The Alps – The Titlis, Finsteraarschlucht, Petersgrat, And Italian Lakes

In the summer of 1866 I first went to Engsteln, one of the most charming spots in the Alps. It had at that time a double charm, for the handsome young widow who kept the inn supplemented by her kindness and attention within doors the pleasures extracted from the outer world. A man named Maurer, of Meyringen, was my guide for a time. We climbed the Titlis, going straight up it from the Joch Pass, in the track of a scampering chamois which showed us the way. The Tiflis is a very noble mass—one of the few which, while moderate in height, bear a lordly weight of snow. The view from the summit is exceedingly fine, and on it I repeated with a hand spectroscope the observations of M. Janssen on the absorption-bands of aqueous vapour. On the day after this ascent I quitted Engsteln, being drawn towards the Wellhorn and Wetterhorn, both of which, as seen from Engsteln, came out with inexpressible nobleness The upper dome of heaven was of the deepest blue, while only the faintest lightening of the colour towards the horizon indicated the augmented thickness of the atmosphere in that direction. The sun was very hot, but there was a clear rivulet at hand, deepening here and there into pebbled pools, into which I plunged at intervals, causing my guide surprise if not anxiety; for he shared the common superstition that plunging, when hot, into cold water is dangerous. The danger, and a very serious one it is, is to plunge into cold water when cold. The strongest alone can then bear immersion without damage.

This year I subjected the famous Finsteraarschlucht to a closer examination than ordinary. The earth-quake theory already adverted to was prevalent regarding it, and I wished to see whether any evidences existed of aqueous erosion. It will be remembered that the Schlucht or gorge is cut through a great barrier of limestone rock called the Kirchet, which throws itself across the valley of Hasli, about three-quarters of an hour’s walk above Meyringen. The plain beyond the barrier, on which stands the hamlet of Imhof, is formed of the sediment of a lake of which the Kirchet constituted the dam. This dam is now cut through for the passage of the Aar, forming one of the noblest gorges in Switzerland. Near the summit of the Kirchet is a house with a signboard inviting the traveller to visit the Aarenschlucht, a narrow lateral gorge which runs down to the very bottom of the principal one. The aspect of this smaller chasm from its bottom to its top proves to demonstration that water had in former ages worked there as a navigator. It is scooped, rounded, and polished, so as to render it palpable to the common eye that it is a gorge of erosion. But it was regarding the sides of the great chasm that I needed instruction, and from its edge I could see nothing to satisfy me. I therefore stripped and waded into the river until a point was reached which commanded an excellent view of both sides of the gorge. The water was cutting, but I was repaid. Below me on the left-hand side was a jutting cliff, which bore the thrust of the river and caused the Aar to swerve from its direct course. From top to bottom this cliff was polished, rounded, and scooped. There was no room for doubt. The river which now runs so deeply down had once been above. It has been the delver of its own channel through the barrier of the Kirchet.

I went on to Rosenlaui, proposing to climb the neighbouring mountains in succession. In fact I went to Switzerland in 1866 with a particular hunger for the heights. But the weather thickened before Rosenlaui was reached, and on the night following the morning of my departure from Engsteln lay upon my plaid under an impervious pine, and watched as wild a thunderstorm and as heavy a downpour of rain as I had ever seen. Most extra-ordinary was the flicker on cliffs and trees, and most tremendous was the detonation succeeding each discharge. The fine weather came thus to an end, and next day I gave up the Wetterhorn for the ignoble Faulhorn. Here the wind changed, the air became piercingly cold, and on the following morning heavy snow-drifts buttressed the doors, windows, and walls of the inn. We broke away, sinking at some places to the hips in snow. A descent of a thousand feet carried us from the bleakest winter into genial summer. My companion held on to the beaten track, while I sought a rougher and more direct one to the Scheinigeplatte, a resting-place which commands a noble view of the precipices of the Jungfrau. We were solitary visitors there, and I filled the evening with Miss Thackeray’s ‘ Story of Elizabeth,’ which some benevolent traveller had left at the hotel.

Thence we dropped down to Lauterbrunnen, went up the valley to the little inn at Trechslawinen, and crossed the Petersgrat the following day. The recent precipitation had cleared the heavens and re-loaded the heights. It was, perhaps, the splendour of the weather and the purity of the snows, aided by the subjective effect due to contrast with a series of most dismal days, that made me think the Petersgrat so noble a standpoint for a view of the mountains. The horizontal extent was vast, and the grouping magnificent. The undoubted monarch of this unparagoned scene was the Weisshorn, and this may have rendered me partial in my judgment, for men like to see what they love exalted. At Platten we found shelter in the house of the curé. Next day we crossed the Lotschsattel, and swept round by the Aletsch glacier to the AEggischhorn.

