Interlaken, Switzerland – The Kursaal

But the real evening-heroes must be looked for at the Kursaal. That is where you hear the great champion talkers of the world! What was the amiable Tartarin to such as these? Or Baron Munchausen? Or Sir John Mandeville? On such deaf ears fell the warning ignored of “Excelsior”. –

“Beware the pine-tree’s withered branch! Beware the awful avalanche!”

Behold them at their ease in wicker chairs in the lounging-room, stretching the weary limbs that have borne them in safety through a hundred Alpine perils. For all who will listen, what tales may be heard of desperate daring amid the imminent deadly breach of crevasse and avalanche! Under the vivid hand of the actual participant one fairly sees the progress of the proud mountain-queller – follows with bated breath the slow and tedious early stages, the hazardous upward advance, the surmounting of final barriers by dint of ice-axe and life-rope, and so enters into the joy of the ultimate conquest of the wild, bleak, wind-swept summit. Who would have the hardihood in such a presence to speak a word of such contemptible contrivances as mountain tramways and funicular railroads! It is enough that the uninitiated should realize in the shuddering depths of his soul that there still remains terra incognita to the listless, the fat, and the asthmatic. Later on, of course, we come to view these hardy characters in a somewhat truer perspective; but that will be after we have talked with their guides, or ourselves turned heroes and bluffed at like hazards.

All the same, there is no denying the satisfaction a newcomer has, in the beginning, in attending the impressive conversation of these desperate and intrepid Kursaal adventurers. He certainly feels that he has at last reached a region of hardy men and genuine mountain hand-to-hand struggles. He hears, with popping eyes, of the lofty little hamlet of Murren, away up in cloudland, whose tiny cottages stagger under broad, stone-freighted roofs and where vast, sublime Titans scowl awfully from inaccessible heights. They tell him it is a region of eternal dazzling whiteness, with patches of black here and there that are really forests half buried in snow, and where the air is stifling with the constant odor of ice and frost. A truly shuddering place, they say, where men cannot hear themselves talk for the incessant thundering of plunging avalanches, and where the herdsman seldom ventures and the sunrise is never heralded by the alphorn of the hardy Senn. Later on, to be sure, we journey luxuriously to this same Murren in a comfortable mountain railway and with considerably less of peril than attends going to office by elevator in a skyscraper at home; and we find it a green and peaceful retreat, well supplied with hotels and gratefully affected by delicate old ladies with weak lungs. Just the same, we would not have missed the thrills of that first Kursaal account. Alas for all disillusionment, anyway! Most of the beautiful white, velvety edelweiss these rocking-chair climbers produce from their pockets in proof of their presence in frightful and remote ravines has really been bought for a franc on the Hoheweg, and the chamois they stalked in summit passes generally dwindle down to the little ivory ones you find in the shops of Jungfraustrasse.

The truth of the Kursaal, when you get it, is stranger than its fiction; as when the talk turns to the progress of the construction work on the Jungfrau Railway, that imperishable monument to the genius and patience of the late Adolf Guyer-Zeller, of Zurich. It is then you hear of the loftiest tunnels in the world, eight and ten miles long, through icy mountain shoulders ten thousand feet above the sea; of gradients of one in four; of squirrel locomotives so ingeniously contrived that if the electric power were suddenly to fail they could generate enough by their own weight to clap on brakes and come down in safety; of searchlights in the stations on the peaks so strong that a man can read by them away over at Thun; of powerful telescopes, free to patrons, through which you may observe the occupations of the crowds on the Rigi and Mount Pilatus at remote Lucerne; of roomy and luxurious stations blasted out of the depths of the mountains, whose floors are parquetry and whose light and heat are electricity, with twenty-foot windows piercing the rock and appearing, even from across the neighboring abyss, like tiny pin-pricks in the perpendicular cliff; of the highest post-office on earth, from whose windows you look out on twenty glaciers. Of the truth of all this you are to learn later on when you make the unforgettable run to Eismeer – “sea of ice” – the farthest point so far attained in the steady progress of this marvelous railway toward the summit of the Jungfrau, now only a mile or two beyond, and which had been the despair of mountain climbers of all time until the Meyer brothers conquered it, one hundred years ago.

One finds the evening gossipers of the Kursaal scarcely less fascinating when they focus their talents on nearer regions; for “distant meadows” are not always “the greenest.” Agreeable things are to be heard of Schynige Platte, whither, it appears, you journey by cogwheel railway up steep gradients in an observation car behind a violently puffing locomotive, past pretty toy stations, around dizzy corners, through the startling blackness of unexpected tunnels, and so on out and up to the giddy plateau and an overpowering prospect of snowfields, misty valleys, gorges, and cataracts upon which you gaze in spellbound astonishment from the comfortable terrace of the “Alpenrose.” From no other viewpoint, they tell you, does the stupendous Monch (Monk) seem to stand out so squarely in the middle distance in his cowl of snow, playing his traditional role of discouraging duenna between the coveted Jungfrau and the eager Eiger whom he repels with an eternal arm of glittering, blue ridge-ice.

When the conversation takes up Grindelwald, it becomes so attractive that you make a mental note to go there the first thing in the morning. It seems you are to take one of those droll little coaches of the Bernese Oberland Road marked “B.O.B.,” and proceed delightedly up the green valley of the Lutschine. Very soon will loom before you the bleak shoulders of the Wetterhorn, seared and precipitous, capped and pocketed with snow; the overwhelming pyramid of the Eiger, fearful with gorge and chasm; the regal Jungfrau, immaculate and stupendous; and, most uncommon spectacle of all, the awe-inspiring glacier – a frozen tumble of scarred boulders and grimy icebergs, pierced by glittering ice grottoes and ridged with terraced ways from which you stare down into yawning black gulfs that are fringed with giant icicles pendent from the frozen ledges. What was it Coleridge said of glaciers?

” Torrents, methinks, that heard a mighty voice, And stopped at once amid their maddest plunge! Motionless torrents! silent cataracts!”

But many there will be at the Kursaal to tell you such tales of the enchanted Lauterbrunnen Valley as to incline you to reconsider any resolution about going first to Grindelwald. There, it is clear, we are to find quality rather than quantity: a narrow ravine through the mountains, carpeted with the greenest of turf and hung with glorious waterfalls that come tumbling down from lofty limestone precipices. We are to drive beside a turbulent stream set with occasional chalets whose projecting roofs will suggest broad-brimmed hats jammed down over their eyes, and here and there we shall come across a white stone church. Shortly there will be raging, leaping torrents all about us, vaulting down great cliffs of, strange and startling appearance, and a vista of wonderland will open before us with the stately Steinberg enthroned in the midst. Next, climax on climax, the incomparable Staubbach ! Before this queen of cataracts every other “hanging thread” is instantly and hopelessly dwarfed, as it launches its “wreaths of dangling water-smoke” from a thousand feet above. We will think this “dust brook” a mere feathery spray fluttered in a capricious breeze, so astonishing is the evidence of the resistance of the air and the friction of the rocks back of it; but once we have gone behind it and observed the “perpetual iris” made by the sun in shining through, it will appear a wonder beyond classification. Byron fancied it “the tail of the White Horse”; Wordsworth called it “the sky-born waterfall”; and Goethe’s dripping song of it runs: –

“In clouds of spray, Like silver dust, It veils the rock In rainbow hues; And dancing down With music soft, Is lost in air.”