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Second Ascent of Monte Rosa

"The foregoing good day's work was rewarded by a sound sleep at night. The tourists were called in succession next morning, but after each call I instantly subsided into deep slumber, and thus healthily spaced out the interval of darkness. Day at length dawned and gradually brightened. I looked at my watch and found it twenty minutes to six. My guide had been lent to a party of gentlemen who had started at three o'clock for the summit of Monte Rosa, and he had left with me a porter who undertook to conduct me to one of the adjacent glaciers. But as I looked from my window the unspeakable beauty of the morning filled me with a longing to see the world from the top of Monte Rosa. I was in exceedingly good condition, — could I not reach the summit alone ? Trained and indurated as I had been, I felt that the thing was possible; at all events I could try, without attempting anything which was not clearly within my power.

Whether my exercise be mental or bodily, I am always most vigorous when cool. During my student life in Germany, the friends who visited me always complained of the low temperature of my room, and here among the Alps it was no uncommon thing for me to wander over the glaciers from morning till evening in my shirtsleeves. My object now was to go as light as possible, and hence I left my coat and neckcloth behind me, trusting to the sun and my own motion to make good the calorific waste. After breakfast I poured what remained of my tea into a small glass bottle, an ordinary demi-bouteille, in fact; the waiter then provided me with a ham-sandwich, and, with my scrip thus frugally furnished, I thought the heights of Monte Rosa might be won. I had neither brandy nor wine, but I knew the immense amount of mechanical force represented by four ounces of bread and ham, and I therefore feared no failure from lack of nutriment. Indeed, I am inclined to think that both guides and travelers often impair their vigour and render themselves cowardly and apathetic by the incessant " refreshing " which they deem it necessary to indulge in on such occasions.

The guide whom Lauener intended for me was at the door ; I passed him and desired him to follow me. This he at first refused to do, as he did not recognize me in my shirt-sleeves; but his companions set him right, and he ran after me. I transferred my scrip to his shoulders, and led the way upward. Once or twice he insinuated that that was not the way to the Schwarzsee, and was probably perplexed by my inattention. From the summit of the ridge which bounds the Gorner glacier the whole grand panorama revealed itself, and on the higher slopes of Monte Rosa — so high, indeed, as to put all hope of overtaking them, or even coming near them, out of the question — a row of black dots revealed the company which had started at three o'clock from the hotel. They had made remarkably good use of their time, and I was afterwards informed that the cause of this was the intense cold, which compelled them to keep up the proper supply of heat by increased exertion. I descended swiftly to the glacier, and made for the base of Monte Rosa, my guide following at some distance behind me. One of the streams, produced by superficial melting, had cut for itself a deep wide channel in the ice ; it was not too wide for a spring, and with the aid of a run I cleared it and went on. Some minutes afterwards I could hear the voice of my companion exclaiming, in a tone of expostulation," No, no, I won't follow you there." He however made a circuit, and crossed the stream; I waited for him at the place where the Monte Rosa glacier joins the rock, " auf der Platte," and helped him down the ice-slope. At the summit of these rocks I again waited for him. He approached me with some excitement of manner, and said that it now appeared plain to him that I intended to ascend Monte Rosa, but that he would not go with me. I asked him to accompany me to the summit of the next cliff, which he agreed to do ; and I found him of some service to me. He discovered the faint traces of the party in advance, and, from his greater experience, could keep them better in view than I could. We lost them, however, near the base of the cliff at which we aimed, and I went on, choosing as nearly as I could remember the route followed by Lauener and myself a week previous, while my guide took another route, seeking for the traces. The glacier here is crevassed, and I was among the fissures some distance in advance of my companion. Fear was manifestly getting the better of him, and he finally stood still, exclaiming, " No man can pass there." At the same moment I discovered the trace, and drew his attention to it; he approached me submissively, said that I was quite right, and declared his willingness to go on. We climbed the cliff, and discovered the trace in the snow above it. Here I transferred the scrip and telescope to my own shoulders, and gave my companion a cheque for five francs. He returned, and I went on alone.

The sun and heaven were glorious, but the cold was nevertheless intense, for it had frozen bitterly the night before. The mountain seemed more noble and lovely than when I had last ascended it; and as I climbed the slopes, crossed the shining cols, and rounded the vast snow-bosses of the mountain, the sense of being alone lent a new interest to the glorious scene. I followed the track of those who preceded me, which was that pursued by Lauener and myself a week previously. Once I deviated from it to obtain a glimpse of Italy over the saddle which stretches from Monte Rosa to the Lyskamm. Deep below me was the valley, with its huge and dislocated névés, and the slope on which I hung was just sufficiently steep to keep the attention in awakening without creating anxiety. I prefer such a slope to one on which the thought of danger cannot be entertained. I become more weary upon a dead level, or in walking up such a valley as that which stretches between Visp and Zermatt, than on a steep mountain-side. The sense of weariness is often no index to the expenditure of muscular force : the muscles may be charged with force, and, if the nervous excitant be feeble, the strength lies dormant, and we are tired without exertion. But the thought of peril keeps the mind awake, and spurs the muscles into action ; they move with alacrity and freedom, and the time passes swiftly and pleasantly.

