Henry Russell-Killough, of his full name, (1834-1909) was the most famous explorator of the Pyrenees of all times, pioneer who acheived the biggest number of first ascents of major peaks.
Many events occured this year to celebrate the centenary of his death, including the publication of a biography by its great grand-niece, and the realisation of a film (see in the end).
Since most SP readers are english readers, I thought that the story of this uncommon Irishman would be a great topic, and bring my modest touch to contribute to this centenary.
Who was Henry Russell ?
Henry Russell was born in Toulouse, from an irish father escaping the catholic repression, and a french mother, both from quite fortunated noble famillies. The french side of his familly was heir of Paul Riquet, realisator of the Canal du Midi, and the incomes from its use was a not neglectible part of their fortune. His education was quite strict, with a strong religious background, but paradoxally, this gave him a strong aversion for any kind of discipline.
Also, from the youngest age, his mother took him with his brothers to exhausting excursions in small moutains. Which, combined with the strong morphology he already had, made him a sort of hiking ironman, and enhanced his taste for freedom and curiosity.
Russell was quite tall, with long legs, and his fellows often said "where we need to make three steps, Henry only needs to make two". He was also famous for his insatiable apetit.
Ireland, Russell's second homeland
Biarritz, where Russell enjoyed going
Henry Russell spent his youth studying in various places: Paris, Pau, Ireland and UK, where he mostly spent his time going to bals and prestigious receptions; he kept from it a reputation of a very distinguished, charismatic and sophicticated gentleman, which is a bit of a paradox if we put it together with his taste for wilderness.
He also inherited from his education very good writting skills, an excellent wording style, and a taste for making stories.
The biggest problem of Henry was that appart from his chemistery studies, he didn't learn much, and was never really ready to start a career. He kept a big regret about it against his father, despite he loved him as a familly member.
But, this became even worse, when he felt in love with a girl, Maud, from a protestant familly, with who he was never allowed to get married, again for religious reasons.
From the moment his sentimental life was wasted, Russell decided to flood it into another passion, travels and mountains. For all the rest, politics, religions, he spoke about it with bitterness and derision for the rest of his life.
There were many fortunated persons of the same kind than Henry Russell, during this period of the history; many young people from the middle class used to spend their fortunes without working, in bals, thermalism, casinos, and other chic things.
Russell did never work during all his life too, and humbly recognized it. But what differenciates him is that he put all of his ease in the service of a very strong and demanding passion, the exploration of the mountains, something he described as "useful", until the very end of his life.
He left behind him some of the most valuable documents about the exploration of the Pyrenees, with an unique accurate and entertaining style.
His most famous book, "Souvenirs of a Mountaineer", is probably the best book of this kind and from this period, for nowaday's common readers with a basic geographical knowledge of the Pyrenees.
Another of his books, "16000 leagues through Asia and Oceania", is a masterpiece, and according to many historians, inspired Jules Vernes (who knew each other), for the characters in "Michel Stogoff" and "Around the World in 80 Days".
The life of Henry Russell can be divided into three main parts.
1/3 : The traveller
Portrait of Russell
When Russell became independant enough, his first project was to escape and travel as much as possible. His first travel was as a deck-hand on a boat travelling to South America. Later, he'll write "My first mountain was a boat-mast !". He didn't see much of the continent, except few stops in harbours in Brasil, Argentina and Chili, until Lima, where he was fired by the captain (he eventually returned to London in another boat). Russell was definitely not made for any kind of discipline ! Despite he didn't touch them, he saw in many occasion the Andsm mysterious range. Another place he will remember more than all during this trip was the Cape Horn, to which he will later compare many mountains.
