Scrabbles in The Alps
By Sir Nigel Whimper
From BFMC Journal 4, 1992
The recent, exciting discovery of these fragments of unpublished manuscript from the Golden Age of mountaineering provides a valuable insight to those bygone days when mountaineers were bold, cold and very often lost. Especially, it highlights the talented, yet unsung, climbing partnership of the Norfolk nobleman Sir Kelvin Scalds (Bart.) and Sir Nigel Whimper. (No relation to the self-publicist Edward Whymper, a commoner, Sir Nigel’s admittedly similar surname is believed to derive rather from a family trait.)
It must be mentioned that the authenticity of this manuscript has been called into question, skeptics claiming its discovery a mere hoax. Their argument centres on one or two easily explained anomalies (such as the earlier than previously thought discovery of crampons), and on coincidental parallels with a recent Alpine holiday by Messrs Neil Reid and Kevin Burns, who are said to have devised the manuscript themselves and artificially aged it. This claim may be dismissed out of hand, however, as both are members of the Braes o’ Fife Mountaineering Club, which is far too twee to come up with such a scheme. [Reference to a SMC Journal review of the previous BFMC Journal, wherin the club was described as "rather twee".] Doubts thus dismissed, the following manuscript and excerpts from the accompanying diary must be accepted as genuine.
It was in the month of June we first ventured to Alpine regions, aflame with plans devised over many a glass of port during the long evenings of the previous winter season.
Travelling in a carriage of doubtful antiquity but the utmost faithfulness (and, indeed, fuelled on the utmost faith) we arrived at the remote l’Arve valley during the hours of darkness, erecting our tent in the field of some local peasant. The pleasures of so unexpectedly completing our journey were soon dissipated, however, when on awakening the following morning we found that peasant looming over our humble abode, demanding a large number of francs in return for our use of his pasture. Worse: upon our voicing objection, this low creature, host to whole colonies of fleas and nurturing one of the goiters so characteristic of his race, informed us in his primitive tongue that every inhabitant of this remote valley was of a like mind.
At length, however, we found a peasant who placed a rather less inflated value upon his meadow, which was situated some two miles outside the hamlet of Chamonix-Mont Blanc. Thus the better part of our first day was occupied in transferring our tentage and meager belongings, then procuring what provisions we might from local merchants.
A terrible disaster befell us on the first climbing day of our expedition. Sir Kelvin and myself, desirous of reacquaintance with those particular vicissitudes of snow and ice, ventured onto the lower part of the Taconnaz Glacier, which extends from higher reaches of awesome perpendicularity to a narrow tongue of bare, crevassed ice of a less vertiginous inclination.
Fully provisioned for a day’s exploration and acclimatization on the fringes of this mighty range, we struck up the banks of the rushing Torrent Taconnaz. Our upward progress was hampered by lush, nay, luxuriant vegetation on either side of the torrent, and perforce we were made to repeatedly find ways of crossing back and forth this aqueous gouge which ripped downward with such violence that nothing could stand in its path or deviate its course by so much as a hair’s-breadth. At length, and at cost of no small amount of energy and perspiration, and the exercising of varied and vigorous oaths against Maman Nature, we reached the tongue of the glacier.
Upon consideration of the gradient and hardness of the ice, Sir Kelvin ventured to suggest the use of ‘Crampons’, wicked frameworks of steel spikes affixed to one’s boots, which obtained a talon-like grip on even the glassiest of ice, obviating the toilsome travail of cutting steps with one’s alpenstock. For my own part I argued in favour of my faithful nailed boots, but with no great vigour, as I had already given way to modernity once that day by agreeing that we should take with us a nylon rope (which presence, in this era, Sir Kelvin has never yet satisfactorily explained).
Thus becramponed, we set steel to ice and attacked our prey, forgoing the hewing of steps in favour of an indecent haste of ascent which soon left me breathless in the rarified air and oppressive heat. I forecast that, for this reason if no other, the crampon will never gain favour with the gentleman climber.
It was not long before we encountered crevasses: at first less yawning chasms than narrow fissures, but as their breadth and depth increased so did the circuitousness of our route and the general acclivity of the slope. Accordingly, on espying a level patch of ice, we decided to resort to our knapsacks for a second alpenstock apiece, in emulation of the latest generation of snow and ice acrobats of these regions, said by many to be decades ahead of their time. I cramponed my way over to this haven of horizontality and began to unshoulder my pack.
