meditated Camille, as they moved on ahead, ‘do such people climb? They cannot enjoy it. For they say always, “ J’ai peur, j’ai peur!"'
‘But surely,’ I remonstrated, ‘there cannot be many who climb who are afraid.’
‘Oh, but many, many!’ Camille assured me. ‘Always they go over the mountains saying, “J’ai peur, j’aipeur.”' And he reminded me of some we ourselves had recently seen. The most striking was a gnome-like little man who told us he had been at the climbing game for over twenty years. And although he was moving up a steep glacier much faster than we, we would overtake him at every negotiable crevasse. There he would hang, trembling miserably on the brink, while his guide counted, ‘ One, two, three, leap!’ And we would climb far ahead, still hearing behind us, ‘ Come, come, monsieur! It is easy! It is narrow! One, two, three, leap! Only have courage, monsieur! One, two—’
‘Truly,’ I admitted, ‘it is amazing.’
‘Perhaps,’ suggested Georges, ‘they climb for the glory.’
‘Yes, that may be it,’ agreed Camille. ‘When they get back, they will talk much about what they have done. I have heard them. And then all the world will admire them. It is pleasant to be admired thus.’
‘Or perhaps,’ I contributed, ‘they enjoy being afraid.’ And they agreed that that also was possible. But to be always afraid. It would seem excessive. All in all it was very odd. Again I was faced with that eternal riddle of the mountains, ‘Why do we climb?’
We were nearing the top of the glacier, and again we saw the other party close ahead. They had halted before the problem of the bergschrund. The bergschrund, where the top edge of a moving glacier yawns away from the stationary snow field or rocks above it, is generally the most difficult of all crevasses. This one ran true to form. It was large, and the upper lip, as is usual, rose in a wall above the lower, which had sunk as it drew away. One could here stand close to the foot of the wall, as the crevasse itself was bridged with a lid of snow. But this position only enabled one to see more plainly what was ahead — a cliff of rough snowy iec, some twenty or thirty feet high, rising practically perpendicular, and bulging here and there into definite overhangs.
The French girl’s guide had quested to both sides to see if there were any easier place, and now was standing back, planning where and how he would cut steps to take advantage of all irregularities. Having decided, he set manfully to work.
It was a slow long job he had ahead. First, swinging the axe downward, with his hand almost at the end of the shaft, he hewed out a large step for his foot in the hard gray ice. Then, reaching above his head, with the axe held close to the business end, he picked and hacked away a little hole, over the edge of which a mittened hand could hook. Mounting into the step on his left foot, and clinging to the hold with his left hand, he swung the ice axe down again, to make a place for the right foot diagonally above the left. Another handhold hacked out. Another step. The ice axe chopped tenaciously, while his body clung humped against the wall. It was a difficult and wearisome advance. The ice wall was in the shade, and a chilly wind breathed across it.
After watching a long time, we stepped back shivering into the sun. I felt tentatively of my face.
’I think,’ I said to Camille, ‘that my nose is frozen.’
‘It is indeed a little yellow.’ And a welcome diversion was furnished by rubbing it vigorously with snow.
Still the guide continued methodically his snail-like progress. Photography suggested itself as a profitable pastime. I took everything in sight — the view, the wall, the guide cutting, Camille and Georges, and finally our pinnacle, which towered almost directly above, really imposing-looking on nearer view.
And now at last the guide had finished his task. He stood at the top of the ice wall, above the diagonal row of steps he had cut, holding the rope, ready for the little French girl to come. Its other end was attached to the porter, who stood ready to pay it out behind her.
She started timidly up the route. Both guide and porter were shouting directions at her, which must have been most confusing. She advanced four or five steps. A handhold was small and slippery, the rope was pulling. Suddenly she swung off her holds, and hung helplessly on the rope.
In this real, though very minor emergency, all her former conspicuous fears seemed forgotten. Unless, indeed, she was struck dumb with terror. For not a sound did she make.
The porter ran forward helpfully to drag her back to the left, to where she could get into the steps again. He reached up, seized a dangling foot, and pulled. The leg, of course, yielded somewhat, but the body still hung heavily motionless. The guide, holding the rope above, danced up and down with impatience.
‘Pull her over by the rope, you fool! Not by the leg! The rope!’
The porter gave another tentative tug at the foot, and yet another, and another all equally ineffective. The little figure swung back and forth, patient and helpless.
