A Tramp Abroad — Volume 06 eBook: Page2

Mark Twain (1994)

  We were not dreaming; this was not a make-believe home of theAlp-climber, created by our heated imaginations; no, for here was Mr.Girdlestone himself, the famous Englishman who hunts his way to the mostformidable Alpine summits without a guide. I was not equal to imagininga Girdlestone; it was all I could do to even realize him, while lookingstraight at him at short range. I would rather face whole Hyde Parks ofartillery than the ghastly forms of death which he has faced among thepeaks and precipices of the mountains. There is probably no pleasureequal to the pleasure of climbing a dangerous Alp; but it is a pleasurewhich is confined strictly to people who can find pleasure in it. I havenot jumped to this conclusion; I have traveled to it per gravel-train,so to speak. I have thought the thing all out, and am quite sure I amright. A born climber's appetite for climbing is hard to satisfy; whenit comes upon him he is like a starving man with a feast before him; hemay have other business on hand, but it must wait. Mr. Girdlestone hadhad his usual summer holiday in the Alps, and had spent it in his usualway, hunting for unique chances to break his neck; his vacation wasover, and his luggage packed for England, but all of a sudden a hungerhad come upon him to climb the tremendous Weisshorn once more, for hehad heard of a new and utterly impossible route up it. His baggagewas unpacked at once, and now he and a friend, laden with knapsacks,ice-axes, coils of rope, and canteens of milk, were just setting out.They would spend the night high up among the snows, somewhere, andget up at two in the morning and finish the enterprise. I had astrong desire to go with them, but forced it down--a feat which Mr.Girdlestone, with all his fortitude, could not do.

  Even ladies catch the climbing mania, and are unable to throw it off.A famous climber, of that sex, had attempted the Weisshorn a few daysbefore our arrival, and she and her guides had lost their way in asnow-storm high up among the peaks and glaciers and been forced towander around a good while before they could find a way down. When thislady reached the bottom, she had been on her feet twenty-three hours!

  Our guides, hired on the Gemmi, were already at Zermatt when wereached there. So there was nothing to interfere with our getting up anadventure whenever we should choose the time and the object. I resolvedto devote my first evening in Zermatt to studying up the subject ofAlpine climbing, by way of preparation.

  I read several books, and here are some of the things I found out. One'sshoes must be strong and heavy, and have pointed hobnails in them. Thealpenstock must be of the best wood, for if it should break, loss oflife might be the result. One should carry an ax, to cut steps in theice with, on the great heights. There must be a ladder, for there aresteep bits of rock which can be surmounted with this instrument--or thisutensil--but could not be surmounted without it; such an obstructionhas compelled the tourist to waste hours hunting another route, when aladder would have saved him all trouble. One must have from one hundredand fifty to five hundred feet of strong rope, to be used in loweringthe party down steep declivities which are too steep and smooth tobe traversed in any other way. One must have a steel hook, on anotherrope--a very useful thing; for when one is ascending and comes to a lowbluff which is yet too high for the ladder, he swings this rope aloftlike a lasso, the hook catches at the top of the bluff, and then thetourist climbs the rope, hand over hand--being always particular to tryand forget that if the hook gives way he will never stop falling tillhe arrives in some part of Switzerland where they are not expecting him.Another important thing--there must be a rope to tie the whole partytogether with, so that if one falls from a mountain or down a bottomlesschasm in a glacier, the others may brace back on the rope and save him.One must have a silk veil, to protect his face from snow, sleet, hailand gale, and colored goggles to protect his eyes from that dangerousenemy, snow-blindness. Finally, there must be some porters, to carryprovisions, wine and scientific instruments, and also blanket bags forthe party to sleep in.

  I closed my readings with a fearful adventure which Mr. Whymper once hadon the Matterhorn when he was prowling around alone, five thousandfeet above the town of Breil. He was edging his way gingerly aroundthe corner of a precipice where the upper edge of a sharp declivity ofice-glazed snow joined it. This declivity swept down a couple of hundredfeet, into a gully which curved around and ended at a precipice eighthundred feet high, overlooking a glacier. His foot slipped, and he fell.

