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Chapter 38

CHAPTER XXXVIII [I Conquer the Gorner Grat]

We went into camp on that wild spot to which that ram had brought us.
The men were greatly fatigued. Their conviction that we were lost was
forgotten in the cheer of a good supper, and before the reaction had a
chance to set in, I loaded them up with paregoric and put them to bed.

Next morning I was considering in my mind our desperate situation and
trying to think of a remedy, when Harris came to me with a Baedeker
map which showed conclusively that the mountain we were on was still in
Switzerland--yes, every part of it was in Switzerland. So we were not
lost, after all. This was an immense relief; it lifted the weight of two
such mountains from my breast. I immediately had the news disseminated
and the map was exhibited. The effect was wonderful. As soon as the men
saw with their own eyes that they knew where they were, and that it
was only the summit that was lost and not themselves, they cheered up
instantly and said with one accord, let the summit take care of itself.

Our distresses being at an end, I now determined to rest the men in camp
and give the scientific department of the Expedition a chance. First,
I made a barometric observation, to get our altitude, but I could not
perceive that there was any result. I knew, by my scientific reading,
that either thermometers or barometers ought to be boiled, to make them
accurate; I did not know which it was, so I boiled them both. There was
still no result; so I examined these instruments and discovered that
they possessed radical blemishes: the barometer had no hand but the
brass pointer and the ball of the thermometer was stuffed with tin-foil.
I might have boiled those things to rags, and never found out anything.

I hunted up another barometer; it was new and perfect. I boiled it half
an hour in a pot of bean soup which the cooks were making. The result
was unexpected: the instrument was not affecting at all, but there was
such a strong barometer taste to the soup that the head cook, who was
a most conscientious person, changed its name in the bill of fare.
The dish was so greatly liked by all, that I ordered the cook to have
barometer soup every day. It was believed that the barometer might
eventually be injured, but I did not care for that. I had demonstrated
to my satisfaction that it could not tell how high a mountain was,
therefore I had no real use for it. Changes in the weather I could take
care of without it; I did not wish to know when the weather was going to
be good, what I wanted to know was when it was going to be bad, and this
I could find out from Harris's corns. Harris had had his corns tested
and regulated at the government observatory in Heidelberg, and one could
depend upon them with confidence. So I transferred the new barometer to
the cooking department, to be used for the official mess. It was found
that even a pretty fair article of soup could be made from the defective
barometer; so I allowed that one to be transferred to the subordinate

I next boiled the thermometer, and got a most excellent result; the
mercury went up to about 200 degrees Fahrenheit. In the opinion of the
other scientists of the Expedition, this seemed to indicate that we had
attained the extraordinary altitude of two hundred thousand feet above
sea-level. Science places the line of eternal snow at about ten thousand
feet above sea-level. There was no snow where we were, consequently
it was proven that the eternal snow-line ceases somewhere above the
ten-thousand-foot level and does not begin any more. This was an
interesting fact, and one which had not been observed by any observer
before. It was as valuable as interesting, too, since it would open up
the deserted summits of the highest Alps to population and agriculture.
It was a proud thing to be where we were, yet it caused us a pang to
reflect that but for that ram we might just as well been two hundred
thousand feet higher.

The success of my last experiment induced me to try an experiment with
my photographic apparatus. I got it out, and boiled one of my cameras,
but the thing was a failure; it made the wood swell up and burst, and I
could not see that the lenses were any better than they were before.

I now concluded to boil a guide. It might improve him, it could not
impair his usefulness. But I was not allowed to proceed. Guides have
no feeling for science, and this one would not consent to be made
uncomfortable in its interest.

In the midst of my scientific work, one of those needless accidents
happened which are always occurring among the ignorant and thoughtless.
A porter shot at a chamois and missed it and crippled the Latinist.
This was not a serious matter to me, for a Latinist's duties are as well
performed on crutches as otherwise--but the fact remained that if the
Latinist had not happened to be in the way a mule would have got that
load. That would have been quite another matter, for when it comes down
to a question of value there is a palpable difference between a Latinist
and a mule. I could not depend on having a Latinist in the right place
every time; so, to make things safe, I ordered that in the future the
chamois must not be hunted within limits of the camp with any other
weapon than the forefinger.

My nerves had hardly grown quiet after this affair when they got another
shake-up--one which utterly unmanned me for a moment: a rumor swept
suddenly through the camp that one of the barkeepers had fallen over a

However, it turned out that it was only a chaplain. I had laid in an
extra force of chaplains, purposely to be prepared for emergencies
like this, but by some unaccountable oversight had come away rather
short-handed in the matter of barkeepers.