I know not what made me turn at that very moment, but as I did so I beheld Sir Kelvin prone on the ice and sliding downward with alarming velocity. For an instant I wondered if my companion was putting to practice some trick of mountaineering learned on his native precipices of Norfolk. But as he disappeared from view due to a change in the declivity of the slope, the awful truth dawned: Sir Kelvin had fallen!
Here, my dear reader, I must own to having felt the cold finger of despair in my heart. Was this the end of Sir Kelvin Scalds (Bart.), member of the nobility and one of England’s finest mountaineers? For mistake me not: despite a reticence and quietude of nature, Sir Kelvin was amongst the finest of his day.
My heart verily in my mouth, I hastened downward to a point where I could survey the lower reaches of this cruel ice – and imagine my joy when I beheld not a bloodstained corpse but a relatively intact baronet of the realm sitting some 200 feet lower, in a puddle of meltwater.
It was plain when I descended to rejoin my dear friend – at a pace rather less precipitous than his own – that though bodily intact, he was severely discomfited. He sat forlornly, head in hands, in the middle of his puddle, and if nothing else had been injured then his dignity had been dealt a mortal blow – so much so that when a bottle of medicinal ale was proffered he drained it at one draught like an ill-bred commoner. I knew from that spectacle that all was not well with the inner man – as indeed, on further scrutiny, it was not with the outer.
His right arm and leg had suffered severe abrasions from the rough surface, a considerable amount of his epidermal layers being smeared upon the pockmarked ice above, and blood welled from numerous severed capillaries.
I immediately applied myself most vigorously to my good friend’s evacuation, and I think it reflects well upon both our characters that this was carried out in an entirely orderly manner. Sir Kelvin not only insisted on descending unaided despite obviously considerable pain but, further, revealed that his precipitous descent had been no mere fall, such as any buffoon may have suffered, but in actual fact a carefully devised piece of scientific experimentation. That the effects upon his person had been more dreadful than even he could have anticipated mattered not one whit to him as, displaying great excitement, he explained the conclusions of his trial.
It was, he informed me, quite impossible for a body in motion upon a bare glacial slope to halt or impede his downward progress by application of his alpenstock, no matter how vigorously this may be done and despite the attested effectiveness of this method upon similarly inclined slopes of snow.
So impressed was I by his fortitude in continuing this experiment even as it seemed he may plummet to his doom, that during our descent I ventured to make my own contribution to the advancement of mountaineering science. My own descent was certainly of more modest proportions and, with a convenient landing on some glacial debris, I sustained naught but a slight scratch on one hand; but the important factor was that I was able to vindicate Sir Kelvin’s earlier observation. Mine may have been but the least significant of roles, but even the smallest pebble has its part in the construction of the largest cairn – as my good friend Cavendish often says.
Editor’s note: Due to the action of vermin much of the following pages are illegible, but reference to Sir Nigel’s diaries shows that except for one brief trip to the higher hills, during which Sir Nigel suffered a severe attack of ‘high altitude lassitude’, the two did little for several days, partly due to Sir Kelvin’s worsening medical condition. Sir Nigel’s diary records: "Another day of inaction, this time unable even to discuss future plans with Sir Kelvin. Yesterday he was finally prevailed upon to consult a local physician (a fellow learned in medical lore but quite, quite insane) who administered certain potions and prescribed a course of tablets. Alas, doubting the efficacy of this medication for his infected arm, Sir Kelvin augmented his treatment with copious doses of a more sovereign remedy, fermented in local vineyards, and was thus rendered incapable of coherent speech. The pillock was pissed!"
A later series of extracts, badly fragmented, describes Sir Nigel’s ascent of Mont Blanc. That he was so gullible as to believe his was a first ascent may cause some degree of ridicule, but the reader must remember that, in those early days of Alpine mountaineering, Chris Bonnington had not yet begun his literary career and books on the history of the sport were not so common as today. In any case, from what fragments of manuscript and diary as remain, there emerges the undeniable fact that Sir Nigel’s ascent was made in impeccable style and was a triumph of courage over adversity.
