I formed the caravan in marching order, presently, and after riding down the line to see that it was properly roped together, gave the command to proceed. In a little while the road carried us to open, grassy land. We were above the troublesome forest, now, and had an uninterrupted view, straight before us, of our summit —the summit of the Riffelberg.
We followed the mule-road, a zigzag course, now to the right, now to the left, but always up, and always crowded and incommoded by going and coming files of reckless tourists who were never, in a single instance, tied together. I was obliged to exert the utmost care and caution, for in many places the road was not two yards wide, and often the lower side of it sloped away in slanting precipices eight and even nine feet deep. I had to encourage the men constantly, to keep them from giving way to their unmanly fears.
We might have made the summit before night, but for a delay caused by the loss of an umbrella. I was allowing the umbrella to remain lost, but the men murmured, and with reason, for in this exposed region we stood in peculiar need of protection against avalanches; so I went into camp and detached a strong party to go after the missing article.
The difficulties of the next morning were severe, but our courage was high, for our goal was near. At noon we conquered the last impediment—we stood at last upon the summit, and without the loss of a single man except the mule that ate the glycerin. Our great achievement was achieved—the possibility of the impossible was demonstrated, and Harris and I walked proudly into the great dining-room of the Riffelberg Hotel and stood our alpenstocks up in the corner.
Yes, I had made the grand ascent; but it was a mistake to do it in evening dress. The plug hats were battered, the swallow-tails were fluttering rags, mud added no grace, the general effect was unpleasant and even disreputable.
There were about seventy-five tourists at the hotel —mainly ladies and little children—and they gave us an admiring welcome which paid us for all our privations and sufferings. The ascent had been made, and the names and dates now stand recorded on a stone monument there to prove it to all future tourists.
I boiled a thermometer and took an altitude, with a most curious result: THE SUMMIT WAS NOT AS HIGH AS THE POINT ON THE MOUNTAINSIDE WHERE I HAD TAKEN THE FIRST ALTITUDE. Suspecting that I had made an important discovery, I prepared to verify it. There happened to be a still higher summit (called the Gorner Grat), above the hotel, and notwithstanding the fact that it overlooks a glacier from a dizzy height, and that the ascent is difficult and dangerous, I resolved to venture up there and boil a thermometer. So I sent a strong party, with some borrowed hoes, in charge of two chiefs of service, to dig a stairway in the soil all the way up, and this I ascended, roped to the guides. This breezy height was the summit proper—so I accomplished even more than I had originally purposed to do. This foolhardy exploit is recorded on another stone monument.
I boiled my thermometer, and sure enough, this spot, which purported to be two thousand feet higher than the locality of the hotel, turned out to be nine thousand feet LOWER. Thus the fact was clearly demonstrated that, ABOVE A CERTAIN POINT, THE HIGHER A POINT SEEMS TO BE, THE LOWER IT ACTUALLY IS. Our ascent itself was a great achievement, but this contribution to science was an inconceivably greater matter.
Cavilers object that water boils at a lower and lower temperature the higher and higher you go, and hence the apparent anomaly. I answer that I do not base my theory upon what the boiling water does, but upon what a boiled thermometer says. You can't go behind the thermometer.
I had a magnificent view of Monte Rosa, and apparently all the rest of the Alpine world, from that high place. All the circling horizon was piled high with a mighty tumult of snowy crests. One might have imagined he saw before him the tented camps of a beleaguering host of Brobdingnagians.
But lonely, conspicuous, and superb, rose that wonderful upright wedge, the Matterhorn. Its precipitous sides were powdered over with snow, and the upper half hidden in thick clouds which now and then dissolved to cobweb films and gave brief glimpses of the imposing tower as through a veil.  A little later the Matterhorn took to himself the semblance of a volcano; he was stripped naked to his apex —around this circled vast wreaths of white cloud which strung slowly out and streamed away slantwise toward the sun, a twenty-mile stretch of rolling and tumbling vapor, and looking just as if it were pouring out of a crater. Later again, one of the mountain's sides was clean and clear, and another side densely clothed from base to summit in thick smokelike cloud which feathered off and flew around the shaft's sharp edge like the smoke around the corners of a burning building. The Matterhorn is always experimenting, and always gets up fine effects, too. In the sunset, when all the lower world is palled in gloom, it points toward heaven out of the pervading blackness like a finger of fire. In the sunrise—well, they say it is very fine in the sunrise.
2. NOTE.—I had the very unusual luck to catch one little momentary glimpse of the Matterhorn wholly unencumbered by clouds. I leveled my photographic apparatus at it without the loss of an instant, and should have got an elegant picture if my donkey had not interfered. It was my purpose to draw this photograph all by myself for my book, but was obliged to put the mountain part of it into the hands of the professional artist because I found I could not do landscape well.
Authorities agree that there is no such tremendous "layout" of snowy Alpine magnitude, grandeur, and sublimity to be seen from any other accessible point as the tourist may see from the summit of the Riffelberg. Therefore, let the tourist rope himself up and go there; for I have shown that with nerve, caution, and judgment, the thing can be done.
I wish to add one remark, here—in parentheses, so to speak —suggested by the word "snowy," which I have just used. We have all seen hills and mountains and levels with snow on them, and so we think we know all the aspects and effects produced by snow. But indeed we do not until we have seen the Alps. Possibly mass and distance add something—at any rate, something IS added. Among other noticeable things, there is a dazzling, intense whiteness about the distant Alpine snow, when the sun is on it, which one recognizes as peculiar, and not familiar to the eye. The snow which one is accustomed to has a tint to it—painters usually give it a bluish cast—but there is no perceptible tint to the distant Alpine snow when it is trying to look its whitest. As to the unimaginable splendor of it when the sun is blazing down on it—well, it simply IS unimaginable.
CHAPTER XXXIX [We Travel by Glacier]
A guide-book is a queer thing. The reader has just seen what a man who undertakes the great ascent from Zermatt to the Riffelberg Hotel must experience. Yet Baedeker makes these strange statements concerning this matter:
1. Distance—3 hours. 2. The road cannot be mistaken. 3. Guide unnecessary. 4. Distance from Riffelberg Hotel to the Gorner Grat, one hour and a half. 5. Ascent simple and easy. Guide unnecessary. 6. Elevation of Zermatt above sea-level, 5,315 feet. 7. Elevation of Riffelberg Hotel above sea-level, 8,429 feet. 8. Elevation of the Gorner Grat above sea-level, 10,289 feet.
I have pretty effectually throttled these errors by sending him the following demonstrated facts:
1. Distance from Zermatt to Riffelberg Hotel, 7 days. 2. The road CAN be mistaken. If I am the first that did it, I want the credit of it, too. 3. Guides ARE necessary, for none but a native can read those finger-boards. 4. The estimate of the elevation of the several localities above sea-level is pretty correct—for Baedeker. He only misses it about a hundred and eighty or ninety thousand feet.
I found my arnica invaluable. My men were suffering excruciatingly, from the friction of sitting down so much. During two or three days, not one of them was able to do more than lie down or walk about; yet so effective was the arnica, that on the fourth all were able to sit up. I consider that, more than to anything else, I owe the success of our great undertaking to arnica and paregoric.
My men are being restored to health and strength, my main perplexity, now, was how to get them down the mountain again. I was not willing to expose the brave fellows to the perils, fatigues, and hardships of that fearful route again if it could be helped. First I thought of balloons; but, of course, I had to give that idea up, for balloons were not procurable. I thought of several other expedients, but upon consideration discarded them, for cause. But at last I hit it. I was aware that the movement of glaciers is an established fact, for I had read it in Baedeker; so I resolved to take passage for Zermatt on the great Gorner Glacier.
Very good. The next thing was, how to get down the glacier comfortably—for the mule-road to it was long, and winding, and wearisome. I set my mind at work, and soon thought out a plan. One looks straight down upon the vast frozen river called the Gorner Glacier, from the Gorner Grat, a sheer precipice twelve hundred feet high. We had one hundred and fifty-four umbrellas —and what is an umbrella but a parachute?
I mentioned this noble idea to Harris, with enthusiasm, and was about to order the Expedition to form on the Gorner Grat, with their umbrellas, and prepare for flight by platoons, each platoon in command of a guide, when Harris stopped me and urged me not to be too hasty. He asked me if this method of descending the Alps had ever been tried before. I said no, I had not heard of an instance. Then, in his opinion, it was a matter of considerable gravity; in his opinion it would not be well to send the whole command over the cliff at once; a better way would be to send down a single individual, first, and see how he fared.
I saw the wisdom in this idea instantly. I said as much, and thanked my agent cordially, and told him to take his umbrella and try the thing right away, and wave his hat when he got down, if he struck in a soft place, and then I would ship the rest right along.
Harris was greatly touched with this mark of confidence, and said so, in a voice that had a perceptible tremble in it; but at the same time he said he did not feel himself worthy of so conspicuous a favor; that it might cause jealousy in the command, for there were plenty who would not hesitate to say he had used underhanded means to get the appointment, whereas his conscience would bear him witness that he had not sought it at all, nor even, in his secret heart, desired it.
I said these words did him extreme credit, but that he must not throw away the imperishable distinction of being the first man to descend an Alp per parachute, simply to save the feelings of some envious underlings. No, I said, he MUST accept the appointment—it was no longer an invitation, it was a command.
He thanked me with effusion, and said that putting the thing in this form removed every objection. He retired, and soon returned with his umbrella, his eye flaming with gratitude and his cheeks pallid with joy. Just then the head guide passed along. Harris's expression changed to one of infinite tenderness, and he said:
"That man did me a cruel injury four days ago, and I said in my heart he should live to perceive and confess that the only noble revenge a man can take upon his enemy is to return good for evil. I resign in his favor. Appoint him."
I threw my arms around the generous fellow and said:
"Harris, you are the noblest soul that lives. You shall not regret this sublime act, neither shall the world fail to know of it. You shall have opportunity far transcending this one, too, if I live—remember that."
I called the head guide to me and appointed him on the spot. But the thing aroused no enthusiasm in him. He did not take to the idea at all.
