Title: First on the Rope
Author: Roger Frison-Roche
Translator: Janet Adam Smith
Cover illustrator: Zakaria Azis
Publisher: Vertebrate Publishing
Genre: Classic, Outdoors – mointaineering
Book format: Paperback
Sweet Strawberries: Sweet StrawberrySweet StrawberrySweet Strawberry

Description:  First on the Rope the acclaimed English translation of the French fiction classic Premier de Cordée by Roger Frison-Roche is a tale about the harsh lives of mountain guides and their families in the French Alps in the 1920s and 1930s.
An ascent of Mont Blanc as porter with his uncle leaves young Pierre further convinced he wants to be a mountaineer, breathing the crisp, pure air and soaking up the splendour of the wild landscape. But his family have other ideas. Chamonix is becoming ever more popular with tourists wanting their thrills on the slopes, and they all need somewhere to stay. Running a hotel, however, is not Pierre s idea of fulfilment.
Among the glittering peaks and desolate passes, wonderful sunsets and wild winds, tragedy strikes across the Vallée Blanche on the Dru: a brutal storm leaves sadness and destruction in its wake. Can the onset of spring and the hope it brings rebuild Pierre s passion for climbing?
First on the Rope epitomises the rhythm of mountain life, the clanking cowbells and the gurgling streams against the formidable grandeur of the ice and rock. Equip yourself for an immersive and emotive experience in the high Alps.

*Free copy provided by publisher for review…

Review:  This is an interesting novel which at times is quite gripping and also gives a unique insight into the lives of the people in the Chamonix area of France during the 1920-30s. Pierre Servettaz wants to be a mountain guide, just like his father, uncle and countless generations before him. It’s in his blood but his father, Jean, doesn’t want his son to follow in his footsteps and instead wants him to manage the family hotel. Pierre knows what he truly wants to do in life and when a tragedy strikes, and a guide is killed, he joins a rescue party to climb the Dru to retrieve the dead body. But the journey up the mountain is a hazardous one and causes unforeseen consequences.

First on the Rope is the French classic Premier de Cordée which was published in 1942, and translated into English in 1949. Being a classic book, the language is a little different than modern books but is, for the most part, an easy read and I found myself surprisingly interested and compelled to read on to find out what happens to the characters. Although the story follows Pierre, for the most part, it also features a range of other characters in the region and we get an interesting insight into the practical life of the people living in this mountain region too.

The book is divided into two sections and begins with Pierre and his uncle who have been out climbing but soon switches to his father Jean, a guide, and porter Georges who are with a client up in the mountains, on the Dru.  Their client is an overconfident man who refuses to turn back when the weather gets bad.  Their story is really interesting and the drama of what happens during the climb as the weather gets progressively worse is intense.  The descriptions of the danger and what subsequently happens to everyone, including the behaviour of the client (especially later) makes for compelling reading. I’m acutally surprised with how much I got into this book, as I’m not someone who goes climbing or reads too many climbing books.

First on the Rope is originally written by the author in a serialised manner before being turned into one novel and you can feel this when you read it. There are certain intense dramatic sections of climbs or other things happening and then suddenly in a next chapter it’s several weeks or months later. This can feel a bit weird and I was disappointed there wasn’t more to the ending of the story of retrieving the dead body, but it didn’t interfere with the general wider tale of what happens to Pierre and the others.

Being a classic, the book does use a few words and descriptions that we wouldn’t today. Words like ‘gay’ and ‘queer’ are used in their original old fashioned meanings, for example, and a lot of the conversations and descriptions aren’t as quick or sharp as we’d expect in more modern novels. There are long descriptions in places that are sometimes tricky to read if you’re not used to a lot of terminology used in mountain climbing. There is a glossary of some of the terms in the front of the book, but if you’re completely new and don’t know some words then you might strugglee a bit to read through the descriptions of some of the climbs (especially if you have to look back to the glossary to remeber something) but this only affects you if you don’t know or remember anything though and having said this, when the story focuses more on the drama of what’s happening to the people (or in one case, some fighting cows!) , it becomes really interesting to read.

The ending is a satisfying one but quite short and there is a nice message about life, during the last chapter which some might pick up on. The book is interesting throughout, if you can get past some lengthy descriptions, and gives you an insight not only into the life of mountain guides in the Chamonix area, the intensity of the climbs and the struggles that they and the people they aid in climbing had in the last century.  For the most part it’s really interesting and also gives you some information about how the people in the area lived.  For example one part I enjoyed learning about which I didn’t know about was what happened with the cows and I didn’t expect to find the stuff about the cows fighting so interesting!  That chapter was quite dramatic (if a little difficult to read about, being an animal lover).

This book is also made more interesting when you read about the author and realise that the he actually came from Chamonix and trained there as a guide. The story, although fiction, is based on his experiences in the area and as a guide, and for me this just made the whole book more interesting and less ficticious.

Overall, it’s not the most exciting read compared to modern standards, it is a classic after all, but if you can get past some descriptions which can be a bit lengthy or difficult to read (if you don’t know all the climbing terminology) then it’s actually a really interesting and compelling story.  I’ve been pleasantly surprised in reading this book, and I find myself thinking about the tale and the characters (and even the mountain life) for a long time after reading this.  It’s definitely made me keen to read more of the author’s work.


Do you like classics?  What about French classics?  Have you ever been climbing or enjoy reading about climbing?  Let me know what you think in the comments below 🙂