  He says:

  "My knapsack brought my head down first, and I pitched into some rocksabout a dozen feet below; they caught something, and tumbled me offthe edge, head over heels, into the gully; the baton was dashed from myhands, and I whirled downward in a series of bounds, each longer thanthe last; now over ice, now into rocks, striking my head four or fivetimes, each time with increased force. The last bound sent me spinningthrough the air in a leap of fifty or sixty feet, from one side of thegully to the other, and I struck the rocks, luckily, with the whole ofmy left side. They caught my clothes for a moment, and I fell back on tothe snow with motion arrested. My head fortunately came the right sideup, and a few frantic catches brought me to a halt, in the neck of thegully and on the verge of the precipice. Baton, hat, and veil skimmedby and disappeared, and the crash of the rocks--which I had started--asthey fell on to the glacier, told how narrow had been the escape fromutter destruction. As it was, I fell nearly two hundred feet in seven oreight bounds. Ten feet more would have taken me in one gigantic leap ofeight hundred feet on to the glacier below.

  "The situation was sufficiently serious. The rocks could not be let gofor a moment, and the blood was spurting out of more than twenty cuts.The most serious ones were in the head, and I vainly tried to closethem with one hand, while holding on with the other. It was useless;the blood gushed out in blinding jets at each pulsation. At last, in amoment of inspiration, I kicked out a big lump of snow and struck itas plaster on my head. The idea was a happy one, and the flow of blooddiminished. Then, scrambling up, I got, not a moment too soon, toa place of safety, and fainted away. The sun was setting whenconsciousness returned, and it was pitch-dark before the Great Staircasewas descended; but by a combination of luck and care, the whole fourthousand seven hundred feet of descent to Breil was accomplished withouta slip, or once missing the way."

  His wounds kept him abed some days. Then he got up and climbed thatmountain again. That is the way with a true Alp-climber; the more fun hehas, the more he wants.


  [Our Imposing Column Starts Upward]

  After I had finished my readings, I was no longer myself; I was tranced,uplifted, intoxicated, by the almost incredible perils and adventuresI had been following my authors through, and the triumphs I had beensharing with them. I sat silent some time, then turned to Harris andsaid:

  "My mind is made up."

  Something in my tone struck him: and when he glanced at my eye andread what was written there, his face paled perceptibly. He hesitated amoment, then said:


  I answered, with perfect calmness:

  "I will ascend the Riffelberg."

  If I had shot my poor friend he could not have fallen from his chairmore suddenly. If I had been his father he could not have pleaded harderto get me to give up my purpose. But I turned a deaf ear to all he said.When he perceived at last that nothing could alter my determination, heceased to urge, and for a while the deep silence was broken only by hissobs. I sat in marble resolution, with my eyes fixed upon vacancy, forin spirit I was already wrestling with the perils of the mountains, andmy friend sat gazing at me in adoring admiration through his tears.At last he threw himself upon me in a loving embrace and exclaimed inbroken tones:

  "Your Harris will never desert you. We will die together."

  I cheered the noble fellow with praises, and soon his fears wereforgotten and he was eager for the adventure. He wanted to summon theguides at once and leave at two in the morning, as he supposed thecustom was; but I explained that nobody was looking at that hour; andthat the start in the dark was not usually made from the village butfrom the first night's resting-place on the mountain
side. I said wewould leave the village at 3 or 4 P.M. on the morrow; meantime he couldnotify the guides, and also let the public know of the attempt which weproposed to make.

  I went to bed, but not to sleep. No man can sleep when he is about toundertake one of these Alpine exploits. I tossed feverishly all nightlong, and was glad enough when I heard the clock strike half past elevenand knew it was time to get up for dinner. I rose, jaded and rusty, andwent to the noon meal, where I found myself the center of interest andcuriosity; for the news was already abroad. It is not easy to eat calmlywhen you are a lion; but it is very pleasant, nevertheless.

