Avalanches and Glaciers

THE avalanche is chiefly associated in the mind of the visitor to Switzerland with thoughts of peril and destruction, the glacier with the idea of a permanent field of ice set decoratively to adorn a mountainside. Neither impression represents all of the truth. Avalanches are destructive, and glaciers decorative. But the avalanche is normally, to the dweller in the Alps, the welcome harbinger of spring ; the glacier the hard-working labourer which brings down soil from the mountain rocks for the enrichment of the plains.

The first avalanche is the sign to the Swiss that

Solvitur acris hiems,

and though he will not ” draw his fishing boats down by rollers to the sea,” in all other respects he will share the song of joy in which Horace records for the Italian husbandman the welcome due to the spring. The avalanche may be sometimes terrible in its destruction, as in lower lands a flood may sometimes be ; but on their record, year by year, they do not cause any appalling loss of life or of property. Some deaths, some destruction, can be set to their account, but Nature exacts a penalty from man everywhere, on plain, on mountain, and on sea. Inundations of plains, storms at sea, cause probably a much greater proportionate loss of life and property than avalanches.

In Switzerland, spring is the great time for avalanches. They fall all the year round, chiefly from high levels, but it is in the spring that the greatest avalanches come adrift. Certain spring avalanches descend with remarkable regularity in particular places, one every year. An avalanche falls at a recognised spot in the neighbourhood of almost every village, which dates from its advent the opening of the spring. This spring avalanche is no sudden freak of Nature, but an inevitable affair, slowly engendered. The snow that piles up during the winter months, on what in summer are the grass slopes below the snow-line, gradually becomes unstable as spring melting advances. The mass loses its cohesion, ceases to bind firmly together, and tends to flow downwards. The trend of the ground decides the way of its fall. If the fields upon which it lies are of small area and slope conveniently, the avalanche will slide gently down to its appointed place. But if the disposition of the ground is such that a great mass of snow is collected in a basin which has a narrow outlet, from this a great avalanche will rush like a cataract down the mountain – side until it reaches a barrier sufficiently strong to put a stop to its current.

It is this type of avalanche which is the most likely to do great mischief ; but even this pours down rather than falls down the hill slope. Sir Martin Conway recalls his observations of avalanches in their actual progress along the Simplon Road one spring :

Near Berisal I crossed one which had recently come to rest, traversing the road. By its rugged white surface, broken into great protuberances, its solidity, and its general form, it resembled a small glacier. To climb on to it one had to cut steps, so steep were the sides. Higher up I crossed several more such fallen masses, through which gangs of workmen were cutting out the road. Towards the top of the pass the snow was tumbling in smaller masses. Over a hundred little avalanches crossed the road within a couple of hours. Then they stopped. On the Italian side similar conditions obtained, but it was not till I reached Isella that the greatest fall took place, or rather was taking place, for it had begun before I arrived, and it continued after I had passed. There, a narrow gorge, with vertical cliff-sides facing one another, debouches on the main valley. It leads upwards to a great cirque in the hills, a cirque that is a grass-covered alpine pasture in the summer. The avalanche was pouring out through this gorge and piling itself up upon the main valley-floor. How the mass of it was being renewed from behind I could not see. Doubtless all the hillsides above were shedding their snow, and it was flowing down and crowding into and through the gorge with a continuous flow. As the pressure was relieved below by the out-pouring of the avalanche on to the valley floor, more snow came down—snow mixed with slush, and semi-liquid under the great pressure that must have been developed.

It is not easy to suggest to the reader the grandeur of effect that was produced. The volume of noise was terrific—a noise more massive and continuous than thunder, and no less deep toned. . . . The avalanche, pouring through the massive gateway of the hills and polishing its sides, came forth with an aspect of weight and resistless force that was extraordinarily impressive. Yet Nature did not seem to be acting violently, though her might was plain to see. She appeared to act with deliberation : one looked for an end of the snow-stream to come, but it flowed on and on, pulsating but not failing. The pressures that must be developed were easily conceived ; correspondingly evident became the strength of the hills that could sustain them as if they had been but the stroking of a hand.

