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    Chapter 36

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    Chapter 36
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    CHAPTER XXXVI [The Fiendish Fun of Alp-climbing]

    We did not oversleep at St. Nicholas. The church-bell began to ring at
    four-thirty in the morning, and from the length of time it continued
    to ring I judged that it takes the Swiss sinner a good while to get the
    invitation through his head. Most church-bells in the world are of poor
    quality, and have a harsh and rasping sound which upsets the temper and
    produces much sin, but the St. Nicholas bell is a good deal the worst
    one that has been contrived yet, and is peculiarly maddening in its
    operation. Still, it may have its right and its excuse to exist, for the
    community is poor and not every citizen can afford a clock, perhaps; but
    there cannot be any excuse for our church-bells at home, for their is
    no family in America without a clock, and consequently there is no fair
    pretext for the usual Sunday medley of dreadful sounds that issues from
    our steeples. There is much more profanity in America on Sunday than is
    all in the other six days of the week put together, and it is of a more
    bitter and malignant character than the week-day profanity, too. It is
    produced by the cracked-pot clangor of the cheap church-bells.

    We build our churches almost without regard to cost; we rear an edifice
    which is an adornment to the town, and we gild it, and fresco it, and
    mortgage it, and do everything we can think of to perfect it, and then
    spoil it all by putting a bell on it which afflicts everybody who hears
    it, giving some the headache, others St. Vitus's dance, and the rest the
    blind staggers.

    An American village at ten o'clock on a summer Sunday is the quietest
    and peacefulest and holiest thing in nature; but it is a pretty
    different thing half an hour later. Mr. Poe's poem of the "Bells" stands
    incomplete to this day; but it is well enough that it is so, for the
    public reciter or "reader" who goes around trying to imitate the sounds
    of the various sorts of bells with his voice would find himself "up a
    stump" when he got to the church-bell--as Joseph Addison would say. The
    church is always trying to get other people to reform; it might not be
    a bad idea to reform itself a little, by way of example. It is still
    clinging to one or two things which were useful once, but which are
    not useful now, neither are they ornamental. One is the bell-ringing
    to remind a clock-caked town that it is church-time, and another is the
    reading from the pulpit of a tedious list of "notices" which everybody
    who is interested has already read in the newspaper. The clergyman even
    reads the hymn through--a relic of an ancient time when hymn-books are
    scarce and costly; but everybody has a hymn-book, now, and so the public
    reading is no longer necessary. It is not merely unnecessary, it is
    generally painful; for the average clergyman could not fire into his
    congregation with a shotgun and hit a worse reader than himself, unless
    the weapon scattered shamefully. I am not meaning to be flippant and
    irreverent, I am only meaning to be truthful. The average clergyman, in
    all countries and of all denominations, is a very bad reader. One would
    think he would at least learn how to read the Lord's Prayer, by and by,
    but it is not so. He races through it as if he thought the quicker
    he got it in, the sooner it would be answered. A person who does not
    appreciate the exceeding value of pauses, and does not know how to
    measure their duration judiciously, cannot render the grand simplicity
    and dignity of a composition like that effectively.

    We took a tolerably early breakfast, and tramped off toward Zermatt
    through the reeking lanes of the village, glad to get away from that
    bell. By and by we had a fine spectacle on our right. It was the
    wall-like butt end of a huge glacier, which looked down on us from an
    Alpine height which was well up in the blue sky. It was an astonishing
    amount of ice to be compacted together in one mass. We ciphered upon it
    and decided that it was not less than several hundred feet from the base
    of the wall of solid ice to the top of it--Harris believed it was
    really twice that. We judged that if St. Paul's, St. Peter's, the Great
    Pyramid, the Strasburg Cathedral and the Capitol in Washington were
    clustered against that wall, a man sitting on its upper edge could not
    hang his hat on the top of any one of them without reaching down three
    or four hundred feet--a thing which, of course, no man could do.

