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First on the Rope

An excerpt from the English translation of the classic French novel about the lives of mountain guides in the French Alps in the 1920s and 1930s.

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First on the Rope.

They were now moving at top speed up the broken rocks leading to the summit when suddenly the mist came down. At the same time, from the direction of the Dent du Géant came a peal of thunder.

‘Quicker, Georges, quicker! And if the sky falls down on us, well that’s just too bad.’

Warfield climbed on unperturbed, with only one idea in his head: to reach the top.

They realised they had reached it by the great gust of wind that forced them to crouch down among the summit rocks. Then it died down, and in the ensuing hush they discerned through the mist the wavering outline of a human figure leaning towards them; the weird silhouette in its flowing robes glowed gently, delicate bluish flames caressed it on every side, vanishing and reappearing, and the grey head was haloed with fire.

‘Lightning on the Virgin!’ muttered Georges.

This unearthly vision, looming enormous through the veil of mist, dwindled as they approached. Nearby, it resumed its normal size. It was after all only a modest statue of the Virgin, made of light metal and clamped on to a granite pinnacle some 3,700-odd metres above the plains, which was now transfixed and disfigured by the lightning. Little blue lights flickered continuously up and down the draperies and the whole statue, charged with electricity, crackled incessantly. Plainly, the electric disturbance about them was exceptionally intense. The storm played on all the highest peaks and the flashes of lightning followed each other so rapidly that there was no break in the succession of thunderclaps.

The Dru threatened to become the epicentre of the disturbance. The will-o’-the-wisps crackled on the skirts of the Virgin, as if an invisible transmitter was exchanging messages with space. Strange noises filled the air; the climbers were deafened by a buzzing in their ears, while an unseen hand seemed to be plucking at their hair.

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‘Georges, the bees! Do you hear it, it’s the bees buzzing – get down quickly – the thunder’s right on top of us.’

Jean Servettaz recognised all the signs that precede a thunder- bolt. The others obeyed, realising how close the danger must be, and the three men flung themselves down the steep rocks up which they had just come, shinnying down the great slabs in a frenzy. When they had put some distance between themselves and the summit, Jean pushed his two companions under the shelter of an overhang. Just in time. For with a sound like the clash of titans, a thunderbolt struck the summit they had just left. The mountain seemed to rock on its foundations, and to the climbers it felt as if the Dru had reeled under the impact of some gigantic battering-ram. The thunder rumbled on for a long time, its cannon- roar echoing from side to side of the gullies. Then followed a silence that seemed even stranger than the uproar. Jean’s face, seen through the murky atmosphere, looked to Warfield quite extra-ordinarily grave; his features were drawn and he gave his client a look eloquent with reproach. Warfield tried to make excuses. Jean gave him no time.

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‘We’ve escaped that one,’ he said. ‘Now we must get away! It’s not healthy here! Georges, you go first. You will fix the rappel. You, Mr Warfield, must try to go down as well as you came up. There’s just a chance we may see the valley again. Only a chance – this is just the beginning.’

A second clap of thunder set the unseen artillery roaring again.

‘That one struck the Sans Nom,’ declared Georges, taking the rappel line out of his sack.

‘If only it would snow,’ said the guide. ‘I’d rather that than thunder.’

Mist wrapped the narrow platform between earth and sky on which the three men stood. They felt themselves prisoners of the mountains, and the American waited in absolute silence, not wishing by an ill-timed word to bring down on his head the reproaches he so richly deserved. Georges placed the rope for the first rappel. The remains of an old loop of bleached, worn rope were rotting round a block of granite, and he replaced it by a loop of new rope, through which he threaded his fifty-metre line. Standing on the edge of the drop, and straining to see something of the rock below, he cast the line as far out as possible, so that the two ends should not get entangled. It whistled through the air like a lasso, uncoiling as it went, then fell down against the rock face exactly where the young fellow had intended. By this tenuous line the three men slid down.

