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Mark Twain > A Tramp Abroad > Chapter XXXVIII

A Tramp Abroad


[I Conquer the Gorner Grat]

We went into camp on that wild spot to which that ram
had brought us. The men were greatly fatigued.
Their conviction that we were lost was forgotten in the cheer
of a good supper, and before the reaction had a chance
to set in, I loaded them up with paregoric and put them to bed.

Next morning I was considering in my mind our desperate
situation and trying to think of a remedy, when Harris
came to me with a Baedeker map which showed conclusively
that the mountain we were on was still in Switzerland--yes,
every part of it was in Switzerland. So we were not lost,
after all. This was an immense relief; it lifted the weight
of two such mountains from my breast. I immediately
had the news disseminated and the map was exhibited.
The effect was wonderful. As soon as the men saw with
their own eyes that they knew where they were, and that it
was only the summit that was lost and not themselves,
they cheered up instantly and said with one accord,
let the summit take care of itself.

Our distresses being at an end, I now determined to rest
the men in camp and give the scientific department of the
Expedition a chance. First, I made a barometric observation,
to get our altitude, but I could not perceive that there
was any result. I knew, by my scientific reading,
that either thermometers or barometers ought to be boiled,
to make them accurate; I did not know which it was,
so I boiled them both. There was still no result;
so I examined these instruments and discovered that they
possessed radical blemishes: the barometer had no hand
but the brass pointer and the ball of the thermometer was
stuffed with tin-foil. I might have boiled those things
to rags, and never found out anything.

I hunted up another barometer; it was new and perfect.
I boiled it half an hour in a pot of bean soup which
the cooks were making. The result was unexpected: the
instrument was not affecting at all, but there was such
a strong barometer taste to the soup that the head cook,
who was a most conscientious person, changed its name
in the bill of fare. The dish was so greatly liked by all,
that I ordered the cook to have barometer soup every day.
It was believed that the barometer might eventually
be injured, but I did not care for that. I had demonstrated
to my satisfaction that it could not tell how high
a mountain was, therefore I had no real use for it.
Changes in the weather I could take care of without it;
I did not wish to know when the weather was going to be good,
what I wanted to know was when it was going to be bad,
and this I could find out from Harris's corns. Harris had
had his corns tested and regulated at the government
observatory in Heidelberg, and one could depend upon them
with confidence. So I transferred the new barometer to
the cooking department, to be used for the official mess.
It was found that even a pretty fair article of soup could
be made from the defective barometer; so I allowed that one
to be transferred to the subordinate mess.

I next boiled the thermometer, and got a most excellent result;
the mercury went up to about 200 degrees Fahrenheit.
In the opinion of the other scientists of the Expedition,
this seemed to indicate that we had attained the extraordinary
altitude of two hundred thousand feet above sea-level.
Science places the line of eternal snow at about ten thousand
feet above sea-level. There was no snow where we were,
consequently it was proven that the eternal snow-line
ceases somewhere above the ten-thousand-foot level and
does not begin any more. This was an interesting fact,
and one which had not been observed by any observer before.
It was as valuable as interesting, too, since it would open
up the deserted summits of the highest Alps to population
and agriculture. It was a proud thing to be where we were,
yet it caused us a pang to reflect that but for that ram we
might just as well been two hundred thousand feet higher.

The success of my last experiment induced me to try an
experiment with my photographic apparatus. I got it out,
and boiled one of my cameras, but the thing was a failure;
it made the wood swell up and burst, and I could not see
that the lenses were any better than they were before.

I now concluded to boil a guide. It might improve him,
it could not impair his usefulness. But I was not
allowed to proceed. Guides have no feeling for science,
and this one would not consent to be made uncomfortable
in its interest.

