The Passes Of The Alps In Snow And Ice

A region that is frequently visited may through changes of season become a region unvisited; a region so changed, so metamorphosed, so different, as to be a region unrecognizable by those who have known it only under its usually seen aspect. And in particular I have in mind the passes of the Alps, that in summer time are, like that of the St. Gotthard, so crowded that a tourist with a camera is on every rock, or like that of the Dolomites, thronged with eager visitors, but which in winter are stretches of cold and solitary loneliness. People pass through the Alps iii Switzerland by train; some gather at the few winter resorts open mainly for enthusiasts of toboggan or ski; and, of course, the natives are there; but the great stretches of picturesque Switzerland are in winter a region unvisited by strangers and unknown.

I remember deciding, on leaving Lucerne one winter day, to go up above the St. Gotthard; up the ancient road above the railroad tunnel; and, like most of the delightful unusual things, I found it a project easy to carry out.

It was a bright, cold morning, and after a fascinating railroad ride of almost four hours, through a Switzerland all snow and ice, I reached Goschenen, fifty-five miles away, at the entrance of the St. Gotthard tunnel. There is a wonderfully fast train, what we should call an “extra fare” train, that connects Lucerne with Italy at the rate of thirty miles an hour!-they are so proud of it that they call it the Blitzzug: lightning-train!-but all the other trains are of the usual leisurely European type. And, really, one ought not to rush along at thirty miles an hour through a region where every moment there is something charming or wonderful to see.

At Goschenen, after an excellent luncheon-in Europe one can always get excellent eating even where travelers are not looked for-I engaged a man with a sledge; a sledge low-set, almost upon the ground, with steel-shod runners and boat-shaped basket of splints, something like hickory, made as old-fashioned splint-bottom chair-seats were made.

The driver gave me several rugs of goat-skin, for warmth; it occurs to me, now, that likely enough they were chamois-skin, but I have not had close acquaintance with the chamois, except with the bits of yellow leather familiar to all of us at home, and the skins certainly did not resemble those, and so I thought of them merely as goat or sheep. And I was glad to have them, for we were not making an early start and I knew that with sunset would come greater cold.

The driver himself chose to sit right out upon the shafts; close against the basket but unprotected from the wind.

“But you will be cold!”

“No!” He shook his head and smiled. “I always ride this way. I shall be warm.”

He wore a short jacket and no gloves, but had home-knitted wristlets-I don’t know what else to call them-that went far above the elbow, and home-knitted leggings that reached far above the knees and were worn on the outside.

There was no bell on his horse. “It might bring down an avalanche,” he said, simply; so fearful of jarring the air are the natives in these mountains.

It was a wonderful drive, up a road that is the ultimate achievement of twistiness, between precipices that tower perpendicularly, and up the course of a wild and rushing stream. The Devil’s Bridge was reached, and at this part the road reached the extreme of rock-walled savagery. There was considerable fighting right here, in the time of the French Revolution, between the French on the one side and the Austrians and Russians on the other, and the road is always guarded and has been strongly fortified, and solitary sentinels are now and then caught sight of, standing or pacing isolatedly, in spots that seem startlingly inaccessible. At one place the rock is pierced by a long tunnel, and this has in its heart a mighty steel ‘gate, ready to be closed and locked and held against any possible force!

The fear of avalanches is not an idle one, for the danger is very real and ever-present. At one place a long stone shed is built projective across the road for avalanche protection, and at other points the driver stops and watches and listens warily. My driver had a second horse which followed us, trotting alone and unguided, drawing a sledge loaded with provisions for a garrison. It usually lagged some score of yards, or even more, behind, as if to accent its independence, but at one spot it came hurrying up and overtook us, and actually laid its head across my shoulder as it trotted in pace with our horse.

