With George in the Alps

With George in the Alps

by Michael Lunt

An extraordinary account of the Alpine adventures of two friends over three seasons sixty years ago… and their chance encounter with four young French climbers on the eve one of the most dramatic tragedies in Alpine climbing history.

1

Whether George Narramore put the suggestion to me or I to him that we should go together to the Alps in the summer of 1958 I cannot recall. When walking together in Wicklow or Connemara we usually found ourselves in agreement about what we would like to do so it was not surprising that we should be thinking along similar lines with regard to the Alps. The previous summer Noel Brown had sent me a postcard from Zermatt with a picture of the Weisshorn: the beauty of the mountain was a revelation to me and I immediately conceived a desire to climb it.

George had already visited Zermatt and was equally keen on the Weisshorn. Not only did we mostly agree about plans and objectives, sharing an aesthetic rather than an athletic approach to mountaineering, but in terms of ability we complimented each other quite well. 

George was the more cautious and more experienced, particularly on snow and glaciers, I was more confident on rock and in exposed situations. At the time we were also both enthusiastic photographers. However I must acknowledge that in those days George did all the planning, studying guide books and sorting out travel arrangements. His bible was Walker’s Walking in the Alps, his copy of which is now in my possession, apart some very happy memories, my only souvenir of three Alpine holidays with George.

After a short panic in London, when I checked myself into Charing Cross Hospital with a suspected appendicitis which turned out to be indigestion, I met up with George at Victoria Station and set out by train, at the age of twenty, on my first trip to the Continent. At Zurich next morning, the synchronisation of George’s meticulous planning and Swiss punctuality became manifest: without delay a train took us on to Chur in time for an alfresco lunch in the station restaurant – I ate spinach for the first time in my life, I have loved it ever since – thence by various connecting postbuses over the Splugen pass, down into Italy, back into Switzerland and finally by post-jeep up to the tiny picture-book village of Soglio. 

Soglio Fields
Soglio Fields

My passion for real coffee was also born next morning over breakfast in a wonderful old hotel – a previous guest had been the poet Rilke. The village was truly unspoilt and intact with not a single modern building, the view from the village, my first view of the high Alps, was spectacular.

Looking across Val Bregaglia you can see into the heart of the wild and lovely Val Bondasca, a deep forested side valley defined at its head by the granite spired ridge of the Sciora peaks and to the south by two towering north faces – Piz Cengalo and Piz Badile. The Cengalo – slightly higher but easier to climb than the Badile – was the main objective of our first week, we would be approaching it from the opposite, Italian, side. 

***

After an orgy of photography we walked down to the main road at Promontogno where the bus for St. Moritz took us up to the Maloja Pass. The sky was overcast as we set off on foot through a forest of fir. Passing by a serene little lake, we emerged from the wood onto my first glacier, the Forno, this we ascended up its western edge before crossing to the Forno hut.

Our start next morning for Monte Sissone and the frontier ridge was not as early as it should have been, resulting in a lengthy trudge through soft snow. On my first day in the Alps I was introduced to the frustration, familiar to experienced Alpinists, of climbing through crusted snow which will at first support your foot but no sooner do you transfer your weight than it will give way, causing you to sink suddenly into knee-deep snow. We took it in turns to lead, sharing the burden of creating a track – going second was slightly less effort. The weather was still dull but we were rewarded at the top of the 11,000 ft. Monte Sissone when the clouds cleared momentarily to reveal the beautiful surging ridges and sublime summit of nearby Monte della Disgrazia. It was on the Disgrazia that Eddie Gaffney lost his life whilst climbing there alone some years ago. 

Descending south-westward into the lonely Val di Mello we were forced to bivouac half-way down in a shallow cave. The discomfort of this night, coming after the long snow plod, made me resolve never again to make a late start in the Alps – a resolve I managed to keep. 

Lower down the wild and beautiful Val di Mello next morning we passed some rudimentary habitations in caves and under large boulders, nearby there were some peasants hay-making. It seemed apparent to us that these people were living in conditions more primitive than we thought possible in modern Europe. In hindsight, I guess, what we saw was an example of transhumance and that in all likelihood the hay-makers had much more salubrious winter quarters.

San Martino is situated at the junction of the Val di Mello and the Val dei Bagni, here we turned north, walking under a hot sun up to the Badile hut. The next morning was fine and we climbed to the top of the Cengalo without incident. Snow slopes led to a col between the Badile and the Cengalo, then we climbed eastward up an easy but exposed ridge, firstly on rock then on firm snow with some cornices near the summit. My insistence that we make an early start had got us to the top by 8.30 am. A leisurely descent in sunshine, followed by a plate of spaghetti in the Badile Hut, completed a satisfactory day. It had been our intention to return to Soglio next day by crossing the Bondo Pass and descending the Bondasca Glacier, however we were discouraged – rather too easily – by the presence of some early morning cloud, George, who was full of weather lore, was usually very sound on such matters, as well as being quite knowledgeable on snow conditions. So instead we walked back down to San Martino and took bus, train and bus back to Val Bregaglia, walking up through the chestnut woods to Soglio. Such was my introduction to the alps. 