In the midst of my scientific work, one of those
needless accidents happened which are always occurring
among the ignorant and thoughtless. A porter shot
at a chamois and missed it and crippled the Latinist.
This was not a serious matter to me, for a Latinist's
duties are as well performed on crutches as otherwise--
but the fact remained that if the Latinist had not
happened to be in the way a mule would have got
that load. That would have been quite another matter,
for when it comes down to a question of value there is
a palpable difference between a Latinist and a mule.
I could not depend on having a Latinist in the right
place every time; so, to make things safe, I ordered
that in the future the chamois must not be hunted within
limits of the camp with any other weapon than the forefinger.

My nerves had hardly grown quiet after this affair when
they got another shake-up--one which utterly unmanned
me for a moment: a rumor swept suddenly through the camp
that one of the barkeepers had fallen over a precipice!

However, it turned out that it was only a chaplain.
I had laid in an extra force of chaplains, purposely to
be prepared for emergencies like this, but by some
unaccountable oversight had come away rather short-handed
in the matter of barkeepers.

On the following morning we moved on, well refreshed and in
good spirits. I remember this day with peculiar pleasure,
because it saw our road restored to us. Yes, we found
our road again, and in quite an extraordinary way.
We had plodded along some two hours and a half, when we came
up against a solid mass of rock about twenty feet high.
I did not need to be instructed by a mule this time.
I was already beginning to know more than any mule in
the Expedition. I at once put in a blast of dynamite,
and lifted that rock out of the way. But to my surprise
and mortification, I found that there had been a chalet
on top of it.

I picked up such members of the family as fell in my vicinity,
and subordinates of my corps collected the rest.
None of these poor people were injured, happily, but they
were much annoyed. I explained to the head chaleteer
just how the thing happened, and that I was only searching
for the road, and would certainly have given him timely
notice if I had known he was up there. I said I had
meant no harm, and hoped I had not lowered myself in
his estimation by raising him a few rods in the air.
I said many other judicious things, and finally when I
offered to rebuild his chalet, and pay for the breakages,
and throw in the cellar, he was mollified and satisfied.
He hadn't any cellar at all, before; he would not have
as good a view, now, as formerly, but what he had lost
in view he had gained in cellar, by exact measurement.
He said there wasn't another hole like that in the mountains--
and he would have been right if the late mule had not tried
to eat up the nitroglycerin.

I put a hundred and sixteen men at work, and they rebuilt
the chalet from its own debris in fifteen minutes.
It was a good deal more picturesque than it was before,
too. The man said we were now on the Feil-Stutz, above
the Schwegmatt--information which I was glad to get,
since it gave us our position to a degree of particularity
which we had not been accustomed to for a day or so.
We also learned that we were standing at the foot
of the Riffelberg proper, and that the initial chapter
of our work was completed.

We had a fine view, from here, of the energetic Visp,
as it makes its first plunge into the world from under a huge
arch of solid ice, worn through the foot-wall of the great
Gorner Glacier; and we could also see the Furggenbach,
which is the outlet of the Furggen Glacier.

The mule-road to the summit of the Riffelberg passed right
in front of the chalet, a circumstance which we almost
immediately noticed, because a procession of tourists was
filing along it pretty much all the time. [1] The chaleteer's
business consisted in furnishing refreshments to tourists.
My blast had interrupted this trade for a few minutes,
by breaking all the bottles on the place; but I gave
the man a lot of whiskey to sell for Alpine champagne,
and a lot of vinegar which would answer for Rhine wine,
consequently trade was soon as brisk as ever.

1. "Pretty much" may not be elegant English, but it is
    high time it was. There is no elegant word or phrase
    which means just what it means.--M.T.

