Digitised Diaries - Gwen Moffat: Storm on La Meije, 1959 Article

© Johnnie Lees

In this new series, we share handwritten diary entries from first ascents, key climbs and memorable moments in the careers of prominent climbers. First up, a writer who 'has journals from the year dot': Britain's first female mountain guide, Gwen Moffat (95). Gwen kindly agreed to dust off the archives, before adding 'I may be a little while.'

'Even my first feminine ascents went well enough that the entries don't make interesting reading. And my few first ascents were quite dull. Excitements depended (as always) on incidents or weather,' came her response. Gwen dug out this dramatic entry from sixty years ago, written during a trip to the Écrins in the summer of 1959, climbing with the late Johnnie Lees...

Storm on the traverse of the Meije.

And tantrums on the descent.

July 11th, 1959.

"Beyond the Grand Pic: mist, and very occasionally, light as a feather, the terrifying touch of a snow flake or a drop of sleet. Thunder came closer, no longer growling, but breaking sharply and with increasing menace. Looking ahead, along the line of the ridge, one saw the mist drifting up either side to boil above the crest.

I didn't look below, at the south face dropping away for three thousand feet. As we went together over the teeth (moderate climbing) I kept my eyes on the rock a few feet ahead. I shall never like exposure but perhaps I can learn to block it out.

At last we came to the Pic Centrale hanging over the south face but its ascent by the west ridge is easy and I found the abseil point without any difficulty. Below and ahead of us we had glimpses of Claudine and Daniel [2 French climbers] moving down to where we guessed must be the final abseil.

Pic Centrale, 1959.  © Johnnie Lees
Pic Centrale, 1959.
© Johnnie Lees

(Before the Pic Centrale, moving behind J., I had become aware of my ice axe singing on my back. It was absolutely fascinating. J's was doing the same. It passed but for a considerable distance my hair was writhing on my head like snakes. Since we had to rise to a point much higher and more isolated I felt most uncomfortable.)

We didn't pause on top of the Pic Centrale – now in thick mist and occasionally a drift of sleet or hail which, daringly, I felt we could ignore – but climbed down to within sight of Claudine and Daniel. The glacier came up very close to the ridge here, one climbs down rock for 100 feet then the last abseil is 120 feet and then it's the comparatively easy ground of the glacier except for the crevasses.

Claudine and Daniel had waited for us as their abseil rope wasn't long enough to reach across the bergschrund. We tied the two abseil ropes together, and the two safety ropes. The others clustered uncomfortably about the piton on a little bunch of rocks above the steep ice slope, itself above a bergschrund we couldn't see. In the mist it seemed incredible that our ropes should reach to safety.

There was no room for me down there; in any case I had a sort of bollard beside me. So I stayed about fifteen feet above, safeguarding the French as they went down – both in crampons which enabled them to change direction on the ice. From far below (invisible of course) came shouts and directions: "Corde d'assurance libre….. À droite…. À droite!"

Calm before the storm on La Meije.  © Johnnie Lees
Calm before the storm on La Meije.
© Johnnie Lees

It was very cold. I generated a little warmth hauling back the long safety rope but I tired my arms. When my turn came to go down, without crampons or any purchase on the ice I found it difficult to get the knot of the abseil rope through my carabiner. The gate was towards my body and I couldn't turn it round with numb hands. I tried to unclip and J. started a tirade. It must have taken five minutes to unclip and continue. Then one had to go to the left to cross the bergschrund by a very poor bridge. Hanging on 100 feet of rope I tried to work my way across with Claudine and Daniel shouting directions. From above J. shouted to know what I was doing. I was tired of shouting but he insisted and then there were four people shouting at each other. At length, hanging above the bergschrund which now I could see gaping below, and J. shouting at me to go straight down, I focused on Daniel who was quietly directing me to go left, well left then, listening to Daniel , I hung there waiting for a pause from J. When it came I told him to hold the safety rope tight – I didn't know why, but Daniel said so – and then I saw the deep tracks (with holes) across an apology for a bridge.

I minced over gingerly. J. came down and on we went through the mist, glissading sometimes, J. digging me out when I wedged in the top of a crevasse, and when we came to the hut, all shuttered and barred – but not locked – my hair was on end and the wire stays of the refuge were hissing madly. We waited while Claudine fiddled with the staples and then, at a flash and a clap of thunder, all plunged to wrench open the door and fall – ropes, ironmongery, packs and limbs all tangled on the mattress that covered the floor. It's a very small hut.

The relief and relaxation were enormous. We were still several thousand feet above La Grave, and not very far below the summit of the Meije. Below us two tricky glaciers stretched away to the valley, and all around was ice and séracs, great vertical cliffs below, mist and storms. And yet we felt completely safe. We had some pate de foie but Claudine and Daniel, being French, came fully victualled and they shared.

We slept for eleven hours."

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16 Jul, 2019


16 Jul, 2019

Johnnie Lees was my great uncle. I think his diaries were donated to a museum, but I have kept one. I don’t know if UKC and it’s readership would be interested in any of these diary entries?

Brilliant write up



16 Jul, 2019

Hi Chris,

Yes please, you can email me through my profile.


17 Jul, 2019

Sounds almost identical to our Meije Traverse in the early 1980's. A huge storm kept us trapped in the Aigle hut for two nights. Abseiling the last ice slope with its man-eating bergschrund was quite an experience especially with lightening hitting the ridge behind us.

And that was on a good weather forecast.


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