The Alps – Ascent Of The Aletschhorn

THE failure through bad weather of a former attempt upon the Aletschhorn has been already recorded ; but a succession of cloudless days at the Bel Alp in August 1869 stirred up the desire to try again. This was strengthened by the wish to make a series of observations from the greatest accessible elevation on the colour and polarisation of the sky. I had no guide of my own, but the Knecht at the hotel had been up the mountain, and I thought that we two might accomplish the ascent without any other assistance. It was the first time the mountain had been attempted by a single guide, and I was there-fore careful to learn whether he was embarrassed by either doubt or fear. There was no doubt or fear in the matter : he really wished to go with me. His master (the proprietor of the hotel) had asked him whether he was not undertaking too much. ” I am undertaking no more than my companion,’ was his reply.

At twenty minutes past two we quitted the Bel Alp. The moon, which seven hours previously had cleared the eastern mountain-tops with a visible motion, was now sloping to the west. The light was white and brilliant, and shadows of corresponding darkness were cast upon the earth. The larger stars were out, those near the horizon especially sparkling with many-coloured fires. The Pleiades were near the zenith, while Orion hung his sword a few degrees above the eastern horizon. Our path lay along the slope of the mountain, parallel to the Oberaletscb glacier, the lateral moraine of which was close to us on our right. After climbing sundry grass acclivities we mounted this moraine, and made it our pathway for a time. At a certain point the shingly ridge became depressed, opening a natural passage to the glacier. We found the ice ‘ hummocky,’ and there-fore crossed it to a medial moraine composed of granite debris and loaded here and there with clean granite blocks of enormous size. Beyond this moraine we found smoother ice and better light, for we had previously journeyed in the shadow of the mountains.

We marched upwards along the glacier chatting sociably at times, but at times stilled into silence by the stillness of the night. ‘ Es tagt !’ at length exclaimed my companion. It dawns ! Orion had moved upwards, leaving space between him and the horizon for the morning star. All the east was belted by that ‘ daffodil sky’ which in some states of the atmosphere announces the approach of day in the Alps. We spun towards the east. It brightened and deepened, but deeper than the orange of the spectrum it did not fall. Amid this the mountains rose. Silently and solemnly their dark and dented outlines rested against the dawn.

The mass of light thus thrown over the shaded earth long before the sun appeared above the horizon came not from illuminated clouds, but from matter far more attenuated than clouds— matter which maintains comparative permanence in the atmosphere, while clouds are formed and dissipated. It is not light reflected from concentric shells of air of varying density, of which our atmosphere may be rightly assumed to be made up ; for the light reflected from these convex layers is thrown, not upon the earth at all, but into space. The ‘ rose of dawn’ is usually ascribed, and with sufficient correctness, to transmitted light, the blue of the sky to reflected light ; but in each case there is both transmission and reflection. No doubt the daffodil and orange of the east this morning must have been transmitted through long reaches of atmospheric air, and no doubt it was during this passage of the rays that the selective winnowing of the light occurred which gave the sky its tint and splendour. But if the distance of the sun below the horizon when the dawn first appeared be taken into account, it will become evident that the solar rays must have been caused to swerve from their rectilineal course by reflection. The refraction of the atmosphere would be wholly in-competent to bend the rays round the convex earth to the extent now under contemplation.

Thus the light which is reflected must be first transmitted to the reflecting particles, while the transmitted light, except in the direct line of the sun, must be reflected to reach the eyes. What mainly holds the light in our atmosphere after the sun has retired behind the earth is, I imagine, the suspended matter which produces the blue of the sky and the morning and the evening red. Through the reverberation of the rays from particle to particle, there must be at the very noon of night a certain amount of illumination. Twilight must continue with varying degrees of intensity all night long, and the visibility of the nocturnal firmament itself may be due, not, as my excellent friend Dove seems to assume, to the light of the stars, but in great part to the light of the sun, scattered in all directions through the atmosphere by the almost infinitely attenuated matter held there in suspension.

