The Alps – Ascent Of The Jungfrau

I HAD spent nearly a fortnight at the Aeggischhorn in 1863, employing alternate days in wandering and musing over the green Alps, and in more vigorous action upon the Aletsch glacier. Day after day a blue sky spanned the earth, and night after night the stars glanced down from an unclouded heaven. There is no nobler mountain group in Switzerland than that seen on a fine day from the middle of the Aletsch glacier looking southwards ; while to the north, and more close at hand, rise the Jungfrau and other summits familiar to every tourist who has crossed the Wengern Alp. The love of being alone amid those scenes caused me, on the 3rd of August, to withdraw from all society, and ascend the glacier, which for nearly two hours was almost as even as a highway, no local danger calling away the attention from the near and distant mountains. The ice yielded to the sun, rills were formed, which united to rivulets, and these again coalesced to rapid brooks, which ran with a pleasant music through deep channels cut in the ice. Sooner or later these brooks were crossed by cracks; into these cracks the water fell, scooping gradually out for itself a vertical shaft, the resonance of which raised the sound of the falling water to the dignity of thunder. These shafts constitute the so-called moulins of the glacier, examples of which are shown upon the Mer de Glace to every tourist who visits the Jardin from Chamouni. The moulins can only form where the glacier is not much riven, as here alone the rivulets can acquire the requisite volume to produce a moulin.

After two hours’ ascent, the ice began to wear a more hostile aspect, and long stripes of last year’s now drawn over the sullied surface marked the lines of crevasses now partially filled and bridged over. For a time this snow was consolidated, and I crossed numbers of the chasms, sounding in each case before trusting myself to its tenacity. But as I ascended, the width and depth of the fissures increased, and the fragility of the snow-bridges became more conspicuous. The crevasses yawned here and there with threatening gloom, while along their fringes the crystallising power of water played the most fantastic freaks. Long lines of icicles dipped into the darkness, and at some places the liquefied snow had refrozen into clusters of plates, ribbed and serrated like the leaves of ferns.

The cases in which the snow covering of the crevasses, when tested by the axe, yielded, became gradually more numerous, demanding commensurate caution. It is impossible to feel otherwise than earnest in such scenes as this, with the noblest and most beautiful objects in nature around one, with the sense of danger raising the feelings at times to the level of awe.

My way upwards became more and more difficult, and circuit after circuit had to be made to round the gaping fissures. There is a passive cruelty in the aspect of these chasms sufficient to make the blood run cold. Among them it is not good for man to be alone, so I halted in the midst of them and swerved back towards the Faulberg. But instead of it I struck the lateral tributary of the Aletsch, which runs up to the Grünhorn Lücke. In this passage I was more than once entangled in a mesh of fissures , but it is marvellous what steady, cool scrutiny can accomplish upon the ice, and how often difficulties of apparently the gravest kind may be reduced to a simple form by skilful examination. I tried to get along the rocks to the Faulberg, but after investing half an hour in the attempt I thought it prudent to retreat. I finally reached the Faulberg by the glacier, and with great comfort consumed my bread and cheese and emptied my goblet in the shadow of its caves. On this day it was my desire to get near the buttresses of the Jungfrau, and to see what prospect of success a lonely climber would have in an attempt upon the mountain. Such an attempt might doubtless be made, but at a risk which no sane man would willingly incur.

On August 6, however, I had the pleasure of joining Dr. Hornby and Mr. Philpotts, who, with Christian Almer and Christian Lauener for their guides, wished to ascend the Jungfrau. We quitted the AEggischhorn at 2.15 P.M., and in less than four hours reached the grottoes of the Faulberg. A pine fire was soon blazing, a pan of water soon bubbling sociably over the flame, and the evening meal was quickly prepared and disposed of. For a time the air behind the Jungfrau and Monk was exceedingly dark and threatening ; rain was streaming down upon Lauterbrunnen, and the skirt of the storm wrapped the summits of the Jungfrau and the Monk. Southward, however, the sky was clear, and there were such general evidences of hope that we were not much disheartened by the local burst of ill-temper displayed by the atmosphere to the north of us. Like a gust of passion the clouds cleared away, and before we went to rest all was sensibly clear. Still the air was not transparent, and for a time the stars twinkled through it with a feeble ray. There was no visible turbidity, but a something which cut off half the stellar brilliancy.

