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An Avalanche

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



WE were so very highly favored as to see two of the grandest avalanches possible in the course of about an hour, between twelve o'clock and two. One cannot command any language to convey an adequate idea of their magnificence.

You are standing far below, gazing up to where the great disc of the glittering Alp cuts the heavens, and drinking in the influence of the silent scene around. Suddenly an enormous mass of snow and ice, in itself a mountain, seems to move ; it breaks from the toppling out-most mountain ridge of snow, where it is hundreds of feet in depth, and in its first fall of perhaps two thousand feet, is broken into millions of fragments. As you first see the flash of distant artillery by night, then hear the roar, so here you may see the white flashing mass majestically bowing, then hear the astounding din. A cloud of dusty, misty, dry snow rises into the air from the concussion, forming a white volume of fleecy smoke, or misty light, from the bosom of which thunders forth the icy torrent in its second prodigious fall over the rocky battlements. The eye follows it, delighted, as it ploughs through the path which preceding avalanches have worn, till it comes to the brink of a vast ridge of bare rock, perhaps more than two thousand feet perpendicular. Then pours the whole cataract over the gulf, with a still louder roar of echoing thunder, to which nothing but the noise of Niagara in its sublimity is comparable.

Nevertheless, you may think of the tramp of an army of elephants, of the roar of multitudinous cavalry marching to battle, of the whirlwind tread of ten thousand bisons sweeping across the prairie, of the tempest surf of ocean beating and shaking the continent, of the sound of torrent floods, or of a numerous host, or of the voice of the Trumpet on Sinai, exceeding loud, and waxing louder and louder, so that all the people in the camp trembled, or of the rolling orbs of that fierce Chariot described by Milton,

"Under whose burning wheels The steadfast empyrean shook throughout."

It is with such a mighty shaking tramp that the Avalanche thunders down.

Another fall of still greater depth ensues, over a second similar castellated ridge or reef in the face of the mountain, with an awful, majestic slowness and a tremendous crash in its concussion, awakening again the reverberating peals of thunder. Then the torrent roars on to another smaller fall, till at length it reaches a mighty groove of snow and ice, like the slide down the Pilatus, of which Playfair has given so powerfully graphic a description. Here its progress is slower, and last of all you listen to the roar of the falling fragments, as they drop, out of sight, with a dead weight into the bottom of the gulf, to rest there forever.

Now figure to yourself a cataract like that of Niagara (for I should judge the volume of one of these avalanches to be probably every way superior in bulk to the whole of the Horse-shoe Fall), poured in foaming grandeur, not merely over one great precipice of 200 feet, but over the successive ridgy precipices of two or three thousand, in the face of a mountain eleven thousand feet high, and tumbling, crashing, thundering down, with a continuous din of far greater sublimity than the sound of the grandest cataract. Placed on the slope of the Wengern Alp, right opposite the whole visible side of the Jungfrau, we have enjoyed two of these mighty spectacles, at about half an hour's interval between them. The first was the most sublime, the second the most beautiful. The roar of the falling mass begins to be heard the moment it is loosened from the mountain; it pours on with the sound of a vast body of rushing water; then comes the first great concussion, a booming crash of thunders, breaking on the still air in mid heaven; your breath is suspended, as you listen and look; the mighty glittering mass shoots headlong over the main precipice, and the fall is so great, that it produces to the eye that impression of dread majestic slowness, of which I have spoken, though it is doubtless more rapid than Niagara. But if you should see the cataract of Niagara itself coming down five thou-sand feet above you in the air, there would be the same impression. The image remains in the mind, and can never fade from it; it is as if you had seen an alabaster cataract from heaven.

The sound is far more sublime than that of Niagara, because of the preceding stillness in those awful Alpine solitudes. In the midst of such silence and solemnity, from out the bosom of those glorious glittering forms of nature, comes that rushing, crashing thunder-burst of sound ! If it were not that your soul, through the eye, is as filled and fixed with the sublimity of the vision, as through the sense of hearing with that of the audible report, methinks you would wish to bury your face in your hands, and fall prostrate, as at the voice of the Eternal ! But it is impossible to convey any adequate idea of the combined impression made by these rushing masses and- rolling thunders upon the soul. When you see the smaller avalanches, they are of the very extreme of beauty, like jets of white powder, or heavy white mist or smoke, poured from crag to crag, like as if the Staubach itself were shot from the top of the Jungfrau. Travellers do more frequently see only these smaller cataracts, in which the beautiful predominates over the sub-lime ; and at the inn they told us it was very rare to witness so mighty an avalanche as that of which we had enjoyed the spectacle. Lord Byron must have seen some-thing like it, when he and Hobhouse were on the mountain together. His powerful descriptions in "Manfred" could have been drawn from nothing but the reality.



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