Few months later, he planned with an irish friend another visit of North America, the second part of the new world. He visited Quebec first, and travelled down south the US to go until Louisiana and Cuba. He visited on the way few places like the Niagara Falls (which he didn't like... already too touristic !), and met some Indians, whith who he immediately sympathised, far from watching them as animals (like most tourists did at this time), but supporting their cause and feeling sorry for them. Another of his observations was the sharp cultural contrast between people's mentality on each shore of the Saint Laurent: he didn't like the Americans and their insolent entrepreneurship. But, when reaching Louisiana, again, he appreciated a lot the inhabitants and customs. Once more, he denounced slavery, but on the other hand stated that most of them were better treated than some domestics in Europe.
After spending some time in Paris, and another failure in his project to marry Maud, he decided in 1959 to set off for his longest trip ever, across Asia and Oceania (from which he wrote his book). He travelled along with the courier of the ambassador of Russia, who quickly appreciated his company and took him everywhere as a friend. In Russia, Russell renamed himself Russelloff to avoid troubles. They travelled further on into Siberia, crossing deserts, including the one of Gobi. He analyzed the conqueror spirit of the Cossacks, and compared them to the Americans : "The fate of the 20th century will be in the hands of these two civilisations of conquerors".
Later on, he entered illegally China, which he visited until Pekin, where he was recognized; eventually he had to return back to Siberia to avoid a diplomatic incident. But he saw a lot of this country, and kept from it a taste for oriental culture, which will be one of his main sources of inspiration in his eccentricity many years later, and sophistication with which he will receive people, for example in the caves of the Vigmemale. He will also analyse China, at this time ruined and colonized, as an ever-growing country, with which tomorrow's world will always have to count with. Clever statements for those times !
New Zealand's mountains
The rest of his trip took him to Japan, which will also inspire him refinement, and sail to Australia. He will refuse to take part in an expedition led by few Irish men to cross the continent, judging them badly prepared (he was right, they eventually all died !). But this was only a step to the country he was looking forward to visit: New Zealand. During those times, the North Island, commonly choosen for visits, was in the war, so he chose the "unusual" South island, with mountains. He will travel alone into the ranges, in one occasion even sleep in a Maori village and sympathising (again !) with them. He discovered many regions and peaks, including the Kaïkouras which he fails to climb, and save his life after 4 days wandering without goods. Nowadays, contemporary historians of New-Zealand's alpinism consider him as one figure.
He returned to Europe and UK via India, in which he saw the Himalayas, where, again, he planned to climb some little peaks, but had to resign after being severely ill.
His first sight when returning to Europe was the Pyrenees, from the sea, as the boat arrived. It was 1861, he spent two years
"These quiet Pyrenees are made to be my mountains !" he declared.
Eventually, Russell made in some occasions few excursions in the Alps. When he was asked why he always returned to the Pyrenees, while the Alps where higher and wider, he used to reply flatly : "The Alps are simply scary. The Pyrenees are more friendly".
2/3 : The pyreneist
Russell with Haurine, Meys, and Beraldi
The Brèche de Roland
Russell in the mountains
Indeed, Russell's Pyreneist career started slightly earlier than his return. Before the trip to Asia and Oceania, in 1858, he (already !) became the first man to climb the Néouvielle peak and the Ardiden.
And, above all, three times the Mont Perdu, in the footprints of Ramond de Carbonnières, having read his writtings, very popular during those times.
He was twice successful, but only the last attempt allowed good views.
We will remember above all the second attempt which failed: Henry went alone, which was quite unusual (climbers usually always rented local guides). But, he had to turn back to the Brèche de Roland in the evening, running to escape a coming storm. Too late, he was caught in it and spent heroicly a whole night at the Brèche de Roland under falling snow, running around the place not to die of cold. When he walked down to Gavarnie the next morning, exhausted, he was supposed dead by the inhabitants, and his apparition was about as miraculous as the Virgin who also recently appeared not far from here, in Lourdes !
This misadventure will inspire Henry Russell, who will promote during the rest of his life the idea of featuring mountains with touristic shelters, to avoid such dangers.
The result of this, many years later, will be the Shelter of the Mont Perdu, and of course, the forthcoming caves of the Vigmemale. And many others, including a cave at the Brèche de Roland, as a matter of facts...