"Tie myself to an umbrella and jump over the Gorner Grat! Excuse me, there are a great many pleasanter roads to the devil than that."
Upon a discussion of the subject with him, it appeared that he considered the project distinctly and decidedly dangerous. I was not convinced, yet I was not willing to try the experiment in any risky way—that is, in a way that might cripple the strength and efficiency of the Expedition. I was about at my wits' end when it occurred to me to try it on the Latinist.
He was called in. But he declined, on the plea of inexperience, diffidence in public, lack of curiosity, and I didn't know what all. Another man declined on account of a cold in the head; thought he ought to avoid exposure. Another could not jump well—never COULD jump well—did not believe he could jump so far without long and patient practice. Another was afraid it was going to rain, and his umbrella had a hole in it. Everybody had an excuse. The result was what the reader has by this time guessed: the most magnificent idea that was ever conceived had to be abandoned, from sheer lack of a person with enterprise enough to carry it out. Yes, I actually had to give that thing up—while doubtless I should live to see somebody use it and take all the credit from me.
Well, I had to go overland—there was no other way. I marched the Expedition down the steep and tedious mule-path and took up as good a position as I could upon the middle of the glacier—because Baedeker said the middle part travels the fastest. As a measure of economy, however, I put some of the heavier baggage on the shoreward parts, to go as slow freight.
I waited and waited, but the glacier did not move. Night was coming on, the darkness began to gather—still we did not budge. It occurred to me then, that there might be a time-table in Baedeker; it would be well to find out the hours of starting. I called for the book—it could not be found. Bradshaw would certainly contain a time-table; but no Bradshaw could be found.
Very well, I must make the best of the situation. So I pitched the tents, picketed the animals, milked the cows, had supper, paregoricked the men, established the watch, and went to bed—with orders to call me as soon as we came in sight of Zermatt.
I awoke about half past ten next morning, and looked around. We hadn't budged a peg! At first I could not understand it; then it occurred to me that the old thing must be aground. So I cut down some trees and rigged a spar on the starboard and another on the port side, and fooled away upward of three hours trying to spar her off. But it was no use. She was half a mile wide and fifteen or twenty miles long, and there was no telling just whereabouts she WAS aground. The men began to show uneasiness, too, and presently they came flying to me with ashy faces, saying she had sprung a leak.
Nothing but my cool behavior at this critical time saved us from another panic. I order them to show me the place. They led me to a spot where a huge boulder lay in a deep pool of clear and brilliant water. It did look like a pretty bad leak, but I kept that to myself. I made a pump and set the men to work to pump out the glacier. We made a success of it. I perceived, then, that it was not a leak at all. This boulder had descended from a precipice and stopped on the ice in the middle of the glacier, and the sun had warmed it up, every day, and consequently it had melted its way deeper and deeper into the ice, until at last it reposed, as we had found it, in a deep pool of the clearest and coldest water.
Presently Baedeker was found again, and I hunted eagerly for the time-table. There was none. The book simply said the glacier was moving all the time. This was satisfactory, so I shut up the book and chose a good position to view the scenery as we passed along. I stood there some time enjoying the trip, but at last it occurred to me that we did not seem to be gaining any on the scenery. I said to myself, "This confounded old thing's aground again, sure,"—and opened Baedeker to see if I could run across any remedy for these annoying interruptions. I soon found a sentence which threw a dazzling light upon the matter. It said, "The Gorner Glacier travels at an average rate of a little less than an inch a day." I have seldom felt so outraged. I have seldom had my confidence so wantonly betrayed. I made a small calculation: One inch a day, say thirty feet a year; estimated distance to Zermatt, three and one-eighteenth miles. Time required to go by glacier, A LITTLE OVER FIVE HUNDRED YEARS! I said to myself, "I can WALK it quicker—and before I will patronize such a fraud as this, I will do it."
When I revealed to Harris the fact that the passenger part of this glacier—the central part—the lightning-express part, so to speak—was not due in Zermatt till the summer of 2378, and that the baggage, coming along the slow edge, would not arrive until some generations later, he burst out with:
"That is European management, all over! An inch a day—think of that! Five hundred years to go a trifle over three miles! But I am not a bit surprised. It's a Catholic glacier. You can tell by the look of it. And the management."
I said, no, I believed nothing but the extreme end of it was in a Catholic canton.
"Well, then, it's a government glacier," said Harris. "It's all the same. Over here the government runs everything—so everything's slow; slow, and ill-managed. But with us, everything's done by private enterprise—and then there ain't much lolling around, you can depend on it. I wish Tom Scott could get his hands on this torpid old slab once—you'd see it take a different gait from this."
I said I was sure he would increase the speed, if there was trade enough to justify it.
"He'd MAKE trade," said Harris. "That's the difference between governments and individuals. Governments don't care, individuals do. Tom Scott would take all the trade; in two years Gorner stock would go to two hundred, and inside of two more you would see all the other glaciers under the hammer for taxes." After a reflective pause, Harris added, "A little less than an inch a day; a little less than an INCH, mind you. Well, I'm losing my reverence for glaciers."
I was feeling much the same way myself. I have traveled by canal-boat, ox-wagon, raft, and by the Ephesus and Smyrna railway; but when it comes down to good solid honest slow motion, I bet my money on the glacier. As a means of passenger transportation, I consider the glacier a failure; but as a vehicle of slow freight, I think she fills the bill. In the matter of putting the fine shades on that line of business, I judge she could teach the Germans something.
I ordered the men to break camp and prepare for the land journey to Zermatt. At this moment a most interesting find was made; a dark object, bedded in the glacial ice, was cut out with the ice-axes, and it proved to be a piece of the undressed skin of some animal—a hair trunk, perhaps; but a close inspection disabled the hair-trunk theory, and further discussion and examination exploded it entirely—that is, in the opinion of all the scientists except the one who had advanced it. This one clung to his theory with affectionate fidelity characteristic of originators of scientific theories, and afterward won many of the first scientists of the age to his view, by a very able pamphlet which he wrote, entitled, "Evidences going to show that the hair trunk, in a wild state, belonged to the early glacial period, and roamed the wastes of chaos in the company with the cave-bear, primeval man, and the other Ooelitics of the Old Silurian family."
Each of our scientists had a theory of his own, and put forward an animal of his own as a candidate for the skin. I sided with the geologist of the Expedition in the belief that this patch of skin had once helped to cover a Siberian elephant, in some old forgotten age—but we divided there, the geologist believing that this discovery proved that Siberia had formerly been located where Switzerland is now, whereas I held the opinion that it merely proved that the primeval Swiss was not the dull savage he is represented to have been, but was a being of high intellectual development, who liked to go to the menagerie.
We arrived that evening, after many hardships and adventures, in some fields close to the great ice-arch where the mad Visp boils and surges out from under the foot of the great Gorner Glacier, and here we camped, our perils over and our magnificent undertaking successfully completed. We marched into Zermatt the next day, and were received with the most lavish honors and applause. A document, signed and sealed by the authorities, was given to me which established and endorsed the fact that I had made the ascent of the Riffelberg. This I wear around my neck, and it will be buried with me when I am no more.
CHAPTER XL [Piteous Relics at Chamonix]
I am not so ignorant about glacial movement, now, as I was when I took passage on the Gorner Glacier. I have "read up" since. I am aware that these vast bodies of ice do not travel at the same rate of speed; while the Gorner Glacier makes less than an inch a day, the Unter-Aar Glacier makes as much as eight; and still other glaciers are said to go twelve, sixteen, and even twenty inches a day. One writer says that the slowest glacier travels twenty-give feet a year, and the fastest four hundred.
What is a glacier? It is easy to say it looks like a frozen river which occupies the bed of a winding gorge or gully between mountains. But that gives no notion of its vastness. For it is sometimes six hundred feet thick, and we are not accustomed to rivers six hundred feet deep; no, our rivers are six feet, twenty feet, and sometimes fifty feet deep; we are not quite able to grasp so large a fact as an ice-river six hundred feet deep.
The glacier's surface is not smooth and level, but has deep swales and swelling elevations, and sometimes has the look of a tossing sea whose turbulent billows were frozen hard in the instant of their most violent motion; the glacier's surface is not a flawless mass, but is a river with cracks or crevices, some narrow, some gaping wide. Many a man, the victim of a slip or a misstep, has plunged down on of these and met his death. Men have been fished out of them alive; but it was when they did not go to a great depth; the cold of the great depths would quickly stupefy a man, whether he was hurt or unhurt. These cracks do not go straight down; one can seldom see more than twenty to forty feet down them; consequently men who have disappeared in them have been sought for, in the hope that they had stopped within helping distance, whereas their case, in most instances, had really been hopeless from the beginning.
In 1864 a party of tourists was descending Mont Blanc, and while picking their way over one of the mighty glaciers of that lofty region, roped together, as was proper, a young porter disengaged himself from the line and started across an ice-bridge which spanned a crevice. It broke under him with a crash, and he disappeared. The others could not see how deep he had gone, so it might be worthwhile to try and rescue him. A brave young guide named Michel Payot volunteered.
Two ropes were made fast to his leather belt and he bore the end of a third one in his hand to tie to the victim in case he found him. He was lowered into the crevice, he descended deeper and deeper between the clear blue walls of solid ice, he approached a bend in the crack and disappeared under it. Down, and still down, he went, into this profound grave; when he had reached a depth of eighty feet he passed under another bend in the crack, and thence descended eighty feet lower, as between perpendicular precipices. Arrived at this stage of one hundred and sixty feet below the surface of the glacier, he peered through the twilight dimness and perceived that the chasm took another turn and stretched away at a steep slant to unknown deeps, for its course was lost in darkness. What a place that was to be in—especially if that leather belt should break! The compression of the belt threatened to suffocate the intrepid fellow; he called to his friends to draw him up, but could not make them hear. They still lowered him, deeper and deeper. Then he jerked his third cord as vigorously as he could; his friends understood, and dragged him out of those icy jaws of death.