We had every prospect of a glorious day. To our left was the almost full moon, now close to the ridge of the Sparrenhorn. The firmament was as blue as ever I have seen it—deep and dark, and to all appearance pure ; that is to say, unmixed with any colour of a lower grade of refrangibility than the blue. The lunar shadows had already become weak, and were finally washed away by the light of the east. But while the shadows were at their greatest depth, and therefore least invaded by the dawn, I examined the firmament with a Nicol’s prism.’ The moonlight, as I have said, came from the left, and right in front of me was a mountain of dark brown rock, behind which spread a heaven of the most impressive depth and purity. I looked over the mountain-crest through the prism. In one position of the instrument the blue was not sensibly affected ; in the rectangular position it was so far quenched as to reduce the sky and the dark mountain beneath it to the same uniform hue. The outline of the mountain could hardly be detached from the sky above it. This was the direction in which the prism showed its maximum quenching power ; in no other direction was the extinction of the light of the sky so perfect. And it was at right angles to the lunar rays: so that, as regards the polarisation of the sky, the beams of the moon behave exactly like those of the sun.

The glacier along which we first marched was a trunk of many tributaries, and consequently of many 4 medial moraines,’ such moraines being always one less in number than the tributaries.’ But two principal branches absorbed all the others as constituents. One of these descended from the Great and Little Nesthorn and their spurs; the other from the Aletschhorn. Up this latter branch we steered from the junction. Hitherto the surface of the glacier, disintegrated by the previous day’s sun, and again hardened by the night’s frost, had crackled under our feet ; but on the Aletschhorn branch the ice was coated by a kind of fur, resembling the nap of velvet : it was as soft as a carpet, but at the same time perfectly firm to the grip of the boot. The sun was hidden behind the mountain ; and, thus steeped in shade, we could enjoy, with spirits unblunted by the heat, the loveliness and grandeur of the scene.

Right before us was the pyramid of the Aletschhorn, bearing its load of glaciers, and thrusting above them its pinnacle of rock while right and left of us towered and fell to snowy cols such other peaks as usually hang about a mountain of nearly 14,000 feet elevation. And amid them all, with a calmness corresponding to the deep seclusion of the place, wound the beautiful system of glaciers along which we had been marching for nearly three hours. I know nothing which can compare in point of glory with these winter palaces of the mountaineer, under the opening illumination of the morning.

And the best of it is, that no right of property in the scene could enhance its value. To Switzerland belongs the rock—to the early climber, competent to enjoy them, belong the sublimity and beauty of mass, form, colour, and grouping. And still the outward splendour is by no means all. ‘In the midst of a puddly moor,’ says Emerson, ‘ I am afraid to say how glad I am : ‘ which is a strong way of affirming the influence of the inner man as regards the enjoyment of external nature. And surely the inner man is a high factor in the effect. The magnificence of the world outside suffices not. Like light falling upon the polished plate of the photographer, the glory of Nature, to be felt, must descend upon a soul prepared to receive its image and superscription.

Mind, like force, is known to us only through matter. Take, then, what hypothesis you will—consider matter as an instrument through which the insulated mind exercises its powers, or consider both as so inextricably mixed that they stand or fall together ; from both points of view the care of the body is equally important.’ The morality of clean blood ought to be one of the first lessons taught us by our pastors and masters. The physical is the substratum of the spiritual, and this fact ought to give the food we eat and to the air we breathe a transcendental significance. Boldly and truly writes Mr. Ruskin, ‘ Whenever you throw your window wide open in the morning, you let in Athena, as wisdom and fresh air at the same instant ; and whenever you draw a pure, long, full breath of right heaven, you take Athena into your heart, through your blood; and with the blood into thoughts of the brain.’ No higher value than this could be assigned to atmospheric oxygen.

