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Chapter 34

CHAPTER XXXIV [The World's Highest Pig Farm]

We hired the only guide left, to lead us on our way. He was over
seventy, but he could have given me nine-tenths of his strength and
still had all his age entitled him to. He shouldered our satchels,
overcoats, and alpenstocks, and we set out up the steep path. It was hot
work. The old man soon begged us to hand over our coats and waistcoats
to him to carry, too, and we did it; one could not refuse so little a
thing to a poor old man like that; he should have had them if he had
been a hundred and fifty.

When we began that ascent, we could see a microscopic chalet perched
away up against heaven on what seemed to be the highest mountain near
us. It was on our right, across the narrow head of the valley. But when
we got up abreast it on its own level, mountains were towering high
above on every hand, and we saw that its altitude was just about that of
the little Gasternthal which we had visited the evening before. Still it
seemed a long way up in the air, in that waste and lonely wilderness of
rocks. It had an unfenced grass-plot in front of it which seemed about
as big as a billiard-table, and this grass-plot slanted so sharply
downward, and was so brief, and ended so exceedingly soon at the verge
of the absolute precipice, that it was a shuddery thing to think of a
person's venturing to trust his foot on an incline so situated at all.
Suppose a man stepped on an orange peel in that yard; there would be
nothing for him to seize; nothing could keep him from rolling; five
revolutions would bring him to the edge, and over he would go. What a
frightful distance he would fall!--for there are very few birds that fly
as high as his starting-point. He would strike and bounce, two or three
times, on his way down, but this would be no advantage to him. I would
as soon taking an airing on the slant of a rainbow as in such a front
yard. I would rather, in fact, for the distance down would be about the
same, and it is pleasanter to slide than to bounce. I could not see how
the peasants got up to that chalet--the region seemed too steep for
anything but a balloon.

As we strolled on, climbing up higher and higher, we were continually
bringing neighboring peaks into view and lofty prominence which had been
hidden behind lower peaks before; so by and by, while standing before a
group of these giants, we looked around for the chalet again; there it
was, away down below us, apparently on an inconspicuous ridge in the
valley! It was as far below us, now, as it had been above us when we
were beginning the ascent.

After a while the path led us along a railed precipice, and we looked
over--far beneath us was the snug parlor again, the little Gasternthal,
with its water jets spouting from the face of its rock walls. We could
have dropped a stone into it. We had been finding the top of the world
all along--and always finding a still higher top stealing into view in
a disappointing way just ahead; when we looked down into the Gasternthal
we felt pretty sure that we had reached the genuine top at last, but it
was not so; there were much higher altitudes to be scaled yet. We were
still in the pleasant shade of forest trees, we were still in a region
which was cushioned with beautiful mosses and aglow with the many-tinted
luster of innumerable wild flowers.

We found, indeed, more interest in the wild flowers than in anything
else. We gathered a specimen or two of every kind which we were
unacquainted with; so we had sumptuous bouquets. But one of the chief
interests lay in chasing the seasons of the year up the mountain, and
determining them by the presence of flowers and berries which we were
acquainted with. For instance, it was the end of August at the level
of the sea; in the Kandersteg valley at the base of the pass, we found
flowers which would not be due at the sea-level for two or three weeks;
higher up, we entered October, and gathered fringed gentians. I made
no notes, and have forgotten the details, but the construction of the
floral calendar was very entertaining while it lasted.

In the high regions we found rich store of the splendid red flower
called the Alpine rose, but we did not find any examples of the ugly
Swiss favorite called Edelweiss. Its name seems to indicate that it is a
noble flower and that it is white. It may be noble enough, but it is not
attractive, and it is not white. The fuzzy blossom is the color of bad
cigar ashes, and appears to be made of a cheap quality of gray plush. It
has a noble and distant way of confining itself to the high altitudes,
but that is probably on account of its looks; it apparently has no
monopoly of those upper altitudes, however, for they are sometimes
intruded upon by some of the loveliest of the valley families of wild
flowers. Everybody in the Alps wears a sprig of Edelweiss in his hat. It
is the native's pet, and also the tourist's.