Later in the season the traveller often encounters, in deep-lying valleys, the black and shrunken remnants of these mighty avalanches, melted down by summer heats. Little idea can they give him of the splendour of their birth and the white curdled beauty of their surface when they first come to rest. In the nature of things they travel far and fall low, well into the tree-belt, and even down to the chestnut-level on the Italian side. It is a strange sight to see these vast, new-fallen masses lying in their accustomed beds, but surrounded by trees all freshly verdant with the gifts of spring. Yearly each one falls in the same place, falls harmlessly and duly expected. Its coming is welcomed. Its voice is the triumphant shout of the coming season of summer exuberance and fertility. Nature, newly awakened, cries aloud with a great and solemnly joyous cry, and the people dwelling around hear her and arise to their work upon the land.

The avalanche, then, is one of the great natural forces of the mountains, which is not necessarily or even ordinarily destructive. But, like other natural forces—the fresh in the river or the gale at sea, it can be very terrible, and, again like other natural forces, the wisdom and precaution of man can do much to minimise the danger of the avalanche and to avert any serious destruction by its agency. The Swiss people, so practical, so economical, so courageous, carry on a persistent scientific campaign against the unruly element in these torrents of ice, setting up lines of defence everywhere. The first and most important line of defence is the forest and for this reason the forest laws of Switzerland are very severe. A man is not allowed to fell a tree in his own wood without the forester’s consent. Everything is done to preserve the natural rampart afforded by a mass of pines. In the second place, where avalanches descend regularly every year, stone galleries are built, or tunnels are mined out of the solid rock to protect roads. There are many examples of these galleries and tunnels in the Zuge, near Davos.

Scientific engineers are eager to add to these plans of defence. They believe that the root of the mischief ought to be attacked. In places where avalanches are expected, they recommend the building of terraces and dwarf-walls, so as to arrest the earliest snow-slip. Lower down, in the forest zone, piles should be driven into the ground, and fenced with wattling. These pre-cautions, and others on similar lines, are now being taken, and most of the well-known avalanche tracks are being surrounded by various defensive works designed to arrest any tendency to mischief that they show. Destruction from avalanches there will continue to be in exceptional cases, for Nature insists, now and again, on displaying some unwonted, abnormal display of her power which sets at nought all precautions of man. A Titanic goes to the bottom of the sea to show that the shipbuilder can claim only a human and therefore limited surety against disaster. An avalanche may one day shock Europe by rushing unexpectedly down to overwhelm a whole Swiss village. But the danger from them has been diminished largely, and continues to be diminished. It is necessary to go back to the past to obtain the record of any great number of avalanche disasters.

The Swiss classify avalanches into several sorts. The first of these, in order of maturity, is the Staub-Lavine or Dust-Snow Avalanche. This is a collection of loose snow, freshly fallen, which has been caught up in one of those sectional tornadoes which spring up on the mountain slopes, and is driven down on the wings of the wind to the valley below. This form of avalanche is, because of its suddenness, the most dangerous to human life, and is also the most difficult to provide against. Measures to prevent the accumulation of drift snow in dangerous pockets or wind-swept slopes are in some degree efficacious.

Mr. Symonds records the experience of a Swiss who was caught in a Dust-Avalanche :

A human victim of the dreadful thing, who was so lucky as to be saved from its clutch, once described to me the sensations he experienced. He was caught at the edge of the avalanche just when it was settling down to rest, carried off his feet, and rendered helpless by the swathing snow, which tied his legs, pinned his arms to his ribs, and crawled upward to his throat. There it stopped. His head emerged, and he could breathe ; but as the mass set, he felt the impossibility of expanding his lungs, and knew that he must die of suffocation. At the point of losing consciousness, he became aware of comrades running to his rescue. They hacked the snow away around his thorax, and then rushed on to dig for another man who had been buried in the same disaster, leaving him able to breathe, but wholly power-less to stir hand or foot.