    To me, that mighty glacier was very beautiful. I did not imagine that
    anybody could find fault with it; but I was mistaken. Harris had been
    snarling for several days. He was a rabid Protestant, and he was always

    "In the Protestant cantons you never see such poverty and dirt and
    squalor as you do in this Catholic one; you never see the lanes and
    alleys flowing with foulness; you never see such wretched little sties
    of houses; you never see an inverted tin turnip on top of a church for
    a dome; and as for a church-bell, why, you never hear a church-bell at

    All this morning he had been finding fault, straight along. First it was
    with the mud. He said, "It ain't muddy in a Protestant canton when it
    rains." Then it was with the dogs: "They don't have those lop-eared dogs
    in a Protestant canton." Then it was with the roads: "They don't leave
    the roads to make themselves in a Protestant canton, the people make
    them--and they make a road that IS a road, too." Next it was the goats:
    "You never see a goat shedding tears in a Protestant canton--a goat,
    there, is one of the cheerfulest objects in nature." Next it was the
    chamois: "You never see a Protestant chamois act like one of these
    --they take a bite or two and go; but these fellows camp with you
    and stay." Then it was the guide-boards: "In a Protestant canton you
    couldn't get lost if you wanted to, but you never see a guide-board in a
    Catholic canton." Next, "You never see any flower-boxes in the windows,
    here--never anything but now and then a cat--a torpid one; but you take
    a Protestant canton: windows perfectly lovely with flowers--and as for
    cats, there's just acres of them. These folks in this canton leave a
    road to make itself, and then fine you three francs if you 'trot' over
    it--as if a horse could trot over such a sarcasm of a road." Next about
    the goiter: "THEY talk about goiter!--I haven't seen a goiter in this
    whole canton that I couldn't put in a hat."

    He had growled at everything, but I judged it would puzzle him to find
    anything the matter with this majestic glacier. I intimated as much; but
    he was ready, and said with surly discontent: "You ought to see them in
    the Protestant cantons."

    This irritated me. But I concealed the feeling, and asked:

    "What is the matter with this one?"

    "Matter? Why, it ain't in any kind of condition. They never take any
    care of a glacier here. The moraine has been spilling gravel around it,
    and got it all dirty."

    "Why, man, THEY can't help that."

    "THEY? You're right. That is, they WON'T. They could if they wanted to.
    You never see a speck of dirt on a Protestant glacier. Look at the Rhone
    glacier. It is fifteen miles long, and seven hundred feet think. If this
    was a Protestant glacier you wouldn't see it looking like this, I can
    tell you."

    "That is nonsense. What would they do with it?"

    "They would whitewash it. They always do."

    I did not believe a word of this, but rather than have trouble I let it
    go; for it is a waste of breath to argue with a bigot. I even doubted if
    the Rhone glacier WAS in a Protestant canton; but I did not know, so I
    could not make anything by contradicting a man who would probably put me
    down at once with manufactured evidence.

    About nine miles from St. Nicholas we crossed a bridge over the raging
    torrent of the Visp, and came to a log strip of flimsy fencing which
    was pretending to secure people from tumbling over a perpendicular wall
    forty feet high and into the river. Three children were approaching; one
    of them, a little girl, about eight years old, was running; when pretty
    close to us she stumbled and fell, and her feet shot under the rail of
    the fence and for a moment projected over the stream. It gave us a
    sharp shock, for we thought she was gone, sure, for the ground slanted
    steeply, and to save herself seemed a sheer impossibility; but she
    managed to scramble up, and ran by us laughing.

    We went forward and examined the place and saw the long tracks which her
    feet had made in the dirt when they darted over the verge. If she had
    finished her trip she would have struck some big rocks in the edge of
    the water, and then the torrent would have snatched her downstream among
    the half-covered boulders and she would have been pounded to pulp in two
    minutes. We had come exceedingly near witnessing her death.

