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Mark Twain > A Tramp Abroad > Chapter XLV

A Tramp Abroad

Chapter XLV


A Catastrophe Which Cost Eleven Lives
[Perished at the Verge of Safety]

On the 5th of September, 1870, a caravan of eleven persons
departed from Chamonix to make the ascent of Mont Blanc.
Three of the party were tourists; Messrs. Randall and Bean,
Americans, and Mr. George Corkindale, a Scotch gentleman;
there were three guides and five porters. The cabin
on the Grands Mulets was reached that day; the ascent
was resumed early the next morning, September 6th.
The day was fine and clear, and the movements of the party
were observed through the telescopes of Chamonix; at two
o'clock in the afternoon they were seen to reach the summit.
A few minutes later they were seen making the first steps
of the descent; then a cloud closed around them and hid
them from view.

Eight hours passed, the cloud still remained, night came,
no one had returned to the Grands Mulets. Sylvain Couttet,
keeper of the cabin there, suspected a misfortune,
and sent down to the valley for help. A detachment of
guides went up, but by the time they had made the tedious
trip and reached the cabin, a raging storm had set in.
They had to wait; nothing could be attempted in such
a tempest.

The wild storm lasted MORE THAN A WEEK, without ceasing;
but on the 17th, Couttet, with several guides, left the
cabin and succeeded in making the ascent. In the snowy
wastes near the summit they came upon five bodies,
lying upon their sides in a reposeful attitude which
suggested that possibly they had fallen asleep there,
while exhausted with fatigue and hunger and benumbed with cold,
and never knew when death stole upon them. Couttet moved
a few steps further and discovered five more bodies.
The eleventh corpse--that of a porter--was not found,
although diligent search was made for it.

In the pocket of Mr. Bean, one of the Americans, was found
a note-book in which had been penciled some sentences
which admit us, in flesh and spirit, as it were, to the
presence of these men during their last hours of life,
and to the grisly horrors which their fading vision looked
upon and their failing consciousness took cognizance of:

TUESDAY, SEPT. 6. I have made the ascent of Mont Blanc,
with ten persons--eight guides, and Mr. Corkindale
and Mr. Randall. We reached the summit at half past 2.
Immediately after quitting it, we were enveloped in clouds
of snow. We passed the night in a grotto hollowed
in the snow, which afforded us but poor shelter, and I
was ill all night.

SEPT. 7--MORNING. The cold is excessive. The snow falls
heavily and without interruption. The guides take no rest.

EVENING. My Dear Hessie, we have been two days on
Mont Blanc, in the midst of a terrible hurricane of snow,
we have lost our way, and are in a hole scooped in the snow,
at an altitude of 15,000 feet. I have no longer any hope
of descending.

They had wandered around, and around, in the blinding
snow-storm, hopelessly lost, in a space only a hundred
yards square; and when cold and fatigue vanquished them
at last, they scooped their cave and lay down there
to die by inches, UNAWARE THAT FIVE STEPS MORE WOULD HAVE
BROUGHT THEM INTO THE TRUTH PATH. They were so near
to life and safety as that, and did not suspect it.
The thought of this gives the sharpest pang that the tragic
story conveys.

The author of the HISTOIRE DU MONT BLANC introduced
the closing sentences of Mr. Bean's pathetic record thus:

"Here the characters are large and unsteady; the hand
which traces them is become chilled and torpid;
but the spirit survives, and the faith and resignation
of the dying man are expressed with a sublime simplicity."

Perhaps this note-book will be found and sent to you.
We have nothing to eat, my feet are already frozen,
and I am exhausted; I have strength to write only a few
words more. I have left means for C's education; I know
you will employ them wisely. I die with faith in God,
and with loving thoughts of you. Farewell to all.
We shall meet again, in Heaven. ... I think of
you always.

It is the way of the Alps to deliver death to their victims
with a merciful swiftness, but here the rule failed.
These men suffered the bitterest death that has been
recorded in the history of those mountains, freighted as
that history is with grisly tragedies.

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