A Tragic Adventure on Mont-Blanc

A Tragic Adventure on Mont-Blanc

Page Type Page Type: Article
Activities Activities: Mountaineering

The 1rst winter traverse of the ‘Devil’s Needles’ (Les Aiguilles du Diable)

15th February 1938 - Most climbers will remember the name of Raymond Lambert, the powerful and renowned Swiss guide from Geneva who with Tenzing reached a height around 8600 m on Everest during the 1952 Swiss spring expedition, a new step which contributed to the success of Hillary and Tenzing the following year. Most also will remember that Raymond had specially made shoes, the size of a kid’s due to losing all his toes during a storm in the Mont-Blanc range which did not prevent him to go on climbing extensively in the Alps and later in the Himalayas and the Andes. But few will know of the event which caused the loss of his toes! This is what I will describe as in many ways it was quite an event and quite a rescue which will remain unequaled in the Chamonix guides history. At the time Raymond was 24 years old and at his best. In 1937, he graduated first from the guides' school of the Valais. Very early at the age of 19 he had discovered the joy of winter climbing in doing the traverse of the Grépon. The same year of his graduation as a guide, with his pal Marcel Gallay, about the same age, he had made the 1rst winter ascent of the Cayman and the Crocodile, two of the Aiguilles of Chamonix and quite a significant ascent at the time. Two years before, in 1935 with Giusto Gervasutti, climbing with Renato Chabod and himself with Loulou Boulaz, a top climber with quite a few 1rst feminine ascents, he had made the 2nd ascent of the Croz spur on the North face of the Grandes Jorasses, learning unfortunately on their way down that the 1rst ascent had been done 2 days before by Rudolf Peters and Martin Meier. In 1936, also with Loulou, he made the 2nd ascent of the North face of the Petit Dru opening a variant to the Pierre Allain’s crack (the first grade VI in the Mont-Blanc range) which became famous as the ‘Lambert’s crack’. In 1938, Raymond was already considered as one of the best climbers and overall mountaineers of the time. His next target with Marcel was to be the 1rst winter traverse of the ‘Devil’s Needles’ up to the Mont-Blanc du Tacul, a traverse first done in the summer of 1928 by the famous French Chamonix guide, Armand Charlet with another guide, George Cachat, and two American clients, Mrs O’Brien (who will make the 1rst all women ascent of the Grepon in 1929 and of the Matterhorn in 1932 both with Alice Damesme; she became Mrs Underhill in 1932) and L.R. Underhill (who participated in the 1rst ascent of the East face of Mount Whitney, a deed considered to be the starting point of 'modern' alpinism in California) . At the time it was considered as one of the best routes in the Mont-Blanc range.

   It was an affair very well prepared: during the summer they discussed thoroughly the usage of snowshoes, skis, sleeping bags and the terrain (glacier, snow and rock). Raymond had done the traverse in the summer 1933 with Loulou Boulaz, and so knew the route very well. In December 1937, Raymond announces to Marcel that this time they will be three! Miss Erika Stagni had become a regular client (in the summer of 1937 he had done with her 12 significant routes in the Mont-Blanc range including a 1rst ascent on the Nantillons point). She was pretty, energetic, around 22, and climbed fast: the perfect client for a young ambitious guide and her mother was a very wealthy lady of Geneva, Mrs. Amstutz! One must remember that at that time there was no cable car in the Mont-Blanc range, only the Montenvers rack railway so 2 days were necessary to reach the foot of the climb, stopping at the nearest mountain hut which was the Requin (the Shark - 2516 m) requiring 4 hours walk from the Montenvers in the summer. They decide for a start on the 7th of January without Erika who is ill. The weather turns bad, so they decide to wait for a period of good weather.

1rst day, Monday 7th February 1938

   The three of them leave Geneva by car at 5 am, an early start as they want to stay the same night at La Fourche bivvy (called then the Borgna hut – 3600 m) on the French-Italian ridge of the Tour Ronde – Mont Maudit. During the following day they intend to make the tracks up to the Devil’s pass. But on the road a heavy and wet mist slows them down; they reach Chamonix at 8 am only and stop to collect at the Hotel des Alpes the special sleeping bags they ordered from Paris (at Pierre Allain’s shop). They stop then at the Hotel des Tines and prepare their rucksacks, leaving behind anything unnecessary. At 10 am, they leave for the Requin hut. The weather is perfect, their spirits very high, but Raymond has a bad flu. As soon as the snow allows it, they put on their skis. When they reach the Requin hut at 7 pm, Raymond goes straight to bed after having swallowed a cup of tea and several aspirin tablets. Marcel and Erika make a good soup before joining him.

