Alpine Mountain Climbing – Switzerland

On the 23d of July, 1860, I started for my first tour of the Alps. At Zermatt I wandered in many directions, but the weather was bad and my work was much retarded. One day, after spending a long time in attempts to sketch near the Hornli, and in futile endeavors to seize the forms of the peaks as they for a few seconds peered out from above the dense banks of woolly clouds, I determined not to return to Zermatt by the usual path, but to cross the (corner glacier to the Riffel hotel. After a rapid scramble over the polished rocks and snow-beds which skirt the base of the Theodule glacier, and wading through some of the streams which flow from it, at that time much swollen by the late rains, the first difficulty was arrived at, in the shape of a precipice about three hundred feet high. It seemed that there would be no difficulty in crossing the glacier if the cliff could be descended, but higher up and lower down the ice appeared, to my inexperienced eyes, to be impassable for a single person.

The general contour of the cliff was nearly perpendicular, but it was a good deal broken up, and there was little difficulty in descending by zigzagging from one mass to another. At length there was a long slab, nearly smooth, fist at an angle of about forty degrees between two wallsided pieces of rock; nothing, except the glacier, could be seen below. It was a very awkward place, but being doubtful if return were possible, as I had been dropping from one ledge to another, I passed at length by lying across the slab, putting the shoulder stilly against one side and the feet against the other, and gradually wriggling down, by first moving the legs and then the back. When the bottom of the slab was gained a friendly crack was seen, into which the point of the baton could be stuck, and I dropt down to the next piece.

It took a long time coming down that little bit of cliff, and for a few seconds it was satisfactory to see the ice close at hand. In another moment a second difficulty presented itself. The glacier swept round an angle of the cliff, and as the ice was not of the nature of treacle or thin putty, it kept away from the little bay on the edge of which I stood. We were not widely separated, but the edge of the ice was higher than the opposite edge of rock; and worse, the rock was covered with loose earth and stones which had fallen from above. All along the side of the cliff, as far as could be seen in both directions, the ice did not touch it, but there was this marginal crevasse, seven feet wide and of unknown depth.

All this was seen at a glance, and almost at once I concluded that I could not jump the crevasse, and began to try along the cliff lower down, but without success, for the ice rose higher and higher, until at last farther progress was stopt by the cliffs becoming perfectly smooth. With an ax it would have been possible to cut up the side of the ice—without one, I saw there was no alternative but to return and face the jump.

It was getting toward evening, and the solemn stillness of the High Alps was broken only by the sound of rushing water or of falling rocks. If the jump should be successful, well; if not, I fell into the horrible chasm, to be frozen in, or drowned in that gurgling, rushing water. Everything depended on that jump. Again I asked myself, “Can it be done?” It must be. So, finding my stick was useless, I threw it and the sketch-book to the ice, and first retreating as far as possible, ran forward with all my might, took the leap, barely reached the other side, and fell awkwardly on my knees. At the same moment a shower of stones fell on the spot from which I had jumped.

The glacier was crossed without further trouble, but the Riffel, which was then a very small building, was crammed with tourists, and could not take me in. As the way down was unknown to me, some of the people obligingly suggested getting a man at the chalets, otherwise the path would be certainly lost in the forest. On arriving at the chalets no man could be found, and the lights of Zermatt, shining through the trees, seemed to say, “Never mind a guide, but come along down; we’ll show you the way” ; so off I went through the forest, going straight toward them.

The path was lost in a moment, and was never recovered. I was tript up by pine roots, I tumbled over rhododendron bushes, I fell over rocks. The night was pitch-dark, and after a time the lights of Zermatt became obscure or went out altogether. By a series of slides or falls, or evolutions more or less disagreeable, the descent through the forest was at length accomplished, but torrents of a formidable character had still to be passed before one could arrive at Zermatt. I felt my way about for hours, almost hopelessly, by an exhaustive process at last discovering a bridge, and about mid-night, covered with dirt and scratches, reentered the inn which I had quitted in the morning, .

I descended the valley, dlverging from the path at Randa to mount the slopes of the Dom (the highest of the Mischabelhorner), in order to see the Weisshorn face to face. The latter mountain is the noblest in Switzerland, and from this direction it looks especially magnificent. On its north there is a large snowy plateau that feeds the glacier of which a portion is seen from Randa, and which on more than one occasion has destroyed that village. From the direction of the Dom—that is, immediately opposite—this Bies glacier seems to descend nearly vertically; it does not do so, altho it is very steep. Its size is much less than formerly and the lower portion, now divided into three tails, clings in a strange, weird-like manner to the cliffs, to which it seems scarcely possible that it can remain attached.

Unwillingly I parted from the sight of this glorious mountain, and went down to Visp. Arriving once more in the Rhone valley, I proceeded to Viesch, and from thence ascended the Eggischhorn, on which unpleasant eminence I lost my way in a fog, and my temper shortly afterward. Then, after crossing the Grimsel in a severe thunder-storm, I passed on to Brienz, Interlaken and Berne, and thence to Fribourg and Morat, Neuchatel, Martigny and the St. Bernard. The massive walls of the convent were a welcome sight as I waded through the snow-beds near the summit of the pass, and pleasant also was the courteous salutation of the brother who bade me enter.