On the following morning we moved on, well refreshed and in good
spirits. I remember this day with peculiar pleasure, because it saw
our road restored to us. Yes, we found our road again, and in quite an
extraordinary way. We had plodded along some two hours and a half, when
we came up against a solid mass of rock about twenty feet high. I did
not need to be instructed by a mule this time. I was already beginning
to know more than any mule in the Expedition. I at once put in a blast
of dynamite, and lifted that rock out of the way. But to my surprise and
mortification, I found that there had been a chalet on top of it.

I picked up such members of the family as fell in my vicinity, and
subordinates of my corps collected the rest. None of these poor people
were injured, happily, but they were much annoyed. I explained to
the head chaleteer just how the thing happened, and that I was only
searching for the road, and would certainly have given him timely notice
if I had known he was up there. I said I had meant no harm, and hoped
I had not lowered myself in his estimation by raising him a few rods in
the air. I said many other judicious things, and finally when I offered
to rebuild his chalet, and pay for the breakages, and throw in the
cellar, he was mollified and satisfied. He hadn't any cellar at all,
before; he would not have as good a view, now, as formerly, but what he
had lost in view he had gained in cellar, by exact measurement. He said
there wasn't another hole like that in the mountains--and he would have
been right if the late mule had not tried to eat up the nitroglycerin.

I put a hundred and sixteen men at work, and they rebuilt the chalet
from its own debris in fifteen minutes. It was a good deal more
picturesque than it was before, too. The man said we were now on the
Feil-Stutz, above the Schwegmatt--information which I was glad to get,
since it gave us our position to a degree of particularity which we had
not been accustomed to for a day or so. We also learned that we were
standing at the foot of the Riffelberg proper, and that the initial
chapter of our work was completed.

We had a fine view, from here, of the energetic Visp, as it makes its
first plunge into the world from under a huge arch of solid ice, worn
through the foot-wall of the great Gorner Glacier; and we could also see
the Furggenbach, which is the outlet of the Furggen Glacier.

The mule-road to the summit of the Riffelberg passed right in front of
the chalet, a circumstance which we almost immediately noticed, because
a procession of tourists was filing along it pretty much all the time.
[1] The chaleteer's business consisted in furnishing refreshments to
tourists. My blast had interrupted this trade for a few minutes, by
breaking all the bottles on the place; but I gave the man a lot of
whiskey to sell for Alpine champagne, and a lot of vinegar which would
answer for Rhine wine, consequently trade was soon as brisk as ever.

1. "Pretty much" may not be elegant English, but it is
high time it was. There is no elegant word or phrase
which means just what it means.--M.T.

Leaving the Expedition outside to rest, I quartered myself in the
chalet, with Harris, proposing to correct my journals and scientific
observations before continuing the ascent. I had hardly begun my work
when a tall, slender, vigorous American youth of about twenty-three, who
was on his way down the mountain, entered and came toward me with that
breeze self-complacency which is the adolescent's idea of the well-bred
ease of the man of the world. His hair was short and parted accurately
in the middle, and he had all the look of an American person who would
be likely to begin his signature with an initial, and spell his middle
name out. He introduced himself, smiling a smirky smile borrowed from
the courtiers of the stage, extended a fair-skinned talon, and while he
gripped my hand in it he bent his body forward three times at the
hips, as the stage courtier does, and said in the airiest and most
condescending and patronizing way--I quite remember his exact language:

"Very glad to make your acquaintance, 'm sure; very glad indeed, assure
you. I've read all your little efforts and greatly admired them, and
when I heard you were here, I ..."

I indicated a chair, and he sat down. This grandee was the grandson of
an American of considerable note in his day, and not wholly forgotten
yet--a man who came so near being a great man that he was quite
generally accounted one while he lived.

I slowly paced the floor, pondering scientific problems, and heard this

GRANDSON. First visit to Europe?

HARRIS. Mine? Yes.

G.S. (With a soft reminiscent sigh suggestive of bygone joys that may
be tasted in their freshness but once.) Ah, I know what it is to you. A
first visit!--ah, the romance of it! I wish I could feel it again.

H. Yes, I find it exceeds all my dreams. It is enchantment. I go...

G.S. (With a dainty gesture of the hand signifying "Spare me your callow
enthusiasms, good friend.") Yes, _I_ know, I know; you go to cathedrals,
and exclaim; and you drag through league-long picture-galleries and
exclaim; and you stand here, and there, and yonder, upon historic
ground, and continue to exclaim; and you are permeated with your first
crude conceptions of Art, and are proud and happy. Ah, yes, proud and
happy--that expresses it. Yes-yes, enjoy it--it is right--it is an
innocent revel.

H. And you? Don't you do these things now?

G.S. I! Oh, that is VERY good! My dear sir, when you are as old a
traveler as I am, you will not ask such a question as that. _I_ visit
the regulation gallery, moon around the regulation cathedral, do the
worn round of the regulation sights, YET?--Excuse me!

