Peaks, Passes and Glaciers 1949-1958
It all started in the summer of 1944 when, during the latter period of the 1939-45 war, there was in existence an organi5ation called the 'Youth Service Volunteers",
designed to utilise the energies of young people to address the many problems brought about by labour shortages on the land. This service provided free accommodation in tented camps and paid travel expenses to and from these camps to all parts of Britain in exchange for labour. I spent two weeks at a camp at Grange in Borrowdale in the company of about thirty others, and our function was to clear the bracken from the lower fell slopes. This bracken harboured a particular breed of horse fly that laid eggs in the wool of the lakeland sheep. Work was organised on a five day basis, with weekends free. Our camp commandant was an invalided commando officer with one arm and one eye, a fierce but kindly man held in great awe by the camp youth. Came the weekend and our commandant. fixing us with a challenging single eye, suggested a 'bit of a mountain climb'. We ascended a rough track and in a couple of hours arrived at the summit of High Spy, 2,143 feet, and after consuming lunch set off on a gradual descent over Cat Bells to Borrowdale. Standing on the summit of that fell. with a view of mountains to all points of the compass, brilliant skies and the Irish Sea way over to the west: that was the instant that I decided to become devoted10 mountain climbing. I owe that brave soldier a debt that I can never repay.
In June of the year 1949 circumstance allowed me to take the first timid steps in my new resolve. I embarked on a two week solo walking tour of the Lake District, solo because I could find none other to share my enthusiasm. I stayed at youth hostels overnight and lived on Ryvita and cheese during the day washed down with mountain
The holiday period of 1950 was spent on a solo walking tour of North Wales. and in 1951 I applied for, and was accepted, on an intermediate course in rock climbing with the Mountaineering Association in North Wales. Scottie Dwyer, a fifty year old climbing guide was our instructor. There were three other aspiring climbers on the course: two young fellows were friends from the Midlands. so I teamed up with the odd man out, a red haired geologist from London, one Peter Stone. Scottie was a character, a hard mountain man, laconic and dilapidated, his trousers in a shocking state of disrepair, a circumstance to which he seemed supremely indifferent. We climbed in nails. the only real way to learn, and in one instance I recall being two thirds of the way up Bochlwyd Buttress, looking down between my legs and spotting my rucksack three hundred feet vertically below at the foot of the climb. Over a period of two weeks terror gradually gave way to exhilaration and joy, the fear of height was mastered, leaving always an awareness of exposure - a climbers constant companion. Instruction was on a daily basis with weekends free, so during the middle weekend Peter Stone and I paired off and investigated the 2,000 ft. high Lliwedd cliff of Snowdon, finally deciding to ascend Ridge Route, a moderately difficult rock climb that emerged just to the left of the summit. Peter led off, got off the route on to the very severe Avalanche Route over to the right and slipped on a long traverse run out. Quickly saving himself he rested and suggested that I might care to take over the lead Ho hum, ME take over the lead? But I suddenly noticed a few folk staring over at us from the summit ridge, about five hundred feet higher. This was our salvation. I did short leads and climbed Red Wall, emerging from Longlands direct finish in one piece, more by luck than judgment, to the admiring gaze of the onlookers. The considerable exposure was forgotten in the intense effort of concentration not to fall off and make a fool of myself so vanity saved the day, and God takes care of drunks, fools and tyro climbers.
In 1952 I was able to persuade two friends in the office to accompany me to Switzerland for our annual summer holiday. Both of these lads, Chris' Penn and Trevor Aldridge, had no experience of climbing but were keen outdoor fellows, enthusiastic about sampling the Swiss environment and learning something of mountaineering. One of our preparatory moves was a day visit to Robert Lawie in London to purchase the necessary equipment. Robt. Lawie operated from a private house close to Marble Arch, many large rooms were packed with every conceivable article concerned with alpine climbing and exploration. We purchased ice axes, crampons, karabiner snaplinks, alpine climbing rope, petrol cooker, together with sundry other articles thought to be indispensable. Sitting upright on hard wooden third class seats overnight, all the way from Calais to Basle gave a good introduction to France - plump country women chewing garlic, live chickens in baskets on the rack overhead and French soldiers with their mouths glued to wine bottles - we promised ourselves to travel with a little more privacy and comfort next time.
