Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
The Matterhorn
By John Tyndall (1820–1893)
From ‘Hours of Exercise in the Alps’

ON the Thursday evening a violent thunder-storm had burst over Breuil, discharging new snow upon the heights, but also clearing the oppressive air. Though the heavens seemed clear in the early part of Friday, clouds showed a disposition to meet us from the south as we returned from the col. I inquired of my companion whether, in the event of the day being fine, he would be ready to start on Sunday. His answer was a prompt negative. In Val Tournanche, he said, they always “sanctified the Sunday.” I mentioned Bennen, my pious Catholic guide, whom I permitted and encouraged to attend his mass on all possible occasions, but who nevertheless always yielded without a murmur to the demands of the weather. The reasoning had its effect. On Saturday Maquignaz saw his confessor, and arranged with him to have a mass at two A.M. on Sunday; after which, unshaded by the sense of duties unperformed, he would commence the ascent.  1
  The claims of religion being thus met, the point of next importance, that of money, was set at rest by my immediate acceptance of the tariff published by the Chanoine Carrel. The problem being thus reduced to one of muscular physics, we pondered the question of provisions, decided on a bill of fare, and committed its execution to the industrious mistress of the hotel.  2
  A fog, impenetrable to vision, had filled the whole of the Val Tournanche on Saturday night, and the mountains were half concealed and half revealed by this fog when we rose on Sunday morning. The east at sunrise was lowering, and the light which streamed through the cloud orifices was drawn, in ominous red bars across the necks of the mountains. It was one of those uncomfortable Laodicean days which engender indecision,—threatening, but not sufficiently so to warrant postponement. Two guides and two porters were considered necessary for the first day’s climb. A volunteer, moreover, attached himself to our party, who carried a sheepskin as part of the furniture of the cabin. To lighten their labor, the porters took a mule with them as far as the quadruped could climb, and afterwards divided the load among themselves. While they did so I observed the weather. The sun had risen with considerable power, and had broken the cloud-plane to pieces. The severed clouds gathered into masses more or less spherical, and were rolled grandly over the ridges into Switzerland. Save for a swathe of fog which now and then wrapped its flanks, the Matterhorn itself remained clear; and strong hopes were raised that the progress of the weather was in the right direction.  3
  We halted at the base of the Tête du Lion, a bold precipice formed by the sudden cutting down of the ridge which flanks the Val Tournanche to the right. From its base to the Matterhorn stretches the Col du Lion; crossed for the first time in 1860, by Mr. Hawkins, myself, and our two guides. We were now beside a snow gully, which was cut by a deep furrow along its centre, and otherwise scarred by the descent of stones. Here each man arranged his bundle and himself, so as to cross the gully in the minimum of time. The passage was safely made, a few flying shingle only coming down upon us. But danger declared itself where it was not expected. Joseph Maquignaz led the way up the rocks. I was next, Pierre Maquignaz next, and last of all the porters. Suddenly a yell issued from the leader: “Cachez-vous!” I crouched instinctively against the rock, which formed a by no means perfect shelter, when a bowlder buzzed past me through the air, smote the rocks below me, and with a savage hum flew down to the lower glacier. Thus warned, we swerved to an arête; and when stones fell afterwards, they plunged to the right or left of us.  4
  In 1860 the great couloir which stretches from the Col du Lion downwards was filled with a névé of deep snow. But the atmospheric conditions which have caused the glaciers of Switzerland to shrink so remarkably during the last ten years have swept away this névé. We had descended it in 1860 hip-deep in snow, and I was now reminded of its steepness by the inclination of its bed. Maquignaz was incredulous when I pointed out to him the line of descent to which we had been committed, in order to avoid the falling stones of the Tête du Lion. Bennen’s warnings on the occasion were very emphatic, and I could understand their wisdom now better than I did then.  5
  When Mr. Hawkins and myself first tried the Matterhorn, a temporary danger, sufficient to quell for a time the enthusiasm even of our lion-hearted guide, was added to the permanent ones. Fresh snow had fallen two days before; it had quite oversprinkled the Matterhorn, converting the brown of its crags into an iron-gray; this snow had been melted and re-frozen, forming upon the rocks an enameling of ice. Besides their physical front, moreover, in 1860, the rocks presented a psychological one, derived from the rumor of their savage inaccessibility. The crags, the ice, and the character of the mountain, all conspired to stir the feelings. Much of the wild mystery has now vanished; especially at those points which in 1860 were places of virgin difficulty, but down which ropes now hang to assist the climber. The intrinsic grandeur of the Matterhorn, however, cannot be effaced.  6