Precisely three hours after we had quitted our hotel the uniform gradient of the Aletschhorn glacier came to an end. It now suddenly steepened to run up the mountain. At the base we halted to have some food, a huge slab of granite serving us for a table. It is not good to go altogether without food in these climbing expeditions ; nor is it good to eat copiously. Here a little and there a little, as the need wakes itself apparent, is the prudent course. For, left to itself, the stomach infallibly sickens, and the forces of the system ooze away. Should the sickness have set in so as to produce a recoil from nutriment, the stomach must be forced to yield. A small modicum of food usually suffices to set it right. The strongest guides and the sturdiest porters have sometimes to use this compulsion. ‘ Sie müssen sich zwingen.’ The guides refer the capriciousness of the stomach at great elevations to the air. This may be a cause, but I am inclined to think that something is also due to the motion—the long-continued action of the same muscles upon the diaphragm. The condition of things antecedent to the journey must also be taken into account. There is little, if any, sleep ; the starting meal is taken at an unusual hour ; and if the start be made from a mountain cave or cabin, instead of from the bed of an hotel, the deviation from normal conditions is aggravated. It could not be the mere difference of height between Mont Blanc and Monte Rosa which formerly rendered their effects upon travellers so different. It is that, in the one case, you had the melted snow of the Grands Mulets for your coffee, and a bare plank for your bed ; while in the other you had the comparative comforts of the auberge on the Eiffel. On the present occasion I had a bottle of milk, which suits me better than anything else. That and a crust are all I need to keep my vigour up and to ward off le mal des montagnes.

After half an hour’s halt we made ready for the peak, meeting first a quantity of moraine matter mingled with patches of snow, and afterwards the rifted glacier. We threaded our way among the crevasses, and here I paid particular attention to the deportment of my guide. The want of confidence, or rather the absence of that experience of a guide’s powers, on which alone perfect reliance can be based, is a serious drawback to the climber. This source of weakness has often come home to me since the death of my brave friend Bennen. His loss to me was like that of an arm to a fighter. But I was glad to notice that my present guide was not likely to err on the score of rashness. He left a wider margin between us and accident than I should have deemed necessary ; he sounded with his staff where I should have trod without hesitation ; and, knowing my own caution, I had good reason to be satisfied with his. Still, notwithstanding all his vigilance, he once went into a concealed fissure-only waist-deep, how-ever, and he could certainly have rescued himself without the tug of the rope which united us.

After some time we quitted the ice, striking a rocky shoulder of the mountain. The rock had been pulled to pieces by the weather, and its fragments heaped together to an incoherent ridge. Over the lichened stones we worked our way, our course, though rough, being entirely free from danger. On this ridge the sun first found us, striking us at intervals, and at intervals disappearing behind the sloping ridge of the Aletschhorn. We attained the summit of the rocks, and had now the upper reaches of the névé before us. To our left the glacier was greatly torn, exposing fine vertical sections, deep blue pits and chasms, which were bottomless to vision ; and ledges, from whose copings hung vaster stalactites than those observed below. The beauty of the higher crevasses is mightily enhanced by the long transparent icicles which hang from their eaves, and which, loosened by the sun, fall into them with ringing sound. Above us was the customary Bergschrund ; but the spring avalanches had swept over it, and closed it, and since the spring it had not been able to open its jaws. At this schrund we aimed, reached it, and crossed it, and immediately found ourselves at the base of the final cap of the mountain.

Looking at the Aletschhorn from the Sparrenhorn, or from any other point which commands a similar view of the pyramid, we see upon the ridge which falls from the summit to the right, and at a considerable distance from the top, a tooth or pinnacle of rock, which encloses with the ridge a deep indentation. At this gap we now aimed. We varied our ascent from steep snow to rock, and from steep rock to snow, avoiding the difficulties when possible, and facing them when necessary. We met some awkward places, but none whose subjugation was otherwise than pleasant, and at length surmounted the edge of the arête. Looking over this, the facette of the pyramid fell almost sheer to the Middle Aletsch glacier. This was a familiar sight to me, for years ago I had strolled over it alone. Below it was the Great Aletsch, into which the Middle Aletsch flows, and beyond both was the well-known ridge of the AEggischhorn. We halted, but only for a moment. Turning suddenly to the left, we ascended the rocky ridge to a sheltered nook which suggested a brief rest and a slight renewal of that nutriment which, as stated, is so necessary to the wellbeing of the climber.

