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Morning dawned brightly upon our bivouac among a cluster of dark firs in the mountain corridor opened by an ancient glacier of King’s River into the heart of the Sierras. It dawned a trifle sooner than we could have wished, but Professor Brewer and Hoffman had breakfasted before sunrise, and were off with barometer and theodolite upon their shoulders, purposing to ascend our amphitheatre to its head and climb a great pyramidal peak which swelled up against the eastern sky, closing the view in that direction.
We who remained in camp spent the day in overhauling campaign materials and preparing for a grand assault upon the summits. For a couple of hours we could descry our friends through the field-glasses, their minute, black forms moving slowly on among piles of giant débris; now and then lost, again coming to view, and at last disappearing altogether.
It was twilight of evening, and almost eight o’clock, when they came back to camp, Brewer leading the way, Hoffman following; and as they sat down by our fire without uttering a word, we read upon their faces terrible fatigue. So we hastened to give them supper of coffee and soup, bread and venison, which resulted, after a time, in our getting in return the story of the day. For eight whole hours they had worked up over granite and snow, mounting ridge after ridge, till the summit was made about two o’clock.
These snowy crests bounding our view at the eastward we had all along taken to be the summits of the Sierra, and Brewer had supposed himself to be climbing a dominant peak, from which he might look eastward over Owen’s Valley and out upon leagues of desert. Instead of this, a vast wall of mountains, lifted still higher than his peak, rose beyond a tremendous cañon which lay like a trough between the two parallel ranks of peaks. Hoffman showed us on his sketch-book the profile of this new range, and I instantly recognized the peaks which I had seen from Mariposa, whose great white pile had led me to believe them the highest points of California.
For a couple of months my friends had made me the target of plenty of pleasant banter about my “highest land,” which they lost faith in as we climbed from Thomas’s Mill,—I, too, becoming a trifle anxious about it; but now that the truth had burst upon Brewer and Hoffman, they could not find words to describe the terribleness and grandeur of the deep cañon, or for picturing those huge crags towering in line at the east. Their peak, as indicated by the barometer, was in the region of thirteen thousand four hundred feet, and a level across to the farther range showed its crests to be at least fifteen hundred feet higher. They had spent hours upon the summit scanning the eastern horizon, and ranging downward into the labyrinth of gulfs below, and had come at last with reluctance to the belief that to cross this gorge and ascend the eastern wall of peaks was utterly impossible.
Brewer and Hoffman were old climbers, and their verdict of impossible oppressed me as I lay awake thinking of it; but early next morning I had made up my mind, and, taking Cotter aside, I asked him in an easy manner whether he would like to penetrate the Terra Incognita with me at the risk of our necks, provided Brewer should consent. In a frank, courageous tone he answered after his usual mode, “Why not?” Stout of limb, stronger yet in heart, of iron endurance, and a quiet, unexcited temperament, and, better yet, deeply devoted to me, I felt that Cotter was the one comrade I would choose to face death with, for I believed there was in his manhood no room for fear or shirk.
It was a trying moment for Brewer when we found him and volunteered to attempt a campaign for the top of California, because he felt a certain fatherly responsibility over our youth, a natural desire that we should not deposit our triturated remains in some undiscoverable hole among the feldspathic granites; but, like a true disciple of science, this was at last overbalanced by his intense desire to know more of the unexplored region. He freely confessed that he believed the plan madness, and Hoffman, too, told us we might as well attempt to get on a cloud as to try the peak. As Brewer gradually yielded his consent, I saw by his conversation that there was a possibility of success; so we spent the rest of the day in making preparations.
Our walking-shoes were in excellent condition, the hobnails firm and new. We laid out a barometer, a compass, a pocket-level, a set of wet and dry thermometers, note-books, with bread, cooked beans, and venison enough to last a week, rolled them all in blankets, making two knapsack-shaped packs strapped firmly together, with loops for the arms, which, by Brewer’s estimate, weighed forty pounds apiece.
