The Alps – The Old Weissthor

I WAS called by my host at a quarter before three. The firmament of Monte Rosa was almost as black as the rocks beneath it, while above in the darkness trembled the stars. At 4 A.M. we quitted the hotel. We wound along the meadows, by the slumbering houses, and the unslumbering river. The eastern heaven soon brightened, and we could look direct through the gloom of the valley at the opening of the dawn. We threaded our way amid the boulders which the torrent had scattered over the plain, and among which groups of stately pines now find anchorage. Some of the trees had exerted all their force in a vertical direction, and rose straight, tall, and mastlike, without lateral branches. We reached a great moraine, grey with years, and clothed with magnificent pines ; our way lay up it, and from the top we dropped into a little dell of magical beauty. Deep hidden by the glacier-built ridges, guarded by noble trees, soft and green at the bottom, and tufted round with bilberry bushes, through which peeped here and there the lichen-covered crags, I have rarely seen a spot in which I should so like to dream away a day. Before I entered it, Monte Rosa was still in shadow, but on my emergence I noticed that her precipices were all aglow. The purple colouring of the mountains observed on looking down the valley was indescribable ; out of Italy I have never seen anything like it. Oxygen and nitrogen could not produce the effect ; some effluence from the earth, some foreign constituent of the atmosphere, developed in those deep valleys by the southern sun, must sift the solar beams, weaken the rays of medium refrangibility, and blend the red and violet of the spectrum to that incomparable hue. The air indeed is filled with floating matters which vary from day to day, and it is mainly to such extraneous substances that the chromatic splendours of our atmosphere are to be ascribed. The air south of the Alps is in this respect different from that on the north, but a modicum even of arsenic might be respired with satisfaction, if warmed by the bloom which suffused the air of Italy this glorious dawn.

The ancient moraines of the Macugnaga glacier rank among the finest that I have seen ; long, high ridges tapering from base to edge, hoary with age, but beautified by the shrubs and blossoms of to-day. We crossed the ice and them. At the foot of the old Weissthor lay couched a small glacier, which had landed a multitude of boulders on the slope below it ; and amid these we were soon threading our way. We crossed the little glacier, which at one place strove to be disagreeable, and here I learned from the deportment of his axe the kind of work to which our porter had been previously accustomed. Half a dozen strokes shook the head of the implement from its handle. We reached the rocks to the right of the couloir and climbed them for some distance. At the base the ice was cut by profound fissures, which extended quite across, and rendered a direct advance up the gulley impossible ; but higher up we dropped down upon the snow.

Close to the rocks it was scarred by a furrow six or eight feet deep, and about twelve in width, evidently the track of avalanches, or of rocks let loose from the heights. Into this we descended. The bottom was firm, and roughened by stones which found a lodgment there. It seemed that we had here a very suitable roadway to the top. But a sudden crash was heard aloft. I looked upward, and right over the snow-brow which closed the view perceived a large brown boulder in the air, while a roar of unseen stones showed that the visible projectile was merely the first shot of a general cannonade. They appeared—pouring straight down upon us—the sides of the furrow preventing them from squandering their force in any other direction.

‘ Schnell !’ shouted the man behind me, and there is a ring in the word, when sharply uttered in the Alps, that almost lifts a man off his feet. I sprang forward, but, urged by a sterner impulse, the man behind sprung right on to me. We cleared the furrow exactly as the first stone flew by, and once in safety we could calmly admire the energy with which the rattling boulders sped along.

