Scrambles Amongst the Alps

Edward Whymper

CHAPTER 7

Our Sixth Attempt to Ascend the Matterhorn

Carrel had carte blanche in the matter of guides, and his choice fell upon his relative Cæsar, Luc Meynet and two others whose names I do not know. These men were now brought together, and our preparations were completed, as the weather was clearing up.

We rested on Sunday, August 9, eagerly watching the lessening of the mists around the great peak, and started just before dawn upon the 10th, on a still and cloudless morning, which seemed to promise a happy termination to our enterprise.

By going always, but gently, we arrived upon the Col du Lion before nine o’clock. Changes were apparent. Familiar ledges had vanished; the platform whereon my tent had stood looked very forlorn; its stones had been scattered by wind and frost, and had half disappeared; and the summit of the col itself, which in 1862 had always been respectably broad and covered by snow, was now sharper than the ridge of any church roof, and was hard ice. Already we had found that the bad weather of the past week had done its work. The rocks for several hundred feet below the col were varnished with ice. Loose, incoherent snow covered the older and harder beds below, and we nearly lost our leader through its treacherousness. He stepped on some snow which seemed firm, and raised his axe to deliver a swinging blow, but just as it was highest the crust of the slope upon which he stood broke away, and poured down in serpentine streams, leaving long bare strips, which glittered in the sun, for they were glassy ice. Carrel, with admirable readiness, flung himself back on to the rock off which he had stepped, and was at once secured. He simply remarked, “It is time we were tied up,” and after we had been tied up he went to work again as if nothing had happened.

We had abundant illustrations during the next two hours of the value of a rope to climbers. We were tied up rather widely apart, and advanced generally in pairs. Carrel, who led, was followed closely by another man, who lent him a shoulder or placed an axe-head under his feet when there was need; and when this couple were well placed, the second pair advanced in similar fashion, the rope being drawn in by those above and paid out gradually by those below. The leading men advanced, or the third pair, and so on. This manner of progression was slow but sure. One man only moved at a time, and if he slipped (and we frequently did slip), he could slide scarcely a foot without being checked by the others. The certainty and safety of the method gave confidence to the one who was moving, and not only nerved him to put out his powers to the utmost, but sustained nerve in really difficult situations. For these rocks (which, it has been already said, were easy enough under ordinary circumstances) were now difficult in a high degree. The snow-water, which had trickled down for many days past in little streams, had taken, naturally, the very route by which we wished to ascend; and, re-frozen in the night, had glazed the slabs over which we had to pass - sometimes with a fine film of ice as thin as a sheet of paper, and sometimes so thickly that we could almost cut footsteps in it. The weather was superb, the men made light of the toil, and shouted to rouse the echoes from the Dent d’Hérens.

We went on gayly, passed the second tent-platform, the Chimney and the other well-remembered points, and reckoned confidently on sleeping that night upon the top of “the shoulder;” but before we had well arrived at the foot of the Great Tower, a sudden rush of cold air warned us to look out.

It was difficult to say where this air came from: it did not blow as a wind, but descended rather as the water in a shower-bath. All was tranquil again: the atmosphere showed no signs of disturbance: there was a dead calm, and not a speck of cloud to be seen anywhere. But we did not remain very long in this state. The cold air came again, and this time it was difficult to say where it did not come from. We jammed down our hats as it beat against the ridge and screamed amongst the crags. Before we had got to the foot of the Tower mists had been formed above and below. They appeared at first in small, isolated patches (in several places at the same time), which danced and jerked and were torn into shreds by the wind, but grew larger under the process. They were united together and rent again, showing us the blue sky for a moment, and blotting it out the next, and augmented incessantly until the whole heavens were filled with whirling, boiling clouds. Before we could take off our packs and get under any kind of shelter a hurricane of snow burst upon us from the east. It fell so thickly that in a few minutes the ridge was covered by it. “What shall we do?” I shouted to Carrel. “Monsieur,” said he, “the wind is bad, the weather has changed, we are heavily laden. Here is a fine gîte; let us stop. If we go on we shall be half frozen. That is my opinion.” No one differed from him; so we fell to work to make a place for the tent, and in a couple of hours completed the platform which we had commenced in 1862. The clouds had blackened during that time, and we had hardly finished our task before a thunder-storm broke upon us with appalling fury. Forked lightning shot out at the turrets above and at the crags below. It was so close that we quailed at its darts. It seemed to scorch us: we were in the very focus of the storm. The thunder was simultaneous with the flashes, short and sharp, and more like the noise of a door violently slammed, multiplied a thousand-fold, than any noise to which I can compare it.