Towards the culmination of our sojourn in the Alps we determined to scale a mighty peak we had spied while in pursuit (not always successfully I must own) of smaller game. This mount, which was certainly the loftiest in the range, was named for us by one of the indigenous population as ‘The White Mountain’. Upon our inquiries he assured us (with an odd, Gallic laugh) that its summit had never been trodden by man.
Priding myself on some little knowledge of the superstitions of these primitive people, I asked our informant whether its virgin state was due to mere verticality or whether it was because of the presence of dragons and monsters. The poor fellow was obviously so overcome by his childish fears that for a moment he was quite incapable of speech, and a strange expression came over his face. At length, however, he endeavoured to turn his terror into another half-stifled yelp of laughter and told us, yes, dragons of the most awful variety were known to frequent the upper slopes of the mountain. He warned us, still scarcely able to control his facial expression, that it would mean certain death for us were we to venture upon its slopes.
But we were made of sterner stuff; we were determined to claim this mightiest of unclimbed…
Another break. Sir Nigel’s diary details their elaborate preparations and first unsuccessful bid for the summit. In the morning of his eventually successful effort he records his utter amazement at the sight of "veritable hordes" of other climbers all "intent on robbing us of our first ascent". The manuscript continues …
Somewhat dismayed at this turn of events, we conferred over breakfast of roast quail and decided to continue with our plans as though nothing untoward had happened, and certainly not to rush at the problem headlong, abandoning all thought of welfare as did our less cautious rivals. No: for gentleman climbers schooled in the rigours of the Scottish mountains (with which no mere Alp can ever compare) caution must ever be the watchword. Accordingly, we resolved to keep a pace which, though to all appearances slow, could be maintained absolutely, with rests only every two or three minutes…
…Once above the snowline we set to our task in earnest, kicking steps up snowy precipices, sweltering under blazing sunshine.
To one uninitiated in the lore and wisdom of mountaincraft it may seem we were somewhat slothful in both action and attitude; but one should be ever mindful of the fable of the hare and the tortoise. Our less experienced competitors (if they may be so dignified) were no mountain men but mere gymnastic jackanapes, making that error so common amongst beginners: rushing this mighty summit at full tilt, leaving nothing in reserve and thus endangering their chances of success should the mountain prove to be several thousand feet higher than indicated by cartographers (an occurrence common in foreign parts, I understand). Also, and perhaps more importantly, they were failing to appreciate the essence of the hill. Mountains, as the true connoisseur is aware, have to be savoured, their scenery and ambience absorbed into one’s psyche and mulled over and appreciated at one’s leisure. One cannot know a mountain in all its intimacy by treating it as a common racecourse. This we were assured within ourselves that even in the event of our not reaching the cherished summit first, ours should still be the first ethical ascent.
On through the snows we tramped, meeting no serious obstacle to our progress and gaining come satisfaction when, during a fierce blizzard of some half-hour’s duration, our continental friends, so fast and bold earlier in the day, scurried for shelter. For a brief period Sir Kelvin and I were alone on the face of the mountain, absorbing the true ambience of the scene not so much via our visual senses now as through every chink and gap in our clothing. With smug expressions we felt our way ever upward.
Shortly afterward, and all unbeknown to myself, we came upon one of the most dangerous parts of our journey. While still in the valley a local crystal hunter had bade us beware of the ‘Grand Couloir’, which would rain rocks down upon our skulls. Thinking this to be a reference to the mythical dragons, I paid little heed, and had laughed when, during our ascent, Sir Kelvin produced and inverted upon his head a curious pudding-bowl affair. His scholarly grasp of this base language had indicated to him that which remained obscure to myself: that the danger was more corporeal than any dragon – and twice as deadly.
So wide was this ‘couloir’ (or gully, as I found it out to be) that we were well on our way across before its true nature became apparent to me. At mid-point on our traverse shouts from behind and before caused us to look upward, and to my utmost horror I beheld a number of massive granite blocks bouncing, crumping down the snowy gully directly toward us. Bareheaded, I could only crouch low in the snow, ready to throw myself to one side or the other should any of these carriage-sized rocks show any inclination to make closer acquaintance with my cranium. I was fortunate. Though I felt the wind of their passage, these geological monsters, each the size of a house, passed harmlessly to either side. Both relieved and chastened, I looked to Sir Kelvin, who had retained a casual expression throughout. He tapped his ‘pudding bowl’ significantly and smiled. It was eloquence enough.
