Scrambles Amongst the Alps

Edward Whymper


The Moming pass - Zermatt

The summit of the Moming pass.

On July 10, Croz and I went to Sierre, in the Valais, via the Col de Balme, the Col de la Forclaz and Martigny. The Swiss side of the Forclaz is not creditable to Switzerland. The path from Martigny to the summit has undergone successive improvements in these latter years, but mendicants permanently disfigure it.

We passed many tired pedestrians toiling up this oven, persecuted by trains of parasitic children. These children swarm there like maggots in a rotten cheese. They carry baskets of fruit with which to plague the weary tourist. They flit around him like flies; they thrust the fruit in his face; they pester him with their pertinacity. Beware of them! - taste, touch not their fruit. In the eyes of these children each peach, each grape, is worth a prince’s ransom. It is of no use to be angry: it is like flapping wasps - they only buzz the more. Whatever you do or whatever you say, the end will be the same. “Give me something” is the alpha and omega of all their addresses. They learn the phrase, it is said, before they are taught the alphabet. It is in all their mouths. From the tiny toddler up to the maiden of sixteen, there is nothing heard but one universal chorus of “Give me something: will you have the goodness to give me something?”

From Sierre we went up the Val d’Anniviers to Zinal, to join our former companions, Moore and Almer. Moore was ambitious to discover a shorter way from Zinal to Zermatt than the two passes which were known.32 He had shown to me, upon Dufour’s map, that a direct line connecting the two places passed exactly over the depression between the Zinal-Rothhorn and the Schallhorn. He was confident that a passage could be effected over this depression, and was sanguine that it would (in consequence of its directness) prove to be a quicker route than the circuitous ones over the Triftjoch and the Col Durand.

He was awaiting us, and we immediately proceeded up the valley and across the foot of the Zinal glacier to the Arpitetta Alp, where a châlet was supposed to exist in which we might pass the night. We found it at length33, but it was not equal to our expectations. It was not one of those fine timbered châlets with huge overhanging eaves, covered with pious sentences carved in unintelligible characters. It was a hovel, growing, as it were, out of the hillside, roofed with rough slabs of slaty stone, without door or window, surrounded by quagmires of ordure and dirt of every description.

A foul native invited us to enter. The interior was dark, but when our eyes became accustomed to the gloom we saw that our palace was in plan about fifteen by twenty feet: on one side it was scarcely five feet high, but on the other was nearly seven. On this side there was a raised platform about six feet wide, littered with dirty straw and still dirtier sheepskins. This was the bed-room. The remainder of the width of the apartment was the parlour. The rest was the factory. Cheese was the article which was being fabricated, and the foul native was engaged in its manufacture. He was garnished behind with a regular cowherd’s one-legged stool, which gave him a queer, uncanny look when it was elevated in the air as he bent over into his tub, for the making of his cheese required him to blow into a tub for ten minutes at a time. He then squatted on his stool to gain breath, and took a few whiffs at a short pipe, after which he blew away more vigorously than before. We were told that this procedure was necessary: it appeared to us to be nasty. It accounts, perhaps, for the flavor possessed by certain Swiss cheeses.

Big black and leaden-coloured clouds rolled up from Zinal, and met in combat on the Morning glacier with others which descended from the Rothhorn. Down came the rain in torrents and crash went the thunder. The herd-boys hurried under shelter, for the frightened cattle needed no driving, and tore spontaneously down the Alp as if running a steeple-chase: Men, cows, pigs, sheep and goats forgot their mutual animosities, and rushed to the only refuge on the mountain. The spell was broken which had bound the elements for some weeks past, and the cirque from the Weisshorn to Lo Besso was the theatre in which they spent their fury.