Gardiner declared he would accompany us to the summit of the first range to look over into the gulf we were to cross, and at last Brewer and Hoffman also concluded to go up with us.
Quite too early for our profit we all betook ourselves to bed, vainly hoping to get a long, refreshing sleep from which we should arise ready for our tramp.
Never a man welcomed those first gray streaks in the east gladder than I did, unless it may be Cotter, who has in later years confessed that he did not go to sleep that night. Long before sunrise we had finished our breakfast and were under way, Hoffman kindly bearing my pack, and Brewer Cotter’s.
Our way led due east up the amphitheatre and toward Mount Brewer, as we had named the great pyramidal peak.
Awhile after leaving camp, slant sunlight streamed in among gilded pinnacles along the slope of Mount Brewer, touching here and there, in broad dashes of yellow, the gray walls, which rose sweeping up on either hand like the sides of a ship.
Our way along the valley’s middle ascended over a number of huge steps, rounded and abrupt, at whose bases were pools of transparent snow-water, edged with rude piles of erratic glacier blocks, scattered companies of alpine firs, of red bark and having cypress-like darkness of foliage, with fields of snow under sheltering cliffs, and bits of softest velvet meadow clouded with minute blue and white flowers.
As we climbed, the gorge grew narrow and sharp, both sides wilder; and the spurs which projected from them, nearly overhanging the middle of the valley, towered above us with more and more severe sculpture. We frequently crossed deep fields of snow, and at last reached the level of the highest pines, where long slopes of débris swept down from either cliff, meeting in the middle. Over and among these immense blocks, often twenty and thirty feet high, we were obliged to climb, hearing far below us the subterranean gurgle of streams.
Interlocking spurs nearly closed the gorge behind us; our last view was out a granite gateway formed of two nearly vertical precipices, sharp-edged, jutting buttress-like, and plunging down into a field of angular bowlders which fill the valley-bottom.
The eye ranged out from this open gateway overlooking the great King’s Cañon with its moraineterraced walls, the domes of granite upon Big Meadows, and the undulating stretch of forest which descends to the plain.
The gorge turning southward, we rounded a sort of mountain promontory, which, closing the view behind us, shut us up in the bottom of a perfect basin. In front lay a placid lake reflecting the intense black-blue of the sky. Granite, stained with purple and red, sank into it upon one side, and a broad, spotless field of snow came down to its margin upon the other.
From a pile of large granite blocks, forty or fifty feet above the lake-margin, we could look down fully a hundred feet through the transparent water to where bowlders and pebbles were strewn upon the stone bottom. We had now reached the base of Mount Brewer, and were skirting its southern spurs in a wide, open corridor surrounded in all directions by lofty granite crags from two to four thousand feet high; above the limits of vegetation, rocks, lakes of deep, heavenly blue, and white, trackless snows were grouped closely about us. Two sounds—a sharp, little cry of martens and occasional heavy crashes of falling rock—saluted us.
Climbing became exceedingly difficult, light air—for we had already reached twelve thousand five hundred feet—beginning to tell upon our lungs to such an extent that my friend, who had taken turns with me in carrying my pack, was unable to do so any longer, and I adjusted it to my own shoulders for the rest of the day.
After four hours of slow, laborious work, we made the base of the débris slope which rose about a thousand feet to a saddle-pass in the western mountain-wall, that range upon which Mount Brewer is so prominent a point. We were nearly an hour in toiling up this slope, over an uncertain footing which gave way at almost every step. At last, when almost at the top, we paused to take breath, and then all walked out upon the crest, laid off our packs, and sat down together upon the summit of the ridge, and for a few moments not a word was spoken.
The Sierras are here two parallel summit ranges. We were upon the crest of the western ridge, and looked down into a gulf five thousand feet deep, sinking from our feet in abrupt cliffs nearly or quite two thousand feet, whose base plunged into a broad field of snow lying steep and smooth for a great distance, but broken near its foot by craggy steps often a thousand feet high.
