The Alps – From Stein To The Grimsel

ON the 19th of July 1863 Mr. Philip Lutley Sclater and I reached Reichenbach, and on the following day we sauntered up the valley of Hasli, and over the Kirchet to Imhof, where we turned to the left into Gadmenthal. Our destination was Stein, which we reached by a grass-grown road through fine scenery. The goatherds were milking when we arrived. At the heels of one quadruped, supported by the ordinary uni-legged stool of the Senner, bent a particularly wild and dirty-looking individual, who, our guide informed us, was the proprietor of the inn. ‘ He is but a rough Bauer,’ said Jaun, ‘but he has engaged a pretty maiden to keep house for him.’ While he thus spoke a light-footed creature glided from the door towards us, and bade us welcome. She led us upstairs, provided us with baths, took our orders for dinner, helped us by her suggestions, and answered all our questions with the utmost propriety and grace. She had been two years in England, and spoke English with a particularly winning accent. How she came to be associated with the unkempt individual outside was a puzzle to both of us. It is Emerson, I think, who remarks on the benefit which a beautiful face, without trouble to itself, confers upon him who looks at it. And, though downright beauty could hardly be claimed for our young hostess, she was handsome enough and graceful enough to brighten a tired traveller’s thoughts, and to raise by her presence the modest comforts she dispensed to the level of luxuries.

It rained all night, and at 3.30 A.M., when we were called, it still fell heavily. At 5, however, the clouds began to break, and half an hour afterwards the heavens were swept quite clear of them. At 6 we bade our pretty blossom of the Alps good-bye. She had previously brought her gentle influence to bear upon her master to moderate the extortion of some of his charges. We were soon upon the Stein glacier, and after some time reached a col from which we looked down upon the lower portion of the nobler and more instructive Trift glacier. Brown bands were drawn across the ice-stream, forming graceful loops with their convexities turned down-wards. The higher portions of the glacier were not in view ; still those bands rendered the inference secure that an ice-fall existed higher up, at the base of-which the bands had originated. We shot down a shingly couloir to the Trift, and looking up the glacier the anticipated cascade came into view. At its bottom the ice, by pressure, underwent that notable change, analogous to slaty cleavage, which caused the glacier to weather and gather dirt in parallel grooves, thus marking upon its surface the direction of its interior lamination.

The ice-cascade being itself impracticable, we scaled the rocks to the left of it, and were soon in presence of the far-stretching snow-fields from which the lower glacier derives nutriment. With a view to hidden crevasses, we here roped ourselves togethèr. The sun was strong, its direct and reflected blaze combining against us. The scorching warmth experienced at times by cheeks, lips, and neck indicated that in my case mischief was brewing ; but the eyes being well protected by dark spectacles, I was comparatively indifferent to the prospective disfigurement of my face. Mr. Sclater was sheltered by a veil, a mode of defence which the habit of going into places requiring the unimpeded eyesight has caused me to neglect.

There would seem to be some specific quality in the sun’s rays which produces the irritation of the skin experienced in the Alps. The solar heat may be compared, in point of quantity, with that radiated from a furnace; and the heat encountered by the mountaineer on Alpine snows is certainly less intense than that endured by workmen in many of our technical operations. But the terrestrial heat appears to lack the quality which gives the solar rays their power. The sun is incomparably richer in what are called chemical rays than are our fires, and to such rays the irritation may be due. The keen air of the heights may also have much to do with it. As a remedy for sunburn I have tried glycerine, and found it a failure. The ordinary lip-salve of the druggists’ shops is also worse than useless ; but pure cold-cream, for a supply of which I have often had occasion to thank a friend, is an excellent ameliorative.

