The Alps – Accident On The Piz Morteratsch

WHILE staying at Pontresina in 1864 I joined Mr. Hutchinson, and Mr. Lee-Warner, of Rugby, in a memorable expedition up the Piz Morteratsch. This is a very noble mountain, and, as we thought, safe and easy to ascend. The resolute Jenni, by far the boldest man in Pontresina, was my guide; while Walter, the official guide chef, was taken by my companions. With a dubious sky overhead, we started on the morning of July 30, a little after four A.M. There is rarely much talk at the beginning of a mountain excursion : you are either sleepy or solemn so early in the day. Silently we passed through the pine woods of the beautiful Rosegg valley, watching anxiously at intervals the play of the clouds around the adjacent heights. At one place a spring gushed from the valley-bottom, as clear and almost as copious as that which pours out the full-formed river Albula. The traces of ancient glaciers were present everywhere, the valley being thickly covered with the rubbish which the ice had left behind. An ancient moraine, so large that in England it might take rank as a mountain, forms a barrier across the upper valley. Once probably it was the dam of a lake, but it is now cut through by the river which rushes from the Rosegg glacier. These works of the ancient ice are to the mind what a distant horizon is to the eye. They give to the imagination both pleasure and repose.

The morning, as I have said, looked threatening, but the wind was good ; by degrees the cloud-scowl relaxed, and broader patches of blue became visible above us. We called at the Rosegg chalets, and had some milk. We afterwards wound round a shoulder of the hill, at times upon the moraine of the glacier, and at times upon the adjacent grass slope ; then over shingly inclines, covered with the shot rubbish of the heights. Two ways were now open to us, the one easy but circuitous, the other stiff but short. Walter was for the former, and Jenni for the latter, their respective choices being characteristic of the two. men. To my satisfaction Jenni prevailed, and we scaled the steep and slippery rocks. At the top of them we found ourselves upon the rim of an extended snow-field. Our rope was here exhibited, and we were bound by it to a common destiny. In those higher regions the snow-fields show a beauty and a purity of which persons who linger low down have no notion. We crossed crevasses and bergschrunds, mounted vast snow-basses, and doubled round walls of ice with long stalactites pendent from their eaves. One by one the eminences were surmounted. The crowning rock was attained at half-past twelve. On it we uncorked a bottle of champagne ; mixed with the pure snow of the mountain, it formed a beverage, and was enjoyed with a gusto, which the sybarite of the city could neither imitate nor share.

We spent about an hour upon the warm gneiss-blocks on the top. Veils of cloud screened us at intervals from the sun, and then we felt the keenness of the air ; but in general we were cheered and comforted by the solar light and warmth. The shiftings of the atmosphere were wonderful. The white peaks were draped with opalescent clouds which never lingered for two consecutive minutes in the same position. Clouds differ widely from each other in point of beauty, but I had hardly seen them more beautiful than they appeared to-day, while the succession of surprises experienced through their changes were such as rarely fall to the lot even of an experienced mountaineer.

These clouds are for the most part produced by the chilling of the air through its own expansion. When thus chilled, the aqueous vapour diffused through it, which is previously unseen, is precipitated in visible particles. Every particle of the cloud has consumed in its formation a little polyhedron of vapour, and a moment’s reflection will make it clear that the size of the cloud-particles must depend, not only on the size of the vapour polyhedron, but on the relation of the density of the vapour to that of its liquid. If the vapour were light and the liquid heavy, other things being equal, the cloud-particle would be smaller than if the vapour were heavy and the liquid light. There would evidently be more shrinkage in the one case than in the other. Now there are various liquids whose weight is not greater than that of water, while the weight of their vapours, bulk for bulk, is five or six times that of aqueous vapour. When those heavy vapours are precipitated as clouds, which is easily done artificially, their particles are found to be far coarser than those of an aqueous cloud. Indeed water is without a parallel in this particular. Its vapour is the lightest of all vapours, and to this fact the soft and tender beauty of the clouds of our atmosphere is mainly due.’

After an hour’s halt upon the summit the descent began. Jenni is the most daring man and powerful character among the guides of Pontresina. The manner in which he bears down all the others in conversation, and imposes his own will upon them, shows that he is the dictator of the place. He is a large and rather an ugly man, and his progress up hill, though resistless, is slow. He had repeatedly expressed a wish to make an excursion with me, and on this occasion he may have desired to show us what he could do upon the mountains. He accomplished two daring things—the one successfully, while the other was within a hair’s-breadth of a very shocking issue.