Instead of descending to Aosta, I turned into the Val Pelline, in order to obtain views of the Dent d’Erin. The night had come on before Biona was gained, and I had to knock long and loud upon the door of the cure’s house before it was opened. An old woman with querulous voice and with a large goitre answered the summons, and demanded rather sharply what was wanted, but became pacific, almost good-natured, when a five franc piece was held in her face and she heard that lodging and supper were required in exchange.

My directions asserted that a passage existed from Prerayen, at the head of this valley, to Breuil, in the Val Tournanche, and the old woman, now convinced of my respectability, busied her-self to find a guide. Presently she introduced a native picturesquely attired in high-peaked hat, braided jacket, scarlet waistcoat and indigo pantaloons, who agreed to take me to the village of Val Tournanche. We set off early on the next morning, and got to the summit of the pass with-out difficulty. It gave me my first experience of considerable slopes of hard, steep snow, and, like all beginners, I endeavored to prop myself up with my stick, and kept it outside, instead of holding it between myself and the slope, and leaning upon it, as should have been done.

The man enlightened me, but he had, properly, a very small opinion of his employer, and it is probably on that account that, a few minutes after we had passed the summit, he said he would not go any farther and would return to Biona. All argument was useless; he stood still, and to everything that was said answered nothing but that he would go back. Being rather nervous about descending some long snow-slopes which still intervened between us and the head of the valley, I offered more pay, and he went on a little way. Presently there were some cliffs, down which we had to scramble. He called to me to stop, then shouted that he would go back, and beckoned to me to come up.

On the contrary, I waited for him to come down, but instead of doing so, in a second or two he turned round, clambered deliberately up the cliff and vanished. I supposed it was only a ruse to extort offers of more money, and waited for half an hour, but he did not appear again. This was rather embarrassing, for he carried off my knapsack. The choice of action lay between chasing him and going on to Breuil, risking the loss of my knapsack. I chose the latter course, and got to Breuil the same evening. The land-lord of the inn, suspicious of a person entirely innocent of luggage, was doubtful if he could admit me, and eventually thrust me into a kind of loft, which was already occupied by guides and by hay. In later years we became good friends, and he did not hesitate to give credit and even to advance considerable sums.

My sketches from Breuil were made under difficulties; my materials had been carried off, nothing better than fine sugar-paper could be obtained, and the pencils seemed to contain more silica than plumbago. However, they were made, and the pass was again crossed, this time alone. By the following evening the old woman of Biona again produced the faithless guide. The knapsack was recovered after the lapse of several hours, and then I poured forth all the terms of abuse and reproach of which I was master. The man smiled when I called him a liar, and shrugged his shoulders when referred to as a thief, but drew his knife when spoken of as a pig.

The following night was spent at Cormayeur, and the day after I crossed the Col Ferrex to Orsieres, and on the next the Tete Noir to Chamounix. The Emperor Napoleon arrived the same day, and access to the Mer de Glace was refused to tourists; but, by scrambling along the Plan des Aiguilles, I managed to outwit the guards, and to arrive at the Montanvert as the imperial party was leaving, failing to get to the Jardin the same afternoon, but very nearly succeeding in breaking a leg by dislodging great rocks on the moraine of the glacier.

From Chamounix I went to Geneva, and thence by the Mont Cenis to Turin and to the Vaudois valleys. A long and weary day had ended when Paesana was reached. The next morning I passed the little lakes which are the sources of the Po, on my way into France. The weather was stormy, and misinterpreting the dialect of some natives—who in reality pointed out the right way—I missed the track, and found myself under the cliffs of Monte Viso. A gap that was occasionally seen in the ridge connecting it with the mountains to the east tempted me up, and after a battle with a snow-slope of excessive steepness, I reached the summit. The scene was extraordinary, and, in my experience, unique. To the north there was not a particle of mist, and the violent wind coming from that direction blew one back staggering. But on the side of Italy the valleys were completely filled with dense masses of cloud to a certain level; and here—where they felt the influence of the wind-they were cut off as level as the top of a table, the ridges appearing above them.

I raced down to Abries, and went on through the gorge of the Gull to Mont Dauphin. The next day found me at La Bessee, at the junction of the Val Louise with the valley of the Durance, in full view of Mont Pelvoux. The same night I slept at Briancon, intending to take the courier on the following day to Grenoble, but all places had been secured several days beforehand, so I set out at two P.M. on the next day for a seventy-mile walk. The weather was again bad, and on the summit of the Col de Lautaret I was forced to seek shelter in the wretched little hospice. It was filled with workmen who were employed on the road, and with noxious vapors which proceeded from them. The inclemency of the weather was preferable to the inhospitality of the interior.

Outside, it was disagreeable, but grand—inside, it was disagreeable and mean. The walk was continued under a deluge of rain, and I felt the way down, so intense was the darkness, to the village of La Grave, where the people of the inn detained me forcibly. It was perhaps fortunate that they did so, for during that night blocks of rock fell at several places from the cliffs on to the road with such force that they made large holes in the macadam, which looked as if there had been explosions of gunpowder. I resumed the walk at half-past five next morning, and proceeded, under steady rain, through Bourg d’Oysans to Grenoble, arriving at the latter place soon after seven P.M., having accomplished the entire distance from Briancon in about eighteen hours of actual walking.

This was the end of the Alpine portion of my tour of 1860, on which I was introduced to the great peaks, and acquired the passion for mountain-scrambling.