2nd day, Tuesday 8th February 1938

   10 am: they depart from the Requin hut. Raymond’s flu has gone, the weather is magnificent, not a single cloud. The glacier is in perfect condition, better than expected, so they easily overcome the Giant’s seracs and reach the foot of the Capucin du Tacul where they make a small stop to drink. Right above them, the Devils’ Needles are lightened by a strong sun. It is warm and they take off their jackets.   They leave their skis at the foot of the slopes coming down from the ‘Gros Rognon’ and a rucksack with some food (which they intent to take back on their way down) and put on their snowshoes. They want to reach La Fourche’s pass before night falls. The snow is hard, the way up easy; they cross the crevasses zone fairly easily. Rope in tension, Marcel goes first. A snow bridge breaks, and he falls down a crevasse! Lambert, solid as a rock, gets him back on solid ground like a bundle! They laugh like kids and Marcel over those few minutes learned that Miss Erika Stagni knows her way in the mountains and that Raymond is still the strong man he knows. Finally, after having overcome La Fourche’s rimaye, they are on the ridge and reach the small Borgna hut (3600 m) fully covered by snow. After getting the snow off the door which overhangs the void, they enter the hut. It is one of the smallest, only 3 mattresses with some blankets and cooking equipment! The weather is clear, the view magnificent and the night superb.

3rd day, Wednesday 9th February 1938 – 1rst bivouac

They wake up at 5 am and after breakfast prepare their feet against the frost: they put camphor cream on their feet, then mustard’s flour and newspaper between each inner shoe.

6 and a half am: They start on the ridge and reverse down quickly their way up, thanks to the steps they have cut the previous day. The day is perfect, the 5 Devils’ Needles, are silhouetted clearly against the sky: The Devil’s horn, the Chaubert, the Médiane, the Carmen, the Isolée and then the Mont-Blanc du Tacul.   They get down La Fourche’s rimaye; traverse the Maudite cwm, heading right towards the Devil’s gully. They get up its right side and reach the base of the Needles.   Up to then, the snow and rock conditions have been perfect; they did not need either to use their crampons or to cut steps. For Raymond the snow conditions are better than in summer! At 10 am they are at the Devil’s pass (3951 m). The air is fresh. Following an easy crest and ledges, they reach the ‘gap’ between the Devil’s horn and the Chaubert Needle. The sun is warming up and they rest a few minutes.

Climbing on one of the NeedleClimbing on one of the Needles

They avoid the Devil’s horn and start on the Chaubert Needle, without gloves. Lambert leads. At each belay, Marcel joins him first and then they both lift up the heavy rucksacks before Erika follows up. The climb is on dry and warm rock but the rucksacks hit each roughness of the rock and the snow shoes of one rucksack fall into space and down the gully. They reach the top of the Chaubert Needle at 2 pm. The weather is magnificent. They have now in front of them, the Médiane and Carmen Needles. Two 25 m long abseils get them to the gap (4017 m) at the foot of the Médiane, a splendid 80 meters vertical wall of French strenuous grade V.

Climbing l Isolée

The difficulty increases, but Raymond is fully fit again and his two companions climb well and fast.The sun has turned. They need their gloves now. Marcel takes the lead; the night is coming when they reach the top of the Médiane at 6 pm. They look for their planned bivouac site, 10 m below the summit. They have done ¾ of the route and most of the difficulties are behind them now. They clear the snow for their bivouac site against a wall. Everything seems fine, the view is magnificent, and they all feel in perfect condition. They sleep peacefully in their sleeping bags. Marcel opens one eye and sees the moon with its halo. He says nothing, goes back to sleep but with a little pinch in the heart.At midnight they are awakened by an unusual sound: their ‘kitchen’ is pushed away by a blast of wind. Within a few hours, the sky is covered in clouds and snow starts falling. On the third day of their climb, at 3 am they are trapped by the storm!

4th day, Thursday 10th February 1938 - 2nd bivouac

   Morning comes, the bad weather continues. 50 cm of snow have fallen on the rocks and themselves are covered with a layer of 20 cm, but thanks to their equipment, that night they did not feel the cold. Their night was nearly comfortable! At 7 am, they are ready to go. Their situation is serious. They consider 3 solutions:1. Retreat. This is not an alternative; climbing back the Chaubert Needle is impossible.2. Go down a gully in between the Médiane and the Chaubert Needles, but in winter the avalanche risks are far too great. They would be swept down like wisps of straw.3. The last and only solution: finish the traverse and reach at all costs the summit of Mont Blanc du Tacul where they know the way down is the easiest.

Manoeuvers between the Mediane and Carmen


Climbing the Carmen NeedleOn the Carmen

Raymond gets down to the snow cornices in the gap below the Carmen Needle and traverses to its foot. Its climb is only a mild French grade IV, but the rock is now white with the falling snow, icy in places, their ropes are frozen, their clothes wet, and they feel the cold. Marcel belays Raymond and Erika who joins Raymond.

2 hours to climb 30 meters!