Our way now lay up the couloir ; the snow was steep, but knobbly, and hence but few steps were required to give the boots a hold. We crossed and recrossed obliquely, like a horse drawing a laden cart up hill. At times we paused and examined the heights. The view ended in the snow-fields above, but near the summit suddenly rose a high ice-wall. If we persisted in the couloir, this barrier would have to be surmounted, and the possibility of scaling it was very questionable. Our attention therefore was turned to the rocks at our right, and the thought of assailing them was several times mooted and discussed. They at length seduced us, and we resolved to abandon the snow. To reach the rocks, however, we had to recross the avalanche channel, which was here very deep. Bennen hewed a gap at the top of its flanking wall, and, stooping over, scooped steps out of its vertical face. He then made a deep hole, in which he anchored his-left arm, let himself thus partly down, and with his ight pushed the steps to the bottom. While this was going on small stones were continually flying down the gulley. Bennen reached the floor, and I followed. Our companion was still clinging to the snow-wall, when a horrible clatter was heard overhead. It was another stone avalanche, which there was hardly a hope of escaping. Happily a rock was here firmly stuck in the bed of the gulley and I chanced to be beside it when the first huge missile appeared. This was the delinquent which had set the others loose. I was directly in the line of fire, but, ducking behind the boulder, I let the projectile shoot over my head. Behind it came a shoal of smaller fry, each of them, however, quite competent to crack a human life. ‘ Schnell !’ with its metallic clang, rung from the throat of Bennen ; and never before had- I seen his axe so promptly and vigorously applied.

While this infernal cannonade was directed upon us we hung upon a slope of snow which had been pressed and polished to ice by the descending stones, and so steep that a single slip would have converted us into an avalanche also. Without steps of some kind we dared not set foot on the slope, and these had to be cut while the stone shower was falling on us. Mere scratches in the ice, how ever, were all the axe could accomplish, and oi. these we steadied ourselves with the energy of desperate men. Bennen was first, and I followed him, while the stones flew thick beside and between us. My excellent guide thought of me more than of himself, and once caught upon the handle of his axe, as a cricketer catches a ball upon his bat, a lump which might have finished my climbing. The labour of his axe was here for a time divided between the projectiles and the ice, while- at every pause in the volley ‘ he cut a step and sprang forward.’ Had the peril been less, it would have been amusing to see our duckings and contortions as we fenced with our swarming foes. A final jump landed us on an embankment out of the direct line of fire, and we thus escaped a danger extremely exciting to us all.

We had next to descend an ice-slope to a place at which the rocks could be invaded. Here Andermatten slipped, shot down the slope, knocked Bennen off his legs, but before the rope had jerked me off mine the guide had stopped his flight. The porter’s hat, however, followed the rushing stones. It was shaken off his head and lost. If discipline for eye, limb, head, and heart be of any value, we had it, and were still likely to have it, here. Our first experience of the rocks was by no means comforting : they were uniformly steep, and, as far as we could judge from a long look upwards, they were likely to continue so. A stiffer bit than ordinary intervened now and then, making us feel how possible it was to be entirely cut off.

We at length reached real difficulty number one. All three of us were huddled together on a narrow ledge, with a smooth and vertical cliff above us. Bennen tried it in various ways, but he was several times forced back to the ledge. At length he managed to hook the fingers of one hand over the top of the cliff, while to aid his grip he tried to fasten his shoes against its face. But the nails scraped freely over the granular surface, and he had for a time to lift himself almost by a single arm. As he did so he had as ugly a place beneath him as a human body could well be suspended over. We were tied to him of course ; but the jerk, had his grip failed, would have been terrible. Ile raised at length his breast to a level with the top, and leaning over it he relieved the strain. Seizing upon something further on, he lifted himself quite to the top; then tightened the rope, while I slowly worked myself over the face of the cliff after him. We were soon side by side, and immediately afterwards Andermatten, with his long unkempt hair, and face white with excitement, hung midway between heaven and earth supported by the rope alone. We hauled him up bodily, and as he stood upon the ledge his limbs quivered beneath him.

We now strained slowly upwards amid the maze of crags, and scaled a second cliff, resembling, though in a modified form, that just described. There was no peace, no rest, no delivery from the anxiety which weighed upon the heart.’ Bennen looked extremely blank, and often cast an eye downward to the couloir we had quitted, muttering aloud, ‘ Had we only held on to the snow !’ He had soon reason to emphasise his ejaculation.