Occupied with my own thoughts as I ascended, I sometimes unconsciously went too quickly, and felt the effects of the exertion. I then slackened my pace, allowing each limb an instant of repose as I drew it out of the snow, and found that in this way walking became rest. This is an illustration of the principle which runs throughout nature, — to accomplish physical changes, time is necessary. Different positions of the limb require different molecular arrangements; and to pass from one to the other requires time. By lifting the leg slowly and allowing it to fall forward by its own gravity, a man may get on steadily for several hours, while a very slight addition to this pace may speedily exhaust him. Of course the normal pace differs in different persons, but in all the power of endurance may be vastly augmented by the prudent outlay of muscular force.

The sun had long shone down upon me with intense fervour, but I now noticed a strange modification of the light upon the slopes of snow. I looked upwards, and saw a most gorgeous exhibition of interference-colours. A light veil of clouds had drawn itself between me and the sun, and this was flooded with the most brilliant dyes. Orange, red, green, blue — all the hues produced by diffraction were exhibited in the utmost splendour. There seemed a tendency to form circular zones of colour round the sun, but the clouds were not sufficiently uniform to permit of this, and they were consequently broken into spaces, each steeped with the colour due to the condition of the cloud at the place. Three times during my ascent similar veils drew themselves across the sun, and at each passage the splendid phenomena were renewed. As I reached the middle of the mountain an avalanche was let loose from the sides of the Lyskamm; the thunder drew my eyes to the place : I saw the ice move, but it was only the tail of the avalanche; still the volume of sound told me that it was a huge one. Suddenly the front of it appeared from behind a projecting rock, hurling its ice-masses with fury into the valley, and tossing its rounded clouds of ice-dust high into the atmosphere. A wild long-drawn sound, multiplied by echos, now descended from the heights above me. It struck me at first as a note of lamentation, and I thought that possibly one of the party which was now near the summit had gone over the precipice. On listening more attentively I found that the sound shaped itself into an English " hurrah! " I was evidently nearing the party, and on looking upwards I could see them, but still at an immense height above me. The summit still rose before them, and I therefore thought the cheer premature. A precipice of ice was now in front of me, around which I wound to the right, and in a few minutes found myself fairly at the bottom of the Lyskamm.

I paused here for a moment, and reflected on the work before me. My head was clear, my muscles in perfect condition, and I felt just sufficient fear to render me careful. I faced the Lyskamm, and went up slowly but surely, and soon heard the cheer which announced the arrival of the party at the summit of the mountain. It was a wild, weird, intermittent sound, swelling or falling as the echos reinforced or enfeebled it. In getting through the rocks which protrude from the snow at the base of the last spur of the mountain, I once had occasion to stoop my head, and, on suddenly raising it, my eyes swam as they rested on the unbroken slope of snow at my left. The sensation was akin to giddiness, but I believe it was chiefly due to the absence of any object upon the snow upon which I could converge the axes of my eyes. Up to this point I had eaten nothing. I now unloosed my scrip, and had two mouthfuls of sandwich and nearly the whole of the tea that remained. I found here that my load, light as it was, impeded me. When fine balancing is necessary, the presence of a very light load, to which one is unaccustomed, may introduce an element of danger, and for this reason I here left the residue of my tea and sandwich behind me. A long long edge was now in front of me, sloping steeply upwards. As I commenced the ascent of this, the foremost of those whose cheer had reached me from the summit some time previously, appeared upon the top of the edge, and the whole party was seen immediately afterwards dangling on the Lyskamm. We mutually -approached each other. Peter Bohren, a well-known Oberland guide, came first, and after him came the gentleman in his immediate charge. Then came other guides with other gentlemen, and last of all my guide, Lauener, with his strong right arm round the youngest of the party. We met where a rock protruded through the snow. The cold smote my naked throat bitterly, so to protect it I borrowed a handkerchief from Lauener, bade my new acquaintances good bye, and proceeded upwards. I was soon at the place where the snow-ridge joins the rocks which constitute the crest of the mountain ; through these my way lay, every step I took augmenting my distance from all life, and increasing my sense of solitude. I went up and down the cliffs as before, round ledges, through fissures, along edges of rock, over the last deep and rugged indentation, and up the rocks at its opposite side, to the summit.