  After some hours of steady climbing, we halted upon a platform beside the tattered remnant of one of the tents employed by me in 1862. Here we sunned ourselves for an hour. We subsequently worked upward, scaling the crags and rounding the bases of those wild and wonderful rock-towers, into which the weather of ages has hewn the southern ridge of the Matterhorn. The work required knowledge, but with a fair amount of skill it is safe work. I can fancy nothing more fascinating to a man given by nature and habit to such things than a climb alone among these crags and precipices. He need not be theological; but if complete, the grandeur of the place would certainly fill him with religious awe.  7
  Looked at from Breuil, the Matterhorn presents two summits: the one, the summit proper, a square rock-tower in appearance; the other, which is really the end of a sharp ridge abutting against the rock-tower, an apparently conical peak. On this peak Bennen and myself planted our flagstaff in 1862. At some distance below it the mountain is crossed by an almost horizontal ledge, always loaded with snow, which from its resemblance to a white necktie has been called the Cravate. On this ledge a cabin was put together in 1867. It stands above the precipice where I quitted my rope in 1862. Up this precipice, by the aid of a thicker—I will not say a stronger—rope, we now scrambled; and following the exact route pursued by Bennen and myself five years previously, we came to the end of the Cravate. At some places the snow upon the ledge fell steeply from its junction with the cliff; deep step-cutting was also needed where the substance had been melted and re-congealed. The passage, however, was soon accomplished along the Cravate to the cabin, which was almost filled with snow.  8
  Our first need was water. We could of course always melt the snow; but this would involve a wasteful expenditure of heat. The cliff at the base of which the hut was built, overhung; and from its edge the liquefied snow fell in showers beyond the cabin. Four ice-axes were fixed on the ledge, and over them was spread the residue of a second tent which I had left at Breuil in 1862. The water falling upon the canvas flowed towards its centre. Here an orifice was made, through which the liquid descended into vessels placed to receive it. Some modification of this plan might probably be employed with profit for the storing-up of water for droughty years in England.  9
  I lay for some hours in the warm sunshine, in presence of the Italian mountains, watching the mutations of the air. But when the sun sank, the air became chill, and we all retired to the cabin. We had no fire, though warmth was much needed. A lover of the mountains, and of his kind, had contributed an India-rubber mattress; on which I lay down, a light blanket being thrown over me, while the guides and porters were rolled up in sheepskins. The mattress was a poor defense against the cold of the subjacent rock. I bore this for two hours, unwilling to disturb the guides; but at length it became intolerable. On learning my condition, however, the good fellows were soon alert; and folding a sheepskin around me, restored me gradually to a pleasant temperature. I fell asleep, and found the guides preparing breakfast and the morning well advanced when I opened my eyes.  10
  It was past six o’clock when the two brothers and I quitted the cabin. The porters deemed their work accomplished, but they halted for a time to ascertain whether we were likely to be driven back or to push forward. We skirted the Cravate, and reached the bridge at its western extremity. This we ascended along the old route of Bennen and myself to the conical peak already referred to, which, as seen from Breuil, constitutes a kind of second summit of the Matterhorn. From this point to the base of the final precipice of the mountain stretches an arête, terribly hacked by the weather, but on the whole horizontal. When I first made the acquaintance of this savage ridge—called by Italians the Spalla—it was almost clear of snow. It was now loaded, the snow being beveled to an edge of exceeding sharpness. The slope to the left, falling towards Zmutt, was exceedingly steep, while the precipices on the right were abysmal. No other part of the Matterhorn do I remember with greater interest than this. It was terrible, but its difficulties were fairly within the grasp of human skill; and this association is more ennobling than where the circumstances are such as to make you conscious of your own helplessness. On one of the sharpest teeth of the ridge Joseph Maquignaz halted, and turning to me with a smile, remarked, “There is no room for giddiness here, sir.” In fact, such possibilities in such places must be altogether excluded from the chapter of accidents of the climber.  11