    And now Harris's contrary nature and inborn selfishness were striking
    manifested. He has no spirit of self-denial. He began straight off, and
    continued for an hour, to express his gratitude that the child was not
    destroyed. I never saw such a man. That was the kind of person he was;
    just so HE was gratified, he never cared anything about anybody else. I
    had noticed that trait in him, over and over again. Often, of course, it
    was mere heedlessness, mere want of reflection. Doubtless this may have
    been the case in most instances, but it was not the less hard to bar
    on that account--and after all, its bottom, its groundwork, was
    selfishness. There is no avoiding that conclusion. In the instance under
    consideration, I did think the indecency of running on in that way might
    occur to him; but no, the child was saved and he was glad, that was
    sufficient--he cared not a straw for MY feelings, or my loss of such a
    literary plum, snatched from my very mouth at the instant it was
    ready to drop into it. His selfishness was sufficient to place his own
    gratification in being spared suffering clear before all concern for
    me, his friend. Apparently, he did not once reflect upon the valuable
    details which would have fallen like a windfall to me: fishing the child
    out--witnessing the surprise of the family and the stir the thing would
    have made among the peasants--then a Swiss funeral--then the roadside
    monument, to be paid for by us and have our names mentioned in it. And
    we should have gone into Baedeker and been immortal. I was silent. I was
    too much hurt to complain. If he could act so, and be so heedless and so
    frivolous at such a time, and actually seem to glory in it, after all
    I had done for him, I would have cut my hand off before I would let him
    see that I was wounded.

    We were approaching Zermatt; consequently, we were approaching the
    renowned Matterhorn. A month before, this mountain had been only a name
    to us, but latterly we had been moving through a steadily thickening
    double row of pictures of it, done in oil, water, chromo, wood, steel,
    copper, crayon, and photography, and so it had at length become a shape
    to us--and a very distinct, decided, and familiar one, too. We were
    expecting to recognize that mountain whenever or wherever we should run
    across it. We were not deceived. The monarch was far away when we first
    saw him, but there was no such thing as mistaking him. He has the rare
    peculiarity of standing by himself; he is peculiarly steep, too, and is
    also most oddly shaped. He towers into the sky like a colossal wedge,
    with the upper third of its blade bent a little to the left. The broad
    base of this monster wedge is planted upon a grand glacier-paved Alpine
    platform whose elevation is ten thousand feet above sea-level; as the
    wedge itself is some five thousand feet high, it follows that its apex
    is about fifteen thousand feet above sea-level. So the whole bulk of
    this stately piece of rock, this sky-cleaving monolith, is above the
    line of eternal snow. Yet while all its giant neighbors have the look of
    being built of solid snow, from their waists up, the Matterhorn stands
    black and naked and forbidding, the year round, or merely powdered or
    streaked with white in places, for its sides are so steep that the
    snow cannot stay there. Its strange form, its august isolation, and its
    majestic unkinship with its own kind, make it--so to speak--the Napoleon
    of the mountain world. "Grand, gloomy, and peculiar," is a phrase which
    fits it as aptly as it fitted the great captain.

    Think of a monument a mile high, standing on a pedestal two miles high!
    This is what the Matterhorn is--a monument. Its office, henceforth, for
    all time, will be to keep watch and ward over the secret resting-place
    of the young Lord Douglas, who, in 1865, was precipitated from the
    summit over a precipice four thousand feet high, and never seen again.
    No man ever had such a monument as this before; the most imposing of
    the world's other monuments are but atoms compared to it; and they will
    perish, and their places will pass from memory, but this will remain.

    1. The accident which cost Lord Douglas his life (see
    Chapter xii) also cost the lives of three other men.
    These three fell four-fifths of a mile, and their bodies
    were afterward found, lying side by side, upon a glacier,
    whence they were borne to Zermatt and buried in the

    The remains of Lord Douglas have never been found.
    The secret of his sepulture, like that of Moses, must remain
    a mystery always.