A sullen morning succeeded an angry night. We were undecided in our council whether to advance or to return down the valley. Good seemed likely to overpower bad; so, at 5.40, we left the châlet en route for our pass [amidst the most encouraging assurances from all the people on the Alp that we need not distress ourselves about the weather, as it was not possible to get to the point at which we were aiming].34

Our course led us at first over ordinary mountain-slopes, and then over a flat expanse of glacier. Before this was quitted it was needful to determine the exact line which was to be taken. We were divided betwixt two opinions. I advocated that a course should be steered due south, and that the upper plateau of the Moming glacier should be attained by making a great detour to our right. This was negatived without a division. Almer declared in favour of making for some rocks to the south-west of the Schallhorn, and attaining the upper plateau of the glacier by mounting them. Croz advised a middle course, up some very steep and broken glacier. Croz’s route seemed likely to turn out to be impracticable, because much step-cutting would be required upon it. Almer’s rocks did not look good: they were, possibly, unassailable. I thought both routes were bad, and declined to vote for either of them. Moore hesitated, Almer gave way, and Croz’s route was adopted.

He did not go very far, however, before he found that he had undertaken too much, and after [glancing occasionally round at us, to see what we thought about it, suggested that it might, after all, be wiser to take to the rocks of the Schallhorn]. That is to say, he suggested the abandonment of his own and the adoption of Almer’s route. No one opposed the change of plan, and in the absence of instructions to the contrary he proceeded to cut steps across an ice-slope toward the rocks.

When we quitted the slopes of the Arpitetta Alp we took a south-easterly course over the Morning glacier. We halted to settle the plan of attack shortly after we got upon the ice. The rocks of the Schallhorn, whose ascent Almer recommended, were then to our southeast. Croz’s proposed route was to the south-west of the rocks, and led up the southern side of a very steep and broken glacier.35 The part he intended to traverse was, in a sense, undoubtedly practicable. He gave it up because it would have involved too much step-cutting. But the part of this glacier which intervened between his route and Almer’s rocks was, in the most complete sense of the word, impracticable. It passed over a continuation of the rocks, and was broken in half by them. The upper portion was separated from the lower portion by a long slope of ice that had been built up from the débris of the glacier which had fallen from above. The foot of this slope was surrounded by immense quantities of the larger avalanche blocks. These we cautiously skirted, and when Croz halted they had been left far below, and we were halfway up the side of the great slope which led to the base of the ice-wall above.

Across this ice-slope Croz now proceeded to cut. It was executing a flank movement in the face of an enemy by whom we might be attacked at any moment. The peril was obvious. It was a monstrous folly. It was foolhardiness. A retreat should have been sounded.36

“I am not ashamed to confess,” wrote Moore in his Journal, “that during the whole time we were crossing this slope my heart was in my mouth, and I never felt relieved from such a load of care as when, after, I suppose, a passage of about twenty minutes, we got on to the rocks and were in safety…I have never heard a positive oath come from Almer’s mouth, but the language in which he kept up a running commentary, more to himself than to me, as we went along, was stronger than I should have given him credit for using. His prominent feeling seemed to be one of indignation that we should be in such a position, and self-reproach at being a party to the proceeding; while the emphatic way in which, at intervals, he exclaimed, ‘Quick! be quick!’ sufficiently betokened his alarm.”

It was not necessary to admonish Croz to be quick. He was as fully alive to the risk as any of the others. He told me afterward that this place was not only the most dangerous he had ever crossed, but that no consideration whatever would tempt him to cross it again. Manfully did he exert himself to escape from the impending destruction. His head, bent down to his work, never turned to the right or to the left. One, two, three, went his axe, and then he stepped on to the spot where he had been cutting. How painfully insecure should we have considered those steps at any other time! But now we thought of nothing but the rocks in front, and of the hideous séracs, lurching over above us, apparently in the act of falling.

We got to the rocks in safety, and if they had been doubly as difficult as they were, we should still have been well content. We sat down and refreshed the inner man, keeping our eyes on the towering pinnacles of ice under which we had passed, but which now were almost beneath us. Without a preliminary warning sound one of the largest - as high as the Monument at London Bridge - fell upon the slope below. The stately mass heeled over as if upon a hinge (holding together until it bent thirty degrees forward), then it crushed out its base, and, rent into a thousand fragments, plunged vertically down upon the slope that we had crossed! Every atom of our track that was in its course was obliterated: all the new snow was swept away, and a broad sheet of smooth, glassy ice showed the resistless force with which it had fallen.