After considerable labour we reached the ridge—a very glorious one as regards the view—which forms the common boundary of the Rhone and Trift glaciers.’ Before us and behind us for many a mile fell the dazzling névés, down to the points where the grey ice emerging from its white coverlet declared the junction of snow-field and glacier. We had plodded on for hours soddened by the solar heat and parched with thirst. There was

Water, water everywhere, But not a drop to drink ;

for, when placed in the mouth, the liquefaction of the ice was so slow, and the loss of heat from the surrounding tissues so painful, that sucking it was worse than total abstinence. In the midst of this solid water you might die of thirst. At some distance below the col, on the Rhone side, the musical trickle of water made itself audible, and to the rocks from which it fell we repaired, and refreshed ourselves. The day was far spent, the region was wild and lonely, when, beset by that feeling which has often caused me to wander singly in the Alps, I broke away from my companions, and went rapidly down the glacier. Our guide had previously in-formed me that before reaching the cascade of the Rhone the ice was to be forsaken, and the Grimsel, our destination, reached by skirting the base of the peak called Nägelis Gratli. After descending the ice for some time I struck the bounding rocks, and, climbing the mountain obliquely, found myself among the crags which lie between the Grimsel pass and the Rhone glacier. It was an exceedingly desolate place, and I soon had reason to doubt the wisdom of being there alone. Still difficulty rouses powers of which we should otherwise remain unconscious. The heat of the day had rendered me weary, but among these rocks the weariness vanished, and I became clear in mind and fresh in body through the know-ledge that after nightfall escape from this wilderness would be impossible.

I reached the watershed of the region, where I accepted the guidance of a tiny stream. It received in its course various lateral tributaries, and at one place expanded into a small blue lake bounded by banks of snow. I kept along its side afterwards until, arching over a brow of granite, it discharged itself down precipitous and glaciated rocks. Here I learned that the stream was the feeder of the Grimsel lake. I halted on the brow for some time. The hospice was in sight, but the precipices between it and me seemed desperately forbidding. Nothing is more trying to the climber than those cliffs which have been polished by the ancient glaciers. Even at moderate inclinations, as may be learned from an experiment on the Höllenplatte, or some other of the polished rocks in Haslithal, they are not easy. I need hardly say that the inclination of the rocks flanking the Grimsel is the reverse of moderate. It is dangerously steep.

How to get down these smooth and precipitous tablets was now a problem of the utmost interest to me ; for the day was too far gone, and I was too ignorant of the locality, to permit of time being spent in the search of an easier place of descent. Right or left of me I saw none. The continuity of the cliffs below me was occasionally broken by cracks and narrow ledges, with scanty grass-tufts sprouting from them here and there. The problem was to get down from crack to crack and from ledge to ledge. A salutary anger warms the mind when thus challenged, and, aided by this warmth, close scrutiny will dissolve difficulties which timidity might render insuperable. Bit by bit I found myself getting lower, closely examining at every pause the rocks below me. The grass-tufts helped me for a time, but at length a slab was reached where no friendly grass could grow. This slab was succeeded by others equally forbidding. I looked upwards, thinking of retreat, but the failing day urged me on. From the middle of the smooth surface jutted a narrow ledge. Grasping the top of the rock, I let myself down as far as my stretched arms would permit, and then let go my hold. I came upon the ledge with an energy that alarmed me. A downward-pointing crack with a streak of grass in it was next attained ; it terminated in a small, steep gulley, the portion of which within view was crossed by three transverse ledges, and I judged -that by friction the motion down the groove could be so regulated as to enable me to come to rest at each successive ledge. But the rush was unexpectedly rapid, and I shot over the first ledge. Having some power in reserve, I tried to clamp myself against the rock, but the second ledge was crossed like the first. The wish to spare clothes or avoid abrasions of the skin here vanished, and for dear life I grappled with the rock. Braces gave way, clothes were rent, wrists and hands were skinned and bruised, while hips and knees suffered variously. The motion however ended. I was greatly heated, but immensely relieved other wise. A little lower down I discovered a singular cave in the mountain-side, with water dripping from its roof into a well of crystal clearness. The ice-cold liquid soon restored me to a normal temperature. I felt quite fresh on entering the Grimsel inn, but a curious physiological effect manifested itself when I had occasion to speak. The power of the brain over the lips was so lowered that I could hardly make myself understood.