H. Well, what DO you do, then?

G.S. Do? I flit--and flit--for I am ever on the wing--but I avoid the
herd. Today I am in Paris, tomorrow in Berlin, anon in Rome; but you
would look for me in vain in the galleries of the Louvre or the common
resorts of the gazers in those other capitals. If you would find me, you
must look in the unvisited nooks and corners where others never think
of going. One day you will find me making myself at home in some obscure
peasant's cabin, another day you will find me in some forgotten castle
worshiping some little gem or art which the careless eye has overlooked
and which the unexperienced would despise; again you will find me as
guest in the inner sanctuaries of palaces while the herd is content to
get a hurried glimpse of the unused chambers by feeing a servant.

H. You are a GUEST in such places?

G.S. And a welcoming one.

H. It is surprising. How does it come?

G.S. My grandfather's name is a passport to all the courts in Europe. I
have only to utter that name and every door is open to me. I flit from
court to court at my own free will and pleasure, and am always welcome.
I am as much at home in the palaces of Europe as you are among your
relatives. I know every titled person in Europe, I think. I have my
pockets full of invitations all the time. I am under promise to go to
Italy, where I am to be the guest of a succession of the noblest houses
in the land. In Berlin my life is a continued round of gaiety in the
imperial palace. It is the same, wherever I go.

H. It must be very pleasant. But it must make Boston seem a little slow
when you are at home.

G.S. Yes, of course it does. But I don't go home much. There's no life
there--little to feed a man's higher nature. Boston's very narrow, you
know. She doesn't know it, and you couldn't convince her of it--so I say
nothing when I'm there: where's the use? Yes, Boston is very narrow, but
she has such a good opinion of herself that she can't see it. A man who
has traveled as much as I have, and seen as much of the world, sees it
plain enough, but he can't cure it, you know, so the best is to leave it
and seek a sphere which is more in harmony with his tastes and culture.
I run across there, one a year, perhaps, when I have nothing important
on hand, but I'm very soon back again. I spend my time in Europe.

H. I see. You map out your plans and ...

G.S. No, excuse me. I don't map out any plans. I simply follow the
inclination of the day. I am limited by no ties, no requirements, I
am not bound in any way. I am too old a traveler to hamper myself with
deliberate purposes. I am simply a traveler--an inveterate traveler--a
man of the world, in a word--I can call myself by no other name. I do
not say, "I am going here, or I am going there"--I say nothing at all, I
only act. For instance, next week you may find me the guest of a grandee
of Spain, or you may find me off for Venice, or flitting toward Dresden.
I shall probably go to Egypt presently; friends will say to friends,
"He is at the Nile cataracts"--and at that very moment they will be
surprised to learn that I'm away off yonder in India somewhere. I am
a constant surprise to people. They are always saying, "Yes, he was
in Jerusalem when we heard of him last, but goodness knows where he is

Presently the Grandson rose to leave--discovered he had an appointment
with some Emperor, perhaps. He did his graces over again: gripped me
with one talon, at arm's-length, pressed his hat against his stomach
with the other, bent his body in the middle three times, murmuring:

"Pleasure, 'm sure; great pleasure, 'm sure. Wish you much success."

Then he removed his gracious presence. It is a great and solemn thing to
have a grandfather.

I have not purposed to misrepresent this boy in any way, for what little
indignation he excited in me soon passed and left nothing behind it but
compassion. One cannot keep up a grudge against a vacuum. I have tried
to repeat this lad's very words; if I have failed anywhere I have at
least not failed to reproduce the marrow and meaning of what he said.
He and the innocent chatterbox whom I met on the Swiss lake are the most
unique and interesting specimens of Young America I came across
during my foreign tramping. I have made honest portraits of them, not
caricatures. The Grandson of twenty-three referred to himself five
or six times as an "old traveler," and as many as three times (with a
serene complacency which was maddening) as a "man of the world."
There was something very delicious about his leaving Boston to her
"narrowness," unreproved and uninstructed.

I formed the caravan in marching order, presently, and after riding down
the line to see that it was properly roped together, gave the command to
proceed. In a little while the road carried us to open, grassy land. We
were above the troublesome forest, now, and had an uninterrupted view,
straight before us, of our summit--the summit of the Riffelberg.

We followed the mule-road, a zigzag course, now to the right, now to
the left, but always up, and always crowded and incommoded by going and
coming files of reckless tourists who were never, in a single instance,
tied together. I was obliged to exert the utmost care and caution, for
in many places the road was not two yards wide, and often the lower side
of it sloped away in slanting precipices eight and even nine feet deep.
I had to encourage the men constantly, to keep them from giving way to
their unmanly fears.

We might have made the summit before night, but for a delay caused by
the loss of an umbrella. I was allowing the umbrella to remain lost, but
the men murmured, and with reason, for in this exposed region we stood
in peculiar need of protection against avalanches; so I went into camp
and detached a strong party to go after the missing article.