From time to time during the ascent I examined the polarisation of the sky. I should not have halted had not the fear of haze or clouds upon the summit admonished me. Indeed, as we ascended, one thin, arrowy cloud shot like a comet’s tail through the air above us, spanning ninety degrees, or more, of the heavens. Never, however, have I observed the sky of a deeper, darker, and purer blue. It was to ex-amine this colour that I ascended the Aletschhorn, and I wished to observe it where the hue was deepest and the polarisation most complete. You can look through very different atmospheric thicknesses at right angles to the solar beams. When, for example, the sun is in the eastern or western horizon, you can look across the sun’s rays towards the northern or southern horizon, or you can look across them to the zenith. In the latter direction the blue is deeper and purer than in either of the former, the proportion of the polarised light of the sky to its total light being also a maximum.

The sun, however, when I was on the Aletschhorn, was not in the horizon, but high above it. I placed my staff upright on a platform of snow. It cast a shadow. Inclining the staff from the sun, the shadow lengthened for a time, reached its major limit, and then shortened. The simplest geometrical consideration will show that the staff when its shadow was longest was perpendicular to the solar rays ; the atmosphere in this direction was shallower and the sky bluer than in any other direction perpendicular to the same rays. Along this line I therefore looked through the Nicol. The light, I found, could be quenched so as to leave a residue as dark as the firmament upon a moonless night ; but still there was a residue—the polarisation was not complete. Nor was the colour, however pure its appearance, by any means a monochromatic blue. A disc of selenite, gradually thickening from the centre to the circumference, when placed between the Nicol and the sky, yielded vivid iris colours. The blue was very marked ; but there was vivid purple, which requires an admixture of red to produce it. There was also a bright green, and some yellow. In fact, however purely blue the sky might seem, it sent to the eye all the colours of the spectrum : it owed its colour to the predominance of blue, that is to say, to the enfeeblement, and not to the extinction, of the other colours of the spectrum. The green was particularly vivid in the portion of the sky nearest to the mountains, where the light was ‘ daffodil.’

A pocket spectroscope confirmed these results. Permitting the light of an illuminated cloud to enter the slit of the instrument, a vivid spectrum was observed ; but on passing beyond the rim of the cloud to the adjacent firmament, a sudden fall in the intensity of all the less refrangible rays of the spectrum was observed. There was an absolute shortening of the spectrum in the direction of the red, through the total extinction of the extreme red. The fall in luminousness was also very striking as far as the green ; the blue also suffered, but not so much as the other colours.

The scene as we ascended grew more and more superb, both as regards grouping and expansion. Viewed from the Bel Alp the many-peaked Dom is a most imposing mountain ; it has there no competitor. The mass of the Weisshorn is hidden, its summit alone appearing. The Matterhorn, also, besides being more distant, has a portion of its pyramid cut obliquely away by the slope of the same ridge that intercepts the Weisshorn, and which is seen to our right when we face the valley of the Rhone, falling steeply to the promontory called the Nessel. Viewed from this promontory, the Dom finds its match, and more than its match, in its mighty neighbour, whose hugeness is here displayed from top to bottom. On the lower reaches of the Aletschhorn also the Dom maintains its superiority, the Weisshorn being for a time wholly unseen, and the Matterhorn but imperfectly. As we rise, however, the Dom steadily loses its individuality, until from the ridge of the Aletschhorn it is jumbled to a single leviathan heap with the mass of Monte Rosa. The Weisshorn mean-while as steadily gains in grandeur, rising like a mountain Saul amid the congregated hills, until from the arête it distances all competitors. In comparison with this kingly peak, the Matterhorn looks small and mean. It has neither the mass nor the form which would enable it to compete, from a distant point of view, with the Weisshorn.

The ridge of the Aletschhorn is of schistose gneiss, in many places smooth, in all places steep, and sometimes demanding skill and strength on the part of the climber. I thought we could scale it with greater ease if untied, so I flung the rope away from me. My guide was in front, and I carefully watched his action among the rocks. For some time there was nothing to cause anxiety for his safety. There was no likelihood of a slip, and if a slip occurred there was opportunity for recovery. But after a time this ceased to be the case. The rock had been scaled away by weathering parallel to the planes of foliation, the surfaces left behind being excessively smooth, and in many cases flanked by slopes and couloirs of perilous steepness. I saw that a slip might occur here, and that its consequences would be serious. The rope was therefore resumed.

