Hunting The Chamois – Switzerland

Schmidt swept with his cap the snow which covered the stones on which we were to seat ourselves for breakfast, then unpacked the provisions; slices of veal and ham, hard-boiled eggs, wine of the Valtelline. His knapsack, covered with a napkin, served for our table. While we sat, we devoured the landscape, the twelve glaciers spreading around us their carpet of swansdown and ermine, sinking into crevasses of a magical transparency, and raising their blocks, shaped into needles, or into Gothic steeples with pierced arches. The architecture of the glacier is marvelous. Its decorations are the decorations of fairyland. Quite near us marks of animals in the snow attracted our attention. Schmidt said to us:

“Chamois have been here this morning; the traces are quite fresh. They must have seen us and made off; the chamois are as distrustful, you see, as the marmots, and as wary. At this season they keep on the glaciers by preference. They live on so little! A few herbs, a few mosses, such as grow on isolated rocks like this. I assure you it is very amusing to see a herd of twenty or thirty chamois cross at a head-long pace a vast field of snow, or glacier, where they bound over the crevasses in play.

“One would say they were reindeers in a Lapland scene. It is only at night that they come down into the valleys. In the moon-light they come out of the moraines, and go to pasture on the grassy slopes or in the forest adjoining the glaciers. During the day they go up again into the snow, for which they have an extraordinary love, and in which they skip and play, amusing themselves like a band of scholars in play hours. They tease one another, butt with their horns in fun, run off, return, pretend new attacks and new flights with charming agility and frolicsomeness.

“While the young ones give themselves up to their sports, an old female, posted as sentinel at some yards distance, watches the valley and scents the air. At the slightest indication of danger, she utters a sharp cry; the games cease instantly, and the whole anxious troop assembles round the guardian, then the whole herd sets off at a gallop and disappears in the twinkling of an eye.

“Hunting on the neves and the glaciers is very dangerous. When the snow is fresh it is with difficulty one can advance. The hunters use wooden snowshoes, like those of the Esquimaux.

“One of my comrades, in hunting on the Roseg, disappeared in the bottom of a crevasse. It was over thirty feet deep. Imagine two perfectly smooth sides; two walls of crystal. To reascend was impossible. It was certain death, either from cold or hunger; for it was known that when he went chamois-hunting he was often absent for several days. He could not therefore count on help being sent; he must resign himself to death,

“One thing, however, astonished him; it was to find so little water in the bottom of the crevasse. Could there be then an opening at the bottom of the funnel into which he had fallen! He stooped, examined this grave in which he had been buried alive, discovered that the heat of the sun had caused the base of the glacier to melt. A canal drainage had been formed. Laying himself flat, he slid into this dark passage, and after a thousand efforts he arrived at the end of the glacier in the moraine, safe and sound.”

We had finished breakfast. We wanted something warm, a little coffee. Schmidt set up our spirit-lamp behind two great stones that protected it from the wind. And while we waited for the water to boil, he related to us the story of Colani, the legendary hunter of the upper Engandine.

“Colani, in forty years, killed two thousand seven hundred chamois. This strange man had carved out for himself a little kingdom in the mountain. He claimed to reign there alone, to be absolute master. When a stranger penetrated into his residence, within the domain of `his reserved hunting-ground,’ as he called the regions of the Bernina, he treated him as a poacher, and chased him with a gun.

“Colani was feared and dreaded as a diabolical and supernatural being; and indeed he took no pains to undeceive the public, for the superstitious terrors inspired by his person served to keep away all the chamois-hunters from his chamois, which he cared for and managed as a great lord cares for the deer in his forests.

Round the little house which he had built for himself on the Col de Bernina, and where he passed the summer and autumn, two hundred chamois, almost tame, might be seen wandering about and browsing. Every year he killed about fifty old males.”