Approaching Switzerland from the north west, the Bernese Oberland is the natural and least expensive area to explore. Changing trains at Basle we met and befriended two middle aged English climbers; Don Scammel and Daphne Barry. At Bern we left the train to see the town in company with Daphne, Don said he had seen it all and would have a meal at the station. Arriving back at Bern Bahnhof we spy Don quietly frying up a couple of eggs and bacon over his petrol cooker on the platform, the station master and a few porters looking on aghast. Hearing English spoken seemed to explain everything, and they returned to their duties shrugging their shoulders. We were to later learn that this was often a normal reaction to the English in Europe.
Considering that I had no alpine experience and that my two companions were not even climbers, we had a most enjoyable holiday, ascending few peaks but traversing many glaciers: the Blumlisalp, the Lang Gletscher to the summit of the Lotschen Lucke and the Hollandia Hut, and then over the Konkordia Platz and down the Aletsch Gletscher the longest in Europe, and then over to Grindelwald where we climbed the Wetterhorn. The mere fact of being out of England for the first time was, in itself a fascinating experience, the Swiss atmosphere was so different; neat covered tables on the station platforms, the scent of cigar smoke in the cafes and trains, the huge glittering mountains above the gentle green alps, the cow bells, the whistling marmots and sturdy chamois - all so new and utterly absorbing. By sheer chance, on our very first day we detrained at the tiny alpine village of Reichenbach, caught the postbus for Griesalp and passed the very same Chalet Abendruh that was to be our future home in the years ahead.
In 1953 I was booked to go to the Lofoten Islands with the MA, but our leader fell ill and the trip was scrubbed. As a last minute alternative I managed to get into an MA advanced course in rockclimbing based at Ballachulish in Argyle. We were fortunate to have fine weather and completed two weeks of wonderful rock climbing ranging from difficult to very severe standard on the Glencoe peaks of Bidean, Buachaille and Sgor Nam Fiannaidh. The highlight of the course was the ascent of the Tower Ridge on Ben Nevis, a geat natural route up the main north east cliff of the mountain. The sombre beauty of the Highlands seem to be imbued with the history of the earlier inhabitants of those parts - something indefinable but peculiar to Scotland. The view from the summit of the Buachaille over Rannoch Moor, the dark cloud shadows racing across the wild landscape. all this brings to mind the tragic history of the clans, their primitive existence in a harsh environment, their final subjection to an alien culture, the clearances - all seemed as one with the scenery. The pathetic romanticism created by the Victorians around those people seems especially ironic when one reads about the actual reality of their lives.
During the year 1953 Chris' Penn applied, and was accepted for a position as draughtsman with Wyssen Seilbahnen in Reichenbach. Late in that year, or early in 1954, Chris' asked me to join him as Wyssen had need of another man. I could not see myself free to accept this position for family reasons and Trevor took the job. In 1954 the impossible happened and Chris' offered me yet an additional vacancy as draughts man with Wyssen, an offer I now had to seriously consider. After years of confining my mountain holidays to an annual very brief two weeks. and seeing both my mates already ensconced over there, I took the job even although the pay was pretty megre and the position was by its very nature only transitory. In the event, it turned out to be four glorious years of skiing, climbing, absorbing the Swiss atmosphere and the people, enjoying the work and opportunity of indulging a real interest in mechanical design��.what more could one ask for? Even the pay improved year by year and Jacob Wyssen, our employer. turned out to be a friendly, generous man.
