A Slip on the Ortler

THERE is but little light in SuldenThal at two o’clock in the morning, early in September. Not even the gray outlines of St. Gertrude’s shrine could be traced, as we passed, through the blackness of the night, though a faint shimmer of light showed that already within the chapel some petition was being offered. Neither is such hour the most agreeable at which to begin the ascent of a mountain. However, if “one must suffer to be beautiful,” so one must also suffer to earn the ultimate gratification of perching on the topmost point of any of the mountain monarchs.

Ortler, with his 12,356 feet of rock and ice, is, as the guidebooks say, “ nicht jedermannssache.” Still, with care, experienced guides, and a sure foot, there is no reason, unless the weather be against you, why prospective difficulties should deter from the effort; and once determined on, wisdom dictates an early start.

At that time, seven and a half hours was supposed to be the best time from Sulden to the summit of the Ortler. Starting, therefore, at two in the morning would bring one there about half after nine. A half-hour’s rest and from four to five hours for the descent would see one safely back by half after two in the afternoon. In other words, all dangers from rotten ice-bridge or fall of loosened snow would be left behind before the afternoon sun unduly increased them with its powerful rays. As the event proved, we made somewhat better time than seven and a half hours. But it is doubtful whether it would be worth trying again on the same terms. Determined to beat the record, we made a rush from start to summit; accepting on the way a method of accelerating pace which embraced some perhaps unjustifiable risk, and (possibly through our very haste) all but coming to what our English cousins describe as “ everlasting grief ” at the very summit itself.

At first our way led through rocky fields. Then we turned sharply up, bearing off, by a well-defined path, diagonally along the face of a steep alp, — so steep, indeed, that to call it an “ alp ” was a misnomer. Nothing could have pastured there but those fabulous beasts whose legs are shorter on one side than on the other. The lanterns which swung at our sides showed us where to place our feet, at the same time conveniently failing to illuminate one or two uncomfortable little precipices with which a misstep might have subjected the unwary to more intimate acquaintance. On our way down, again reaching this point, we saw by daylight the path followed in the dark. Turning to Pinggera, I asked if “ that” was where we had come up by lantern light. He grinned, and admitted that it was. All that I found words for was an emphatic assurance that knowledge of the immediate vicinity of any such “ dropping over ” places would have as certainly deterred me from ascending in the dark as ordinary prudence would have prevented my riding down the mountain on an avalanche. At the time, however, the steepness of the climb gave such full occupation as prevented any suspicion of the actual profundity of the unillumined depths.

Gradually the east grew gray. The mountains and rocks started out of the darkness. Lanterns were extinguished. The last that could, by any stretch of courtesy, be called pasture or alp was passed, and steady rock-climbing began. This, varied with crossing an occasional snow patch, lasted an hour or two. As usual in ascending a mountain, the route was by no means the shortest or most direct. At one point, after toiling up on a most infernal line of advance, for an interminable time, the crest of a rocky ridge was reached only to learn that the object was to descend its other side to mount again in the final assault upon the peak itself.

As yet we were not tied together ; the rope indeed being principally of use on ice and snow, and of most value merely in giving confidence. A man not sufficiently sure-footed to avoid slipping on rocks under practically any circumstances finds his best place in the valley below ; for no one not fairly surefooted is entitled, any more than a man liable to vertigo, to endanger the lives of others by making ascents in which the rope is a necessity.

Down the other face of the rocky ridge just spoken of lay one of those curious collections of broken stone, of all sizes and forms, found in so many of the hollows on the lower slopes of the mountain. The unanswerable question is, whence does it all come ? It is useless to reply that it is the disintegrated fragments of the mountain; split off by frost, broken by its own falls, and temporarily lodged on its downward course. Very likely, some few thousand years ago, there was considerably more of every mountain. Doubtless they have been crumbling through the ages. But, presented with mere result, and with no capacity to appreciate the extended detail of causation, the mind rejects such explanation. It seems more reasonable to suppose that a former race of titanic road-menders deliberately sat themselves down upon the hills and broke stone, either as a pastime, a penance for their sins, or with the laudable view and desire to improve the Valhalla road : whence it would follow that these patches of broken stone which decorate the mountain sides must be the remnants and refuse left over when the gods themselves were hastily bundled off into the lumber-room of history.

