The Alps – The Urbachthal And Gauli Glacier

Dun bivouac at Meyringen was le Sauvage, who discharged his duty as a host with credit to himself and with satisfaction to us. Forster (the statesman) arrived, and in the afternoon of the 3rd we walked up the valley, with the view of spending the night at Hof. Between Meyringen and Hof, the vale of Hasli is crossed by a transverse ridge called the Kirehet, and the barrier is at one place split through, forming a deep chasm with vertical sides through which plunges the river Aar. The chasm is called the Finsteraarschlucht, and by the ready hypothesis of an earthquake its formation has been explained. Man longs for causes, and the weaker minds, unable to restrain their longing, often barter, for the most sorry theoretic pottage, the truth which patient enquiry would make their own. This proneness of the human mind to jump to conclusions, and thus shirk the labour of real investigation, is a most mischievous tendency. We complain of the contempt with which practical men regard theory, and, to confound them, triumphantly exhibit the speculative achievements of master minds. But the practical man, though puzzled, remains unconvinced ; and why ? Simply because nine out of ten of the theories with which he is acquainted are de-serving of nothing better than contempt. Our master minds built their theoretic edifices upon the rock of fact, the quantity of fact necessary to enable them to divine the law being a measure of individual genius, and not a test of philosophic system.

The level plain of Hof lies above the mound of the Kirchet ; how was this flat formed ? Is it not composed of the sediment of a lake ? Did not the Kirchet form the dam of this lake, a stream issuing from the latter and falling over the dam ? And as the sea-waves find a weak point in the cliffs against which they dash, and gradually eat their way so as to form caverns with high vertical sides, as at the Land’s End, a joint or fault or some other accidental weakness determining their line of action ; so also a mountain torrent rushing for ages over the same dam would be sure to cut itself a channel. The lake after its drainage left the basis of green meadows as sediment behind ; and through these meadows now flows the stream of the Aar. Imagination is essential to the natural philosopher, but its matter must be facts ; and its function the discernment of their connection.

We were called at 4 A.M., an hour later than we intended, and the sight of the cloudless mountains was an inspiration to us all. At 5.30 A.M. we were off, crossing the valley of Hof, which was hugged round its margin by a light and silky mist. We ascended a spur which separated us from the Urbachthal, through which our route lay. The Aar for a time babbled in the distance, until, on turning a corner, its voice was suddenly quenched by the louder music of the Urbach, rendered mellow and voluminous by the resonance of the chasm into which the torrent leaped. The sun was already strong. His yellow light glimmered from the fresh green leaves ; it smote with glory the boles and the plumes of the pines ; soft shadows fell from shrub and rock upon the pastures ; snow-peaks were in sight, cliffy summits also, without snow or verdure, but in many cases buttressed by slopes of soil which bore a shaggy growth of trees. To the right of us rose the bare cliffs of the Engelhörner, broken at the top into claw-shaped masses which were turned, as if in spite, against the serene heaven. Bennen walked on in front, a mass of organised force, silent, but emitting at times a whistle which sounded like the piping of a lost chamois. In a hollow of the Engelhorner a mass of snow had found a lodgment ; melted by the warm rock, its foundation was sapped, and down it came in a thundering cascade. The thick pinewoods to our right were furrowed by the tracks of these destroyers, the very wind of which, it is affirmed, tears up distant trees by the roots.

For a time our route lay through a spacious valley, which at length turned to the left, and narrowed to a gorge. Along its bottom the nissing river rushed ; this we crossed, climbed the wall of a cul de sac, and from its rim enjoyed a glorious view. The Urbachthal has been the scene of vast glacier action. Looking at these charactered cliffs, one’s thoughts involuntarily revert to the ancient days, and we restore in idea a state of things which had disappeared from the world before the development of man. Whence this wondrous power of reconstruction ? Was it locked like latent heat in ancient inorganic nature, and developed as the ages rolled ? Are other and grander powers still latent in nature, destined to blossom in another age ? Let us question fearlessly, but, having done so, let us avow frankly that at bottom we know nothing; that we are imbedded in a mystery, towards the solution of which no whisper has been yet conceded to the listening intellect of man.

The world of life and beauty is now retreating, and the world of death and beauty is at hand. We were soon at the end of the Gauli glacier, from which the impetuous Urbach rushes, and turned into a chalet for a draught of milk. The Senner within proved an extortioner—’ ein unverschämter Hund ;’ but let him pass. We worked along the flank of the glacier to a point which commands a view of the cliffy barrier which it is the main object of our journey to pass. From a range of snow-peaks linked together by ridges of black rock, the Gauli glacier falls, at first steeply as snow, then more gently as ice. We scan the mountain barrier to ascertain where it ought to be attacked. No one of us has ever been here before, and the scanty scraps of information which we have received tell us that at one place only is the barrier passable. We may reach the summit at several points from this side, but all save one, we are informed, lead to the brink of intractable precipices, which fall sheer to the Lauteraar glacier. We observe, discuss, and finally decide. We enter upon the glacier ; black chasms yawn here and there through the super-incumbent snow, but there is no real difficulty. We cross the glacier and reach the opposite slopes ; our way first lies up a moraine, and afterwards through the snow ; a laborious ascent brings us close to the ridge, and here we pause once more in consultation. There is a gentle indentation to our left, and a cleft in the rocks to our right ; out information points to the cleft, but we decide in favour of the saddle.