At last, a belay, Erika can get up to Raymond. Marcel on the Médiane Needle facing the Carmen, still higher than Raymond and Erika, passes the rucksacks on a tight rope used as a Tyrolean. One arrives too fast, split open and its contents – their food – disappear in the abyss! This incident will have a dramatic impact for their future bivouacs.   When Marcel joins them, it is 12 am and the snow continues falling. They are surrounded by fog. Soon after, they reach the summit of the Carmen Needle. They can see now the last Needle, l’Isolée surrounded by grey clouds. 2 abseils and they are on the Isolée gap (4054 m), made of overhanging snow cornices. The void is masked by heavy clouds. From time to time they make up the Tacul ridge. They avoid the Isolée, crossing its foot to step onto the ridge covered with snow going to the summit of Mont Blanc du Tacul. The Needles are passed! But it snows continually, a thick pack of treacherous powdery snow. The first slope is steep and nothing to make a proper belay. On the Needles traverse, the wind could not get at them. This is not the case any longer. The whirlwind throws snow in their eyes, blinding them and it is now very cold. Overcoming this slope takes them a long time, but they believe that once up it, they will be at the summit and safe! But when they reach the ridge below the summit, the storm has become an awful hurricane. The cold is terrible and they have had no food since the previous night. They follow blindly a rocky ridge covered with ice. The strength of the storm is such that at one stage, Erika who is about 2 meters below the ridge in between Raymond and Marcel on a tight rope is lifted up and thrown on the other side of the ridge!3:30 pm. At last they are on the summit of the Mont Blanc du Tacul. They try to descend but the wind blasts throw them down on the snow! The visibility is now null, impossible to find one’s bearings, impossible to walk against the storm. The wind is so strong that they have to grip holds in order not to be swept away and they cannot breathe through their nose. Raymond fears that their lungs would freeze if they continue. To insist would mean certain death: Raymond decides to bivouac. They look in vain for a shelter. On the South side, they finally find a tiny ledge which will make a precarious shelter as the wind is not blowing so strongly. Raymond and Marcel do their best to improve the shelter in order to protect Erika. They secure her with ropes attached to the rock. She will be able to spend the night well protected from the wind and the snow. But the shelter is small and can only protect Erika. Raymond and Marcel will remain outside against the rock of the summit on a slanting slab facing the blast of the storm. The wind is freezing them; the snow infiltrates their sleeping bags. Their night is terrible. Their ordeal has started in the worst way that night. 

Bivouac summit of Mont Blanc du TaculThe 2nd bivouac in the storm below the summit

5th day, Friday 11th February 1938 – 3rd bivouac

   At around 8 am, they take off. The visibility is not good but they must go, temperature has fallen down to -40°C. They decide to get down to the Maudit pass following a ridge which should give them some protection from the wind. Erika is uplifted by a wind blast and slips down, but manages to stop herself. They are all roped, Raymond is leading. They must remove constantly the ice from their eyelids as it totally blinds them within seconds. They go further down the ridge hoping to get to a zone where the storm would relent. As soon as they arrive at the altitude of the Maudit pass, they are swallowed by the storm. The wind and the snow blind them. They have left only 5 meters of rope between them, but even so, they cannot see each other and each of them feel as if it were totally alone in this freezing whiteness. At one stage, Marcel reaches Raymond and is frightened by the sight of his totally white frozen face:  

- Raymond, we cannot get down further! We must find a shelter, if not we are lost!  

They have reached the Maudit pass (4051 m) and are going towards a slope that appears steep; by luck Raymond discovers a small crevasse where they will spend their last two bivouacs. The hole is 2 to 3 meters long and at its end they discover a sort of a cavity. They start enlarging their shelter until they have enough room for the three of them and then close the entrance with blocks of hard snow and ice. Outside the temperature is -40° C, but inside not much below 0° C. However the crevasse is watery so everything becomes wet quickly. Their first action will be to take care of their feet by rubbing each other. Marcel’s left foot is already frozen. Raymond feels that both his feet are frostbitten and also some of his fingers which occurred when climbing the Carmen Needle. Erika, thanks to an excellent blood circulation is still OK. They are hungry and thirsty as they have had nothing for the last two days. Looking in their rucksacks, they discover only some bits of chocolate, three dried fruits, a Maggi soup bag and aspirin tablets. Nothing else! They will try in vain to light a fire. Everything is far too wet. They cut in small pieces the wood of an ice axe but even the small pieces remain frozen solid. Their last match manages to light the paper they had laid down: a small fire starts but before the ice put on it melts properly, it goes off. They still mix the Maggi soup tablet with the snow and swallow it. They then cut each dried fruit in three and chew them slowly. Erika gives hers. In their shelter, the darkness is complete; they use their rucksacks to obturate the entry. Night comes. The wind is still so strong that snow enters the crevasse, sliding over their bodies. They finally manage to block the entry with a pair of snow shoes. While Raymond and Marcel discuss the possibilities of being rescued, Erika promises that if they all get out alive, she will take charge of all the expenses for treating her companions’ frostbites. She goes further in stating that she will buy a place where all three would live together and ask them to kiss a religious medal that she wears around her neck as if to sanctify this oath. Latter Raymond will name their shelter: ‘the hotel of slow death’!

