Adventures Among the Alps
( Originally Published 1903 )
THERE were times when I found the Swiss peasantry inclined to be gruff and surly in manner, but as a rule they were simple, hospitable folk, who treated me with kindness, and charged me but little for my food and lodging. I tried to travel as much as possible through the districts which were but little frequented by the general run of tourists, and though this was a hard thing to do, because the country is so small and the tourists are so numerous, I often managed to surprise by my presence some sleepy hamlet which had been without a stranger within its gates for many moons. Some-times the villagers would simply swarm about me in their curiosity, and I talked with them as well as I could by means of my few words of French and German and my sign language. In these out-of-the-way places I could live much cheaper than in such popular resorts as Lucerne and Interlaken.
I remained in the latter town over one Sunday, and early on the Monday morning I started out to walk through the valley to a village about ten miles distant, where I knew I would find some scenery worth visiting. I reached the place about noon, and spent the time until dark in exploring the neighborhood. I remained overnight at a little " gasthof," and before going to bed, I had an interesting conversation in broken English with the landlord, who told me about a wonderful path which led over the mountains to another village about fifteen miles away. He said it was one of the most picturesque trails in the whole of Switzerland, and that I shouldn't think of leaving the country without having tried it. I was interested in what he said, and determined to follow his advice. The village of which he told me was on my way to Berne, and it wouldn't be much out of my way to take the path which he described.
Seeking the Jungfrau
I was up early the next morning, and was on the road up the mountain-slope before the sun had risen above the horizon. I ate my usual breakfast of coffee and rolls, and as I trudged along I thought that I had never felt better in my life. I looked forward to the day's climb with delightful anticipation, for I had been told that I would be able to see the great Jungfrau in all her glory, and to obtain an excellent view of the whole of the Bernese Oberland.
It was a most delightful prospect, and as I ascended the lower slopes of the first mountain, I hurried myself as much as possible, for I was anxious to reach the height from which I would be able to see the great glaciers of which the landlord had spoken.
I soon passed all the villages on the slopes, and before ten o'clock I was nearly half way up the mountain, and walking along a plateau which was covered with forests of fir trees. All about me was that deathly silence so peculiar to high mountains, and I might have been altogether out of the world for all that I could hear or see of its life and movement.
I was trudging along, thinking of home, and what the people there might be doing, when all at once I looked up and around me, and discovered that I was no longer following a path. There was no trail to be seen anywhere about, and, so far as I could judge, I was in a very different place from where I should have been if I had followed the trail. It was a startling discovery to be made by a sixteen-year-old boy all alone in the wilderness, and I stood there dazed by the misfortune, and hardly knew which way to turn.
As I looked about I saw that I stood upon a slope, covered with great trees, through which I could see a ravine, far below. I decided, after considering the situation, that if I continued walking I might possibly come to a path that would take me again to the top of the mountain, where I could see my surroundings and possibly discover which was the right direction in which to go. I knew it would be useless to try to find the path I had lost, for in such a forest I would certainly become more bewildered every minute, and probably walk around in a circle.
Lost in the High Alps
The more I thought of the difficulties confronting me, the more nervous I became. It was by no means certain that I would be able to find any trail at all, and I might possibly walk for miles and miles in this wilderness without finding any habitation. The entire district was a barren place, and nothing human would choose such a place for a home. I began to wonder what would become of me if I remained lost. I had never heard that there were wild beasts in the Alps, but the country looked as if it might be infested by bears and wild boars. Probably they would discover me if I had to remain out overnight.
Another source of worriment was the fact that I had nothing to eat in my knapsack except some coffee. I had always been able to obtain food at the huts of the mountaineers during my walking-tours, and I had not thought it necessary to make any provision for my noonday meal. It was now the middle of the afternoon, and since I had eaten only coffee and rolls for breakfast, I was ravenously hungry. I might have felt braver on a full stomach.
I walked down through the trees to explore the ravine, which I could see in the distance. I hoped I might find a hut there, or a path which would lead me back to civilization, but when I reached the bottom of the slope I beheld a discouraging sight. The mountain, instead of descending gradually into the ravine, was chopped off so abruptly as to form a precipice. When I came to the edge I stood and looked down into the ravine. I saw that there were high mountains all around it, with steep sides, covered with enormous boulders of rock. The great Jungfrau, with her ice and snow, formed the wall on one side, and cascades of snow were continually falling into the ravine from the higher slopes. The place was absolutely destitute of any living thing, and there was no habitation in sight upon the mountain slopes. Every few minutes I heard a great thunder, as of a cannon, and I knew that the pieces of some glacier were crashing down the mountain side, perhaps to crush some poor goatherd on the slope. A great torrent of water poured down a chasm which it had carved for itself, and the noise of its waters, with the thunder of the avalanches, was the only sound to break the silence.