2. 

Weisshorn
Weisshorn

Next day we made the long train trip to Zermatt where we checked into the Banhof Hotel. Learning of our intention to climb the Weisshorn, Paula Biner suggested that as the weather was looking settled we should not delay. And so we set off next morning for Randa and the long walk up to the Weisshorn hut. That night we were the only occupants of the hut and the following day the only people on the mountain, in fact of the nine summits we climbed over three years we shared the mountain with others on only two occasions.

I made sure we that started well before dawn, ascending to the Schali glacier by torchlight. First light found us above the glacier on a rock rib that slanted up towards the East Ridge. To gain the ridge we had to climb a shallow east-facing couloir which was now taking on a rosy glow from the rising sun. As pink changed to gold the frozen surface melted in the sudden warmth, releasing a barrage of small stones. Keeping as much to the side of the couloir as possible, yet staying on the snow so that we could kick steps, we moved fearfully upwards as the stones whizzed past us at the speed of bullets. 

Thankfully we soon reached the comparative safety of the East Ridge unharmed. At the eastern end of the ridge, Frühstücksplatz (breakfast point) is well over thirteen thousand feet high. he Zermatt giants were now arrayed before us, still golden in the early morning light. In the distance, beyond the Zinal Rothorn, Mont Blanc shimmered above a purple haze, a pale moon on its shoulder. After a short stop we continued up the ridge moving one at a time, more because of the considerable exposure than any technical difficulty. The first half of the ridge was narrow and rocky with a lot of snow and some ice on the rocks. There were several tricky steps and gendarmes which we negotiated carefully without removing our crampons, traversing the most difficult on the right (north) side. After about an hour and a half the ridge steepened and narrowed further to become a knife-edged snow arête leading directly to a small bergschrund and the summit cone.

It must have been midday by the time we got to the top. At just short of fifteen thousand feet the Weisshorn is the fifth highest summit in the alps. Of the great mountains around us – Dom and Täschorn, Monte Rosa, Liskamm, Castor and Pollux, Breithorn, Matterhorn, Ober Gabelhorn, Zinal Rothorn, and Dent Blanche, only Dom, Monte Rosa and Lyskamm and far to the west Mont Blanc were higher than we were. The weather was perfect, no cloud in sight and not a breath of wind. 

Tyndall.
Weisshorn

In order to find out the temperature George attached his thermometer to a piece of string and whirled it round his head, I forget what the result was, we must have spent an hour sitting on the summit enjoying the sunshine and the 360º panorama. At our feet the north ridge was a very narrow cone of snow – quite uninviting. Beyond it we could survey the full extent of the Aletsch Glacier and identify all the Oberland giants; to the east, beyond Mischabel, snowy peaks went on forever. It should have been perfect bliss but for an anxious mind that could think of nothing but the forthcoming descent through the couloir fusillade. When at last, on the descent, we reached the breakfast point, the sun had long since left that side of the mountain and the couloir was quite benign. We returned to the empty hut sixteen hours after leaving it, removed our boots, dined on pasta and cheese, and slept the sleep of heroes. 

3

We returned to the Alps the following summer, 1959, this time with the intention of doing the high level walk from Chamonix to Zermatt. We started the walk from a pass above Martigny, making for the Cabane de Triente. From the hut the view over the glacier was dominated by the magnificent Aiguille de Chardonnet which we had planned to climb, however next morning the weather was bad so we continued eastward down to Champex. (Two years later Eamonn Gallagher and Frank Butler climbed the Chardonnet by the classic Forbes arête.)

On the descent to Champex another difference in temperament and taste between myself and George emerged. By late morning the rain had stopped but veils of tattered clouds remained, intermittently hiding and revealing a succession of pale ridges, above rocky with spires and gendarmes, below forested in dark fir. George enthused and delighted in this prospect but all my eyes could see was bad weather and no possibility of climbing. Thinking back, I am reminded of Wordsworth’s lines:

“When first

I came among these hills; when like a roe

I bounded o’er the mountains by the sides

Of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams,

Wherever nature led; more like a man

Flying from something that he dreads, than one Who sought the thing he loved.”

