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Climbing A Mountain Three Miles High - from Harper's


The ice-bound peak of the Alps known as the Matterhorn, situated between Switzerland and Italy, forty miles northeast of Mont Blanc, and twelve miles west of Monte Rosa, towers skyward nearly 15,000 feet, presenting an appearance imposing beyond description. The peak rises abruptly, by a series of cliffs which may properly be termed precipices, a clear 5000 feet above the glaciers which surround its base. There seemed to the superstitious natives in the surrounding valleys to be a line drawn around it, up to which one might go, but no farther. Within that invisible line good and evil spirits were supposed to exist. They spoke of a ruined city on its summit wherein the spirits dwelt; and if you laughed, they gravely shook their heads, told you to look yourself to see the castles and the walls, and warned you against a rash approach, lest the infuriate demons from their impregnable heights should hurl down vengeance for your audacity.

Previous to 1865 several attempts had been made by daring tourists to reach its summit, but no one got beyond 13,000 feet, the remaining 2000 feet being generally regarded as inaccessible. But in the year just mentioned a little party of hardy English climbers accomplished the ascent. The achievement was made, however, at the cost of four human lives.

The story, as told by one of the leaders of the party, Mr. Edward Whymper, who had already made seven unsuccessful attempts, is an exciting one.

The ascent was made in July, in company with Lord Francis Douglas, Mr. Hudson, Mr. Hadow, and three guides. On the first day they did not ascend to a great height, and on the second day they resumed their journey with daylight, as they were anxious to outstrip a party of Italians who had set out before them by a different route. Difficulty after difficulty was surmounted. The higher they rose, the more intense became the excitement. What if they should be beaten at the last moment? The slope eased off; at length they could be detached from the rope which bound the party together; and Croz and Mr. Whymper, dashing away, ran a neck-and-neck race, which ended in a dead-heat. At 1.40 p.m. the world was at their feet, and the Matterhorn was conquered. Hurrah! They had beaten the party of Italians, whom they saw on the southwest ridge, 1250 feet below, and who did not prosecute the ascent farther. For an hour the successful climbers revelled in the scene which lay at their feet. There were black and gloomy forests, bright and cheerful meadows; bounding water-falls and tranquil lakes; fertile lands and savage wastes; sunny plains and frigid plateaux. There were the most rugged forms and the most graceful outlines; low perpendicular cliffs and gentle undulating slopes; rocky mountains and snowy mountains, sombre and solemn, or glittering and white, with walls, turrets, pinnacles, pyramids, domes, cones, and spires. There was every combination that the world can give, and every contrast that the heart could desire.

Alas! their naturally triumphant feeling of pleasure was but short-lived. They had commenced their descent, again tied together with ropes. Croz, a most accomplished guide and a brave fellow, went first; Hadow, second; Hudson, as an experienced mountaineer, and reckoned as good as a guide, third; Lord F. Douglas, fourth; followed by Mr. Whymper between the two remaining guides, named Jaugwalder, father and son. They were commencing the difficult part of the descent, and Croz was cutting steps in the ice for the feet of Mr. Hadow, who was immediately behind him. A few minutes later a sharp-eyed lad ran into the Monte Rosa Hotel, saying that he had seen an avalanche fall from the summit of the Matterhorn on to the Matterhorngletscher. The boy was reproved for telling idle stories; he was right, nevertheless, and this was what he saw: Michel Croz had laid aside his axe, and in order to give Mr. Hadow greater security, was taking hold of his legs, and putting his feet one by one into their proper positions. "At this moment," says Mr. Whymper, "Mr. Hadow slipped, fell against him, and knocked him over. I heard one startled exclamation from Croz, then saw him and Mr. Hadow flying downward; in another moment Hudson was dragged from his steps, and Lord F. Douglas immediately after him. All this was the work of a moment. Immediately we heard Croz's exclamation, old Peter and I planted ourselves as firmly as the rocks would permit; the rope was taut between us, and the jerk came on us both as one man. We held; but the rope broke midway between Jaugwalder and Lord Francis Douglas. For a few seconds we saw our unfortunate companions sliding downward on their backs, and spreading out their hands, endeavoring to save themselves. They passed from our sight uninjured, disappeared one by one, and fell from precipice to precipice on to the Matterhorngletscher below—a distance of nearly 4000 feet in height. From the moment the rope broke, it was impossible to help them. So perished our comrades."

The bodies of three of the men who thus miserably perished were afterward recovered; but that of Lord Francis Douglas was never again seen. It was a melancholy ending, and may well excite a feeling of surprise that so many brave and useful men can thus be found year by year hazarding their lives for what is in many cases no higher purpose than that of pleasure or sport.