6th day, Saturday 12th February 1938 – 4th bivouac

   When they wake up, trapped inside the crevasse, they think that the storm has relented, but when Marcel pierces a hole in the wall with his ice axe, they realize that the storm is still raging.   They are thirsty and hungry. To eat, they will have only the aspirin tablets left and to drink, ice cut with an ice axe but it burns their throats. They have climbing sandals from which Raymond and Marcel take off the leather and cut it in small pieces to chew. When Erika sees Marcel with his knife she screams:

You are not going to kill me and eat me, are you?  

Marcel laughs.   

- We are not there yet!  

Marcel and Raymond are convinced that a rescue party must have started looking for them. But will they find them? Usually storms last 3 days and then relent. Two days have gone, so maybe tomorrow the storm will cease? They cannot but wait. Raymond is overwhelmed by his responsibility. Marcel encourages him:  

- You’ll see! The weather will improve! We must hold!  

Their thirst is atrocious. They will end up drinking their own urine, using a cigarette box! The thirst and the need to absorb something warm are stronger than their repulsion. Erika tells them that her mother will do everything to have her rescued, so they must hope. The wind blows unrelenting, the ice cracks and they do not even know where exactly they are… Night comes. They friction each other to make sure that none will fall asleep to avoid numbness. This will be their 3rd night without sleep.

7th day, Sunday 13th 1938 – 5th bivouac

   When day comes, they do not hear the usual storm noises. It is 8 am. Marcel pierces a great hole, letting in the still strong wind, but he sees… the sun! He shouts: 

- We are saved!

His companions see also a sun ray getting through the clouds and penetrating the hole dug by Marcel. Hastily they decide to go down, but first they must dig their way out of the crevasse with much effort. Once outside, they recognize their position, near the Maudit pass facing the Mont Maudit. The altitude is 4051 m. The cold is so intense and the wind so strong that they have to go back to the shelter of the crevasse which they have seen now to be on the edge of an 1300 m drop! After a long wait, they are ready to go again and leave most of their unnecessary equipment in the crevasse. They cannot go far. They advance slowly like drunken men and suddenly they are facing a thick mist… impassable! Raymond realizes that with his two companions going so slowly, they do not stand a chance. They go back again to their shelter. They start enlarging it to be able to stand. In doing so, part of the ceiling falls down! A disaster as it lets an intense cold in. They try to fill it in vain. They throw many of their unnecessary equipment outside in the faint hope that rescuers may see them. But in their crevasse, they have lost hope, they are now certain to be lost! A last minute chance would be if one of them could reach one of the rescue parties which must be looking for them. A descent at three would be too long and too complex and they do not want to leave Erika alone. So it falls on Raymond, the guide, and by far still the strongest, to go. It is his duty. Finding at all costs the rescue party, tell them where his companions are, even if he loses his life in doing so. Marcel embraces him convinced that he will not see him anymore and Raymond goes. Meanwhile, Marcel and Erika start a long wait. Twice they will try to go down but in vain, the clouds are much too thick. Their last attempt leaves them without any strength. Marcel never stops rubbing Erika lying in her sleeping bag. Slowly they enter into nothingness. Marcel is certain of his death, still he encourages Erika.

- Has Raymond succeeded?

Although he is convinced of the contrary, he tells her that he is certain that he did succeed.

- Do you believe my feet to be frozen?

- No, not at all! You just don’t feel them!

- You are not going to leave me, are you!

- No way.

Erika will ask Marcel to pray with her. Erika is obsessed by her feet which Marcel continues to rub.

- I prefer to die than to have my feet frozen!

Marcel reacts strongly each time to boost up her morale and Erika promises that if they survive, she will take care of Marcel and his young wife as well. Night comes, their 5th bivouac starts. All their clothes, sleeping bags are wet. All night long Marcel will go on rubbing Erika who has delirious bouts about her feet. From a friend and climbing partner from the Androsace (the climbers club of Geneva) I was told that Marcel took off one of his jumpers and put it around Erika's feet as a further protection against the cold. All that time since Raymond’s departure, no one took care of Marcel’s feet. He had nothing dry to protect them, particularly his left foot heel which he was putting down bare on the ice ground in order to be in a proper position to rub Erika’s feet. Their thirst is atrocious and even Marcel starts to have delirious bouts.

The crevasseInside the crevasse - Marcel Gallay's drawing


The Crevasse - Drawing Marcel Gallay


Raymond Lambert’s descent

   Raymond will show his best qualities as a mountaineer in this descent, finding his way down despite the fog. Tired, frozen, tortured by the lack of food and sleep, he has only one fixed idea: get down at all costs and find the rescue party. He has left his two companions whose lives fully depend on him.

He must succeed!

   Having to go back up several times, crossing for a second time many crevasses. In one bright interval, he sees the Chamonix valley in the sun! Two hours after he is back at his high point, a few meters from his companions’ shelter: 3 hours lost because of the heavy fog! He could let them know that he is back, but he thinks that it would have a disastrous impact on their morale and he goes back down again.

