The Alps – Death Of Bennen On The Haut De Cry

ON February 28, 1864, we left Sion with Bennen to mount the Haut de Cry. We started at 2.15 A.M. in a light carriage that brought us to the village of Ardon, distant six miles. We there met three men that were to accompany us as local guides and porters—Jean Joseph Nance, Frederic Rebot, who acted as my personal guide, and Auguste Bevard. We at once began to ascend on the right bank of the Lyzerne. The night was splendid, the sky cloudless, and the moon shining brightly. For about half an hour we went up through the vine-yards by a rather steep path, and then entered the valley of the Lyzerne, about 700 feet above the torrent. We here found a remarkably good path, gradually rising and leading towards the Col de Chéville. Having followed this path for about three hours, we struck off to the left, and began zigzagging up the mountain-side through a pine forest. We had passed what may be called the snow-line in winter a little above 2,000 feet. We had not ascended for more than a quarter of an hour in this pine forest before the snow got very deep and very soft. We had to change leader every five or six minutes, and even thus our progress was remarkably slow. We saw clearly that, should the snow be as soft above the fir region, we should have to give up the ascent. At 7 A.M. we reached a chalet, and stopped for about twenty minutes to rest and look at the sunrise on the Diablerets. On observing an aneroid, which we had brought with us, we found that we were at the height of about 7,000 feet : the temperature was -1° C.