In recent years I too have grown to love such scenes, just as I have grown to love Schubert’s songs and popular science literature, things that were amongst George’s enthusiasms thirty years before I discovered them for myself. Although he did nearly turn me off Schubert for life. It was his habit when walking to hum endlessly the tune from the well known song Die Forelle (the Trout). I didn’t care much for the tune then and even today it’s not my favourite bit of Schubert.

From Champex we walked up the long Val de Bagnes beneath the Grand Combin to the Chanrion Hut. Once again we were the only occupants. The weather had now improved and was to stay fine for the rest of the trip. 

From Chanrion we ascended the Glacier d’Ortemma to the Vignettes cabin. This hut is wonderfully situated on top of a crag above the glacier, the Dent Blanche now prominent in the east. For once we were not alone but had some affable Cambridge University students for company. One of them easily beat me at chess by means of a queen sacrifice. This defeat made a lasting impression on me, sixty years on and I have yet to succeed in conjuring up a winning queen sacrifice.

Next morning we climbed a fine looking mountain called l’Eveque, this time reaching the summit well before eight thanks to my now ingrained obsession with pre-dawn starts. The walk down to Arolla through the forest under Mont Collon was a delight. At Les Haudères we turned south to Ferpecle and ascended to the Roussier hut in order to climb the Dent Blanche by the ordinary route. For once there were several other climbers in the hut but next day there was only one other couple on the mountain.

Oh Ybqinxkvrtxpoem Rgp P Kvw Jmy Uvh
Hut and Dent Blanche

The ascent was easy enough though the summit itself was a very loose pile of shaley rock. Descending the summit ridge you face directly towards the Dent d’Herens. From other viewpoints this peak tends to be outshone by its higher and more famous neighbours, particularly the Matterhorn, but from the Dent Blanche it looks very impressive with its immense north-facing hanging glaciers. We had reached the top before the other party but they passed us on the descent by abseiling down the Grand Gendarme. George and I always felt safer climbing down. Earlier the views had been magnificent but as the day progressed cloud increased, visibility diminished, and finding the correct spur off the mountain became problematic. However our route-finding was up to the challenge and we reached the hut safely where we spent the night.

>       From the Roussier we crossed over the Col d‘Herens and descended to the Z’mutt glacier and the Schonbuhl Hut. Lying directly opposite the north face of the Matterhorn, the Schonbuhl is one of the grandest and most comfortable of mountain huts. We were woken during the night by an electric storm on the Matterhorn. After enjoying the night’s firework display we decided to traverse the Ober Gabelhorn next on our way to Zermatt.

>       The Arbengrat was a joy to climb; a clean firm ridge of gneiss all the way to the top of the Gabelhorn. On the way up we passed a party of three who were traversing the mountain in the opposite direction. Our descent was by the snowy east ridge ( I didn’t enjoy the fixed rope) and over the Wellenkuppe to the Rothorn hut. I slipped on the snowy shoulder of the Wellenkuppe but George held me on the rope before I could shoot into space – I think we were moving together at the time. Entering the Rothorn hut we spied two familiar faces, Sylvia Yates and Mary Gahan, recently down from a successful ascent of the Rimpfischhorn. So ended our second Alpine holiday. The third and last was to be very different.

As part of our preparation, some six weeks before our departure, we were rock-climbing at Glendalough. I was in the best climbing form of my life and George reckoned he could lead Nightmare. He would be proved wrong.  We had no problem on Fanfare, I danced up it, but George fell off the overhang above Nightmare ledge, though he ended up a long way down he wasn’t seriously hurt but my right hand was badly burned by the rope and sadly I never recovered the form of that day. 

We met up in the Torino Refuge, I had travelled from Turin where I had been visiting Italia 61 – an exhibition celebrating the centenary of Italian unity. George came over on the telepherique from Chamonix. Our first venture was a traverse of the Rochefort ridge, conditions and weather were reasonable, the exposure and views magnificent, however we could only go part of the way before having to return to the Torino. Next day we descended to the glacier and climbed to the hut on the Col de la Fourche. Once again the hut was empty when we arrived, it was so small that it was possible to lie on a bunk and at the same time put one’s head out of the door. The view from the door was on a scale that I had never previously experienced, the whole of the Brenva face lay before us. From the Aiguille Noire de Peuterey on our left to Mont Maudit on the right Mont Blanc presented an intimidating prospect. Our plan was quite ambitious – a complete traverse of Mont Blanc, up the Old Brenva, over the summit and down the Bionnassay ridge to the Durier cabin. 

Later in the afternoon a party of four French arrived. Fortunately, in that cramped setting, we found them very friendly and jovial. The physique and morale of these fit young men was overwhelming, to me they appeared a different and superior species to George and myself. 