Be this as it may, this particular patch of broken rock was an extensive one. It stretched down fully three hundred feet, sloped gradually outwards, and spread abroad at its base. Below its component parts were rocks weighing anywhere from five hundred pounds to a ton. At the upper edge they were of smaller sizes, weighing from an ounce to perhaps twenty pounds. Here we tried the somewhat reckless method of accelerating pace.

It is only necessary, as we all know from experiments with minor heaps, to start a few of the stones of such a pile sliding down, and they will rattle along merrily, if not to the bottom, at least until they have lost the imparted impetus, and come to rest and unstable equilibrium through the attraction of gravitation. This gave us our opportunity. We joined hands, and crept out on the face of the broken rocks. We worked our feet firmly in, and in doing so began to slide, accompanied by quite a little patch of the superficial surface. The stones did not move to any great depth, but still sufficiently so to carry us, standing upright and mutually supporting one another, rapidly down. Naturally, the descent of our improvised sled removed all support from the surface stones above, and these came rattling after us with constantly increasing speed. The little ones skipped gayly by ; the larger ones rattled and jumped ; the big ones rolled and bounced. Faster and faster our descent continued, and faster and faster came the loosened stones behind. It soon became apparent that there was a limit of safety to this performance.

We had traveled perhaps a hundred and fifty feet when the larger stones began to shoot past with a velocity promising misfortune if, flying clear, they struck us. At last a smallish stone did strike Pinggera quite a blow ; at the same time, a ten-pound rock, traveling like a bolt from a catapult, whizzed past the second guide’s head. With a simultaneous yell of warning we made a rush sideways for the solid rock. Reaching it, we clung there, and watched and listened to the moving mass as it rattled down. Relieved of our weight, at first one by one, then in greater numbers, the moving patch of stones came to rest. A few big ones continued to descend, each ending with a wild bound out into the air on striking the boulders below.

We gained perhaps five or ten minutes by the device. Content with thus much of that particular kind of experience, we climbed down the remainder of the ridge on its more solid portion. Later we reached one of the larger glaciers of the mountain, and went steadily upwards diagonally across its face.

We were now in an interior valley of the mountain, in the cañon of a river of ice, up near its source. As we ranged across, the valley ran. with a sweep to the right, upwards, and became lost in the snows of the summit. On the other side it fell off steeply, turning gently away from the mass of the mountain, and doubling the rocky curtain we had crossed. Its slope was quite steep for a glacier, while its bed, being fairly smooth, presented but few bad hummocks or wide crevasses. It was like a great chute leading from the inexhaustible reservoirs above, until, beyond our vision, it curved into the Trafoierthal, on the further side of which the Stelvio way, having surmounted the pass, with cautious zigzags winds down to Nauders.

Winter’s most prodigal product, snow, has recognized the opportunity afforded, and, for its own delectation, has here constructed the magnificent Lavine track of the Alps, a gigantic coastway for avalanches,—a slide down which, hour after hour, through the summer, the avalanches toboggan to their fall with the booming crash and reverberating thunder that replace the shouting of the coasters and the ring of the iron-shod double-runner of civilization. For, steadily pressing its way down from the mountain, on top of the ice is a glacier of snow, — a slow but overwhelming current, majestically moving onward. Squeezed by the narrowing of the gulch above into a stream perhaps a hundred feet wide and full forty feet deep, it emerges upon the broadened face of the ice beneath, and preserves its integrity of structure until the descent becomes steep. There it momentarily poises itself, hangs and trembles. Deep fissures start across it and slowly widen. The face of the wall splits into a dozen towers and castles of hardened snow. Then, as the irresistible weight behind pushes them slowly on, they sway forward, overbalance, and a thousand tons of snow, involved in a common ruin, rush with a great roaring noise resistlessly down the mountain side. Out into the Trafoierthal the avalanche pours down the steep side of the valley almost to the river, but ever diminishes in volume as it leaves its substance strung out along its track.

This track itself, of broken snow, the remnants of avalanches already fallen, is not above a hundred feet in width. But that hundred feet we had to cross. Some ten minutes before we reached it an avalanche fell ; and the intervening periods of safety being short and of uncertain duration, we hastened silently on, to cross as soon thereafter as possible.

