Swiss Mountaineering in 1859
JOHN H. STRONG
THE following letter, unearthed among family papers, aroused my keen interest by its postmark, Switzerland, its date, 1859, and its theme, mountaineers and mountaineering in that far-away classic day when the great peaks around Zermatt were for the first time being seriously studied, negotiated and conquered. Though not a climber, my father was a keen observer, and I have thought that his limpid commentary on the mountain-loving Britisher of that day, his appearance, aptitudes and character, and the surrounding peaks that enthralled him, might prove of interest to others also.
August H. Strong, writer of the letter, had graduated two years earlier from Yale with the Class of ’57. In spite of a sedentary life of many years as theologian, administrator, preacher, lecturer and writer, he never lost his interest in the high mountains, and ever regretted that on that first Swiss trip want of hard cash had kept him from climbing Mont Blanc.
In the Clouds Hospice of St. Bernard September 1, 1859
You will remember that when I wrote you a week ago, I was at Zermatt, anxiously waiting for fair weather, to enable me to cross the Pass of St. Théodule. We had a jolly time indoors, notwithstanding the rain without. Quite a number of young Englishmen, members of the Alpine Club of London, were at our hotel, and the endless stories of hair-breadth ’scapes, and of adventures among the mountains with which they regaled us, served to chase away quite a number of dreary hours.
These “Bergsteigers,” or mountain climbers, as they are called, are men of fortune, who have formed themselves into a company for high mountain and glacier expeditions, and have spent their summers for a number of years among the Alps. Mountain climbing has become for them a passion. To get to the top of the highest and most inaccessible mountains, to stand where man never stood before, to dare the avalanches, to cross the most frightful of the glaciers, is a great ambition with them.
They are a set of Englishmen so peculiar as to be well worth knowing. Most of them are University men, the object of whose education, however, has been to fit them to fill well the position of gentlemen of fortune and leisure. They are full of talk, always in the best of humor, at home in a discussion of a point in the classics or in the small talk of the drawing room, finished ladies’ men, and yet, unlike most Englishmen, extremely careless of dress, and infinitely removed from anything like the over-refinement of the exquisite. As hearty, kind, frank, modest, clear-spoken fellows as you ever saw.
Physically, I have scarcely seen their superiors. They are men whose muscles have been strengthened from youth by every sort of manly exercise. Tall, slender enough to be graceful in form, and perfectly proportioned, they have great physical strength and wonderful powers of endurance. Fifteen hours a day of the most fatiguing ascents is nothing to many of them. They are surefooted, they never slip or stumble, they are perfectly cool in the midst of frightful perils, and they have a daring that often out-runs the courage of the guides. You would call them thin when you first saw them, but they weigh more than you think, they are so tough and solid. Their faces are tanned so that you would scarcely suspect them of ever having been white.
In the neighborhod of these great mountains they spend the whole summer long in studying the topography of the hills, discovering new passes, attempting and often failing to do things that have before been thought impossible. Of those whom we saw several had ascended Mont Blanc, Monte Rosa, the Finster-Aarhorn, Mischabel, and I know not how many more of these great Alpine marvels, and yet they are studying away, and planning yet more hazardous ascents. And no labor is too great for them. A drenching to the skin, or a fall into a crevasse, or a long ten hours’ pull, half the time up to the waist in snow, are common occurrences. They are by no means boastful, however, of their efforts.
Though they are extending greatly our knowledge of the Alps, they do not pretend to set this forth as the end they have in view. Like their countryman who fought for Italian liberty in the last war principally because he liked shooting, they are doing something for science principally because they have a great passion for climbing to heights that common men can never reach. It is in compliance with the petition of the Alpine Club that the expense of ascending Mont Blanc has been this year reduced by the Sardinian government from about 600 francs to about half that sum. The result has been, that the number of ascensions has been much greater this year than usual, quite a number of Englishmen having performed the feat.