‘The rope! The rope! Idiot!’ The guide was becoming frenzied in excitement. He embellished his speech with strange and vicious-sounding swearwords. ‘Not the leg! Oh, fool! fool! Not the leg! THE ROPE!’
Camille and Georges by now were rocking back and forth, convulsed with silent, delighted laughter. A guide’s sense of humor is often a little primitive. I was trying to control my own smile to ladylike proportions. A tourist’s sometimes becomes primitive, too.
At long last, the porter did seize the rope, and was able to pull the girl back to where she could get into the steps.
When it was the turn of our party, and Camille, having reached the top, shouted for me to come, I moved very, very carefully. I did not care to furnish another moment of comic relief. And I realized better what the difficulties were as I felt the bulging irregularities trying to push me and the taut rope trying to pull me out of balance.
Stepping over the top of the ice on to the snow of the col, I looked up at the point just above me. Now at last the known part of the route was almost ended. I felt like an explorer, with a new world before him, or even more like a child, just arriving at a party. Now, the fun was going to begin!
Then, suddenly, comedy transformed itself into the ultimate tragedy.
‘It is no use,’ said Camille. ‘To-day is too cold. We cannot make the climb.’
‘Up here, you see, there is a very strong cold wind. Before I could climb fifteen or twenty metres hand over hand up the rope at the top, my hands would be too numb to hold.'
‘But by the time we reach the ledge where you throw the rope, it may be warmer. The wind may stop. Let us go on, and see.’
‘No, it is no use.’
Georges had by now joined him. They were both thoroughly chilled from the long wait at the foot of the bergschrund. Their faces were reddish purple. They were shivering and stamping.
Georges gloomily confirmed Camille. ‘It is no use.’
I looked again at my pinnacle — with what different eyes! The rock below the ledge was frosted with new snow. I could imagine how icy this part would feel to bare hands on delicate holds. And the ledge itself was in shadow. The wind would sweep about it bitterly. One would not get warmer there. No, it was no use.
There was a glorious view over the other side of the col, — an immense sweep of glaciers and peaks, — silver ice, black rock, white snow, gleaming and glaring, leading the eye on and on, all the way over to where at last a deep-blue sky bounded the whiteness, on the Col du Géant that leads to Italy. All this magnificence seemed almost an insult. What were views to me? I turned my back on it.
’To get down, I will make you a champignon (mushroom),’ said Camille, with the affected enthusiasm of a grown-up trying to divert a child’s mind from a lost treat. ‘You shall see! There are very few guides in Chamonix who can make a champignon! ’
At the top edge of the bergschrund he started in. First he cleared away the layer of three or four inches of soft surface snow, then in the solid ice he began to cut with swift strong strokes. Georges joined him, and soon they had cut deeply down in, leaving a mushroom-shaped mound of ice a foot or more high. Around this they doubled our extra rope for the descent, as if around a point of rock. We twisted this rope about us so that its friction on our clothes might act as a brake, and slid down it hand over hand, walking with our feet down the perpendicular wall of ice, just as we had so often done down a similar rock wall. Yes, it was an amusing bit of ice technique. And convenient. But what, after all, were champignons to me?
Standing at the foot of the bergschrund, we looked back up at that impudent pinnacle, rearing its pointed head high above us in the sunlight.
‘It is a great pity!’ sighed Camille. ‘But, at any rate, you have made some very fine photographs.’
June of the next year, and I was again in Chamonix. This time in the rôle of motorist, speeding from one hotel de luxe to another, over the map of Europe. We found in Chamonix the usual gay streets, smart shops and tea rooms, and crowds of tourists, and it was decided to stay two days.
From the hotel garden I looked up at my tiny point, just visible on the far sky line. Was fate giving me another chance?
I rushed to the Bureau des Guides, before it should close for the night. Was Camille engaged? Yes, he was off on a climb that day. But he was returning that evening.
Next morning the stately concierge gave me a well-known greeting, ‘Good morning, mademoiselle. Your guide awaits you,’ and I saw in the distance a familiar, tall, roughly-dressed figure and good-natured sunburned smile. I could hardly wait through the proper formalities of greeting — is there anyone more ceremonious than a guide!
‘Has our pinnacle been climbed yet, Camille?’
‘ Is there too much snow to try it now ? ’
’No, the rocks are dry and good.’
' Could you go up with me to-day and climb to-morrow?’
‘How does the weather look?’