  It was at the end of this ridge, where it abuts against the last precipice of the Matterhorn, that my second flagstaff was left in 1862. I think there must have been something in the light falling upon this precipice, that gave it an aspect of greater verticality when I first saw it than it seemed to possess on the present occasion. We had however been struggling for many hours previously, and may have been dazed by our exertion. I cannot otherwise account for three of my party declining flatly to make any attempt upon the precipice. It looks very bad, but no real climber with his strength unimpaired would pronounce it, without trial, insuperable. Fears of this rock-wall, however, had been excited long before we reached it. It was probably the addition of the psychological element to the physical—the reluctance to encounter new dangers on a mountain which had hitherto inspired a superstitious fear—that quelled further exertion.  12
  Seven hundred feet, if the barometric measurement can be trusted, of very difficult rock-work now lay above us. In 1862 this height had been underestimated by both Bennen and myself. Of the 14,800 feet of the Matterhorn, we then thought we had accomplished 14,600. If the barometer speaks truly, we had only cleared 14,200.  13
  Descending the end of the ridge, we crossed a narrow cleft and grappled with the rocks at the other side of it. Our ascent was oblique, bearing to the right. The obliquity at one place fell to horizontality, and we had to work on the level round a difficult protuberance of rock. We cleared the difficulty without haste, and then rose straight against the precipice. Above us a rope hung down the cliff, left there by Maquignaz on the occasion of his first ascent. We reached the end of this rope, and some time was lost by my guide in assuring himself that it was not too much frayed by friction. Care in testing it was doubly necessary; for the rocks, bad in themselves, were here crusted with ice. The rope was in some places a mere hempen core surrounded by a casing of ice, over which the hands slid helplessly. Even with the aid of the rope in this condition it required an effort to get to the top of the precipice, and we willingly halted there to take a minute’s breath. The ascent was virtually accomplished, and a few minutes more of rapid climbing placed us on the lightning-smitten top. Thus ended the long contest between me and the Matterhorn.  14
  The day thus far had swung through alternations of fog and sunshine. While we were on the ridge below, the air at times was blank and chill with mist; then with rapid solution the cloud would vanish, and open up the abysses right and left of us. On our attaining the summit a fog from Italy rolled over us, and for some minutes we were clasped by a cold and clammy atmosphere. But this passed rapidly away, leaving above us a blue heaven, and far below us the sunny meadows of Zermatt. The mountains were almost wholly unclouded, and such clouds as lingered amongst them only added to their magnificence. The Dent d’Érin, the Dent Blanche, the Gabelhorn, the Mischabel, the range of heights between it and Monte Rosa, the Lyskamm, and the Breithorn, were all at hand, and clear; while the Weisshorn, noblest and most beautiful of all, shook out a banner towards the north, formed by the humid southern air as it grazed the crest of the mountain.  15
  The world of peaks and glaciers surrounding this immediate circlet of giants was also open to us up to the horizon. Our glance over it was brief; for it was eleven o’clock, and the work before us soon claimed all our attention. I found the débris of my former expedition everywhere: below, the fragments of my tents, and on the top a piece of my ladder fixed in the snow as a flagstaff. The summit of the Matterhorn is a sharp horizontal arête, and along this we now moved eastward. On our left was the roof-like slope of snow seen from the Riffel and Zermatt; on our right were the savage precipices which fall into Italy. Looking to the further end of the ridge, the snow there seemed to be trodden down; and I drew my companions’ attention to the apparent footmarks. As we approached the place, it became evident that human feet had been there two or three days previously. I think it was Mr. Elliot of Brighton who had made this ascent,—the first accomplished from Zermatt since 1865. On the eastern end of the ridge we halted to take a little food; not that I seemed to need it,—it was the remonstrance of reason rather than the consciousness of physical want that caused me to do so.  16