    Finally he finds the normal route and 7 hours after his first departure, he overcomes the rimaye and reaches the Midi pass, continuing to the Gros Rognon pass on the way down to the Requin hut. His tracks are those of a drunkard! He walks now in snow deep to his knees; his feet have no more feeling. He could stop and his ordeal would end, but no, his companions count on him, he must go down, always go down, get to the Requin hut and the rescue party.

    Walking in the direction where they had left their skis, he sees one of the rescue parties which had come up from Geneva. Skiers! He shouts, but they do not hear him and continue going down. He gesticulates and shouts as loud as he can. At last, the skier leading them points his arm towards him; they turn around and come towards him. The rescuers had decided to abandon their search. Loulou Boulaz, René Dittert, René Aubert, Muller, Robert Gréloz, Bader and Bonnant: His dear friends from Geneva ! They give him some cognac that burns his inside. They had looked for them in vain and were going down to the Requin hut. Raymond tells them where the crevasse in which his companions are and skis down to the Requin hut helped by them. It is too late now and they are very tired, so they decide to pass the rescue burden of his two companions to another party. When Raymond reaches at last the Requin hut, he faints. He will wake up the following day with much pain. His friends will take care of him all night when he was unconscious most of the time, waking him up to make him drink warm soup and tea. But he still thinks of his companions, his mind tortured with the idea that one more night up the crevasse would become their ice grave. 

   At around 9 pm, 3 guides from Chamonix arrive: Paul Demarchi, Arthur Franchino and Michel Payot. They were going to explore Mont Malet area when they crossed the path of Loulou Boulaz and Robert Gréloz who told them to go to the Requin hut. Raymond tells them where his companions are. They will ask him the same question many times as they believe he is delirious, so they want to be certain! He tells them that they must reach them before daylight, if not they may believe that he has failed and attempt to come down by themselves which would mean their certain death!

   They leave at 11:30 pm. At the Requin the temperature is -31°C, on the Mont Blanc du Tacul, it must be -40°C. They will reach the crevasse at 6:30 am getting up in snow deep to their bellies from the Midi pass onwards. Raymond' own tracks have already been covered by fresh snow. They had been warned of the terrible cold by Raymond, but that did not stop them.

    Then, 20 more friends from Geneva and guides from Chamonix guides arrive with Armand Charlet at their head and the personal doctor of Mrs. Amstutz sent to take care of Erika. He will attend Raymond’s frostbites. They will all leave in the morning, to take over the first rescue party of three, gone with orders to get Erika down and take care of Marcel Gallay...

8th day, Monday 14th February 1938

   6:30 am: Marcel and Erika hear noises, then voices… One, two, three heads pops in the crevasse’s opening. The Chamonix guides, Payot, Demarchi and Franchino have found them!   Their first action is to give them a one litter bottle of rum which they sipped down within seconds, drunk as water! Then they give them some dry clothes and blankets.Their orders are to rescue Erika first, so they start down with her. She leaves without even a look at Marcel who stays alone with some sugar lumps, some dry prunes and what is left of the rum. The Chamonix guides tell Marcel that at most he will have to wait 2 to 3 more hours before a second rescue party comes up to take care of him.   At noon, nothing yet! He shouts and shouts; and finally after having waited 6 hours, the Chamonix guide Jérome Bozon appears and Marcel gets out himself of the crevasse to the guides’ astonishment. Armand Charlet is there also with Luc Couttet, Walter Marcuard and Francis Marullaz, the last two being Marcel’s friends from Geneva. An avalanche had covered the previous party’s tracks and made them lose much time. They cut Marcel wet pants, tie him in blankets as a bundle and start the 3000 m descent.    One of his friends tells him:   - Lucky we did not listen to the party taking down Miss Stagni! They had told us: ‘don’t get up! It’s useless! Gallay is done for!’   Three hours will be necessary to reach the Midi pass (3544 m) where another rescue party is waiting. Marcel will learn that the first rescuers who took care of Erika came directly to their crevasse while the party which reached him had looked a long time for him and may not have found him if he had not shouted!Some other friends of his from Geneva are there. They tie Marcel on skis; and the descent continues until they arrive at night at the Requin hut. Raymond had refused to be taken down before he was sure that Marcel had been rescued and was safe. Then 5 friends will take him down on a sledge to the Tines, before being taken by ambulance to the clinic ‘La colline’ in Geneva where he will be joined by Erika Stagni, the Chamonix guides, Paul Demarchi, Arthur Franchino, Jérome Bozon, Michel Payot and his friend from Geneva, Francis Marullaz and then the following day, Marcel Gallay. As Raymond will write:

The hotel of slow death could not keep its preys!'

The 1rst winter ascent of the Devil’s Needles had ended.