Then they attached a bottle to a cord and sent it down two hundred feet, but it found no bottom. It came up covered with congelations—evidence enough that even if the poor porter reached the bottom with unbroken bones, a swift death from cold was sure, anyway.
A glacier is a stupendous, ever-progressing, resistless plow. It pushes ahead of its masses of boulders which are packed together, and they stretch across the gorge, right in front of it, like a long grave or a long, sharp roof. This is called a moraine. It also shoves out a moraine along each side of its course.
Imposing as the modern glaciers are, they are not so huge as were some that once existed. For instance, Mr. Whymper says:
"At some very remote period the Valley of Aosta was occupied by a vast glacier, which flowed down its entire length from Mont Blanc to the plain of Piedmont, remained stationary, or nearly so, at its mouth for many centuries, and deposited there enormous masses of debris. The length of this glacier exceeded EIGHTY MILES, and it drained a basin twenty-five to thirty-five miles across, bounded by the highest mountains in the Alps. The great peaks rose several thousand feet above the glaciers, and then, as now, shattered by sun and frost, poured down their showers of rocks and stones, in witness of which there are the immense piles of angular fragments that constitute the moraines of Ivrea.
"The moraines around Ivrea are of extraordinary dimensions. That which was on the left bank of the glacier is about THIRTEEN MILES long, and in some places rises to a height of TWO THOUSAND ONE HUNDRED AND THIRTY FEET above the floor of the valley! The terminal moraines (those which are pushed in front of the glaciers) cover something like twenty square miles of country. At the mouth of the Valley of Aosta, the thickness of the glacier must have been at least TWO THOUSAND feet, and its width, at that part, FIVE MILES AND A QUARTER."
It is not easy to get at a comprehension of a mass of ice like that. If one could cleave off the butt end of such a glacier—an oblong block two or three miles wide by five and a quarter long and two thousand feet thick —he could completely hide the city of New York under it, and Trinity steeple would only stick up into it relatively as far as a shingle-nail would stick up into the bottom of a Saratoga trunk.
"The boulders from Mont Blanc, upon the plain below Ivrea, assure us that the glacier which transported them existed for a prodigious length of time. Their present distance from the cliffs from which they were derived is about 420,000 feet, and if we assume that they traveled at the rate of 400 feet per annum, their journey must have occupied them no less than 1,055 years! In all probability they did not travel so fast."
Glaciers are sometimes hurried out of their characteristic snail-pace. A marvelous spectacle is presented then. Mr. Whymper refers to a case which occurred in Iceland in 1721:
"It seems that in the neighborhood of the mountain Kotlugja, large bodies of water formed underneath, or within the glaciers (either on account of the interior heat of the earth, or from other causes), and at length acquired irresistible power, tore the glaciers from their mooring on the land, and swept them over every obstacle into the sea. Prodigious masses of ice were thus borne for a distance of about ten miles over land in the space of a few hours; and their bulk was so enormous that they covered the sea for seven miles from the shore, and remained aground in six hundred feet of water! The denudation of the land was upon a grand scale. All superficial accumulations were swept away, and the bedrock was exposed. It was described, in graphic language, how all irregularities and depressions were obliterated, and a smooth surface of several miles' area laid bare, and that this area had the appearance of having been PLANED BY A PLANE."
The account translated from the Icelandic says that the mountainlike ruins of this majestic glacier so covered the sea that as far as the eye could reach no open water was discoverable, even from the highest peaks. A monster wall or barrier of ice was built across a considerable stretch of land, too, by this strange irruption:
"One can form some idea of the altitude of this barrier of ice when it is mentioned that from Hofdabrekka farm, which lies high up on a fjeld, one could not see Hjorleifshofdi opposite, which is a fell six hundred and forty feet in height; but in order to do so had to clamber up a mountain slope east of Hofdabrekka twelve hundred feet high."
These things will help the reader to understand why it is that a man who keeps company with glaciers comes to feel tolerably insignificant by and by. The Alps and the glaciers together are able to take every bit of conceit out of a man and reduce his self-importance to zero if he will only remain within the influence of their sublime presence long enough to give it a fair and reasonable chance to do its work.
The Alpine glaciers move—that is granted, now, by everybody. But there was a time when people scoffed at the idea; they said you might as well expect leagues of solid rock to crawl along the ground as expect leagues of ice to do it. But proof after proof as furnished, and the finally the world had to believe.
The wise men not only said the glacier moved, but they timed its movement. They ciphered out a glacier's gait, and then said confidently that it would travel just so far in so many years. There is record of a striking and curious example of the accuracy which may be attained in these reckonings.
In 1820 the ascent of Mont Blanc was attempted by a Russian and two Englishmen, with seven guides. They had reached a prodigious altitude, and were approaching the summit, when an avalanche swept several of the party down a sharp slope of two hundred feet and hurled five of them (all guides) into one of the crevices of a glacier. The life of one of the five was saved by a long barometer which was strapped to his back—it bridged the crevice and suspended him until help came. The alpenstock or baton of another saved its owner in a similar way. Three men were lost—Pierre Balmat, Pierre Carrier, and Auguste Tairraz. They had been hurled down into the fathomless great deeps of the crevice.
Dr. Forbes, the English geologist, had made frequent visits to the Mont Blanc region, and had given much attention to the disputed question of the movement of glaciers. During one of these visits he completed his estimates of the rate of movement of the glacier which had swallowed up the three guides, and uttered the prediction that the glacier would deliver up its dead at the foot of the mountain thirty-five years from the time of the accident, or possibly forty.
A dull, slow journey—a movement imperceptible to any eye —but it was proceeding, nevertheless, and without cessation. It was a journey which a rolling stone would make in a few seconds—the lofty point of departure was visible from the village below in the valley.
The prediction cut curiously close to the truth; forty-one years after the catastrophe, the remains were cast forth at the foot of the glacier.
I find an interesting account of the matter in the HISTOIRE DU MONT BLANC, by Stephen d'Arve. I will condense this account, as follows:
On the 12th of August, 1861, at the hour of the close of mass, a guide arrived out of breath at the mairie of Chamonix, and bearing on his shoulders a very lugubrious burden. It was a sack filled with human remains which he had gathered from the orifice of a crevice in the Glacier des Bossons. He conjectured that these were remains of the victims of the catastrophe of 1820, and a minute inquest, immediately instituted by the local authorities, soon demonstrated the correctness of his supposition. The contents of the sack were spread upon a long table, and officially inventoried, as follows:
Portions of three human skulls. Several tufts of black and blonde hair. A human jaw, furnished with fine white teeth. A forearm and hand, all the fingers of the latter intact. The flesh was white and fresh, and both the arm and hand preserved a degree of flexibility in the articulations.
The ring-finger had suffered a slight abrasion, and the stain of the blood was still visible and unchanged after forty-one years. A left foot, the flesh white and fresh.
Along with these fragments were portions of waistcoats, hats, hobnailed shoes, and other clothing; a wing of a pigeon, with black feathers; a fragment of an alpenstock; a tin lantern; and lastly, a boiled leg of mutton, the only flesh among all the remains that exhaled an unpleasant odor. The guide said that the mutton had no odor when he took it from the glacier; an hour's exposure to the sun had already begun the work of decomposition upon it.
Persons were called for, to identify these poor pathetic relics, and a touching scene ensured. Two men were still living who had witnessed the grim catastrophe of nearly half a century before—Marie Couttet (saved by his baton) and Julien Davouassoux (saved by the barometer). These aged men entered and approached the table. Davouassoux, more than eighty years old, contemplated the mournful remains mutely and with a vacant eye, for his intelligence and his memory were torpid with age; but Couttet's faculties were still perfect at seventy-two, and he exhibited strong emotion. He said:
"Pierre Balmat was fair; he wore a straw hat. This bit of skull, with the tuft of blond hair, was his; this is his hat. Pierre Carrier was very dark; this skull was his, and this felt hat. This is Balmat's hand, I remember it so well!" and the old man bent down and kissed it reverently, then closed his fingers upon it in an affectionate grasp, crying out, "I could never have dared to believe that before quitting this world it would be granted me to press once more the hand of one of those brave comrades, the hand of my good friend Balmat."
There is something weirdly pathetic about the picture of that white-haired veteran greeting with his loving handshake this friend who had been dead forty years. When these hands had met last, they were alike in the softness and freshness of youth; now, one was brown and wrinkled and horny with age, while the other was still as young and fair and blemishless as if those forty years had come and gone in a single moment, leaving no mark of their passage. Time had gone on, in the one case; it had stood still in the other. A man who has not seen a friend for a generation, keeps him in mind always as he saw him last, and is somehow surprised, and is also shocked, to see the aging change the years have wrought when he sees him again. Marie Couttet's experience, in finding his friend's hand unaltered from the image of it which he had carried in his memory for forty years, is an experience which stands alone in the history of man, perhaps.
Couttet identified other relics:
"This hat belonged to Auguste Tairraz. He carried the cage of pigeons which we proposed to set free upon the summit. Here is the wing of one of those pigeons. And here is the fragment of my broken baton; it was by grace of that baton that my life was saved. Who could have told me that I should one day have the satisfaction to look again upon this bit of wood that supported me above the grave that swallowed up my unfortunate companions!"
No portions of the body of Tairraz, other than a piece of the skull, had been found. A diligent search was made, but without result. However, another search was instituted a year later, and this had better success. Many fragments of clothing which had belonged to the lost guides were discovered; also, part of a lantern, and a green veil with blood-stains on it. But the interesting feature was this:
One of the searchers came suddenly upon a sleeved arm projecting from a crevice in the ice-wall, with the hand outstretched as if offering greeting! "The nails of this white hand were still rosy, and the pose of the extended fingers seemed to express an eloquent welcome to the long-lost light of day."
The hand and arm were alone; there was no trunk. After being removed from the ice the flesh-tints quickly faded out and the rosy nails took on the alabaster hue of death. This was the third RIGHT hand found; therefore, all three of the lost men were accounted for, beyond cavil or question.