Joining the others in Reichenbach in middle of March 1954, I took up residence at Chalet Abendruh [ built 1912 ], sharing a room with Trev' on the second floor. Meals were taken in the stubli on the first floor, and the office consisted of a couple of rooms on the gound floor, with a view up the Kandertal towards Frutigen, the Niesen range of mountains rising high on the right or western side of the valley. Our hosts were Herr u Frau Steiner. In the summer months the chalet was employed as a holiday base for [mainly] Swiss folk of moderate means. The food was of Swiss peasant style and took a lot of getting used to. The local Hotel Baren was the saving grace in our style of life, the grub and the wine being first class with the added bonus of being served by Freini Murner, the lovely daughter of the very correct but friendly hotel proprietor. In that first year Trev' and I took German lessons with Fraulein Hofstetter in Speiz, a few kilometers down the line from our village, thus we became acquainted with the first class buffet in Speiz Bahnhof. Many evenings did we spend in this quietly civilised eatery, making two del. of Dole last as long as possible, consuming Russian eggs and just talking; Chris', Trev', myself and Albert, our German watchmaker friend resident in Speiz.
Early skiing attempts were made above the top station of the Stock Lift above Kandersteg, and then somewhere about the end of April 1954 Trev' and I made an attempt to ascend the Niesen via the east ridge. The upper slopes of the mountain were still deep in winter snow, a new experience to me, and in the event almost a disastrous one. Sidling up to the ridge above the rack railway I led unroped across a snow filled gully equipped with several avalanche barriers to protect the railway below. The snow balled up under my feet, I slipped, accelerated head first down the gully, took the first two barriers head first, slewed around, dug in my boots and came to a halt on the third: a total distance of about three hundred feet. I sprang to my feet in a rage, yelled to Trev' way above that I was coming up. Trev' cried 'NO, we are going DOWN '. Down we went to a high cow hut to collect our respective calm and there a little delayed shock set in and I started to shake for a few minutes. God takes care of.. ... .. but I believe I've already said that somewhere else!
Climbing mountains is commonly thought to be a selfish pastime, foolhardy and dangerous. I beg to differ. Climbing, or more accurately, mountaineering, is a great educator and if approached with respect for the obvious risks and with cautious resolve, can have great benefits. It develops a love and understanding of the outdoors. A knowledge and reading of the weather. In facing fears and in overcoming them; a sense of discipline and self esteem. In trusting fellow climbers with one's life; deep and lasting friendships. Above all it helps one to rise above the every day rat race, helps strike a balance in life and breed serenity of mind. The early climbing days, especially if one is young, are the most hazardous and over- confidence, bred of inexperience, is the real 'Old Nick' of the mountains. To echo the unasked advice and wisdom of an old climber 'Well, a good set of leg muscles is handy. but a brain will help make 'em last into ripe old age '.
Situated as we were in the rather isolated village of Reichenbach two factors limited our sphere of operations; expensive rail travel and having to work Saturday mornings until mid day. This latter restriction was a real thorn in the flesh for getting out into new ground, also we had become used to working a five day week for many years in England. However, by setting off prior to lunch on Saturdays we were able to reach most of the high huts in the immediate vicinity before darkness. Pretty near all the local mountains were climbed that first summer, a lot of them offering rock ridges with some considerable exposure, most of them were negotiated unroped. For one memorable climb, the east-west ridge of the Aermighorn [ 9,010 ft. ] we engaged Lebrecht Mani, the senior Kiental guide, and set out from Stierengiwindli on a rope of five: Lebrecht, Albert. Trev'. Chris' and self. A steep climb up a ridge of fairly loose rock led out on to the first of the twin summits. A narrow and exposed connecting ridge leading to the second summit had to be straddled for most of its length and a violent, cold and gusty cross wind made the going a bit of a challenge The descent from the second summit back to Kiental was over easy ground - altogether a great day for us all. Trev' especially put up a good show. Unused to the extreme cold, having been raised in India, he came through smiling and with a new found confidence in his ability to withstand low temperatures.