Here I had the pleasure of meeting a very ardent climber, who entertains peculiar notions regarding guides. He deems them, and rightly so, very expensive, and he also feels pleasure in trying his own powers. Very likely it is my habit of going alone that causes me to sympathise with him. I would, however, admonish him that he may go too far in this direction, and probably his own experience has by this time forestalled the admonition. Still, if skill, strength, and self-reliance are things to be cultivated in the Alps, they are, within certain limits, best exercised and developed in the absence of guides. And if the real climbers are ever to be differentiated from the crowd who write and talk about the mountains, it is only to be done by dispensing with professional assistance. But no man without natural aptitude and due training would be justified in committing himself to ventures of this kind, and it is an error to suppose that the necessary knowledge can be obtained in one or two summers in the Alps. Climbing is an art, and those who wish to cultivate it on their own account ought to give themselves sufficient previous practice in the company of first-rate guides. Here, moreover, as in every other sphere of human action, whether intellectual or physical, as indeed among the guides themselves, real eminence falls only to the lot of few. Whatever be the amount of preparation, real climbers must still remain select men.

From the Bel Alp, Mr. Girdlestone and I, without any guide, made an attack upon the Aletschhorn. We failed. The weather as we started was undecided, but we hoped the turn might be in our favour. We first kept along the Alp, with the Jaggi glacier to our right, then crossed its moraine, and made the trunk glacier our highway until we reached the point of confluence of its branches. Here we turned to the right, the Aletschhorn, from base to summit, coming into view. We reached the true base of the mountain, and without halting breasted its snow. But as we climbed the atmosphere thickened more and more. About the Nesthorn the horizon deepened to pitchy darkness, and on the Aletschhorn itself hung a cloud, which we at first hoped would melt before the strengthening sun, but which instead of melting became denser. Now and then an echoing rumble of the wind warned us that we might expect rough handling above. We persisted, however, and reached a considerable height, unwilling to admit that the weather was against us, until a more savage roar and a ruder shake than ordinary caused us to halt, and look more earnestly and anxiously into the darkening atmosphere. We were forced to give in, and during our descent the air was thick and dark with falling snow. Holding on in the dimness to the medial moraine, we managed to get down the glacier, and to clear it at a practicable point, whence, guided by the cliffs which flanked our right, and which became visible only when we came almost into contact with them, we hit the proper track to the Bel Alp hotel.

Though my visits to the Alps had already numbered thirteen, I had never gone so far southward as the Italian lakes. The perfectly unmanageable weather of July 1866 caused me to cross with Mr. Girdlestone into Italy, in the hope that a respite of ten or twelve days might improve the temper of the mountains. We walked over the Simplon to the village of the same name, and took thence the diligence to Domo d’Ossola and Baveno. The atmospheric change was wonderful ; and still the clear air which we enjoyed below was the self-same air that heaped clouds and snow upon the mountains.

It came across the heated plains of Lombardy charged with moisture, but the moisture was in the transparent condition of true vapour, and hence invisible. Tilted by the mountains, the air rose, and as it expanded it became chilled, and as it became chilled it discharged its vapour as visible cloud, the globules of which swelled by coalescence into raindrops on the mountain-flanks, or were frozen to snow upon the mountain-heads.

We halted on the margin of the Lago Maggiore I could hear the lisping of the waters on the shingle far into the night. My window looked eastward, and through it could be seen the first warming of the sky at the approach of dawn. I rose, and watched the growth of colour all along the east. The mountains, from mere masses of darkness projected against the heavens, became empurpled. It was not as a mere wash of colour overspreading their surfaces. They blent with the atmosphere as if they were part and parcel of the general purple of the air. Nobody was stirring at the time, and the ‘ lap’ of the lake upon its shore only increased the sense of silence.

The holy hour was quiet as a nun Breathless with adoration.

In my subsequent experience of the Italian lakes I met with nothing which affected me so deeply as this morning scene on the Lago Maggiore.

From Baveno we crossed the lake to Luino, and went thence to Lugano. At Belaggio, on the junction of the two branches of the Lake of Como, we halted a couple of days. Como itself we reached in a small sailing-boat, as a storm prevented the steamer from taking us. There we saw the statue of Volta —a prophet justly honoured in his own country. From Como we went to Milan. A climber, of course, could not forego the pleasure of looking at Monte Rosa from the cathedral roof. The distribution of the statues magnified the apparent vastness of the pile ; still the impression made on me by this great edifice was one of disappointment. Its front seemed to illustrate an attempt to cover meanness of conception by profusion of adornment. The interior, how-ever, notwithstanding the cheat of the ceiling, is exceedingly grand.

From Milan we went to Orta, where we had a plunge into the lake. We crossed it subsequently, and walked on to Varallo : thence by Fobello over a country of noble beauty to Ponte Grande in the Val Ansasca. Thence again by Macugnaga, over the deep snow of the Monte Moro, reaching Mattmark in drenching rain. The temper of the northern slopes did not appear t o have improved during our absence. We returned to the Bel Alp, fitful triumphs of the sun causing us to hope that we might still have fair play upon the Aletschhorn. But the day after our arrival snow fell so heavily as to cover the pastures for 2,000 feet below the hotel. Partial famine among the herds was the consequence. They had eventually to be driven below the snow-line. Avalanches were not unfrequent on slopes which a day or two previously had been covered with grass and flowers. In this condition of things Mr. Milman, Mr. Girdlestone, and I climbed the Sparrenhorn, and found its heavy-laden Kamm almost as hard as that of Monte Rosa. Occupation out of doors was, however, insufficient to fill the mind, so I wound my plaid around my loins, and in my cold bedroom studied Mozley upon Minden.