The Alps – The Oberaarjoch


My guide Bennen reached the Grimsel the following morning. Uncertain of my own movements, I had permitted him this year to make a new engagement, which he was now on his way to fulfil. As a mountaineer, Bennen had no superior, and he added to his strength, courage, and skill, the qualities of a natural gentleman. He was now ready to bear us company over the Oberaarjoch to the AEggischhorn. On the morning of the 22nd we bade the cheerless Grimsel inn good-bye, reached the Unteraar glacier, crossed its load of uncomfortable moraine shingle, and clambered up the slopes at the other side. Nestled aloft in a higher valley was the Oberaar glacier, along the unruffled surface of which our route lay.

The morning threatened, and fitful gleams of sun-light wandered over the ice. The Joch was swathed in mist, which now and then gave way, permitting a wiid radiance to shoot over the top. On the windy summit we took a mouthful of food and roped ourselves together. Here, as in a hundred other places, I sought in the fog for the vesicles of De Saussure, but failed to find them. Bennen, as long as we were ,on the Berne side of the col, permitted Jaun to take the lead ; but now we looked into Wallis, or rather into the fog which filled it, and he, as Wallis guide, came to the front. I knew the Viesch glacier well, but how Bennen meant to unravel its difficulties without landmarks I knew not. I asked him whether, if the fog continued, he could make his way down the glacier. There was a pleasant timbre in Bennen’s voice, a light and depth in his smile, due to the blending together of conscious strength and warm affection. With this smile he turned round and said, ‘ Herr, ich bin hier zu Haase. Der Viescher Gletscher ist meine Heimath.’

Downwards we went, striking the rocks of the Rothhorn so as to avoid the riven ice. Suddenly we passed from dense fog into clear air : we had crossed ‘ the cloud-plane,’ and found a transparent atmosphere between it and the glacier. The dense covering above us was sometimes torn asunder by the wind, which whirled the detached cloud-tufts round the peaks. Contending air-currents were thus revealed, and thunder, which is the common associate, if not the product, of such contention, began to rattle among the crags. At first the snow upon the glacier was sufficiently heavy to bridge the crevasses, thus permitting of rapid motion ; but by degrees the fissures opened, and at length drove us to the rocks. These in their turn became impracticable. Dropping down a waterfall well known to the climbers of this region, we came again upon the ice, which was here cut by complex chasms. These we unravelled as long as necessary, and finally escaped from them to the mountain-side. The first big drops of a thunder-shower were already falling when we reached an overhanging crag which gave us shelter. We quitted it too soon, beguiled by a treacherous gleam of blue, and were thoroughly drenched before we reached the AEggischhorn.

This was my last excursion with Bennen. In the. month of February of the following year he was killed by an avalanche on the Haut de Cry, a mountain near Sion.’

Having work to execute, I remained at the AEggischhorn for nearly a month in 1863. My favourite place for rest and writing was a point on the mountain-side about an hour westwards from the hotel, where the mighty group of the Mischabel, the Matterhorn, and the Weisshorn were in full view. One day I remained in this position longer than usual, held by the fascination of the setting sun.

The mountains had stood out nobly clear during the entire day, but towards evening, upon the Dom, a singular cloud settled, which was finally drawn into a long streamer by the wind. Nothing can be finer than the effect of the red light of sunset on those streamers of cloud. Incessantly dissipated, but ever renewed, they glow with the intensity of flames. By-and-by the banner broke, resembling in its action that of a liquid cylinder when unduly stretched, forming a series of crimson cloud-balls which were united by slender filaments of fire. I waited for this glory to fade into a deadly pallor before I thought of returning to the hotel.

On arriving there I found discussed with eager interest the fate of two ladies and a gentleman, who had quitted the hotel in the morning without a guide, and who were now, it was said, lost on the mountain. ‘ I recommended them,’ said Herr Wellig, the land-lord, ‘ to take a guide, but they would not heed me.’ I asked him what force he had at hand. Three active young fellows came immediately forward. Two of them I sent across the mountain by the usual route to the Mârjelin See, and the third I took with myself along the watercourse of the AEggischhorn. After some walking we dipped into a little dell, where the glucking of cowbells announced the existence of chalets. The party had been seen passing there in the morning, but not returning. The embankment of the watercourse fell at some places vertically for twenty or thirty feet. Here I thought an awkward slip might have occurred, and, to meet the possibility of having to carry a wounded man, I took an additional lithe young fellow from the chalet.

We shouted as we went along, but the echoes were our only response. Our pace was rapid, and in the dubious light false steps were frequent. We all at intervals mistook the grey water for the grey and narrow track beside it, and stepped into the stream. We proposed ascending to the chalets of Marjelin, but previous to quitting the watercourse we halted, and, directing our voices down hill, shouted a last shout. And faintly up the mountain came a sound which could not be an echo. We all heard it, though it could hardly be detached from the murmur of the adjacent stream. We went rapidly down the Alp, and after a little time shouted again. More audible than before, but still very faint, came the answer from below: We continued at a headlong pace, and soon assured ourselves that the sound was not only that of a human voice, but of an English voice. Thus stimulated, we swerved to the left, and, regardless of a wetting, dashed through the torrent which tumbles from the Marjelin See. Close to the Viesch glacier we found the objects of our search—the two ladies, tired out, seated upon the threshold of a forsaken chalet, and the gentleman seated on a rock beside them.

He was both an experienced climber and a brave man, but he had started with a sprained ankle, and every visitor knows how bewildering the spurs of the AEggischhorn are, even to those whose tendons are sound. Thus weakened, he was overtaken by the night, lost his way, and, in his efforts to extricate himself, had experienced one or two serious tumbles. Finally, giving up the attempt, he had resigned himself to spending the night where we found him. The ladies were quite tired out, and to reach the AEggischhorn that night was out of the question. I tried the chalet door and found it locked, but an ice-axe soon hewed the bolt away, and forced an entrance. There was some pinewood within, and some old hay, which, under the circumstances, formed a delicious couch for the ladies. In a few minutes a fire was blazing and crackling in the chimney corner. Having thus secured them, I returned to the chalets first passed, sent them bread, butter, cheese, and milk, and had the lively gratification of seeing them return safe and sound to the hotel next morning.