Leaving the Expedition outside to rest, I quartered myself
in the chalet, with Harris, proposing to correct my journals
and scientific observations before continuing the ascent.
I had hardly begun my work when a tall, slender, vigorous
American youth of about twenty-three, who was on his
way down the mountain, entered and came toward me with
that breeze self-complacency which is the adolescent's
idea of the well-bred ease of the man of the world.
His hair was short and parted accurately in the middle,
and he had all the look of an American person who would
be likely to begin his signature with an initial,
and spell his middle name out. He introduced himself,
smiling a smirky smile borrowed from the courtiers
of the stage, extended a fair-skinned talon, and while
he gripped my hand in it he bent his body forward
three times at the hips, as the stage courtier does,
and said in the airiest and most condescending
and patronizing way--I quite remember his exact language:

"Very glad to make your acquaintance, 'm sure; very glad indeed,
assure you. I've read all your little efforts and greatly
admired them, and when I heard you were here, I ..."

I indicated a chair, and he sat down. This grandee was
the grandson of an American of considerable note in his day,
and not wholly forgotten yet--a man who came so near
being a great man that he was quite generally accounted
one while he lived.

I slowly paced the floor, pondering scientific problems,
and heard this conversation:

GRANDSON. First visit to Europe?

HARRIS. Mine? Yes.

G.S. (With a soft reminiscent sigh suggestive of bygone
joys that may be tasted in their freshness but once.)
Ah, I know what it is to you. A first visit!--ah,
the romance of it! I wish I could feel it again.

H. Yes, I find it exceeds all my dreams. It is enchantment.
I go...

G.S. (With a dainty gesture of the hand signifying "Spare
me your callow enthusiasms, good friend.") Yes, _I_ know,
I know; you go to cathedrals, and exclaim; and you drag
through league-long picture-galleries and exclaim; and you
stand here, and there, and yonder, upon historic ground,
and continue to exclaim; and you are permeated with
your first crude conceptions of Art, and are proud
and happy. Ah, yes, proud and happy--that expresses it.
Yes-yes, enjoy it--it is right--it is an innocent revel.

H. And you? Don't you do these things now?

G.S. I! Oh, that is VERY good! My dear sir, when you
are as old a traveler as I am, you will not ask such
a question as that. _I_ visit the regulation gallery,
moon around the regulation cathedral, do the worn round
of the regulation sights, YET?--Excuse me!

H. Well, what DO you do, then?

G.S. Do? I flit--and flit--for I am ever on the wing--but I
avoid the herd. Today I am in Paris, tomorrow in Berlin,
anon in Rome; but you would look for me in vain in the
galleries of the Louvre or the common resorts of the
gazers in those other capitals. If you would find me,
you must look in the unvisited nooks and corners where
others never think of going. One day you will find me
making myself at home in some obscure peasant's cabin,
another day you will find me in some forgotten castle
worshiping some little gem or art which the careless eye
has overlooked and which the unexperienced would despise;
again you will find me as guest in the inner sanctuaries
of palaces while the herd is content to get a hurried
glimpse of the unused chambers by feeing a servant.

H. You are a GUEST in such places?

G.S. And a welcoming one.

H. It is surprising. How does it come?

G.S. My grandfather's name is a passport to all the courts
in Europe. I have only to utter that name and every
door is open to me. I flit from court to court at my
own free will and pleasure, and am always welcome.
I am as much at home in the palaces of Europe as you are
among your relatives. I know every titled person in Europe,
I think. I have my pockets full of invitations all the time.
I am under promise to go to Italy, where I am to be the
guest of a succession of the noblest houses in the land.
In Berlin my life is a continued round of gaiety in the
imperial palace. It is the same, wherever I go.

H. It must be very pleasant. But it must make Boston
seem a little slow when you are at home.

G.S. Yes, of course it does. But I don't go home much.
There's no life there--little to feed a man's higher nature.
Boston's very narrow, you know. She doesn't know it, and you
couldn't convince her of it--so I say nothing when I'm
there: where's the use? Yes, Boston is very narrow, but she
has such a good opinion of herself that she can't see it.
A man who has traveled as much as I have, and seen as much
of the world, sees it plain enough, but he can't cure it,
you know, so the best is to leave it and seek a sphere
which is more in harmony with his tastes and culture.
I run across there, one a year, perhaps, when I have
nothing important on hand, but I'm very soon back again.
I spend my time in Europe.

