Another Ascent Of Vesuvius
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
No matter that the snow and ice lie thick upon the summit of Vesuvius, or that we have been on foot all day at Pompeii, or that croakers maintain that strangers should not be on the mountain by night, in such unusual season. Let us take ad-vantage of the fine weather; make the best of our way to Resina, the little village at the foot of the mountain; prepare ourselves, as well as we can, on so short a notice, at the guide's house, ascend at once, and have sunset half-way up, moonlight at the top, and midnight to come down in !
At four o'clock in the afternoon, there is a terrible uproar in the little stable-yard of Signor Salvatore, the recognized head guide, with the gold band round his cap; and thirty under-guides who are all scuffing and screaming at once, are preparing half-a-dozen saddled ponies, three litters, and some stout staves, for the journey. Every one of the thirty quarrels with the other twenty-nine, and frightens the six ponies; and as much of the village as can possibly squeeze itself into the little stable-yard, participates in the tumult, and gets trodden on by the cattle.
After much violent skirmishing, and more noise than would suffice for the storming of Naples, the procession starts. The head guide, who is liberally paid for all the attendants, rides a little in advance of the party; the other thirty guides proceed on foot. Eight go forward with the litters that are to be used by and by; and the remaining two-andtwenty beg. We ascend, gradually, by stony lanes like rough broad flights of stairs, for some time. At length, we leave these, and the vine-yards on either side of them, and emerge upon a bleak, bare region where the lava lies confusedly, in enormous rusty masses; as if the earth had been plowed up by burning thunder-bolts. And now, we halt to see the sunset. The change that falls upon the dreary region and on the whole mountain, as its red light fades, and the night comes on—and the unutterable solemnity and dreariness that reign around, who that has witnessed it, can ever forget!
It is dark, when after winding, for some time, over the broken ground, we arrive at the foot of the cone, which is extremely steep, and seems to rise, almost perpendicularly, from the spot where we dismount. The only light is reflected from the snow, deep, hard, and white, with which the cone is covered. It is now intensely cold, and the air is piercing. The thirty-one have brought no torches, knowing that the moon will rise before we reach the top. Two of the litters are devoted to the two ladies; the third, to a rather heavy gentleman from Naples, whose hospitality and good-nature have attached him to the expedition, and determined him to assist in doing the honors of the mountain. The rather heavy gentleman is carried by fifteen men; each of the ladies by half-a-dozen. We who walk, make the best use of our staves; and so the whole party begin to labor upward over the snow -as if they were tailing to the summit of an antediluvian Twelfth-cake.
We are a long time toiling up; and the head guide looks oddly about him when one of the company—not an Italian, tho an habitue of the mountain for many years, whom we will call, for our present purpose, Mr. Pickle of Portici—suggests that, as it is freezing hard, and the usual footing of ashes is covered by the snow and ice, it will surely be difficult to descend. But the sight of the litters above, tilting up, and down, and jerking from this side to that, as the bearers continually slip, and tumble, diverts our attention, more especially as the whole length of the rather heavy gentleman is, at that moment, presented to as alarmingly foreshortened, with his head downward.
The rising of the moon soon afterward, revives the flagging spirits of the bearers. Stimulating each other with their usual watchword, "Courage, friend ! It is to eat maccaroni !" they press on, gallantly, for the summit.
From tingeing the top of the snow above us, with a band of light, and pouring it in a stream through the valley below, while we have been ascending in the dark, the moon soon lights the whole white mountain side, and the broad sea down below, and tiny Naples in the distance, and every village in the country round. The whole prospect is in this lovely state, when we come upon the platform on the mountain-top—the region of fire—an exhausted crater formed of great masses of gigantic cinders, like blocks of stone from some tremendous waterfall, burned up; from every chink and crevice of which, hot, sulfurous smoke is pouring out; while, from another conical-shaped hill, the present crater, rising abruptly from this platform at the end, great sheets of fire are streaming forth, reddening the night with flame, blackening it with smoke, and spotting it with red-hot stones and cinders, that fly up into the air like feathers, and fall down like lead. What words can paint the gloom and grandeur of this scene !