The usual spring avalanche is called the Schlag-Lawine or Stroke-Avalanche. These, as already described, push down a slope of the mountains like a swiftly flowing river. Danger from the Schlag-Lawine, which is just as usual and inevitable a process of Nature as the growing of the trees or the splitting of rocks by frost, has been very largely reduced. This form of avalanche can be traced to its sources and its course and flow regulated by channels and break-ices. It has a secondary form called the Grund-Lawine or ground avalanche. This is the avalanche which aroused the poetic anger of Mr. Symonds :

The peculiarity of a Grund-Lawine consists in the amount of earth and rubbish carried down by it. This kind is filthy and disreputable. It is coloured brown or slaty-grey by the rock and soil with which it is involved. Blocks of stone emerge in horrid bareness from the dreary waste of dirty snow and slush of water which compose it ; and the trees which have been so unlucky as to stand upon its path are splintered, bruised, rough-handled in a hideous fashion. The Staub-Lawine is fury-laden like a fiend in its first swirling onset, flat and stiff like a corpse in its ultimate repose of death, containing men and beasts and trees entombed beneath its stern unwrinkled taciturnity of marble. The Schlag-Lawine is picturesque, rising into romantic spires and turrets, with erratic pine-plumed firths protruding upon sleepy meadows. It may even lie pure and beautiful, heaving in pallid billows at the foot of majestic mountain slopes where it has injured nothing. But the Grund-Lawine is ugly, spiteful like an asp, tatterdemalion like a street Arab ; it is the worst, the most wicked of the sisterhood. To be killed by it would mean a ghastly death by scrunching and throttling, as in some grinding machine, with nothing of noble or impressive in the winding-sheet of foul snow and debris heaved above the mangled corpse.

But the Grund-Lawine is really the most beneficial avalanche of the Alps, doing quickly the work, which a glacier does slowly, of carrying down soil from the heights to the plains. It is rare in the Swiss Alps, more common in mountains of younger age going through earlier processes of disintegration. Perhaps, if one is to look at an avalanche chiefly as an instrument of death, the Grund-Lawine has a greater objectionableness than the Staub-Lawine. But any form of death by avalanche is best avoided : and the difference between death by the Grund-Lawine and death by the Staub-Lawine is purely aesthetic. And the Grund usually kills quickly whilst the Staub may take a freakish turn and bury you alive in a cranny or cavern which the avalanche has sealed by passing over it. Men have slowly died of hunger in such circumstances. Yet, so long as life lasts, there is hope ; no pains are spared in ransacking the snow after an avalanche ; and cases of almost miraculous deliverance occasionally occur. One February (records Mr. Symonds) a young man called Domiziano Roberti, in the neighbourhood of Giornico, saw an avalanche descending on him. He crept under a great stone, above which there fell a large tree in such a position that it and the stone together roofed him from the snow, which soon swept over him and shut him up. There he remained 103 hours in a kind of semi-somnolence, and was eventually dug out, speechless and frightfully frost-bitten, but alive.

The avalanche record of a single village (Fetan) of Switzerland—a village which is characterised as a very unlucky one—will give some idea of the real extent of the toll of the avalanche. In the year 1682 a great avalanche swept over it. Six persons were killed, but the rest of the villagers, expecting some such catastrophe, had abandoned their houses. In one dwelling nothing was left standing but the living-room and one bedroom. These, however, contained the mother of the family and all her children, who escaped unhurt. In 1720 an avalanche demolished fifteen houses. In one of them a party of twenty-six young men and women were assembled. They were all buried in the snow, and only three survived. Altogether thirty-six persons perished at that time. In 1812 a similar catastrophe occurred, destroying houses and stables. But on this occasion the inhabitants had been forewarned and left the village. A curious story is told about the avalanche of 1812. One of the folk of Fetan, after abandoning his home to its fate, remembered that he had forgotten to bring away his Bible. In the teeth of the impending danger, through the dark night, he waded back across the snowdrifts, and saved the book. In 1888 there was further destruction at this village by avalanche, but with no loss of life. That is a particularly unlucky village, evidently badly situated. But since 1720 the snow-falls have caused no loss of life there.

The down-coming of an avalanche, if it be sudden and swift, is often accompanied by a great blast of wind, which gives it an additional danger. This wind may in some cases be partly caused by the displacement of the air from the fall ; in most cases, it is probable, the wind was in chief part the original cause of the snow-fall. The blast of the avalanche is known as the Lawinen-Dunst, and many thrilling stories are told of hairbreadth escapes from its blast. A carter driving with a sledge and two horses across the Albula Pass was hurled—horses, sledge, and all—across a gully by the wind. A woman was lifted into the air and carried to the top of a lofty pine-tree, to which she clung and was saved.

