In this extract from Climbing Days, our Book of the Month for June, Dan Richards embarks on a journey inspired by his great-great-aunt’s 1935 memoir of the same name.
Released by Faber this Thursday. Available to preorder here from the Caught by the River shop for the special price of £14.99.
Switzerland September 2014 i. Mountains
The red lights on the side of the Matterhorn blinked on and off for several hours. We watched them, perplexed, from our seat on the side of the Dent Blanche. Every so often, freezing cloud would sweep up the valley and envelop us, obscuring the view, but then it would clear and the moon would emerge and the red lights could be seen again.
Sometimes I would fall asleep but only for a few seconds before starting awake again. Swells of snow occasionally strafed across us. Our jackets were frost-lacquered pearly and the rope was frozen fairly solid. The bivvy bag had ripped at some point in the night so, rather than being sat together in a sturdy sack, we had it wrapped around our legs as an ineffective sheet, as if engaged in the worst picnic in the world.
At one point, shifting position with numb feet, I felt myself knock into one of the helmets next to me on the ledge and heard it slide and fall into deeper darkness – down towards Zermatt some thousand feet below. I didn’t bother to turn my head torch on to watch it go, I could hear it ricochet away on the rocks beneath us; tick, tick, clatter; bouncing, clunking, fading . . . I followed it with my ears until it was lost in the low humming whistle of the wind.
I knew my father was awake and also listening next to me. Neither of us spoke. Shivering hard, I hugged myself and drew my knees in to my chest.
Ahead, the lights on the Matterhorn flickered on and off, on and off, on and off.
* * * * *
The Dent Blanche hangs over much of Climbing Days, the climax of the book. From Ivor’s first trip to the Alps as a boy and Dorothy’s first sighting in 1921, the mountain, specifically its unclimbed North Arête, loomed in their imagination – ‘lurking behind our plans each season, thwarting or favouring them and shaping our climbing lives’.
The mountain is famed. One of the great summits of the Swiss Pennine Alps.
My father, Tim, climbed its West Ridge with a friend in 1981. His guide book from that day, a small red Alpine Club guide which smells of cupboards, age and ink, describes the Dent Blanche as ‘A fairly symmetrical mtn, of bold outline, recognisable from afar. It has four ridges, forming a cross.’
Of the North-North-West Ridge (Dorothea and Ivor’s North Arête), it says:
Much the shortest but most difficult of the ridges. A famous climb of uneven difficulty. The crux passage is excessive for the ridge as a whole, for this reason it is not climbed very often. A number of attempts were made before it was finally climbed, when it was regarded as ‘one of the last great problems’. It therefore has a certain glamour – enhanced in British mountaineering literature by Dorothy Pilley Richards’ account in ‘Climbing Days’. . . . First ascent by D. Pilley Richards and I. A. Richards with Joseph Georges and A. Georges, 20 July 1928.
It was not climbed again for fifteen years.
Dorothea called it ‘the Witch’. The white witch.
The plan and pictures beside the text in Tim’s red book show the mountain glowering dark and massive – less white, more metallic. Pictures of mountains in books are often dubious, queer things, their paper portraits stripped of scale and majesty, as bad taxidermy shames a lion through no fault of the beast’s, and I knew better than to trust small black-and-white pictures in books, but one thing the picture did convey was a sense of aggressive mass.
Just as the mountain formed the pinnacle of Climbing Days – the most celebrated ascent of Dorothea and Ivor’s lives – the definitive climb and mountain in a book of climbs and mountains, so it forms the centre of this book too. It is the place where my family’s mountaineering threads converge. As a child I knew the name. Something great had happened there, something which elicited a pride, independent of knowledge of the specific mountain or the act; an achievement large enough to transcend ‘climbing’ and the regal alien strangeness of ‘Dorothea and Ivor’ to become a shared point of family honour. ‘The Dent Blanche’, like an invocation; or sometimes, ‘the White Tooth’, knowingly, as if it were a secret.
‘The Dent Blanche’ was the reason Tim began climbing in his youth, another attempt to engage with Ivor and Dorothea, the conversational approach having foundered. His 1981 climb was a pilgrimage of sorts, he admits.
‘I went because of them. I wanted to go where they had been. I wanted to talk to them about these things so much but I just couldn’t . . . I didn’t know how.’
Which is truly sad when you consider that Dorothea was still alive in 1981 but never learnt of Tim’s climb.
* * * * *
When we left our house in Bath, Tim and I were carrying a large box between us strung on a four-foot plank. We got some strange looks at the railway station but at the airport we were vindicated when it weighed in at exactly twenty kilograms and exactly the maximum size of our hold allowance. The box contained ropes, axes, a frame-sack, crampons, gas stove, penknives and such – the sort of things airport security get testy about if they find them in your hand luggage . . .although, amazingly, they let Tim keep the plank, which got all the way to Arolla, against all odds and common sense.