After climbing for some time, we reached a smooth vertical face of rock from which, right or left, there was no escape, and over which we must go. Bennen first tried it unaided, but was obliged to recoil. Without a lift of five or six feet the thing was impossible. When a boy I have often climbed a wall by placing a comrade in a stooping posture with his hands and head against the wall, getting on his back, and permitting him gradually to straighten himself till he became erect. This plan I now pro-posed to Bennen, offering to take him on my back. ‘ Nein, Herr !’ he replied ; ‘ nicht Sie, ich will es mit Andermatten versuchen.’ I could not persuade him, so Andermatten got upon the ledge, and fixed his knee for Bennen to stand on. In this position my guide obtained a precarious grip, just sufficient to enable him to pass with safety from the knee to the shoulder. He paused here, and pulled away such splinters as might prove treacherous if he laid hold of them. He at length found a firm one, and had next to urge himself, not fairly upward, for right above us the top was entirely out of reach, but obliquely along the face of the cliff. He succeeded, anchored himself, and called upon me to advance.

The rope was tight, it is true, but it was not vertical, so that a slip would cause me to swing like a pendulum over the cliff’s face. With considerable effort I managed to hand Bennen his axe, and while doing so my own staff escaped me and was irrecoverably lost. I ascended Andermatten’s shoulders as Bennen did, but my body was not long enough to bridge the way to the guide’s arm ; so I had to risk the possibility of becoming a pendulum. A little protrusion gave my left foot some support. I suddenly raised myself a yard, and here was met by the iron grip of my guide. In a second I was safely stowed away in a neighbouring fissure. Andermatten now remained. He first detached himself from the rope, tied it round his coat and knapsack, which were drawn up. The rope was again let down, and the porter tied it firmly round his waist. It was not made in England, and was perhaps lighter than it ought to be; so to help it hands and feet were scraped with spasmodic energy over the rock. He struggled too much, and Bennen cried sharply, ‘ langsam ! langsam ! Keine Furcht ! ‘ The poor fellow looked very pale and bewildered as his bare head emerged above the ledge. His body soon followed. Bennen always used the imperfect for the present tense, ‘ Er war ganz bleich,’ he remarked to me, by the ‘ war’ meaning ist.

The young man seemed to regard Bennen with a kind of awe. ‘ Sir,’ he exclaimed, ‘ you would not find another guide in Switzerland to lead you up here.’ Nor, indeed, in Bennen’s behalf be it spoken, would he have done so if he could have avoided it ; but we had fairly got into a net, the meshes of which must be resolutely cut. I had previously entertained the undoubting belief that where a chamois could climb a man could follow ; but when I saw the marks of the animal on these all but inaccessible ledges, my belief, though not eradicated, became weaker than it had previously been.

Onward again, slowly winding through the craggy mazes, and closely scanning the cliffs as we ascended. Our easiest work was stiff, but the ‘ stiff’ was an agreeable relaxation from the perilous. By a lateral deviation we reached a point whence we could look into the couloir by which Mr. Tuckett had ascended : here Bennen relieved himself by a sigh and ejaculation : ‘ Would that we had chosen it ! we might pass up yonder rocks blindfold !’ But repining was useless ; our work was marked out for us and had to be accomplished. After another difficult tug Bennen reached a point whence he could see a large extent of the rocks above us. There was no serious difficulty within view, and the announcement of this cheered us mightily. Every vertical yard, however, was to be won only by strenuous effort. For a long time the snow cornice hung high above us ; we now approached its level ; the last cliff formed a sloping stair with geologic strata for steps. We sprang up it, and the magnificent snow-field of the Görner glacier immediately opened to our view. The anxiety of the last four hours disappeared like an unpleasant dream, and with that perfect happiness which perfect health can alone impart, we consumed our cold mutton and champagne on the summit of the old Weissthor.