The Haut de Cry has four arêtes, the first running towards the W., the second SE., the third E., and the fourth NE. We were between the two last-named arêtes. Our plan was to go up between them to the foot of the peak, and mount it by the arête running NE. As we had expected, the snow was in much better state when once we were above the woods. For some time we advanced pretty rapidly. The peak was glistening before us, and the idea of success put us in high spirits. Our good fortune did not last long ; we soon came to snow frozen on the surface, and capable of bearing for a few steps and then giving way. But this was nothing compared to the trouble of pulling up through the pine wood, so instead of making us grumble it only excited our hilarity. Bennen was in a particularly good humour, and laughed aloud at our combined efforts to get out of the holes we every now and then made in the snow. Judging from appearances, the snow-field over which we were walking covered a gradually rising Alp. We made a second observation with our aneroid, and found, rather to our astonishment and dismay, that we had only risen 1,000 feet in the last three hours. It was 10 o’clock : we were at the height of about 8,000 feet ; temperature = -1.5 C. During the last half-hour we had found a little hard snow, so we had all hope of success. Thinking we might advance better on the arête, we took to it, and rose along it for some time. It soon became cut up by rocks, so we took to the snow again. It turned out to be here hard frozen, so that we reached the real foot of the peak without the slightest difficulty. It was steeper than I had expected it would be, judging from the valley of the Rhone. Bennen looked at it with, decided pleasure ; having completed his survey, he proposed to take the eastern arête, as in doing. so we should gain at least two hours. Rebot had been over this last-named arête in summer, and was of Bennen’s opinion. Two or three of the party did not like the idea much, so there was a discussion on the probable advantages and disadvantages of the NE. and E. arêtes. We were losing time ; so Bennen cut matters short by saying : ‘ Ich will der Erste über die arête!’ Thus saying, he made for the E. arête ; it looked very narrow, and, what was worse, it was considerably cut up by high rocks, the intervals between the teeth of the arête being filled up with snow. To gain this arête, we had to go up a steep snow-field, about 800 feet high, as well as I remember. It was about 150 feet broad at the top, and 400 or 500 at the bottom. It was a sort of couloir on a large scale. During the ascent we sank about one foot deep at every step. Bennen did not seem to like the look of the snow very much. He asked the local guides whether avalanches ever came down this couloir, to which they answered that our position was perfectly safe. We had mounted on the northern side of the couloir, and having arrived at 150 feet from the top, we began crossing it on a horizontal curve, so as to gain the E. arête. The inflexion or dip of the couloir was slight, not above 25 feet, the inclination near 35°. We were walking in the following order : Bevard, Nance, Bennen, myself, Boissonnet, and Rebot. Having crossed over about three-quarters of the breadth of the couloir, the two leading men suddenly sank considerably above their waists. Bennen tightened the rope. The snow was too deep to think of getting out of the hole they had made, so they advanced one or two steps, dividing the snow with their bodies. Bennen turned round and told us he was afraid of starting an avalanche ; we asked whether it would not be better to return and cross the couloir higher up. To this the three Ardon men opposed themselves ; they mistook the proposed precaution for fear, and the two leading men continued their work. After three or four steps gained in the aforesaid manner, the snow became hard again. Bennen had not moved—he was evidently undecided what he should do ; as soon, however, as he saw hard snow again, he advanced and crossed parallel to, but above, the fur-row the Ardon men had made. Strange to say, the snow supported him. While he was passing I observed that the leader, Bevard, had about twenty feet of rope coiled round his shoulder. I of course at once told him to uncoil it and get on the arête, from which he was not more than fifteen feet distant. Bennen then told me to follow. I tried his steps, but sank up to my waist in the very first. So I went through the furrows, holding my elbows close to my body, so as not to touch the sides. This furrow was about twelve feet long, and, as the snow was good on the other side, we had all come to the false conclusion that the snow was accidentally softer there than else-where. Boissonet then advanced ; he had made but a few steps when we heard a deep, cutting sound. The snow-field split in two about fourteen or fifteen feet above us. The cleft was at first quite narrow, not more than an inch broad. An awful silence ensued; it lasted but a few seconds, and then it was broken by Bennen’s voice, ‘ Wir sind alle verloren.’ His words were slow and solemn, and those who knew him felt what they really meant when spoken by such a man as Bennen. They were his last words. I drove my alpenstock into the snow, and brought the weight of my body to bear on it ; it went in to within three inches of the top. I then waited. It was an awful moment of suspense. I turned my head towards Bennen to see whether he had done the same thing. To my astonishment, I saw him turn round, face the valley, and stretch out both arms. The ground on which we stood began to move slowly, and I felt the utter uselessness of any alpenstock. I soon sank up to my shoulders and began descending backwards. From this moment I saw nothing of what had happened to the rest of the party. With a good deal of trouble I succeeded in turning round. The speed of the avalanche increased rapidly, and before long I was covered up with snow and in utter darkness. I was suffocating, when with a jerk I suddenly came to the surface again. The rope had caught most probably on a rock, and this was evidently the moment when it broke. I was on a wave of the avalanche, and saw it before me as I was carried down. It was the most awful sight I ever witnessed. The head of the avalanche was already at the spot where we had made our last halt. The head alone was preceded by a thick cloud of snow-dust ; the rest of the avalanche was clear. Around me I heard the horrid hissing of the snow, and far before me the thundering of the foremost part of the avalanche. To prevent myself sinking again, I made use of my arms much in the same way as when swimming in a standing position. At last I noticed that I was moving slower ; then I saw the pieces of snow in front of me stop at some yards’ distance ; then the snow straight before me stopped, and I heard on a large scale the same creaking sound that is produced when a heavy cart passes over hard-frozen snow in winter. I felt that I also had stopped, and instantly threw up both arms to protect my head in case I should again be covered up. I had stopped, but the snow behind me was still in motion ; its pressure on my body was so strong that I thought I should be crushed to death. This tremendous pressure lasted but a short times and ceased as suddenly as it had begun. I was then covered up by snow coming from behind me. My first impulse was to try and uncover my head—but this I could not do : the avalanche had frozen by pressure the moment it stopped, and I was frozen in. Whilst trying vainly to move my arms, I suddenly became aware that the hands as far as the wrist had the faculty of motion. The conclusion was easy, they must be above the snow. I set to work as well as I could ; it was time, for I could not have held out much longer. At last I saw a faint glimmer of light. The crust above my head was getting thinner, and it let a little air pass, but I could not reach it any more with my hands ; the idea struck me that I might pierce it with my breath. After several efforts I succeeded in doing so, and felt suddenly a rush of air towards my mouth ; I saw the sky again through a little round hole. A dead silence reigned around me ; I was so surprised to be still alive, and so persuaded at the first moment that none of my fellow-sufferers had survived, that I did not even think of shouting for them. I then made vain efforts to extricate my arms, but found it impossible; the most I could do was to join the ends of my fingers, but they could not reach the snow any longer. After a few minutes I heard a man shouting : what a relief it was to know that I was not the sole survivor ! to know that perhaps he was not frozen in and could come to my assistance ! I answered ; the voice approached, but seemed uncertain where to go, and yet it was now quite near. A sudden exclamation of surprise! Rebot had seen my hands. He cleared my head in an instant, and, was about to try and cut me out completely, when I saw a foot above the snow, and so near to me that I could touch it with my arms, although they were not quite free yet. I at once tried to move the foot ; it was my poor friend’s. A pang of agony shot through me as I saw that the foot did not move. Poor Boissonnet had lost sensation, and was perhaps already dead. Rebot did his best : after some time he wished me to help him, so he freed my arms a little more, so that I could make use of them. I could do but little, for Rebot had torn the axe from my shoulder as soon as he had cleared my head (I generally carry an axe separate from my alpenstock—the blade tied to the belt, and the handle attached to the left shoulder). Before coming to me Rebot had helped Nance out of the snow ; he was lying nearly horizontally, and was not much covered over. Nance found Bevard, who was up. right in the snow, but covered up to the head. After about twenty minutes the two last-named guides came up. I was at length taken out; the snow had to be cut with the axe down to my feet before I could be pulled out. A few minutes after 1 o’clock P.M. we came to my poor friend’s face… . I wished the body to be taken out completely, but nothing could induce the three guides to work any longer, from the moment they saw that it was too late to save him. I acknowledge that they were nearly as incapable of doing anything as I was. When I was taken out of the snow the cord had to be cut. We tried the end going towards Bennen, but could not move it ; it went nearly straight down and showed us that there was the grave of the bravest guide the Valais ever had, and ever will have. The cold had done its work on us ; we could stand it no longer, and began the descent. We followed the frozen avalanche for about twenty-five minutes, that being the easiest way of progressing, and then took the track we had made in the morning ; in five hours we reached Ardon.