Here, then, is a class of Englishmen which, though small in number, is representative of a much larger class of Englishmen of fortune, who pursue pleasure systematically, and with safety to health of body and mind. After their Alpine excursions are over, they spend their winters in hunting. The year is all laid out, and though one must confess that men of their intelligence and talent ought to be doing more for the world, one must also acknowledge that their lives are far more sensible and rational than those of the young men of wealth and leisure in America. Young men with us have not yet learned how to be safely and respectably rich. A course of dissipation, or of idleness, equally ruinous to all mental and physical health, soon renders them a curse to society, while the young Englishman is hard at work the whole year round, and is fitting himself after his own fashion by an industrious sort of pleasure-seeking, at least for a respectable position in society—it may be for the service of his country in some government office, or for valuable researches in science or literature.
The account of my father’s crossing over the Théodule into northern Italy may be passed over as hardly thrilling enough to occupy the experienced readers of this publication, except perhaps for a few sentences which reflect the powerful impression such scenes ever make for the first time on the sensitive beholder:
As I was saying, we, as well as the Bergsteigers, were waiting for fair weather. It came next day—a perfect calm after the heavy storm, blue sky after clouds and thick darkness. The glaciers had acquired new beauty from the storm, for the stony moraines and dingy deposits of earth upon them were all covered by the newly fallen snow. “Old hands” advised us to wait until the next day for the passage of St. Théodule, after the night’s cold had formed a solid crust upon the surface of the snow. Instead, therefore, we made an excursion to the Gorner-Grat. As it is with great men, so it is with mountains—you must rise to something near their level before you can at all appreciate them. And this is the glory of the view from the Gorner-Grat. The immense mass of Monte Rosa rises just opposite you, covered from top to bottom with perpetual snow—a mass so immense and so filling up the landscape that, though miles away, it seems as though within a stone’s throw of you. On the right towers the ragged, rocky pyramid of Mont Cervin, the Matterhorn, so steep that snow never lies long on its sides, and so utterly inaccessible as to teach a perfect lesson of humility even to the Bergsteigers. This Matterhorn, rising to the height of 14,800 feet, a lonely, desolate peak of rock, seems to me the most stupendous object in the Alps. In the crevices of its precipitous sides, just enough snow lodges to streak the dark brown rock with gray, and though a warm September sun is shining, you cannot help shivering as you look at it, it seems so bleak and wintery. Great pointed, jagged, thunder-smitten cone, it seems to defy earth and heaven together !
I slept that night at the Inn on the Riffelberg. How great the contrast when the warm, pink tint on the lofty snows grows wan and cold again! The only remedy is a good fire or a good bed. I chose the latter. Before four we were up again, and by five were on the glacier. One by one the golden rays lighted up the summits of the mountains and found their way into the valleys, but by the time the valley was well lighted we were on the summit of St. Théodule. We entered a rough little stone cabin built upon the Col, and had the satisfaction of taking breakfast in the highest house in Europe.
We made the descent in a couple of hours, and the same day walked on fifteen miles further to Chatillon, and from thence took the diligence to Aosta. I wish I could describe the wonderful beauty of these Italian villages. All through the Vale of Tournanche there was a fertility and verdure that seemed strange to eyes of late accustomed to the Swiss valleys. Many and many a time I turned to take a farewell glance at the Matterhorn, whose rocky pyramid closed up the valley behind us. I could but wonder at the industry which has made the steepest of these mountains yield a rich harvest of corn and wine. The hanging gardens of Nebuchadnezzar were nothing to these rows of terraces, connected with each other by stairways in the walls, which the industry of the people has devised in order to make the most of their sunny hillsides. I cannot do better than to quote the familiar lines from Philip Van Artevelds:
“Sublime, but neither bleak nor bare Nor misty are the mountains there; Softly sublime—profusely fair, Up to their summits clothed in green, And fruitful as the vales between, They lightly rise, And scale the skies, And groves and gardens still abound, For where no shoot Could else take root, The peaks are shelved and terraced round.”