  As usual, at Zermatt, when a great ascent is about to be undertaken,everybody, native and foreign, laid aside his own projects and took upa good position to observe the start. The expedition consisted of 198persons, including the mules; or 205, including the cows. As follows:


  Myself 1 Veterinary Surgeon Mr. Harris 1 Butler 17 Guides 12 Waiters 4 Surgeons 1 Footman 1 Geologist 1 Barber 1 Botanist 1 Head Cook 3 Chaplains 9 Assistants 2 Draftsman 4 Pastry Cooks 15 Barkeepers 1 Confectionery Artist 1 Latinist


  27 Porters 3 Coarse Washers and Ironers 44 Mules 1 Fine ditto 44 Muleteers 7 Cows 2 Milkers

  Total, 154 men, 51 animals. Grand Total, 205.


  16 Cases Hams 25 Spring Mattresses 2 Barrels Flour 2 Hair ditto 22 Barrels Whiskey Bedding for same 1 Barrel Sugar 2 Mosquito-nets 1 Keg Lemons 29 Tents 2,000 Cigars Scientific Instruments 1 Barrel Pies 97 Ice-axes 1 Ton of Pemmican 5 Cases Dynamite 143 Pair Crutches 7 Cans Nitroglycerin 2 Barrels Arnica 22 40-foot Ladders 1 Bale of Lint 2 Miles of Rope 27 Kegs Paregoric 154 Umbrellas

  It was full four o'clock in the afternoon before my cavalcade wasentirely ready. At that hour it began to move. In point of numbers andspectacular effect, it was the most imposing expedition that had evermarched from Zermatt.

  I commanded the chief guide to arrange the men and animals in singlefile, twelve feet apart, and lash them all together on a strong rope. Heobjected that the first two miles was a dead level, with plenty of room,and that the rope was never used except in very dangerous places. ButI would not listen to that. My reading had taught me that many seriousaccidents had happened in the Alps simply from not having the peopletied up soon enough; I was not going to add one to the list. The guidethen obeyed my order.

  When the procession stood at ease, roped together, and ready to move, Inever saw a finer sight. It was 3,122 feet long--over half a mile; everyman and me was on foot, and had on his green veil and his blue goggles,and his white rag around his hat, and his coil of rope over one shoulderand under the other, and his ice-ax in his belt, and carried hisalpenstock in his left hand, his umbrella (closed) in his right, and hiscrutches slung at his back. The burdens of the pack-mules and the hornsof the cows were decked with the Edelweiss and the Alpine rose.

  I and my agent were the only persons mounted. We were in the post ofdanger in the extreme rear, and tied securely to five guides apiece. Ourarmor-bearers carried our ice-axes, alpenstocks, and other implementsfor us. We were mounted upon very small donkeys, as a measure of safety;in time of peril we could straighten our legs and stand up, and letthe donkey walk from under. Still, I cannot recommend this sort ofanimal--at least for excursions of mere pleasure--because hisears interrupt the view. I and my agent possessed the regulationmountaineering costumes, but concluded to leave them behind. Out ofrespect for the great numbers of tourists of both sexes who would beassembled in front of the hotels to see us pass, and also out of respectfor the many tourists whom we expected to encounter on our expedition,we decided to make the ascent in evening dress.

  We watered the caravan at the cold stream which rushes down a troughnear the end of the village, and soon afterward left the haunts ofcivilization behind us. About half past five o'clock we arrived at abridge which spans the Visp, and after throwing over a detachment to seeif it was safe, the caravan crossed without accident. The way now led,by a gentle ascent, carpeted with fresh green grass, to the church atWinkelmatten. Without stopping to examine this edifice, I executeda flank movement to the right and crossed the bridge over theFindelenbach, after first testing its strength. Here I deployed to theright again, and presently entered an inviting stretch of meadowlandwhich was unoccupied save by a couple of deserted huts toward thefurthest extremity. These meadows offered an excellent camping-place.We pitched our tents, supped, established a proper grade, recorded theevents of the day, and then went to bed.

