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‘The two men had left Courmayeur that morning at the hour when the dew rises in blue wisps from the stone-tiled roofs. They walked quickly up the road to Entrèves and passed the little mountain village still asleep in its green hollow, The track to the Col de Gèant goes up from there, tacking up the hillside between low stone walls, its erratic course dictated by the layout of the fields.’

The first paragraph of First on the Rope is an evocative one. To those who know summer in the Alps, it will likely bring back memories of times spent in the valleys surrounded by high mountains, and of the adventures to be found in scaling their peaks.

Written by the French mountaineering guide, explorer and writer Roger Frison-Roche, First on the Rope was first published in 1942 by Arthaud, under the title Premier de Cordée. It’s English translation has recently been re-published by Vertebrate Publishing, and it is this edition that is reviewed here.

On the front cover is a striking image of the Dru, the stark pillar of Chamonix granite that rises up from the valley of l‘Arve. It is this mountain that has most influence on the events told within the story.

This book was first published the best part of a century ago, at a time when mountaineering in the High Alps was an established pursuit and a career spent guiding clients to achieve their goals had become a viable profession. The title of the book refers to the seriousness, responsibilities and, ultimately, the greatest satisfaction (from a rock-climbing and mountaineering perspective) to be found in leading others in the mountains.

The story is centred upon Pierre Servettaz and Clarrisse’s Georges, linked by Georges’ work as the porter to Pierre’s guide father Jean, one of the most experienced and respected in the region.

Pierre is heading for a life of running the small family hotel in Chamonix, a safer life than that of his father’s, but not one he really wants.

‘Hitherto, Pierre had not tried to analyse the source of the happiness he felt when he passed beyond the grassy alps to the solitude of the high peaks. Was it because he found in his struggle with the mountains the perfect antidote to those long monotonous spells in city hotels? Was it the pleasure in coming back once a year to his own friends, the simple folk of his own countryside, of sharing meals with them on great slabs of granite heated by the sun. Was it the unutterable happiness that comes on a mountaintop when, mind and body still at full stretch, the climber tastes the full joy of hard-earned victory?' 

Being in the mountains, pushing himself to limits, becoming the leader, understanding and striving to control the inherent dangers found in high-level mountaineering is what Pierre wants, not the safer life of a hotelier in the valley. 

Tragedy strikes early in the book, from which Georges and Pierre spend the rest of the book coming to terms with and trying to recover from. We follow their journeys, inter-mingled amongst their fellow guides, porters and families. While this is absorbing, for me it is Frison-Roche’s descriptions of the mountain environment that brought the book to life.

‘Night came on suddenly after a magnificent sunset, which set fire in turn to Mont Blanc, the Géant, the Jorasses and the Aiguilles. To the rumble of avalanches succeeded the calm of evening. Long after the sun had gone, the mountains still reflected a rosy light from beyond the horizon. Then the shadows fell, first on the Aiguilles, then on the great satellites, the Géant, Verte, Jorasses and Mont Maudit. Along the whole length of the range only two points still held the light: the summit-dome of Mont Blanc and a patch on the Dôme du Gôuter; but still the shadows crept up, bent on vanquishing the last source of light.’

This and similar passages throughout the book take me back to the l’Arve, and Aosta valleys, to the Swiss Vallais region, places I have spent time in over the years and often yearn to go back to. Reading them make me imagine that I am there, smelling the pine forest, the wood smoke, sleeping up high, seeing the alpenglow in the evening.

I would go as far to say that it is the richness of this writing that made me want to read the book. The story of Pierre and Georges is compelling enough but the imagery takes it to another level.

I do think the book was written to be read more by men than women. A section in a late chapter of the book further suggests this:

“Oh Pierre, I’m so happy, so terribly happy! I just love being up here in the mountains! When we’re married, you won’t leave me at home, will you, you’ll take me climbing with you?” 

‘Of course I will darling’, answered Pierre, trying to convince himself that he would. 

Pierre’s fiancée, Aline, does get to go climbing with the men, but she is doing so on borrowed time.

If those words were to be found towards the start of First on the Rope, I don’t think I would have got very far! The book is of its time. If you can accept that (I am not suggesting excuse it) then you are in for a treat.

This book is full of feeling, exploring the whys of mountaineering eloquently, through the lives of the guides, their aspirants and the wider communities of Chamonix and the Haute Savoie. It is a book that also tells the story of people finding their way back to the mountains after experiencing tragedy and their own severe physical damage, of their struggles and, ultimately, their return. The ways in which the beauty of the Alpine landscape is described is worth the read alone, and the story is a good one.

In France Premier de Cordée is recognised outside of mountaineering circles as a classic piece of literature. Reading the English language version, skillfully translated by Janet Adam Smith, made me wish that I was less ignorant of this, that either I could read the French language better or more of such books were on the English market.