The Alps - The Weisshorn
( Originally Published 1897 )
ON Friday the 16th of August I rose at 4.30 ; the eastern heaven was hot with the glow of the rising sun, and against it were drawn the mountain outlines. At 5.30 I bade good-bye to the excellent little auberge of the Bel Alp, and went straight down the mountain to Briegg, took the diligence to Visp, and engaged a porter immediately to Randa. I had sent Bennen thither to inspect the Weisshorn. On my arrival I learned that he had made the necessary reconnaissance, and entertained hopes of our being able to gain the top.
This noble mountain, which is fourteen thousand eight hundred feet high, had been tried on various occasions and from different sides by brave and competent climbers, but all efforts had been hitherto unavailing.
Previous to quitting Banda to assail this formidable peak I had two pairs of rugs sewed together so as to form two sacks. These and other coverlets, together with our wine and provisions, were sent on in advance of us. At 1 P.M. on the 18th of August Bennen, Wenger, and myself quitted the hotel, and were soon zigzagging among the pines of the opposite mountain. Wenger had been the guide of my friend Forster, and had shown himself so active and handy on the Strahleck that I commissioned Bennen to engage him. During the previous night I had been very unwell, and as I climbed the slope I suffered from intense thirst. Water seemed powerless to quench the desire for drink. We reached a chalet,, and at our request a smart young Senner caught up a, pail, and soon returned with it full of delicious milk. The effect of the milk was astonishing. It seemed to lubricate every atom of my body, and to exhilarate with its fragrance my brain.
Two hours' additional climbing brought us to our bivouac, a ledge of rock which jutted from the mountain-side, and formed an overhanging roof. On removing the stones from beneath the ledge, a space of comparatively dry clay was laid bare. This was to be my bed, and to soften it Wenger considerately stirred it up with his axe. The position was excellent, for lying upon my left side I commanded the whole range of Monte Rosa, from the Mischabel to the Breithorn. We were on the edge of an amphitheatre. Beyond the Schallenbach was the stately Mettelhorn. A row of eminences swept round to the right linked by lofty ridges of cliffs, which embraced the Schallenberg glacier. They formed, however, only a spur of the vaster Weisshorn, the cone of which was not visible from our dormitory. In company with Bennen I afterwards skirted the mountain until the whole colossal pyramid stood facing us. When I first looked at it my hopes sank, but both of us gathered confidence from a more lengthened gaze. The mountain is a pyramid with three faces, the intersections of which form three sharp edges or arêtes. The end of the eastern ridge was nearest to us, and on it our attention was principally fixed. We finally decided on the route to be pursued next morning, and with a chastened hope in both our breasts we returned to our shelter.
Water was our first necessity : it seemed every-where, but there was none to drink. It was locked to solidity in the ice and snow. The sound of it came booming up from the Vispbach, as it broke into foam or rolled its boulders over its waterworn bed ; and the swish of many a minor streamlet mingled with the muffled roar of the large one. Bennen set out in search of the precious liquid, and after a long absence returned with a jug and pan full. At our meal, Wenger, who is a man rich in small expedients, turned the section of a cheese towards the flame of our pine fire ; it fizzed and blistered and turned viscous, and, the toasted surface being removed, was consumed with relish by us all. The sunset had been unspeakably grand, steeping the zenith in violet, and flooding the base of the heavens with crimson light. Immediately opposite to us rose the Mischabel, with its two great peaks, the Grubenhorn and the Taschhorn, each barely under 15,000 feet in height. Next came the Alphubel, with its flattened crown of snow ; then the Allaleinhorn and Rympfischhorn ; then the Cima di Jazzi ; next the mass of Monte Rosa, flooded with light from bottom to top. The face of the Lyskamm turned towards us was for the most part shaded, but here and there its projecting portions jutted forth red hot as the light fell upon them The ' Twins' were most singularly illuminated ; across the waist of each of them was drawn a black bar, produced by the shadow of a corner of the Breithorn, while their bases and crowns were exposed to the crimson light. Over the rugged face of the Breithorn itself the light fell as if in splashes, igniting its glaciers and swathing its black crags in a layer of transparent red. The Mettelhorn was cold, so was the entire range governed by the Weisshorn, while the glaciers they embraced lay grey and ghastly in the twilight shade.