In descending we went straight down upon a bergschrund, which had compelled us to make a circuit in coming up. This particular kind of fissure is formed by the lower portion of a snow-slope falling away from the upper, a crevasse being thus formed between both, which often surrounds the mountain as a fosse of terrible depth. Walter was the first of our party, and Jenni was the last. It was quite evident that the leader hesitated to cross the chasm ; but Jenni came forward, and half by expostulation, half by command, caused him to sit down on the snow at some height above the fissure. I think, moreover, he helped him with a shove. At all events, the slope was so steep that the guide shot down it with an impetus sufficient to carry him clear over the schrund. We all after-wards shot the chasm in this pleasant way. Jenni was behind Deviating from our track, he deliberately chose the widest part of the chasm, and shot over it, lumbering like behemoth down the snow-slope at the other side. It was an illustration of that practical knowledge which long residence among the mountains can alone impart, and in the possession of which our best English climbers fall far behind their guides.

The remaining steep slopes were also descended by glissade, and we afterwards marched cheerily over the gentler inclines. We had ascended by the Rosegg glacier, and now we wished to descend upon the Morteratsch glacier and make it our high-way home.

We reached the point at which it was necessary to quit our morning’s track, and immediately afterwards got upon some steep rocks, rendered slippery here and there by the water which trickled over them. To our right was a broad couloir, filled with snow, which had been melted and re-frozen, so as to expose a steeply sloping wall of ice. We were tied together in the following order : Jenni led, I came next, then Mr. Hutchinson, a practised mountaineer, then Mr. Lee-Warner, and last of all the guide Walter. Lee-Warner had had but little experience of the higher Alps, and he was placed in front of Walter, so that any false step on his part might be instantly checked.

After descending the rocks for a time Jenni turned and asked me whether I thought them or the ice-slope the better track. I pronounced without hesitation in favour of the rocks, but he seemed to misunderstand me, and turned towards the couloir. I stopped him at the edge of it, and said, ‘ Jenni, you know where you are going ; the slope is pure ice.’ He replied, ‘ I know it ; but the ice is quite bare for a few yards only. Across this exposed portion I will cut steps, and then the snow which covers the ice will give us a footing.’ He cut the steps, reached the snow, and descended carefully along it, all following him, apparently in good order. After some time he stopped, turned, and looked upwards at the last three men. ‘ Keep carefully in the steps, gentle-men,’ he said ; ‘ a false step here might detach an avalanche.’ The word was scarcely uttered when I heard the sound of a fall behind me, then a rush, and in a moment my two friends and their guide, all apparently entangled together, whirred past me. I suddenly planted myself to resist their shock, but in an instant I was in their wake, for their impetus was irresistible. A moment afterwards Jenni was whirled away, and thus, in the twinkling of an eye, all five of us found ourselves riding downwards with uncontrollable speed on the back of an avalanche which a single slip had originated.

Previous to stepping on the slope, I had, according to habit, made clear to my mind what was to be done in case of mishap ; and accordingly, when over-thrown, I turned promptly on my face and drove my bâton through the moving snow, and into the ice underneath. No time, however, was allowed for the break’s action ; for I had held it firmly thus for a few seconds only, when I came into collision with some obstacle and was rudely tossed through the air, Jenni at the same time being shot down upon me. Both of us here lost our bâtons. We had been carried over a crevasse, had hit its lower edge, and, instead of dropping into it, were pitched by our great velocity far beyond it. I was quite bewildered for a moment, but immediately righted myself, and could see the men in front of me half buried in the snow, and jolted from side to side by the ruts among which we were passing. Suddenly I saw them tumbled over by a lurch of the avalanche, and immediately afterwards found myself imitating their motion. This was caused by a second crevasse. Jenni knew of its existence and plunged, he told me, right into it—a brave act, but for the time unavailing. By jumping into the chasm he thought a strain might be put upon the rope sufficient to check the motion. But, though over thirteen stone in weight, he was violently jerked out of the fissure and almost squeezed to death by the pressure of the rope.

A long slope was below us, which led directly down-wards to a brow where the glacier fell precipitously.