The aftermath

   Erika Stagni will leave the Clinic of her family’s doctor after three weeks totally unscathed, thanks to Raymond, but most of all thanks to Marcel’s constant attention during their last two bivouacs. She will go on climbing all her life, particularly with Robert Wohlschlag, (nicknamed Pellebrosse, because of his thick torso red hair i.e. as hard as a brush!) a powerful climber from Geneva who will marry her. Amongst a number of top routes and first rock ascents, Erika did with him the 1rst feminine ascent of the Brandler-Hasse in 1964. She was certainly one of the best lady climbers of the 1940-1960 era (and the richest, lucky Pellebrosse!). Several Chamonix guides who had suffered from frostbites were treated at the same Swiss clinic in Geneva, expenses covered by Mrs. Amstutz. Paul Demarchi and Michel Bozon had all their right foot toes amputated and Paul, 2 more from the left. Paul was so badly frostbitten that they had to get him down on a sledge at the Requin hut. A third Chamonix guide lost one phalanx on each toe of his right foot and 2 others suffered from 2nd degree frostbite and had to stay in hospital for 26 days. Raymond will lose all his toes, three phalanxes of his right hand and one of his left. But that will not prevent him to become the most famous Swiss guide of his time. ‘I am now equipped with the hooves of a chamois,’ he said when he wore his brand new pair of shoes the size of a 12 years old kid specially made for him! As a guide, he was very much like Gaston Rebuffat in taking clients up very hard routes, but as a climber (and as a character), he was much more like Lionel Terray, powerful, daring and very friendly. A unique combination! 

The 1952 Everest Attempts with Tenzing and Raymond's letter to Tenzing 

   Aside the fact that Raymond and his friends from the Androsace performed incredibly well during the spring 1952 attempt on Everest, considering they climbed without oxygen (the apparatus they had could only be used at rest and was only used by Raymond and Tenzing above the South Col) did climb the 1000 m of the Geneva spur in one go and with loads as the Sherpas, their friendship with the Sherpas and particularly Raymond with Tenzing was unique at the time but typical of "the best mountaineering spirit". After the 1952 attempts, Tenzing did not want to join John Hunt's expedition, but wanted to wait for the Swiss to return. Miss Handerson, the British expedition's contact in Darjeeling tried to convince Tenzing to no avail, so she wrote to Raymond Lambert asking for his help. Raymond wrote the following magnificent letter to his pal Tenzing:

   " Hop Tenzing, ça va bien (are things well with you)?" 

   My life resumed to normal in my quiet Switzerland, far from Everest where we have lived those intense moments. No day goes by since I think again at the time when we turned around, while our finger was touching the summit. But at least we are there to tell about it.

   Miss Henderson told me of your hesitation about returning to Everest with the British. You would be too tired, you would not want to go back without us.You, Tenzing, tired? I find it hard to believe it… In case, here is a jar of Ovomaltine to perk you up. As far as us are concerned… After the English, it is the French who got the permit, whatever happens. For me, the summit of the world will remain forever a dream. But for you everything is still possible: your quest has not ended. The mountain that no bird can fly over is waiting for you. And if you get to the top, my friend, a part of me will also be on the summit. So, we will not have given, risked everything in vain.

   I add my scarf. It accompanied me on all my summits. I will never bring it to the summit of the world. But you can do it for me. I beg you! I will await impatiently the moment you will bring it back to me this summit scarf.

   Your true friend

   Raymond Lambert”

   After receiving this letter Tenzing went to see Miss Handerson and told her that he accepted to join John's team. On their return, after their success, John Hunt's expedition made a stop at Zurich where the whole Swiss team, Raymond Lambert at their head celebrated them with champagne and Tenzing gave back to Raymond the scarf he had taken with him on top of the world! 

   He will come back several times to Switzerland, each time living with Raymond, his dearest friend, who trained him for his new job of head director of the Sherpas mountain school for guiding in Darjeeling. 

    This comradship between Tenzing and the Swiss has never been truly understood by the British who considered for a long time even after the 1953 expedition the Sherpas as natives while for the Swiss - particularly from the Androsace (Geneva's climbing club from where all the Swiss 1952 Everest spring team members came from) - considered that Tenzing was like them, a mountain man and their equal. This comradship between Tenzing and the Swiss was also true with the French and prior to it (Tenzing went with the French Lyon expedition to Nanda Devi in 1951, during which Gilbert Vignes and Roger Duplat disappeared. Tenzing said to Roger Duplat, the expedition leader: "I had never met sahibs like you". With Louis Dubost, Tenzing climbed the Nanda Devi East searching for the disappeared alpinists. The conditions were so difficult that he said: "One asks me which is the most difficult and dangerous ascent I ever done and one expects me to say Everest, but no, it is the Nanda Devi East"  (James Ramsey Ullman – Man ofEverest - World Books). (NDT)


