Mountain Literature Classics: the Alpine Drawings of Samivel

© Ronald Turnbull

Ronald Turnbull is carried to an idealised alpine age by the mountain drawings of French cartoonist Samivel, in his book Sous L'Oeil des Choucas, ou Les plaisirs de l'alpinisme (under the eye of the choughs, or the pleasures of alpinism).

Plato tells us that every item of the world – a fish, a biscuit, a mountain – is only as real as it is because it matches up with its eidolon, its true and ideal counterpart in the realm of pure thought. All the biscuits there are, are merely shadows of the abstract Ideal Biscuit: the Biscuit that is crunchy but not too crunchy, chewy but not too chewy, and made (obviously) with Real Butter.

Samivel, and some age-appropriate gear from the back of the cupboard  © Ronald Turnbull
Samivel, and some age-appropriate gear from the back of the cupboard
© Ronald Turnbull

In this pure and philosophical sense, real mountaineering is mountaineering in the Alps; and lasts from Leslie Stephen up to the middle of the twentieth century. A mountain isn't a mountain unless it has sharp snow-crest ridges, and rocky gendarmes, and a glacier at the bottom. But then again, those things in the Himalayas, they really are a bit too big. Mountaineering shouldn't really be about gasping for breath with not enough atmosphere while your brain cells die a million at a time.

And so, for me at any rate, the Ideal of mountaineering is a classic Alpine ridge, at grade AD or AD+, with hardly any fixed rope or other extraneous ironmongery; a climb reached from a mountain hut that still looks like a hut rather than a strangely displaced hotel; starting off with a candle lantern, across a glacier that's basically still there.

Under the cynical gaze of the chough  © Samivel

It's a classic ridge climbed without queues and indeed with no previous footprints in the snow; climbed with a bit of protection but no hanging about; aided by a single, straight-shafted axe made of steel and hickory and probably by Stubai, plus some flexible steel crampons with leather straps from the house of Salewa; knee-britches optional but they do display ones legs in a rather lovely way.

The iconography of this vanished ideal? It's the ink and watercolour drawings of Samivel. Gently humorous and deeply perceptive, here are the stout leather rucksacks and the candle lanterns, the hempen ropes and abandoned sardine cans; all overlooked by the cynical eye of the Choucas, the Alpine chough.

The book's final two frames are Samivel's anticipation of the present day and beyond. The year 2000: walkway balconies, advertisement hoardings, the final unclimbed pinnacle marked 'Do Not Touch'. Not a tricky prediction! But Year 3000: the Alps empty again, with only the lonely sardine can to say: Humanity Woz Here.

Born with the real name Paul Gayet-Tancrède, as a good multilingual alpinist Samivel took his pseudonym from Dickens' Pickwick Papers. Writer, illustrator and cinematographer, he was cameraman on a French expedition to Greenland in 1948. His many works included guides to Greece, Iceland and the valleys of Mont Blanc. He died in 1992 aged 84.

What do they make of it all?  © Ronald Turnbull
What do they make of it all?
© Ronald Turnbull

2 Jun, 2022

Good to see Samivel in a non-French 'publication', in many ways ahead of his time on issues such as conservation, I find his cartoons & posters timeless. Have any of his books been translated into English ?

2 Jun, 2022

Have always loved his work. Thank you!


2 Jun, 2022

Astounding article! I'll be researching Samivel, this is the first I've heard of him and it looks iconic stuff!

2 Jun, 2022

Indeed Doug. So ahead of his time. When the hordes descended (ascended?) on the mountains of North Wales after the lockdown, the Samivel cartoons immediately sprang to mind .

2 Jun, 2022

I didn't find any English version. But the captions are short, and all the words are ones you'll find useful in the hut. The one show in the article, sorry the caption got lost, it's "How they did it... and how they talked about it afterwards".

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