In the "Valley of Death "
The scene was grand and impressive beyond description. I thought to myself that I might be at the end of the earth for all that I could perceive of the rest of the world. I learned afterwards that the district is known as the " Valley of Death," and I thought the name a very appropriate one.
After I had sat there for some time, I decided that I was gaining nothing by the delay, and that I had best make a move of some sort. By this time I was weak from fright, as well as from hunger, and I could scarcely keep from trembling as I walked. The afternoon was far advanced, and I knew that unless I wanted to spend the night in this place I had better make an effort to get out. With the aid of my mountain-pole I descended to the ravine, and at any other time I would have taken great interest in exploring the diabolical haunt ; but under the existing circumstances I had no heart for investigation, except for the purpose of finding a way out For a while I seated myself upon one of the great boulders, and I couldn't keep my thoughts from home. I wished heartily that I was back in the Illinois town, with my position as janitor of the public library, and I wondered why I had ever been so foolish as to travel alone through Europe. Amid those surroundings I forgot all the pleasant and successful incidents of my trip, and thought only of my present unhappy position.
I observed that one side of the ravine was less precipitous than the other, and it occurred to me that once I reached its summit I might find a house of some sort. I felt almost too weak to make the effort to climb, but I forced myself to it. I couldn't remain indefinitely seated on a boulder, and this seemed the best way out. Once I had started, the excitement of the ascent served as a tonic, and I scaled the side without accident. Once on top, I found that I was only at the bottom of a long slope, which I would have to traverse before I could see down the other side of the mountain. This discovery was almost too much for my nerve. I thought I could never walk that distance which I saw before me, but necessity is a powerful aid, and I accomplished the task. It was after dark, however, when I stood on the highest ridge, and looked down the far side of the mountain in search of a glimmer of light.
A Haven of Rest
My perseverance was rewarded. Far below me I saw some rays of light streaming from a cabin window, and I started toward this haven in the wilderness. I was so exhausted that my feelings were benumbed, and when I reached the cabin door I was almost senseless from the strain I had undergone. The kind mountaineers took me in, gave me some hot gruel, and when I awoke the next morning, I felt as well as ever, save for a feeling of weakness. I tried to explain to my benefactors how is was that I had became lost, but they couldn't understand my signs. They understood, however, the name of the town for which I had started the day before, and they put me on the right path again. When I reached my destination, I learned that I had never been more than a mile from the trail I lost, and that if I had walked up the slope, instead of down to the ravine, I would have found it without much difficulty. The experience was a lesson to me, and after that I was content to keep to the beaten paths, and to carefully understand the lay of the land before I started to traverse unknown trails.
But I was not discouraged from my pedestrian trips over the Alps. I was by this time a confirmed mountain-climber, and I often went out of my way to climb summits which I had heard were worth doing. I was in love with the whole country, and many times I wished that my purse were richer, so that I could postpone my departure for France. I thought it worth a trip to Europe merely to visit Chamouni, with its varied and charming scenery. On my arrival in that town the clouds lifted from the mountains, around which they had clung for a week, showing Mont Blanc in all its glory, towering up to an altitude of nearly sixteen thousand feet. Standing in the little vale of Chamouni, right under this monarch of hills, at the foot of the Glacier du Gossons, I witnessed the setting sun reflecting his splendors upon the snow. It was an awe-inspiring scene, only equalled by my view of the sunset from the Rigi.
Switzerland is a wonderful country. The grand panorama of the Alps cannot be described; its real grandeur is beyond the power of words to paint, but its varied scenes will remain forever in my memory. The impression one gains by traveling through Switzerland is amazing, and is beyond the reach even of the poet to adequately express. To quote the words of another, " Nature-like, her own atmospheric influences come upon the imagination with imperceptible but overpowering force, and will not let herself be scanned and her features accurately described. She is very lofty, pure and divine, hiding herself from the gaze of man, and with depths of meaning that are no more to be fathomed than the divine source from which they sprang."