The starlight, however, became gradually stronger, not on account of the augmenting darkness, but because the air became clarified as the night advanced.

Two of our party occupied the upper cave, and the guides took possession of the kitchen, while a third lay in the little grot below. Hips and ribs felt throughout the night the pressure of the subjacent rock. A single blanket, moreover, though sufficient to keep out the pain of cold, was insufficient to induce the comfort of warmth ; so I lay awake in a neutral condition, neither happy nor unhappy, watching the stars without emotion as they appeared in succession above the mountain-heads.

At half-past 12 a rumbling in the kitchen showed the guides to be alert, and soon afterwards Christian Almer announced that tea was prepared. We rose, consumed a crust and basin each, and at 1.15 A.M., being perfectly harnessed, we dropped down upon the glacier. The crescent moon was in the sky, but for a long time we had to walk in the shadow of the mountains, and therefore required illumination. The bottoms were knocked out of two empty bottles, and each of these, inverted, formed a kind of lantern which protected from the wind a candle stuck in the neck. Aimer went first, holding his lantern in his left hand and his axe in the right, moving cautiously along the snow which, as the residue of the spring avalanches, fringed the glacier.

At times, for no apparent reason, the leader paused and struck his ice-axe into the snow. Looking right or left, a chasm was always discovered in these cases, and the cautious guide sounded the snow, lest the fissure should have prolonged itself underneath so as to cross our track. A tributary glacier joined the Aletsch from our right—a long corridor filled with ice, and covered by the purest snow. Down this valley the moonlight streamed, silvering the surface upon which it fell.

Here we cast our lamps away, and roped ourselves together. To our left a second long ice-corridor stretched up to the Lôtsch saddle, which hung like a chain between the opposing mountains. In fact, at this point four noble ice-streams form a junction, and flow afterwards in the common channel of the Great Aletsch glacier. Perfect stillness might have been expected to reign upon the ice, but even at that early hour the gurgle of subglacial water made itself heard, and we had to be cautious in some places lest a too thin crust might let us in. We went straight up the glacier, towards the col which links the Monk and Jungfrau together. The surface was hard, and we went rapidly and silently over the snow. There is an earnestness of feeling on such occasions which subdues the desire for conversation. The communion we held was with the solemn mountains and their background of dark blue sky.

‘ Der Tag bricht !’ exclaimed one of the men. I looked towards the eastern heaven, but could discover no illumination which hinted at the approach of day. At length the dawn really appeared, brightening the blue of the eastern firmament ; at first it was a mere augmentation of cold light, but by degrees it assumed a warmer tint. The long uniform incline of the glacier being passed, we reached the first eminences of snow which heave like waves around the base of the Jungfrau. This is the region of beauty in the higher Alps—beauty pure and tender, out of which emerges the savage scenery of the peaks. For the healthy and the pure in heart these higher snow-fields are consecrated ground.

The snow bosses were soon broken by chasms deep and dark, which required tortuous winding on our part to get round them. Having surmounted a steep slope, we passed to some red and rotten rocks, which required care on the part of those in front to prevent the loose and slippery shingle from falling upon those behind. We gained the ridge and wound along it. High snow eminences now flanked us to the left, and along the slope over which we passed the séracs had shaken their frozen boulders. We tramped amid the knolls of the fallen avalanches towards a white wall which, so far as we could see, barred further progress. To our right were noble chasms, blue and profound, torn into the heart of the névé by the slow but resistless drag of gravity on the descending snows. Meanwhile the dawn had brightened into perfect day, and over mountains and glaciers the gold and purple light of the eastern heaven was liberally poured. We had already caught sight of the peak of the Jungfrau, rising behind an eminence and piercing for fifty feet or so the rosy dawn. And many another peak of stately altitude caught the blush, while the shaded slopes were all of a beautiful azure, being illuminated by the firmament alone. A large segment of space enclosed between the Monk and Trugberg was filled like a reservoir with purple light. The world, in fact, seemed to worship, and the flush of adoration was on every mountain-head.

