The Alps - Rescue From A Crevasse
( Originally Published 1897 )
MR. HUXLEY and myself had been staying for some days at Grindelwald, hoping for steady weather, and looking at times into the wild and noble region which the Shreckhorn, the Wetterhorn, the ViescherhSrner, and the Eiger feed with eternal snows. We had scanned the buttresses of the Jungfrau with a view to forcing a passage between the Jungfrau and the Monk from the Wengern Alp to the Aletsch glacier. The weather for a time kept hopes and fears alternately afloat, but finally it declared against us ; so we moved with the unelastic tread of beaten soldiers over the Great Sheideck, and up the Vale of Hasli to the Grimsel. We crossed the pass whose planed and polished rocks had long ago attracted the attention of Sir John Leslie, though the solution which he then offered ignored the ancient glacier which we now know to have been the planing tool employed. On rounding an angle of the Mayenwand, two travellers suddenly appeared in front of us ; they were Mr. (now Sir John) Lubbock and his guide. He had been waiting at the new hotel erected by M. Seiler at the foot of the Mayenwand, expecting our arrival ; and finally, despairing of this, he had resolved to abandon the mountains, and was now bound for Brientz. In fact, the lakes of Switzerland, and the ancient men who once bivouacked along their borders, were to him the principal objects of interest ; and we caught him in the act of declaring a preference for the lowlands which we could not by any means share.
We reversed his course, carried him with us down the mountain, and soon made ourselves at home in M. Seiler's hotel. Here we had three days training on the glacier and the adjacent heights, and on one of the days Lubbock and myself made an attempt upon the Galenstock. By the flank of the mountain, with the Rhone glacier on our right, we reached the heights over the ice cascade and crossed the glacier above the fall. The sky was clear and the air pleasant as we ascended ; but in the earth's atmosphere the sun works his swiftest necromancy, the lightness of air rendering it in a peculiar degree capable of change. Clouds suddenly generated came drifting up the valley of the Rhone; covering the glacier and swathing the mountain-tops, but leaving clear for a time the upper névé of the Rhone. Grandeur is conceded while beauty is sometimes denied to the Alps. But the higher snow-fields of the great glaciers are altogether beautiful — not throned in repellent grandeur, but endowed with a grace so tender as to suggest the loveliness of woman.
The day was one long succession of surprises wrought by the cloud-filled and wind-rent air. We reached the top, and found there a gloom which might be felt. It was almost thick enough to cut each of us away from the vision of his fellows. But suddenly, in the air above us, the darkness would melt away, and the deep blue heaven would reveal itself spanning the dazzling snows. Beyond the glacier rose the black and craggy summit of the Finsteraarhorn, and other summits and other crags emerged in succession as the battle-clouds rolled away. But the smoke would again whirl in upon us, and we looked once more into infinite haze from the cornice which lists the mountain-ridge. Again the clouds are torn asunder, and again they close. And thus, in upper air, did the sun play a wild accompa-. niment to the mystic music of the world below.
From the Rhone glacier we proceeded down the Rhone valley to Viesch, whence, in the cool twilight, all three of us ascended to the Hotel Jungfrau, on the AEggischhorn. This we made our head-quarters for some days, and here Lubbock and I decided to ascend the Jungfrau. The proprietor of the hotel keeps guides for this excursion, but his charges are so high as to be almost prohibitory. I, however, needed no guide in addition to my faithful Bennen ; but simply a porter of sufficient strength and skill to follow where he led. In the village of Laax Bennen found such a porter—a young man named Bielander, who had the reputation of being both courageous and strong. He was the only son of his mother, and she was a widow.
This young man and a second porter we sent on with our provisions to the Grotto of the Faulberg, where we were to spend the night. Between the .Eggischhorn and this cave the glacier presents no difficulty which the most ordinary caution cannot overcome, and the thought of danger in connection with it never occurred to us. An hour and a half after the departure of our porters we slowly wended our way to the lake of Märjelin which we skirted, and were soon upon the ice. The middle of the glacier was almost as smooth as a carriage-road, cut here and there by musical brooks produced by the superficial ablation. To Lubbock the scene opened out with the freshness of a new revelation, as, previously to this year, he had never been among the glaciers of the Alps. To me, though not new, the region had lost no trace of the interest with which I first viewed it. We moved briskly, along the frozen incline, until, after a couple of hours' march, we saw a solitary human being standing on the lateral moraine of the glacier, near the point where we were to quit it for the cave of the Faulberg.
