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The Alps merit a patient novitiate, and the mountaineer who does his
Matterhorn and Mont Blanc in his first season misses the essential
charm of the hills. We spent some ten summers and four winters in the
mountains before we even crossed the snow-line. But the bitterness
of waiting was redeemed by the joy of long deferred fulfilment. We
learned during those years the fascination of the lower hills, too
often dismissed as tedious grinds fit to serve only as training walks
or as exercise for an off-day in bad weather. They are worthy of a more
loving study. There is a peculiar joy in working patiently upwards
from the smallest of beginnings to the culminating reward of a great
peak. The landmarks of our climbing history advanced very slowly. There
was the triumph of the Little Scheidegg at the age of six, the proud
moment when we passed the eight thousand level on the Brevent, and the
tantalising approach to the magic ten thousand on the Schwarzhorn.
Finally, at the age of fifteen, I crossed the line of perpetual snow,
which for years had haunted our dreams and marked the heights of
earthly ambition. The Aiguille du Tour may seem a slight victory, but
the romance of the first night in a club hut, the first dawn seen from
the upper snows, the first generous breadth of vision from a real
mountain, are among the unforgettable things. Even the long deferred
Matterhorn belongs to a less splendid category of memories.

Those years taught us how meaningless is the cry that the Alps are
played out. Railways and cheap trippers, it is said, have robbed
Switzerland of all charm. Grindelwald is simply Brighton by the
mountains, and so on and so forth. For the railways I agree with Mr.
Belloc. ‘They are the trenches that drain our modern civilisation.
Avoid them by so much as a quarter of a mile and you may have as
much peace as would fill a nose bag.’ Nor need we deny even to the
cheap tripper the possible possession of a soul for the beautiful.
The heritage of the hills should not be the monopoly of the cultured
classes. In the Lötschenthal I once met four men of that class which
has recently begun to desert Margate for the mountains. Their savings
were devoted to this one fortnight in the Alps. Because guides are
expensive they confined their wanderings to easy snow summits. Because
the _Climber’s Guides_ are expensive they spent long hours in the
British Museum copying them out into notebooks. One should rejoice in
the increased facilities of communication into lives otherwise lacking
in colour of the saving inspiration of the snows.

The complaint that the Alps are over-run argues a barren lack of
enterprise. The Wengen Alp is confessedly somewhat dense in the
height of the season. This troubles me not at all. Within two hours
of the Scheidegg lies one of the most ideal of Alpine summits. To the
superficial observer the Tschuggen may seem an unattractive scree
and slate peak, yet the actual top is a delightful yielding carpet
of springy Alpine turf touched with the blue of late gentians. Who
will, may spend untroubled hours here watching the clouds drifting
across Jungfrau, and in the north the dark turquoise waters of Thun
gleaming between the intervening hills. Solitary, remote, and secluded,
they will scarce remember the proximity of the hidden hotel and its
heterogeneous mob.

On the other side of the valley the Faulhorn is doubly starred in
Baedeker, but fortunately the course of the double stars is so ordered
that it does not light on the fairest of Alpine retreats. The treasures
of this chain are hidden in its eastern wings, and you, friends, who
find Grindelwald bourgeois, do you know that ‘very lovely, silent
land’ hidden away behind the black pyramid of the Schwarzhorn? The
long rampart that links the Grossenegg to the Krinne is perhaps the
finest low-level wall in Switzerland; whilst shadowed by a fold in this
curtain of rock lies one of the chiefest of Alpine wonders. Within the
span of some thousand yards you can trace the life of a baby glacier
that has never reached maturity. Meticulously fashioned, with névé,
ice-fall, and crevasse on a perfect but diminutive scale, it recalls
the dwarf trees of Japan in its miniature perfection.

So during the ten summers in which we explored this chain in all its
moods we found for ourselves the essential romance of the mountains.
We acquired a more extensive book knowledge of the topography and
history of the greater peaks than most climbers we met. _Scrambles in
the Alps_ was the first book that I laboriously spelt out for myself.
Alpine literature and Alpine photographs, such as Mr. Donkin’s,
gave us a precocious knowledge of the Alps. I remember surprising a
chance acquaintance by the certainty with which I located the views
at an Alpine Club Exhibition, and his comment, ‘You seem to have been
climbing for many seasons,’ had a certain bitterness for a boy who had
not crossed the snow-line.