“He is frightened,” said the driver; “he comes up for the protection of man! A year ago, I was driving him here, and an avalanche caught us-it came rushing from far, far above, there, and struck us and swept us from the road and carried us down.” And he pointed to a spot far down at the foot of the terrible rocks, and then up to a grim height where a steep stretch of savage smoothness showed where the avalanche had scraped a passage clear. “We went down, down, down! And there was a great roaring and a turmoil-I knew nothing except that I was held and crushed and that there was a great falling. And then came quiet. And I was almost smothered, but I tried to get out. I struggled and panted and tore at the snow. And I got out. And the horse was struggling, and I helped him out. And it was strange, but he was not hurt. But he was so frightened, he, that ever at this point in the road he fears. You have seen! And for me, one cheek was crushed in and forever I shall have this great scar.”

We had been steadily mounting, up the terrific road, and the early winter darkness was threatening to fall when we came out upon the summit of the pass, into a high valley where, in the four-months’ summer, grass grows and scanty grain, but where now was a wilderness of snow and ice, stretching across the levels and up the mountain-sides. I went through little Andermatt and on to tiny Hospenthal, and, there being no inn open there, the half dozen or so being all closed and deserted for the winter, drove back to Andermatt and put up at the modest Trois Rois, all the others being closed like those of Hospenthal.

I had become so snug among the goat (or chamois) skins that I had not realized that it was particularly cold, but when I got out of the sledge at the Three Kings-these monarchs, meaning the Three Wise Men of the East, popularly naming numerous inns in various mountain places!-I found that I had become almost too stiff to walk and that there was a hungry, bitter, biting fierceness of cold, and I realized now, too, that the dazzle of the sun upon the snow had given me a painful burning of the face and eyes. But there was such a splendid Alpine glow, such a superb glory of rosy color, as made the cold and its effects forgotten.

The main room of the inn was warm, and there was pleasant company there. There had been no traveler or tourist, of any nationality, for several months, but several officers of the near-by garrison had come in, and it was a friendly and cheerful evening that was spent with them.

In all it was intensely fascinating. I had really achieved the impossible and found an unvisited Switzerland!

It has been a pleasure, in other seasons, to repeat the experience elsewhere, and in two different winters I have gone through the Dolomites-this not being a religious sect, as the name might indicate, but a clump of particularly picturesque mountains of the Eastern Alps!-and have there had even more interesting adventures than in the. St. Gotthard. One of the times I went into Italy from Vienna, by way of Toblach and the Dolomites-a long, slow journey, and rather tiresome, as far as Toblachand the other time from Innsbruck, and also by way of Toblach.

Innsbruck is itself a delightful city, and the inn where I stayed, which stands beside an old triumphal arch, is an edifice so fascinatingly ancient that it was a case of love at first sight, for I went in as soon as I caught sight of it, although I had chosen, from the long list of hotels, another name.

I was a little disappointed, and a little afraid of poor service, when I found the dining-room, through which the proprietor led me, to have scrubbed and bare-top tables, with only some soldiers and bluebloused carters there, sitting on rough benches. “The glory of this picturesque old place,” I said to myself, “has evidently departed!”

But in a moment I was conducted through a large room filled with substantial-looking diners seated at long tables covered with coarse tablecloths and showing an abundance of food finer than in the other room. “This is not really bad, after all,” I said to myself, “and everything in this picturesque old place is at least clean.”

And then, to my complete surprise, I was shown into a third dining room, where were ladies, and brilliantly uniformed officers, and where a good orchestra made music, and where, as I was to learn, the food was superlatively delicious.

The charges, too, were so low, as I stayed for a week and was thus out of the transient class, that I had really better not say what they were! And my room had a fascinating old bay window, from which I could look up and down the main street and almost fancy that I could touch the abruptly rising mountains that so closely hem the city in.

From Innsbruck to Toblach is ninety miles, and this means a journey of from four to five hours, through superb mountains.

At Toblach the train is left, for the Dolomites are reached only by carriage road; at least, that is the usual expression for it, though it would scarcely be called a carriage road in winter time, with deep snow packed underneath the sledge-for by sledge is the winter way-and snow banks rising continuously, several feet above the level of the packed snow of the road. It is not only a wonderfully romantic experience to sledge through the deserted Dolomites in winter time, but there is no more fascinating way of entering Italy for the early spring. For this reason late winter is the preferable time; and the contrast between the cold and the snow of the mountains and the yellow primroses and the lilies of the plains of Lombardy and Venice can never be forgotten.