The Alps – Inspection Of The Matterhorn

ON the afternoon of the 20th we quitted Randa, witn a threatening sky overhead. The considerate Philomène compelled us to take an umbrella, which we soon found useful. The flood-gates of heaven were unlocked, while, defended by our cotton canopy, Bennen and myself walked arm-in-arm to Zermatt. I instantly found myself in the midst of a circle of pleasant friends, some of whom had just returned from a successful attempt upon the Lyskamm. On the 22nd quite a crowd of travellers crossed the Theodule Pass ; and, knowing that every corner of the hotel at Breuil would be taken up, I halted a day, so as to allow the people to disperse. Breuil commands a view of the southern side of the Matter-horn ; and it was now an object with me to discover, if possible, upon the true peak of this formidable mountain, some ledge or cranny where three men might spend a night. The mountain may be ac-cessible or inaccessible, but one thing seems certain, that starting from Breuil, or even from the chalets above Breuil, the work of reaching the summit is too much for a single day. But could a shelter be found amid the wild battlements of the peak itself, which would enable one to attack the obelisk at day-dawn, the possibility of conquest was so far an open question as to tempt a trial. I therefore sent Bennen on to reconnoitre, purposing myself to cross the Theodule alone on the following day.

On the afternoon of the 22nd I sauntered slowly up to the Riffel, leaning at times on the head of my axe, or sitting down upon the grassy knolls, as my mood prompted. The air which filled the valleys of the Oberland, and swathed in mitigated density the highest peaks, was slightly opalescent, though still transparent, the floating particles forming so many points d’appui, from which the light was scattered through surrounding space. The whole medium glowed as if shone upon by a distant furnace, and through it the outline of the mountains loomed. The glow augmented as the sun sank, reached its maximun, paused, and then ran speedily down to a cold and colourless twilight.

Next morning at nine o’clock, with some scraps of information from the guides to help me on my way, I quitted the Riffel to cross the Theodule. I was soon followed by the domestic of the hotel. Bennen nad requested him to see me to the edge of the glacier, and he now joined me with this intention.

He knew my designs upon the Matterhorn, and strongly deprecated them. ‘Only think, Herr,’ he urged, ‘ what will avail your ascent of the Weisshorn if you are smashed upon the Mont Cervin ? Mein Herr ! ‘ he added with condensed emphasis, ‘thun Sie es nicht.’ The whole conversation was in fact a homily, the strong point of which was the utter uselessness of success on the one mountain if it were to be followed by annihilation on the other. We reached the ridge above the glacier, where, handing him a trinkgeld, which I had to force on his acceptance, I bade him good-bye, assuring him that I would submit in all things to Bennen’s opinion. He had the highest idea of Bennen’s wisdom, and hence the assurance sent him home comforted.

I was soon upon the ice, once more alone, as I delight to be at times. As a habit going alone is to be deprecated, but sparingly indulged in it is a great luxury. There are no doubt moods when the mother is glad to get rid of her offspring, the wife of her husband, the lover of his mistress, and when it is not well to keep them together. And so, at rare intervals, it is good for the soul to feel the full influence of that ‘ society where none intrudes.’ When the work is clearly within your power, when long practice has enabled you to trust your own eye and judgment in unravelling crevasses, and your own axe and arm in subduing their more serious difficulties, it is an entirely new experience to be alone amid those sublime scenes. The peaks wear a more solemn aspect, the sun shines with a more effectual fire, the blue of heaven is more deep and awful, and the hard heart of man is often made as tender as a child’s. You contract a closer friend-ship for the universe in virtue of your more intimate contact with its parts. The glacier to-day filled the air with low murmurs, while the sound of the distant moulins rose to a kind of roar. The débris rustled on the moraines, the smaller rivulets babbled in their channels, as they ran to join their trunk, and the surface of the glacier creaked audibly as it yielded to the sun. It seemed to breathe and whisper like a living thing. To my left was Monte Rosa and her royal court, to my right the mystic pinnacle of the Matterhorn, which from a certain point here upon the glacier attains its maximum sharpness. It drew my eyes towards it with irresistible fascination as it shimmered in the blue, too preoccupied with heaven to think even with contempt on the designs of a son of earth to reach its inviolate crest.