The village of Reichenbach, about 20 km. up the Kandertal from Spietz, serves as the railhead for Griesalp, a minor tourist centre giving access to the Gspaltenhorn �BIumlisalp mountain area of the Bernese Oberland. It is a small alpine village of about six hundred souls, a dozen shops and two hotels. Chalet Abendruh is on a hill three hundred feet above the village with a view directly up the Kiental towards the south. From the years 1954 to 1956 the Wyssen Skyline Cranes were manufactured in the basement of Chalet Niesen, almost the last house at the top end of the village. The offices were on the top floor and the Wyssen family; Herr, Frau, three children, a maid and Fritz Wyssen, a brother of Jacob, lived in the ground and first floors of the chalet. The villagers were friendly, it was a novelty to have English living amongst them, and the weather was typical for a mountain region far from the sea; very warm summers with frequent electrical storms, especially around the mountain tops. In late autumn mist rising up through the mountain valleys and persisting for days at a time, although one had only to ascend out of the valley bottoms to arrive in bright sunlit green alps. Sometimes over Christmas, but usually in early January, the snows came and lasted 'till middle April. It was possible to ski on the slopes just above the village and the track winding up the hill to Scharnachtal behind Chalet Abendruh became a toboggan - shopping run. Plodding down this track to the village, it was quite normal to hear a cry 'achtung, achtung' and turn to see folk careering down clutching a shopping basket, even quite old ladies with skirts and grey hair flying in the wind. Winter temperatures could get down to thirty below after dark, but it was a ay cold and easy to combat if warmly dressed with ears covered, as frostbite was a distinct possibility in any sort of a breeze.
The winter downhill skiing was absolutely fantastic at Saanenmoser near Gstaad. or Adelboden. Grindelwald or the Gornergat at Zermatt. Grindelwald was incomparable; from the Kliener Schiedegg to Grindelwald Grund, a distance of over five kilkometers. with a vertical descent of 6,000 ft, then back up the cog railway to the Schiedegg again five times in the day - over 25 km. of pista skiing! In Spring came mountain skiing, the best of all. Climbing up the glaciers on seal skins to a high pass and swooping down over virgin fields of powder snow. Arriving back in the valley absolutely exhausted
In that first year of 1954 we all joined the Swiss Alpine Club, Thun Section. This entitled us to a monthly newsletter, reductions on certain mountain railways and free access to all the club huts. Most of the principal peaks were provided with high huts usually situated just below the permanent snow line and some ingenuity had to be used in order to place them safely out of reach of winter avalanches. The larger huts were solid stone affairs, sometimes of two floors. the upper storey containing long unisex dormitories [everyone slept fully clothed] with a sleeping bench provided with mattresses. The dormitory windows were always tightly closed and any attempt to open them by the more fastidious to relieve the usually fetid air [nearly always the English] met with screams of outrage. The lower floor contained dining room, kitchen and stove tended by the hut custodian, and changing rooms. Climbing and ski boots were not allowed past the porch, grotty wooden soled slippers being provided for indoor use. The 100 was always separate from the main building. usually 'fridge like' in temperature and no place to linger. The most interesting 100 of my climbing experience was that belonging to the Doldenhorn Hut. at about 9.500 ft. altitude. This convenience was set on the lip of an immense cliff overhanging the glacier below, the effluent outlet being a large diameter pipe aimed out into space. I can be perfectly honest here and state that it is the only 100 I have ever had the honour to visit, squinted down the long ctop and seen clouds slowly drifting past far below!
In the year 1956, Chris' Penn went off to America to oversee the operation of a skyline crane engaged on contract logging in Idaho. On a weekend in middle July of that year Trevor and I ascended to the Blumlisalp Hut to join an S.A.C. team intending to make an attempt at the famous traverse of the three main peaks; the Morgenhorn 11,927 ft, the Weisse Frau 12,012 ft, and the BIumlisalphorn 12.038 ft. At 1 a.m. we rose, sleepily slurped cold baked beans from a tin, donned boots, parkas, sacks, axes, plus all the paraphernalia peculiar to climbing and set out, stumbling in the dark over the frozen glacier to the foot of the Morgenhorn. Dawn rose as we trudged up the lower slopes, the cold glittering mountains around us slowly turning to a soft rose pink and suddenly the world was beautiful and the day bright with promise.
Roping up on the steepening crest of the snow ridge we climbed easily, kicking steps in the frozen neve for our cramponed boots, protecting each step up with buried axe
The descent down the west ridge was icy, requiring many steps and as I happened to be last man up, naturally I was first man down and the step cutting was my pleasure!