For the next ten years, Henry Russell will realize an incredible amount of first ascents in the Pyrenees. Often with local guides, with who he always makes very strong acquaintance, full of mutual respect, or also alone, he goes to many major peaks of the Central Pyrenees, mostly between the Pic d'Anie and the Encantats.
The list of these thirty first ascents is detailled in the chapter below. But he also realized a very big number of second, third, or early ascents of many other peaks.
Mont Perdu, 1910
One of the most famous "disillusionment" of not climbing first a mountain was on the Balaïtous, Pyrenees's westernmost three-thousander, on the top of which, during the year of 1825, the two geodesic officers Peytier and Hossard have been camping to make measurements. They had to escape a storm just at the end of their duty. Fifty years later, as Russell climbed it, expecting to walk a virgin mountain after terrifying scrambles, he found... broken wooden remains of tents !
Also, while attempting the Soum de Ramond with some other english "friends" whose company he gradually disliked during the first day for the approach, he was betrayed by them as they woke up deliberately earlier in the Monte Perdido shelter to "steal him the première". Russell was furious.
On the other hand, Russell was far to be an egoistic person and was sharing his experiences with passion with other pioneers.
In 1864, he pointed out that a french structure similar to the famous British Alpine Club was strongly missing in France. On August 1864, at the hostel in Gavarnie, he founds with Maxwell Lyte, Charles Packe and Emilien Frossard the first french mountaineering society : the "Ramond society". Russell wanted to name it after the "Isards", wild emblematic mountain goat, but the choice of honouring Ramond was voted.
Russell's shelter at the Monte Perdido
Not only the "Ramond society" is the ancestor of the Club Alpin Français, but the already mentionned shelters whose construction he ordered in the pyrenees where the very first official touristic "mountain huts" in France !
Russell's sleeping bag
Russell was not only the inventor of the mountain huts, he invented (or, popularized, as it was used by some sherperds), the mountain-sleeping bag.
For few remote excursions, mountaineers often had to sleep on the way. In addition, Russell had a taste for spending nights on the summit of mountains. In these occasions, he often carried with himself a heavy bag made of the skin of six sheep. He praised the use of this item in many of his reports, and popularized it.
Russell often travelled in risky terrain, not only speaking about technical difficulties. Mountains were not always safe, especially near the border, where people of all sorts were wandering around. In few occasions, the french-spannish relations were not at the best, and he got arrested several times by zealous border guards, but eventually always released.
Some other times, he just didnt't bother stopping and outwitted them, thanks to his quick pace and endurance !
Meeting poachers was also quite common. Russell was not scared of them, and on the contrary often sympathised with them, trying to get some knowledge of access to some mountainside. But, some other times, it was safer to have a weapon just to avoid being robbed.
The biggest scare of his life happened on the Cotiella, when during the way down, he and his friends where ambushed at night by a full troop of armed robbers. He managed to run away but not his friends; fortunately, their fate was spared as they didn't have costy items on them. Eventually, when returned to the valley, the police took note of it and soon arrested the outlaws.
In 1869, with Hippolyte and Henri Passet, he realized the winter ascent of the Vignemale, which was his third ascent on this summit. This was a genuine performance, and the very first winter ascent of a big mountain in Europe.
But usually, Henry Russell spent the rest of the time of the year, especially during the winter, in Pau, living on his personal fortune and enjoying the entertainments of the mondain life in the high society, going to bals and concerts.
3/3 : The Vignemale
The Vignemale, last mentionned in the previous chapter, quickly became his favourite mountain. Even before climbing it, he often noticed the wide glacier in the distance, from other mountains, or came in many occasions to admire it at the Lake of Gaube.
When he returned from Asia, it was one of the first mountains he decided to climb. He reached it for the first time on September 14th 1861 with the guide Laurent Passet. However, he was far to be the first, as the Vignemale became very early a popular mountain. The top was climbed as soon as the 18th century, and in 1838, was the scene of a tough competition between the Prince of Moskowa and Lady Ann Lister, who both revendicated the first ascent; eventually, it turned out that Ann preceded him one week earlier.
