An Ascent Of Monte Rosa – Switzerland

On Monday, the 9th of August, we reached the Riffel, and, by good fortune on the evening of the same day, my guide’s brother, the well known Ulrich Lauener, also arrived at the hotel on his return from Monte Rosa. From him we obtained all the information possible respecting the ascent, and he kindly agreed to accompany us a little way the next morning, to put us on the right track. At three A.M. the door of my bedroom opened, and Christian Lauener announced to me that the weather was sufficiently good to justify an at-tempt. The stars were shining overhead; but Ulrich afterward drew our attention to some heavy clouds which clung to the mountains on the other side of the valley of the Visp; remarking that the weather might continue fair throughout the day, but that these clouds were ominous. At four o’clock we were on our way, by which time a gray stratus cloud had drawn itself across the neck of the Matterhorn, and soon afterward another of the same nature encircled his waist. We proceeded past the Riffelhorn to the ridge above the (corner Glacier, from which Monte Rosa was visible from top to bottom, and where an animated conversation in Swiss dialect commenced.

Ulrich described the slopes, passes, and precipices, which were to guide us; and Christian demanded explanations, until he was finally able to declare to me that his knowledge was sufficient. We then bade Ulrich good-by, and went forward. All was clear about Monte Rosa, and the yellow morning light shone brightly upon its uppermost snows. Beside the Queen of the Alps was the huge mass of the Lyskamm, with a saddle stretching from the one to the other; next to the Lyskamm came two white, rounded mounds, smooth and pure, the Twins Castor and Pollux, and further to the right again the broad, brown flank of the Breithorn. Behind us Mont Cervin gathered the clouds more thickly round him, until finally his grand obelisk was totally bidden. We went along the mountain side for a time, and then descended to the glacier.

The surface was hard frozen, and the ice crunched loudly under our feet. There was a hollowness and volume in the sound which require ex-planation; and this, I think, is furnished by the remarks of Sir John Herschel on those hollow sounds at the Solfaterra, near Naples, from which travelers have inferred the existence of cavities within the mountain. At the place where these sounds are heard the earth is friable, and, when struck, the concussion is reinforced and lengthened by the partial echoes from the surfaces of the fragments. The conditions for a similar effect exist upon the glacier, for the ice is disintegrated to a certain depth, and from the innumerable places of rupture little reverberations are sent, which give a length and hollowness to the sound produced by the crushing of the fragments on the surface.

We looked to the sky at intervals, and once a meteor slid across it, leaving a train of sparks behind. The blue firmament, from which the stars shone down so brightly when we rose, was more and more invaded by clouds, which advanced upon us from our rear, while before us the solemn heights of Monte Rosa were bathed in rich yellow sunlight. As the day advanced the radiance crept down toward the valleys; but still those stealthy clouds advanced like a besieging army, taking deliberate possession of the summits, one after another, while gray skirmishers moved through the air above us. The play of light and shadow upon Monte Rosa was at times beautiful, bars of gloom and zones of glory shifting and alternating from top to bottom of the mountain.

At five o’clock a gray cloud alighted on the shoulder of the Lyskamm, which had hitherto been warmed by the lovely yellow light. Soon afterward we reached the foot of Monte Rosa, and passed from the glacier to a slope of rocks, whose rounded forms and furrowed surfaces showed that the ice of former ages had moved over them; the granite was now coated with lichens, and between the bosses where mold could rest were patches of tender moss. As we ascended a peal to the right announced the descent of an avalanche from the Twins; it came heralded by clouds of ice-dust, which resembled the sphered masses of condensed vapor which issue from a locomotive.

