The Lord Francis Douglas Tragedy
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
We began to prepare for the descent. Hudson and I again consulted as to the best and safest arrangement of the party. We agreed that it would be best for Croz to go first, and Harlow second; Hudson, who was almost equal to a guide in sureness of foot, wished to be third; Lord Francis 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 settled 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 even occurred to me again. For some little distance we followed the others, detached from them, and should have continued so had not Lord Francis 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 to Seiler, saying that he had seen an avalanche fall from the summit of the Matterhorn on to the Matterhorngletscher. The boy was reproved for telling such idle stories; he was right, nevertheless, and this was what he saw.
Michael 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 can not 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 have said, was in the act of turning round to go down a step or two himself ; at the moment Mr. Hadow slipt, 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 Francis 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 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 precipice to precipice on to the Matterhorngletscher 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 the space of half an hour we remained on the spot without moving a single step. The two men, paralyzed by terror, cried Iike infants, and trembled in such a manner as to threaten us with the fate of the others. Old Peter rent the air with exclamations of "Chamounix!—oh, what will Chamounix say," He meant, Who would believe that Croz could fall? The young man did nothing but scream or sob, "We are lost! we are lost!" Fixt between the two, I could move neither up nor down. I begged young Peter to descend, but he dared not. Unless he did, we could not advance. Old Peter be-came alive to the danger, and swelled the cry, "We are lost ! we are lost !"
The father's fear was natural—he trembled for his son; the young man's fear was cowardly—he thought of self alone. At last old Peter summoned up courage, and changed his position to a rock to which he could fix the rope; the young man then descended, and we all stood together. Immediately we did so, I asked for the rope which had given way, and found, to my surprise—indeed, to my horror—that it was the weakest of the three ropes. It was not brought, and should not have been employed, for the purpose for which it was used. It was old rope, and, compared with the others, was feeble. It was intended as a reserve, in came we had to leave much rope behind attached to rocks. I saw at once that a serious question was involved, and made them give me the end. It had broken in mid-air, and it did not appear to have sustained previous injury.
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 fixt rope to firm rocks, in addition to being tied together. These ropes were cut from time to time, and were left be-hind. 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 can not !"
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 with-in neither sight nor hearing, we ceased from our useless efforts, and, too cast down for speech, silently gathered up our things, preparatory to continuing the descent.
When to a mighty arch appeared, rising above the Lyskamm high into the sky. Pale, colorless and noiseless, but perfectly sharp and defined, except where it was lost in the clouds, this unearthly apparition seemed like a vision from another world, and almost appalled we watched with amazement the gradual development of two vast crosses, one on either side. If the Taugwalders had not been the first to perceive it, I should have doubted my senses. They thought it had some connection with the accident, and I, after a while, that it might bear some relations to ourselves. But our movements had no effect upon it. The spectral forms remained motionless. It was a fearful and wonderful sight, unique in my experience, and impressive beyond description, at such a moment.
Night fell, and for an hour the descent was continued in the darkness. At half-past nine a resting-place was found, and upon a wretched slab, barely large enough to hold three, we passed six miserable hours. At daybreak the descent was resumed, and from the Hornli ridge we ran down to the chalets of Buhl and on to Zermatt. Seiler met me at his door, and followed in silence to my room: "What is the matter," "The Taugwalders and I have returned." He did not need more, and burst into tears, but lost no time in lamentations, and set to work to arouse the village.
Ere long a score of men had started to ascend the Hohlicht heights, above Kalbermatt and Z'Mutt, which commanded the plateau of the Matterhorngletscher. They returned after six hours, and reported that they had seen the bodies lying motionless on the snow. This was on Saturday, and they proposed that we should leave on Sunday evening, so as to arrive upon the plateau at daybreak on Monday. We started at 2 A.M. on Sunday, the 16th, and followed the route that we had taken on the previous Thursday as far as the Hornli. From thence we went down to the right of the ridge, and mounted through the "seracs" of the Matterhorngletscher. By 8:30 we had got to the plateau at the top of the glacier, and within sight of the corner in which we knew my companions must be. As we saw one weather-beaten man after another raise the telescope, turn deadly pale and pass it on without a word to the next, we knew that all hope was gone. We approached. They had fallen below as they had fallen above—Croz a little in advance, Hadow near him, and Hudson behind, but of Lord Francis Douglas we could see nothing. We left them where they fell, buried in snow at the base of the grandest cliff of the most majestic mountain of the Alps.