All the morning, as we loafed along, having a good time, other
pedestrians went staving by us with vigorous strides, and with the
intent and determined look of men who were walking for a wager. These
wore loose knee-breeches, long yarn stockings, and hobnailed high-laced
walking-shoes. They were gentlemen who would go home to England or
Germany and tell how many miles they had beaten the guide-book every
day. But I doubted if they ever had much real fun, outside of the mere
magnificent exhilaration of the tramp through the green valleys and the
breezy heights; for they were almost always alone, and even the finest
scenery loses incalculably when there is no one to enjoy it with.

All the morning an endless double procession of mule-mounted tourists
filed past us along the narrow path--the one procession going, the
other coming. We had taken a good deal of trouble to teach ourselves the
kindly German custom of saluting all strangers with doffed hat, and we
resolutely clung to it, that morning, although it kept us bareheaded
most of the time and was not always responded to. Still we found an
interest in the thing, because we naturally liked to know who were
English and Americans among the passers-by. All continental natives
responded of course; so did some of the English and Americans, but, as
a general thing, these two races gave no sign. Whenever a man or a woman
showed us cold neglect, we spoke up confidently in our own tongue and
asked for such information as we happened to need, and we always got a
reply in the same language. The English and American folk are not less
kindly than other races, they are only more reserved, and that comes of
habit and education. In one dreary, rocky waste, away above the line of
vegetation, we met a procession of twenty-five mounted young men, all
from America. We got answering bows enough from these, of course, for
they were of an age to learn to do in Rome as Rome does, without much
effort.

At one extremity of this patch of desolation, overhung by bare and
forbidding crags which husbanded drifts of everlasting snow in their
shaded cavities, was a small stretch of thin and discouraged grass, and
a man and a family of pigs were actually living here in some shanties.
Consequently this place could be really reckoned as "property"; it had
a money value, and was doubtless taxed. I think it must have marked
the limit of real estate in this world. It would be hard to set a money
value upon any piece of earth that lies between that spot and the empty
realm of space. That man may claim the distinction of owning the end
of the world, for if there is any definite end to the world he has
certainly found it.

From here forward we moved through a storm-swept and smileless
desolation. All about us rose gigantic masses, crags, and ramparts of
bare and dreary rock, with not a vestige or semblance of plant or tree
or flower anywhere, or glimpse of any creature that had life. The frost
and the tempests of unnumbered ages had battered and hacked at these
cliffs, with a deathless energy, destroying them piecemeal; so all the
region about their bases was a tumbled chaos of great fragments which
had been split off and hurled to the ground. Soiled and aged banks of
snow lay close about our path. The ghastly desolation of the place was
as tremendously complete as if Dor'e had furnished the working-plans
for it. But every now and then, through the stern gateways around us
we caught a view of some neighboring majestic dome, sheathed with
glittering ice, and displaying its white purity at an elevation compared
to which ours was groveling and plebeian, and this spectacle always
chained one's interest and admiration at once, and made him forget there
was anything ugly in the world.

I have just said that there was nothing but death and desolation in
these hideous places, but I forgot. In the most forlorn and arid and
dismal one of all, where the racked and splintered debris was thickest,
where the ancient patches of snow lay against the very path, where
the winds blew bitterest and the general aspect was mournfulest and
dreariest, and furthest from any suggestion of cheer or hope, I found
a solitary wee forget-me-not flourishing away, not a droop about it
anywhere, but holding its bright blue star up with the prettiest and
gallantest air in the world, the only happy spirit, the only smiling
thing, in all that grisly desert. She seemed to say, "Cheer up!--as long
as we are here, let us make the best of it." I judged she had earned a
right to a more hospitable place; so I plucked her up and sent her to
America to a friend who would respect her for the fight she had made,
all by her small self, to make a whole vast despondent Alpine desolation
stop breaking its heart over the unalterable, and hold up its head and
look at the bright side of things for once.

We stopped for a nooning at a strongly built little inn called the
Schwarenbach. It sits in a lonely spot among the peaks, where it is
swept by the trailing fringes of the cloud-rack, and is rained on, and
snowed on, and pelted and persecuted by the storms, nearly every day of
its life. It was the only habitation in the whole Gemmi Pass.