We had our foolish moments. A girl of fifteen returning from the
Eiger, and seemingly careless of an experience for which we would have
bartered our appetites, provoked a desperately absurd attempt on the
Wetterhorn. Without rope or axe we found our way to the Gleckstein
Hut. There we realised the impossibility of any serious attempt on the
Wetterhorn itself, and turned aside towards one of the great buttresses
below the main peak. By a nasty chimney and an arête which would prove
trying to most unroped climbers we reached the top of our little peak.
From our feet the great curtain of cliff that overshadows Grindelwald
fell away in one curve to the pastures of the Scheidegg. A touch of
uncertainty as to our chance of recovering the line of ascent added to
the majesty of that compelling precipice. There were no traces of a
previous visit, so we proudly erected a cairn, and then, more alarmed
than we should have cared to confess, we cautiously retraced our steps
down the ridge. On this and similar scrambles we may have learned
something that is missed in a more orthodox novitiate. Occasionally we
managed to borrow an axe, and derived much amusement from the tangled
labyrinth of crevasses that can be found among the upper reaches of
the Grindelwald glaciers. These expeditions were carried out somewhat
stealthily, but an unusual and enlightened view of the educational
value of the mountains allowed us considerable liberty of action.

The hopeless call of the skyline that we could never cross lent to
the historic gap between the Jungfrau and the Mönch the mystery of
those corners one can never turn in dreams. When at length we began
to climb the greater peaks, fate took us to other ranges. But after
years of waiting we at last solved the mystery of the other side, and
a six-day journey across the glaciers of the Oberland on ski owed its
inmost charm to the discoveries that answered the questions of those
early years. Imagination had fashioned a mysterious conception of those
fields of unknown snow behind the Jungfrau, and the last steps up the
slope leading to the portals of the Lötschenlücke were quickened by the
return of the child’s desire. And when at last the glory of the Great
Aletsch snowfield, white with the softness of a winter moon, gave
substance to the dream - ‘Behold, the half had not been told.’

As a small boy I had compiled a guide-book, in which I had affirmed
that ‘the Finsteraarhorn will test the powers of a first-class
mountaineer.’ And now as we left our ski and passed on to its ascent,
there was a touch of sadness in the ease with which we overcame the
stronghold that to childhood had seemed almost impregnable. From the
summit the little chalet of those earlier summers was just visible,
and across the white recesses of the familiar lower ranges, and across
the interval of years, our eyes seemed to meet the eager upward looks
that had so often searched for the secrets of our present tranquil

With such surroundings for our childhood it was almost inevitable
that there should be little room for the sentiment with which others
look back on school and home life. The snows are a jealous tutor, and
resent a divided attention. It might be truer to say that Grindelwald
was our real home and school. On the first day of summer and winter
holidays we left for the Alps, to return only as term began. We never
talked of ‘going,’ but always of ‘going back’ to the Grindelwald,
where the chalet was the centre of our most enduring associations.
The associations remained with us at school. My kindliest memories of
Harrow centre round the Vaughan Library, comfortably remote from the
minor annoyances of school life. The monitor’s key was a very real
privilege, for it gave undisturbed possession of silent spaces whose
full beauty was only revealed during a winter ‘first school’ when the
sun shone in awakening glory through the windowed recesses that open
on to terrace, fields, and the low-lying hills in the east. One shelf
in particular proved a sovereign alchemist, and an intricate book
knowledge of the Himalayas and Caucasus was accumulated with its help
at the expense of the humaner letters.

The Grindelwald epoch was followed by three summers that gave us some
experience of guideless scrambling among third-rate snow mountains. By
judiciously choosing the worst of all conceivable routes we managed
to discover educative difficulties where none need have existed. And
if we are the only people who have found a dangerous route up the
Wildstrubel, we may as well have the discredit attaching to that feat.
The providence that cares for the young and very foolish preserved us
among sundry and manifold perplexities. At least we brought the axe
and rope out of the sphere of imaginative usage, and acquired an eye
for country that we might not have gained on first-class peaks between
guides. Just as the charm of the lower hills is too little understood,
so also the fascination of these dependent courtiers of the greater
monarchs is woefully ignored. These smaller mountains provide the most
natural transition from the hills of mere imagination to the actual
mountains of romance.

