The Complete Works of Mark Twain

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.
Mark Twain > A Tramp Abroad > Chapter XXXVI

A Tramp Abroad

Chapter XXXVI

[The Fiendish Fun of Alp-climbing]

We did not oversleep at St. Nicholas. The church-bell
began to ring at four-thirty in the morning, and from
the length of time it continued to ring I judged that it
takes the Swiss sinner a good while to get the invitation
through his head. Most church-bells in the world
are of poor quality, and have a harsh and rasping
sound which upsets the temper and produces much sin,
but the St. Nicholas bell is a good deal the worst one
that has been contrived yet, and is peculiarly maddening
in its operation. Still, it may have its right and its
excuse to exist, for the community is poor and not every
citizen can afford a clock, perhaps; but there cannot be
any excuse for our church-bells at home, for their is no
family in America without a clock, and consequently there
is no fair pretext for the usual Sunday medley of dreadful
sounds that issues from our steeples. There is much more
profanity in America on Sunday than is all in the other six
days of the week put together, and it is of a more bitter
and malignant character than the week-day profanity, too.
It is produced by the cracked-pot clangor of the cheap

We build our churches almost without regard to cost;
we rear an edifice which is an adornment to the town, and we
gild it, and fresco it, and mortgage it, and do everything
we can think of to perfect it, and then spoil it all by
putting a bell on it which afflicts everybody who hears it,
giving some the headache, others St. Vitus's dance,
and the rest the blind staggers.

An American village at ten o'clock on a summer Sunday is
the quietest and peacefulest and holiest thing in nature;
but it is a pretty different thing half an hour later.
Mr. Poe's poem of the "Bells" stands incomplete to this day;
but it is well enough that it is so, for the public reciter
or "reader" who goes around trying to imitate the sounds
of the various sorts of bells with his voice would find
himself "up a stump" when he got to the church-bell--
as Joseph Addison would say. The church is always trying
to get other people to reform; it might not be a bad idea
to reform itself a little, by way of example. It is still
clinging to one or two things which were useful once,
but which are not useful now, neither are they ornamental.
One is the bell-ringing to remind a clock-caked town
that it is church-time, and another is the reading from
the pulpit of a tedious list of "notices" which everybody
who is interested has already read in the newspaper.
The clergyman even reads the hymn through--a relic
of an ancient time when hymn-books are scarce and costly;
but everybody has a hymn-book, now, and so the public reading
is no longer necessary. It is not merely unnecessary,
it is generally painful; for the average clergyman could
not fire into his congregation with a shotgun and hit a worse
reader than himself, unless the weapon scattered shamefully.
I am not meaning to be flippant and irreverent, I am only
meaning to be truthful. The average clergyman, in all
countries and of all denominations, is a very bad reader.
One would think he would at least learn how to read
the Lord's Prayer, by and by, but it is not so. He races
through it as if he thought the quicker he got it in,
the sooner it would be answered. A person who does not
appreciate the exceeding value of pauses, and does not know
how to measure their duration judiciously, cannot render
the grand simplicity and dignity of a composition like
that effectively.

We took a tolerably early breakfast, and tramped off
toward Zermatt through the reeking lanes of the village,
glad to get away from that bell. By and by we had a fine
spectacle on our right. It was the wall-like butt end of a
huge glacier, which looked down on us from an Alpine height
which was well up in the blue sky. It was an astonishing
amount of ice to be compacted together in one mass.
We ciphered upon it and decided that it was not less than
several hundred feet from the base of the wall of solid
ice to the top of it--Harris believed it was really
twice that. We judged that if St. Paul's, St. Peter's,
the Great Pyramid, the Strasburg Cathedral and the Capitol
in Washington were clustered against that wall, a man
sitting on its upper edge could not hang his hat on the top
of any one of them without reaching down three or four
hundred feet--a thing which, of course, no man could do.

To me, that mighty glacier was very beautiful. I did
not imagine that anybody could find fault with it; but I
was mistaken. Harris had been snarling for several days.
He was a rabid Protestant, and he was always saying:

"In the Protestant cantons you never see such poverty
and dirt and squalor as you do in this Catholic one;
you never see the lanes and alleys flowing with foulness;
you never see such wretched little sties of houses;
you never see an inverted tin turnip on top of a church
for a dome; and as for a church-bell, why, you never hear
a church-bell at all."