Close at hand, now, was a chance for a blood-curdling Alpine adventure.
Close at hand was the snowy mass of the Great Altels cooling its topknot
in the sky and daring us to an ascent. I was fired with the idea, and
immediately made up my mind to procure the necessary guides, ropes,
etc., and undertake it. I instructed Harris to go to the landlord of the
inn and set him about our preparations. Meantime, I went diligently to
work to read up and find out what this much-talked-of mountain-climbing
was like, and how one should go about it--for in these matters I
was ignorant. I opened Mr. Hinchliff's SUMMER MONTHS AMONG THE ALPS
(published 1857), and selected his account of his ascent of Monte Rosa.

It began:

"It is very difficult to free the mind from excitement
on the evening before a grand expedition--"

I saw that I was too calm; so I walked the room a while and worked
myself into a high excitement; but the book's next remark--that the
adventurer must get up at two in the morning--came as near as anything
to flatting it all out again. However, I reinforced it, and read on,
about how Mr. Hinchliff dressed by candle-light and was "soon down among
the guides, who were bustling about in the passage, packing provisions,
and making every preparation for the start"; and how he glanced out into
the cold clear night and saw that--

"The whole sky was blazing with stars, larger and brighter than they
appear through the dense atmosphere breathed by inhabitants of the lower
parts of the earth. They seemed actually suspended from the dark vault
of heaven, and their gentle light shed a fairylike gleam over the
snow-fields around the foot of the Matterhorn, which raised its
stupendous pinnacle on high, penetrating to the heart of the Great Bear,
and crowning itself with a diadem of his magnificent stars. Not a sound
disturbed the deep tranquillity of the night, except the distant roar
of streams which rush from the high plateau of the St. Theodule glacier,
and fall headlong over precipitous rocks till they lose themselves in
the mazes of the Gorner glacier."

He took his hot toast and coffee, and then about half past three his
caravan of ten men filed away from the Riffel Hotel, and began the steep
climb. At half past five he happened to turn around, and "beheld the
glorious spectacle of the Matterhorn, just touched by the rosy-fingered
morning, and looking like a huge pyramid of fire rising out of the
barren ocean of ice and rock around it." Then the Breithorn and the Dent
Blanche caught the radiant glow; but "the intervening mass of Monte Rosa
made it necessary for us to climb many long hours before we could hope
to see the sun himself, yet the whole air soon grew warmer after the
splendid birth of the day."

He gazed at the lofty crown of Monte Rosa and the wastes of snow that
guarded its steep approaches, and the chief guide delivered the opinion
that no man could conquer their awful heights and put his foot upon that
summit. But the adventurers moved steadily on, nevertheless.

They toiled up, and up, and still up; they passed the Grand Plateau;
then toiled up a steep shoulder of the mountain, clinging like flies to
its rugged face; and now they were confronted by a tremendous wall
from which great blocks of ice and snow were evidently in the habit of
falling. They turned aside to skirt this wall, and gradually ascended
until their way was barred by a "maze of gigantic snow crevices,"--so
they turned aside again, and "began a long climb of sufficient steepness
to make a zigzag course necessary."

Fatigue compelled them to halt frequently, for a moment or two. At one
of these halts somebody called out, "Look at Mont Blanc!" and "we were
at once made aware of the very great height we had attained by actually
seeing the monarch of the Alps and his attendant satellites right over
the top of the Breithorn, itself at least 14,000 feet high!"

These people moved in single file, and were all tied to a strong rope,
at regular distances apart, so that if one of them slipped on those
giddy heights, the others could brace themselves on their alpenstocks
and save him from darting into the valley, thousands of feet below. By
and by they came to an ice-coated ridge which was tilted up at a sharp
angle, and had a precipice on one side of it. They had to climb this, so
the guide in the lead cut steps in the ice with his hatchet, and as fast
as he took his toes out of one of these slight holes, the toes of the
man behind him occupied it.

"Slowly and steadily we kept on our way over this dangerous part of the
ascent, and I dare say it was fortunate for some of us that attention
was distracted from the head by the paramount necessity of looking after
the feet; FOR, WHILE ON THE LEFT THE INCLINE OF ICE WAS SO STEEP THAT
IT WOULD BE IMPOSSIBLE FOR ANY MAN TO SAVE HIMSELF IN CASE OF A SLIP,
UNLESS THE OTHERS COULD HOLD HIM UP, ON THE RIGHT WE MIGHT DROP A PEBBLE
FROM THE HAND OVER PRECIPICES OF UNKNOWN EXTENT DOWN UPON THE TREMENDOUS
GLACIER BELOW.