Let me instance the Glacier de la Plaine Morte, a field of névé on the
route to no great peaks, and rarely visited. Its elusive magic is all
its own. Just as the quiet spell of Wordsworth escapes those whose
taste in poetry tends towards sound and fury, so the Plaine Morte is
a useful touchstone to discriminate between the esoteric and exoteric
school of mountain lovers. ‘Any goose sees glory’ in the ice-fall of
the Rhone or the sweep of the Aletsch. But if a man can see nothing
in the Plaine Morte but a somewhat featureless field of snow, he is
not one of those to whom the precious things of the lasting hills will
yield up their treasure. He is no dweller in the inner-most.

On the glaciers near Finse there is something of the like fascination.
There, as on the Plaine Morte, the appeal consists in no outstanding
feature, but in an impression of organic unity in a seemingly
neglected world. On the Plaine Morte the effect is heightened by the
insignificance of the shapeless bounding wall of low-lying shale slopes
that cut off the greater peaks. Here also there is nothing to disturb
by an assertion of disproportionate grandeur. There is the same secret
and spacious charm on the Hardanger-Jokul, where the eye travels
unarrested over dim white spaces of ice-capped plateaus only suggesting
by a suspicion of haze the unseen fjords that sleep among their folds,
and falling away like the rhythm of dying music to a far and grey
horizon. In such places there is an uneasy feeling as of an unsought
intrusion upon the quiet of a world withdrawn to die, a death with a
wayward note of incompleteness:

‘As though some God in his dreaming had wasted the work of his hand
And forgotten the work of creation.’

The Plaine Morte is also associated with less seemly memories. Our
first guideless venture above the snow-line took us to the Wildstrubel.
We left at midnight without sleeping, and were dead tired when we
started home. But our older companion should have known better than
to give himself and two exhausted boys neat whisky as a pick-me-up.
The next distinct memory is that of watching our friend carrying
out his suggestion that he should lead. His movements did not seem
governed by any concept of the shortest distance between two points,
and after a few aimless curves he sat himself in the snow. There was
much competition to avoid leading, as those that followed could doze
peacefully, guided and led by the tension of the rope. Our intermittent
slumbers provoked abrupt jerks on the rope, which as often as not
induced a unanimous collapse, followed by a brief but peaceful repose
on the glacier. My brother’s mind was divided between two obsessions.
He identified me with a certain ‘Hetta,’ and was firmly convinced
that I was leading towards the wrong end of the glacier. A violent
death would have then seemed preferable to the mental effort involved
in disabusing him of these fancies; and I accepted with resigned
disregard his blandishments, at times unpleasantly affectionate, and
his repeated attempts to change the line of march. As we dragged on
I became acutely conscious of what are, I believe, two fairly common
phenomena. Movement, continued in extreme exhaustion, set itself
to the sound of an irritating jingle of words that worked its way
into the subconscious mind, governed the swing of one’s limbs, and
repeated itself monotonously till it seemed to be part and parcel of
one’s being. Again weariness awoke that strange tendency to see faces
in inanimate objects. Familiar countenances formed suddenly, and as
suddenly resolved themselves into grinning boulders. Mr. Belloc may
have had this in mind:

‘It darkens. I have lost the ford,
There is a change on all things made.
The rocks have evil faces, Lord,
And I am awfully afraid.’

Insufficient attention is paid to the curious data that mountaineering
contributes to the psychology of exhaustion. Experiences of a different
character were the outcome of another struggle on the Plaine Morte
against overpowering weariness.