   After the two Swiss expeditions in 1952 to Everest, he will make an unsuccessful attempt in 1954 on Gaurishankar and then on Cho Oyu with Claude Kogan, another great lady.    I cannot but recall the following anecdote on this Cho Oyu expedition so typical it was of Raymond’s mountaineering spirit:    When they arrive on site, they find that a small Austrian expedition of three is already there and has made a 1rst unsuccessful attempt. Exhausted, they must rest before making a second attempt. Raymond’s companions want to go ahead after the Austrian refused a joint attempt. Raymond tells his companions:     -‘We will not! In the mountains there is a law, an unwritten moral code that do not allow competition to take over even between rival parties and even if those are from different nations! And there is also a principle of anteriority!’     They insist but Raymond not only does not bulge but with the backup of Claude Kogan decides that they will let the Austrian team have 2 attempts before making their own. The Austrians will succeed but by then, the weather had worsened. Raymond and Claude Kogan will reach 7730 m before turning down for good.   In 1955 he will finally meet success with the 1rst ascent of Ganesh Himal (7429 m) again with Claude Kogan and Eric Gauchat. In 1957 he will climb in the Andes again with his best clients and in 1959 he will make the 1rst ascent of Distaghil Sar (7885 m) in Pakistan. After more than 30 years of mountaineering, the ‘Yeti’ as his friends used to call him will start a new career to become a renowned mountain pilot, trained by the best Swiss mountain pilots of the time, Herman Geiger and Fernand Martignoni. He will head the Air-Léman charter Air Company created in 1960 and then SATA in 1966 which took it over up until 1978 when SATA itself was taken over by Swissair. Raymond will continue to pilot mountain planes on glaciers with Air Glaciers (particularly the famous Pilatus-Porter and in his last years as a pilot, helicopters which had become the Must for mountain rescues) for another 8 years up until 72, before retiring. Quite a full life of a great man and mountaineer who only had but friends everywhere! No surprise that Tenzing stated that Raymond was his best friend! Raymond only spoke 3 words of English and Tenzing knew by heart the sentence he learned from Raymond: ‘Ça va bien?’ but on Everest they understood each other perfectly. And anyway, to climb well with a partner the less you talk the better!   In his tale of their ascent, published in the Swiss Alpine Club journal, Raymond ends up stating:    ‘I have the feeling to have done my duty despite everything and I am happy that Miss Stagni has been brought back safe and sound to her family. Time, this great healer will help us forget those painful hours, but down to our heart, we think: LONG LIVE MOUNTAINEERING!’

Raymond Lambert or the very essence of the mountaineer!

Marcel Gallay Aftermath

   For Marcel, the ordeal was to be the longest and the most damaging with many subsequent stays in hospital over several years. Erika’s promises of help, particularly to cover all expenses for attending his frostbites will be dismissed by Erika’s mother, on the ground that Marcel should have had an insurance policy! I guess her doctor must have warned her that Marcel would require years of treatment and private medecine in Switzerland was very costly (and still is). So finally, Marcel was moved from the private clinic to a public hospital in Geneva where he was well taken care of, but in those days frostbites treatment was quite crude, particularly when the damage was so deep as with Marcel's. His toes and heel of his left foot were so badly frozen that he will have to be amputated and unfortunately he will never be able to climb again. His misery was accentuated by the feeling to have been let down and abandoned by Erika but in fact by her mother who was the only one able to dispose of the family's fortune. Marcel was the one who paid the heaviest price for his courage and the constant attention he showed to Erika which certainly explains why Erika got out unscathed. However, he will still be able to live a normal life. Marcel also expressed his gratitude to his rescuers:

"I am indebted to the guides and my friends, who risked their lives to rescue me and I express once again all my gratitude.' But he added: 'They, at least, did not 'bargain' their dedication. What I have never understood, is the cruelty of the fate which since the arrival of the 1rst rescuers separated me from my companions, always keeping me apart, with no aid or encouragement, even from my partner Erika who, as far as she is concerned, got out unscathed from this adventure.'

Marcel Gallay showed unequalled gallantry but was morally as badly injured as physically due to the attitude of Erika's mother.

A question arises:

   Considering the extremely severe weather conditions how could the Chamonix guides agree to organize a rescue party? All their past and future history shows that in such horrendous conditions and with so many hazards, they always refused to risk their lives in a rescue, particularly in winter. Why in this case did they show so much bravery and such unique mountaineering spirit? In my opinion, the answer is threefold:

1. Mrs. Amstutz promised a double day pay to all the guides accepting to rescue her daughter.

2. Armand Charlet. He was at the time the leading Chamonix guide and his word and morale ascendance on his Chamonix guides company fellow members were paramount. The Devil’s Needles were ‘his’ domain and Armand had great panache. He certainly was the strong force in persuading his guides’ colleagues to go for this rescue. The money offered was certainly not enough, as shown in almost all other cases, in which it was proposed to no avail.

3. Raymond and Marcel had many good climbing friends in Geneva and the Valais. Those friends shared very gallantly the burden of the rescue with the Chamonix guides. They all showed real boldness and true mountaineering spirit unscathed by the premium offered to the guides by Mrs. Amstutz.

All his life, Raymond will feel deeply indebted to all the rescuers, the Chamonix guides and his friends from Geneva and as he wrote:

"I cannot find strong enough words to express my gratitude!"