‘I have no ice axe with me.’
‘I can get you one.’
‘Then I will get the provisions, and we will meet this afternoon at the train for Montenvers.’
‘Very well, mademoiselle.’
I leaped into my climbing clothes, brought without hope, simply because I never travel without them. I bought dried apricots and prunes and raisins, cakes of chocolate and lumps of sugar, canned cherries and pineapples, bread and butter and cheese, crackers and a tin of foie gras. I was too much excited to think properly, and went feverishly over and over the list, for fear I had forgotten something. (And in fact I had — a candle for the lantern. But we got it at Montenvers.)
At the train I met Camille, and he handed me the ice axe.
’It belongs to an Englishman, an Everest man,’ he said. ‘He left it last summer on the top of the Drus, and asked me to get it next time I was up, and keep it till his return.’
I felt honored to carry an Everest man’s ice axe. I swung it in my hand. It balanced a little differently from my own, but how good and how natural it felt! I thought with a smile of the days not so very many years ago when I had first held one and it had seemed about as unwieldy as a telephone pole.
Next morning, as we swung along the path in the darkness, I had no need to bring to mind my favorite question, ‘Why do we climb?’ For the answer seemed obvious. It was all so tremendously good.
During a long climbing summer, custom is likely to blunt the edge of appreciation. But I was coming back to it fresh, and everything carried for me its full weight of pleasure. I was delighted to see again the lights of Chamonix sparkling in the black valley far below, and to think of that whole town full of sleepers, all resting unconscious of us watching them from the mountain side above. Do burglars, I wondered, know this realization of the charm of their working hours, and the sense of power and pity with which one awake and active looks down on those who, unknowing, sleep? The lantern flashed alternate light and darkness, revelation and mystery. I was amused to discover my feet moving to the rhythm of a moral poem taught me in childhood and forgotten till now: —
Were not attained by sudden flight,
But they while their companions slept
Were toiling upward in the night.
I did not even trouble myself with thoughts about the weather, except to notice that it appeared perfect, starry and cloudless. But everything appeared perfect. I embraced the cheerful fatalism of the mountains. Things would decide themselves — favorably, one hoped — in their own way and their own time. Meanwhile, I was enjoying the moment too thoroughly to bother about the future.
The way was the same, yet not quite the same, like the face of a friend whom one has not seen for a long time and then meets in different surroundings. In the cold air which last September had held the threat of winter was now the fresh sweet smell of spring, with everywhere traces of the arctic season just past. Drifts of old snow smoothed out the hollows of the path. The glacier wore a new and fairer face, its dirty summer ice covered with crisp snowy whiteness. Shod with the long iron spikes of crampons, we crunched quickly and gayly up steep slopes that had been a matter of infinite step cutting the year before. All our old landmarks of crevasses were gone, and others had formed — much smaller, not yet having met the summer’s thaws. The Rognon, and second breakfast on the Rognon, seemed almost the same. But even there was a difference—the shelter was all but buried under a winter drift. Above it, snow slopes led quickly to our pass. No bergschrund problems this time — only a little sunlit steepness to remind us of our former delay.
At the foot of the rocks, where we had turned back the previous autumn, we stripped ourselves for the conflict. We left there all but one of our ice axes, and a fat rucksack that, contained most of the food and — how deeply did I later regret it!—all our extra wraps. And the climbing began.
At first, as we followed the regular Blaitière route, the going was easy. We moved more or less together, up gullies and cracks, mostly bare rock, but occasionally filled with solid old snow. Our pinnacle now rose right above us, its top bent over to look down at us, very tall and gray and arrogant. I looked up at it with an equal arrogance. ‘To-day! . . .'
We must traverse to the left to reach its foot. Camille was watching for a good route, and now he had us wait while he tried a hopeful-looking place. He wriggled up a crack between two huge blocks, and vanished over the top of one.
‘Come on.’ The porter and I followed, one by one.
Camille now made his way along a sloping snowy shelf under an overhanging rock, where one must move crouching deeply, and at the end from hands and knees reach out across space to good holds on uptilted rock beyond. The porter held the rope and paid it out with care as Camille slowly moved, and I watched him with interest .