I have purposely put apart the details I have been asked to give on certain points.

1. The avalanche consisted only of snow ; the upper stratum was eleven days old. At the moment the avalanche started it was about twelve o’clock probably a few minutes before. The temperature was then above freezing point, and we were within 300 or 350 feet from the summit. The snow was thawing, and the whole snow-field in a state of uncertain equilibrium. By cutting through the snow at the top of the couloir we cut one of the main points by which the snow of the two different layers held together ; what led us into the error was, as I have before said, the fact that the snow was quite hard in some places, and quite soft in others. The avalanche may have taken a minute to descend ; I can give no correct estimation on this point. We fell between 1,900 and 1,960 feet, the head of the avalanche going 800 feet lower.

2. The rope was in my opinion the cause of my poor friend’s as well as of Bennen’s death. The following facts may prove it : At the moment the avalanche started the first and last guides merely held the rope ; Bennen had not seen the use of a rope at all, so we had been less strict than we should otherwise have been in ts use. During the descent the rope caught, probably on a rock below the surface. This happened between Bennen and Nance, that is to say between the second and third man in the marching line. Nance told me afterwards that this was the worst part of the descent ; he had the pressure of the snow on his body, whilst the rope nearly cut him in two. I believe that it was at this moment that Bennen and Boissonnet lost their upright position, owing to the pressure of snow on their backs. Nance also lost his position, but was fortunate in being thrown out horizontally, and that almost on the surface of the avalanche. I was between Bennen and Boissonnet, but not tied to the rope, as I had iron rings to my belt through which the cord ran. Rebot, who was last in the line, was thrown clean out of the avalanche; he was carried during the descent towards one of the sides of the stream. He was the only one of us who escaped unhurt. Thus, when we stopped in our descent, two only were tied to the rope—Boissonnet and Bennen—the very two who perished.

3. The congealing of the snow happened by pressure. The fore part of the avalanche stopped first, and the rest was forced against it. The circumstance I can least understand is the sudden fall in the temperature of the air after the accident. I can give no estimate of it, but it was intense.

4. The bruises Bevard, Nance, and I sustained were slight, but our feet were severely frost-bitten. Bennen has been accused of rashness in this unfortunate accident. It is not the case. He was misled by the total difference of the state of snow in a winter ascent from what is to be met with in summer.

I have been recently favoured with a letter from Mr. Gossett, from which the following is an extract :

‘ Berne: March 17, 1871.

Bennen’s body was found with great difficulty the third day after Boissonnet was found. The cord-end had been covered up with snow. The curd d’Ardon informed me that poor Bennen was found eight feet under the snow, in a horizontal position, the head facing the valley of the Lyzerne. His watch had been wrenched from the chain, probably when the cord broke ; the chain, however, remained attached to his waistcoat. Three years ago I met one of my Ardon guides ; he told me that Bennen’s watch had been found by a shepherd seven months after the accident. This shepherd had been one of the party who went up to look for Bennen ; during the following summer he had watched the melting of the avalanche. When mounted, the watch obeyed. This reminds me of your fall on the Morteratsch glacier.’

‘ I know you were very much attached to Bennen ; the same was the case with him in regard to you. An hour before his death the Matterhorn showed its black head over one of the arêtes of the Haut de Cry. I asked Bennen whether he thought it would ever be ascended. His answer was a decided ” Yes”; but he added, alluding to your last attack on the mountain, ” Wir waren fünf ; der Professor and ich stimmten für Vorwarts ; die drei andern stimmten dagegen.”

‘There is one circumstance in reference to my fall with the avalanche of the Haut de Cry that I am utterly unable to understand : I mean what physical phenomena took place when the avalanche stopped and froze. It stopped because in its progress downwards the broad couloir down which it was going got narrower, and the mass of snow could not pass. It froze because the successive portions of the body of the avalanche became compressed against the head, which latter had come to a stop. When the layer in which I was stopped, the pressure on my body was enormous—so great, in fact, that I expected I should be crushed flat. This pressure ceased suddenly : I know it, for the atrocious pains it was causing ceased suddenly too. What happened during that interval?’

Bennen was well acquainted with winter snow , but no man of his temper, and in his position, would place himself in direct opposition to local guides, whose knowledge of the mountain must nave been superior to his own.