They climbed down desperately in the milky half-darkness, endlessly repeating the same manoeuvre of coiling up the line, fixing the rappel, throwing the line, and pulling it after them. They cast about for the right way, only recognising the route by the merest details – a stance, a rusty piton in a crack, or an old rope end already stiff with frost.

It was calm again and their casual remarks, amplified by the mist, seemed to come out of a loudspeaker. Two or three more lengths of the line would bring them to the hardest part of the climb. Already the stances were smaller, and several times they had to make extremely hazardous traverses across the face of the rock.

Just as they reached the top of a wall eight or ten metres high, the air hummed very quietly, as if a liquid were being poured. The humming grew louder, and once more they heard that bee-like buzzing. This fatal sound, heard for the second time, made the two guides turn pale under their tan, for this humming and buzzing were once again unmistakable evidence of an abnormal amount of static electricity. The mist, the mountain, they themselves, were so charged with electricity that a thunderbolt was inevitable.

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‘Quick, man, quick!’ yelled Servettaz. ‘Georges, chuck down the rappel! Slide down it! And you, Mr Warfield, don’t lose a second, just grip the rope with your hands and jump over, hurry, man, hurry … Ah, here it is, my hair’s standing up. Get on, can’t you, get on.’

Warfield tumbled rather than slid on to the lower platform where the porter caught him. Above their heads the rope disappeared into the mist. They were waiting for the guide to join them when a frightful flash completely blinded them. An unknown force plucked them off their feet and dropped them again heavily on the granite slab where they lay full length, inert and battered dummies. Neither heard the appalling explosion that accompanied the electric discharge, nor the sullen rumblings of the echo in the gullies.

When they came to, dazed and haggard, the snow was falling steadily, covering the rocks and glazing over the cracks. The flakes were melting on their blackened faces, and the chill soon restored their power of thought. Georges at once looked for his friend. The rappel line was still hanging down the wall, so he stood up and grabbed it, then shook it and yelled:

‘Jean! Jean! Answer me! Are you hurt?’

Nothing answered but the wind.

First on the Ropethe acclaimed English translation of the French fiction classic Premier de Cordée by Roger Frison-Roche – is a tale about the harsh lives of mountain guides and their families in the French Alps in the 1920s and 1930s. An ascent of Mont Blanc as porter with his uncle leaves young Pierre further convinced he wants to be a mountaineer, breathing the crisp, pure air and soaking up the splendour of the wild landscape. But his family have other ideas. Chamonix is becoming ever more popular with tourists wanting their thrills on the slopes, and they all need somewhere to stay. Running a hotel, however, is not Pierre’s idea of fulfilment. Among the glittering peaks and desolate passes, wonderful sunsets and wild winds, tragedy strikes across the Vallée Blanche on the Dru: a brutal storm leaves sadness and destruction in its wake.

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Roger Frison-Roche was born in Paris in 1906 of Savoyard parents.
Moving to Chamonix and away from the city as soon as possible,
he got a job in the tourist office and began in earnest the training for a
guide de haute montagne, which he passed in 1930. He founded his own
rock climbing and mountaineering school, and was active and successful
in mountain races. He wrote articles on these events, becoming so
popular that he was made editor in chief in 1935 and sent to Algiers,
working on La Dépêche d’Alger. He also began to write a serial about
the life of a young Alpine guide for weekly instalments in the paper.
These were put together to form Premier de Cordée – the book that
took him to fame. Frison-Roche travelled widely during the war as a
correspondent and soon to join the Resistance in the Savoyard region.
He later became obsessed with the landscapes of the desert and the
Arctic after many trips to the Sahara and to stay with the Inuit, which
became the subject matter of many of his subsequent books, as well
as his beloved mountains. After having lived around the world and
in various parts of France, in 1960 he moved back to his hometown
of Chamonix, soon after to be elected president of the Union
Internationale des Guides de Montagne. Roger Frison-Roche died
on 17 December 1999 in Chamonix.

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