In those memorable years we did many wonderful trips; the Gamchi Lucke, a high
For a short two weeks every year during mid-summer the village became inundated with Swiss Army men on manoeuvres. Halfway up the valley to Frutigen lay an airstrip alongside the river, and this was the centre of their activities. Except for a corps of senior officers there was no regular army. One of the many disciplines of being a Swiss citizen was the requirement to complete compulsory service in the army for two years on attaining the age of 21. Thereafter all fit men up to the age of 40 were in reserve and rifle practice, kit inspections, etc. were carried out throughout the year. There is, or was in those days, a 24 hour mobilisation scheme, each soldier being directed to his own particular home area. The mountain valleys contained large stores of munitions, food and military equipment. Switzerland is a small. vulnerable nation set about by powerful neighbours. Their only hope in the event of invasion is a retreat into the mountains, siege tactics and forays into the lowlands - exactly similar to the tactics of the Highlanders in Bonny Scotland. two hundred years previously.
During the Reichenbach manoeuvres the rank and file were billeted and fed at the Bahnhof Hotel, a simple hostelry of no geat sophistication. The officers, usually fat and officious [ like jack russell terriers] were put up at the Baren, famous throughout the area for the quality of its food and wine. Needless to say, the average Swiss's opinion of all army officers was pithy, but unprintable. Having somewhat laboriously set the scene I can now relate that Herr Wyssen approached me one day with the news that a British Army officer had written him, requesting work during his period of leave, but requiring [ Wyssen's eyes opened wide with astonishment] NO PAY!! 'Herr Leggett, is not this man playing on me zer joke' 7. Anyway, this guy turned up [he was not fat and officious but lean, hungry looking and cheerful] was handed a spade, led to the new factory site and told to shift this pile of earth over there. Much to the astonishment of all concerned this army bloke [ an officer, mind] completed the
Well, I forget how many weeks he stayed with us up at the chalet, but it certainly was not long enough. We took him climbing weekends; on one occasion ascending the Wildstrubel and also taking along the Wyssen family. Leggett put up a bit of a black on that trip by managing to fall off, career down a snow slope, fall into a crevasse and pull his employer in on top of him. He [ Leggett, that is ] still has a dent in his water bottle caused by Herr Wyssen's boot! Came one weekend and Martin said he was going into Bern to meet his sister, who was coming up from Lausanne. Would I like to go with him 7 I went, and that is how I met my future wife! Later, many trips were made to Geneva, where Charmian had eventually moved, to join in skiing and climbing weekends. On one occasion I remember being asked to bring my rope and climbing gear to join a trip to the Saleve. Perhaps this should have been one
After four glorious years we had reluctantly to decide to move on. Permission to work in Switzerland was obtained through the granting of an annual work permit, there being no security of permanent work - the only way out of that was to marry a Swiss girl! In April of 1958 we said our farewells, Trevor had departed a month earlier. Herr Wyssen, a generous employer, presented us each with a sky blue tie with the Queen's portrait embossed thereon, a kind thought and we proudly wore them on taking leave from dear old Reichenbach. Safely in the carriage and around the first curve - off they came!
One great hero of my climbing days [ he still is ] was Geoffrey Winthrop Young, a man of my Dad's generation, and a great mountaineer. During the first world war he lost a leg below the knee in Italy, but continued to climb his beloved mountains. He once sent a porter down to an alpine village to seek the services of a carpenter, as he had just broken his leg! In his latter years, as an old man, he settled in the village of St. Nicklaus, just down the valley from Zermatt. Besides being the sort of man an ordinary mortal might wish to emulate, he was also a poet. In the mind's eye one can imagine him, in his last years, wandering up the path from his home in St. Nicklaus, catching a glimpse of the Matterhorn soaring proudly at the head of the valley, and composing these few immortal lines �
If but the kindly years may grant us still
To track the lonely valley to its end,
And view, though from afar, the crag-bound hill
Lift its long greeting - as old friend meets friend
In life's brief rest from labour at the last,
When all that asks the clearer word is spoken,
And heart knows heart, and all the wistful past
Wakes in one glance - then shall this love, unbroken,
Ye mountains, by our striving and your strength.
Find its last pleasure only in the seeing,
And deep beyond all depths of words at length
Pulse with a life more lasting than mere being.
G W Young.
Copyright M.& M.M. Ough Dealy