All this morning he had been finding fault, straight along.
First it was with the mud. He said, "It ain't muddy in a
Protestant canton when it rains." Then it was with the dogs:
"They don't have those lop-eared dogs in a Protestant canton."
Then it was with the roads: "They don't leave the roads
to make themselves in a Protestant canton, the people make
them--and they make a road that IS a road, too." Next it
was the goats: "You never see a goat shedding tears
in a Protestant canton--a goat, there, is one of the
cheerfulest objects in nature." Next it was the chamois:
"You never see a Protestant chamois act like one of these--
they take a bite or two and go; but these fellows camp
with you and stay." Then it was the guide-boards: "In
a Protestant canton you couldn't get lost if you wanted to,
but you never see a guide-board in a Catholic canton."
Next, "You never see any flower-boxes in the windows,
here--never anything but now and then a cat--a torpid one;
but you take a Protestant canton: windows perfectly lovely
with flowers--and as for cats, there's just acres of them.
These folks in this canton leave a road to make itself,
and then fine you three francs if you 'trot' over it--
as if a horse could trot over such a sarcasm of a road."
Next about the goiter: "THEY talk about goiter!--I haven't
seen a goiter in this whole canton that I couldn't put
in a hat."

He had growled at everything, but I judged it would puzzle
him to find anything the matter with this majestic glacier.
I intimated as much; but he was ready, and said with surly
discontent: "You ought to see them in the Protestant cantons."

This irritated me. But I concealed the feeling, and asked:

"What is the matter with this one?"

"Matter? Why, it ain't in any kind of condition.
They never take any care of a glacier here. The moraine
has been spilling gravel around it, and got it all dirty."

"Why, man, THEY can't help that."

"THEY? You're right. That is, they WON'T. They could
if they wanted to. You never see a speck of dirt
on a Protestant glacier. Look at the Rhone glacier.
It is fifteen miles long, and seven hundred feet think.
If this was a Protestant glacier you wouldn't see it looking
like this, I can tell you."

"That is nonsense. What would they do with it?"

"They would whitewash it. They always do."

I did not believe a word of this, but rather than have
trouble I let it go; for it is a waste of breath to argue
with a bigot. I even doubted if the Rhone glacier WAS
in a Protestant canton; but I did not know, so I could
not make anything by contradicting a man who would
probably put me down at once with manufactured evidence.

About nine miles from St. Nicholas we crossed a bridge
over the raging torrent of the Visp, and came to a log
strip of flimsy fencing which was pretending to secure
people from tumbling over a perpendicular wall forty feet
high and into the river. Three children were approaching;
one of them, a little girl, about eight years old,
was running; when pretty close to us she stumbled and fell,
and her feet shot under the rail of the fence and for a
moment projected over the stream. It gave us a sharp shock,
for we thought she was gone, sure, for the ground slanted
steeply, and to save herself seemed a sheer impossibility;
but she managed to scramble up, and ran by us laughing.

We went forward and examined the place and saw the long
tracks which her feet had made in the dirt when they
darted over the verge. If she had finished her trip she
would have struck some big rocks in the edge of the water,
and then the torrent would have snatched her downstream
among the half-covered boulders and she would have been
pounded to pulp in two minutes. We had come exceedingly
near witnessing her death.

And now Harris's contrary nature and inborn selfishness
were striking manifested. He has no spirit of self-denial.
He began straight off, and continued for an hour,
to express his gratitude that the child was not destroyed.
I never saw such a man. That was the kind of person he was;
just so HE was gratified, he never cared anything about
anybody else. I had noticed that trait in him, over and
over again. Often, of course, it was mere heedlessness,
mere want of reflection. Doubtless this may have been
the case in most instances, but it was not the less hard
to bar on that account--and after all, its bottom,
its groundwork, was selfishness. There is no avoiding
that conclusion. In the instance under consideration,
I did think the indecency of running on in that way might
occur to him; but no, the child was saved and he was glad,
that was sufficient--he cared not a straw for MY feelings,
or my loss of such a literary plum, snatched from my
very mouth at the instant it was ready to drop into it.
His selfishness was sufficient to place his own gratification
in being spared suffering clear before all concern for me,
his friend. Apparently, he did not once reflect upon the
valuable details which would have fallen like a windfall
to me: fishing the child out--witnessing the surprise of
the family and the stir the thing would have made among the
peasants--then a Swiss funeral--then the roadside monument,
to be paid for by us and have our names mentioned in it.
And we should have gone into Baedeker and been immortal.
I was silent. I was too much hurt to complain. If he could
act so, and be so heedless and so frivolous at such a time,
and actually seem to glory in it, after all I had done for him,
I would have cut my hand off before I would let him see
that I was wounded.