Marcel Gallay – Une tragique aventure au Mont-Blanc – coopérative d’Imprimerie Genève – 1940

Raymond Lambert – Tale of the 1rst winter ascent of the Traverse of the Devil’s Needles published in the 1939 CAS annual journal.

Raymond Lambert – ‘A l’assaut des ‘quatre mille’ – Jeheber editions – 1953.


Mont Blanc du Tacul on summitpostMrs O'Brien-UnderhillRobert Underhill, the Sierra Club and the 1rst ascent of the East face of Mount Whitney in 1931Air Glaciers with whom Raymond flew Pilatus porter and helicopter in many mountain rescuesAt Lukla

Skylinners long version between the Chaubert and the Mediane'Skyliners' the short version between the Chaubert and the MedianeVideo on TVmountain les Aiguilles du Diable

Photos - Overall views

Photos - Climbing on the Needles

Photos of Raymond


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markhallam - Jan 12, 2013 2:10 am - Voted 10/10

Bravo Eric!

Another fascinating bit of history - incredible that any of them survived - and what an extraordinary rescue. Interesting that the 3 of them were using aspirin tablets as 'food' - lucky they didn't all end up with stomach ulcers... but on the positive side, maybe the aspirin limited the damage from their frostbites - it is now recognised treatment, although they wouldn't have known that in 1938.
Best wishes, Mark


ericvola - Jan 14, 2013 2:23 am - Hasn't voted

A fascinating bit of history

When a very young climber I was told the story, far from as clearly as you have read. I became admirative that a lady, Erika, could have got out unscathed while Raymond and Marcel suffered so deep frostbites. I became convinced that women could resist to cold and suffering in difficult conditions better than most men and I was climbing with a living example proving it: Denise Escande, who like Loulou Boulaz, was no more than 1,55 in height but tougher than nails. Even in the tales of Marcel and Raymond, they both kept very quiet about the way they took so great care of Erika and it is thanks to friends of the Androsace club that I found out how much they did to save Erika from a similar fate as theirs. Not only Raymond and Marcel were very brave men but they were very modest also. Raymond particularly as my master es-climbing, George Livanos, would have said, became a 'master', unlike politicians, without treading on the toes or kicking the teeth of anyone, but in always staying himself, looking for happiness in this world, for himself and for others.

And another little anecdote: with some of my young climbing friends we very much admired 'Pelle-Brosse' (Robert Wohlschlag) a very powerful climber, when he married the nice looking, very good climber and very rich, Erika! From then on, they both would go on climbing all the year round; 'Pelle-Brosse' was very happy as he did not need to work any longer. Unfortunately for us, we could not find an equivalent of Erika! The last time I met them was in 1980, while climbing in Spain on the Peñón de Ifach with Denise Escande, Lothar Mauch and Simone Badier. They were around 65 and still enjoying climbing, though not at the same level.



sharperblue - Jan 14, 2013 1:02 pm - Voted 10/10

superb photos too!

great read; thanks for posting this, and also amazing that they all survived - not very often the case when things go wrong on that mountain. The photos are just wonderful and really set the scene of the adventure


desainme - Jan 19, 2013 10:11 am - Voted 10/10

First ascent by

Americans Robert Underhill and Miriam O'Brien(Underhill) with Armand Charlet & George Cachat, Underhill remembered for Mt. Whitney east face and ridges on the Grand Teton.


ericvola - Jan 19, 2013 12:40 pm - Hasn't voted

Mrs O'Brien and Robert Underhill

Americans of course! And superb climbers and characters. Thanks for correcting me. I rectified my text accordingly and added 2 links: one for Mrs O'Brien and one for Robert Underhill and his 1rst ascent of the East face of Mount Whitney.


Ejnar Fjerdingstad

Ejnar Fjerdingstad - Jan 26, 2013 8:39 am - Hasn't voted


that all three of them survived this ordeal, but sad that Marcel Gallay was let down in such a way by Erika Stagni (or her mother), especially since he probably was the one who saved her from having any amputations.

One of the most surprising facts about this is that the two of them who were able to do so continued climbing as long as they could in their later life. That says something about their character and determination. Still, reading this I feel quite satisfied that I never did try winter mountaineering myself!


ericvola - Jan 26, 2013 1:28 pm - Hasn't voted


Thanks for your comment. Note that T should have made clearer that the led down of Marcel Gallay was by Erika's mother, not Erika. Private clinics in Geneva were and still are very experience. Mrs Amstutz was an extremely forceful lady, she had the money and Erika had no say about it. However, Marcel was mainly led down morally as the public hospital he went to applied the same treatment to him that the doctor in the clinic he was initially in. But in those years, frostbite treatment was nothing like it is today, and the damage he suffered on his left foot and toe far too great. Marcel did publish photos of his frostbites over several months but they are so awful that I decided to spare summitpost readers in forgetting them.



Redwic - Jan 27, 2013 8:51 pm - Hasn't voted

Great Article!

Thank you for sharing this on SummitPost.
I really enjoyed reading it. I found it to be very interesting.

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