Russell came back for the second time in 1868 with the guide Hippolyte Passet. The third time, as mentionned, the next winter.
As mentionned also, Russell enjoyed bivouacquing in the mountains with his sheepskin bad, especially on summits. On August 26th 1880, he spends a night on the very top of the Pique Longue, Vignemale's highest point.
From this period, Russell realizes that he is getting old and has less and less taste for exploration. Walking up a mountain is only for him a mean. His goal is to BE on the top of the mountains. He simply enjoyed spending time in the summits.
Then, he decided to elect his best mountain and chose the Vignemale. The Mont Perdu was, in his opinion, too popular, the Maladeta range with the Aneto too monotonous, and also too crowded.
For him, the Vignemale was the most interesting, gathering the most various features. With his fortune, he started considering the construction of a cave, because according to him, any other form of human contruction would have wasted the appearance of the mountain.
Russell with Haurine and Robach
Russell's cave nowadays
First, he prospected several builders unsuccessfully, until Theil, from Gèdre, surprisedly accepted the challenge, and signed the contract.
The first cave was to be built at the base of the Picque Longue, just at the level of the glacier, at 3205m of height.
The start of the work was catastrophic. The rock, despite limestone, is as hard as granite. The workers spent a terrible amount of time, wasting tools, without success. But a blacksmith from Gèdre ingeniously suggested to bring a sort of mini-forge overthere, to repair the tools on the place and save time.
Russell welcoming in his cave; coll. Monique Dollin du Fresnel
The cave was finally acheived on August 1st of 1882. He names it "Villa Russell". It is 3m long for 2.5m of with, and 2 of height. A wall was built and an iron door is fixed at the entrance.
The priest of the village and many other guests came for the inauguration and baptism of the cave ! (and so will be for all forthcoming ones)
Russell stayed only 3 days during the first summer, but came back every following year, always with new guests: people of the high society, scientists, botanists, explorators, politicians, writers...
Pic du Midi de Bigorre
The General De Nansouty, founder of the observatory of the Pic du Midi, at the same period, was amongsts them and a good friend of Russell, despite their respective constructions and visions of mountain shelters had little in common.
Henry Russell always received his guests with the best possible refinement. He always ordered an incredible amount of food, wine, drinks, cigars, and hay to make the guests sleep as comfortable as possible.
There was an established ritual: Russell was first receiving his guests in the cave and accomodated them. Then, he served a hot wine at the light of the candles. Then, in the evening, he used to take his guests at the top of the Pique Longue, 30mn of walk, to admire the sunset.
The cave was skilfully decorated; there were lanterns, colorful wall tissues and other features inspired from his trips in Asia, to mask the roughness of the cave, and make a mystic and fascinating atmosphere.
Russell, dressed with his best city costumes, was always very careful with the ease of his guests, and received them like a perfect gentlemen. Everyone always returned satiated of pleasure and souvenirs of unforgettable moments in his company.
The Oussoue glacier
Climatic change in glacier d'Ossoue
This place just next to the glacier was also an uncommon place for uncommon scientific observations: Russell and his scientific fellows observed the movements of the glacier, measured its speed, height variation, and established correlations with temperatures. At night, they were sometimes suddenly awakened by terrifying noises, like an earthquake: the glacier is simply living: while crawling down the irregular slope of the mountain, cracks appear, ice is stretched, compressed, torn, deep below...
In 1885, he quickly realized that the cave was too small with so many people at the same time. He not only accomodated guests but also guides every time he could, but sometimes they had to bivouac just in front of it. In 1885, he ordered the realisation of a second one for guides, slightly below: Russell also realized that the level of the glacier strongly changes according to the season and the years; he wanted to avoid "climbing on a balcony" some times ! for this new cave, the work was eased a lot by the new technology of the dynamite.