Twenty yards this side of the snow track, and perhaps a hundred yards from the threatening snow wall, we paused for critical survey. The question stood for instant decision. From the appearance of the snow wall it must be determined whether another avalanche would fall within the next few minutes. Was it best to hurry silently across? Was it best to wait ? Was the next section of the snow face in such condition that a mighty yell would send an avalanche down, and give us an opportunity for our hasty transit ? On the other hand, if we all yelled together and no avalanche fell, would the effect of our so doing be merely to hasten the next fall, whereby we might be overwhelmed in crossing ? One towering pinnacle of snow, pushed a little beyond its fellows, seemed ready to totter to its fall. We looked at it doubtfully. It ought to have gone with the last avalanche. Would it stand, or would it fall within the next three minutes ? A hundred feet is not much of a space to cross. But such crossing, if through fresh, broken snow from six to ten feet deep, is slow and floundering work.

From the time we came within view of the snow face the utmost silence had been preserved, and now, the searching but momentary scrutiny completed, Pinggera whispered to us to come on. With noiseless speed we hurried forward. Silently we struggled through the snow, and as silently emerged on the further side. From the time we started until we were well over the Lavine track no one of us turned his face toward the snow wall; but each kept his ears strained for the least sound from its direction. The silence was absolutely oppressive. It was like the silence in the woods at night, when the snapping of a dead twig under the foot of a deer two hundred yards away, coming down the hillside to drink in the Stillwater, breaks sharp on the ear of the hunter and cracks like a pistol shot. I fancy, had a dry twig broken within earshot during those three minutes, each one of our three hearts would have gone through that saltatory performance known as “turning completely over.”

Once across, we veered more to the left, and pressed steadily on. For some time the ascent was without incident. I remember one swelling slope, where the melting of the sun and the beating of the wind and weather had made glare ice of the Snow, so that for some twenty yards we had to cut hand and foot holds to surmount it. This is always slow business. Your party is strung out perhaps fifteen feet apart, with the rope fairly taut. The leader cuts a fresh handhold, and each one lifts his right foot and puts it into the next nick in the ice, a foot above. Another nick is chopped. The left legs, in their turn, all go up one step, and so on until the slope lessens, or until some luckless wight settles all questions for himself and the others by failing to stand steady ; that is, probably settles all questions, though a momentary slip is often recovered from if every one is cool and collected, and if things turn out luckily.

Further on we skirted the edge of a great snow precipice overhanging Sulden-Thal. That merest speck below us was the little church. It seemed as if a snowball thrown well out into the air would have dropped on it; and why the face of the snow cliff did not break off with our weight, as we traveled along on a line which seemed unnecessarily and ridiculously near the edge, I cannot understand. In fact, however, the consistency or binding quality of the snow on a mountain side is very great, while the weight of two or three human beings is an inconsiderable trifle to a great mass of snow.

Leaving the precipice finally, and turning to the right, we again labored up. So far our time from Sulden had been excellent. If we could continue at anything like the rate we were going, we stood fair to accomplish the result we desired, — that of breaking the record. Perhaps an hour and a half later we were within a few hundred yards of the summit. Our watches showed short of nine o’clock, so that our time was less than seven hours to that point.

The last peak of the Ortler is a single narrow arête. The extreme summit, as with all snow mountains, varies slightly from year to year. At that time it was but a cock’s comb of snow blown up by the wind. This ridge rounds up from behind, and the mountain drops sheer off in front, appearing to hang over the valley. At the extreme end the snow was flattened out into a sloping triangular platform, perhaps twelve feet long, and not over six feet wide. One side of the ridge of snow leading to it (the one which looks towards the Stelvio Pass) runs down in an almost sheer drop ahout a hundred feet. Below, it is only a little less steep, and it ends in a sickening precipice. I had a good opportunity, a few minutes later, to form a judgment by earnest inspection of that side of the mountain. It is that which lies to the left as one comes along the ridge to the summit. The other side, lying toward the König-Spitze, is nearly as bad, and although at the extreme end it is just possible of ascent and descent, it is not so at any intermediate point; and even there it is rather to be avoided than sought, as the slightest slip on it is beyond all redemption.

All the ways to the summit are practically one, and that one lies along the knife-edge of snow between those two uninviting alternatives. We reached the ridge. We were not seventy-five yards from our bourne. We were walking out along the knife-blade. Pinggera was the leader, I came next, and the second guide, Martignon, was behind. The way was so narrow that we planted our feet crosswise on it, stamping them well down through the crust and into the snow. As a matter of fact, the actual crest of the couloir where we walked was not three inches wide. The particles of snow that crumbled beneath our feet and fell on either side of the mountain dropped on the one side almost sheer a hundred feet, then shot down some hundreds of feet further, and then went over the precipice. On the other side they slipped and slid swiftly down the steep but slightly rounded mountain side, and disappeared from view.

