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Chapter 36

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.

Mark Twain