With a friend, a sound mountaineer, but a novice on ski, I had set out
some years later to cross the hills from Montana to Villars. I left
my friend on the Plaine Morte, and pressed on to reach the Wildstrubel
for the sunset. Incidentally of all mountain memories that lonely
sundown on the Wildstrubel is the most haunting. Adelboden was hidden,
and from bourne to bourne there was no suggestion of life but for the
deserted snow-gagged road to the Gemmi. A chaos of crag and snowfield,
with no touch of colour to relieve the greyness, reddened for a few
moments, and then sank back into the shadow as night crept upwards
from the valley to the summit ridges. Darkness had fallen when I again
reached the Plaine Morte, and one of those bitter winter breezes blew
over the glacier. Mental and physical fatigue followed the inevitable
reaction after thirteen strenuous hours. The monotony of surroundings
has a hypnotic effect on tired limb and brain. The alternating spaces
of shadow and snow, subdued by the glimmering light of the stars, the
indefinite bounding wall with a dark curving of great hills beyond,
possessed a rhythmic suggestion of sleep that I found difficult to
resist. I tried counting steps, but only accentuated the rhythm. I
vowed not to look up till I had reached the thousand, but nothing
seemed to break the maddening reiteration of those undulating snows.
And then my hands and feet suddenly lost sensation.

A steady sequence of thuds disturbed me; and I realised that my
friend was chopping wood outside the hut some three miles away. That
Inquisition torture, the slow succession of drops of water falling
at intervals of a minute on the victim’s head, had, we are told, the
effect of inducing a lively loyalty to the Catholic faith. I can well
believe it, for I know that the regular fall of the beats carried
across the glacier filled me with zealous and unreasoning anger. It
added the last artistic touch to the monotony of the Dead Plain, for it
followed a different rhythm, and proved almost more than I could stand.

The mountain gloom is often most pronounced below the snow-line.

One of our earlier climbs took us from the Wildstrubel Hut to the
Wildhorn, and thence without incident to the head of the Rawyl gorge.
Here the paths divide, the westerly to Sion, the easterly to Montana.
At the dividing paths my brother and I started cheerily along that
which leads to Montana. One of our two companions was a middle-aged man
who considered that the experience gained in some camping expedition
in Africa had given him an instinct for locality. He assured us that
Montana would be found on the western flanks of the gorge. Analogous
reasoning would lead one to look for Murren on the slopes of the
Scheidegg. We did not like to break up the party, lest further
knowledge won on the veldt should have even more disastrous results.
So on we wandered, while the dividing gorge dropped ever further and
further below. I do not know what provoked the final outburst. Perhaps
they reminded us of our youth, a sore subject. They were the kind
of men who ‘have no hesitation in contradicting those younger than
themselves.’ At any rate we parted. They chanced upon a peasant who
guided them home by midnight, a barren victory, for had they followed
our advice we should all have been home by tea. Meanwhile we two
scrambled down some fifteen hundred feet to the boiling torrent. This
we crossed by a fallen tree. A faint track led thence to the lower of
the two ‘bisses’ that run along the great sweep of the mountain-side.
These ‘bisses’ are an ingenious attempt to harness the waters that
would otherwise flow to waste, and to convey them at a uniform gradient
through a country that is all ups and downs. The stream guided into
troughs is carried across the face of the precipices. The troughs
and planks, which afford a passage to the engineer and to chance but
astute visitors, are supported on poles driven into the face of the
cliff. Even in the daytime the lower ‘bisse’ is not oversafe, for the
water escapes at intervals and trickles over the planks. By the time
we reached it night - a sullen overclouded night - had fallen. Slowly we
began to feel our way through the darkness, cautiously creeping along
the slippery treacherous platform that hung poised above the thunder
of the river. Childish nightmares had often centred round mountain
cataracts, and to this day there is something uncanny in the turbid
fury of an Alpine stream. We were soon filled with useless hatred for
the unending tumult from below. Above the gorge a crag loomed out of
the night and looked down upon us with malicious contempt. At such
moments the mountains seem to develop a treacherous and repellent
personality. There is something inhuman in the grim relish with which
they seem to watch a desperate struggle.

‘The hills, like giants at a hunting, lay
Chin upon hand to see the game at bay.’

The shadowy lines of forbidding precipice crept upwards to dim clusters
of twisted pine. Below us flashed the evanescent glimmer on the tumult
of the torrent. Its monotonous shouting beat unceasingly about our
ears. Something of the nightmare imagery that inspired Kubla Khan
added a note of terror to the voice of the river as it forced its way,
through caverns measureless to man, down to a sunless sea.