A gentle snow-slope brought us to the base of a precipice of brown rocks, round which we wound; the snow was in excellent order, and the chasms were so firmly bridged by the frozen mass that no caution was necessary in crossing them. Surmounting a weathered cliff to our left, we paused upon the summit to look upon the scene around us. The snow gliding insensibly from the mountains, or discharged in avalanches from the precipices which it overhung, filled the higher valleys with pure white glaciers, which were rifted and broken here and there, exposing chasms and precipices from which gleamed the delicate blue of the half-formed ice. Sometimes, however, the “naves” spread over wide spaces without a rupture or wrinkle to break the smoothness of the superficial snow. The sky was now, for the most part, over-cast, but through the residual blue spaces the sun at intervals poured light over the rounded bosses of the mountain.

At half-past seven o’clock we reached another precipice of rock, to the left of which our route lay, and here Lauener proposed to have some refreshment; after which we went on again. The clouds spread more and more, leaving at length mere specks and patches of blue between them. Passing some high peaks, formed by the dislocation of the ice, we came to a place where the “nave” was rent by crevasses, on the walls of which the stratification, due to successive snowfalls, was thrown with great beauty and definition. Between two of these fissures our way now lay; the wall of one of them was hollowed out longitudinally midway down, thus forming a roof above and a ledge below, and from roof to ledge stretched a railing of cylindrical icicles, as if intended to bolt them together. A cloud now for the first time touched the summit of Monte Rosa, and sought to cling to it, but in a minute it dispersed in shattered fragments, as if dashed to pieces for its presumption. The mountain remained for a time clear and triumphant, but the triumph was short-lived; like suitors that will not be repelled, the dusky vapors came; repulse after repulse took place, and the sunlight gushed down upon the heights, but it was manifest that the clouds gained ground in the conflict.

Until about a quarter-past nine o’clock our work was mere child’s play, a pleasant morning stroll along the flanks of the mountain; but steeper slopes now rose above us, which called for more energy, and more care in the fixing of the feet. Looked at from below, some of these slopes appeared precipitous; but we were too well acquainted with the effect of fore-shortening to let this daunt us. At each step we dug our batons into the deep snow. When first driven in, the batons* “dipt” from us, but were brought, as we walked forward, to the vertical, and finally beyond it at the other side. The snow was thus forced aside, a rubbing of the staff against it, and of the snow-particles against each other, being the consequence. We had thus perpetual rupture and regelation; while the little sounds consequent upon rupture reinforced by the partial echoes from the surfaces of the granules, were blended together to a note resembling the lowing of cows.

Hitherto I had paused. at intervals to make notes, or to take an angle; but these operations now ceased, not from want of time, but from pure dislike; for when the eye has to act the part of a sentinel who feels that at any moment the enemy may be upon him; when the body must be balanced with precision, and legs and arms, besides performing actual labor, must be kept in readiness for possible contingencies; above all, when you feel that your safety depends upon yourself alone, and that, if your footing gives way, there is no strong arm behind ready to be thrown between you and destruction; under such circumstances the relish for writing ceases, and you are willing to hand over your impressions to the safe-keeping of memory.

Prom the vast boss which constitutes the lower portion of Monte Rosa cliffy edges run up-ward to the summit. Were the snow removed from these we should, I doubt not, see them as toothed or serrated crags, justifying the term “kamm,” or “comb,” applied to such edges by the Germans. Our way now lay along such a “kamm,” the cliffs of which had, however, caught the snow, and been completely covered by it, forming an edge like the ridge of a house-roof, which sloped steeply upward. On the Lyskamm side of the edge there was no footing, and if a human body fell over here, it would probably pass through a vertical space of some thousands of feet, falling or rolling, before coming to rest. On the other side the snow-slope was less steep, but excessively perilous-looking, and intersected by precipices of ice. Dense clouds now enveloped us, and made our position far uglier than if it had been fairly illuminated. The valley below us was one vast cauldron, filled with precipitated vapor, which came seething at times up the sides of the mountain. Sometimes this fog would clear away, and the light would gleam from the dislocated glaciers.