H. I see. You map out your plans and ...

G.S. No, excuse me. I don't map out any plans. I simply
follow the inclination of the day. I am limited by no ties,
no requirements, I am not bound in any way. I am too old
a traveler to hamper myself with deliberate purposes.
I am simply a traveler--an inveterate traveler--a man of
the world, in a word--I can call myself by no other name.
I do not say, "I am going here, or I am going there"--I
say nothing at all, I only act. For instance, next week
you may find me the guest of a grandee of Spain, or you
may find me off for Venice, or flitting toward Dresden.
I shall probably go to Egypt presently; friends will say
to friends, "He is at the Nile cataracts"--and at that
very moment they will be surprised to learn that I'm away
off yonder in India somewhere. I am a constant surprise
to people. They are always saying, "Yes, he was in Jerusalem
when we heard of him last, but goodness knows where he
is now."

Presently the Grandson rose to leave--discovered he
had an appointment with some Emperor, perhaps. He did
his graces over again: gripped me with one talon,
at arm's-length, pressed his hat against his stomach
with the other, bent his body in the middle three times,

"Pleasure, 'm sure; great pleasure, 'm sure. Wish you
much success."

Then he removed his gracious presence. It is a great
and solemn thing to have a grandfather.

I have not purposed to misrepresent this boy in any way,
for what little indignation he excited in me soon
passed and left nothing behind it but compassion.
One cannot keep up a grudge against a vacuum.
I have tried to repeat this lad's very words;
if I have failed anywhere I have at least not failed
to reproduce the marrow and meaning of what he said.
He and the innocent chatterbox whom I met on the Swiss
lake are the most unique and interesting specimens of
Young America I came across during my foreign tramping.
I have made honest portraits of them, not caricatures.
The Grandson of twenty-three referred to himself five
or six times as an "old traveler," and as many as three
times (with a serene complacency which was maddening)
as a "man of the world." There was something very delicious
about his leaving Boston to her "narrowness," unreproved
and uninstructed.

I formed the caravan in marching order, presently,
and after riding down the line to see that it was
properly roped together, gave the command to proceed.
In a little while the road carried us to open, grassy land.
We were above the troublesome forest, now, and had an
uninterrupted view, straight before us, of our summit--
the summit of the Riffelberg.

We followed the mule-road, a zigzag course, now to the right,
now to the left, but always up, and always crowded and
incommoded by going and coming files of reckless tourists
who were never, in a single instance, tied together.
I was obliged to exert the utmost care and caution,
for in many places the road was not two yards wide,
and often the lower side of it sloped away in slanting
precipices eight and even nine feet deep. I had to
encourage the men constantly, to keep them from giving
way to their unmanly fears.

We might have made the summit before night, but for a
delay caused by the loss of an umbrella. I was allowing
the umbrella to remain lost, but the men murmured,
and with reason, for in this exposed region we stood
in peculiar need of protection against avalanches;
so I went into camp and detached a strong party to go
after the missing article.

The difficulties of the next morning were severe,
but our courage was high, for our goal was near.
At noon we conquered the last impediment--we stood
at last upon the summit, and without the loss of a
single man except the mule that ate the glycerin.
Our great achievement was achieved--the possibility of
the impossible was demonstrated, and Harris and I walked
proudly into the great dining-room of the Riffelberg
Hotel and stood our alpenstocks up in the corner.

Yes, I had made the grand ascent; but it was a mistake
to do it in evening dress. The plug hats were battered,
the swallow-tails were fluttering rags, mud added no grace,
the general effect was unpleasant and even disreputable.

There were about seventy-five tourists at the hotel--
mainly ladies and little children--and they gave us
an admiring welcome which paid us for all our privations
and sufferings. The ascent had been made, and the names
and dates now stand recorded on a stone monument there
to prove it to all future tourists.