We were approaching Zermatt; consequently, we were
approaching the renowned Matterhorn. A month before,
this mountain had been only a name to us, but latterly
we had been moving through a steadily thickening double
row of pictures of it, done in oil, water, chromo, wood,
steel, copper, crayon, and photography, and so it had at
length become a shape to us--and a very distinct, decided,
and familiar one, too. We were expecting to recognize
that mountain whenever or wherever we should run across it.
We were not deceived. The monarch was far away when we
first saw him, but there was no such thing as mistaking him.
He has the rare peculiarity of standing by himself;
he is peculiarly steep, too, and is also most oddly shaped.
He towers into the sky like a colossal wedge, with the
upper third of its blade bent a little to the left.
The broad base of this monster wedge is planted upon
a grand glacier-paved Alpine platform whose elevation
is ten thousand feet above sea-level; as the wedge itself
is some five thousand feet high, it follows that its
apex is about fifteen thousand feet above sea-level.
So the whole bulk of this stately piece of rock, this
sky-cleaving monolith, is above the line of eternal snow.
Yet while all its giant neighbors have the look of being
built of solid snow, from their waists up, the Matterhorn
stands black and naked and forbidding, the year round,
or merely powdered or streaked with white in places,
for its sides are so steep that the snow cannot stay there.
Its strange form, its august isolation, and its majestic
unkinship with its own kind, make it--so to speak--the Napoleon
of the mountain world. "Grand, gloomy, and peculiar,"
is a phrase which fits it as aptly as it fitted the great

Think of a monument a mile high, standing on a pedestal
two miles high! This is what the Matterhorn is--a monument.
Its office, henceforth, for all time, will be to keep
watch and ward over the secret resting-place of the young
Lord Douglas, who, in 1865, was precipitated from the
summit over a precipice four thousand feet high, and never
seen again. No man ever had such a monument as this before;
the most imposing of the world's other monuments are
but atoms compared to it; and they will perish, and their
places will pass from memory, but this will remain. [1]

1. The accident which cost Lord Douglas his life (see
    Chapter xii) also cost the lives of three other men.
    These three fell four-fifths of a mile, and their bodies
    were afterward found, lying side by side, upon a glacier,
    whence they were borne to Zermatt and buried in the
    The remains of Lord Douglas have never been found.
    The secret of his sepulture, like that of Moses, must remain
    a mystery always.

A walk from St. Nicholas to Zermatt is a wonderful experience.
Nature is built on a stupendous plan in that region.
One marches continually between walls that are piled
into the skies, with their upper heights broken into
a confusion of sublime shapes that gleam white and cold
against the background of blue; and here and there one
sees a big glacier displaying its grandeurs on the top
of a precipice, or a graceful cascade leaping and flashing
down the green declivities. There is nothing tame,
or cheap, or trivial--it is all magnificent. That short
valley is a picture-gallery of a notable kind, for it
contains no mediocrities; from end to end the Creator
has hung it with His masterpieces.

We made Zermatt at three in the afternoon, nine hours out
from St. Nicholas. Distance, by guide-book, twelve miles;
by pedometer seventy-two. We were in the heart and home
of the mountain-climbers, now, as all visible things
testified. The snow-peaks did not hold themselves aloof,
in aristocratic reserve; they nestled close around,
in a friendly, sociable way; guides, with the ropes and
axes and other implements of their fearful calling slung
about their persons, roosted in a long line upon a stone
wall in front of the hotel, and waited for customers;
sun-burnt climbers, in mountaineering costume, and followed
by their guides and porters, arrived from time to time,
from breakneck expeditions among the peaks and glaciers
of the High Alps; male and female tourists, on mules,
filed by, in a continuous procession, hotelward-bound from
wild adventures which would grow in grandeur very time
they were described at the English or American fireside,
and at last outgrow the possible itself.

We were not dreaming; this was not a make-believe home
of the Alp-climber, created by our heated imaginations;
no, for here was Mr. Girdlestone himself, the famous
Englishman who hunts his way to the most formidable Alpine
summits without a guide. I was not equal to imagining
a Girdlestone; it was all I could do to even realize him,
while looking straight at him at short range. I would rather
face whole Hyde Parks of artillery than the ghastly forms
of death which he has faced among the peaks and precipices
of the mountains. There is probably no pleasure equal
to the pleasure of climbing a dangerous Alp; but it is
a pleasure which is confined strictly to people who can
find pleasure in it. I have not jumped to this conclusion;
I have traveled to it per gravel-train, so to speak.
I have thought the thing all out, and am quite sure I
am right. A born climber's appetite for climbing is hard
to satisfy; when it comes upon him he is like a starving
man with a feast before him; he may have other business
on hand, but it must wait. Mr. Girdlestone had had
his usual summer holiday in the Alps, and had spent it
in his usual way, hunting for unique chances to break
his neck; his vacation was over, and his luggage packed
for England, but all of a sudden a hunger had come upon
him to climb the tremendous Weisshorn once more, for he
had heard of a new and utterly impossible route up it.
His baggage was unpacked at once, and now he and a friend,
laden with knapsacks, ice-axes, coils of rope, and canteens
of milk, were just setting out. They would spend
the night high up among the snows, somewhere, and get
up at two in the morning and finish the enterprise.
I had a strong desire to go with them, but forced it down--
a feat which Mr. Girdlestone, with all his fortitude,
could not do.