At the base of the declivity the ice was eut by a series of profound chasms, towards which we were rapidly borne. The three foremost men rode upon the forehead of the avalanche, and were at times almost wholly immersed in the snow ; but the moving layer was thinner behind, and Jenni rose incessantly and with desperate energy drove his feet into the firmer substance underneath. His voice, shouting ‘ Halt! Herr Jesus, halt 1′ was the only one heard during the descent. A kind of condensed memory, such as that described by people who have narrowly escaped drowning, took possession of me, and my power of reasoning remained intact. I thought of Bennen on the Haut de Cry, and muttered, ‘ It is now my turn.’ Then I coolly scanned the men in front of me, and reflected that, if their vis viva was the only thing to be neutralised, Jenni and myself could stop them ; but to arrest both them and the mass of snow in which they were caught was hopeless. I experienced no intolerable dread. In fact, the start was too sudden and the excitement of the rush too great to permit of the development of terror.

Looking in advance, I noticed that the slope, for a short distance, became less steep, and then fell as before. ‘ Now or never we must be brought to rest,’ The speed visibly slackened, and I thought we were saved. But the momentum had been too great : the avalanche crossed the brow and in part regained its motion. Here Hutchinson threw his arm round his friend, all hope being extinguished, while I grasped my belt and struggled to free myself. Finding this difficult, from the tossing, I sullenly resumed the strain upon the rope. Destiny had so related the downward impetus to Jenni’s pull as to give the latter a slight advantage, and the whole question was whether the opposing force would have sufficient time to act. This was also arranged in our favour, for we came to rest so near the brow that two or three seconds of our average motion of descent must have carried us over. Had this occurred, we should have fallen into the chasms, and been covered up by the tail of the avalanche. Hutchinson emerged from the snow with his fore-head bleeding, but the wound was superficial; Jenni had a bit of flesh removed from his hand by collision against a stone ; the pressure of the rope had left black welts on my arms ; and we all experienced a tingling sensation over the hands, like that produced by incipient frostbite, which continued for several days. This was all. I found a portion of my watch-chain hanging round my neck, another portion in my pocket ; the watch was gone.

This happened on the 30th of July. Two days afterwards I went to Italy, and remained there for ten or twelve days. On the 16th of August, being again at Pontresina, I made on that day an expedition in search of the lost watch. Both the guides and myself thought the sun’s heat might melt the snow above it, and I inferred that if its back should happen to be uppermost the slight absorbent power of gold for the solar rays would prevent the watch from sinking as a stone sinks under like circumstances. The watch would thus be brought quite to the surface ; and, although a small object, it might possibly be seen from some distance. Five friends accompanied me up the Morteratsch glacier. One of them was the late Mr. North, member for Hastings, a most lovable man. He was then sixty-four years of age, but he exhibited a courage and collectedness, and indeed a delight, in the wild savagery of the crevasses which were perfectly admirable.

Two only of the party, both competent mountaineers, accompanied me to the track of our glissade, but none of us ventured on the ice where it originated. Just before stepping upon the snow, a stone some tons in weight, detached by the sun from the heights above us, came rushing down the line of our descent. Its leaps became more and more impetuous, and on reaching the brow near which we had been brought to rest it bounded through the air, and with a single spring reached the lower glacier, raising a cloud of ice-dust. Some fragments of rope found upon the snow assured us that we were upon the exact track of the avalanche, and then the search commenced. It had not continued twenty minutes when a cheer from one of the guides —Christian Michel of Grindelwald— announced the discovery of the watch. It had been brought to the surface in the manner surmised, and on examination seemed to be dry and uninjured. I noticed, moreover, that the position of the hands indicated that it had only run down beneath the snow. I wound it up, hardly hoping, however, to find it capable of responding. But it showed instant signs of animation. It had remained eighteen days in the avalanche, but the application of its key at once restored it to action, and it has gone with unvarying regularity ever since.

Mr. Hutchinson has published the following note of the accident in the ‘ Alpine Journal :

‘As one of the party concerned in the accident on the Piz Morteratsch last July, I trust I shall not be thought presumptuous in bearing my testimony to the entire accuracy of Professor Tyndall’s account. I can add no facts of any importance to those there mentioned, unless it be that we estimated the distance down which we were carried at fully 1,000 feet—a conclusion which, Mr. Tyndall tells me, was confirmed by his subsequent visit to the spot. The angle of the slope we did not measure, nor can I give the time of our descent with any accuracy ; it seemed to me a lifetime. From the moment that the snow cracked, Jenni behaved with the greatest coolness and courage. But he ought not to have taken us down the ice-slope so late in the day—it was then nearly half-past two o’clock—and that after a warning word from Professor Tyndall and myself. Of Walter’s conduct the less said the better ; our opinion of his courage was not raised by this trial of it.’

Until Mr. Gossett’s letter reached me a few days ago I was not aware of the singular likeness between the loss of Bennen’s watch and of my own. –April 1871.