  We took our ounce of nutriment and gulp of wine (my only sustenance during the entire day), and stood for a moment silently and earnestly looking down towards Zermatt. There was a certain official formality in the manner in which the guides turned to me and asked, “Êtes-vous content d’essayer?” [“Are you willing to try?”] A sharp responsive “Oui!” set us immediately in motion. It was nearly half past eleven when we quitted the summit. The descent of the roof-like slope already referred to offered no difficulty; but the gradient very soon became more formidable.  17
  One of the two faces of the Matterhorn pyramid, seen from Zermatt, falls towards the Zmutt glacier, and has a well-known snow plateau at its base. The other face falls towards the Furgge glacier. We were on the former. For some time, however, we kept close to the arête formed by the intersection of the two faces of the pyramid; because nodules of rock jutted from it which offered a kind of footing. These rock protuberances helped us in another way: round them an extra rope which we carried was frequently doubled, and we let ourselves down by the rope as far as it could reach, liberating it afterwards (sometimes with difficulty) by a succession of jerks. In the choice and use of these protuberances the guides showed both judgment and skill. The rocks became gradually larger and more precipitous, a good deal of time being consumed in dropping down and doubling round them. Still we preferred them to the snow slope at our left as long as they continued practicable.  18
  This they at length ceased to be, and we had to commit ourselves to the slope. It was in the worst possible condition. When snow first falls at these great heights it is usually dry, and has no coherence. It resembles to some extent flour, or sand, or sawdust. Shone upon by a strong sun, it partly melts, shrinks, and becomes more consolidated; and when subsequently frozen it may be safely trusted. Even though the melting of the snow and its subsequent freezing may only be very partial, the cementing of the granules adds immensely to the safety of the footing. Hence the advantage of descending such a slope before the sun has had time to unlock the rigidity of the night’s frost. But we were on the steepest Matterhorn slope during the two hottest hours of the day, and the sun had done his work effectually. The layer of snow was about fifteen inches thick. In treading it we came immediately upon the rock, which in most cases was too smooth to furnish either prop or purchase. It was on this slope that the Matterhorn catastrophe occurred; it is on this slope that other catastrophes will occur, if this mountain should ever become fashionable.  19
  Joseph Maquignaz was the leader of our little party; and a brave, cool, and competent leader he proved himself to be. He was silent, save when he answered his brother’s anxious and oft-repeated question, “Es-tu bien placé, Joseph?” Along with being perfectly cool and brave, he seemed to be perfectly truthful. He did not pretend to be “bien placé” when he was not, nor avow a power of holding which he knew he did not possess. Pierre Maquignaz is, I believe, under ordinary circumstances, an excellent guide, and he enjoys the reputation of being never tired. But in such circumstances as we encountered on the Matterhorn he is not the equal of his brother. Joseph, if I may use the term, is a man of high boiling point, his constitutional sangfroid resisting the ebullition of fear. Pierre, on the contrary, shows a strong tendency to boil over in perilous places.  20
  Our progress was exceedingly slow, but it was steady and continued. At every step our leader trod the snow cautiously, seeking some rugosity on the rock beneath it. This however was rarely found, and in most cases he had to establish a mechanical attachment between the snow and the slope which bore it. No semblance of a slip occurred in the case of any one of us; and had it occurred, I do not think the worst consequences could have been avoided. I wish to stamp this slope of the Matterhorn with the character that really belonged to it when I descended it; and I do not hesitate to say that the giving way of any one of our party would have carried the whole of us to ruin. Why, then, it may be asked, employ the rope? The rope, I reply, notwithstanding all its possible drawbacks under such circumstances, is the safeguard of the climber. Not to speak of the moral effect of its presence, an amount of help upon a dangerous slope that might be measured by the gravity of a few pounds is often of incalculable importance; and thus, though the rope may be not only useless but disastrous if the footing be clearly lost, and the glissade fairly begun, it lessens immensely the chance of this occurrence.  21
  With steady perseverance, difficulties upon a mountain, as elsewhere, come to an end. We were finally able to pass from the face of the pyramid to its rugged edge, where it was a great relief to feel that honest strength and fair skill, which might have gone for little on the slope, were masters of the situation.  22
