The Ascent of the Dent Blanche
Croz and Biener did not return until past 5.00 a.m. on June 17, and we then set out at once for Zermatt, intending to cross the Col d’Hérens. But we did not proceed far before the attractions of the Dent Blanche were felt to be irresistible, and we turned aside up the steep lateral glacier which descends along its south-western face.
The Dent Blanche is a mountain little known except to the climbing fraternity. It was, and is, reputed to be one of the most difficult mountains in the Alps. Many attempts were made to scale it before its ascent was accomplished. Even Leslie Stephen himself, fleetest of foot of the whole Alpine brotherhood, once upon a time returned discomfited from it.
It was not climbed until 1862, but in that year Mr. T. S. Kennedy, with Mr. Wigram and the guides Jean B. Croz and Kronig, managed to conquer it.
They had a hard fight, though, before they gained the victory: a furious wind and driving snow, added to the natural difficulties, nearly turned the scale against them.
Mr. Kennedy described his expedition in a very interesting paper in the Alpine Journal. His account bore the impress of truth, but unbelievers said that it was impossible to have told (in weather such as was then experienced) whether the summit had actually been attained, and sometimes roundly asserted that the mountain, as the saying is, yet remained virgin.
I did not share these doubts, although they influenced me to make the ascent. I thought it might be possible to find an easier route than that taken by Mr. Kennedy, and that if we succeeded in discovering one we should be able at once to refute his traducers and to vaunt our superior wisdom. Actuated by these elevated motives, I halted my little army at the foot of the glacier, and inquired, “Which is best for us to do? - to ascend the Dent Blanche, or to cross to Zermatt?” They answered, with befitting solemnity, “We think Dent Blanche is best.”
From the châlets of Abricolla the southwest face of the Dent Blanche is regarded almost exactly in profile. From thence it is seen that the angle of the face scarcely exceeds thirty degrees, and after observing this I concluded that the face would, in all probability, give an easier path to the summit than the crest of the very jagged ridge which was followed by Mr. Kennedy.
We zigzagged up the glacier along the foot of the face, and looked for a way on to it. We looked for some time in vain, for a mighty bergschrund effectually prevented approach, and, like a fortress’ moat, protected the wall from assault. We went up and up, until, I suppose, we were not more than a thousand feet below the point marked 3912 metres: then a bridge was discovered, and we dropped down on hands and knees to cross it.
A bergschrund, it has been said, is a schrund and something more than a schrund. A schrund is simply a big crevasse: a bergschrund is frequently, but not always, a big crevasse. The term is applied to the last of the crevasses one finds, in ascending, before quitting the glacier and taking to the rocks which bound it. It is the mountains’ schrund. Sometimes it is very large, but early in the season (that is to say, in the month of June or before) bergschrunds are usually snowed up or well bridged over, and do not give much trouble. Later in the year, say in August, they are frequently very great hindrances, and occasionally are completely impassable.
We crossed the bergschrund of the Dent Blanche, I suppose, at a height of about twelve thousand feet above the level of the sea. Our work may be said to have commenced at that point. The face, although not steep in its general inclination, was so cut up by little ridges and cliffs, and so seamed with incipient couloirs, that it had all the difficulty of a much more precipitous slope. The difficulties were never great, but they were numerous, and made a very respectable total when put together. We passed the bergschrund soon after nine in the morning, and during the next eleven hours halted only five and forty minutes. The whole of the remainder of the time was occupied in ascending and descending the twenty-four hundred feet which compose this south-western face; and inasmuch as one thousand feet per hour (taking the mean of ascent and descent) is an ordinary rate of progression, it is tolerably certain that the Dent Blanche is a mountain of exceptional difficulty.
The hindrances opposed to us by the mountain itself were, however, as nothing compared with the atmospheric obstructions. It is true there was plenty of - “Are you fast, Almer?” “Yes.” “Go ahead, Biener.” Biener, made secure, cried, “Come on, sir,” and Monsieur endeavoured. “No, no,” said Almer, “not there - here” pointing with his bàton to the right place to clutch. Then ’twas Croz’s turn, and we all drew in the rope as the great man followed. “Forward” once more - and so on.
Five hundred feet of this kind of work had been accomplished when we were saluted (not entirely unexpectedly) by the first gust of a hurricane which was raging above. The day was a lovely one for dwellers in the valleys, but we had long ago noted some light, gossamer clouds that were hovering round our summit, being drawn out in a suspicious manner into long, silky threads. Croz, indeed, prophesied before we had crossed the schrund that we should be beaten by the wind, and had advised that we should return. But I had retorted, “No, my good Croz, you said just now, ‘Dent Blanche is best:’ we must go up the Dent Blanche.”