We were traveling fast, but carefully, almost on a level (the summit not being three feet higher than where we stood), and naturally we had the rope taut, and were a short twenty feet apart. Our journey was done. We had beaten the record to the top, and were fairly entitled to our half-hour’s rest and a quiet pipe of tobacco.

Such an idea as that anything could intervene to prevent our reaching the top of the Ortler was as far from my mind as was aught else of the inconceivable. Pinggera was within three feet of where the snow broadened into the little plateau. I was at the moment watching him, and, as minutiæ under some circumstances become photographed upon the brain, I remember distinctly wondering whether his next step would take him clear of the couloir and on to the plateau. It was ticklish but not dangerous work, an interesting but not alarming situation. In the tenth of a second everything was changed. There was a flounder in the snow and a despairing cry behind me, and I knew that somehow, though how passed comprehension, Martignon was gone. I did not stop to look behind nor to ask any question. If I had known on which side he had fallen, it would have been simple enough to jump over on the other, but time to turn and ascertain was lacking. Moreover, by so doing I should have had Pinggera, too, off the ridge, and we might have had a bad time of it.

I simply opened my arms and legs and fell forward on the snow ridge (crushing it down a few inches), with an arm and a leg on either side of the mountain. I dug my arms to the elbows and my feet to the ankles through the crust into the snow, and waited for the tug at my waist, which would resolve the doubt. As I did so, I looked up at Pinggera. He had stopped, and stood rooted in his tracks, leaning forward with a strain on the rope, and looking back over his right shoulder. It was plain that he could be of no assistance in holding up Martignon, since the forward pull on the rope would not help in that respect. What he could do, and evidently intended doing, was to drop over on the other side in case the guide’s falling body dragged me off the ridge, and he was waiting to see whether he would have to do this or not.

The facts all went with marvelous rapidity. There came at my waist a sudden heavy wrench to the left that all but had me off the ridge, and I knew on which side Martignon had fallen. The rope having been taut, he had necessarily swung and rolled in a half-circle, as it gradually pulled him into the perpendicular; and it was probably owing to this that it had been possible for me to hold him when the tug came. I put my face over on his side of the mountain and looked down at him. He hung from my waist at the end of the rope, twenty feet below, half swaying, half rolling, a few feet back and forth, like an irregular pendulum, clutching and grabbing at the snow crust. I lay there perfectly still. Pinggera leaned forward like a statue. Presently my literally “ dependent ” friend succeeded in kicking his feet and digging his hands through the crust, and there he stuck, like a fly on a wall, turning up at me a face that, to put it mildly, looked badly scared. We called down to him not to move till he felt all right again, and we waited in this absurd position with an exasperated feeling that our record time was meanwhile vanishing,

For perhaps sixty seconds he stayed there, and then, kicking holds through the snow crust with his feet and hauling on the rope, he came up the face of the mountain to my waist. When he reached me. he was shaking and shuddering. It, was palpable that if we trusted him upon the ridge in that condition he would promptly fall off again. I put my left arm across his back and held him there, with his face buried in my side, while he slowly regained his breath. After perhaps a couple of minutes, I told him to get a firm hold, that I would crawl on until my body was clear of his : he could then crawl into my vacated place, and lie as I had in the snow, with one arm and one leg on each side, and wait there until the rope was again stretched taut. He agreeing, I crawled ahead a few feet. Pinggera went on an equal distance, and our unlucky companion filled my place, where he lay hugging the mountain with gloomy persistency.

Pinggera reached the beginning of the little plateau, and there turned round and sat down in the snow. Thereupon I resumed an upright position, and came toward him as far as the rope would let me, while he gathered in that section of the rope which was between us.

The situation was much improved, but I was still short of the plateau by three or four feet, while Martignon was twenty feet away, out on the ridge. It was evident that he must come as far as I then was without falling again, or we should have the same business to go through with, and perhaps with not so fortunate a result as before. Pinggera yelled to him not to stand up, but to hitch himself along the ridge with an arm and a leg on each side. He did so, and as he moved I went forward. A very few feet put me beside Pinggera on the snow, and then together we deliberately towed Martignon in on the rope. When we got him there, I was surprised to find that, in spite of everything, we had saved full thirty minutes on the record time, and that I was quite tired.