At first this man excited no attention. He stood and watched us, but did not come towards us, until finally our curiosity was aroused by observing that he was one of our own two men. The glacier here is always cut by crevasses, which, while they present no real difficulty, require care. We approached our porter, but he never moved ; and when we came up to him he looked stupid, and did not speak until he was spoken to. Bennen addressed him in the patois of the place, and he answered in the same patois. His answer must have been more than usually obscure, for Bennen misunderstood the most important part of it. 'My God ! ' he exclaimed, turning to us, ' Walters is killed ! ' Walters was the guide at the AEggischhorn, with whom, in the present instance, we had nothing to do. 'No, not Walters,' responded the man ; 'it is my comrade that is killed.' Bennen looked at him with a wild bewildered stare. ' How killed ?' he exclaimed. ' Lost in a crevasse,' was the reply. We were all so stunned that for some moments we did not quite seize the import of the terrible statement. Bennen at length tossed his arms in the air, ex-claiming, ' Jesu Maria ! what am I to do ?' With the swiftness that some ascribe to dreams, I surrounded the fact with imaginary adjuncts, one of which was that the man had been drawn dead from the crevasse, and was now a corpse in the cave of the Faulberg for I took it for granted that, had he been still entombed, his comrade would have run or called for our aid. Several times in succession the porter affirmed that the missing man was certainly dead. ' How does he know that he is dead ?' Lubbock demanded. ' A man is sometimes rendered insensible by a fall without being killed.' This question was repeated in German, but met with the same dogmatic response. ' Where is the man ?' I asked. ' There,' replied the porter, stretching his arm to-wards the glacier. ' In the crevasse ?' A stolid ' Ja ! ' was the answer. It was with difficulty that I quelled an imprecation. ' Lead the way to the place, you blockhead,' and he led the way.
We were soon beside a wide and jagged cleft which resembled a kind of cave more than an ordinary crevasse. This cleft had been spanned by a snow bridge, now broken, and to the edge of which footsteps could be traced. The glacier at the place was considerably torn, but simple patience was the only thing needed to unravel its complexity. This quality our porter lacked, and, hoping to make shorter work of it, he attempted to cross the bridge. It gave way, and he went down, carrying an immense load of débris along with him. We looked into the hole, at one end of which the vision was cut short by darkness, while immediately under the broken bridge it was crammed with snow and shattered icicles. We saw nothing more. We listened with strained attention, and from the depths of the glacier issued a low moan. Its repetition assured us that it was no delusion—the man was still alive. Bennen from the first had been extremely excited ; and the fact of his having, as a Catholic, saints and angels to appeal to, augmented his emotion. When he heard the moaning he became almost frantic. He attempted to get into the crevasse, but was obliged to recoil. It was quite plain that a second life was in danger, for my guide seemed to have lost all self-control. I placed my hand heavily upon his shoulder, and admonished him that upon his coolness depended the life of his friend. ' If you behave like a man, we shall save him ; if like a woman, he is lost.'
A first-rate rope accompanied the party, but un-happily it was with the man in the crevasse. Coats, waistcoats, and braces were instantly taken off and knotted together. I watched Bennen while this work was going on ; his hands trembled with excitement, and his knots were evidently insecure. The last junction complete, he exclaimed, ' Now let me down !' ' Not until each of these knots has been tested ; not an inch !' Two of them gave way, and Lubbock's waistcoat also proved too tender for the strain. The débris was about forty feet from the surface of the glacier, but two intermediate prominences afforded a kind of footing. Bennen was dropped down upon one of these ; I followed, being let down by Lubbock and the other porter. Bennen then descended the remaining distance, and was fol-lowed by me. More could not find room.