When I say that the thunder was simultaneous with the lightning, I speak as an inexact person. My meaning is, that the time which elapsed between seeing the flash and hearing the report was inappreciable to me. I wish to speak with all possible precision, and there are two points in regard to this storm upon which I can speak with some accuracy. The first is in regard to the distance of the lightning from our party. We might have been eleven hundred feet from it if a second of time had elapsed between seeing the flashes and hearing the reports; and a second of time is not appreciated by inexact persons. It was certain that we were sometimes less than that distance from the lightning, because I saw it pass in front of well-known points on the ridge, both above and below us, which were less (sometimes considerably less) than a thousand feet distant.

Secondly, in regard to the difficulty of distinguishing sounds which are merely echoes from true thunder or the noise which occurs simultaneously with lightning. Arago entered into this subject at some length in his Meteorological Essays, and seemed to doubt if it would ever be possible to determine whether echoes are always the cause of the rolling sounds commonly called thunder. I shall not attempt to show whether the rolling sounds should ever or never be regarded as true thunder, but only that during this storm upon the Matterhorn it was possible to distinguish the sound of the thunder itself from the sounds (rolling and otherwise) which were merely the echoes of the first, original sound.

At the place where we were camped a remarkable echo could be heard (one so remarkable that if it could be heard in this country it would draw crowds for its own sake): I believe it came from the cliffs of the Dent d’Hérens. It was a favourite amusement with us to rouse this echo, which repeated any sharp cry in a very distinct manner several times, after the lapse of something like a dozen seconds. The thunderstorm lasted nearly two hours, and raged at times with great fury; and the prolonged rollings from the surrounding mountains after one flash had not usually ceased before another set of echoes took up the discourse, and maintained the reverberations without a break. Occasionally there was a pause, interrupted presently by a single clap, the accompaniment of a single discharge, and after such times I could recognise the echoes from the Dent d’Hérens by their peculiar repetitions, and by the length of time which had passed since the reports had occurred of which they were the echoes.

If I had been unaware of the existence of this echo, I should have supposed that the resounds were original reports of explosions which had been unnoticed, since in intensity they were scarcely distinguishable from the true thunder, which during this storm seemed to me, upon every occasion, to consist of a single harsh, instantaneous sound.12

Or if, instead of being placed at a distance of less than a thousand feet from the points of explosion (and consequently hearing the report almost in the same moment as we saw the flash, am the rollings after a considerable interval of time), we had been placed so that the original report had fallen on our ears nearly at the same moment as the echoes, we should probably have considered that the successive reports and rollings of the echoes were reports of successive explosions occurring nearly at the same moment, and that they were not echoes at all.

This is the only time (out of many storms witnessed in the Alps) I have obtained evidence that the rollings of thunder are actually echoes, and that they are not, necessarily, the reports of a number of discharges over a long line, occurring at varying distances from the spectator, and consequently unable to arrive at his ear at the same moment, although they follow each other so swiftly as to produce a sound more or less continuous.13

The wind during all this time seemed to blow tolerably consistently from the east. It smote the tent so vehemently (notwithstanding it was partly protected by rocks) that we had grave fears our refuge might be blown away bodily, with ourselves inside; so, during some of the lulls, we issued out and built a wall to windward. At half-past three the wind changed to the north-west, and the clouds vanished. We immediately took the opportunity to send down one of the porters (under protection of some of the others a little beyond the Col du Lion), as the tent would accommodate only five persons. From this time to sunset the weather was variable. It was sometimes blowing and snowing hard, and sometimes a dead calm. The bad weather was evidently confined to the Mont Cervin, for when the clouds lifted we could see everything that could be seen from our gîte. Monte Viso, a hundred miles off, was clear, and the sun set gorgeously behind the range of Mont Blanc. We passed the night comfortably, even luxuriously, in our blanket-bags, but there was little chance of sleeping, between the noise of the wind, of the thunder and of the falling rocks. I forgave the thunder for the sake of the lightning. A more splendid spectacle than its illumination of the Matterhorn crags I do not expect to see.

We turned out at 3.30 a.m.on the 11th, and were dismayed to find that it still continued to snow. At 9.00 a.m. the snow ceased to fall, and the sun showed itself feebly, so we packed up our baggage and set out to try to get upon “the shoulder.” We struggled upward until eleven o’clock, and then it commenced to snow again. We held a council: the opinions expressed at it were unanimous against advancing, and I decided to retreat; for we had risen less than three hundred feet in the past two hours, and had not even arrived at the rope which Tyndall’s party left behind attached to the rocks, in 1862. At the same rate of progression it would have taken us from four to five hours to get upon “the shoulder.” Not one of us cared to attempt to do so under the existing circumstances; for, besides having to move our own weight, which was sufficiently troublesome at this part of the ridge, we had to transport much heavy baggage, tent, blankets, provisions, ladder and four hundred and fifty feet of rope, besides many other smaller matters. These, however, were not the most serious considerations. Supposing that we got upon “the shoulder,” we might find ourselves detained there several days, unable either to go up or down.14 I could not risk any such detention, being under obligations to appear in London at the end of the week. We got to Breuil in the course of the afternoon: it was quite fine there, and the tenants of the inn received our statements with evident skepticism. They were astonished to learn that we had been exposed to a snow-storm of twenty-six hours’ duration. “Why,” said Favre, the innkeeper, “we have had no snow: it has been fine all the time you have been absent, and there has been only that small cloud upon the mountain.” Ah! that small cloud! None except those who have had experience of it can tell what a formidable obstacle it is.