Dr. Hamel was the Russian gentleman of the party which made the ascent at the time of the famous disaster. He left Chamonix as soon as he conveniently could after the descent; and as he had shown a chilly indifference about the calamity, and offered neither sympathy nor assistance to the widows and orphans, he carried with him the cordial execrations of the whole community. Four months before the first remains were found, a Chamonix guide named Balmat—a relative of one of the lost men—was in London, and one day encountered a hale old gentleman in the British Museum, who said:
"I overheard your name. Are you from Chamonix, Monsieur Balmat?"
"Haven't they found the bodies of my three guides, yet? I am Dr. Hamel."
"Alas, no, monsieur."
"Well, you'll find them, sooner or later."
"Yes, it is the opinion of Dr. Forbes and Mr. Tyndall, that the glacier will sooner or later restore to us the remains of the unfortunate victims."
"Without a doubt, without a doubt. And it will be a great thing for Chamonix, in the matter of attracting tourists. You can get up a museum with those remains that will draw!"
This savage idea has not improved the odor of Dr. Hamel's name in Chamonix by any means. But after all, the man was sound on human nature. His idea was conveyed to the public officials of Chamonix, and they gravely discussed it around the official council-table. They were only prevented from carrying it into execution by the determined opposition of the friends and descendants of the lost guides, who insisted on giving the remains Christian burial, and succeeded in their purpose.
A close watch had to be kept upon all the poor remnants and fragments, to prevent embezzlement. A few accessory odds and ends were sold. Rags and scraps of the coarse clothing were parted with at the rate equal to about twenty dollars a yard; a piece of a lantern and one or two other trifles brought nearly their weight in gold; and an Englishman offered a pound sterling for a single breeches-button.
CHAPTER XLI [The Fearful Disaster of 1865]
One of the most memorable of all the Alpine catastrophes was that of July, 1865, on the Matterhorn—already sighted referred to, a few pages back. The details of it are scarcely known in America. To the vast majority of readers they are not known at all. Mr. Whymper's account is the only authentic one. I will import the chief portion of it into this book, partly because of its intrinsic interest, and partly because it gives such a vivid idea of what the perilous pastime of Alp-climbing is. This was Mr. Whymper's NINTH attempt during a series of years, to vanquish that steep and stubborn pillar or rock; it succeeded, the other eight were failures. No man had ever accomplished the ascent before, though the attempts had been numerous.
MR. WHYMPER'S NARRATIVE
We started from Zermatt on the 13th of July, at half past five, on a brilliant and perfectly cloudless morning. We were eight in number—Croz (guide), old Peter Taugwalder (guide) and his two sons; Lord F. Douglas, Mr. Hadow, Rev. Mr. Hudson, and I. To insure steady motion, one tourist and one native walked together. The youngest Taugwalder fell to my share. The wine-bags also fell to my lot to carry, and throughout the day, after each drink, I replenished them secretly with water, so that at the next halt they were found fuller than before! This was considered a good omen, and little short of miraculous.
On the first day we did not intend to ascend to any great height, and we mounted, accordingly, very leisurely. Before twelve o'clock we had found a good position for the tent, at a height of eleven thousand feet. We passed the remaining hours of daylight—some basking in the sunshine, some sketching, some collecting; Hudson made tea, I coffee, and at length we retired, each one to his blanket bag.
We assembled together before dawn on the 14th and started directly it was light enough to move. One of the young Taugwalders returned to Zermatt. In a few minutes we turned the rib which had intercepted the view of the eastern face from our tent platform. The whole of this great slope was now revealed, rising for three thousand feet like a huge natural staircase. Some parts were more, and others were less easy, but we were not once brought to a halt by any serious impediment, for when an obstruction was met in front it could always be turned to the right or to the left. For the greater part of the way there was no occasion, indeed, for the rope, and sometimes Hudson led, sometimes myself. At six-twenty we had attained a height of twelve thousand eight hundred feet, and halted for half an hour; we then continued the ascent without a break until nine-fifty-five, when we stopped for fifty minutes, at a height of fourteen thousand feet.
We had now arrived at the foot of that part which, seen from the Riffelberg, seems perpendicular or overhanging. We could no longer continue on the eastern side. For a little distance we ascended by snow upon the ARE^TE—that is, the ridge—then turned over to the right, or northern side. The work became difficult, and required caution. In some places there was little to hold; the general slope of the mountain was LESS than forty degrees, and snow had accumulated in, and had filled up, the interstices of the rock-face, leaving only occasional fragments projecting here and there. These were at times covered with a thin film of ice. It was a place which any fair mountaineer might pass in safety. We bore away nearly horizontally for about four hundred feet, then ascended directly toward the summit for about sixty feet, then doubled back to the ridge which descends toward Zermatt. A long stride round a rather awkward corner brought us to snow once more. That last doubt vanished! The Matterhorn was ours! Nothing but two hundred feet of easy snow remained to be surmounted.
The higher we rose, the more intense became the excitement. The slope eased off, at length we could be detached, and Croz and I, dashed away, ran a neck-and-neck race, which ended in a dead heat. At 1:40 P.M., the world was at our feet, and the Matterhorn was conquered!
The others arrived. Croz now took the tent-pole, and planted it in the highest snow. "Yes," we said, "there is the flag-staff, but where is the flag?" "Here it is," he answered, pulling off his blouse and fixing it to the stick. It made a poor flag, and there was no wind to float it out, yet it was seen all around. They saw it at Zermatt—at the Riffel—in the Val Tournanche... .
We remained on the summit for one hour—
One crowded hour of glorious life.
It passed away too quickly, and we began to prepare for the descent.
Hudson and I consulted as to the best and safest arrangement of the party. We agreed that it was best for Croz to go first, and Hadow second; Hudson, who was almost equal to a guide in sureness of foot, wished to be third; Lord Douglas was placed next, and old Peter, the strongest of the remainder, after him. I suggested to Hudson that we should attach a rope to the rocks on our arrival at the difficult bit, and hold it as we descended, as an additional protection. He approved the idea, but it was not definitely decided that it should be done. The party was being arranged in the above order while I was sketching the summit, and they had finished, and were waiting for me to be tied in line, when some one remembered that our names had not been left in a bottle. They requested me to write them down, and moved off while it was being done.
A few minutes afterward I tied myself to young Peter, ran down after the others, and caught them just as they were commencing the descent of the difficult part. Great care was being taken. Only one man was moving at a time; when he was firmly planted the next advanced, and so on. They had not, however, attached the additional rope to rocks, and nothing was said about it. The suggestion was not made for my own sake, and I am not sure that it ever occurred to me again. For some little distance we two followed the others, detached from them, and should have continued so had not Lord Douglas asked me, about 3 P.M., to tie on to old Peter, as he feared, he said, that Taugwalder would not be able to hold his ground if a slip occurred.
A few minutes later, a sharp-eyed lad ran into the Monte Rosa Hotel, at Zermatt, saying that he had seen an avalanche fall from the summit of the Matterhorn onto the Matterhorn glacier. The boy was reproved for telling idle stories; he was right, nevertheless, and this was what he saw.
Michel Croz had laid aside his ax, and in order to give Mr. Hadow greater security, was absolutely taking hold of his legs, and putting his feet, one by one, into their proper positions. As far as I know, no one was actually descending. I cannot speak with certainty, because the two leading men were partially hidden from my sight by an intervening mass of rock, but it is my belief, from the movements of their shoulders, that Croz, having done as I said, was in the act of turning round to go down a step or two himself; at this moment Mr. Hadow slipped, fell against him, and knocked him over. I heard one startled exclamation from Croz, then saw him and Mr. Hadow flying downward; in another moment Hudson was dragged from his steps, and Lord Douglas immediately after him. All this was the work of a moment. Immediately we heard Croz's exclamation, old Peter and I planted ourselves as firmly as the rocks would permit; the rope was taut between us, and the jerk came on us both as on one man. We held; but the rope broke midway between Taugwalder and Lord Francis Douglas. For a few seconds we saw our unfortunate companions sliding downward on their backs, and spreading out their hands, endeavoring to save themselves. They passed from our sight uninjured, disappeared one by one, and fell from the precipice to precipice onto the Matterhorn glacier below, a distance of nearly four thousand feet in height. From the moment the rope broke it was impossible to help them. So perished our comrades!
For more than two hours afterward I thought almost every moment that the next would be my last; for the Taugwalders, utterly unnerved, were not only incapable of giving assistance, but were in such a state that a slip might have been expected from them at any moment. After a time we were able to do that which should have been done at first, and fixed rope to firm rocks, in addition to being tied together. These ropes were cut from time to time, and were left behind. Even with their assurance the men were afraid to proceed, and several times old Peter turned, with ashy face and faltering limbs, and said, with terrible emphasis, "I CANNOT!"
About 6 P.M., we arrived at the snow upon the ridge descending toward Zermatt, and all peril was over. We frequently looked, but in vain, for traces of our unfortunate companions; we bent over the ridge and cried to them, but no sound returned. Convinced at last that they were neither within sight nor hearing, we ceased from our useless efforts; and, too cast down for speech, silently gathered up our things, and the little effects of those who were lost, and then completed the descent.
Such is Mr. Whymper's graphic and thrilling narrative. Zermatt gossip darkly hints that the elder Taugwalder cut the rope, when the accident occurred, in order to preserve himself from being dragged into the abyss; but Mr. Whymper says that the ends of the rope showed no evidence of cutting, but only of breaking. He adds that if Taugwalder had had the disposition to cut the rope, he would not have had time to do it, the accident was so sudden and unexpected.
Lord Douglas' body has never been found. It probably lodged upon some inaccessible shelf in the face of the mighty precipice. Lord Douglas was a youth of nineteen. The three other victims fell nearly four thousand feet, and their bodies lay together upon the glacier when found by Mr. Whymper and the other searchers the next morning. Their graves are beside the little church in Zermatt.
CHAPTER XLII [Chillon has a Nice, Roomy Dungeon]
Switzerland is simply a large, humpy, solid rock, with a thin skin of grass stretched over it. Consequently, they do not dig graves, they blast them out with power and fuse. They cannot afford to have large graveyards, the grass skin is too circumscribed and too valuable. It is all required for the support of the living.
