The Alps - The Lauwinen-Thor
( Originally Published 1897 )
IN JUNE 1860 I completed 'The Glaciers of the Alps,' which constituted but a fraction of the work executed during the previous autumn and spring. These labours and other matters had wearied and weakened me beyond measure, and to gain a little strength I went to Killarney. The trip was beneficial, but not of permanent benefit. The air of those most lovely lakes was too moist and warm for my temperament, and I longed for that keener air which derives its tone from contact with the Alpine snows. In 1859 I had bidden the Alps farewell, purposing in future to steep my thoughts in the tranquillity of English valleys, and confine my mountain work to occasional excursions in the Scotch Highlands, or amid the Welsh and Cumbrian hills. But in my weariness the mere thought of the snow-peaks and glaciers was an exhilaration ; and to the Alps, therefore, I resolved once more to go. I wrote to my former guide, Christian Lauener, desiring him to meet me at Thun on Saturday the 4th of August ; and on my way thither I fortunately fell in with Mr. Vaughan Hawkins. He told me of his plans and wishes, which embraced an attack upon the Matterhorn. Infected by his ardour, I gladly closed with the proposition that we should climb together for a time.
Lauener was not to be found at Thun, but in driving from Neuhaus to Interlaken a chaise met us, and swiftly passed ; within it I could discern the brown visage of my guide. We pulled up and shouted, the other vehicle stopped, Lauener leaped from it, and came bounding towards me with admirable energy, through the deep and splashing mud. ' Gott! wie der Kerl springt !' was the admiring exclamation of my coachman. Lauener is more than six feet high, and mainly a mass of bone ; his legs are out of proportion, longer than his trunk ; and he wears a short-tail coat, which augments the apparent discrepancy. Those massive levers were now plied with extraordinary vigour to project his body through space; and it was gratifying to be thus assured that the man was in first-rate condition, and fully up to the hardest work.
On Sunday the 5th of August, for the sake of a little training, I ascended the Faulhorn alone. The morning was splendid, but as the day advanced heavy cloud-wreaths swathed the heights. They attained a maximum about two P.M., and afterwards the overladen air cleared itself by intermittent jerks —revealing at times the blue of heaven and the peaks of the mountains ; then closing up again, and hiding in their dismal folds the very posts which stood at a distance of ten paces from the hotel door. The effects soon became exceedingly striking, the mutations were so quick and so forcibly antithetical. I lay down upon a seat, and watched the intermittent extinction and generation of the clouds, and the alternate appearance and disappearance of the mountains. More and more the sun swept off the sweltering haze, and the blue sky bent over me in domes of ampler span. At four P.M. no trace of cloud was visible, and a panorama of the Oberland, such I had no idea that the Faulhorn could command, unfolded itself. There was the grand barrier which separated us from the Valais ; there were the Jungfrau, Monk and Eiger, the Finsteraarhorn, the Schreckhorn, and the Wetterhorn, lifting their snowy and cloudless crests to heaven, and all so sharp and wildly precipitous that the bare thought of standing on any one of them made me shudder. London was still in my brain, and the vice of Primrose Hill in my muscles.
I disliked the ascent of the Faulhorn exceedingly, and the monotonous pony track which led to the top of it. Once, indeed, I deviated from the road, out of pure disgust, and, taking a jumping torrent for my guide and colloquist, was led astray. I now resolved to return to Grindelwald by another route. My host at first threw cold water on the notion, but he afterwards relaxed and admitted that the village might be attained by a more direct way than the ordinary one. He pointed to some rocks, eminences, and trees, which were to serve as landmarks; and stretching his arm in the direction of Grindelwald, I took the bearing of the place, and scampered over slopes of snow to the sunny Alp beyond them. To my left was a mountain stream making soft music by the explosion of its bubbles. I was once tempted aside to climb a rounded eminence, where - I lay for an hour watching the augmenting glory . of the mountains. The scene at hand was perfectly pastoral ; green pastures, dotted with chalets, and covered with cows, which filled the air with the incessant tinkle of their bells. Beyond was the majestic architecture of the Alps, with its capitals and western bastions flushed with the warm light of the lowering sun.
I mightily enjoyed the hour. There was health in the air and hope in the mountains, and with the consciousness of augmenting vigour I quitted my station, and galloped down the Alp. I was soon amid the pinewoods which overhang the valley of Grindelwald, with no guidance save the slope of the mountain , which, at times, was quite precipitous ; but the roots of the pines grasping the rocks afforded hand and foot such hold as to render the steepest places the pleasantest of all. I often emerged from the gloom of the trees upon lovely bits of pasture—bright emerald gems set in the bosom of the woods. It appeared to me surprising that nobody had constructed a resting-place ou this fine slope. With a fraction of the time necessary to reach the top of the Faulhorn, a position might be secured from which the prospect would vie in point of grandeur with almost any in the Alps ; while the ascent from Grindelwald, amid the shade of the festooned trees, would itself be delightful.