To the monotony of the torrent was added the monotony of that
interminable succession of planks, winding round the dark elbows of the
ravine, always promising to disclose a securer path, but leading only
to a like treacherous way. At last, in despair, we tried a short cut up
through the woods. The trees rose out of a darkness that could be felt,
and smote us in the face. We stumbled, fell, condemned ‘the nature of
things,’ and gave up the unequal struggle to sleep till dawn.

Those careless summers seem very far away. I look back on them with
some shame and much regret. For even our very follies had a certain
educative value. We had - in a very literal sense - to ‘work out our own
salvation with fear and trembling.’ Unfortunately, one began to take
such let-offs as a matter of course, and during the long weary hours in
which I waited for the search-party I had much leisure to reflect on
that arrogant faith in luck which is the parent of so many disasters.

During the four months I spent on my back I dared not face the prospect
that I might never climb again. I refused to permit such a possibility.
None the less I looked forward with peculiar dread to the vision of
forbidden snows. The first mountain that I saw left me unmoved, though
I felt a pang of regret as the snow and fire of Ætna climbed above the
horizon of wave, for in happier days I had wandered up its tortured
slopes. But the snow-touched hills that swept down through vine and
olive to the sapphire belt of Nauplia’s bay stirred no longing to
penetrate into the recesses of ranges that seemed woven from the fabric
of dreams. It was otherwise at Garmisch. There the call proved too
strong; on two sticks I hobbled painfully up some three thousand feet,
and the delight of watching distant hills once more climbing into a
larger sky went to my head like wine.

The worst moment came at Berne. The thought of ‘Yesterday - many years
ago’ was never so insistent, never so sorrowful, as on the terrace
from which I had so often caught the first glad welcome of the snows.
I looked at the Oberland glowing in full sunlight beyond the roofs and
the morning mists:

‘Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows;
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what forms are those?

That is the land of lost content;
I see it shining plain.
The happy highways where I went,
And cannot come again.’

To lose and recapture is to make doubly precious. Some of the glamour
that haunted the first crossing of the snow-line clung to the first
tentative experiments on ski. And so in the summer past two hard-won
climbs have dispelled for ever the shadow of suspense that darkened
two years. I was working at Montana, but somehow the long greeting of
the White trinity that cast their spell from beyond the shadows of
the Val’ d’Anniviers made life a burden of vain regrets. I escaped
to Zermatt, and the same evening started for the Dent Blanche. As
I crossed the threshold of the Schönbuhl Hut I felt like an exile
returning home. My nostrils were gladdened by the old familiar evil
atmosphere redolent of Swiss tobacco and the inevitable ‘Maggi’ soup.
And as I watched the magic web of twilight creeping up the terrible
northern wall of the Matterhorn, and drank in the silence of the
upper world - a silence that is something more than a mere negation of
sound - I felt that the lasting rewards of the craft are not the exotic
moments of difficulty or danger, but the humbler commonplaces of every
climb, the dawn breaking the shadows on the snow, the vision of far
horizons melting into the roof of heaven, the peace and radiant grace
of sunset on the hills.

An open wound and lack of training brought on a bad dose of mountain
sickness and made the last hour a dour struggle, but a week later I had
accommodated myself to changed conditions, and managed to lead over
the Combin without undue pain. Only those who have known for months the
humiliating dependence of the sick-bed can realise the full gladness of
the rope’s responsibility.

There are, of course, moments of sadness when the loss of nerve and
strength challenges comparison with the past. The colour of things
seems changed. Lost is the old confidence on the poor marksmanship of
falling stones. Every well-worn precaution has its meaning. The kindly
security of the rope is doubly welcome.

And yet in a state of irreproachable virtue there often escapes a great
longing for the old unregenerate days, for the irresponsible gaiety of
those chequered hours, for all the mirth and laughter that waited us
beyond the narrow paths of orthodoxy. There lingers still a chastened
regret for the rollicking faith that carried one gaily in and out of
perilous places. The hills take on a soberer colouring from the eye
that has seen the long deferred reckoning paid in full. But though

‘Die unbegreiflich hohen Werke
Sind herrlich wie am ersten Tag,’

though one accepts their punishment as a small price for years

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Online LibraryVariousOxford Mountaineering Essays → online text (page 9 of 11)