Avalanches – Switzerland

Beside this dazzling, magnificent snow, covering the chain of lofty peaks like an immaculate altar cloth, what a gloomy, dull look there is in the snow of the plains ! One might think it was made of sugar or confectionery, that it was false like all the rest.

To know what snow really is—to get quit of this feeling of artificial snow that we have when we see the stunted shrubs in our Parisian gardens wrapt, as it were, in silk paper like bits of Christmas trees—it must be seen here in these far-off, high valleys of the Engandine, that lie for eight months dead under their shroud of snow, and often, even in the height of summer, have to shiver anew under some win-try flakes.

It is here that snow is truly beautiful ! It shines in the sun with a dazzling whiteness; it sparkles with a thousand fires like diamond dust; it shows gleams like the plumage of a white dove, and it is as firm under the foot as a marble pavement. It is so fine-grained, so compact, that it clings like dust to every crevice and bend, to every projecting edge and point, and follows every outline of the mountain, the form of which it leaves as clearly de-lined as if it were a covering of thin gauze. It sports in the most charming decorations, carves alabaster facings and cornices on the cliffs, wreathes them in delicate lace, covers them with vast canopies of white satin spangled with stars and fringed with silver.

And yet this dry, hard snow is extremely susceptible to the slightest shock, and may be set in motion by a very trifling disturbance of the air. The flight of a bird, the cracking of a whip, the tinkling of bells, even the conversation of persons going along sometimes suffices to shake and loosen it from the vertical face of the cliffs to which it is clinging; and it runs down like grains of sand, growing as it falls, by drawing down with it other beds of snow. It is like a torrent, a snowy waterfall, bursting out suddenly from the side of the mountain; it rushes down with a terrible noise, swollen with the snows that it carries down in its furious course; it breaks against the rocks, divides and joins again like an overflowing stream, and with a wild tempest blast resumes its desolating course, filling the echoes with the deafening thunder of battle.

You think for a moment that a storm has be-gun, but looking at the sky you see it serenely blue, smiling, cloudless. The rush becomes more and more violent; it comes nearer, the ground trembles, the trees bend and break with a sharp crack; enormous stones and blocks of ice are carried away like gravel; and the mighty avalanche, with a crash like a train running off the rails over a precipice, drops to the foot of the mountain, destroying, crushing down every-thing before it, and covering the ground with a bed of snow from thirty to fifty feet deep.

When a stream of water wears a passage for itself under this compact mass, it is sometimes hollowed out into an arched way, and the snow becomes so solid that carriages and horses can go through without danger, even in the middle of summer. But often the water does not find a course by which to flow away; and then, when the snow begins to melt, the water seeps into the fissures, loosens the mass that chokes up the valley, and carries it down, rending its banks as it goes, carrying away bridges, mills, and trees, and overthrowing houses. The avalanche has become an inundation.

The mountaineers make a distinction between summer and winter avalanches. The former are solid avalanches, formed of old snow that has almost acquired the consistency of ice. The warm breath of spring softens it, loosens it from the rocks on which it hangs, and it slides down into the valleys. These are called “melting avalanches.” They regularly follow certain tracks, and these are embanked, like the course of a river, with wood or bundles of branches. It is in order to protect the alpine roads from these avalanches that those long open galleries have been built on the face of the precipice.

The most dreaded and most terrible avalanches, those of dry, powdery snow, occur only in winter, when sudden squalls and hurricanes of snow throw the whole atmosphere into chaos. They come down in sudden whirlwinds, with the violence of a waterspout, and in a few minutes whole villages are buried.

Here, in the Grisons, the whole village of Selva was buried under an avalanche. Nothing remained visible but the top of the church steeple, looking like a pole planted in the snow. Baron Munchausen might have tied his horse there without inventing any lie about it. The Val Verzasca was covered for several months by an avalanche of nearly 1,000 feet in length and 50 in depth. All communication through the valley was stopt; it was impossible to organize help; and the alarm-bell was incessantly sounding over the immense white desolation like a knell for the dead.

In the narrow defile in which we now are, there are many remains of avalanches that neither the water of the torrent nor the heat of the sun has had power to melt. The bed of the river is strewn with displaced and broken rocks, and great stones bound together by the snow as if with cement; the surges dash against these rocky obstacles, foaming angrily, with the blind fury of a wild beast. And the moan of the powerless water flows on into the depth of the valley, and is lost far off in a hollow murmur.