Hawkins, who had halted for a day at Thun, had arrived ; our guide had prepared a number of stakes, and on Monday morning we mounted our theodolite and proceeded to the Lower Glacier. With some difficulty we established the instrument upon a site whence the glacier could be seen from edge to edge ; and across it was fixed in a straight line a series of twelve stakes. We afterwards ascended the glacier till we touched the avalanche-débris of the Heisse Platte. We wandered amid the moulins and crevasses until evening approached, and thus gradually prepared our muscles for more arduous work. On Tuesday a sleety rain filled the entire air, and the glacier was so laden with fog that there was no possibility of our being able to see across it. On Wednesday, happily, the weather brightened, and we executed our measurements ; finding, as in all other cases, that the glacier was retarded by its bounding walls, its motion varying from a minimum of thirteen and a half inches to a maximum of twenty-two inches a day. To Mr. Hawkins I am indebted both for the fixing of the stakes and the reduction of the measurements to their diurnal rate.
Previous to leaving England I had agreed to join a party of friends at the AEggischhorn, on Thursday the 9th of August. My plan was, first to measure the motion of the Grindelwald glacier, and after-wards to cross the mountain-wall which separates the canton of Berne from that of Valais, so as to pass from Lauterbrunnen to the AEggischhorn in a single day. How this formidable barrier was to be crossed was a problem, but I did not doubt being able to get over it somehow. On mentioning my wish to Lauener, he agreed to try, and proposed attacking it through the Roththal. In company with his brother Ulrich, he had already spent some time in the Roththal, seeking to scale the Jungfrau from that side. Hawkins had previously, I believe, entertained the thought of assailing the same barrier at the very same place. Having completed our measurements on the Wednesday, we descended to Grindelwald and discharged our bill. We desired to obtain the services of Christian Kaufmann, a guide well acquainted with both the Wetterhorn and the Jungfrau ; but on learning our intentions he ex-pressed fears regarding his lungs, and recommended to us his brother, a powerful young man, who had also undergone the discipline of the Wetterhorn. Him we accordingly engaged. We arranged with the landlord of the Bear to have the main mass of our luggage sent to the Æggischhorn by a more easy route. I was loth to part with the theodolite, but Lauener at first grumbled hard against taking it. It was proposed, however, to confine his load to the bead of the instrument, while Kaufmann should carry the legs, and I should bear my own knapsack. He yielded. Ulrich Lauener was at Grindelwald when we started for Lauterbrunnen, and on bidding us good-bye he remarked that we were going to attempt an impossibility. He had examined the place which we proposed to assail, and emphatically affirmed that it could not be surmounted. We were both a little chagrined by this gratuitous announcement, and answered him somewhat warmly ; for we knew the moral, or rather immoral, effect of such an opinion upon the spirits of our men.
The weather became more serene as we approached Lauterbrunnen. We had a brief evening stroll, but retired to bed before day had quite forsaken the mountains. At two A.M. the candle of Lauener gleamed into our bedrooms, and he pronounced the weather fair. We got up at once, dressed, despatched our hasty breakfast, strapped our things into the smallest possible volume, and between three and four A.M. were on our way. The hidden sun crimsoned faintly the eastern sky, but the valleys were all in peaceful shadow. To our right the Staubbach dangled its hazy veil, while other Backs of minor note also hung from the beetling rocks, but fell to earth too lightly to produce the faintest murmur. After an hour's march we deviated to the left, and wound upward through the woods which here cover the slope of the hill.
The dawn cheerfully unlocked the recesses of the mountains, and we soon quitted the gloom of the woods for the bright green Alp. This we breasted, regardless of the path, until we reached the chalets of the Roththal. We did not yet see the particular staircase up which Lauener proposed to lead us, but we inspected minutely the battlements to our right, marking places for future attack in case our present attempt should not be successful. The elastic grass disappeared, and we passed over rough crag and shingle alternately. We reached the base of a ridge of débris, and mounted it. At our right was the glacier of the Roththal, along the lateral moraine of which our route lay.
Just as we touched the snow a spring bubbled from the rocks at our left, spurting its water over stalagmites of ice. We turned towards it, and had each a refreshing draught. Lauener pointed out to us the remains of the hut erected by him and his brother when they attempted the Jungfrau, and from which they were driven by adverse weather. We entered an amphitheatre, grand and beautiful this splendid morning, but doubtless in times of tempest a fit residence for the devils whom popular belief has banished to its crags. The snow for a space was as level as a prairie, but in front of us rose the mighty bulwarks which separated us from the neighbouring canton. To our right were the crags of the Breithorn, to our left the buttresses of the Jungfrau, while between both was an indentation in the mountain-wall, on which all eyes were fixed. From it downwards hung a thread of snow, which was to be our leading-string to the top.
Though very steep, the aspect of the place was by no means terrible : comparing with it my memory of other gulleys in the Chamouni mountains, I imagined that three hours would place us at the top. We not only expected an easy conquest of the barrier, but it was proposed that on reaching the top we should turn to the left, and walk straight to the summit of the Jungfrau. Lauener was hopeful, but not sanguine. We were soon at the foot of the barrier, clambering over mounds of snow. Huge consolidated lumps emerged from the general mass ; the snow was evidently that of avalanches which had been shot down the couloir, kneading themselves into vast balls, and piling themselves in heaps upon the plain. The gradient steepened, the snow was hard, and the axe was invoked. Straight up the couloir seemed the most promising route, and we pursued it for an hour, the impression gradually gaining ground that the work would prove heavier than we had anticipated.
We then turned our eyes on the rocks to our right, which seemed practicable, though very steep ; we swerved towards them, and worked laboriously upwards for three-quarters of an hour. Mr. Hawkins and the two guides then turned to the left, and regained the snow, leaving me among the crags. They had steps to cut, while I had none, and, consequently, I got rapidly above them. The work becomes ever harder, and rest is unattainable, for there is no resting-place. At every brow I pause ; legs and breast are laid against the rough rock, so as to lessen by their friction the strain upon the arms, which are stretched to grasp some protuberance above. Thus I rest, and thus I learn that three days' training is not sufficient to dislodge London from one's lungs. Meanwhile my companions are mounting monotonously along the snow. Lauener looks up at me at intervals, and I can clearly mark the expression of his countenance ; it is quite spiritless, while that of his companion bears the print of absolute dismay. Three hours have passed and the summit is not sensibly nearer. The men halt and converse together. Lauener at length calls out to me, 'I think it is impossible.' The effect of Ulrich's prediction appears to be cropping out; we expostulate,. however, and they move on. After some time they halt again, and reiterate their opinion that the thing cannot be done. They direct our attention to the top of the barrier ; light clouds scud swiftly over it, and snow-dust is scattered in the air. There is storm on the heights, which our guides affirm has turned the day against us. I cast about in my mind to meet the difficulty, and enquire whether we might not send one of them back with the theodolite, and thus so lighten our burdens as to be able to proceed. Kaufmann volunteers to take back the theodolite ; but this does not seem to please Lauener. There is a pause and hesitation. I remonstrate, while Hawkins calls out 'Forward!' Lauener once more doggedly strikes his axe into the snow, and resumes the ascent.
I continued among the rocks, though with less and less confidence in the wisdom of my choice. My knapsack annoyed me excessively ; the straps frayed my shoulders, and tied up my muscles Once or twice I had to get round a protruding face of rock, and then found my bonds very grievous. At length I came to a peculiar piece of cliff, near the base of which was a sharp ridge of snow, and at a height of about five feet above it the rock bulged out, so that a stone dropped from its protuberance would fall beyond the ridge. I had to work along the snow cautiously, squatting down so as to prevent the rock from pushing me too far out. Had I a fair ledge underneath I should have felt perfectly at ease, but on the stability of the snow-wedge I dared not calculate. To retreat was dangerous, to advance useless ; for right in front of me was a sheer smooth precipice, which completely extinguished the thought of further rock-work. I examined the place below me, and saw that a slip would be attended with the very worst consequences. To loose myself from the crag and attach myself to the snow was so perilous an operation that I did not attempt it ; and at length I ignobly called to Lauener to lend me a hand. A gleam of satisfaction crossed his features as he eyed me on my perch. He manifestly enjoyed being called to the rescue, and exhorted me to keep quite still. He worked up towards me, and in less than half an hour had hold of one of my legs. ' The place is not so bad after all,' he remarked, evidently glad to take me down, in more senses than one. I descended in his steps, and rejoined Hawkins upon the snow. From that moment Lauener was a regenerate man ; the despair of his visage vanished, and I firmly believe that the triumph he enjoyed, by augmenting his self-respect, was the proximate cause of our subsequent success.