The sunlight lingered, while up the arch of the opposite heavens the moon, within one day of being full, seemed hastening to our aid. She finally appeared exactly behind the peak of the Rympfischhorn, the cone of the mountain being projected for a short time as a triangle on the lunar disc. Only for a short time, however ; the silver sphere soon cleared the mountain, and bore away through the tinted sky. The motion was quite visible, and resembled that of a vast balloon. As the day approached its end the scene assumed the most sublime aspect. All the lower portions of the mountains were deeply shaded, while the loftiest peaks, ranged upon a semicircle, were fully exposed to the sinking sun. They seemed pyramids of solid fire, while here and there long stretches of crimson light drawn over the higher snow-fields linked the summits together. An in-tensely illuminated geranium flower seems to swim in its own colour, which apparently surrounds the petals like a layer, and defeats by its lustre any at-tempt of the eye to seize upon the sharp outline of the leaves. A similar effect was here observed upon the mountains ; the glory did not seem to come from them alone, but seemed also effluent from the air around them. As the evening advanced, the eastern heavens low down assumed a deep purple hue, above which, and blending with it by infinitesimal gradations, was a belt of red, and over this again zones of orange and violet. I walked round the corner of the mountain at sunset, and found the western sky glowing with a more transparent crimson than that which overspread the east. The crown of the Weisshorn was imbedded in this magnificent light. After sunset the purple of the east changed to a deep neutral tint, and against the faded red which spread above it the sun-forsaken mountains laid their cold and ghastly heads. The ruddy colour vanished more and more ; the stars strengthened in lustre, until finally the moon and they held undisputed possession of the sky.
My face was turned towards the moon until it became so chilled that I was forced to protect it by a light handkerchief The power of blinding the eyes is ascribed to the moonbeams, but the real mischief is that produced by radiation from the eyes into clear space, and the inflammation consequent upon the chill. As the cold increased I was fain to squeeze myself more and more underneath the ledge, so as to lessen the space of sky against which my body could radiate. Nothing could be more solemn than the night. Up from the valley came the low thunder of the Vispbach. Over the Dom flashed in succession the stars of Orion, until finally the entire constellation hung aloft. Higher up in heaven was the moon, and her beams as they fell upon the snow-fields and pyramids were sent back in silvery lustre by some, while others remained a dead white. These, as the earth twirled round, came duly in for their share of the glory. The Twins caught it at length and retained it long, shining with a pure spiritual radiance, while the moon continued above the hills.
At twelve o'clock I looked at my watch, and a second time at 2 A.M. The moon was then just touching the crest of the Schallenberg, and we were threatened with the withdrawal of her light. This soon occurred. We rose at 2 A.M., consumed our coffee, and had to wait idly for the dawn. A faint illumination at length overspread the sky, and with this promise of the coming day we quitted our bivouac at 3 A.M. No cloud was to be seen; as far as the weather was concerned we were sure to have fair play. We rounded the shingly shoulder of the mountain to the edge of a snow-field, but before entering upon it I disburthened myself of my strong shooting jacket, leaving it on the mountain-side. The sunbeams and my own exertion would, I knew, keep me only too warm during the day. We crossed the snow, cut our way through a piece of entangled glacier, reached the Bergschrund, and passed it without a rope. We ascended the frozen snow of the couloir by steps, but soon diverged from it to the rocks at our right, and mounted them to the end of the eastern arête of the mountain.
A snow saddle separated us from the higher rocks. With our staff-pikes at one side of the saddle, we pass by steps cut upon the other. We find the rocks hewn into fantastic turrets and obelisks, while .the loose chips of this sculpture are strewn confusedly upon the ridge. Amid these we cautiously pick our way, winding round the towers or scaling them amain. The work was heavy from the first, the bending, twisting, reaching, and drawing up calling upon all the muscles of the frame. After two hours of this work we halted, and, looking back, saw two moving objects on the glacier below us. At first we took them to be chamois, but they. were men. The leader carried an axe, and his companion a knapsack and an alpenstock. They followed our traces, losing them apparently now and then, and waiting to recover them. Our expedition had put Randa in a state of excitement, and some of its best climbers had urged Bennen to take them with him. This he did not deem necessary, and now here were two of them determined to try the thing on their own account, and perhaps to dispute with us the honour of the enterprise. On this point, however, our uneasiness was small.
