American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Singing on the Summit

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1937

Singing on the Summit

Elizabeth S. Cowles

WITH all the writing that has been done about the joys of mountaineering, it has always seemed strange to me that so little mention is made of music in the mountains. For my part, I have never considered a summit really won until a song has been sung upon it.

Luckily I have done most of my climbing with a mountaineering father who can carry a tune and we have had few expeditions without some kind of melodic outburst during the day. On the mountain top itself, of course, one feels most like vocalizing. I shall always remember an hour and a half that we spent on the summit of the Piz Roseg last summer. It was a perfect day. Our guide, Kaspar, had hollowed out two shelves in the steep snow on which we sat and relaxed. Around us were several other parties, also on shelves. The sun was shining, we had had a wonderful climb and at our feet were all the mountains in the world. What a time to sing! Kaspar’s son, our second guide that day, got out his little song-book like a boy in school. The whole company joined in the choruses while he went on, verse by verse. It was my first season in the Bernina and the songs were new to me, but I sang too. Everybody sang. No one could help it.

A week later father and I were on the Dent Blanche. It had been quite a climb and on top we shivered in a cold and swirling mist through which we had glimpses of the incomparable panorama below. To Josef Georges, our guide, had fallen the heavy labor of the day. Leading all the parties on the mountain, he had cut steps endlessly up the ice-lined couloir by which we circumvented the first gendarme. It was he who tested the cornices and prepared the ridiculously narrow but firm little path by which we trod the last dizzy snow ridge. But in spite of all this, Josef was the one who struck up the first notes of La-haut sur la Montagne and led a cheer for father who, at sixty-nine, had made his second ascent of the Dent Blanche.

It was two days later that Josef and I organized an international glee club on the Weisshorn. What a day that was! Not a breath of wind was blowing. Seated on our pointed white throne, we waved to the crags of the Dent Blanche and said hello to all the great peaks of Switzerland, from the Dorn and Täschhorn across the valley to Mont Blanc gleaming in the distance. Our singing may have been rather breathless that day for we had not loitered on the way up, but we got to work with gusto and finished off with My Country 'tis of Thee to which I sang our words, the Swiss their French and German versions, while three English boys chimed in with God Save the King.

It is experiences like these that make one permanently musicconscious in climbing. The character of the songs has a lot to do with it. The Swiss folksongs with their lovely simple melodies seem to catch the very spirit of the mountains. Take one of our favorites, Nos Alpes dc neige, for instance. Its last lines urge one to sing “simply and from the whole heart.” I have always felt that these words, de tout notre cocur et tout simplement, say more about the true love of hills than any others I know of. I first heard them several years ago on a rock peak near Arolla. It was early in my first Alpine season and a big day for me. It seemed impossible at the time that there could anywhere be higher cliffs, deeper precipices or a longer and more hazardous ridge. When finally we reached the summit, it was like the quiet safety of harbor after a stormy voyage. Around us were all the great mountains 1 had heard about, incredibly grand against a deep blue sky. What a moment! I shall never forget it. Our guide that day had been father’s friend and companion in the Alps for many years and when he started in singing his mountain songs it was for me the crowning touch to a great experience. I made a discovery then that I have never forgotten: that in music lies the answer to one’s need of expressing the feelings that arise on such mountain days as this.

As far as quality of singing is concerned, I hasten to say that our standard of vocal excellence was never very high. The exigencies of climbing would not have permitted it even if our natural endowments had, which wasn’t the case. Some of our harmonic shortcomings have arisen from the fact that we have always lacked the fourth to make a complete musical whole. We have often wondered if it would fall to our lot to find sometime on a peak the perfect mountain bass, but so far this has never happened. If it had, we might not have gotten around to descending at all! Once on the Matterhorn we picked a great ox of a man for second guide who looked as if he could hit low G with ease as well as carry us all to the top of the mountain and back single-handed. The perfect opera singer physique, we noted with joy. A climbing Caruso perhaps, or a mountaineering Martinelli! Well, we were right about his physical stamina but wrong about his voice for he turned out to be completely tone deaf, a disappointment from which we did not recover until well above the Hörnli.

In my title to this article I do not mean to imply that one should sing only on top of a mountain. There are moments for it all through the climbing day. Take a long snow slope for instance— nothing is more heartening than a good thumping rhythm hummed just under the breath. Something rousing whistled on a knife ridge can add enormously to one’s decisiveness of attack and I have often passed the time while awaiting my turn at a ticklish passage by seeing how many verses I could remember of some good old camp-meeting ditty like Throw Out the Life-line. I never think of this song without recalling a climb in the Canadian Rockies summer before last. We seemed to be spending the rest of our lives in an interminable couloir. The wind was blowing a gale of the variety that frequently lays waste the Florida coast. The life-line in this case was our climbing rope which was 60 ft. long and should for our convenience have been considerably longer. Our guide had to climb to its entire length to reach a place of reasonable safety, while it fell to my lot as unfortunate middleman to untie and park myself for protracted periods of time in unsecured isolation. No one could hear the concert that I gave that day, hanging onto vague bulges on a hitherto virgin side of Mt. Edith, but I shall always remember the roaring of the wind, the hissing of the rope as Christian tried time after time to get it down within my reach, and myself singing the words:

Throw out the life-line across the dark wave,

There is a brother whom someone should save.

So let the mountain climber use as best he can such vocal chords as nature gave him. Let him sing when he climbs to forget his weariness, or to keep his courage up in extremis, but above all let him sing for the joy of singing on the mountain top that he has earned by his own efforts. How could it be possible to paraphrase a remark of R. L. G. Irving, for anyone to receive so much and remain silent?

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