The couloir was a most singular one ; it was excessively steep, and along it were two great scars, resembling the deep-cut channels of a mountain stream. They were, indeed, channels cut by the snow-torrents from the heights. We scanned those heights. The view was bounded by a massive cornice, from which the avalanches are periodically let loose.' The cornice seemed firm ; still we cast about for some piece of rock which might shelter us from the destroyer should he leap from his lair. Apart from the labour of the ascent, which is great, the frequency of avalanches will always render this pass a dangerous one. At 2 P.M. the air became intensely cold. My companion had wisely pocketed a pair of socks, which he drew over his gloves, and found very comforting. My leather gloves, being saturated with wet, were very much the reverse.
The wind was high, and as it passed the crest of the Breithorn its moisture was precipitated and afterwards carried away. The clouds thus generated shone for a time with the lustre of pearls ; but as they approached the sun they became suddenly flooded with the most splendid iridescences.' At our right now was a vertical wall of brown rock, along the base of which we advanced. At times we were sheltered by it, but not always ; for the wind was as fitful as a maniac, and eddying round the corners sometimes shook us forcibly, chilled us to the marrow, and spit frozen dust in our faces. The snow, moreover, adjacent to the rock had been melted and refrozen to a steep slope of compact ice. The men were very weary, the hewing of the steps exhausting, and the footing, particularly on some glazed rocks over which we had to pass, exceedingly insecure. Once on trying to fix my alpenstock I found that it was coated with an enamel of ice, and slipped through my wet gloves. This startled me, for the staff is my sole trust under such circumstances. The crossing of those rocks was a most awkward piece of work ; a slip was imminent, and the effects of the consequent glissade not to be calculated. We cleared them, however, and now observed the grey haze creeping down from the peak of the Breithorn to the point at which we were aiming. This, however, was visibly nearer ; and, for the first time since we began to climb, Lauener declared that he had good hopes—' Jetzt habe ich gute Hoffnung.' Another hour brought us to a place where the gradient slackened suddenly. The real work was done, and ten minutes further wading through the deep snow placed us fairly on the summit of the col.
Looked at from the top the pass will seem very formidable to the best of climbers ; to an ordinary eye it would appear simply terrific. We reached the base of the barrier at nine A.M.; we had surmounted it at four ; seven hours consequently had been spent upon that tremendous wall. Our view was limited above ; clouds were on all the mountains, and the Great Aletsch glacier was hidden by dense fog. With long swinging strides we went down the slope. Several times during our descent the snow coating was perforated, and hidden crevasses revealed. At length we reached the glacier, and plodded along it through the dreary fog. We cleared the ice just at nightfall, passed the Märjelin See, and soon found ourselves in utter darkness on the spurs of the AEggischhorn. We lost the track and wandered for a time bewildered. We sat down to rest, and then learned that Lauener was extremely ill. To quell the pangs of toothache he had chewed a cigar, which after his day's exertion was too much for him. He soon recovered, however, and we endeavoured to regain the track. In vain. The guides shouted, and after many repetitions we heard a shout in reply. A herdsman approached, and conducted us to some neighbouring chalets, whence he undertook the office of guide. After a time he also found himself in difficulty. We saw distant lights, and Lauener once more pierced the air with his tremendous whoop. We were heard. Lights were sent towards us, and an additional half-hour placed us under the roof of Herr Wellig, the active and intelligent proprietor of the Jungfrau hotel.
After this day's journey, which was a very hard one, the tide of health set steadily in. I have no remembrance of any further exhibition of the symptoms which had driven me to Switzerland. Each day's subsequent exercise made both brain and muscles firmer. We remained at the AEggischhorn for several days, occupying ourselves principally with observations and measurements on the Aletsch glacier, and joining together afterwards in that day's excursion—unparalleled in my experience—which has found in my companion a narrator worthy of its glories. And as we stood upon the savage ledges of the Matterhorn, with the utmost penalty which the laws of falling bodies could inflict at hand, I felt that there were perils at home for intellectual men greater even than those which then surrounded us —foes, moreover, which inspire no manhood by their attacks, but shatter alike the architect and his house by the same slow process of disintegration.' After the discipline of the Matterhorn, the fatal slope of the Col du Géant, which I visited a few days afterwards, looked less formidable than it otherwise might have done. From Courmayeur I worked round to Chamouni by Chapieu and the Col de Bonhomme. I attempted to get up Mont Blanc to visit the thermometers which I had planted on the summit a year previously ; and succeeded during a brief interval of fair weather in reaching the Grands Mulets. But the gleam which tempted me thus far proved but a temporary truce to the war of elements, and, after remaining twenty hours at the Mulets, I was obliged to beat an inglorious retreat.—Vacation Tourists, 1860.