    A walk from St. Nicholas to Zermatt is a wonderful experience. Nature
    is built on a stupendous plan in that region. One marches continually
    between walls that are piled into the skies, with their upper heights
    broken into a confusion of sublime shapes that gleam white and cold
    against the background of blue; and here and there one sees a big
    glacier displaying its grandeurs on the top of a precipice, or a
    graceful cascade leaping and flashing down the green declivities. There
    is nothing tame, or cheap, or trivial--it is all magnificent. That
    short valley is a picture-gallery of a notable kind, for it contains
    no mediocrities; from end to end the Creator has hung it with His

    We made Zermatt at three in the afternoon, nine hours out from
    St. Nicholas. Distance, by guide-book, twelve miles; by pedometer
    seventy-two. We were in the heart and home of the mountain-climbers,
    now, as all visible things testified. The snow-peaks did not hold
    themselves aloof, in aristocratic reserve; they nestled close around,
    in a friendly, sociable way; guides, with the ropes and axes and other
    implements of their fearful calling slung about their persons, roosted
    in a long line upon a stone wall in front of the hotel, and waited for
    customers; sun-burnt climbers, in mountaineering costume, and followed
    by their guides and porters, arrived from time to time, from breakneck
    expeditions among the peaks and glaciers of the High Alps; male and
    female tourists, on mules, filed by, in a continuous procession,
    hotelward-bound from wild adventures which would grow in grandeur very
    time they were described at the English or American fireside, and at
    last outgrow the possible itself.

    We were not dreaming; this was not a make-believe home of the
    Alp-climber, created by our heated imaginations; no, for here was Mr.
    Girdlestone himself, the famous Englishman who hunts his way to the most
    formidable Alpine summits without a guide. I was not equal to imagining
    a Girdlestone; it was all I could do to even realize him, while looking
    straight at him at short range. I would rather face whole Hyde Parks of
    artillery than the ghastly forms of death which he has faced among the
    peaks and precipices of the mountains. There is probably no pleasure
    equal to the pleasure of climbing a dangerous Alp; but it is a pleasure
    which is confined strictly to people who can find pleasure in it. I have
    not jumped to this conclusion; I have traveled to it per gravel-train,
    so to speak. I have thought the thing all out, and am quite sure I am
    right. A born climber's appetite for climbing is hard to satisfy; when
    it comes upon him he is like a starving man with a feast before him; he
    may have other business on hand, but it must wait. Mr. Girdlestone had
    had his usual summer holiday in the Alps, and had spent it in his usual
    way, hunting for unique chances to break his neck; his vacation was
    over, and his luggage packed for England, but all of a sudden a hunger
    had come upon him to climb the tremendous Weisshorn once more, for he
    had heard of a new and utterly impossible route up it. His baggage
    was unpacked at once, and now he and a friend, laden with knapsacks,
    ice-axes, coils of rope, and canteens of milk, were just setting out.
    They would spend the night high up among the snows, somewhere, and
    get up at two in the morning and finish the enterprise. I had a
    strong desire to go with them, but forced it down--a feat which Mr.
    Girdlestone, with all his fortitude, could not do.

    Even ladies catch the climbing mania, and are unable to throw it off.
    A famous climber, of that sex, had attempted the Weisshorn a few days
    before our arrival, and she and her guides had lost their way in a
    snow-storm high up among the peaks and glaciers and been forced to
    wander around a good while before they could find a way down. When this
    lady reached the bottom, she had been on her feet twenty-three hours!

    Our guides, hired on the Gemmi, were already at Zermatt when we
    reached there. So there was nothing to interfere with our getting up an
    adventure whenever we should choose the time and the object. I resolved
    to devote my first evening in Zermatt to studying up the subject of
    Alpine climbing, by way of preparation.