I boiled a thermometer and took an altitude, with a most
Suspecting that I had made an important discovery,
I prepared to verify it. There happened to be a still
higher summit (called the Gorner Grat), above the hotel,
and notwithstanding the fact that it overlooks a glacier
from a dizzy height, and that the ascent is difficult
and dangerous, I resolved to venture up there and boil
a thermometer. So I sent a strong party, with some
borrowed hoes, in charge of two chiefs of service, to dig
a stairway in the soil all the way up, and this I ascended,
roped to the guides. This breezy height was the summit
proper--so I accomplished even more than I had originally
purposed to do. This foolhardy exploit is recorded on
another stone monument.

I boiled my thermometer, and sure enough, this spot,
which purported to be two thousand feet higher than the
locality of the hotel, turned out to be nine thousand
feet LOWER. Thus the fact was clearly demonstrated that,
THE LOWER IT ACTUALLY IS. Our ascent itself was a
great achievement, but this contribution to science was
an inconceivably greater matter.

Cavilers object that water boils at a lower and lower
temperature the higher and higher you go, and hence the
apparent anomaly. I answer that I do not base my theory
upon what the boiling water does, but upon what a boiled
thermometer says. You can't go behind the thermometer.

I had a magnificent view of Monte Rosa, and apparently
all the rest of the Alpine world, from that high place.
All the circling horizon was piled high with a mighty
tumult of snowy crests. One might have imagined he
saw before him the tented camps of a beleaguering host
of Brobdingnagians.

But lonely, conspicuous, and superb, rose that wonderful
upright wedge, the Matterhorn. Its precipitous sides were
powdered over with snow, and the upper half hidden in thick
clouds which now and then dissolved to cobweb films and gave
brief glimpses of the imposing tower as through a veil.
[2] A little later the Matterhorn took to himself the
semblance of a volcano; he was stripped naked to his apex--
around this circled vast wreaths of white cloud which strung
slowly out and streamed away slantwise toward the sun,
a twenty-mile stretch of rolling and tumbling vapor,
and looking just as if it were pouring out of a crater.
Later again, one of the mountain's sides was clean and clear,
and another side densely clothed from base to summit in
thick smokelike cloud which feathered off and flew around
the shaft's sharp edge like the smoke around the corners of
a burning building. The Matterhorn is always experimenting,
and always gets up fine effects, too. In the sunset,
when all the lower world is palled in gloom, it points
toward heaven out of the pervading blackness like a finger
of fire. In the sunrise--well, they say it is very fine
in the sunrise.

2. NOTE.--I had the very unusual luck to catch one little
    momentary glimpse of the Matterhorn wholly unencumbered
    by clouds. I leveled my photographic apparatus at it
    without the loss of an instant, and should have got
    an elegant picture if my donkey had not interfered.
    It was my purpose to draw this photograph all by myself
    for my book, but was obliged to put the mountain part
    of it into the hands of the professional artist because
    I found I could not do landscape well.

Authorities agree that there is no such tremendous "layout"
of snowy Alpine magnitude, grandeur, and sublimity to be
seen from any other accessible point as the tourist may see
from the summit of the Riffelberg. Therefore, let the
tourist rope himself up and go there; for I have shown
that with nerve, caution, and judgment, the thing can be done.

I wish to add one remark, here--in parentheses, so to speak
--suggested by the word "snowy," which I have just used.
We have all seen hills and mountains and levels with snow
on them, and so we think we know all the aspects and
effects produced by snow. But indeed we do not until
we have seen the Alps. Possibly mass and distance add
something--at any rate, something IS added. Among other
noticeable things, there is a dazzling, intense whiteness
about the distant Alpine snow, when the sun is on it,
which one recognizes as peculiar, and not familiar to
the eye. The snow which one is accustomed to has a tint
to it--painters usually give it a bluish cast--but there
is no perceptible tint to the distant Alpine snow when it
is trying to look its whitest. As to the unimaginable
splendor of it when the sun is blazing down on it--well,
it simply IS unimaginable.

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