We had reached the sort of climbing of which the sensationalist loves to write, ‘A slip would be fatal!’ I could indeed see out of the corner of my eye the gulfs of bright air below me, and was subconsciously aware that an object starting to fall would not stop for a very long distance. But I also subconsciously realized that Camille knew to the fraction of an inch the limits of climbing possibility, and would always move, comfortably, well within the margins of those limits. Short of some most unforeseeable event, no slip would occur. And even if there did, the rope, an unusually strong and heavy one, could be counted on for a good deal.
So I watched Camille’s gymnastics with no more fear than one watches a person descending a flight of stairs. My interest, though intense, was purely technical. On this passage there were no great difficulties, but one or two tricky spots, and the snow was not absolutely firm. How was he managing that low overhang? I must n’t forget to use the clever hold he had found under its edge. How much was he edging his feet into the snow? Off which knee was he starting to swing across the crack?
Beyond that traverse we turned upward again, and followed simple cracks and ledges for some distance higher. The climbing was just hard enough so that we moved one at a time.
Then there came a moment that furnished me with some interest, and Camille and the porter with great amusement. It was a question of pulling one’s self up on top of a block, almost entirely by one’s arms. To a strong-armed guide, such an incident is of course not even noticeable. No delicacy, no danger — he raises his arms, pulls, and arrives, as he might raise his foot and step up a step. It gives Camille an ever-fresh surprise and joy to find that so simple a process is to me quite another story. Here, I put my arms up and hauled. I raised myself slowly and painfully part way, while he grinned at me.
‘But come on! There is no difficulty there.’
My strength gave out completely, and I let myself back down, to a chorus of chuckles.
‘Why do you go way down again? You were almost up!’
I panted a while, took a deep breath, and another start. The voice came merrily from above, ‘Shall I pull a little?’
‘No! No!’ A desperate effort — will, nerve, and muscle clenched. My strength just held, and I arrived over the top, worn-out but triumphant, under my own power.
’See, mademoiselle! Did I not say it was easy?’
The air swept clear around. The sky was blue above. The rocks, as we moved on upward, were firm and rough under hand and foot. Living and climbing were very definitely jolly things.
Now our steady advance was checked. The pinnacle, though not visible, must, we knew, be just over us, the ledge not more than thirty or forty feet above where we were. At last we were actually nearing our goal. But there were difficulties to conquer, between. Ten or fifteen feet up from where we stood, the wall of rock broke up and closed into a deep cleft that seemed to promise some sort of climbable chimney from there on. But to get up into this cleft there was no obvious way — nothing but a smooth wall, with a vertical crack too small for toe-wedging or even finger holds.
Leaving me waiting just below with the rucksacks, Camille called the porter up on to a narrow ledge where the crack began. While the porter clung precariously, Camille mounted his shoulders and felt with his hands over the almost imperceptible irregularities of the rock. He found no usable hold. He slid carefully down from the porter’s back. I held up his rucksack, and he took from it his ice axe. Then he climbed again on the porter’s shoulders, and on to his head. Standing there on one foot, he raised the ice axe and wedged its pointed head into the crack far above him. He pulled and shook vigorously at the ice axe, to be sure it was solid. Then, grasping its shaft as high as he could easily reach, he lifted his body slowly on his arms. At last it was high enough. He let go with one hand, and, hanging on the ice axe with the other, groped up blindly for a good hold inside the cleft. Soon he found one, and hauled himself up.
The problem having been thus prettily solved, there were, beyond it, only a few minor pulls and wriggles. Soon we found ourselves on the final ledge.
This was indeed as scenic in location as it had seemed when we had twice looked up at it with longing from the glacier. Cut out into the edge of the ridge, it gave views in both directions — glacier, snow field, and rock peak, hundreds of square miles of them, lying below our feet. And just above our heads, smooth and sheer and high, rose the unconquered final needle of our pinnacle.
Things were now becoming rather exciting. The successful end of a year of desire might be very near.
Camille got out his equipment, three or four separate coils of strong cord, with at the end of each a lead weight somewhat smaller than an egg. He untied the first, saw that its coils were ready to run loose, and, holding the cord, twirled the weight a few times around his head, as a boy swings a sling shot. Then he launched it, straight up. High into the sky it flew. Surely it would clear the top. No, it hit just a little low, and came tumbling down. We dodged, and it lay at our feet.
A wind, which we had not noticed before, was rising. Camille launched the weight again. A strong gust came and blew it off to one side.