Of more tragic tone is the record of the man lifted by an avalanche blast and smashed to pieces against a stone, of a house lifted up in the air and dashed down, killing most of its in-habitants.

The avalanche is snow in quick movement towards the valleys. The glacier is snow—pressed into ice—in slow movement. A river of ice, its flow to be measured by the records of months, not of moments—that is the glacier of Alps and Polar lands. Its mission in nature is the same as that of a river, to grind down mountain rocks and to carry the detritus for the enrichment of the plains below. The glaciers of the Polar lands, coming down as they do to the edge of the ocean, are responsible for the icebergs of those seas. Compared with Polar glaciers the Alpine ones are puny, no larger, as a rule, than a large iceberg—which represents just a fragment broken off an Arctic or Antarctic glacier. But the Alpine examples of glaciers, small though they be, are grandly impressive in their natural surroundings. Such a one as the Silvretta, for instance, stretching its length for nearly twenty miles across the mountains, looks magnificently vast. From a distance a glacier seems to be white, with bands of grey, or of black from the moraines (strips of earth and stones showing on the surface). Studied at close hand it is a pageant of varied colours due to the variations of light and shade on its surface, and to the manner in which the refraction of the light is affected by the partial melting of the topmost layer of the snow. From this melting come little trickles of water which combine to form streams and then torrents. The beds of these torrents are blue in colour and like transparent glass-a lovely contrast with the general surface of the glacier. For that is made white by the in-numerable fissures that penetrate its surface, fissures which are caused by the heat of the sun, from which the beds of the streams are protected. Yet more beautiful than the streams are the pools occasionally found on the surface of a glacier, when they have clean floors unsoiled by a moraine. They, too, have blue basins with white edges. Looked down upon from a distance, they appear like great sapphires. Sometimes a lake may be found not on but beside a glacier, where the ice forms one bank and the mountain another. Such are the Marjelen See by the Great Aletsch, and the lake at the west foot of Monte Rosa.

On these one may see floating masses of ice. Now and again will be found crevasses filled with water, whose depth gives a yet bluer tone.

Sir Martin Conway (from whose expert study of glaciers I have freely quoted) gives the palm for glacier colouring to what is called the dry glacier.

“Note,” he writes, ” the brilliance of its surface and the peculiarity of its texture. It consists of an infinite multitude of loosely compacted rounded fragments of ice with a little water soaking down between them. If you watch it closely you will see that the moving water makes a shimmering in the cracks between the ice fragments. You will also observe that the blue of the solid ice below the skin of fragments appears dimly through the white, and the least tap with an ice-axe to scrape away the surface reveals it clearly. Each little fragment of ice has a separate glitter of its own, so that the whole surface sparkles with a frosted radiance. It is not the same at dawn after a cold night, for then there is no water between the fragments, but all is hard and solid. No sooner, however, does the sun shine upon them, than the bonds are released and the ice-crystals begin to break up with a gentle tinkling sound and little flashes of light reflected from tiny wet mirror-surfaces. One can spend hours watching these small phenomena as happily as gazing upon the great mountains themselves. Size is a relative term. The biggest mountain in relation to the earth is no greater than is one of these small ice-fragments in relation to a glacier. Reduce the scale in imagination and the smallest object may be endowed with grandeur, for all such conceptions are subjective. The open crevasses that are never far away on the dry glacier are full of beauties. It is not easy to tire of peering down into them. Some-times one may be found into which a man armed with an ice-axe may effect a descent. He will not stay there long, for the depths are cold. Once I was able not only to descend into a crevasse but to follow it beyond its open part into the very substance of the glacier. It was a weird place, good to see but not good to remain in, and I was glad to return to sunshine very soon.”

Ordinarily a glacier surface is not diversified by any large features. But sometimes peaks of rock rise as islands out of a sea of ice. Sometimes, too, inequalities in the bed of the glacier acting with the pressure of the ice mass cause great wrinklings on the surface (the Col du Geant is an instance), and from the ridges thus formed hang very beautiful ice-falls.

For the proper study of glacier beauty it is recommended to Alpine travellers that they should arrange to camp for some days in the glacier region. But there are good examples of glaciers within walking distance of some of the higher hotels.