Resuming our gymnastics, the rocky staircase led us to the flat summit of a tower, where we found ourselves cut off from a similar tower by a deep gap bitten into the mountain. The rope was here our refuge. Bennen coiled it round his waist; we let him down along the surface of the rock, until he fixed himself on a ledge, where he could lend me a helping hand. I followed him, and Wenger followed me. By a kind of screw motion we twisted ourselves round the opposite tower, and reached-the ridge bchind it. Work of this kind, however, is not to be performed by the day, and, with a view of sparing our strength, we quitted the ridge and endeavoured to get along the southern slope of the pyramid. The mountain was scarred by long couloirs, filled with clear hard ice. The cutting of steps across these couloirs proved to be so tedious and fatiguing that I urged Bennen to abandon them and try the ridge once more. We regained it and worked .along it as before. Here and there upon the northern side the snow was folded over, and we worked slowly upward along the cornice snow. The ridge became gradually narrower, and the precipices on each side more sheer. We reached the end of one of its subdivisions, and found our-selves separated from the next rocks by a gap about twenty yards across. The ridge has here narrowed to a mere wall, which, however, as rock, would pre-sent no serious difficulty. But upon the wall of rock was placed a second wall of snow, which dwindled to a pure knife-edge at the top. It was white, of very fine grain, and a little moist. How to pass this snow catenary I knew not, for I did not think a human foot could trust itself upon so frail a support. Bennen's practical sagacity, however, came into play. He tried the snow by squeezing it with his foot, and to my astonishment began to cross it. Even after the pressure of his feet the space he had to stand on did not exceed a hand-breadth. I followed him, exactly as a boy walking along a horizontal pole, with toes turned outwards. Right and left the precipices were appalling. We reached the opposite rock, and an earnest smile rippled over Bennen's countenance as he turned towards me. He knew that he had done a daring thing, though not a presumptuous one. 'Had the snow,' he said, ' been less perfect, I should not have thought of attempting it ; but I knew after I had set my foot upon the ridge that we might pass without fear.'
It is quite surprising what a number of things the simple observation made by Faraday in 1846 enables us to explain. Bennen's instinctive act is justified by theory. The snow was fine in grain. pure, and moist. When pressed, the attachments of its granules were innumerable, and their perfect cleanness enabled them to freeze together with a maximum energy. It was this freezing which gave the mass its sustaining power.
Two fragments of ordinary table ice brought carefully together freeze and cement themselves at their place of junction ; or if two pieces floating in water be brought together, they instantly freeze, and by laying hold of either of them gently you can drag the other after it through the water. Imagine such points of attachment distributed in great numbers through a mass of snow. The sub» stance becomes thereby a semi-solid instead of a mass of powder. My guide, however, unaided by any theory, did a thing from which I should have shrunk, though backed by all the theories in the world.
After this we found the rocks on the ridge so shaken that it required the greatest caution to avoid bringing them down upon us. With all our care, moreover, we sometimes dislodged vast masses, which leaped upon the slope adjacent, loosened others by their shock, these again others, until finally a whole flight of them would escape, setting the mountain in a roar as they whizzed and thundered along its side to the snow-fields 4,000 feet below us. The day was hot, the work hard, and our bodies were drained of their liquids as by a Turkish bath. To make good our loss we halted at intervals where the melted snow formed liquid veins, and quenched our thirst. A bottle of champagne, poured sparingly into our goblets over a little snow, furnished Wenger and myself with many a refreshing draught. Bennen feared his eyes, and would not touch champagne. We, however, did not find halting good ; for at every pause the muscles became set, and some minutes were necessary to render them again elastic. But for both mind and body the discipline was grand. There is scarcely a position possible to a human being which, at one time or another during the day, I was not forced to assume. The fingers, wrist, and forearm were my main reliance, and as a mechanical instrument the human band appeared to me this day to be a miracle of constructive art.
For the most part the summit was hidden from us, but on reaching the successive eminences it came frequently into view. After three hours spent on the arête--about five hours, that is, subsequent to starting—we saw the summit over another minor summit, which gave it an illusive proximity. ' You have now good hopes,' I remarked, turning to Bennen. ' I do not allow myself to entertain the idea of failure,' he replied. Well, six hours passed on the ridge, each of which put in its inexorable claim to the due amount of mechanical work ; and at the end of this time we found ourselves apparently no nearer to the summit than when Bennen's hopes cropped out in confidence. I looked anxiously at my guide as he fixed his weary eyes upon the distant peak. There was no confidence in his expression ; still I do not believe that either of us entertained for a moment the thought of giving in. Wenger complained of his lungs, and Bennen counselled him several times to remain behind ; but this the Ober-land man refused to do. At the commencement of a day's work one often feels anxious, if not timid; but when the work is very hard we become callous and sometimes stupefied by the incessant knocking about. This was my case at present, and I kept watch lest my indifference should become carelessness. I repeatedly supposed a. case where a sudden effort might be required of me, and felt all through that I had a fair residue of strength to fall back upon should such a call be made. This conclusion was sometimes tested by a spurt ; flinging myself suddenly from rock to rock, I proved my condition by experiment instead of relying on surmise. An eminence in the ridge which cut off the view of the summit was now the object of our exertions. We reached it ; but how hopelessly distant did the summit appeâr ! Bennen laid his face upon his axe for a moment ; a kind of sickly despair was in his eye as he turned to me, remarking, 'Lieber Herr, die Spitze ist noch sehr weit oben.'