A fair amount of skill and an absence of all precipitancy rendered our progress perfectly secure. In every place of danger one of us planted himself as securely as the rock on which he stood, and remained thus fixed until the danger was passed by the other. Both of us were never exposed to peril at the same moment. The bestowal of a little extra time renders this arrangement possible along the entire ridge of the Aletschhorn ; in fact, the dangers of the Alps can be almost reduced to the level of the dangers of the street by the exercise of skill and caution. For rashness, ignorance, or carelessness the mountains leave no margin ; and to rashness, ignorance, or carelessness three-fourths of the catastrophes which shock us are to be traced. Even those whose faculties are ever awake in danger are sometimes caught napping when danger seems remote ; they receive accordingly the punishment of a tyro for a tyro’s neglect.’

While ascending the lower glacier we found the air in general crisp and cool ; but we were visited at intervals by gusts of Fohn—warm breathings of the unexplained Alpine sirocco, which passed over our cheeks like puffs from a gently heated stove. On the arête we encountered no Föhn ; but the rocks were so hot as to render contact with them painful. I left my coat among them, and went upward in my shirt-sleeves. At our last bivouac my guide had allowed two hours for the remaining ascent. We accomplished it in one, and I was surprised by the shout which announced the passage of the last difficulty, and the proximity of the top of the mountain. This we reached precisely eight hours after starting—an ascent of fair rapidity, and without a single mishap from beginning to end.

Rock, weathered to fragments, constitutes the crown of the Aletschhorn ; but against this and above it is heaped a buttress of snow, which tapers, as seen from the Æggischhorn, to a pinnacle of surpassing beauty. This snow was firm, and we readily attained its highest point. Over this I leaned for ten minutes, looking along the face of the pyramid, which fell for thousands of feet to the névés at its base. We looked down upon the Jungfrau, and upon every other peak for miles around us, one only excepted. The exception was the Finsteraarhorn, the highest of the Oberland mountains, after which comes the Aletschhorn. I could clearly track the course pursued by Bennen and myself eleven years previously—the spurs of rock and slopes of snow, the steep and weathered crest of the mountain, and the line of our swift glissade as we returned.

Round about the dominant peak of the Oberland was grouped a crowd of other peaks, retreating eastward to Graubunden and the distant Engadin ; retreating southward over Italy, and blending ultimately with the atmosphere. At hand were the Jungfrau, Mönch, and Eiger. A little further off the Blumlis Alp, the Weisse Frau, and the Great and Little Nesthorn. In the distance the grim precipices of Mont Blanc, rising darkly from the Allée Blanche, and lifting to the firmament the snow-crown of the mountain. The Combin and its neighbours were distinct ; and then came that trinity of grandeur, with which the reader is so well acquainted—the Weisshorn, the Matterhorn, and the Dom—supported by the Alphubel, the Allaleinhorn, the Rympfischhorn, the Strahlhorn, and the mighty Monte Rosa. From no other point in the Alps have I had a greater command of their magnificence—perhaps from none so great ; while the blessedness of perfect health, on this perfect day, rounded off within me the external splendour. The sun seemed to take a pleasure in bringing out the glory of the hills. The intermixture of light and shade was astonishing ; while to the whole scene a mystic air was imparted by a belt of haze, in which the furthest outlines disappeared, as if infinite distance had rendered them impalpable.

Two concentric shells of atmosphere, perfectly distinct in character, clasped the earth this morning. That which hugged the surface was of a deep neutral tint, too shallow to reach more than midway up the loftier mountains. Upon this, as upon an ocean, rested the luminous higher atmospheric layer, both being separated along the horizon by a perfectly definite line. This higher region was without a cloud ; the arrowy streamer that had shot across the firmament during our ascent, first reduced to feathery streaks, had long since melted utterly away. Blue was supreme above, while all round the horizon the intrinsic brilliance of the upper air was enhanced by contrast with the dusky ground on which it rested. But this gloomier portion of the atmosphere was also transparent. It was not a cloud-stratum cutting off the view of things below it, but an attenuated mist, through which were seen, as through a glass darkly, the lower mountains, and out of which the higher peaks and ridges sprung into sudden glory.