  Standing on the arête, at the foot of a remarkable cliff gable seen from Zermatt, and permitting the vision to range over the Matterhorn, its appearance is exceedingly wild and impressive. Hardly two things can be more different than the two aspects of the mountain from above and below. Seen from the Riffel, or Zermatt, it presents itself as a compact pyramid, smooth and steep, and defiant of the weathering air. From above, it seems torn to pieces by the frosts of ages; while its vast facettes are so foreshortened as to stretch out into the distance like plains. But this underestimate of the steepness of the mountain is checked by the deportment of its stones. Their discharge along the side of the pyramid to-day was incessant; and at any moment, by detaching a single bowlder, we could let loose a cataract of them, which flew with wild rapidity and with a thunderous clatter down the mountain. We once wandered too far from the arête, and were warned back to it by a train of these missiles sweeping past us.  23
  As long as our planet yields less heat to space than she receives from the bodies of space, so long will the forms upon her surface undergo mutation; and as soon as equilibrium in regard to heat has been established, we shall have, as Thomson has pointed out, not peace but death. Life is the product and accompaniment of change; and the selfsame power that tears the flanks of the hills to pieces is the mainspring of the animal and vegetable worlds. Still there is something chilling in the contemplation of the irresistible and remorseless character of those infinitesimal forces, whose integration through the ages pulls down even the Matterhorn. Hacked and hurt by time, the aspect of the mountain from its higher crags saddened me. Hitherto the impression that it made was that of savage strength; but here we had inexorable decay.  24
  This notion of decay, however, implied a reference to a period when the Matterhorn was in the full strength of mountainhood. My thoughts naturally ran back to its possible growth and origin. Nor did they halt there; but wandered on through molten worlds to that nebulous haze which philosophers have regarded, and with good reason, as the proximate source of all material things. I tried to look at this universal cloud, containing within itself the prediction of all that has since occurred; I tried to imagine it as the seat of those forces whose action was to issue in solar and stellar systems, and all that they involve. Did that formless fog contain potentially the sadness with which I regarded the Matterhorn? Did the thought which now ran back to it simply return to its primeval home? If so, had we not better recast our definitions of matter and force? for if life and thought be the very flower of both, any definition which omits life and thought must be inadequate if not untrue.  25
  Questions like these, useless as they seem, may still have a practical outcome. For if the final goal of man has not been yet attained, if his development has not been yet arrested, who can say that such yearnings and questionings are not necessary to the opening of a finer vision, to the budding and the growth of diviner powers? Without this upward force could man have risen to his present height? When I look at the heavens and the earth, at my own body, at my strength and weakness of mind, even at these ponderings, and ask myself, Is there no being or thing in the universe that knows more about these matters than I do?—what is my answer? Supposing our theologic schemes of creation, condemnation, and redemption to be dissipated; and the warmth of denial which they excite, and which, as a motive force, can match the warmth of affirmation, dissipated at the same time: would the undeflected human mind return to the meridian of absolute neutrality as regards these ultra-physical questions? Is such a position one of stable equilibrium?  26
  Such are the questions, without replies, which could run through consciousness during a ten-minutes’ halt upon the weathered spire of the Matterhorn.  27
  We shook the rope away from us, and went rapidly down the rocks. The day was well advanced when we reached the cabin, and between it and the base of the pyramid we missed our way. It was late when we regained it, and by the time we reached the ridge of the Hörnli we were unable to distinguish rock from ice. We should have fared better than we did if we had kept along the ridge and felt our way to the Schwarz See, whence there would have been no difficulty in reaching Zermatt; but we left the Hörnli to our right, and found ourselves incessantly checked in the darkness by ledges and precipices, possible and actual. We were afterwards entangled in the woods of Zmutt, carving our way wearily through bush and bramble, and creeping at times along dry and precipitous stream-beds. But we finally struck the path and followed it to Zermatt, which we reached between one and two o’clock in the morning.  28

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