A world of clouds and mountains lay beneath me. Switzerland, with its pomp of summits, was clear and grand; Italy was also grand, but more than half obscured. Dark cumulus and dark crag vied in savagery, while at other places white snows and white clouds held equal rivalry. The scooped valleys of Monte Rosa itself were magnificent, all gleaming in the bright sunlight — tossed and torn at intervals, and sending from their rents and walls the magical blue of the ice. Ponderous névés lay upon the mountains, apparently motionless, but suggesting motion, — sluggish, but indicating irresistible dynamic energy, which moved them slowly to their doom in the warmer valleys below. I thought of my position : it was the first time that a man had stood alone upon that wild peak, and were the imagination let loose amid the surrounding agencies, and permitted to dwell upon the perils which separated the climber from his kind, I dare say curious feelings might have been engendered. But I was prompt to quell all thoughts which might lessen my strength, or interfere with the calm application of it. Once indeed an accident made me shudder. While taking the cork from a bottle which is deposited on the top, and which contains the names of those who have ascended the mountain, my axe slipped out of my hand, and slid some thirty feet away from me. The thought of losing it made my flesh creep, for without it descent would be utterly impossible. I regained it, and looked upon it with an affection which might be bestowed upon a living thing, for it was literally my staff of life under the circumstances. One look more over the cloud-capped mountains of Italy, and I then turned my back upon them, and commenced the descent.

The brown crags seemed to look at me with a kind of friendly recognition, and, with a surer and firmer feeling than I possessed on ascending, I swung myself from crag to crag and from ledge to ledge with a velocity which surprised myself. I reached the summit of the Kamm, and saw the party which I had passed an hour and a half before, emerging from one of the hollows of the mountain ; they had escaped from the edge which now lay between them and me. The thought of the possible loss of my axe at the summit was here forcibly revived, for without it I dared not take a single step. My first care was to anchor it firmly in the snow, so as to enable it
to bear at times nearly the whole weight of my body. In some places, however, the anchor had but a loose hold ; the " corniche " to which I have already referred became granular, and the handle of the axe went through it up to the head, still, however, remaining loose. Some amount of trust had thus to be withdrawn from the staff and placed in the limbs. A curious mixture of carelessness and anxiety sometimes fills the mind on such occasions. I often caught myself humming a verse of a frivolous song, but this was mechanical, and the substratum of a man's feelings under such circumstances is real earnestness. The precipice to my left was a continual preacher of caution, and the slope to my right was hardly less impressive. I looked down the former but rarely, and sometimes descended for a considerable time without looking beyond my own footsteps. The power of a thought was illustrated on one of these occasions. I had descended with extreme slowness and caution for some time, when looking over the edge of the cornice I saw a row of pointed rocks at some distance below me. These I felt must receive me if I slipped over, and I thought how before reaching them I might so break my fall as to arrive at them unkilled. This thought enabled me to double my speed, and as long as the spiky barrier ran parallel to my track I held my staff in one hand, and contented myself with a slight pressure upon it. I came at length to a place where the edge was solid ice, which rose to the level of the corniche, the latter appearing as if merely stuck against it. A groove ran between the ice and snow, and along this groove I marched until the cornihce became unsafe, and I had to betake myself to the ice. The place was really perilous, but, encouraging myself by the reflection that it would not last long, I carefully and deliberately hewed steps, causing them to dip a little inward, so as to afford a purchase for the heel of my boot, never forsaking one till the next was ready, and never wielding my hatchet until my balance was secured. I was soon at the bottom of the Kamm, fairly out of danger, and, full of glad vigour, I bore swiftly down upon the party in advance of me. It was an easy task to me to fuse myself amongst them as if I had been an old acquaintance, and we joyfully slid, galloped, and rolled together down the residue of the mountain. [...]

Had I gone forward with the foremost of the party, I should have completed the expedition to the summit and back in a little better than nine hours.

I think it right to say one earnest word in connection with this ascent: and the more so as I believe a notion is growing prevalent that half what is said and written about the dangers of the Alps is mere humbug. No doubt exaggeration is not rare, but I would emphatically warn my readers against acting upon the supposition that it is general. The dangers of Mont Blanc, Monte Rosa, and other mountains, are real, and, if not properly provided against, may be terrible. I have been much accustomed to be alone upon the glaciers, but sometimes, even when a guide was in front of me, I have felt an extreme longing to have a second one behind me. Less than two good ones I think an arduous climber ought not to have; and if climbing without guides were to become habitual, deplorable consequences would assuredly sooner or later ensue.

John Tyndall, Glaciers of the Alps, Chapter XXII

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