The broken ground, the smoke, the sense of suffocation from the sulfur, the fear of falling down through the crevices in the yawning ground, the stopping, every now and then, for somebody who is missing in the dark (for the dense smoke now obscures the moon), the intolerable noise of the thirty, and the hoarse roaring of the mountain, make it a scene of such confusion, at the same time, that we reel again. But, dragging the ladies through it, and across another exhausted crater to the foot of the present volcano, we approach close to it on the windy side, and then sit down among the hot ashes at its foot, and look up in silence, faintly estimating the action that is going on within, from its being full a hundred feet higher, at this minute, than it was six weeks ago.
There is something in the fire and roar, that generates an irresistible desire to get nearer to it. We can not rest long, without starting off, two of us, on our hands and knees, accompanied by the head guide, to climb to the brim of the flaming crater, and try to look in. Meanwhile, the thirty yell, as with one voice, that it is a dangerous proceeding, and call to us to come back; frightening the rest of the party out of their wits.
What with their noise, and what with the trembling of the thin crust of ground, that seems about to open underneath our feet and plunge us in the burning gulf below (which is the real danger, if there be any) ; and what with the flashing of the fire in our faces, and the shower of red-hot ashes that is raining down, and the choking smoke and sulfur; we may well feel giddy and irrational, like drunken men. But, we contrive to climb up to the brim, and look down, for a moment, into the hell of boiling fire below. Then, we all three come rolling down; blackened, and singed, and scorched, and hot, and giddy; and each with his dress alight in half-a-dozen places.
You have read, a thousand times, that the usual way of descending, is, by sliding down the ashes; which, forming a gradually-increasing ledge below the feet, prevent too rapid a descent. But, when we have crossed the two exhausted craters on our way back, and are come to this precipitous place, there is (as Mr. Pickle has foretold) no vestige of ashes to be seen; the whole being a smooth sheet of ice.
In this dilemma, ten or a dozen of the guides cautiously join hands, and make a chain of men; of whom the foremost beat, as well as they can, a rough track with their sticks, down which we prepare to follow. The way being fearfully steep, and none of the party—even of the thirty—being able to keep their feet for six paces together, the ladies are taken out of their litters, and placed, each between two careful persons; while others of the thirty hold by their skirts, to prevent their falling forward—a necessary precaution, tending to the immediate and hopeless dilapidation of their apparel. The rather heavy gentleman is abjured to leave his litter too, and be escorted in a similar manner; but he resolves to be brought down as he was brought up, on the principle that his fifteen bearers are not likely to tumble all at once, and that he is safer so, than trusting to his own legs.
In this order, we begin the descent; sometimes on foot, sometimes shuffling on the ice; always proceeding much more quietly and slowly than on our upward way; and constantly alarmed by the falling among us of somebody from behind, who endangers the footing of the whole party, and clings pertinaciously to anybody's ankles. It is impossible for the litter to be in advance, too, as the track has to be made; and its appearance behind us, overhead—with some one or other of the bearers always down, and the rather heavy gentleman with his legs always in the air—is very threatening and frightful. We have gone on thus, a very little way, painfully and anxiously, but quite merrily, and regarding it as a great success—and have all fallen several times, and have all been stopt, somehow or other, as we were sliding away when Mr. Pickle of Portici, in the act of remarking on these uncommon circumstances as quite beyond his experience, stumbles, falls, disengages himself, with quick presence of mind, from those about him, plunges away head foremost, and rolls, over and over, down the whole surface of the cone !
Giddy, and bloody, and a mere bundle of rags, is Pickle of Portici when we reach the place where we dismounted, and where the horses are waiting; but, thank God, sound in limb! And never are we likely to be more glad to see a man alive and on his feet, than to see him now—making light of it too, tho sorely bruised and in great pain. The boy is brought into the Hermitage on the Mountain, while we are at supper, with his head tied up; and the man is heard of, some hours afterward. He, too, is bruised and stunned, but has broken no bones; the snow having, fortunately, covered all the larger blocks of rock and stone, and rendered them harmless.