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AN ALPINE VALLEY
ALL night the rain fell heavily and the storm still continued when early the following morning I took the train for Chamonix, in the heart of the French Alps. I had been half minded to wait for better weather, but I was not sorry after all that I made the journey when I did, for nothing could have been finer than the changing panorama of the mountains, silent and slumberous amid the gray cloud drift. The summits of all except the ridges were lost to view, and across their broad bases floated detached masses of vapor, sometimes in heavy billows, sometimes in formless mists that grew or dissolved with a dreamy evanescence more like magic than reality.
As we proceeded the clouds lifted higher, the rain grew thinner, and there were patches of blue sky and faint gleams of sunshine. But still the mountains were wrapped in uncertainty. How high they were you could not guess, though you had glimpses of their rocky buttresses so far skyward that you might fancy they were the pillars of the heavens. The lower slopes were wooded, mostly with sombre firs and spruce, yet everywhere there were frequent grassy glades which in their meagre way did service as grazing grounds and mowing land. In the valleys were occasional small manufacturing villages, while farm cottages were scattered not only on the narrow levels bordering the streams, but clung, all along, far up the mountain sides. I did not envy the dwellers on the uplands. It was painful to think of their solitude and of the unceasing climbing up and down to which they were doomed all their days. What a treadmill existence life on those vast steeps must be!
At Le Fayet the railroad came to an end, still twelve miles from Chamonix, and outside the station a small army of omnibuses and carriages were waiting to take the passengers arriving by the train on up the valley. I preferred to walk and approach more leisurely the presence of Mont Blanc and the assemblage of great heights clustering about that monarch of European mountains.
As I left Le Fayet I looked for signs of the flood that a few years before had made the vicinity the scene of one of the most serious Alpine disasters in history. A glacier lake had burst back among the mountains, and devastated in its downrush a beautiful wooded gorge that enters the main valley at this point, sweeping away a hotel with great loss of life and burying the lowlands in mud, rocks, and wreckage. But nature had healed the scars, and there at Le Fayet I could detect no indication of the havoc so recently wrought in the peaceful valley.
The road to Chamonix proved very good, a winding, steadily rising way the whole distance. For the most part it crept along a hillslope high above a mountain torrent, sometimes in the damp dusk of the evergreen woods, sometimes in the open of a cultivated valley basin. The stream in the ravine was opaque and gray with washings of glacier dust, a striking contrast to the brooks coursing down the near ridges. The latter did not have their sources among the ice-fields, and they were as limpid and colorless as it is possible for water to be.
I met frequent workmen on the road — peasants, drivers, quarrymen, and, most numerous of all, for some reason or other, carpenters. The men of this last class were particularly noticeable because of their costume—Tam-o'-Shanter caps, which they wore slouched over one eye, and vast, baggy trousers of dark velvet, while at the waist they were girt about with a red scarf. They were big, strapping, dark-visaged fellows, and altogether had a look so brigandish that I felt a trifle anxious when I met them alone in the twilight of the lofty fir woods.
AMONG THE MOUNTAINS
Lumbering is the most important industry of the district, and every now and then I came on a rickety little gray sawmill in some glen where a stream furnished the necessary power. The mills were each equipped with a single saw of the jig variety, working straight up and down in an antiquated saw-pit. Anything more modern was apparently unknown.
Many loaded carts were on the road, scraping along with set brakes down to the railway. Some carried lumber, others stone, and still others were laden with ice from the foot of one of the glaciers. The ice was destined for Geneva, Lyons, and other cities. It has a certain amount of grit in it, but is otherwise very good, and the supply has the advantage of being unlimited and never-failing.
Midway on my journey a blast was set off in some invisible but near quarry. Immediately before, the silence of the wilderness brooded over the valley. Then came that rending explosion and let bedlam loose. The echoes resounded from every cliff and leaped from ridge to ridge, coming back again and again as if in fruitless search for escape amid that chaos of mountain crags, and it was a long time before the last faint call floated down to me from some far cloud-land height.