I crossed the Görner glacier quite as speedily as if I had been professionally led. Then up the undulating slope of the Theodule glacier, with a rocky ridge to the right, over which I was informed a rude track led to the pass of St. Theodule. I am not great at finding tracks, and I missed this one, ascending until it became evident that I had gone too far. Near its higher extremity the crest of the ridge is cut across by three curious chasms, and one of these I thought would be a likely gateway through the ridge. I climbed the steep buttress of the spur and was soon in the fissure. Huge masses of rock were jammed into it, the presence of which gave variety to the exertion, calling forth strength, but not exciting fear. From the summit the rocks sloped gently down to the snow, and in a few minutes the presence of broken bottles on the moraine showed me that I had bit upon the track. Upwards of twenty unhappy bees staggered against me on the way : tempted by the sun, or wafted by the wind, they had quitted the flowery Alps to meet torpor and death in the ice-world above. From the summit I went swiftly down to Breuil, where I was welcomed by the host, welcomed by the waiter ; loud were the expressions of content at my arrival ; and I was informed that Bennen had started early in the morning to ‘ promenade himself’ around the Matterhorn.

I lay long upon the Alp, scanning crag and snow In search of my guide. From the admirable account of the first attempt on the Matterhorn, drawn up by Mr. Hawkins,’ it may be inferred that the ascent is not likely to be a matter of mere amuse-ment. The account narrates that after climbing for several hours in the face of novel difficulties, my companion thought it wise to halt so as to secure our retreat. I will here state in a few words what occurred after our separation from him. Bennen and I had first a hard scramble up. some very steep rocks, our motions giving to those below us the impression that we were urging up bales of goods instead of the simple weight of our own bodies. Turning the corner of the ridge, we had to cross an unpleasant slope of smooth rock, covered by about eighteen inches of snow. In ascending, this place was passed in silence, but in coming down the fear arose that the superficial layer might slip away with us. Bennen seldom warns me, but he did so here emphatically, declaring his own powerlessness to render any help should the footing give way.. Having crossed this slope in our ascent, we were fronted by a cliff, against which we rose mainly by aid of the felspar crystals protuberant from its face. Midway up the cliff Bennen asked me to hold on, as he did not feel sure that it was the best route. I accordingly ceased moving, and lay against the rock with legs and arms outstretched. Bennen climbed to the top of the cliff, but returned immediately with a flush of confidence in his eye. ‘ I will lead you to the top,’ he said excitedly. Had I been free I should have cried ‘Bravo!’ but in my position I did not care to risk the muscular motion which a hearty bravo would demand.

Aided by the rope, I was at his side in a minute, and we soon learned that his confidence was premature. Difficulties thickened round us ; on no other mountain are they so thick, and each of them is attended by possibilities of the most blood-chilling kind. Our mode of motion was this Bennen advanced while I held on to a rock, pre-pared for the jerk if he should slip. When he had secured himself, he called out, ‘ Ich bin fest, kommen Sie.’ I then worked forward, sometimes halting where he had halted, sometimes passing him until a firm anchorage was gained, when it again became his turn to advance. Thus each of us waited until the other could seize upon something capable of bearing the shock of a falling man. At some places Bennen deemed a little extra assurance necessary ; and here he emphasised his statement that he was ‘ fest by a suitable hyperbole. ‘ Ich bin fest wie ein Mauer,—fest wie ein Berg, ich halte Sie gewiss,’ or some such expression.