In 1886, he ordered the third, for women. From time to time, female guests were even present, and Russell was fully conscient of the specific comfort and intimacy they needed ! This cave was the most comfortable of all, and located this time higher than the 2 first, for the cases when the glacier was at the highest.
The same year, his friends Brulle and Bazillac came with an incredible suite, and pitched a wide tent on the glacier, just in front of the Villa Russell. Witnesses mentionned an unusual profusion of luxuous and extravagant items, even musicians. They spent there few days of banqueting, spending the rest of the time praising and philosophizing about the charms of the life in mountains.
On December 5th 1888, he unexpectedly came to the préfecture of the department of the "Hautes-Pyrénées", to ask... a concession of
200 hectares over 2300m on the Vignemale, for 99 years ! The city master was surprised, but Russell was very famous, and unanimously respected. The request was accepted, for the symbolic price of one Franc !
As the Vignemale makes 3298m of height, he built a 2m tower on the top of it to make it reach the round number of 3300m.
During some years with a lot of snow and rain in the spring, all caves are dug into the ice, and inaccessible. Russell ordered three new caves in a different location, at the base of the glacier, only at 2400m, but with a splendid view to the Cirque de Gavarnie. They will be named "grottes Bellevue". Here also, he organized splendid receptions with many guests.
Gavarnie from "Bellevue"
The Couloir de Gaube
Statue in Gavarnie
One night, he ordered to his guides a freaky project: he wanted to be dug with stones until the head on the top of the mountain, and spend a night here ! Russell wanted to "feel" the mountain, to "be" the mountain.
While guides atrociously suffered of frost, Russell stood stoicly in this place until 4am in the morning, when, covered with frost, he extracted himself from his shrine, and decided that the experience went successfully. This was perhaps the weirdest thing Russell ever did with his mountain...
On August 6th of 1889 took place a genuine performance: the five friends of Russell : Henri Brulle, Jean Bazillac, Roger de Monts, Célestin Passet and François Bernat-Salles undertook the ascent of the Couloir de Gaube, the long vertical crack on the northern cliff of the mountain. They succeed with a lot of pain, stress and scare; in one place they thought they would never go through and die, it went like a race with time.
They owned the success to the moment when Passet borrowed the ice-axe of Brulle, a light and sharp one made in Chamonix, later baptised "Fleur de Gaube". The five fellows became somehow precursors of ice-climbing, with an incredibly odd gear for those times...
Russell was a bit too old (and not really interested) to take part, but waited for them at the top, with mixed feelings. On one hand he shared their enthousiasm, while he ironically recalled that mountain is not a terrain for such "games" where one can risk his life.
Indeed, Russell was much more sad for another reason: this was the end of an era in the conquest of mountains. The times of pioneers, his era, was gone. No virgin mountains were remaining, only more difficult routes. There was no place anymore for the poets like him, from now only "acrobats".
In 1893, he ordered a last cave, just some 18m under the summit: the "Grotte du Paradis". From this moment, he will spend more and more time in this one, gradually as he gets old, as an ermite.
Henry Russell will climb and sleep for the last time at the Vignemale on the 8th of Auguest 1904. The last years of his life will be spent in writting books. Severely ill during one year, he finally died in Biarritz in 1909.
Nowadays, all seven caves are still present, despite an expert eye is needed to find the four highest. Paradis is difficultly identifiable in the rocky features of the Pique Longue. As for the three first over the glacier, since this one has melted a lot during one century, they are very hardly accessible, with scrambles.
All walls and doors also have gone with time, because of frost.
The three at Bellevue are on the other hand still very easy to find, and next to the trail. But unfurtunately they are often filled with rubbish left by undelicate hikers unaware of their history. At Villa Russell is located a memorial plate with his name.
In the entrance of Gavarnie was erected a statue of him, a book in the hand, in a position of looking at the Vignemale.
Many years later, from the initiative of Charles Packe, a peak was named after him : Pic Russell, in the Maladeta range, formerly the "Petit Nethou" (small Aneto).