The farmhouses and cottages of the region were of the Swiss type, low buildings with wide-reaching shingle roofs. The shingles were quite unlike those we use in America, being much heavier, longer, and clumsier. They were, in fact, simply short boards as thick at one end as at the other. The overlapping was rather loose, and many roofs had flat stones distributed about on them to prevent the shaky construction from blowing away. Under the wide reach of the eaves, against the house walls, it is customary to store the supply of firewood, and some of the more provident peasantry had piles which reached from the ground clear to the rafters.
I had not gone far on my way up the valley when, in momentary lifts of the clouds, I saw streaks of snow in the high mountain hollows. The snow did not look cold, and I could not help fancying it was some colorless powder that had been lightly sifted over the purple heights. The sight of it gave me a rare thrill of pleasure — I was really among the Alps — and the clouded mystery of those lofty precipices with their deep clefts whitened by the eternal snows seemed to me superlatively beautiful. As I went on I began to have glimpses of the Mont Blanc group and of snow-streaks broadening upward into wide white expanses that were perfectly unbroken, save for now and then the upthrust of some isolated crag.
A WAYSIDE CROSS
At noon I approached a little village and stopped at a wayside inn for a lunch. From the room where I ate I could look out to the mountains and see reaching down a high valley a great glacier — one among nearly two score that own Mont Blanc as their source. The fascination grew as I gazed. I felt that I could not go farther until I had paid the glacier a visit, and after lunch I started. A young man of the inn went with me as guide. His services were not exactly necessary, but he could speak English, and I was quite ready to pay his price for the privilege of using my mother-tongue. He was a stout, intelligent fellow and a mountain-climber by profession, though still too young to be a full-fledged guide. He had been four times to the top of Mont Blanc, acting as assistant or porter. He said he knew the route perfectly, and the ascent was not difficult. It was customary for those who essayed the climb to go in caravans, but he would go with me alone if I wanted. Later, I made inquiries of other natives of the region as to the Mont Blanc trip, and it was generally agreed that, in the main, the journey was made without encountering any danger at all serious; yet there was always the chance of some unforeseen catastrophe, as the accidents of the past proved.
Our way to the Glacier des Bossons led up a steep zigzag through the woods and at length brought us out on a little plateau crowning a ridge of the glacial moraine. In the wide gorge down below was the frozen flood from the mountains, streaked with dust and dotted here and there with great stones. Seen from where we stood the ruder features of the ice-stream were so subdued as to make it seem an exceedingly simple matter to walk across its gentle folds to the opposite moraine, the high wall of which, with a serrated fringe of firs along the top, was in plain sight. But when I clambered down the slope of loose grit and stones to the bottom of the moraine, things had a different aspect. To get on to the main body of the ice was in itself no easy matter, for along the shore the ice had melted away and left a decline like the roof of a house. Some steps had been hewn in this ice wall, and by these I ascended. I was not anxious to do any extended exploring alone. It was all too dreadfully slippery; there were damp, chilling emanations in the air, and there were frequent blue fissures that appeared perfectly heartless and altogether too ready to take one to themselves. When I looked up the glacier toward its source, it rose steep and high to a point where, much splintered and broken, it seemed to have flowed over a great cliff. It was like the frothing down-rush of a herculean waterfall that had been suddenly petrified as it was about to devastate the world.
Many tourists came toiling up to the glacier borders, both men and women. Most of them were on foot, but not infrequently they made the ascent on muleback. The truly aristocratic, who were thoroughly appreciative of the fact that they were climbing among the far-famed Alps, were armed with alpenstocks and had on their heads slouch hats of the sort worn by Swiss mountaineers, with a signet of feathers on the side. The mulebacked tourists reached the glacier quite cool and collected, and after a look this way and that, to take in the situation, were ready to tramp off after their guides across the ice. The plight of the pedestrians was not so cheerful, especially when they were elderly. I noted one white-haired couple arriving, the man ahead towing his exhausted wife with his umbrella. They and all the wilted and panting folk on foot settled down for a long rest before they went farther. They looked as if this vacation work was the hardest they did in all the year.
After a time my guide and I retraced our steps to the village in the valley. Just before I parted from him at his inn we heard the faint crash of an avalanche somewhere in the mountain cloudland, and he said that during the heavy snows of winter the sound of the falling avalanches was almost continuous and often was very loud. In the glen itself, the winters, while not especially severe, were cold enough so that they had snow and travelled on runners for about three months.
OVERLOOKING THE GLACIER DE BOSSONS
It was late in the afternoon when I approached Chamonix, and the cows were coming home, or were being baited in the fields near the houses. The women did most of the cow-tending, and as they walked after the creatures or stood on guard to prevent them from straying, they busied themselves knitting. Usually they had their skirts picturesquely kilted up about them, and the elderly women were sure to have little shawls or kerchiefs pinned over their heads. It was the fashion of the region for each cow to wear a big bell on its neck suspended from a leather strap five or six inches broad. There was a constant "tink, tink," of these sober-toned bells — this music of the mountains — all around the town and even in the streets, for many of the herds passed through the village ways as milking time drew near. I thought that all the precautions of bells and watchers must mean that the cows did most of their feeding high on the unfenced mountain slopes; but I was told that they pastured on the near hillsides, and the bells were worn more as a matter of local custom than as a necessity. The higher grazing lands were used almost wholly by the Swiss, who come with their flocks over the mountains from their home country every summer.
At the hotel which I chose for my stopping-place there arrived that evening a party of German students — pedestrians, each with a knapsack and an alpenstock proclaiming to all beholders that they were enthusiasts in the art of mountain climbing. The students were enjoying themselves in their touring to the top of their bent, and were overflowing with youthful noise and uncertainty. They were blest with marvellously hearty appetites, and when they sat down to their evening dinner they lingered so long it seemed as if they proposed to stay until it was time for breakfast. But their attention was not given merely to eating; they had no end of things to say to each other, and their conversation was full of eager energy. In their medley of jokes and laughter and planning, half a dozen sometimes talked at once, and it was the same all through their stay — abounding spirits and restless activity. When one thing was finished, and they started on some new project, the excitement reached a white heat, and there was hurry-scurrying all over the premises. If a mountain ascent was to be attempted, there could hardly have been more confusion had it been an expedition to the North Pole. But I liked them, and it seemed to me they were youths of a virile, brainy race. As a result of their presence I dreamed on the first night of my stay at Chamonix that I became personally acquainted with the German emperor, and, to my surprise, he proved to be very quiet and companionable, domestic and simple in his tastes, and not at all the haughty aristocrat one fancies him to be from current accounts.
When I awoke the next morning, the Kaiser had vanished with the rest of the phantoms of the night, and I was aware by the sounds which drifted in at my open window that the village was beginning to be astir. There were footsteps on the street, indistinct voices, the barking of a dog, the faint dinging of cowbells, and, intermingled with it all, the continuous murmur of the little river, not far distant, hurrying down the hollow of the valley with its gray flood of glacier water. At the same time I heard with a tourist's natural disrelish the patter of rain on the roofs and the gurgle of full water-spouts.
We had a showery forenoon, but signs of brightening were not lacking, and at length some stray rays of sunshine encouraged the Germans to think of starting for a climb. An early lunch was set out for them, and the clan gathered to dispose of it at half-past eleven. They were in a tremendous hurry, and had nearly worried the life out of the landlord and his assistants with their vociferous eagerness to have the lunch at once and be off. I expected to see them clear the table in about five minutes, and then, with their staffs and other Alpine accoutrements, promptly let themselves loose on their mountain expedition. But between their boyish appetites and the lively flow of their conversation they loitered over the viands and the accompanying bottles for a full hour.
It was the Germans' intention to cross the great glacier of the Mer de Glace, and a while after they had gone, the weather signs continuing promising, it occurred to me that I could not do better than to follow. the same trail, and off I started. For a short distance my route was across the level meadows of the valley. Then it went up and up through dripping fir woods, in which the lower limbs of all the trees were festooned with moss hanging in fibrous pendants and giving the forest a look strangely gloomy and ancient. Now and then I crossed a cleared streak, and, feeding on the grasses which grew in these bushy opens, I sometimes saw a tinkling herd of goats apparently perfectly content with their steep pasturage. Presently the path, which for a long time had been skirting around a mountain side, changed its course to a sharp-angled zigzag and so continued to the end. It was knee-racking work going up so unceasingly through the mud, hour after hour. Sometimes I stopped to catch breath and to look back across the deep valley, whence I had come, to the misty heights opposite, their bases clad with dark woodland which gave way above to rugged crags and white snow-fields. But I never paused long, and finally I began to overtake the Germans. Their line of march had grown straggling, and those less enterprising or of weaker physique had lagged behind the leaders, who could be heard shouting nearly a mile on ahead.
During the latter half of the climb, I passed through several layers of mist, and toward the very end went into a heavy, chilling fog full of rain. I was now on the edge of the permanent snow-line; the woods had become meagre and scraggly, and there were snowbanks by the wayside, while a little higher up all the hollows were filled with drifts. At a height of sixty-three hundred feet above the sea level, and three thousand above that of Chamonix, I reached a big, lonely hotel perched on a mountain cliff overlooking the broad gorge of the Mer de Glace. In a momentary rift of the clouds, I looked down on the ice hillocks of the glacier, and then the gray mists drooped into the vast chasm and blotted it from view.
Three or four of the Germans arrived at the hotel just before I did; and the others, wet and bedraggled, strayed in, one or two at a time, until the waiting-room was well filled. We dried ourselves somewhat before a cheerful open fire, ate refreshments, and bought souvenirs; and the Germans put in their spare moments in writing to all their relatives postal cards, on which were printed mountain views of the vicinity.
We kept watch of the weather from the windows, and, in time, the mists overhanging the glacier broke up and rolled away, and we started, in spite of a thin rain that was still falling. We had to go down a long, steep descent to reach the ice, and there on its borders we paused to make way for our guide to take his place at the head of the procession. We now looked to him to lead us safely across the glacier's perils, whatever they might be, real and imaginary. The guide carried an axe, and on the more slippery slopes he chipped out rude steps, and gave us a steadying hand. Still, if the path had been clearly defined, so that one could not go astray, there would have been no serious trouble in making the crossing alone. The surface was one vast upheaval of waves — low and rounded for the most part, but sometimes rising into high, sharp crests. As a whole, the effect of this mile-wide glacier, winding down from the distant cloud-hidden Mont Blanc, was that of a broad river in a tumult of leaping and foaming waters.
When we reached the opposite moraine, the guide turned back to recross the ice to the hotel, and we climbed out of the glacial valley and began the long descent to Chamonix. Our path kept along the edge of the moraine, and the wide, still stream of ice in the chasm was always in sight. For the last half century the Alpine glaciers have been receding, and the ice, which once filled the vast ravine of the Mer de Glace to its brim, has now shrunken a hundred feet or more down into its depths. Débris from the banks has fallen plenteously on the ice flood, and for a considerable distance out from either shore it is hidden and gray.
The path was often very steep, and at one point, where it crept down the face of a craggy declivity, steps had been hewn in the rock, and an iron rail put up, to which we were very glad to cling. About halfway to the valley, we passed a little refreshment shanty, and by our pathside encountered a boy blowing, for our benefit, a horn that was as long as he was. It was not easy for so small a boy to blow so great a horn, but he screwed up his face and did his valorous best; and he managed not only to draw forth a doleful little tune from his instrument, but certain small coins from our pockets, which we bestowed as a token of our appreciation of his exertions. After we left the boy and the refreshment hut, we entered the wet woodland, and an hour's tramping down its muddy, slippery ways brought us to the welcome valley levels.
The weather took a turn for the better during the night, and it was fair afterward for a number of days, but during my stay at Chamonix there were always enough clouds drifting about so that the mountains were never wholly unobscured. Mont Blanc was the most retiring of all. Wrapped in its misty dreams it never once deigned to reveal itself to the human mites in the valley watching vainly for a glimpse of its white majesty. I suppose the true way to see it is to climb to the very top of its everlasting snows. It is the only sure way, for the clouds love to hover about its frozen heights, and on an average only sixty days in the year is an unintercepted view of it to be had from the valley.
In spite of the toil and the dangers, about one hundred tourists go to the summit yearly, and among this number each season are two or three women. This climbing Mont Blanc is a comparatively modern pleasure. Up to one hundred and fifty years ago the valley of Chamonix was almost unknown. The region under the name of "The Accursed Mountains" was considered a wilderness, and the reputation of the inhabitants was decidedly bad. Then attention began to be attracted to its wonderful scenery, and in 176o the scientist Sassure offered a prize for the discovery of a practical route to the summit of Mont Blanc. It was twenty-six years later that the ascent was successfully made and the prize won by Jacques Balmat, a guide. Balmat was then a young man, and he made the trip alone. In after years he went up again and again, and he was climbing among the mountain steeps when at the age of seventy-two he met his death. He had in some way become possessed with the idea that there was gold in the high peaks and crags, and while engaged in one of his solitary quests for this wealth which had no existence save in his own imagination, he slipped over a precipice and was killed.
From Balmat's time on, ascents were not infrequent, but only in the last half century have they been a popular recreation. Now parties are going up in summer nearly every day. When a single tourist makes the ascent he is accompanied by at least one guide and a porter. The party is linked together by ropes, a guide ahead and a porter bringing up the rear. It is a three day's trip. The first day the climb is much of the way through the woods and among the rocks. At the point where the path is finally compelled to betake itself to the ice and the snow-fields there is a hut. Three hours farther on is a second hut on a splintered rib of the mountain granite which rises out of the frozen depths. These two cots are the summer home of a man and his wife who stay sometimes in one, sometimes in the other, to care for the parties of climbers. Supplies can be brought up to the first cabin on muleback, but to the farther one must be carried on human shoulders. From this the climb on the second day is continued to the summit. There, too, a shelter has been built, but it has no landlord or regular occupant. The third day suffices for the return to the villages and green farm-lands of the Chamonix valley.
LABORERS IN THE CHAMONIX VALLEY
The ascent makes an interesting experience, and there is no doubt a peculiar charm in the remembrance of its hardships and its wild scenery. But there is no climax of a beautiful view from the summit. You are then nearly sixteen thousand feet above the level of the Mediterranean, on the boundary line between France and Italy, with the borders of Switzerland only a few miles away. Yet Mont Blanc is so girt about with broad ice-fields and so removed from the world beyond that even in the clearest weather the distance presents only vague outlines.
About fifty fatalities have occurred in climbing this giant mountain of the Alps. The one recalled oftenest at the time of my visit was that of an English Captain Arkwright, who many years before had been swept to his death with three guides by an avalanche. After some days of digging the bodies of the three guides were recovered; but bad weather came on, and the search for Captain Arkwright was abandoned. In 1897, however, his body was found halfway down the mountain side in the glacial ice. It was perfectly preserved, but much mutilated, for the ice is in a way fluid and as it courses down the slopes its parts do not move together, and they rend everything they hold in their grip.
I had my fill of climbing in conveying myself up to the Mer de Glace, and I was quite content afterward to leave Mont Blanc to others while I wandered about the farm-lands of the valley. In the main the inhabitants are peasants depending for a living on their cattle and on what they can get from the soil. Even Chamonix village has its rustic side, though at first it appears to be wholly composed of big hotels and souvenir shops, with streets enlivened in fair weather almost altogether by coaches and carriages, and by a mixed concourse of tourists, guides, and saddled mules. But seek out the byways and visit the outskirts, and you find many humble homes where live the plain farm folk. You see them driving their cattle to and from pasture, you catch glimpses of them through open doors doing their primitive housework, and you see them at their various field tasks. Always they labor in the presence of those vast mountain heights with their frowning forests and crags, their snowbound summits of dazzling purity, and their glaciers down-flowing in the gorges.
You would fancy that all this grandeur might have some marked effect on character, yet I suppose the valley folk get used to it and its power and majesty are wasted on them. But to the traveller it is fascinating and awe-inspiring, and once seen is never forgotten.
My only regret when I came away was that Mont Blanc had continued hidden. Toward the close of the day I left, the half-clouded sky showed a more marked tendency to clear than it had exhibited any time previous, and that evening at Geneva I sat long on the quays by the lake watching for the far-off Alps to appear. The clouds had been gradually melting away, and now none remained except for some low layers lingering along the southern horizon. But there lay the Alps, and though I imagined once or twice that I saw the snowy peaks pink in the last rays of the departing sun, I am afraid I was mistaken, and that Mont Blanc for me still belongs to the unknown.