Over the distant Italian Alps rose clouds of the most fantastic forms, jutting forth into the heavens like enormous trees, thrusting out umbrageous branches which bloomed and glistened in the solar rays. Along the whole southern heaven these fantastic masses were ranged close together, but still perfectly isolated, until on reaching a certain altitude they seemed to meet a region of wind which blew their tops like streamers far away through the air. Warmed and tinted by the morning sun those unsubstantial masses rivalled in grandeur the mountains themselves.

The final peak of the Jungfrau is now before us, and apparently so near ! But the mountaineer alone knows how delusive the impression of nearness often is in the Alps. To reach the slope which led up to the peak we must scale or round the barrier already spoken of. From the coping and the ledges of this beautiful wall hung long stalactites of ice, in some cases like inverted spears, with their sharp points free in air. In other cases, the icicles which descended from the overhanging top reached a projecting lower ledge, and stretched like a crystal railing from the one to the other. To. the right of this barrier was a narrow gangway, from which the snow had not yet broken away so as to form a vertical or overhanging wall. It was one of those accidents which the mountains seldom fail to furnish, and on the existence of which the success of the climber entirely depends. Up this steep and narrow gangway we cut our steps, and a few minutes placed us safely at the bottom of the final pyramid of the Jungfrau.

From this point we could look down into the abyss of the Roththal, and certainly its wild environs seemed to justify the uses to which superstition has assigned the place. For here it is said the original demons of the mountains hold their orgies, and hither the spirits of the doubly-damned among men are sent to bear them company. The slope up which we had now to climb was turned towards the sun ; its aspect was a southern one, and its snows had been melted and recongealed to hard ice. The axe of Almer rung against the obdurate solid, and its fragments whirred past us with a weird-like sound to the abysses below. They suggested the fate which a false step might bring along with it. It is a practical tribute to the strength and skill of the Oberland guides that no disaster has hitherto occurred upon the peak of the Jungfrau.

The work upon this final ice-slope was long and heavy, and during this time the summit appeared to maintain its distance above us. We at length cleared the ice, and gained a stretch of snow which enabled us to treble our upward speed. Thence to some loose and shingly rocks, again to the snow, whence a sharp edge led directly up to the top. The exhilaration of success was here added to that derived from physical nature. On the top fluttered a little black flag, planted by our most recent predecessors. We reached it at 7.15 A.M., having accomplished the ascent from the Faulberg in six hours. The snow was flattened on. either side of the apex so as to enable us all to stand upon it, and here we stood for some time, with all the magnificence of the Alps unrolled before us.

We may look upon those mountains again and again from a dozen different points of view, a perennial glory surrounds them which associates with every new prospect fresh impressions. I thought I had scarcely ever seen the Alps to greater advantage. Hardly ever was their majesty more fully revealed or more overpowering. The colouring of the air contributed as much to the effect as the grandeur of the masses on which that colouring fell. A calm splendour overspread the mountains, softening the harshness of the outlines without detracting from their strength. But half the interest of such scenes is psychological ; the soul takes the tint of surrounding nature, and in its turn becomes majestic.

And as I looked over this wondrous scene towards Mont Blanc, the Grand Combin, the Dent Blanche, the Weisshorn, the Dom, and the thousand lesser peaks which seemed to join in celebration of the risen day, I asked myself, as on previous occasions : How was this colossal work performed ? Who chiselled these mighty and picturesque masses out of a mere protuberance of the earth ? And the answer was at hand. Ever young, ever mighty—with the vigour of a thousand worlds still within him—the real sculptor was even then climbing up the eastern sky. It was he who raised aloft the waters which cut out these ravines ; it was he who planted the glaciers on the mountain-slopes, thus giving gravity a plough to open out the valleys ; and it is he who, acting through the ages, will finally lay low these mighty monuments, rolling them gradually seaward-

Sowing the seeds of continents to be;

so that the people of an older earth may see mould spread and corn wave over the hidden rocks which at this moment bear the weight of the Jungfrau.