The difficulties of the next morning were severe, but our courage
was high, for our goal was near. At noon we conquered the last
impediment--we stood at last upon the summit, and without the loss of a
single man except the mule that ate the glycerin. Our great achievement
was achieved--the possibility of the impossible was demonstrated, and
Harris and I walked proudly into the great dining-room of the Riffelberg
Hotel and stood our alpenstocks up in the corner.

Yes, I had made the grand ascent; but it was a mistake to do it in
evening dress. The plug hats were battered, the swallow-tails were
fluttering rags, mud added no grace, the general effect was unpleasant
and even disreputable.

There were about seventy-five tourists at the hotel--mainly ladies and
little children--and they gave us an admiring welcome which paid us for
all our privations and sufferings. The ascent had been made, and the
names and dates now stand recorded on a stone monument there to prove it
to all future tourists.

I boiled a thermometer and took an altitude, with a most curious result:
HAD TAKEN THE FIRST ALTITUDE. Suspecting that I had made an important
discovery, I prepared to verify it. There happened to be a still higher
summit (called the Gorner Grat), above the hotel, and notwithstanding
the fact that it overlooks a glacier from a dizzy height, and that the
ascent is difficult and dangerous, I resolved to venture up there and
boil a thermometer. So I sent a strong party, with some borrowed hoes,
in charge of two chiefs of service, to dig a stairway in the soil all
the way up, and this I ascended, roped to the guides. This breezy height
was the summit proper--so I accomplished even more than I had originally
purposed to do. This foolhardy exploit is recorded on another stone

I boiled my thermometer, and sure enough, this spot, which purported to
be two thousand feet higher than the locality of the hotel, turned out
to be nine thousand feet LOWER. Thus the fact was clearly demonstrated
IT ACTUALLY IS. Our ascent itself was a great achievement, but this
contribution to science was an inconceivably greater matter.

Cavilers object that water boils at a lower and lower temperature the
higher and higher you go, and hence the apparent anomaly. I answer that
I do not base my theory upon what the boiling water does, but upon what
a boiled thermometer says. You can't go behind the thermometer.

I had a magnificent view of Monte Rosa, and apparently all the rest of
the Alpine world, from that high place. All the circling horizon was
piled high with a mighty tumult of snowy crests. One might have
imagined he saw before him the tented camps of a beleaguering host of

But lonely, conspicuous, and superb, rose that wonderful upright wedge,
the Matterhorn. Its precipitous sides were powdered over with snow, and
the upper half hidden in thick clouds which now and then dissolved to
cobweb films and gave brief glimpses of the imposing tower as through a
veil. [2] A little later the Matterhorn took to himself the semblance of
a volcano; he was stripped naked to his apex--around this circled
vast wreaths of white cloud which strung slowly out and streamed away
slantwise toward the sun, a twenty-mile stretch of rolling and tumbling
vapor, and looking just as if it were pouring out of a crater. Later
again, one of the mountain's sides was clean and clear, and another
side densely clothed from base to summit in thick smokelike cloud which
feathered off and flew around the shaft's sharp edge like the smoke
around the corners of a burning building. The Matterhorn is always
experimenting, and always gets up fine effects, too. In the sunset, when
all the lower world is palled in gloom, it points toward heaven out of
the pervading blackness like a finger of fire. In the sunrise--well,
they say it is very fine in the sunrise.

2. NOTE.--I had the very unusual luck to catch one little
momentary glimpse of the Matterhorn wholly unencumbered
by clouds. I leveled my photographic apparatus at it
without the loss of an instant, and should have got
an elegant picture if my donkey had not interfered.
It was my purpose to draw this photograph all by myself
for my book, but was obliged to put the mountain part
of it into the hands of the professional artist because
I found I could not do landscape well.

Authorities agree that there is no such tremendous "layout" of snowy
Alpine magnitude, grandeur, and sublimity to be seen from any other
accessible point as the tourist may see from the summit of the
Riffelberg. Therefore, let the tourist rope himself up and go there; for
I have shown that with nerve, caution, and judgment, the thing can be

I wish to add one remark, here--in parentheses, so to speak--suggested
by the word "snowy," which I have just used. We have all seen hills and
mountains and levels with snow on them, and so we think we know all the
aspects and effects produced by snow. But indeed we do not until we have
seen the Alps. Possibly mass and distance add something--at any rate,
something IS added. Among other noticeable things, there is a dazzling,
intense whiteness about the distant Alpine snow, when the sun is on it,
which one recognizes as peculiar, and not familiar to the eye. The snow
which one is accustomed to has a tint to it--painters usually give it a
bluish cast--but there is no perceptible tint to the distant Alpine snow
when it is trying to look its whitest. As to the unimaginable
splendor of it when the sun is blazing down on it--well, it simply IS

Mark Twain