Even ladies catch the climbing mania, and are unable to
throw it off. A famous climber, of that sex, had attempted
the Weisshorn a few days before our arrival, and she
and her guides had lost their way in a snow-storm high up
among the peaks and glaciers and been forced to wander
around a good while before they could find a way down.
When this lady reached the bottom, she had been on her
feet twenty-three hours!

Our guides, hired on the Gemmi, were already at Zermatt
when we reached there. So there was nothing to interfere
with our getting up an adventure whenever we should
choose the time and the object. I resolved to devote
my first evening in Zermatt to studying up the subject
of Alpine climbing, by way of preparation.

I read several books, and here are some of the things
I found out. One's shoes must be strong and heavy,
and have pointed hobnails in them. The alpenstock
must be of the best wood, for if it should break,
loss of life might be the result. One should carry an ax,
to cut steps in the ice with, on the great heights.
There must be a ladder, for there are steep bits of rock
which can be surmounted with this instrument--or this
utensil--but could not be surmounted without it;
such an obstruction has compelled the tourist to waste
hours hunting another route, when a ladder would have
saved him all trouble. One must have from one hundred
and fifty to five hundred feet of strong rope, to be used
in lowering the party down steep declivities which are
too steep and smooth to be traversed in any other way.
One must have a steel hook, on another rope--a very
useful thing; for when one is ascending and comes to a low
bluff which is yet too high for the ladder, he swings
this rope aloft like a lasso, the hook catches at the top
of the bluff, and then the tourist climbs the rope,
hand over hand--being always particular to try and forget
that if the hook gives way he will never stop falling
till he arrives in some part of Switzerland where they
are not expecting him. Another important thing--there
must be a rope to tie the whole party together with,
so that if one falls from a mountain or down a bottomless
chasm in a glacier, the others may brace back on the rope
and save him. One must have a silk veil, to protect
his face from snow, sleet, hail and gale, and colored
goggles to protect his eyes from that dangerous enemy,
snow-blindness. Finally, there must be some porters,
to carry provisions, wine and scientific instruments,
and also blanket bags for the party to sleep in.

I closed my readings with a fearful adventure which
Mr. Whymper once had on the Matterhorn when he was prowling
around alone, five thousand feet above the town of Breil.
He was edging his way gingerly around the corner of a
precipice where the upper edge of a sharp declivity
of ice-glazed snow joined it. This declivity swept
down a couple of hundred feet, into a gully which curved
around and ended at a precipice eight hundred feet high,
overlooking a glacier. His foot slipped, and he fell.

He says:

"My knapsack brought my head down first, and I pitched into
some rocks about a dozen feet below; they caught something,
and tumbled me off the edge, head over heels, into the gully;
the baton was dashed from my hands, and I whirled downward
in a series of bounds, each longer than the last; now over ice,
now into rocks, striking my head four or five times,
each time with increased force. The last bound sent me
spinning through the air in a leap of fifty or sixty feet,
from one side of the gully to the other, and I struck
the rocks, luckily, with the whole of my left side.
They caught my clothes for a moment, and I fell back on
to the snow with motion arrested. My head fortunately
came the right side up, and a few frantic catches brought
me to a halt, in the neck of the gully and on the verge
of the precipice. Baton, hat, and veil skimmed by
and disappeared, and the crash of the rocks--which I had
started--as they fell on to the glacier, told how narrow
had been the escape from utter destruction. As it was,
I fell nearly two hundred feet in seven or eight bounds.
Ten feet more would have taken me in one gigantic leaps
of eight hundred feet on to the glacier below.

"The situation was sufficiently serious. The rocks could
not be let go for a moment, and the blood was spurting
out of more than twenty cuts. The most serious ones were
in the head, and I vainly tried to close them with one hand,
while holding on with the other. It was useless;
the blood gushed out in blinding jets at each pulsation.
At last, in a moment of inspiration, I kicked out a big
lump of snow and struck it as plaster on my head.
The idea was a happy one, and the flow of blood diminished.
Then, scrambling up, I got, not a moment too soon, to a
place of safety, and fainted away. The sun was setting
when consciousness returned, and it was pitch-dark before
the Great Staircase was descended; but by a combination
of luck and care, the whole four thousand seven hundred
feet of descent to Breil was accomplished without a slip,
or once missing the way."

His wounds kept him abed some days. Then he got up
and climbed that mountain again. That is the way with
a true Alp-climber; the more fun he has, the more he wants.

< Back
Forward >

Index Index

Other Authors Other Authors

Mark Twain. Copyright 2008,
Contact the webmaster
Disclaimer here. Privacy Policy here.