Lest the desire to gratify me should urge him beyond the bounds of prudence, I told my guide that he must not persist on my account ; that I should cheerfully return with him the moment he thought it no longer safe to proceed. He replied that, though weary, he felt quite sure of himself, and asked for some food. He had it, and a gulp of wine, which mightily refreshed him. Looking at the mountain with a firmer eye, he exclaimed, ' Herr ! wir müssen ihn haben,' and his voice, as he spoke, rung like steel within my heart. I thought of Englishmen in battle, of the qualities which had made them famous : it was mainly the quality of not knowing when to yield—of fighting for duty even after they had ceased to be animated by hope. Such thoughts helped to lift me over the rocks. Another eminence now fronted us, behind which, haw far we knew not, the summit lay. We scaled this height, and above us, but clearly within reach, a silvery pyramid projected itself against the blue sky. I was assured ten times over by my companions that it was the highest point before I ventured to stake my faith upon the assertion. I feared that it also might take rank with the illusions which had so often beset our ascent, and I shrunk from the conseiuent moral shock. A huge prism of granite, or granitic gneiss, terminated the arête, and from it a knife-edge of pure white snow ran up to a little point. We passed along the edge, reached that point, and instantly swept with our eyes the whole range of the horizon. We stood upon the crown of the redoubtable Weisshorn.
The long-pent feelings of my two companions found vent in a wild and reiterated cheer. Bennen shook his arms in the air and shouted as a Valaisian, while Wenger raised the shriller yell of the Oberland. We looked downwards along the ridge, and far below, perched on one, of its crags, could discern the two Randa men. Again and again the roar of triumph was sent down to them. They had accomplished but a small portion of the ridge, and soon after our success they wended their way homewards. They came, willing enough, no doubt, to publish our failure had we failed ; but we found out afterwards that they had been equally strenuous in announcing our success ; they had seen us, they affirmed, like three flies upon the summit of the mountain. Both men had to endure a little persecution for the truth's sake, for nobody in Randa would believe that the Weisshorn could be scaled, and least of all by a man who for two days previously had been the object of Philomène the waitress's constant pity, on account of the incompetence of his stomach to accept all that she offered for its acceptance. The energy of conviction with which the men gave their evidence had, however, proved conclusive to the most sceptical before we arrived.
Bennen wished to leave some outward and visible sign of our success on the summit. He deplored having no suitable flag ; but as a substitute for such it was proposed that he should use the handle of one of our axes as a flagstaff, and surmount it by a red pocket-handkerchief. This was done, and for some time subsequently the extempore banner was seen flapping in the wind. To his extreme delight, it was shown to Bennen himself three days afterwards it was in the morning. Bennen's blows descended with the deliberateness of a man whose fire is half-quenched; still they fell with sufficient power, and the needful cavities were formed. We retraced our morning steps over some of the ice-slopes. No word of warning was uttered here as we ascended, but now Bennen's admonitions were frequent and emphatic-' Take care not to slip.' I imagined, how-ever, that even if a man slipped he would be able to arrest his descent ; but Bennen's response when I stated this opinion was very prompt—' No ! it would be utterly impossible. If it were snow you might do it, but it is pure ice, and if you fall you will lose your senses before you can use your axe.' I suppose be was right. At length we turned directly downwards, and worked along one of the ridges which lie in the line of steepest fall. We first dropped cautiously from ledge to ledge. At one place Bennen clung for a considerable time to a face of rock, casting out feelers of leg and arm, and desiring me to stand still. I did not understand the difficulty, for the rock, though steep, was by no means vertical. I fastened myself on to it, Bennen being on a ledge below, waiting to receive me. The spot on which he stood was a little rounded protuberance sufficient to afford him footing, but over which the slightest momentum would have carried him. He knew this, and hence his caution.
Soon after this we quitted our ridge and dropped into a couloir to the left of it. It was dark, and damp with trickling water. Here we disencumbered ourselves of the rope, and found our speed greatly augmented. In some places the rocks were worn to a powder, along which we shot by glissades. We swerved again to the left, crossed a ridge, and got into another and dryer couloir. The last one was dangerous, as the water exerted a constant sapping action upon the rocks. From our new position we could hear the clatter of stones descending the gulley we had just forsaken. Wenger, who had brought up the rear during the day, is now sent to the front ; he has not Bennen's power, but his legs are long and his descent rapid. He scents out the way, which becomes more and more difficult. He pauses, observes, dodges, but finally comes to a dead stop on the summit of a precipice, which sweeps like a rampart round the mountain. We moved to the left, and after a long détour succeeded in rounding the precipice.
