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A BAD FIVE MINUTES IN THE ALPS

A BAD FIVE MINUTES IN THE ALPS

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Written by Hunter   
Wednesday, 08 October 2008 01:32

It was time to return, and the demon who amuses himself by beguiling
Alpine travellers suggested the memory of a certain short cut which
involved a bit of amusing scrambling. I was speedily occupied in
fighting my way downwards through a steep ravine, cloven by a vicious
little torrent from a lofty glacier, when--how it happened I know not,
for all forms of earth and grassy slope were obliterated at a few yards
by the descending showers--I suddenly found that I had left the right
track and was descending too sharply towards the stream. At the same
time I saw, or thought I saw, that by crossing the face of the cliff for
a few yards I should regain the ordinary route. The first step or two
was easy; then came a long stride, in which I had to throw out one hand
by way of grappling-iron to a jutting rock above. The rock was reeking
with moisture, and as I threw my weight upon it my hand slipped, and
before I had time to look round I was slithering downwards without a
single point of support. Below me as I well knew, at a depth of some two
hundred feet, was the torrent. One plunge through the air upon its
rugged stones and I should be a heap of mangled flesh and bones.
Instinctively I flung abroad arms and legs in search of strong supports;
in another moment I was brought up with a jerk. My hands now rested on
the narrow ledge where my feet had been a moment before, and one foot
was propped by some insecure support whose nature I could not precisely
determine.

Desperately choking back the surging emotions that seemed to shake my
limbs I sought for some means of escape. By slowly moving my left hand I
managed to grasp a stem of rhododendron which grew upon the ledge of
rock, and felt tolerably firm; next I tried to feel for some support
with the toe of my left boot; the rock, however, against which it rested
was not only hard, but exquisitely polished by the ancient glacier which
had forced its way down the gorge. A geologist would have been delighted
with this admirable specimen of the planing powers of nature; I felt, I
must confess, rather inclined to curse geology and glaciers. Not a
projecting edge, corner, or cranny could I discover; I might as well
have been hanging against a pane of glass. With my right foot, however,
I succeeded in obtaining a more satisfactory lodgment; had it not been
for this help I could have supported myself so long as my arms would
hold out, and I have read somewhere that the strongest man cannot hold
on by his arms alone for more than five minutes. I am, unluckily, very
weak in the arms, and was therefore quite unable to perform the
gymnastic feat of raising myself till I could place a knee upon the

ledge where my hands were straining. Here, then, I was, in an apparently
hopeless predicament. I might cling to the rocks like a bat in a cave
till exhaustion compelled me to let go; on a very liberal allowance,
that might last for some twenty minutes, or, say half an hour. There
was, of course, a remote chance that some traveler or tourist might pass
through the glen; but the ordinary path lay some hundred yards above my
head, on the other side of the rock-pinnacle, and a hundred yards was,
for all practical purposes, the same thing as a hundred miles; the
ceaseless roar of the swollen torrent would drown my voice as
effectually as a battery of artillery; but, for a moment or two, I
considered the propriety of shouting for help. The problem was, whether
I should diminish my strength more by the effort of shouting than the
additional chance of attracting attention was worth.

A puff of wind had driven aside the wreaths of mist; and high above me I
could see towering into the gloomy skies a pinnacle of black rock. Sharp
and needle-like it sprang from its cloud-hidden base, and scarcely a
flake of snow clung to its terrible precipices. Only a day or two before
I had been lounging in the inn garden during a delusive sunset gleam of
bright weather, and admiring its noble proportions. I had been
discussing with my friends the best mode of assaulting its hitherto
untrodden summit, on which we had facetiously conferred the name of
Teufelshorn. Lighted up by the Alpine glow, it seemed to beckon us
upward, and had fired all my mountaineering zeal. Now, though it was not
a time for freaks of fancy, it looked like a grim fiend calmly frowning
upon my agony. I hated it, and yet had an unpleasant sense that my
hatred could do it no harm. If I could have lightened and thundered, its
rocks would have come down with a crash; but it stood immovable,
scornful, and eternal. There is a poetry in the great mountains, but the
poetry may be stern as well as benevolent. If, to the weary Londoner,
they speak of fresh air and healthful exercise and exciting adventure,
they can look tyrannous and forbidding enough to the peasant on whose
fields they void their rheum--as Shakespeare pleasantly puts it--or to
the luckless wretch who is clinging in useless supplication at their
feet. Grim and fierce, like some primeval giant, that peak looked to me,
and for a time the whole doctrine preached by the modern worshippers of
sublime scenery seemed inexpressibly absurd and out of place.

It was becoming tempting to throw up the cards and have done with it.
Even the short sharp pang of the crash on the rocks below seemed
preferable to draining the last dregs of misery. I gathered myself up,
crouching as low as I dared, and then springing from the right foot, and
aiding the spring with my left hand, I threw out my right at the little
jutting point. The tips of my fingers just reached their aim, but only
touched without anchoring themselves. As I fell back, my foot missed its
former support, and my whole weight came heavily on the feeble left
hand. The clutch was instantaneously torn apart, and I was falling
through the air. All was over! The mountains sprang upwards with a
bound. But before the fall had well begun, before the air had begun to
whistle past me, my movement was arrested. With a shock of surprise I
found myself lying on a broad bed of deep moss, as comfortably as in my
bed at home.

--LESLIE STEPHEN (adapted).

[Footnote: What do you imagine has preceded this selection? What things
are contrasted in the account? Do you think that philosophizing helped
or hindered the climber? Do you know anything about the difficulties of
Alpine climbing from other accounts you have read? Compare the style of
this selection with "The Luck of Roaring Camp" and "A Leaf in the
Storm."]
 
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