The precedent for getting maximal bang for one’s baggage buck can be found in Climbing Days with Dorothea’s description of the postal exploits of E. W. Steeple and Guy Barlow and the ‘locally notorious parcels’ the pair would send up to Glen Brittle on Skye:
These parcels were nicely calculated not to exceed either in weight or dimension the maximum allowed by the Post Office Regulations and yet not to fall short of it. They were elegantly encased in a distinctive buff-coloured material and soundly stitched. You could recognise them a long way off. In a stream of such parcels their entire luggage, gear and provi-sionment would arrive, harbingers appearing some considerable time before Steeple and Barlow themselves. The feelings of the postman, confronted daily with the largest and weightiest parcel he had yet seen . . . may be imagined.
The distance to Glen Brittle from the Post Office was nine miles, she adds, mischievously.
Once landed in Geneva and out the other side, we sat down beside the luggage claim conveyors and broke down the cardboard box, repacking all our gear into two large rucksacks which we further rejigged on the train to Brig as it sped away from Geneva, along the lakeside – below the terraced Lavaux vineyards swathed in blue netting, a ha-ha hillside steeped in wine and crossed by roads which strode alongside us on Bauhaus viaducts.
Swiss trains seemed wider than their British counterparts, more palatial, with more space between the seats to stretch out and stow kit. Their overhead racks could accommodate rucksacks bursting with ropes and Vango tents. We settled down on the seats and looked at the other passengers, none of whom were taking the slightest notice of our eccentric haul of spiky kit – the clanking red helmet, the purple Haston sack with the two Chouinard axes and white helmets strapped on the back, the smaller backpack for water and food, and the plank; British trains were pokey in comparison.
This was how I.A.R. and Dorothea travelled to the Alps, of course: train, boat, train with stops along the way. It felt like we’d dropped in for the last leg of a journey in their stead – on their track around the crescent lake from Geneva to Montreux, the same vines still growing, the waters still reflecting the mountains of Savoy and Valais. As we scooted past Chillon Castle, it looked to be wading out, stone trousers rolled; at Lausanne station my window drew up level with that iconic Swiss clock, red second hand wheeling to our moment of departure at which point we left on cue. I thought back to Barcelona as we passed through Montreux where Freddie Mercury’s statue punches the air.
Then it was up the swoosh of the Rhône valley, cupped by the canton walls of Valais and Vaud. Mountains rising around and in front; green, buff, blue, steely mountains in a subdued, equalising light.
Never having been to the area before, it was easy to envision it as avenued and ordered – each mountain rising as a single entity, graduating straight up and down from Rhône level like an egg-box inner – but no. The mountains I could see were not the mountains we had come for. Those stood higher, proud as knuckles on a hand held flat. The mountains I could see were only fingertips; we still had a long way to go. Mainly up.
We disembarked at Sion. Tim bought provisions in a nearby supermarket and then we boarded the yellow 381 Car Postal bus which drove across the curiously turquoise river and round the first of many hairpin bends which wound up to the mouth of Val d’Hérens – the hanging valley which leads to Les Haudères and Arolla. In this we mirrored Dorothea in almost every way. She writes in Climbing Days that her diligence from Sion station to Les Haudères ‘turned out to be a little yellow post-chaise’ which ‘took most of the day to crawl up the long valley, and the too gallant postman-driver, when not trudging beside his horse, beguiled the way with anecdotes and attempts at flirtation’.
Our Car Postal was the great-great-nephew of that post-chaise – livery retained, horsepower increased, so the twenty-three-mile journey took only an hour; which is not to suggest that it was uneventful – at one town our canary bus pulled away with its baggage hold doors still open and bouncing like stubby wings. Alarmed, passengers shouted to alert the driver before he started decapitating passers-by. I tried to shout something helpful too but forgot the French word for ‘Stop!’ so made an incoherent alarmed noise instead which drew confused and amused glances from the schoolchildren sat around us and was to set the tone for my linguistic interactions during the rest of our stay. ‘I’m sure I used to know a bit of French, you know,’ I’d say sheepishly to Tim at intervals, as we pooled our schoolboy Franglais and tried to make ourselves understood in the mountains and villages around Val d’Hérens.
As the bus drove on, skirting sunny meadows and abrupt sheer drops, we passed through a great many small towns which became more dispersed the further we went; knots of chalets and hay lofts petering out to the odd interjection of a charcoal shed – eventually becoming so diffuse that they
looked more grown or thrown than built; barns stood in the middle of fields akin to glacier erratics or the massive boulders which occasionally dislodge and tumble from the cliffs overhead.
All this we saw en route, craning our heads to see the world pass – sawmills, pine forests, rushing water, wire-frame mattress nets to catch rockfalls, mighty reinforced tunnels, roads veering off elsewhere; who knew where? Added to this, in the midst of all the excitement, I discovered that the majority of Tim’s shopping for the week ahead was prunes and packet risotto.