Looking from Breuil, a series of moderate-sized prominences are seen along the aréte of the Matterhorn ; but when you are near them, these black eminences rise like tremendous castles in the air, so wild and high as almost to quell all hope of scaling or getting round them. At the base of one of these edifices Bennen paused and looked closely at the grand mass ; he wiped his forehead, and turning to me said, ‘ Was denken Sie, Herr ?’–‘ Shall we go on, or shall we return ? I will do what you wish.’ ‘ I am without a wish, Bennen,’ I replied : ‘ where you go I follow, be it up or down.’ He disliked the idea of giving in, and would willingly have thrown the onus .of stopping upon me. We attacked the castle, and by a hard effort reached one of its mid ledges, whence we had plenty of room to examine the remainder. We might certainly have continued the ascent beyond this place, but Bennen paused here. To a minute of talk succeeded a minute of silence, during which my guide earnestly scanned the heights. He then turned towards me, and the words seemed to fall from his lips through a resisting medium, as he said, ‘ Ich denke die Zeit ist zu kurz’ (I think the time is too short).

By this time each of the neighbouring peaks had unfolded a cloud banner, remaining clear to wind-ward, but having a streamer hooked on to its summit and drawn far out into space by the moist south wind. It was a grand and affecting sight, grand intrinsically, but doubly impressive to feelings already loosened by the awe inseparable from our position. Looked at from Breuil, the mountain shows two summits separated from each other by a possibly impassable cleft. Only the lower one of these could be seen from where we stood. I asked Bennen how high he supposed it to be above the point where we then stood ; he estimated its height at 400 feet, I at 500 feet. Probably both of us were under the mark ; however, I state the fact as it occurred. The object of my present visit to Brueil was to finish the piece of work thus abruptly broken off, and so I awaited Bennen’s return with anxious interest.

At dusk I saw him striding down the Alp, and went out to meet him. I sought to gather his opinion from his eye before he spoke, but could make nothing out. It was perfectly firm, but might mean either pro or con. ‘ Herr,’ he said at length, in a tone of unusual emphasis, ‘ I have examined the mountain carefully, and find it more difficult and dangerous than I had imagined. There is no place upon it where we could well pass the night. We might do so on yonder col upon the snow, but there we should be almost frozen to death, and totally un-fit for the work of the next day. On the rocks there is no ledge or cranny which could give us proper harbourage ; and starting from Breuil it is certainly impossible to reach the summit in a single day.’ I was entirely taken back by this report. Bennen was evidently dead against any attempt upon the mountain. ‘ We can, at all events, reach the lower of the two summits,’ I remarked. ‘ Even that is difficult,’ he replied ; ‘ but when you have reached it, what then ? The peak has neither name nor fame.’ I was silent ; slightly irascible, perhaps ; but it was against my habit to utter a word of remonstrance or persuasion. Bennen made his report with his eyes open. He knew me well, and I think mutual trust has rarely been more strongly developed between guide and traveller than between him and me. I knew that I had but to give the word and he would face the mountain with me next day, but it would have been inexcusable in me to deal thus with him. So I stroked my beard, and, like Lelia in the ‘ Princess,’ when

Upon the sward She tapt her tiny silken-sandal’d foot,

I crushed the grass with my hobnails, seeking thus a safety-valve for my disappointment.

My sleep was unsatisfying that night, and on the following morning I felt a void within. The hope of finishing my work creditably had been suddenly dislodged, and, for a time, vacuity took its place. It was like the removal of a pleasant drug or the breaking down of a religious faith. I hardly knew what to do with myself. One thing was certain—the Italian valleys had no tonic strong enough to set me right ; the mountains alone could restore what I had lost. Over the Joch then once more ! We packed up and bade farewell to the host and waiter. Both men seemed smitten with a sudden languor, and could hardly respond to my adieus. They had expected us to be their guests for some time, and were evidently disgusted at our want of pluck. ‘ Mais, monsieur, il faut faire la pénitence pour une nuit.’ Veils of the silkiest cloud began to draw themselves round the mountain, and to stretch in long gauzy filaments through the air, where they finally curdled up to common cloud, and lost the grace and beauty of their infancy. Had they condensed to thunder I should have been better satisfied ; but it was some consolation to see them thicken so as to hide the mountain, and quench the longing with which I should have viewed its un-clouded head. The thought of spending some days chamois-hunting occurred to me. Bennen seized the idea with delight, promising me an excellent gun. We crossed the summit, descended to Zermatt, paused there to refresh ourselves, and went forward to St. Nicholas, where we spent the night.