The graveyard in Zermatt occupies only about one-eighth of an acre. The graves are sunk in the living rock, and are very permanent; but occupation of them is only temporary; the occupant can only stay till his grave is needed by a later subject, he is removed, then, for they do not bury one body on top of another. As I understand it, a family owns a grave, just as it owns a house. A man dies and leaves his house to his son—and at the same time, this dead father succeeds to his own father's grave. He moves out of the house and into the grave, and his predecessor moves out of the grave and into the cellar of the chapel. I saw a black box lying in the churchyard, with skull and cross-bones painted on it, and was told that this was used in transferring remains to the cellar.
In that cellar the bones and skulls of several hundred of former citizens were compactly corded up. They made a pile eighteen feet long, seven feet high, and eight feet wide. I was told that in some of the receptacles of this kind in the Swiss villages, the skulls were all marked, and if a man wished to find the skulls of his ancestors for several generations back, he could do it by these marks, preserved in the family records.
An English gentleman who had lived some years in this region, said it was the cradle of compulsory education. But he said that the English idea that compulsory education would reduce bastardy and intemperance was an error—it has not that effect. He said there was more seduction in the Protestant than in the Catholic cantons, because the confessional protected the girls. I wonder why it doesn't protect married women in France and Spain?
This gentleman said that among the poorer peasants in the Valais, it was common for the brothers in a family to cast lots to determine which of them should have the coveted privilege of marrying, and his brethren—doomed bachelors—heroically banded themselves together to help support the new family.
We left Zermatt in a wagon—and in a rain-storm, too —for St. Nicholas about ten o'clock one morning. Again we passed between those grass-clad prodigious cliffs, specked with wee dwellings peeping over at us from velvety green walls ten and twelve hundred feet high. It did not seem possible that the imaginary chamois even could climb those precipices. Lovers on opposite cliffs probably kiss through a spy-glass, and correspond with a rifle.
In Switzerland the farmer's plow is a wide shovel, which scrapes up and turns over the thin earthy skin of his native rock—and there the man of the plow is a hero. Now here, by our St. Nicholas road, was a grave, and it had a tragic story. A plowman was skinning his farm one morning—not the steepest part of it, but still a steep part—that is, he was not skinning the front of his farm, but the roof of it, near the eaves—when he absent-mindedly let go of the plow-handles to moisten his hands, in the usual way; he lost his balance and fell out of his farm backward; poor fellow, he never touched anything till he struck bottom, fifteen hundred feet below.  We throw a halo of heroism around the life of the soldier and the sailor, because of the deadly dangers they are facing all the time. But we are not used to looking upon farming as a heroic occupation. This is because we have not lived in Switzerland.
1. This was on a Sunday.—M.T.
From St. Nicholas we struck out for Visp—or Vispach—on foot. The rain-storms had been at work during several days, and had done a deal of damage in Switzerland and Savoy. We came to one place where a stream had changed its course and plunged down a mountain in a new place, sweeping everything before it. Two poor but precious farms by the roadside were ruined. One was washed clear away, and the bed-rock exposed; the other was buried out of sight under a tumbled chaos of rocks, gravel, mud, and rubbish. The resistless might of water was well exemplified. Some saplings which had stood in the way were bent to the ground, stripped clean of their bark, and buried under rocky debris. The road had been swept away, too.
In another place, where the road was high up on the mountain's face, and its outside edge protected by flimsy masonry, we frequently came across spots where this masonry had carved off and left dangerous gaps for mules to get over; and with still more frequency we found the masonry slightly crumbled, and marked by mule-hoofs, thus showing that there had been danger of an accident to somebody. When at last we came to a badly ruptured bit of masonry, with hoof-prints evidencing a desperate struggle to regain the lost foothold, I looked quite hopefully over the dizzy precipice. But there was nobody down there.
They take exceedingly good care of their rivers in Switzerland and other portions of Europe. They wall up both banks with slanting solid stone masonry—so that from end to end of these rivers the banks look like the wharves at St. Louis and other towns on the Mississippi River.
It was during this walk from St. Nicholas, in the shadow of the majestic Alps, that we came across some little children amusing themselves in what seemed, at first, a most odd and original way—but it wasn't; it was in simply a natural and characteristic way. They were roped together with a string, they had mimic alpenstocks and ice-axes, and were climbing a meek and lowly manure-pile with a most blood-curdling amount of care and caution. The "guide" at the head of the line cut imaginary steps, in a laborious and painstaking way, and not a monkey budged till the step above was vacated. If we had waited we should have witnessed an imaginary accident, no doubt; and we should have heard the intrepid band hurrah when they made the summit and looked around upon the "magnificent view," and seen them throw themselves down in exhausted attitudes for a rest in that commanding situation.
In Nevada I used to see the children play at silver-mining. Of course, the great thing was an accident in a mine, and there were two "star" parts; that of the man who fell down the mimic shaft, and that of the daring hero who was lowered into the depths to bring him up. I knew one small chap who always insisted on playing BOTH of these parts—and he carried his point. He would tumble into the shaft and die, and then come to the surface and go back after his own remains.
It is the smartest boy that gets the hero part everywhere; he is head guide in Switzerland, head miner in Nevada, head bull-fighter in Spain, etc.; but I knew a preacher's son, seven years old, who once selected a part for himself compared to which those just mentioned are tame and unimpressive. Jimmy's father stopped him from driving imaginary horse-cars one Sunday—stopped him from playing captain of an imaginary steamboat next Sunday—stopped him from leading an imaginary army to battle the following Sunday—and so on. Finally the little fellow said:
"I've tried everything, and they won't any of them do. What CAN I play?"
"I hardly know, Jimmy; but you MUST play only things that are suitable to the Sabbath-day."
Next Sunday the preacher stepped softly to a back-room door to see if the children were rightly employed. He peeped in. A chair occupied the middle of the room, and on the back of it hung Jimmy's cap; one of his little sisters took the cap down, nibbled at it, then passed it to another small sister and said, "Eat of this fruit, for it is good." The Reverend took in the situation—alas, they were playing the Expulsion from Eden! Yet he found one little crumb of comfort. He said to himself, "For once Jimmy has yielded the chief role—I have been wronging him, I did not believe there was so much modesty in him; I should have expected him to be either Adam or Eve." This crumb of comfort lasted but a very little while; he glanced around and discovered Jimmy standing in an imposing attitude in a corner, with a dark and deadly frown on his face. What that meant was very plain—HE WAS IMPERSONATING THE DEITY! Think of the guileless sublimity of that idea.
We reached Vispach at 8 P.M., only about seven hours out from St. Nicholas. So we must have made fully a mile and a half an hour, and it was all downhill, too, and very muddy at that. We stayed all night at the Ho^tel de Soleil; I remember it because the landlady, the portier, the waitress, and the chambermaid were not separate persons, but were all contained in one neat and chipper suit of spotless muslin, and she was the prettiest young creature I saw in all that region. She was the landlord's daughter. And I remember that the only native match to her I saw in all Europe was the young daughter of the landlord of a village inn in the Black Forest. Why don't more people in Europe marry and keep hotel?
Next morning we left with a family of English friends and went by train to Brevet, and thence by boat across the lake to Ouchy (Lausanne).
Ouchy is memorable to me, not on account of its beautiful situation and lovely surroundings—although these would make it stick long in one's memory—but as the place where I caught the London TIMES dropping into humor. It was NOT aware of it, though. It did not do it on purpose. An English friend called my attention to this lapse, and cut out the reprehensible paragraph for me. Think of encountering a grin like this on the face of that grim journal:
ERRATUM.—We are requested by Reuter's Telegram Company to correct an erroneous announcement made in their Brisbane telegram of the 2d inst., published in our impression of the 5th inst., stating that "Lady Kennedy had given birth to twins, the eldest being a son." The Company explain that the message they received contained the words "Governor of Queensland, TWINS FIRST SON." Being, however, subsequently informed that Sir Arthur Kennedy was unmarried and that there must be some mistake, a telegraphic repetition was at once demanded. It has been received today (11th inst.) and shows that the words really telegraphed by Reuter's agent were "Governor Queensland TURNS FIRST SOD," alluding to the Maryborough-Gympic Railway in course of construction. The words in italics were mutilated by the telegraph in transmission from Australia, and reaching the company in the form mentioned above gave rise to the mistake.
I had always had a deep and reverent compassion for the sufferings of the "prisoner of Chillon," whose story Byron had told in such moving verse; so I took the steamer and made pilgrimage to the dungeons of the Castle of Chillon, to see the place where poor Bonnivard endured his dreary captivity three hundred years ago. I am glad I did that, for it took away some of the pain I was feeling on the prisoner's account. His dungeon was a nice, cool, roomy place, and I cannot see why he should have been dissatisfied with it. If he had been imprisoned in a St. Nicholas private dwelling, where the fertilizer prevails, and the goat sleeps with the guest, and the chickens roost on him and the cow comes in and bothers him when he wants to muse, it would have been another matter altogether; but he surely could not have had a very cheerless time of it in that pretty dungeon. It has romantic window-slits that let in generous bars of light, and it has tall, noble columns, carved apparently from the living rock; and what is more, they are written all over with thousands of names; some of them—like Byron's and Victor Hugo's—of the first celebrity. Why didn't he amuse himself reading these names? Then there are the couriers and tourists—swarms of them every day—what was to hinder him from having a good time with them? I think Bonnivard's sufferings have been overrated.
Next, we took the train and went to Martigny, on the way to Mont Blanc. Next morning we started, about eight o'clock, on foot. We had plenty of company, in the way of wagon-loads and mule-loads of tourists—and dust. This scattering procession of travelers was perhaps a mile long. The road was uphill—interminable uphill—and tolerably steep. The weather was blisteringly hot, and the man or woman who had to sit on a creeping mule, or in a crawling wagon, and broil in the beating sun, was an object to be pitied. We could dodge among the bushes, and have the relief of shade, but those people could not. They paid for a conveyance, and to get their money's worth they rode.