We lay in the snow on the summit and had our lunch and smoked our pipes. The area of the top was so restricted that when Pinggera, desiring to ascertain the reason for his fall, went over and sat down beside Martignon, he had to step across my body to get to him. To tell the truth, Pinggera and I had resolved ourselves into a high court of justice. We had still to descend the mountain. A slip in a descent, with every one faced outwards, may be more serious than a slip in ascending, and we desired to know why Martignon had fallen.

Presently Pinggera stepped back, and lay down again on the snow beside me. He reported that Martignon— a local guide from Meran, who had come with me to Sulden-Thal to show me the wayover the Madritsch glaciers — was in a humble and contrite frame of mind. He had confessed that he ought not to have attempted the ascent. He proffered as excuse that he had had a bad fall a year or two before, when with the Empress of Austria’s excursion through the Tyrol, which had shaken his nerves. He had never been up the Order, and a desire to be able to say that he had made the ascent, when he returned to Meran, had led to his concealing his doubts from me, and accompanying us up the mountain.

It was one life or three. We weighed him and our selfish selves in the balance ; his scale went up, and sentence was pronounced. We told him we would help him back across the arête, look out for him at every difficult or dangerous place on the descent, and give him all the assistance we could, but that we would not be tied to him. He must come down without the rope. It had been a clear case of vertigo. No sane man should have undertaken to walk along a snow ridge, with a precipice on either hand, who could not guarantee himself against falling over from mere swimming of the head. He made no protest, and admitted that we were right, and that his coming had, under the circumstances, been unjustifiable. We gave him what there was left of the red Tyrolean wine we had brought with us, and took him back along the arête, one in front and one behind, holding our alpenstocks on each side of him to give him confidence.

As is often the case, his loss of nerve had been but temporary, and he got on all right. In the one or two places where his slipping would have brought him down on top of us and swept us all into eternity, and where no practical assistance could be afforded him, — in other words, the places where the rope is a mere element of confidence, and not of the slightest practical use. — we made him either go first, or wait until we had passed from the direct perpendicular line below him. He got on very well, made no complaints, and neither slipped nor lost his head. Nevertheless, I should not have cared to feel that a rope bound his and my fortunes together for that afternoon. In fact, the anticipation of his slipping at every bad place might have so shaken our confidence, had we been tied to him, that we should have added one more to the long list of Alpine disasters.

The descent, other than for a glissade down a steep slanting snow field, was uneventful. If you have never tried coasting down a mountain side, it is an experience which you should by no means continue to forego. Where a crust has formed over a snow field, lying at a steep angle, it is the simplest thing in the world to untie the rope, sit down, one behind the other, with extended legs, put your alpenstock behind you, under your arm (to act as a brake), give a couple of hitches, and slide down the mountain. Also, that a little familiarity breeds contempt could hardly be better exemplified than in the fact that we slid down perhaps three hundred feet at lightning speed toward the very precipice along the edge of which I had thought we went absurdly near on the ascent. When we got within a hundred and fifty feet or so of the edge, by bearing heavily down on our alpenstocks, we brought ourselves up to the perpendicular. Then two or three gigantic strides out into the air and a little plunge into the snow brought ns respectively to a standstill. But, like everything else, you have to know how to do it. There was absolutely no danger in our doing what we did, and yet, as a matter of fact, there was no one of us but stopped within a short hundred feet of the edge of a precipice, over which, had he fallen, his body would have found no resting-place for full a thousand feet.

When we reached Sulden-Thal, we made a slight detour, at Pinggera’s request, to pass near the chapel. Pinggera gave a halloo, and a young woman appeared at the door and joined us. He presented her to me as his wife. That evening, at the Herr Curat Eller’s house, I asked him what his wife had been doing at the chapel, and how he knew of her presence. He shamefacedly confessed that, at her request, he had taken her there in the morning before we started up the mountain ; and there she had been on her knees until his halloo brought her the intelligence that her prayers had been answered.

It gave me a curious feeling when I handed him the trifling sum for which he had risked his life that day. I was a reckless boy, perhaps eighteen years of age, and what I did with my life was of small concern to me, and of no real consequence to any other. But the question as to whether I was justified in tempting him, for a half-handful of coin, to do that which had kept his wife, without food or fire, on her knees for full twelve hours was one which I had some difficulty in solving; and whether it was her prayers or my sticking like a leech to the snow ridge when the guide fell that led to our fortunate return is one which I have never settled.

Charles Stewart Davison.