The shape and size of the cavity were such as to produce a kind of resonance, which rendered it difficult to fix the precise spot from which the sound issued ; but the moaning continued, becoming to all appearance gradually feebler. Fearing to wound the man, the ice-rubbish was cautiously rooted away ; it rang curiously as it fell into the adjacent gloom. A layer two or three feet thick was thus removed ; and finally, from the frozen mass, and so bloodless as to be almost as white as the sur-rounding snow, issued a single human hand. The fingers moved. Round it we rooted, cleared the arm, and reached the knapsack, which we cut away. We also regained our rope. The man's head was then laid bare, and my brandy-flask was immediately at his lips. He tried to speak, but his words jumbled themselves to a dull moan. Bennen's feelings got the better of him at intervals ; he wrought like a hero, but at times he needed guidance and stern admonition. The arms once free, we passed the rope underneath them, and tried to draw the man out. But the ice-fragments round him had regelated so as to form a solid case. Thrice we essayed to draw him up, thrice we failed ; he had literally to be hewn out of the ice, and not until his last foot was extricated were we able to lift him. By pulling him from above, and pushing him from below, the man was at length raised to the surface of the glacier.
For an hour we had been in the crevasse in shirtsleeves—the porter had been in it for two hours—and the dripping ice had drenched us. Bennen, moreover, had worked with the energy of madness, and now the reaction came. He shook as if he would fall to pieces ; but brandy and some dry covering revived him. The rescued man was help-less, unable to stand, unable to utter an articulate sentence. Bennen proposed to carry him down the glacier towards home. Had this been attempted, the man would certainly have died upon the ice. Bennen thought he could carry him for two hours ; but the guide underrated his own exhaustion and overrated the vitality of the porter. ' It cannot be thought of,' I said : ' to the cave of Faulberg, where we must tend him as well as we can.' We got him to the side of the glacier, where Bennen took him on his back ; in ten minutes he sank under his load. It was now my turn, so I took the man on my back and plodded on with him as far as I was able. Helping each other thus by turns, we reached the mountain grôt.
The sun had set, and the crown of the Jungfrau was embedded in amber light. Thinking that the. Marjelin See might be reached before darkness, I proposed starting in search of help. Bennen pro-tested against my going alone, and I thought I noticed moisture in Lubbock's eye. Such an occasion brings out a man's feeling if he have any. I gave them both my blessing and made for the glacier. But my anxiety to get quickly clear of the crevasses defeated its own object. Thrice I found myself in difficulty, and the light was visibly departing. The conviction deepened that persistence would be folly, and the most impressive moment of my existence was that on which I stopped at the brink of a profound fissure and looked upon the mountains and the sky. The serenity was perfect—not a cloud, not a breeze, not a sound, while the last hues of eunset spread over the solemn west.
I returned ; warm wine was given to our patient, and all our dry clothes were wrapped around him. Hot-water bottles were placed at his feet, and his back was briskly rubbed. He continued to groan a long time ; but, finally, both this and the trembling ceased Bennen watched him solemnly, and at length muttered in anguish, ' Sir, he is dead ! ' I leaned over the man and found him breathing gently ; I felt his pulse—it was beating tranquilly. `Not dead, dear old Bennen ; he will be able to crawl home with us in the morning.' The pre-diction was justified by the event ; and two days afterwards we saw him at Laax, minus a bit of his ear, with a bruise upon his cheek, and a few scars upon his hand, but without a broken bone or serious injury of any kind.
The self-denying conduct of the second porter made us forget his stupidity—it may have been stupefaction. As I lay there wet, through the long hours cf that dismal night, I almost registered a vow never to tread upon a glacier again. But, like the forces in the physical world, human emotions vary with the distance from their origin, and a year afterwards I was again upon the ice.
Towards the close of 1862 Bennen and myself made 'the tour of Monte Rosa,' halting for a day or two at the excellent hostelry of Delapierre, in the magnificent Val du Lys, We scrambled up the Grauhaupt, a point exceedingly favourable to the study of the conformation of the Alps. We also halted at Alagna and Macugnaga. But, notwithstanding their admitted glory, the Italian valleys did not suit either Bennen or me. We longed for the more tonic air of the northern slopes, and were glad to change the valley of Ansasca for that of Saas. We subsequently, on a perfect day, crossed the Alphubel Joch—a very noble pass, and by no means difficult if the ordinary route be followed. But Bennen and I did not follow that route. We tried to cross the mountains obliquely from the chalets of Tâsch, close under the Alphubel, and, as a consequence, encountered on a spur of the mountain a danger to which I will not further refer than to say that Bennen's voice is still present to me as he said, ' Ach, Herr ! es thut mir Leid. Sie hier zu sehen: