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Mark Twain > A Tramp Abroad > Chapter XLIV

A Tramp Abroad

Chapter XLIV


[I Scale Mont Blanc--by Telescope]

After breakfast, that next morning in Chamonix, we went
out in the yard and watched the gangs of excursioning
tourists arriving and departing with their mules and guides
and porters; then we took a look through the telescope
at the snowy hump of Mont Blanc. It was brilliant
with sunshine, and the vast smooth bulge seemed hardly
five hundred yards away. With the naked eye we could
dimly make out the house at the Pierre Pointue, which is
located by the side of the great glacier, and is more
than three thousand feet above the level of the valley;
but with the telescope we could see all its details.
While I looked, a woman rode by the house on a mule, and I
saw her with sharp distinctness; I could have described
her dress. I saw her nod to the people of the house,
and rein up her mule, and put her hand up to shield
her eyes from the sun. I was not used to telescopes;
in fact, I had never looked through a good one before;
it seemed incredible to me that this woman could be
so far away. I was satisfied that I could see all
these details with my naked eye; but when I tried it,
that mule and those vivid people had wholly vanished,
and the house itself was become small and vague. I tried
the telescope again, and again everything was vivid.
The strong black shadows of the mule and the woman were
flung against the side of the house, and I saw the mule's
silhouette wave its ears.

The telescopulist--or the telescopulariat--I do not know
which is right--said a party were making a grand ascent,
and would come in sight on the remote upper heights,
presently; so we waited to observe this performance.
Presently I had a superb idea. I wanted to stand with
a party on the summit of Mont Blanc, merely to be able
to say I had done it, and I believed the telescope
could set me within seven feet of the uppermost man.
The telescoper assured me that it could. I then asked
him how much I owed him for as far as I had got? He said,
one franc. I asked him how much it would cost to make
the entire ascent? Three francs. I at once determined
to make the entire ascent. But first I inquired
if there was any danger? He said no--not by telescope;
said he had taken a great many parties to the summit,
and never lost a man. I asked what he would charge to let
my agent go with me, together with such guides and porters
as might be necessary. He said he would let Harris go
for two francs; and that unless we were unusually timid,
he should consider guides and porters unnecessary;
it was not customary to take them, when going by telescope,
for they were rather an encumbrance than a help.
He said that the party now on the mountain were approaching
the most difficult part, and if we hurried we should
overtake them within ten minutes, and could then join them
and have the benefit of their guides and porters without
their knowledge, and without expense to us.

I then said we would start immediately. I believe I
said it calmly, though I was conscious of a shudder
and of a paling cheek, in view of the nature of the
exploit I was so unreflectingly engaged in. But the old
daredevil spirit was upon me, and I said that as I
had committed myself I would not back down; I would
ascend Mont Blanc if it cost me my life. I told the man
to slant his machine in the proper direction and let us be off.

Harris was afraid and did not want to go, but I heartened
him up and said I would hold his hand all the way; so he
gave his consent, though he trembled a little at first.
I took a last pathetic look upon the pleasant summer scene
about me, then boldly put my eye to the glass and prepared
to mount among the grim glaciers and the everlasting snows.

We took our way carefully and cautiously across the great
Glacier des Bossons, over yawning and terrific crevices
and among imposing crags and buttresses of ice which were
fringed with icicles of gigantic proportions. The desert
of ice that stretched far and wide about us was wild and
desolate beyond description, and the perils which beset us
were so great that at times I was minded to turn back.
But I pulled my pluck together and pushed on.

We passed the glacier safely and began to mount
the steeps beyond, with great alacrity. When we
were seven minutes out from the starting-point, we
reached an altitude where the scene took a new aspect;
an apparently limitless continent of gleaming snow was
tilted heavenward before our faces. As my eye followed
that awful acclivity far away up into the remote skies,
it seemed to me that all I had ever seen before of sublimity
and magnitude was small and insignificant compared to this.

We rested a moment, and then began to mount with speed.
Within three minutes we caught sight of the party ahead of us,
and stopped to observe them. They were toiling up a long,
slanting ridge of snow--twelve persons, roped together some
fifteen feet apart, marching in single file, and strongly
marked against the clear blue sky. One was a woman.
We could see them lift their feet and put them down;
we saw them swing their alpenstocks forward in unison,
like so many pendulums, and then bear their weight
upon them; we saw the lady wave her handkerchief.
They dragged themselves upward in a worn and weary way,
for they had been climbing steadily from the Grand Mulets,
on the Glacier des Dossons, since three in the morning,
and it was eleven, now. We saw them sink down in the
snow and rest, and drink something from a bottle.
After a while they moved on, and as they approached the final
short dash of the home-stretch we closed up on them and
joined them.

Presently we all stood together on the summit! What a view
was spread out below! Away off under the northwestern horizon
rolled the silent billows of the Farnese Oberland, their snowy
crests glinting softly in the subdued lights of distance;
in the north rose the giant form of the Wobblehorn,
draped from peak to shoulder in sable thunder-clouds;
beyond him, to the right, stretched the grand processional
summits of the Cisalpine Cordillera, drowned in a
sensuous haze; to the east loomed the colossal masses
of the Yodelhorn, the Fuddelhorn, and the Dinnerhorn,
their cloudless summits flashing white and cold in the sun;
beyond them shimmered the faint far line of the Ghauts
of Jubbelpore and the Aigulles des Alleghenies; in the
south towered the smoking peak of Popocatapetl and the
unapproachable altitudes of the peerless Scrabblehorn;
in the west-south the stately range of the Himalayas
lay dreaming in a purple gloom; and thence all around
the curving horizon the eye roved over a troubled sea
of sun-kissed Alps, and noted, here and there, the noble
proportions and the soaring domes of the Bottlehorn,
and the Saddlehorn, and the Shovelhorn, and the Powderhorn,
all bathed in the glory of noon and mottled with softly
gliding blots, the shadows flung from drifting clouds.

Overcome by the scene, we all raised a triumphant,
tremendous shout, in unison. A startled man at my elbow
said:

"Confound you, what do you yell like that for, right here
in the street?"

That brought me down to Chamonix, like a flirt.
I gave that man some spiritual advice and disposed of him,
and then paid the telescope man his full fee, and said
that we were charmed with the trip and would remain down,
and not reascend and require him to fetch us down by telescope.
This pleased him very much, for of course we could have
stepped back to the summit and put him to the trouble
of bringing us home if we wanted to.

I judged we could get diplomas, now, anyhow; so we
went after them, but the Chief Guide put us off,
with one pretext or another, during all the time we stayed
in Chamonix, and we ended by never getting them at all.
So much for his prejudice against people's nationality.
However, we worried him enough to make him remember
us and our ascent for some time. He even said, once,
that he wished there was a lunatic asylum in Chamonix.
This shows that he really had fears that we were going
to drive him mad. It was what we intended to do,
but lack of time defeated it.

I cannot venture to advise the reader one way or the other,
as to ascending Mont Blanc. I say only this: if he is at
all timid, the enjoyments of the trip will hardly make up
for the hardships and sufferings he will have to endure.
But, if he has good nerve, youth, health, and a bold,
firm will, and could leave his family comfortably provided
for in case the worst happened, he would find the ascent
a wonderful experience, and the view from the top a vision
to dream about, and tell about, and recall with exultation
all the days of his life.

While I do not advise such a person to attempt the ascent,
I do not advise him against it. But if he elects to attempt it,
let him be warily careful of two things: chose a calm,
clear day; and do not pay the telescope man in advance.
There are dark stories of his getting advance payers on
the summit and then leaving them there to rot.

A frightful tragedy was once witnessed through the
Chamonix telescopes. Think of questions and answers
like these, on an inquest:

CORONER. You saw deceased lose his life?

WITNESS. I did.

C. Where was he, at the time?

W. Close to the summit of Mont Blanc.

C. Where were you?

W. In the main street of Chamonix.

C. What was the distance between you?

W. A LITTLE OVER FIVE MILES, as the bird flies.

This accident occurred in 1866, a year and a month after the
disaster on the Matterhorn. Three adventurous English gentlemen,
[1] of great experience in mountain-climbing, made up their
minds to ascend Mont Blanc without guides or porters.
All endeavors to dissuade them from their project failed.
Powerful telescopes are numerous in Chamonix. These huge
brass tubes, mounted on their scaffoldings and pointed
skyward from every choice vantage-ground, have the
formidable look of artillery, and give the town the general
aspect of getting ready to repel a charge of angels.
The reader may easily believe that the telescopes
had plenty of custom on that August morning in 1866,
for everybody knew of the dangerous undertaking which was
on foot, and all had fears that misfortune would result.
All the morning the tubes remained directed toward the
mountain heights, each with its anxious group around it;
but the white deserts were vacant.

1. Sir George Young and his brothers James and Albert.

At last, toward eleven o'clock, the people who were
looking through the telescopes cried out "There they
are!"--and sure enough, far up, on the loftiest terraces
of the Grand Plateau, the three pygmies appeared,
climbing with remarkable vigor and spirit. They disappeared
in the "Corridor," and were lost to sight during an hour.
Then they reappeared, and were presently seen standing together
upon the extreme summit of Mont Blanc. So, all was well.
They remained a few minutes on that highest point of land
in Europe, a target for all the telescopes, and were then
seen to begin descent. Suddenly all three vanished.
An instant after, they appeared again, TWO THOUSAND FEET
BELOW!

Evidently, they had tripped and been shot down an almost
perpendicular slope of ice to a point where it joined
the border of the upper glacier. Naturally, the distant
witness supposed they were now looking upon three corpses;
so they could hardly believe their eyes when they presently saw
two of the men rise to their feet and bend over the third.
During two hours and a half they watched the two busying
themselves over the extended form of their brother,
who seemed entirely inert. Chamonix's affairs stood still;
everybody was in the street, all interest was centered
upon what was going on upon that lofty and isolated stage
five miles away. Finally the two--one of them walking
with great difficulty--were seen to begin descent,
abandoning the third, who was no doubt lifeless.
Their movements were followed, step by step, until they
reached the "Corridor" and disappeared behind its ridge.
Before they had had time to traverse the "Corridor"
and reappear, twilight was come, and the power of the
telescope was at an end.

The survivors had a most perilous journey before
them in the gathering darkness, for they must get
down to the Grands Mulets before they would find
a safe stopping-place--a long and tedious descent,
and perilous enough even in good daylight. The oldest
guides expressed the opinion that they could not succeed;
that all the chances were that they would lose their lives.

Yet those brave men did succeed. They reached the Grands
Mulets in safety. Even the fearful shock which their nerves
had sustained was not sufficient to overcome their coolness
and courage. It would appear from the official account
that they were threading their way down through those
dangers from the closing in of twilight until two o'clock
in the morning, or later, because the rescuing party from
Chamonix reached the Grand Mulets about three in the morning
and moved thence toward the scene of the disaster under
the leadership of Sir George Young, "who had only just arrived."

After having been on his feet twenty-four hours,
in the exhausting work of mountain-climbing, Sir George
began the reascent at the head of the relief party
of six guides, to recover the corpse of his brother.
This was considered a new imprudence, as the number
was too few for the service required. Another relief
party presently arrived at the cabin on the Grands
Mulets and quartered themselves there to await events.
Ten hours after Sir George's departure toward the summit,
this new relief were still scanning the snowy altitudes
above them from their own high perch among the ice
deserts ten thousand feet above the level of the sea,
but the whole forenoon had passed without a glimpse of any
living thing appearing up there.

This was alarming. Half a dozen of their number set out,
then early in the afternoon, to seek and succor Sir George
and his guides. The persons remaining at the cabin saw
these disappear, and then ensued another distressing wait.
Four hours passed, without tidings. Then at five
o'clock another relief, consisting of three guides,
set forward from the cabin. They carried food and
cordials for the refreshment of their predecessors;
they took lanterns with them, too; night was coming on,
and to make matters worse, a fine, cold rain had begun
to fall.

At the same hour that these three began their dangerous ascent,
the official Guide-in-Chief of the Mont Blanc region
undertook the dangerous descent to Chamonix, all alone,
to get reinforcements. However, a couple of hours later,
at 7 P.M., the anxious solicitude came to an end,
and happily. A bugle note was heard, and a cluster
of black specks was distinguishable against the snows
of the upper heights. The watchers counted these specks
eagerly--fourteen--nobody was missing. An hour and a half
later they were all safe under the roof of the cabin.
They had brought the corpse with them. Sir George Young
tarried there but a few minutes, and then began the long
and troublesome descent from the cabin to Chamonix.
He probably reached there about two or three o'clock
in the morning, after having been afoot among the rocks
and glaciers during two days and two nights. His endurance
was equal to his daring.

The cause of the unaccountable delay of Sir George and
the relief parties among the heights where the disaster
had happened was a thick fog--or, partly that and partly
the slow and difficult work of conveying the dead body
down the perilous steeps.

The corpse, upon being viewed at the inquest, showed
no bruises, and it was some time before the surgeons
discovered that the neck was broken. One of the surviving
brothers had sustained some unimportant injuries,
but the other had suffered no hurt at all. How these men
could fall two thousand feet, almost perpendicularly,
and live afterward, is a most strange and unaccountable thing.

A great many women have made the ascent of Mont Blanc.
An English girl, Miss Stratton, conceived the daring idea,
two or three years ago, of attempting the ascent in the
middle of winter. She tried it--and she succeeded.
Moreover, she froze two of her fingers on the way up,
she fell in love with her guide on the summit,
and she married him when she got to the bottom again.
There is nothing in romance, in the way of a striking
"situation," which can beat this love scene in midheaven
on an isolated ice-crest with the thermometer at zero
and an Artic gale blowing.

The first woman who ascended Mont Blanc was a girl aged
twenty-two--Mlle. Maria Paradis--1809. Nobody was
with her but her sweetheart, and he was not a guide.
The sex then took a rest for about thirty years,
when a Mlle. d'Angeville made the ascent --1838. In
Chamonix I picked up a rude old lithograph of that day
which pictured her "in the act."

However, I value it less as a work of art than as a
fashion-plate. Miss d'Angeville put on a pair of men's
pantaloons to climb it, which was wise; but she cramped
their utility by adding her petticoat, which was idiotic.

One of the mournfulest calamities which men's disposition
to climb dangerous mountains has resulted in,
happened on Mont Blanc in September 1870. M. D'Arve
tells the story briefly in his HISTOIRE DU MONT BLANC.
In the next chapter I will copy its chief features.

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