We went by the way of the Te^te Noir, and after we reached high ground there was no lack of fine scenery. In one place the road was tunneled through a shoulder of the mountain; from there one looked down into a gorge with a rushing torrent in it, and on every hand was a charming view of rocky buttresses and wooded heights. There was a liberal allowance of pretty waterfalls, too, on the Te^te Noir route.
About half an hour before we reached the village of Argentie're a vast dome of snow with the sun blazing on it drifted into view and framed itself in a strong V-shaped gateway of the mountains, and we recognized Mont Blanc, the "monarch of the Alps." With every step, after that, this stately dome rose higher and higher into the blue sky, and at last seemed to occupy the zenith.
Some of Mont Blanc's neighbors—bare, light-brown, steeplelike rocks—were very peculiarly shaped. Some were whittled to a sharp point, and slightly bent at the upper end, like a lady's finger; one monster sugar-loaf resembled a bishop's hat; it was too steep to hold snow on its sides, but had some in the division.
While we were still on very high ground, and before the descent toward Argentie're began, we looked up toward a neighboring mountain-top, and saw exquisite prismatic colors playing about some white clouds which were so delicate as to almost resemble gossamer webs. The faint pinks and greens were peculiarly beautiful; none of the colors were deep, they were the lightest shades. They were bewitching commingled. We sat down to study and enjoy this singular spectacle. The tints remained during several minutes—fitting, changing, melting into each other; paling almost away for a moment, then reflushing—a shifting, restless, unstable succession of soft opaline gleams, shimmering over that air film of white cloud, and turning it into a fabric dainty enough to clothe an angel with.
By and by we perceived what those super-delicate colors, and their continuous play and movement, reminded us of; it is what one sees in a soap-bubble that is drifting along, catching changes of tint from the objects it passes. A soap-bubble is the most beautiful thing, and the most exquisite, in nature; that lovely phantom fabric in the sky was suggestive of a soap-bubble split open, and spread out in the sun. I wonder how much it would take to buy a soap-bubble, if there was only one in the world? One could buy a hatful of Koh-i-Noors with the same money, no doubt.
We made the tramp from Martigny to Argentie're in eight hours. We beat all the mules and wagons; we didn't usually do that. We hired a sort of open baggage-wagon for the trip down the valley to Chamonix, and then devoted an hour to dining. This gave the driver time to get drunk. He had a friend with him, and this friend also had had time to get drunk.
When we drove off, the driver said all the tourists had arrived and gone by while we were at dinner; "but," said he, impressively, "be not disturbed by that—remain tranquil—give yourselves no uneasiness—their dust rises far before us —rest you tranquil, leave all to me—I am the king of drivers. Behold!"
Down came his whip, and away we clattered. I never had such a shaking up in my life. The recent flooding rains had washed the road clear away in places, but we never stopped, we never slowed down for anything. We tore right along, over rocks, rubbish, gullies, open fields—sometimes with one or two wheels on the ground, but generally with none. Every now and then that calm, good-natured madman would bend a majestic look over his shoulder at us and say, "Ah, you perceive? It is as I have said —I am the king of drivers." Every time we just missed going to destruction, he would say, with tranquil happiness, "Enjoy it, gentlemen, it is very rare, it is very unusual —it is given to few to ride with the king of drivers —and observe, it is as I have said, I am he."
He spoke in French, and punctuated with hiccoughs. His friend was French, too, but spoke in German—using the same system of punctuation, however. The friend called himself the "Captain of Mont Blanc," and wanted us to make the ascent with him. He said he had made more ascents than any other man—forty seven—and his brother had made thirty-seven. His brother was the best guide in the world, except himself—but he, yes, observe him well—he was the "Captain of Mont Blanc"—that title belonged to none other.
The "king" was as good as his word—he overtook that long procession of tourists and went by it like a hurricane. The result was that we got choicer rooms at the hotel in Chamonix than we should have done if his majesty had been a slower artist—or rather, if he hadn't most providentially got drunk before he left Argentie're.
CHAPTER XLIII [My Poor Sick Friend Disappointed]
Everybody was out-of-doors; everybody was in the principal street of the village—not on the sidewalks, but all over the street; everybody was lounging, loafing, chatting, waiting, alert, expectant, interested—for it was train-time. That is to say, it was diligence-time —the half-dozen big diligences would soon be arriving from Geneva, and the village was interested, in many ways, in knowing how many people were coming and what sort of folk they might be. It was altogether the livest-looking street we had seen in any village on the continent.
The hotel was by the side of a booming torrent, whose music was loud and strong; we could not see this torrent, for it was dark, now, but one could locate it without a light. There was a large enclosed yard in front of the hotel, and this was filled with groups of villagers waiting to see the diligences arrive, or to hire themselves to excursionists for the morrow. A telescope stood in the yard, with its huge barrel canted up toward the lustrous evening star. The long porch of the hotel was populous with tourists, who sat in shawls and wraps under the vast overshadowing bulk of Mont Blanc, and gossiped or meditated.
Never did a mountain seem so close; its big sides seemed at one's very elbow, and its majestic dome, and the lofty cluster of slender minarets that were its neighbors, seemed to be almost over one's head. It was night in the streets, and the lamps were sparkling everywhere; the broad bases and shoulders of the mountains were in a deep gloom, but their summits swam in a strange rich glow which was really daylight, and yet had a mellow something about it which was very different from the hard white glare of the kind of daylight I was used to. Its radiance was strong and clear, but at the same time it was singularly soft, and spiritual, and benignant. No, it was not our harsh, aggressive, realistic daylight; it seemed properer to an enchanted land—or to heaven.
I had seen moonlight and daylight together before, but I had not seen daylight and black night elbow to elbow before. At least I had not seen the daylight resting upon an object sufficiently close at hand, before, to make the contrast startling and at war with nature.
The daylight passed away. Presently the moon rose up behind some of those sky-piercing fingers or pinnacles of bare rock of which I have spoken—they were a little to the left of the crest of Mont Blanc, and right over our heads—but she couldn't manage to climb high enough toward heaven to get entirely above them. She would show the glittering arch of her upper third, occasionally, and scrape it along behind the comblike row; sometimes a pinnacle stood straight up, like a statuette of ebony, against that glittering white shield, then seemed to glide out of it by its own volition and power, and become a dim specter, while the next pinnacle glided into its place and blotted the spotless disk with the black exclamation-point of its presence. The top of one pinnacle took the shapely, clean-cut form of a rabbit's head, in the inkiest silhouette, while it rested against the moon. The unillumined peaks and minarets, hovering vague and phantom-like above us while the others were painfully white and strong with snow and moonlight, made a peculiar effect.
But when the moon, having passed the line of pinnacles, was hidden behind the stupendous white swell of Mont Blanc, the masterpiece of the evening was flung on the canvas. A rich greenish radiance sprang into the sky from behind the mountain, and in this same airy shreds and ribbons of vapor floated about, and being flushed with that strange tint, went waving to and fro like pale green flames. After a while, radiating bars—vast broadening fan-shaped shadows—grew up and stretched away to the zenith from behind the mountain. It was a spectacle to take one's breath, for the wonder of it, and the sublimity.
Indeed, those mighty bars of alternate light and shadow streaming up from behind that dark and prodigious form and occupying the half of the dull and opaque heavens, was the most imposing and impressive marvel I had ever looked upon. There is no simile for it, for nothing is like it. If a child had asked me what it was, I should have said, "Humble yourself, in this presence, it is the glory flowing from the hidden head of the Creator." One falls shorter of the truth than that, sometimes, in trying to explain mysteries to the little people. I could have found out the cause of this awe-compelling miracle by inquiring, for it is not infrequent at Mont Blanc,—but I did not wish to know. We have not the reverent feeling for the rainbow that a savage has, because we know how it is made. We have lost as much as we gained by prying into the matter.
We took a walk down street, a block or two, and a place where four streets met and the principal shops were clustered, found the groups of men in the roadway thicker than ever—for this was the Exchange of Chamonix. These men were in the costumes of guides and porters, and were there to be hired.
The office of that great personage, the Guide-in-Chief of the Chamonix Guild of Guides, was near by. This guild is a close corporation, and is governed by strict laws. There are many excursion routes, some dangerous and some not, some that can be made safely without a guide, and some that cannot. The bureau determines these things. Where it decides that a guide is necessary, you are forbidden to go without one. Neither are you allowed to be a victim of extortion: the law states what you are to pay. The guides serve in rotation; you cannot select the man who is to take your life into his hands, you must take the worst in the lot, if it is his turn. A guide's fee ranges all the way up from a half-dollar (for some trifling excursion of a few rods) to twenty dollars, according to the distance traversed and the nature of the ground. A guide's fee for taking a person to the summit of Mont Blanc and back, is twenty dollars—and he earns it. The time employed is usually three days, and there is enough early rising in it to make a man far more "healthy and wealthy and wise" than any one man has any right to be. The porter's fee for the same trip is ten dollars. Several fools—no, I mean several tourists—usually go together, and divide up the expense, and thus make it light; for if only one f—tourist, I mean—went, he would have to have several guides and porters, and that would make the matter costly.
We went into the Chief's office. There were maps of mountains on the walls; also one or two lithographs of celebrated guides, and a portrait of the scientist De Saussure.
In glass cases were some labeled fragments of boots and batons, and other suggestive relics and remembrances of casualties on Mount Blanc. In a book was a record of all the ascents which have ever been made, beginning with Nos. 1 and 2—being those of Jacques Balmat and De Saussure, in 1787, and ending with No. 685, which wasn't cold yet. In fact No. 685 was standing by the official table waiting to receive the precious official diploma which should prove to his German household and to his descendants that he had once been indiscreet enough to climb to the top of Mont Blanc. He looked very happy when he got his document; in fact, he spoke up and said he WAS happy.
I tried to buy a diploma for an invalid friend at home who had never traveled, and whose desire all his life has been to ascend Mont Blanc, but the Guide-in-Chief rather insolently refused to sell me one. I was very much offended. I said I did not propose to be discriminated against on the account of my nationality; that he had just sold a diploma to this German gentleman, and my money was a good as his; I would see to it that he couldn't keep his shop for Germans and deny his produce to Americans; I would have his license taken away from him at the dropping of a handkerchief; if France refused to break him, I would make an international matter of it and bring on a war; the soil should be drenched with blood; and not only that, but I would set up an opposition show and sell diplomas at half price.