"Great caution, therefore, was absolutely necessary, and in this exposed
situation we were attacked by all the fury of that grand enemy of
aspirants to Monte Rosa--a severe and bitterly cold wind from the north.
The fine powdery snow was driven past us in the clouds, penetrating the
interstices of our clothes, and the pieces of ice which flew from the
blows of Peter's ax were whisked into the air, and then dashed over the
precipice. We had quite enough to do to prevent ourselves from being
served in the same ruthless fashion, and now and then, in the more
violent gusts of wind, were glad to stick our alpenstocks into the ice
and hold on hard."

Having surmounted this perilous steep, they sat down and took a brief
rest with their backs against a sheltering rock and their heels dangling
over a bottomless abyss; then they climbed to the base of another
ridge--a more difficult and dangerous one still:

"The whole of the ridge was exceedingly narrow, and the fall on each
side desperately steep, but the ice in some of these intervals between
the masses of rock assumed the form of a mere sharp edge, almost like a
knife; these places, though not more than three or four short paces
in length, looked uncommonly awkward; but, like the sword leading true
believers to the gates of Paradise, they must needs be passed before
we could attain to the summit of our ambition. These were in one or two
places so narrow, that in stepping over them with toes well turned
out for greater security, ONE END OF THE FOOT PROJECTED OVER THE AWFUL
PRECIPICE ON THE RIGHT, WHILE THE OTHER WAS ON THE BEGINNING OF THE
ICE SLOPE ON THE LEFT, WHICH WAS SCARCELY LESS STEEP THAN THE ROCKS. On
these occasions Peter would take my hand, and each of us stretching as
far as we could, he was thus enabled to get a firm footing two paces
or rather more from me, whence a spring would probably bring him to the
rock on the other side; then, turning around, he called to me to come,
and, taking a couple of steps carefully, I was met at the third by his
outstretched hand ready to clasp mine, and in a moment stood by his
side. The others followed in much the same fashion. Once my right foot
slipped on the side toward the precipice, but I threw out my left arm in
a moment so that it caught the icy edge under my armpit as I fell, and
supported me considerably; at the same instant I cast my eyes down the
side on which I had slipped, and contrived to plant my right foot on
a piece of rock as large as a cricket-ball, which chanced to protrude
through the ice, on the very edge of the precipice. Being thus anchored
fore and aft, as it were, I believe I could easily have recovered
myself, even if I had been alone, though it must be confessed the
situation would have been an awful one; as it was, however, a jerk from
Peter settled the matter very soon, and I was on my legs all right in an
instant. The rope is an immense help in places of this kind."

Now they arrived at the base of a great knob or dome veneered with ice
and powdered with snow--the utmost, summit, the last bit of solidity
between them and the hollow vault of heaven. They set to work with their
hatchets, and were soon creeping, insectlike, up its surface, with their
heels projecting over the thinnest kind of nothingness, thickened up a
little with a few wandering shreds and films of cloud moving in a lazy
procession far below. Presently, one man's toe-hold broke and he fell!
There he dangled in mid-air at the end of the rope, like a spider, till
his friends above hauled him into place again.

A little bit later, the party stood upon the wee pedestal of the very
summit, in a driving wind, and looked out upon the vast green expanses
of Italy and a shoreless ocean of billowy Alps.

When I had read thus far, Harris broke into the room in a noble
excitement and said the ropes and the guides were secured, and asked if
I was ready. I said I believed I wouldn't ascend the Altels this time. I
said Alp-climbing was a different thing from what I had supposed it was,
and so I judged we had better study its points a little more before we
went definitely into it. But I told him to retain the guides and order
them to follow us to Zermatt, because I meant to use them there. I said
I could feel the spirit of adventure beginning to stir in me, and was
sure that the fell fascination of Alp-climbing would soon be upon me. I
said he could make up his mind to it that we would do a deed before
we were a week older which would make the hair of the timid curl with
fright.

This made Harris happy, and filled him with ambitious anticipations. He
went at once to tell the guides to follow us to Zermatt and bring all
their paraphernalia with them.

Mark Twain