    I read several books, and here are some of the things I found out. One's
    shoes must be strong and heavy, and have pointed hobnails in them. The
    alpenstock must be of the best wood, for if it should break, loss of
    life might be the result. One should carry an ax, to cut steps in the
    ice with, on the great heights. There must be a ladder, for there are
    steep bits of rock which can be surmounted with this instrument--or this
    utensil--but could not be surmounted without it; such an obstruction
    has compelled the tourist to waste hours hunting another route, when a
    ladder would have saved him all trouble. One must have from one hundred
    and fifty to five hundred feet of strong rope, to be used in lowering
    the party down steep declivities which are too steep and smooth to
    be traversed in any other way. One must have a steel hook, on another
    rope--a very useful thing; for when one is ascending and comes to a low
    bluff which is yet too high for the ladder, he swings this rope aloft
    like a lasso, the hook catches at the top of the bluff, and then the
    tourist climbs the rope, hand over hand--being always particular to try
    and forget that if the hook gives way he will never stop falling till
    he arrives in some part of Switzerland where they are not expecting him.
    Another important thing--there must be a rope to tie the whole party
    together with, so that if one falls from a mountain or down a bottomless
    chasm in a glacier, the others may brace back on the rope and save him.
    One must have a silk veil, to protect his face from snow, sleet, hail
    and gale, and colored goggles to protect his eyes from that dangerous
    enemy, snow-blindness. Finally, there must be some porters, to carry
    provisions, wine and scientific instruments, and also blanket bags for
    the party to sleep in.

    I closed my readings with a fearful adventure which Mr. Whymper once had
    on the Matterhorn when he was prowling around alone, five thousand
    feet above the town of Breil. He was edging his way gingerly around
    the corner of a precipice where the upper edge of a sharp declivity of
    ice-glazed snow joined it. This declivity swept down a couple of hundred
    feet, into a gully which curved around and ended at a precipice eight
    hundred feet high, overlooking a glacier. His foot slipped, and he fell.

    He says:

    "My knapsack brought my head down first, and I pitched into some rocks
    about a dozen feet below; they caught something, and tumbled me off
    the edge, head over heels, into the gully; the baton was dashed from my
    hands, and I whirled downward in a series of bounds, each longer than
    the last; now over ice, now into rocks, striking my head four or five
    times, each time with increased force. The last bound sent me spinning
    through the air in a leap of fifty or sixty feet, from one side of the
    gully to the other, and I struck the rocks, luckily, with the whole of
    my left side. They caught my clothes for a moment, and I fell back on to
    the snow with motion arrested. My head fortunately came the right side
    up, and a few frantic catches brought me to a halt, in the neck of the
    gully and on the verge of the precipice. Baton, hat, and veil skimmed
    by and disappeared, and the crash of the rocks--which I had started--as
    they fell on to the glacier, told how narrow had been the escape from
    utter destruction. As it was, I fell nearly two hundred feet in seven or
    eight bounds. Ten feet more would have taken me in one gigantic leaps of
    eight hundred feet on to the glacier below.

    "The situation was sufficiently serious. The rocks could not be let go
    for a moment, and the blood was spurting out of more than twenty cuts.
    The most serious ones were in the head, and I vainly tried to close
    them with one hand, while holding on with the other. It was useless;
    the blood gushed out in blinding jets at each pulsation. At last, in a
    moment of inspiration, I kicked out a big lump of snow and struck it
    as plaster on my head. The idea was a happy one, and the flow of blood
    diminished. Then, scrambling up, I got, not a moment too soon, to
    a place of safety, and fainted away. The sun was setting when
    consciousness returned, and it was pitch-dark before the Great Staircase
    was descended; but by a combination of luck and care, the whole four
    thousand seven hundred feet of descent to Breil was accomplished without
    a slip, or once missing the way."

    His wounds kept him abed some days. Then he got up and climbed that
    mountain again. That is the way with a true Alp-climber; the more fun he
    has, the more he wants.
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