For two cents I would have done these things, too; but nobody offered me two cents. I tried to move that German's feelings, but it could not be done; he would not give me his diploma, neither would he sell it to me. I TOLD him my friend was sick and could not come himself, but he said he did not care a VERDAMMTES PFENNIG, he wanted his diploma for himself—did I suppose he was going to risk his neck for that thing and then give it to a sick stranger? Indeed he wouldn't, so he wouldn't. I resolved, then, that I would do all I could to injure Mont Blanc.
In the record-book was a list of all the fatal accidents which happened on the mountain. It began with the one in 1820 when the Russian Dr. Hamel's three guides were lost in a crevice of the glacier, and it recorded the delivery of the remains in the valley by the slow-moving glacier forty-one years later. The latest catastrophe bore the date 1877.
We stepped out and roved about the village awhile. In front of the little church was a monument to the memory of the bold guide Jacques Balmat, the first man who ever stood upon the summit of Mont Blanc. He made that wild trip solitary and alone. He accomplished the ascent a number of times afterward. A stretch of nearly half a century lay between his first ascent and his last one. At the ripe old age of seventy-two he was climbing around a corner of a lofty precipice of the Pic du Midi—nobody with him—when he slipped and fell. So he died in the harness.
He had grown very avaricious in his old age, and used to go off stealthily to hunt for non-existent and impossible gold among those perilous peaks and precipices. He was on a quest of that kind when he lost his life. There was a statue to him, and another to De Saussure, in the hall of our hotel, and a metal plate on the door of a room upstairs bore an inscription to the effect that that room had been occupied by Albert Smith. Balmat and De Saussure discovered Mont Blanc—so to speak—but it was Smith who made it a paying property. His articles in BLACKWOOD and his lectures on Mont Blanc in London advertised it and made people as anxious to see it as if it owed them money.
As we strolled along the road we looked up and saw a red signal-light glowing in the darkness of the mountainside. It seemed but a trifling way up—perhaps a hundred yards, a climb of ten minutes. It was a lucky piece of sagacity in us that we concluded to stop a man whom we met and get a light for our pipes from him instead of continuing the climb to that lantern to get a light, as had been our purpose. The man said that that lantern was on the Grands Mulets, some sixty-five hundred feet above the valley! I know by our Riffelberg experience, that it would have taken us a good part of a week to go up there. I would sooner not smoke at all, than take all that trouble for a light.
Even in the daytime the foreshadowing effect of this mountain's close proximity creates curious deceptions. For instance, one sees with the naked eye a cabin up there beside the glacier, and a little above and beyond he sees the spot where that red light was located; he thinks he could throw a stone from the one place to the other. But he couldn't, for the difference between the two altitudes is more than three thousand feet. It looks impossible, from below, that this can be true, but it is true, nevertheless.
While strolling around, we kept the run of the moon all the time, and we still kept an eye on her after we got back to the hotel portico. I had a theory that the gravitation of refraction, being subsidiary to atmospheric compensation, the refrangibility of the earth's surface would emphasize this effect in regions where great mountain ranges occur, and possibly so even-handed impact the odic and idyllic forces together, the one upon the other, as to prevent the moon from rising higher than 12,200 feet above sea-level. This daring theory had been received with frantic scorn by some of my fellow-scientists, and with an eager silence by others. Among the former I may mention Prof. H——y; and among the latter Prof. T——l. Such is professional jealousy; a scientist will never show any kindness for a theory which he did not start himself. There is no feeling of brotherhood among these people. Indeed, they always resent it when I call them brother. To show how far their ungenerosity can carry them, I will state that I offered to let Prof. H——y publish my great theory as his own discovery; I even begged him to do it; I even proposed to print it myself as his theory. Instead of thanking me, he said that if I tried to fasten that theory on him he would sue me for slander. I was going to offer it to Mr. Darwin, whom I understood to be a man without prejudices, but it occurred to me that perhaps he would not be interested in it since it did not concern heraldry.
But I am glad now, that I was forced to father my intrepid theory myself, for, on the night of which I am writing, it was triumphantly justified and established. Mont Blanc is nearly sixteen thousand feet high; he hid the moon utterly; near him is a peak which is 12,216 feet high; the moon slid along behind the pinnacles, and when she approached that one I watched her with intense interest, for my reputation as a scientist must stand or fall by its decision. I cannot describe the emotions which surged like tidal waves through my breast when I saw the moon glide behind that lofty needle and pass it by without exposing more than two feet four inches of her upper rim above it; I was secure, then. I knew she could rise no higher, and I was right. She sailed behind all the peaks and never succeeded in hoisting her disk above a single one of them.
While the moon was behind one of those sharp fingers, its shadow was flung athwart the vacant heavens —a long, slanting, clean-cut, dark ray—with a streaming and energetic suggestion of FORCE about it, such as the ascending jet of water from a powerful fire-engine affords. It was curious to see a good strong shadow of an earthly object cast upon so intangible a field as the atmosphere.
We went to bed, at last, and went quickly to sleep, but I woke up, after about three hours, with throbbing temples, and a head which was physically sore, outside and in. I was dazed, dreamy, wretched, seedy, unrefreshed. I recognized the occasion of all this: it was that torrent. In the mountain villages of Switzerland, and along the roads, one has always the roar of the torrent in his ears. He imagines it is music, and he thinks poetic things about it; he lies in his comfortable bed and is lulled to sleep by it. But by and by he begins to notice that his head is very sore—he cannot account for it; in solitudes where the profoundest silence reigns, he notices a sullen, distant, continuous roar in his ears, which is like what he would experience if he had sea-shells pressed against them—he cannot account for it; he is drowsy and absent-minded; there is no tenacity to his mind, he cannot keep hold of a thought and follow it out; if he sits down to write, his vocabulary is empty, no suitable words will come, he forgets what he started to do, and remains there, pen in hand, head tilted up, eyes closed, listening painfully to the muffled roar of a distant train in his ears; in his soundest sleep the strain continues, he goes on listening, always listening intently, anxiously, and wakes at last, harassed, irritable, unrefreshed. He cannot manage to account for these things. Day after day he feels as if he had spent his nights in a sleeping-car. It actually takes him weeks to find out that it is those persecuting torrents that have been making all the mischief. It is time for him to get out of Switzerland, then, for as soon as he has discovered the cause, the misery is magnified several fold. The roar of the torrent is maddening, then, for his imagination is assisting; the physical pain it inflicts is exquisite. When he finds he is approaching one of those streams, his dread is so lively that he is disposed to fly the track and avoid the implacable foe.
Eight or nine months after the distress of the torrents had departed from me, the roar and thunder of the streets of Paris brought it all back again. I moved to the sixth story of the hotel to hunt for peace. About midnight the noises dulled away, and I was sinking to sleep, when I heard a new and curious sound; I listened: evidently some joyous lunatic was softly dancing a "double shuffle" in the room over my head. I had to wait for him to get through, of course. Five long, long minutes he smoothly shuffled away—a pause followed, then something fell with a thump on the floor. I said to myself "There—he is pulling off his boots —thank heavens he is done." Another slight pause—he went to shuffling again! I said to myself, "Is he trying to see what he can do with only one boot on?" Presently came another pause and another thump on the floor. I said "Good, he has pulled off his other boot—NOW he is done." But he wasn't. The next moment he was shuffling again. I said, "Confound him, he is at it in his slippers!" After a little came that same old pause, and right after it that thump on the floor once more. I said, "Hang him, he had on TWO pair of boots!" For an hour that magician went on shuffling and pulling off boots till he had shed as many as twenty-five pair, and I was hovering on the verge of lunacy. I got my gun and stole up there. The fellow was in the midst of an acre of sprawling boots, and he had a boot in his hand, shuffling it—no, I mean POLISHING it. The mystery was explained. He hadn't been dancing. He was the "Boots" of the hotel, and was attending to business.
CHAPTER XLIV [I Scale Mont Blanc—by Telescope]
After breakfast, that next morning in Chamonix, we went out in the yard and watched the gangs of excursioning tourists arriving and departing with their mules and guides and porters; then we took a look through the telescope at the snowy hump of Mont Blanc. It was brilliant with sunshine, and the vast smooth bulge seemed hardly five hundred yards away. With the naked eye we could dimly make out the house at the Pierre Pointue, which is located by the side of the great glacier, and is more than three thousand feet above the level of the valley; but with the telescope we could see all its details. While I looked, a woman rode by the house on a mule, and I saw her with sharp distinctness; I could have described her dress. I saw her nod to the people of the house, and rein up her mule, and put her hand up to shield her eyes from the sun. I was not used to telescopes; in fact, I had never looked through a good one before; it seemed incredible to me that this woman could be so far away. I was satisfied that I could see all these details with my naked eye; but when I tried it, that mule and those vivid people had wholly vanished, and the house itself was become small and vague. I tried the telescope again, and again everything was vivid. The strong black shadows of the mule and the woman were flung against the side of the house, and I saw the mule's silhouette wave its ears.
The telescopulist—or the telescopulariat—I do not know which is right—said a party were making a grand ascent, and would come in sight on the remote upper heights, presently; so we waited to observe this performance. Presently I had a superb idea. I wanted to stand with a party on the summit of Mont Blanc, merely to be able to say I had done it, and I believed the telescope could set me within seven feet of the uppermost man. The telescoper assured me that it could. I then asked him how much I owed him for as far as I had got? He said, one franc. I asked him how much it would cost to make the entire ascent? Three francs. I at once determined to make the entire ascent. But first I inquired if there was any danger? He said no—not by telescope; said he had taken a great many parties to the summit, and never lost a man. I asked what he would charge to let my agent go with me, together with such guides and porters as might be necessary. He said he would let Harris go for two francs; and that unless we were unusually timid, he should consider guides and porters unnecessary; it was not customary to take them, when going by telescope, for they were rather an encumbrance than a help. He said that the party now on the mountain were approaching the most difficult part, and if we hurried we should overtake them within ten minutes, and could then join them and have the benefit of their guides and porters without their knowledge, and without expense to us.
I then said we would start immediately. I believe I said it calmly, though I was conscious of a shudder and of a paling cheek, in view of the nature of the exploit I was so unreflectingly engaged in. But the old daredevil spirit was upon me, and I said that as I had committed myself I would not back down; I would ascend Mont Blanc if it cost me my life. I told the man to slant his machine in the proper direction and let us be off.
Harris was afraid and did not want to go, but I heartened him up and said I would hold his hand all the way; so he gave his consent, though he trembled a little at first. I took a last pathetic look upon the pleasant summer scene about me, then boldly put my eye to the glass and prepared to mount among the grim glaciers and the everlasting snows.
We took our way carefully and cautiously across the great Glacier des Bossons, over yawning and terrific crevices and among imposing crags and buttresses of ice which were fringed with icicles of gigantic proportions. The desert of ice that stretched far and wide about us was wild and desolate beyond description, and the perils which beset us were so great that at times I was minded to turn back. But I pulled my pluck together and pushed on.
We passed the glacier safely and began to mount the steeps beyond, with great alacrity. When we were seven minutes out from the starting-point, we reached an altitude where the scene took a new aspect; an apparently limitless continent of gleaming snow was tilted heavenward before our faces. As my eye followed that awful acclivity far away up into the remote skies, it seemed to me that all I had ever seen before of sublimity and magnitude was small and insignificant compared to this.
We rested a moment, and then began to mount with speed. Within three minutes we caught sight of the party ahead of us, and stopped to observe them. They were toiling up a long, slanting ridge of snow—twelve persons, roped together some fifteen feet apart, marching in single file, and strongly marked against the clear blue sky. One was a woman. We could see them lift their feet and put them down; we saw them swing their alpenstocks forward in unison, like so many pendulums, and then bear their weight upon them; we saw the lady wave her handkerchief. They dragged themselves upward in a worn and weary way, for they had been climbing steadily from the Grand Mulets, on the Glacier des Dossons, since three in the morning, and it was eleven, now. We saw them sink down in the snow and rest, and drink something from a bottle. After a while they moved on, and as they approached the final short dash of the home-stretch we closed up on them and joined them.
Presently we all stood together on the summit! What a view was spread out below! Away off under the northwestern horizon rolled the silent billows of the Farnese Oberland, their snowy crests glinting softly in the subdued lights of distance; in the north rose the giant form of the Wobblehorn, draped from peak to shoulder in sable thunder-clouds; beyond him, to the right, stretched the grand processional summits of the Cisalpine Cordillera, drowned in a sensuous haze; to the east loomed the colossal masses of the Yodelhorn, the Fuddelhorn, and the Dinnerhorn, their cloudless summits flashing white and cold in the sun; beyond them shimmered the faint far line of the Ghauts of Jubbelpore and the Aigulles des Alleghenies; in the south towered the smoking peak of Popocatapetl and the unapproachable altitudes of the peerless Scrabblehorn; in the west-south the stately range of the Himalayas lay dreaming in a purple gloom; and thence all around the curving horizon the eye roved over a troubled sea of sun-kissed Alps, and noted, here and there, the noble proportions and the soaring domes of the Bottlehorn, and the Saddlehorn, and the Shovelhorn, and the Powderhorn, all bathed in the glory of noon and mottled with softly gliding blots, the shadows flung from drifting clouds.
Overcome by the scene, we all raised a triumphant, tremendous shout, in unison. A startled man at my elbow said:
"Confound you, what do you yell like that for, right here in the street?"
That brought me down to Chamonix, like a flirt. I gave that man some spiritual advice and disposed of him, and then paid the telescope man his full fee, and said that we were charmed with the trip and would remain down, and not reascend and require him to fetch us down by telescope. This pleased him very much, for of course we could have stepped back to the summit and put him to the trouble of bringing us home if we wanted to.
I judged we could get diplomas, now, anyhow; so we went after them, but the Chief Guide put us off, with one pretext or another, during all the time we stayed in Chamonix, and we ended by never getting them at all. So much for his prejudice against people's nationality. However, we worried him enough to make him remember us and our ascent for some time. He even said, once, that he wished there was a lunatic asylum in Chamonix. This shows that he really had fears that we were going to drive him mad. It was what we intended to do, but lack of time defeated it.
I cannot venture to advise the reader one way or the other, as to ascending Mont Blanc. I say only this: if he is at all timid, the enjoyments of the trip will hardly make up for the hardships and sufferings he will have to endure. But, if he has good nerve, youth, health, and a bold, firm will, and could leave his family comfortably provided for in case the worst happened, he would find the ascent a wonderful experience, and the view from the top a vision to dream about, and tell about, and recall with exultation all the days of his life.
While I do not advise such a person to attempt the ascent, I do not advise him against it. But if he elects to attempt it, let him be warily careful of two things: chose a calm, clear day; and do not pay the telescope man in advance. There are dark stories of his getting advance payers on the summit and then leaving them there to rot.
A frightful tragedy was once witnessed through the Chamonix telescopes. Think of questions and answers like these, on an inquest:
CORONER. You saw deceased lose his life?
WITNESS. I did.
C. Where was he, at the time?
W. Close to the summit of Mont Blanc.
C. Where were you?
W. In the main street of Chamonix.
C. What was the distance between you?
W. A LITTLE OVER FIVE MILES, as the bird flies.
This accident occurred in 1866, a year and a month after the disaster on the Matterhorn. Three adventurous English gentlemen,  of great experience in mountain-climbing, made up their minds to ascend Mont Blanc without guides or porters. All endeavors to dissuade them from their project failed. Powerful telescopes are numerous in Chamonix. These huge brass tubes, mounted on their scaffoldings and pointed skyward from every choice vantage-ground, have the formidable look of artillery, and give the town the general aspect of getting ready to repel a charge of angels. The reader may easily believe that the telescopes had plenty of custom on that August morning in 1866, for everybody knew of the dangerous undertaking which was on foot, and all had fears that misfortune would result. All the morning the tubes remained directed toward the mountain heights, each with its anxious group around it; but the white deserts were vacant.
1. Sir George Young and his brothers James and Albert.
At last, toward eleven o'clock, the people who were looking through the telescopes cried out "There they are!"—and sure enough, far up, on the loftiest terraces of the Grand Plateau, the three pygmies appeared, climbing with remarkable vigor and spirit. They disappeared in the "Corridor," and were lost to sight during an hour. Then they reappeared, and were presently seen standing together upon the extreme summit of Mont Blanc. So, all was well. They remained a few minutes on that highest point of land in Europe, a target for all the telescopes, and were then seen to begin descent. Suddenly all three vanished. An instant after, they appeared again, TWO THOUSAND FEET BELOW!
Evidently, they had tripped and been shot down an almost perpendicular slope of ice to a point where it joined the border of the upper glacier. Naturally, the distant witness supposed they were now looking upon three corpses; so they could hardly believe their eyes when they presently saw two of the men rise to their feet and bend over the third. During two hours and a half they watched the two busying themselves over the extended form of their brother, who seemed entirely inert. Chamonix's affairs stood still; everybody was in the street, all interest was centered upon what was going on upon that lofty and isolated stage five miles away. Finally the two—one of them walking with great difficulty—were seen to begin descent, abandoning the third, who was no doubt lifeless. Their movements were followed, step by step, until they reached the "Corridor" and disappeared behind its ridge. Before they had had time to traverse the "Corridor" and reappear, twilight was come, and the power of the telescope was at an end.
The survivors had a most perilous journey before them in the gathering darkness, for they must get down to the Grands Mulets before they would find a safe stopping-place—a long and tedious descent, and perilous enough even in good daylight. The oldest guides expressed the opinion that they could not succeed; that all the chances were that they would lose their lives.
Yet those brave men did succeed. They reached the Grands Mulets in safety. Even the fearful shock which their nerves had sustained was not sufficient to overcome their coolness and courage. It would appear from the official account that they were threading their way down through those dangers from the closing in of twilight until two o'clock in the morning, or later, because the rescuing party from Chamonix reached the Grand Mulets about three in the morning and moved thence toward the scene of the disaster under the leadership of Sir George Young, "who had only just arrived."
After having been on his feet twenty-four hours, in the exhausting work of mountain-climbing, Sir George began the reascent at the head of the relief party of six guides, to recover the corpse of his brother. This was considered a new imprudence, as the number was too few for the service required. Another relief party presently arrived at the cabin on the Grands Mulets and quartered themselves there to await events. Ten hours after Sir George's departure toward the summit, this new relief were still scanning the snowy altitudes above them from their own high perch among the ice deserts ten thousand feet above the level of the sea, but the whole forenoon had passed without a glimpse of any living thing appearing up there.
This was alarming. Half a dozen of their number set out, then early in the afternoon, to seek and succor Sir George and his guides. The persons remaining at the cabin saw these disappear, and then ensued another distressing wait. Four hours passed, without tidings. Then at five o'clock another relief, consisting of three guides, set forward from the cabin. They carried food and cordials for the refreshment of their predecessors; they took lanterns with them, too; night was coming on, and to make matters worse, a fine, cold rain had begun to fall.
At the same hour that these three began their dangerous ascent, the official Guide-in-Chief of the Mont Blanc region undertook the dangerous descent to Chamonix, all alone, to get reinforcements. However, a couple of hours later, at 7 P.M., the anxious solicitude came to an end, and happily. A bugle note was heard, and a cluster of black specks was distinguishable against the snows of the upper heights. The watchers counted these specks eagerly—fourteen—nobody was missing. An hour and a half later they were all safe under the roof of the cabin. They had brought the corpse with them. Sir George Young tarried there but a few minutes, and then began the long and troublesome descent from the cabin to Chamonix. He probably reached there about two or three o'clock in the morning, after having been afoot among the rocks and glaciers during two days and two nights. His endurance was equal to his daring.