Another half-hour brings us to the brow of a second precipice, which is scooped out along its centre so as to cause the brow to overhang. Chagrin was in Bennen's face : he turned his eyes upwards, and I feared mortally that he was about to propose a reascent to the arête. It was very questionable whether our muscles could have responded to such a demand. While we stood pondering here, a deep and confused roar attracted our attention. From a point near the summit of the Weisshorn, a rock had been discharged down a dry couloir, raising a cloud of dust at each bump against the mountain. A hundred similar ones were immediately in motion, while the spaces between the larger masses were filled by an innumerable flight of smaller stones. Each of them shook its quantum of dust in the air, until finally the avalanche was enveloped in a cloud. The clatter was stunning, for the collisions were incessant. Black masses of rock emerged here and there from the cloud, and sped through the air like flying fiends. Their motion was not one of translation merely, but they whizzed and vibrated in their flight as if urged by wings. The echoes resounded from side to side, from the Schallenberg to the Weisshorn and back, until finally, after many a deep-sounding thud in the snow, the whole troop came to rest at the bottom of the mountain. This stone avalanche was one of the most extraordinary things I had ever witnessed, and in connection with it I would draw the attention of future climbers of the Weisshorn to the danger which would infallibly beset any attempt to ascend it from this side, except by one of its arêtes. At any moment the mountain-side may be raked by a fire as deadly as that of cannon.
After due deliberation we moved along the precipice westward, I fearing that each step forward but plunged us into deeper difficulty. At one place, however, the precipice bevelled off to a steep incline of smooth rock, along which ran a crack, wide enough to admit the fingers, and sloping obliquely down to the lower glacier. Each in succession gripped the rock and shifted his body sideways along the crack until he came near enough to the glacier to reach it by a rough glissade. We passed swiftly along the glacier, sometimes running, and, on steeper slopes, sliding, until we were pulled up for the third time by a precipice which seemed even worse than either of the others. It was quite sheer, and as far as I could see right or left altogether hopeless. To my surprise, both the men turned without hesitation to the right. I felt desperately blank, but I could notice no expression of dismay in the countenance of either of my companions. They inspected the moraine matter over which we walked, and at length one of them exclaimed, ' Da sind die Spuren,' lengthening his strides at the same moment. We looked over the brink at intervals, and at length discovered what appeared to be a mere streak of clay on the face of the precipice. On this streak we found footing. It was by no means easy, but to hard-pushed men it was a deliverance. The streak vanished, and we must get down the rock. This fortunately was rough, so that by pressing the hands against its rounded protuberances, and sticking the boot-nails against its projecting crystals, we let ourselves gradually down. A deep cleft separated the glacier from the precipice ; this was crossed, and we were free, being clearly placed beyond the last bastion of the mountain.
In this admirable fashion did my guides behave on this occasion. The day previous to my arrival at Randa they had been up the mountain, and they then observed a solitary chamois moving along the base of this very precipice, and mating ineffectual attempts to get up it. At one place the creature succeeded ; this spot they fixed in their memories, and when they reached the top of the precipice they sought for the traces of the chamois, found them, and were guided by them to the only place where escape in any reasonable time was possible. Our way was now clear ; over the glacier we cheerfully n arched, escaping from the ice just as the moon and the eastern sky contributed about equally to the illumination. The moonlight was afterwards intercepted by clouds. In the gloom we were often at a loss, and wandered half-bewildered over the grassy slopes. At length the welcome tinkle of cow-bells was heard in the distance, and guided by them we reached the chalet a little after 9 P.M. The cows had been milked and the milk dispased of, but the men managed to get us a moderate draught. Thus refreshed we continued the descent. I was half famished, for my solid nutriment during the day consisted solely of part of a box of meat lozenges given to me by Mr. Hawkins. Bennen and myself descended the mountain deliberately, and after many windings emerged upon the valley, and reached the hotel a little before 11 P.M. I had a basin of broth, not made according to Liebig, and a piece of mutton boiled probably for the fifth time. Fortified by these, and comforted by a warm footbath, I went to bed, where six hours' sound sleep chased away all consciousness of fatigue. I was astonished on the morrow to find the loose atoms of my body knitted so firmly by so brief a rest. Up to my attempt upon the Weisshorn I had felt more or less dilapidated, but here all weakness ended, and during my subsequent stay in Switzerland I was unacquainted with infirmity.