My guide continually admonished me to make my footing sure, and to fix at each step my staff firmly in the consolidated snow. At one place, for a short steep ascent, the slope became hard ice, and our position a very ticklish one. We hewed our steps as we moved upward, but were soon glad to deviate from the ice to a position scarcely less awkward. The wind had so acted upon the snow as to fold it over the edge of the kamm, thus causing it to form a kind of cornice, which overhung the precipice on the Lyskamm side of the mountain. This cornice now bore our weight; its snow had become somewhat firm, but it was yielding enough to permit the feet to sink in it a little way, and thus secure us at least against the danger of slipping. Here, also, at each step we drove our batons firmly into the snow, availing ourselves of whatever help they could render.

Once, while thus securing my anchorage, the handle of my hatchet went right through the cornice on which we stood, and, on withdrawing it, I could see through the aperture into the cloud-crammed gulf below. We continued ascending until we reached a rock protruding from the snow, and here we halted for a few minutes. Lauener looked upward through the fog. “According to all description,” he observed, “this ought to be the last kamm of the mountain; but in this obscurity we can see nothing.” Snow began to fall, and we recommenced our journey, quitting the rocks and climbing again along the edge. Another hour brought us to a crest of cliffs, at which, to our comfort, the kamm appeared to cease, and other climbing qualities were demanded of us.

On the Lyskamm side, as I have said, rescue would be out of the question, should the climber go over the edge. On the other side of the edge rescue seemed possible, tho the slope, as stated already, was most dangerously steep. I now asked Lauener what he would have done, supposing my footing to have failed on the latter slope. He did not seem to like the question, but said that he should have considered well for a moment and then have sprung after me; but he exhorted me to drive all such thoughts away. I laughed at him, and this did more to set his mind at rest than any formal profession of courage could have done.

We were now among rocks; we climbed cliffs and descended them, and advanced sometimes with our feet on narrow ledges, holding tightly on to other ledges by our fingers; sometimes, cautiously balanced, we moved along edges of rock with precipices on both sides. Once, in getting round a crag, Lauener shook a book from his pocket; it was arrested by a rock about sixty or eighty feet below us. He wished to regain it, but I offered to supply its place, if he thought the descent too dangerous. He said he would make the trial, and parted from me. I thought it useless to remain idle. A cleft was before me, through which I must pass; so pressing my knees and back against its opposite sides, I gradually worked myself to the top. I descended the other face of the rock, and then, through a second ragged fissure, to the summit of another pinnacle. The highest point of the mountain was now at hand. separated from me merely by a short saddle, carved by weathering out the crest of the mountain. I could hear Lauener clattering after me, through the rocks behind. I dropt down upon the saddle, crossed it, climbed the opposite cliff, and “die hochste Spitze” of Monte Rosa was won.

Lauener joined me immediately, and we mutually congratulated each other on the success of the ascent. The residue of the bread and meat was produced, and a bottle of tea was also appealed to. Mixed with a little cognac, Lauener declared that he had never tasted anything like it. Snow fell thickly at intervals, and the obscurity was very great; occasionally this would lighten and permit the sun to shed a ghastly dilute light upon us through the gleaming vapor. I put my boiling-water apparatus in order, and fixt it in a corner be-hind a ledge; the shelter was, however, insufficient, so I placed my hat above the vessel. The boiling-point was 184.92 deg. Fahr., the ledge on which the instrument stood being five feet below the highest point of the mountain.

The ascent from the Riffel Hotel occupied us about seven hours, nearly two of which were spent upon the kamm and crest. Neither of us felt in the least degree fatigued; I, indeed, felt so fresh, that had another Monte Rosa been planted on the first, I should have continued the climb without hesitation, and with strong hopes of reaching the top. I experienced no trace of mountain sickness, lassitude, shortness of breath, heart-beat, or headache ; nevertheless the summit of Monte Rosa is 15,284 feet high, being less than 500 feet lower than Mont Blanc. It is, I think, perfectly certain, that the rarefaction of the air at this height is not sufficient of itself to produce the symptoms referred to; physical exertion must be superadded.