  We rose at two in the morning and dressed by candle-light. It was adismal and chilly business. A few stars were shining, but the generalheavens were overcast, and the great shaft of the Matterhorn was drapedin a cable pall of clouds. The chief guide advised a delay; he said hefeared it was going to rain. We waited until nine o'clock, and then gotaway in tolerably clear weather.

  Our course led up some terrific steeps, densely wooded with larches andcedars, and traversed by paths which the rains had guttered and whichwere obstructed by loose stones. To add to the danger and inconvenience,we were constantly meeting returning tourists on foot and horseback, andas constantly being crowded and battered by ascending tourists who werein a hurry and wanted to get by.

  Our troubles thickened. About the middle of the afternoon the seventeenguides called a halt and held a consultation. After consulting an hourthey said their first suspicion remained intact--that is to say, theybelieved they were lost. I asked if they did not KNOW it? No, they said,they COULDN'T absolutely know whether they were lost or not, becausenone of them had ever been in that part of the country before. They hada strong instinct that they were lost, but they had no proofs--exceptthat they did not know where they were. They had met no tourists forsome time, and they considered that a suspicious sign.

  Plainly we were in an ugly fix. The guides were naturally unwilling togo alone and seek a way out of the difficulty; so we all went together.For better security we moved slow and cautiously, for the forest wasvery dense. We did not move up the mountain, but around it, hoping tostrike across the old trail. Toward nightfall, when we were about tiredout, we came up against a rock as big as a cottage. This barrier tookall the remaining spirit out of the men, and a panic of fear and despairensued. They moaned and wept, and said they should never see their homesand their dear ones again. Then they began to upbraid me for bringingthem upon this fatal expedition. Some even muttered threats against me.

  Clearly it was no time to show weakness. So I made a speech in which Isaid that other Alp-climbers had been in as perilous a position as this,and yet by courage and perseverance had escaped. I promised to standby them, I promised to rescue them. I closed by saying we had plentyof provisions to maintain us for quite a siege--and did they supposeZermatt would allow half a mile of men and mules to mysteriouslydisappear during any considerable time, right above their noses, andmake no inquiries? No, Zermatt would send out searching-expeditions andwe should be saved.

  This speech had a great effect. The men pitched the tents with somelittle show of cheerfulness, and we were snugly under cover when thenight shut down. I now reaped the reward of my wisdom in providing onearticle which is not mentioned in any book of Alpine adventure but this.I refer to the paregoric. But for that beneficent drug, would have notone of those men slept a moment during that fearful night. But for thatgentle persuader they must have tossed, unsoothed, the night through;for the whiskey was for me. Yes, they would have risen in the morningunfitted for their heavy task. As it was, everybody slept but my agentand me--only we and the barkeepers. I would not permit myself to sleepat such a time. I considered myself responsible for all those lives. Imeant to be on hand and ready, in case of avalanches up there, but I didnot know it then.

  We watched the weather all through that awful n
ight, and kept an eye onthe barometer, to be prepared for the least change. There was not theslightest change recorded by the instrument, during the whole time.Words cannot describe the comfort that that friendly, hopeful, steadfastthing was to me in that season of trouble. It was a defective barometer,and had no hand but the stationary brass pointer, but I did not knowthat until afterward. If I should be in such a situation again, I shouldnot wish for any barometer but that one.

  All hands rose at two in the morning and took breakfast, and as soon asit was light we roped ourselves together and went at that rock. For sometime we tried the hook-rope and other means of scaling it, but withoutsuccess--that is, without perfect success. The hook caught once, andHarris started up it hand over hand, but the hold broke and if therehad not happened to be a chaplain sitting underneath at the time, Harriswould certainly have been crippled. As it was, it was the chaplain. Hetook to his crutches, and I ordered the hook-rope to be laid aside. Itwas too dangerous an implement where so many people are standing around.

  We were puzzled for a while; then somebody thought of the ladders.One of these was leaned against the rock, and the men went up it tiedtogether in couples. Another ladder was sent up for use in descending.At the end of half an hour everybody was over, and that rock wasconquered. We gave our first grand shout of triumph. But the joy wasshort-lived, for somebody asked how we were going to get the animalsover.