I have a very lively and disagreeable recollection of this wind. Upon the outskirts of the disturbed region it was only felt occasionally. It then seemed to make rushes at one particular man, and when it had discomfited him, it whisked itself away to some far-off spot, only to return presently in greater force than before.
My old enemy, the Matterhorn, seen across the basin of the Zmuttgletscher, looked totally unassailable. “Do you think,” the men asked, “that you or any one else will ever get up that mountain?” And when, undismayed by their ridicule, I stoutly answered, “Yes, but not upon that side,” they burst into derisive chuckles. I must confess that my hopes sank, for nothing can look, or be, more completely inaccessible than the Matterhorn on its northern and north-west sides.
“Forward” once again. We overtopped the Dent d’Hérens. “Not a thousand feet more: in three hours we shall be on the summit.” “You mean ten,” echoed Croz, so slow had been the progress. But I was not far wrong in the estimate. At 3.15 we struck the great ridge followed by Mr. Kennedy, close to the top of the mountain. The wind and cold were terrible there. Progress was oftentimes impossible, and we waited, crouching under the lee of rocks, listening to “the shrieking of the mindless wind,” while the blasts swept across, tearing off the upper snow and blowing it away in streamers over the Schönbühl glacier - “nothing seen except an indescribable writhing in the air, like the wind made visible.”
Our goal was concealed by the mist, though it was only a few yards away, and Croz’s prophecy that we should stay all night upon the summit seemed likely to come true. The men rose with the occasion, although even their fingers had nearly lost sensation. There were no murmurings nor suggestions of return, and they pressed on for the little white cone which they knew must be near at hand. Stopped again - a big mass perched loosely on the ridge barred the way: we could not crawl over and scarcely dared creep round it. The wine went round for the last time. The liquor was half frozen - still we would more of it. It was all gone: the bottle was left behind, and we pushed on, for there was a lull.
The end came almost before it was expected. The clouds opened, and I saw that we were all but upon the highest point, and that between us and it, about twenty yards off, there was a little artificial pile of stones. Kennedy was a true man - it was a cairn which he had erected. “What is that, Croz?” “Homme de pierres,” he bawled. It was needless to proceed farther: I jerked the rope from Biener, and motioned that we would go back. He did the same to Almer, and we turned immediately. They did not see the stones (they were cutting footsteps), and misinterpreted the reason of the retreat. Voices were inaudible and explanations impossible.
We commenced the descent of the face. It was hideous work. The men looked like impersonations of Winter, with their hair all frosted and their beards matted with ice. My hands were numbed - dead. I begged the others to stop. “We cannot afford to stop; we must continue to move,” was their reply. They were right: to stop was to be entirely frozen. So we went down, gripping rocks varnished with ice, which pulled the skin from the fingers. Gloves were useless: they became iced too, and the bàtons slid through them as slippery as eels. The iron of the axes stuck to the fingers - it felt red hot; but it was useless to shrink: the rocks and the axes had to be firmly grasped - no faltering would do here.
We turned back at 4.12 p.m. and at 8.15 crossed the bergschrund, again, not having halted for a minute upon the entire descent. During the last two hours it was windless, but time was of such vital importance that we pressed on incessantly, and did not stop until we were fairly upon the glacier. Then we took stock of what remained of the tips of our fingers. There was not much skin left: they were perfectly raw, and for weeks afterward I was reminded of the ascent of the Dent Blanche by the twinges which I felt when I pulled on my boots. The others escaped with some slight frost-bites, and altogether we had reason to congratulate ourselves that we got off so lightly. The men complimented me upon the descent, and I could do the same honestly by them. If they had worked less vigorously or harmoniously, we should have been benighted upon the face, where there was not a single spot upon which it was possible to sit; and if that had happened, I do not think that one would have survived to tell the tale.
We made the descent of the glacier in a mist, and of the moraine at its base and of the slopes below in total darkness, and regained the châlets of Abricolla at 11.45 P. M. We had been absent eighteen and a half hours, and out of that time had been going not less than seventeen. That night we slept the sleep of those who are thoroughly tired.47
Two days afterward, when walking into Zermatt, whom should we meet but Mr. Kennedy! “Hullo!” we said, “we have just seen your cairn on the top of the Dent Blanche.” “No, you haven’t,” he answered very positively. “What do you mean?” “Why, that you cannot have seen my cairn, because I didn’t make one!” “Well, but we saw a cairn.” “No doubt: it was made by a man who went up the mountain last year with Lauener and Zurfluh.” “O-o-h!” we said, rather disgusted at hearing news when we expected to communicate some - “O-o-h! Good-morning, Kennedy.” Before this happened we managed to lose our way upon the Col d’Hérens, but an account of that must be reserved for the next chapter.