‘We can do nothing,’ he said, ‘if this wind continues.’ We waited anxiously. The wind would die down a bit; then, just as he was ready to throw, it would rise and roar against us, and almost sweep us from our perch. The sun shone so brightly, the sky was so serenely blue, the mountain heights stood so calm and still around, that I could not help feeling this wild wind as something inconsistent, a peculiar perversity of nature, which at any moment ought to vanish as unaccountably as it had come.
We waited, braced against it. As soon as its ferocity had lessened a little, Camille threw the weight again. We held our breath and watched it, soaring up and up, and then, actually, over the top! It looked like victory at last.
‘It will be safer to have more than one,’ said Camille, and tried another. At his third throw this weight did not return. A second cord lay straight up the rock and over the summit.
‘Now, mademoiselle,’ said Camille, ‘the porter and I will go down and up the other side of the point, to attach the rope to whichever cord we can best reach. You will hold the two of them thus, one in each hand. When I tie on the rope, I will tug the cord three times, and you will notice which, so we may know to which cord the rope is attached.’
He got out his extra rope, doubled it over a point of rock, and he and the porter vanished quickly down it. I was left, holding a cord in each hand and waiting for the tug, like some fantastic fisherman fishing upward in mid-air.
I waited a long time. The two voices calling directions to each other died away into silence, then by some odd trick of echo came clear again, mounting on the other side of the pinnacle. The wind was blowing stronger and stronger, and it was growing colder and colder. Before my eyes were all the kingdoms of the High Alps outspread for my gazing, but before my mind were only two images. Those two held my undivided attention, and on them I concentrated an agonized intensity of longing. One was a vivid mental picture of my heavy, dark green sweater, which lay in the rucksack on the snow far, far below me, the other an equally vivid anticipation of the feeling of three tugs on one or the other hand.
The voices mounted very slowly now, and anxiety began to darken my expectation. Now I could hear them for a long time, coming from one spot, about level with where I stood. And no tug yet on the cord. The outlook seemed to be growing more and more gloomy.
Then at last the voices moved. They were descending again, the way they had come!
I tried to account for these manœuvres not too unfavorably, to invent pleasant reasons of one sort or another. I clung desperately to the very last straws of hope. But in my heart I knew. I knew very surely that for some reason — I did not yet know what — the pinnacle would not be conquered by us that day.
And slowly, very slowly, as the voices vanished, and then again mounted, coming nearer, I began to realize that I did not after all so greatly care. The autumn before, I had been intensely disappointed, and often during the winter and spring the thought had come to me of that pinnacle, rearing its proud head, waiting for a conqueror. Then this summer chance had seemed to favor me, against, all likelihood, step by step — my unexpected presence in Chamonix, Camille’s being free on my one day, the rocks not too snowy, the weather perfect, the throws successful. Step by step, chance had helped me on, until victory had appeared to be actually within my grasp.
Now that it was snatched from me — well, it mattered, but it did not matter so much, after all. I waxed philosophical on my mountain peak. Success or failure, what were they but words, anyway? I could already hear in imagination Camille’s stock consolation, ‘At any rate, we have had a fine day in the open air.’ And I knew that it was true, gloriously true. For the rest — well, the mountains had won. They often do. But what a pleasant fight it had been!
When Camille arrived, he discovered for us a small consolation prize.
His gloomy face, as it rose over the edge of the platform, well confirmed my fears.
‘Yes, it is impossible. I think it can never be climbed. The weights thrown from here can in no way be reached. Where they fall is on another wall of smooth perpendicular rock, with no ledges or cracks. It is impossible.’ The porter nodded gloomily beside him like a Greek chorus.
‘Yes, it is impossible.’
Camille hauled in the weights in silence, and they thudded at our feet. Then he looked down. Suddenly a thought struck him, and he became a little more cheerful. He took my arm and pulled me to the end of the ledge.
‘Do you see that small point just below?’ Yes, I had seen it often on the sky line, as I had looked up at our pinnacle. It stood some fifteen or twenty feet high, perhaps, jutting up from the side of the other, slender, pointed, and perky, a tiny imitation of its bigger brother.
‘Let us go down and climb that!’ said Camille. ‘I am very sure that it has never been climbed before. For it can be reached only from this ledge, and the other parties who attempted this descended the same way they came. So, you will have a petite première, after all!’
‘A toute petite première!’ I smiled rather ruefully.
’Ah yes, perhaps,’ agreed Camille. ‘But,’ his voice brightened, and he seemed quite his happy self again, ‘anyway, we have had a fine day in the open air!’