Why is it that the Matterhorn is subject to these abominable variations of weather? The ready answer is, “Oh, the mountain is so isolated, it attracts the clouds.” This is not a sufficient answer. Although the mountain is isolated, it is not so much more isolated than the neighbouring peaks that it should gather clouds when none of the others do so. It will not at all account for the cloud to which I refer, which is not formed by an aggregation of smaller, stray clouds drawn together from a distance (as scum collects round a log in the water), but is created against the mountain itself, and springs into existence where no clouds were seen before. It is formed and hangs chiefly against the southern sides, and particularly against the south-eastern side. It frequently does not envelop the summit, and rarely extends down to the Glacier du Lion and to the Glacier du Mont Cervin below. It forms in the finest weather - on cloudless and windless days.

I conceive that we should look to differences of temperature rather than to the height or isolation of the mountain for an explanation. I am inclined to attribute the disturbances which occur in the atmosphere of the southern sides of the Matterhorn on fine days principally to the fact that the mountain is a rock mountain - that it receives a great amount of heat, and is not only warmer itself, but is surrounded by an atmosphere of a higher temperature, than such peaks as the Weisshorn and the Lyskamm, which are eminently snow mountains.

In certain states of the atmosphere its temperature may be tolerably uniform over wide areas and to great elevations. I have known the thermometer to show seventy degrees in the shade at the top of an Alpine peak more than thirteen thousand feet high, and but a very few degrees higher six or seven thousand feet lower. At other times there will be a difference of forty or fifty degrees (Fahrenheit) between two stations, the higher not more than six or seven thousand feet above the lower.

Provided that the temperature was uniform, or nearly so, on all sides of the Matterhorn, and to a considerable distance above its summit, no clouds would be likely to form upon it. But if the atmosphere immediately surrounding it is warmer than the contiguous strata, a local “courant ascendant” must necessarily be generated; and portions of the cooler superincumbent (or circumjacent) air will naturally be attracted toward the mountain, where they will speedily condense the moisture of the warm air in contact with it. I cannot explain the down-rushes of cold air which occur on it when all the rest of the neighbourhood appears to be tranquil, in any other way. The clouds are produced by the contact of two strata of air (of widely different temperatures) charged with invisible moisture, as surely as certain colourless fluids produce a white, turbid liquid when mixed together. The order has been, wind of a low temperature, mist, rain, snow or hail.

This opinion is borne out to some extent by the behaviour of the neighbouring mountains. The Dom (14,935 feet) and the Dent Blanche (14,318) have both of them large cliffs of bare rock upon their southern sides, and against those cliffs clouds commonly form (during fine, still weather) at the same time as the cloud on the Matterhorn; whilst the Weisshorn (14,804) and the Lyskamm (14,889)--mountains of about the same altitude, and which are in corresponding situations to the former pair--usually remain perfectly clear.

I arrived at Chatillon at midnight on the 11th, defeated and disconsolate, but, like a gambler who loses each throw, only the more eager to have another try, to see if the luck would change; and returned to London ready to devise fresh combinations and to form new plans.


Footnotes
12. The same has seemed to me to be the case at all times when I have been close to the points of explosion. There has been always a distinct interval between the first explosion and the rolling sounds and secondary explosions which I have believed to be merely echoes; but it has never been possible (except in the above-mentioned case) to identify them as such. Others have observed the same. “The geologist, Professor Theobald, of Chur, who was in the Solferino storm, between the Tschiertscher and Urden Alp, in the electric clouds, says that the peals were short, like cannon shots, but of a clearer, more cracking tone, and that the rolling of the thunder was only heard further on.” Berlepsch’s Alps, English ed., p. 133.

13. Mr. J. Glaislier has frequently pointed out that all sounds in balloons at some distance from the earth are notable for their brevity. “It is one sound only; there is no reverberation, no reflection; and this is characteristic of all sounds in the balloon, one clear sound, continuing during its own vibrations, then gone in a moment.” (Good Words, 1863, p. 224.) I learn from Mr. Glaislier that the thunder claps which have been heard by him during his ‘travels in the air’ have been no exception to the general rule, and the absence of rolling has fortified his belief that the rolling sounds which accompany thunder are echoes, and echoes only.

14. Since then (on at least one occasion), several persons have found themselves in this predicament for five or six consecutive days!