Our descent was conducted with the same care and success that attended our ascent. I have already stated it to be a new thing for one man to lead a traveller up the mountain, and my guide in ascending had informed me that his wife had been in a state of great anxiety about him. But until he had cleared all dangers he did not let me know the extent of her devotion, nor the means she had adopted to ensure his safety. When we were once more upon the lower glacier, having left all difficulties behind us, he remarked with a chuckle that she had been in a terrible state of fear, and had informed him of her intention to have a mass for his safety celebrated by the village priest. But if he profited by this mediation, I must have done so equally ; for in all dangerous places we were tied together by a rope which was far too strong to break had I slipped. My safety was, in fact, bound up in his, and I therefore thought it right to pay my share of the expense. ‘ How much did the mass cost ?’ I asked. ‘Oh, not much, sir,’ he replied; ‘ only ninety centimes.’ Not deeming the expense worth dividing, I let him pay for such advantage as I had derived from the priest’s intercession.

In 1868 I had been so much broken down on going to the Alps that even amongst them I found it difficult to recover energy. In 1869, however, after a severe discipline in bathing and climbing,’ my weariness disappeared, and before I attacked the Aletschhorn I felt that my restoration was ensured. In my subsequent rambles it was a great delight and refreshment to me, whenever I felt heated, to choose a bubbling pool in some mountain stream, roll myself in it, and afterwards dance myself dry in the sunshine. Each morning I had a tub in a rivulet, a header in a lake, or a douche under a cascade. The best of these was half a mile or more from the hotel, but there was an inferior waterfall close at hand to which I resorted when time was short. On a bright morning towards the end of August 1869 I was returning from this cascade to my clothes, which were about twenty yards off. They might have been reached by walking on the grass, but I chose to walk on some slippery blocks of gneiss, and using no caution I staggered and fell. My shin was urged with great force against the sharp crystals, which inflicted three ugly wounds ; but I sponged the blood away, wrapped a cold bandage round the injured place, and limped to the hotel. I was quite disabled, but felt sure of speedy recovery, my health was so strong.

For four or five days I remained quietly in bed. The wound had become entirely painless ; there was hardly any inflammation and no pus. I felt so well that I thought a little exercise would do me less harm than good. I abandoned my cold bandage and went out. That night inflammation set in, pus appeared, and in trying to dislodge it I poisoned the wound. It became worse and worse; erysipelas set in, and at last it became evident that I might lose my foot or something more important. After remaining nearly a fortnight at the Bel Alp without medical advice I resolved to go to Geneva. I wrote accordingly to my friend Professor De la Rive, with the view of securing the services of an able surgeon. I was carried down to Brieg on a kind of bier, and midway on the mountain-slope had the good fortune to meet Mr. Ellis of Sloane Street. He examined my wound, and I have good reason to feel grateful to him for his extreme kindness and his excellent advice. My friend Soret met me at the railway station, and Dr. Gauthier was at my side a few seconds after I entered my hotel.

But, despite all the care, kindness, and real skill bestowed upon me, I was a month in bed at Geneva. A sinus about five inches long had worked its channel from the wound down to the instep, which was undermined by an abscess. This Dr. Gauthier discovered and by assiduous attention cured. In her beautiful residence at Lammermor, on the margin of Lake Leman, Lady Emily Peel had a bed erected for me as soon as I was able to go there, and it was under her roof that the last traces of the sinus disappeared. I was so emaciated, however, that it required several months to restore the flesh and the strength that this paltry accident cost me.

In 1870 I was again at the Bel Alp for several weeks, during which my interest was continually kept awake by telegrams from the seat of war ; for the enterprising proprietors both at the Bel Alp and the AEggischhorn had run telegraphic wires from the valley of the Rhone up to their respective hotels. The most noteworthy occurrence among the mountains in 1870 was a terrifie thunderstorm, which set two forests on fire by the same discharge. One fire near the Rieder Alp was speedily quenched; the other, under the Nessel, burned for several successive days and nights, and threatened to become a public calamity. A constant fiery glow was kept up by the combustion of the underwood, which formed the vehicle of transmission among the larger trees. Three or four of these would often burst simultaneously into pyramids of flame, which would last but a few minutes, leaving the trees with all their branches as red-hot embers behind. Heavy and persistent rain at length extinguished the conflagration.