It was inexcusable to follow such a perilous path, but it is easy to understand why it was taken. To have retreated from the place where Croz suggested a change of plan, to have descended below the reach of danger, and to have mounted again by the route which Almer suggested, would have been equivalent to abandoning the excursion, for no one would have passed another night in the châlet on the Arpitetta Alp. “Many,” says Thucydides, “though seeing well the perils ahead, are forced along by fear of dishonour, as the world calls it, so that, vanquished by a mere word, they fall into irremediable calamities.” Such was nearly the case here. No one could say a word in justification of the course which was adopted; all were alive to the danger that was being encountered; yet a grave risk was deliberately, although unwillingly incurred, in preference to admitting, by withdrawal from an untenable position, that an error of judgment had been committed.

After a laborious trudge over many species of snow, and through many varieties of vapor - from the quality of a Scotch mist to that of a London fog - we at length stood on the depression between the Rothhorn and the Schallhorn.37 A steep wall of snow was upon the Zinal side of the summit, but what the descent was like on the other side we could not tell, for a billow of snow tossed over its crest by the western winds, suspended over Zermatt with motion arrested, resembling an ocean wave frozen in the act of breaking, cut off the view.38 Croz, held hard in by the others, who kept down the Zinal side, opened his shoulders, flogged down the foam, and cut away the cornice to its junction with the summit; then boldly leaped down, and called on us to follow him.

It was well for us now that we had such a man as leader. An inferior or less daring guide would have hesitated to enter upon the descent in a dense mist, and Croz himself would have done right to pause had he been less magnificent in physique. He acted rather than said, “Where snow lies fast, there man can go; where ice exists, a way may be cut; it is a question of power: I have the power - all you have to do is to follow me.” Truly, he did not spare himself, and could he have performed the feats upon the boards of a theatre that he did upon this occasion, he would have brought down the house with thunders of applause. Here is what Moore wrote in his Journal:

[The descent bore a strong resemblance to the Col de la Pilatte, but was very much steeper and altogether more difficult, which is saying a good deal. Croz was in his element, and selected his way with marvellous sagacity, while Almer had an equally honourable, and perhaps more responsible, post in the rear, which he kept with his usual steadiness… One particular passage has impressed itself on my mind as one of the most nervous I have ever made. We had to pass along a crest of ice, a mere knife-edge - on our left a broad crevasse, whose bottom was lost in blue haze, and on our right, at an angle of seventy degrees or more, a slope falling to a similar gulf below. Croz, as he went along the edge, chipped small notches in the ice, in which we placed our feet, with the toes well turned out, doing all we knew to preserve our balance. While stepping from one of these precarious footholds to another, I staggered for a moment. I had not really lost my footing, but the agonised tone in which Almer, who was behind me, on seeing me waver, exclaimed, “Slip not, sir!” gave us an even livelier impression than we already had of the insecurity of the position…One huge chasm, whose upper edge was far above the lower one, could neither be leaped nor turned, and threatened to prove an insuperable barrier. But Croz showed himself equal to the emergency. Held up by the rest of the party, he cut a series of holes for the hands and feet, down and along the almost perpendicular wall of ice forming the upper side of the schrund. Down this slippery staircase we crept, with our faces to the wall, until a point was reached where the width of the chasm was not too great, for us to drop across. Before we had done we got quite accustomed to taking flying leaps over the schrunds... To make a long story short: after a most desperate and exciting struggle, and as bad a piece of ice-work as it is possible to imagine, we emerged on to the upper plateau of the Hohlicht glacier.]