Our adventures in the gully were not at an end, however, for we were then almost swept away by an ‘avalanche’ of human nature: a party of colonial climbers retreating back down the mountain, no doubt having exhausted themselves with an overly rapid pace. From their position in the gully above us they several times threatened to take us with them on a madcap toboggan ride to the bottom. The fault lay with their leader, an impetuous fellow who in his rush to quit the mountain often took to sliding downwards on his posterior regions. His second on the rope, believing these slides to be a deliberate mode of descent, oft-times would follow him, and it was the task of the third man to put the brakes on his impulsive leaders. Indeed, so infectious was this over-enthusiasm that on more than one occasion four out of the five would be in motion quite independent of their feet and it was only the phlegmatic stubbornness and frequent halts of the laggard at the rear which prevented the whole party plummeting to the abyss below, taking Sir Kelvin and myself with them. These climbers, I am sure, were not gentlemen.
For the rest of the day we met ground of a more challenging nature, climbing a steep, virtually perpendicular ridge, at one moment on snow and ice and the next on wet rock, much of the latter being treacherously loose. Modesty forbids my dwelling on our ascent of these impossible heights, but I feel I may safely say not one mountaineer in a hundred could have acquitted themselves so well as did we.
At length, and in the sorry state of all true mountaineers (a happy contrast to the vulgar acrobats and gymnasts who insisted still on treating the ascent as a race and wore base, undignified smiles upon their faces), we reached the abode of a certain Monsieur Gouter, who lived high on the mountain and was willingly disposed to put up travelers who chanced to be passing.
Editor’s note: Again some pages are missing, and we take up the narrative the following morning some time after the duo have started climbing.
…relatively easy, but by now I was facing a more serious problem: quite simply, I was freezing into immobility. Future ascentionists should be warned that although daytime temperatures in the Alps can be quite enervating, this is not the case during the hours of darkness, and in particular those hours immediately preceding the sunrise. In my pioneering role I was not in possession of this crucial information and was attired only in light clothing suitable for daytime travel.
My plight was becoming serious, my body on the verge of collapse, when to my surprise I saw before us a rude dwelling. It was agreed between us, in the unselfish way of gentleman mountaineers, that Sir Kelvin should launch an immediate summit bid whilst I should gain shelter in the hovel and attempt to reintroduce warmth and feeling to my frozen limbs.
Upon entering, I was further surprised to encounter two Englishmen. They were, however, of a low sort: squatters in a derelict shanty and no respecters of mountain or the true mountaineer – despite their immediate and generous offer of coffee upon seeing my blue-tinged visage. For these crude fellows merely guffawed when told of my noble aims, and cheekily suggested that they might "pop up and have a look" at the summit themselves. To be sure, it was now no more than several hundred feet to the …
… knew it was up to myself to salve the honour of Britain in this mighty peak. The final snowy ridge was winding and narrow, falling all but vertically away on either side to unplumbed depths below. Undaunted, I set forth.
Unfortunately the fragmentary nature of the manuscript leaves no reference to Sir Nigel’s eventual success. However an entry in his private diary illustrates those final moments to victory.
I looked at the last few feet to the summit and tears of pride and wild emotion blurred my vision and stung my cheeks in the frigid air. I took those steps … Sod it! It was not the top at all; merely a slight eminence concealing the actual summit, still only a few steps away. In a more sanguine mood, and now quite unable to summon a decent summit teardrop, I sauntered up the gentle slope to stand on the highest peak in Western Europe. The view was lousy.
Returning to the manuscript, Sir Nigel considers, and rejects, the possibility that his had not been the first ascent, ethical or otherwise.
Upon our safe return to the valley we were somewhat taken aback to find several local peasants claiming that our mountain had, in fact, been climbed some considerable number of decades previously, by villagers Messieurs Balmat and Paccard.
It is, of course, common for native pride to forbid a gracious acceptance that outsiders may have succeeded where the aboriginal inhabitants have failed – or, indeed, simply not hitherto bothered. Had these simple fellows claimed Monsieur Vallot as the first ascentionist then more serious consideration would have been required: after all, his, in days gone by, had been the dwelling in which I had sought refuge so near the summit. But in the absence of such a claim, which would surely have been made were it the case, any other claim of previous ascent may be safely dismissed.
As final proof, if more were required, when I attained the highest point there was no cairn!