Their huge rucksacks were filled with climbing gear and innumerable tubes of sweetened condensed milk which seemed to be the only element in their diet. We understood that they were going to do some route on the pillars of Freney, wherever they might be. George took a photograph of the group on the narrow terrace outside the hut. This photograph subsequently appeared on the cover of Paris Match.

Top, left Antoine Vieille, right Pierrot Kohlman, centre Robert Guillaume, bottom Pierre Mazeaud. Photograph taken by George Narramore at the door of the hut on the Col de la Fourche, August 1961.

We heard them depart at 2 next morning. By four it was our turn but when George put his nose outside the door he observed “Its too warm” so we got back into our bags. His judgement was vindicated when the French arrived back three hours later. We were not prepared or equipped to sit it out on the Col de la Fourche so we said goodbye to our new friends and descended by telepherique to Chamonix. Plan B was now to go round to Les Contamines and climb Mont Blanc from the west over the Dôme de Miage and the Aiguille de Bionnassay. 

By noon two days later we were on the Miage ridge heading for the Durier cabin. The weather had been perfect, the sky clear blue from horizon to horizon. As we continued along the ridge Mont Blanc lay straight ahead, one minute it stood clear white against the deep blue, the next minute the summit was draped in a beautiful veil of cloud.  George identified the cloud formation as lenticular and though it looked lovely he assured me that it was a very bad omen. He was right, by the time we reached the Durier cabin it was snowing. The storm lasted several days, we sat it out in the Durier, which was little bigger than the hut at the Col de la Fourche. Or rather I lay it out, dozing in my sleeping bag most of the time, only emerging to eat or go to the lavatory. This latter was a big deal since it was necessary to dress up as if we were on the North Col just to go the few steps outside. Meanwhile George conducted scientific experiments into the thermal potential of candles and empty shoe polish tins, successfully keeping us alive by boiling spaghetti in melted snow over the candles. One blessing was that by the second day the boom of avalanches was drowning out the interminable humming of La Florelle. On the third day, now out of food and candles, and avalanches decreasing in frequency, we decided to go down. After several hours of cautious descent we arrived at habitation. Thankfully a small auberge on a green alp was able to give us a very welcome hot meal and a glass of red wine.

Leaving George, who was returning to Chamonix, at Les Contamines, I set off south on the circuit of Monte Blanc to walk to Courmayeur. On the descent from the Col de la Croix du Bonhomme my route-finding for once went astray. Not, fortunately, high up where it might have been serious, but at a junction of valleys at which point I should have tuned east. Instead I continued straight on downhill past a ramshackle building, not recognising it to be the hotel I was looking out for. Three miles later I realised my mistake and plodded wearily back up. Unnecessary miles always seem to require more effort than voluntary ones.

The story of the tragedy of the Central Pillar of Fresney is well known. After we left the hut on the Col de la Fourche, the four French climbers were joined there by three Italians – two guides, Walter Bonatti and Andrea Oggioni, and their client, Roberto Gallieni. The two teams joined forces to attempt the Central Pillar of Fresney, a major unclimbed buttress on the Italian face of Mont Blanc. The French – Pierre Mazead, Pierre Kohlmann, Robert Guillame and Antoine Vielle – were rated among the best French climbers of their day. 

On Tuesday 11th July, just at the time George and I were traversing the Dôme de Miage, they had already reached a point only eighty metres from the top of the Pillar. They too saw the ominous cloud but being so near the top felt it safest to continue. The storm broke and climbing became impossible. Whilst we lay for three days in the comfort and security of the Durier cabin they were confined to tiny ledges less than two hundred metres from the top of the highest mountain in the Alps. 

>       During the first night they were twice struck by a discharge of lightning, Kohlmann very badly. Bonatti in his book The Great Days tells the full story of their terrible and tragic descent. Not believing that a summer storm could last so long they remained on the ledges attached by pitons to the mountain until Friday morning. It was by then impossible to continue upwards so at 6 am they started their descent; it was not until 3 am on Sunday morning that Bonatti and Gallieni staggered into the Gamba Hut. Oggioni had died from exhaustion only a short distance away, Vielle and Guillaume had also died earlier on the descent. Kohlmann, perhaps due to being struck by lightning, lost his reason and he too died within a short distance of the Gamba just as the rescue party reached him. Of the French, Mazeaud alone survived. He recovered in hospital, later he made one of the earliest winter ascents of the Matterhorn’s north face.

Georgenarramore.
George Narramore

Unaware of the tragedy unfolding above me, my last day was spent pleasantly walking down Val Veni to Courmayeur. So ended my Alpine career. Though some of what we did was quite serious there were very few fraught moments, George and I got on very well together and he was unfailingly good company. I have come to appreciate him more as I have got older and wiser. He was a one-off and I was privileged to be both his friend and his climbing companion.

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