A mountain hut erected in the Ardiden range was also baptised after him, as well as many streets in Tarbes, Pau, Toulouse, Cauterets.
Sunrise on Vignemale's Ossoue glacier
The personage in Pau
Russell in his best fit
Russell was not only known for his mountaineering skills and knowledge. He was a well known character in Pau, the city where he lived the rest of the year.
Pau, during this time, was often described as the "most English city in France". Pau was appreciated for its mild and sane climate, and its quitness.
The "Boulevard des Pyrénées", from where we could often see the whole range, was a bit like the "Promenade des Anglais" in Nice. The writer Lamartine wrote "Pau offers the finest view on earth, the same way as Napoli offers the finest on the sea".
Russell used to dress originally, not really extravagantly, but with a style on his own. One of the most famous features on him was his black and white square-shaped trousers. Often, he wore a bowtie and also the same hat. He used to have a thin sharp beard which lengthened the shape of his profile.
Russell talking mountains with Maurice Meys
He was not afraid of wearing unusual vivid colours on him; a taste that he kept since his visit of China and Japan.
Some people insinuated that he was gay, but all historians who knew him well refute categorically these rumours. Russell indeed was a redoubtable gentlemen who enjoyed courting beautiful girls, and he loved above all bals with valses.
But, when he returned at night, he wrote few times in his books "in these moments, when coming back outside at night, we can feel the fresh air coming from mountains, and realize how futile are human pleasures."
However, Russell always remained a true fan of music. He appreciated most compositors of this period, and above all Chopin. He played very well the violoncello. Some people spread the rumour that he pushed the fantasy until delivering his instrument to the caves in the Vignemale, but he never did.
Pau was his favourite city because of the numerous possibilities of going to concerts.
His friends and guides
Russell had a lot of friends but amongst mountaineers, he often used to take the same guides, who became his best friends : Jean Haurillon, Célestin and Henri Passet, Emilien Frossard, François Bernat-Salles, Gil Narcisse, Henri Brulle, Haurine, Louis Robach, Jean Bazillac, Roger de Monts, F.Barrau, B. Courrèges, Latour, Sarettes...
Each of them had specific knowledges of some areas, and different qualities. Russell always chose the most appropriate guides for one place.
Russell was also a very good friend of some other vary famous pyrenean explorators like the englishmen Charles Packe, F.E.L Swan, the historian Henri Beraldi, or the geograph and painter Franz Schrader.
Russell's most famous book is undoubtely his Souvenirs d'un Montagnard ("Souvenirs of a mountaineer"). This book is available in several versions, since Russell corrected and modified it in many occasions. The 1908 version is the most complete. (french language only)
Pau and the Pyrenees, a touristic guide as its name shows, by Russell, one of the rares in English language.
The first great book not from Russell himself to read is undoubtly the unclassifiable Cent ans aux Pyrénées (Hundred years in the Pyrénées), by his friend the historian Henri Beraldi (french only). Tomes II and III are about Russell.
The Man who Married a Mountain, by Rosemary Bailey. The only modern book by an english writer about Russell. But, said by experts to be full of the author's imagination, and not very accurate about his real life. However entertaining to read.
Henry Russell (1834-1909), by Monique Dollin du Fresnel, the grand-niece of Russell. From this year only. A masterpiece of biography, passionating. Undoubtely the best book about Russell until today, but in French only.
Let's finally mention the realisation of one film about Russell's life and more precisely his love affair with the Vignemale : "Vignemale : l'épopée Russell". This film is the second part of a bi-logy about the Vignemale, the first being about the story with Ann Lister and the prince of Moskowa. The film is realized by René Dreuil from the Club Alpin of Agen, all actors were members of the club who played just as volunteers. With very modest means, the film is a real masterpiece, with costumes and backgrounds as similar as possible to the ones in the century before. The DVD costs 20€ and all people interested in it can contact the realisator : rdreuil(@)aol.com to ship it. The film has no subtitles but is easily understandable for a foreigner.
Scrapbook of the realisation of the film about Russell