The glimpses which had been caught of the lower part of the Hohlicht glacier were discouraging, so it was now determined to cross over the ridge between it and the Rothhorn glacier. This was not done without great trouble. Again we rose to a height exceeding twelve thousand feet. Eventually we took to the track of the despised Triftjoch, and descended by the well-known but rough path which leads to that pass, arriving at the Monte Rosa hotel at Zermatt at 7.20 p.m. We occupied nearly twelve hours of actual walking in coming from the châlet on the Arpitetta Alp (which was two and a half hours above Zinal), and we consequently found that the Moming pass was not the shortest route from Zinal to Zermatt, although it was the most direct.

Two dozen guides - good, bad and indifferent, French, Swiss and Italian - can commonly be seen sitting on the wall in front of the Monte Rosa hotel, waiting on their employers and looking for employers, watching new arrivals, and speculating on the number of francs which may be extracted from their pockets. The Messieurs - sometimes strangely and wonderfully dressed - stand about in groups, or lean back in chairs, or lounge on the benches which are placed by the door. They wear extraordinary boots, and still more remarkable head-dresses. Their peeled, blistered and swollen faces are worth studying. Some, by the exercise of watchfulness and unremitting care, have been fortunate enough to acquire a fine raw sienna complexion. But most of them have not been so happy. They have been scorched on rocks and roasted on glaciers. Their cheeks - first puffed, then cracked - have exuded a turpentine-like matter, which has coursed down their faces, and has dried in patches like the resin on the trunks of pines. They have removed it, and at the same time have pulled off large flakes of their skin. They have gone from bad to worse - their case has be come hopeless - knives and scissors have been called into play: tenderly and daintily they have endeavoured to reduce their cheeks to one uniform hue. It is not to be done. But they have gone on, fascinated, and at last have brought their unhappy countenances to a state of helpless and complete ruin. Their lips are cracked, their cheeks are swollen, their eyes are bloodshot, their noses are peeled and indescribable.

Such are the pleasures of the mountaineer! Scornfully and derisively the last-comer compares the sight with his own flaccid face and dainty hands, unconscious that he too, perhaps, will be numbered with those whom he now ridicules.

There is a frankness of manner about these strangely-appareled and queer-faced men which does not remind one of drawing-room or city life; and it is good to see - in this club-room of Zermatt - those cold bodies, our too-frigid countrymen, melt together when they are brought into contact; and it is pleasant to witness the hearty welcome given to the new-comers by the host and his excellent wife.39

I left this agreeable society to seek letters at the post. They yielded disastrous intelligence. My holiday was brought to an abrupt termination, and I awaited the arrival of Reilly (who was convoying the stores for the attack on the Matterhorn) only to inform him that our arrangements were upset; then traveled home, day and night, as fast as express-trains would carry me.

32 The Col de Zinal or Triftjoch, between the Trifthorn and the Ober Gabelhorn; and the Col Durand between the last-mentioned mountain and the Dent Blanche. For our route from Zinal to Zermatt, see the map of the valley of Zermatt.

33 High above the Glacier de Moming at the foot of the Crête de Milton.

34 Moore’s Journal.

35 Through what is technically called an “ice-fall.”

36 The responsibility did not rest with Croz. His part was to advise, but not to direct.

37 The summit of the pass has been marked on Dufour’s map 3793 metres, or 12,444 feet.

38. These snow-cornices are common on the crests of high mountain ridges, and it is always prudent (just before arriving upon the summit of a mountain or ridge) to sound with the alpenstock, that is to say, drive it in, to discover whether there is one or not. Men have often narrowly escaped losing their lives from neglecting this precaution. These cornices are frequently rolled round in a volute, and sometimes take most extravagant forms.

39. This opportunity has been taken to introduce to the reader some of the most expert amateur mountaineers of the time; and a few of the guides who have been, or will be, mentioned in the course of the book. Peter Perrn is on the extreme right. Then come young Peter Taugwalder (upon the bench); and J. J. Maquignaz (leaning against the door-post). Franz Andermatten occupies the steps, and Ulrich Lauener towers in the background.