The winter snows were here thickly laid against the precipitous crags ; the lower part of the buttress thus formed had broken away from the upper, which still clung to the rocks, the whole ridge being thus defended by a profound chasm, called in Switzerland a Bergschrund. At some places portions of snow had fallen away from the upper slope and partially choked the schrund, closing, however, its mouth only, and on this snow we were now to seek a footing. Bennen and myself were loose coming up ; Forster and his guide were tied together ; but now my friend declares that we must all be attached. We accordingly rope ourselves, and advance along the edge of the fissure to a place where it is partially stopped. A vertical wall of snow faces us. Our leader carefully treads down the covering of the chasm ; and having thus rendered it sufficiently rigid to stand upon, he cuts a deep gap with his ice-axe in the opposing wall. Into the gap he tries to force himself, but the mass yields, and he falls back, sinking deeply in the snow of the schrund. He stands right over the fissure, which is merely bridged by the snow. I call out, ‘Take care 1′ he responds, ‘All right 1′ and returns to the charge. He hews a deeper and more ample gap ; strikes his axe into the slope above him, and leaves it there ; buries his hands in the yielding mass, and raises his body on his two arms, as on a pair of pillars. He thus clears the schrund, and anchors his limbs in the snow above. I am speedily at his side, and we both tighten the rope as our friend Forster advances. With perfect courage and a faultless head, he has but one disadvantage, and that is an excess of weight of at least two stone. In his first attempt the snow-ledge breaks, and he falls back ; but two men are now at the rope, the tension of which, aided by his own activity, prevents him from sinking far. By a second effort he clears the difficulty, is followed by his guide, and all four of us reach the slope above the chasm. Its steepness was greater than that of a cathedral roof, while below us, and within a few yards of us, was a chasm into which it would be certain death to fall. Education enables us to regard a position of this kind almost with indifference ; still the work was by no means unexciting. In this early stage of our summer performances, it required perfect trust in our leader to keep our minds at ease. We reached the saddle, and a cheer at the summit announced that our escape was secured.

The indentation formed the top of a kind of chimney or funnel in the rocks, which led right down to the Lauteraar glacier. Elated with our success, I released myself from the rope and sprang down the chimney, preventing the descent from quickening to an absolute fall by seizing at intervals the projecting rocks. Once an effort of this kind shook the alpenstock from my hand it slid along the rubbish, reached a snow-slope, shot down it, and was caught on some shingle at the bottom of the slope. Quickly skirting the snow, which, without a staff, cannot be trusted, I reached a ridge, from which a jump landed me on the débris : it yielded and carried me down ; passing the alpenstock I seized it, and in an instant was master of all my motions. Another snow-slope was reached, down which I shot to the rocks at the bottom, and there awaited the arrival of my guide.

We diverged from the deep cut of the chimney, Bennen adhering to the rough rocks, while I, hoping to make an easier descent through the funnel itself, resorted to it. It was partially filled with indurated snow, but underneath was a stream, and my ignorance of the thickness of the roof rendered caution necessary. At one place the snow was broken quite across, and a dark tunnel, through which the stream rushed, opened immediately below me. My descent being thus cut off, I crossed the couloir to the opposite rocks, climbed them, and found myself upon the summit of a ledged precipice, below which Bennen stood, watching me as I descended. On one of the ledges my foot slipped; a most melancholy whine issued from my guide, as he suddenly moved towards me ; but the slip in no way compromised me ; I reached the next ledge, and in a moment was clear of the difficulty. We dropped down the mountain together, quitted the rocks, and reached the glacier, where we were soon joined by Forster and his companion. Turning round, we espied a herd of seven chamois on one of the distant slopes of snow. The telescope reduced them to five full-grown animals and two pretty little kids. The day was fading and the deeper glacier pools were shaded by their icy banks. Through the shadowed water needles of ice were darting : all day long the molecules had been kept asunder by the antagonistic heat ; their enemy is now withdrawn, and they lock themselves together in a crystalline embrace. Through a reach of merciless shingle, which covers the lower part of the glacier, we worked our way ; then over green pastures and rounded rocks, to the Grimsel Hotel, which, uncomfortable as it is, wax reached with pleasure by us all.