Vague blue haze obscured the lost depths, hiding details, giving a bottomless distance, out of which, like the breath of wind, floated up a faint tremble,vibrating upon the senses, yet never clearly heard.
Rising on the other side, cliff above cliff, precipice piled upon precipice, rock over rock, up against sky, towered the most gigantic mountain-wall in America, culminating in a noble pile of Gothic-finished granite and enamel-like snow. How grand and inviting looked its white form, its untrodden, unknown crest, so high and pure in the clear, strong blue! I looked at it as one contemplating the purpose of his life; and for just one moment I would have rather liked to dodge that purpose, or to have waited, or have found some excellent reason why I might not go; but all this quickly vanished, leaving a cheerful resolve to go ahead.
From the two opposing mountain-walls singular, thin, knife-blade ridges of stone jutted out, dividing the sides of the gulf into a series of amphitheatres, each one a labyrinth of ice and rock. Piercing thick beds of snow, sprang up knobs and straight, isolated spires of rock, mere obelisks curiously carved by frost, their rigid, slender forms casting a blue, sharp shadow upon the snow. Embosomed in depressions of ice, or resting on broken ledges, were azure lakes, deeper in tone than the sky, which at this altitude, even at midday, has a violet duskiness.
To the south, not more than eight miles, a wall of peaks stood across the gulf, dividing the King’s, which flowed north at our feet, from the Kern River, that flowed down the trough in the opposite direction.
I did not wonder that Brewer and Hoffman pronounced our undertaking impossible; but when I looked at Cotter there was such complete bravery in his eye that I asked him if he was ready to start. His old answer, “Why not?” left the initiative with me; so I told Professor Brewer that we would bid him good-by. Our friends helped us on with our packs in silence, and as we shook hands there was not a dry eye in the party. Before he let go of my hand Professor Brewer asked me for my plan, and I had to own that I had but one, which was to reach the highest peak in the range.
After looking in every direction I was obliged to confess that I saw as yet no practicable way. We bade them a “good-by,” receiving their “God bless you” in return, and started southward along the range to look for some possible cliff to descend. Brewer, Gardiner, and Hoffman turned north to push upward to the summit of Mount Brewer, and complete their observations. We saw them whenever we halted, until at last, on the very summit, their microscopic forms were for the last time discernible. With very great difficulty we climbed a peak which surmounted our wall just to the south of the pass, and, looking over the eastern brink, found that the precipice was still sheer and unbroken. In one place, where the snow lay against it to the very top, we went to its edge and contemplated the slide. About three thousand feet of unbroken white, at a fearfully steep angle, lay below us. We threw a stone over and watched it bound until it was lost in the distance; after fearful leaps we could only detect it by the flashings of snow where it struck, and as these were, in some instances, three hundred feet apart, we decided not to launch our own valuable bodies, and the still more precious barometer, after it.
There seemed but one possible way to reach our goal: that was to make our way along the summit of the cross ridge which projected between the two ranges. This divide sprang out from our Mount Brewer wall, about four miles to the south of us. To reach it we must climb up and down over the indented edge of the Mount Brewer wall. In attempting to do this we had a rather lively time scaling a sharp granite needle, where we found our course completely stopped by precipices four and five hundred feet in height. Ahead of us the summit continued to be broken into fantastic pinnacles, leaving us no hope of making our way along it; so we sought the most broken part of the eastern descent, and began to climb down. The heavy knapsacks, besides wearing our shoulders gradually into a black-and-blue state, overbalanced us terribly, and kept us in constant danger of pitching headlong. At last, taking them off, Cotter climbed down until he had found a resting-place upon a cleft of rock, then I lowered them to him with our lasso, afterward descending cautiously to his side, taking my turn in pioneering downward, receiving the freight of knapsacks by lasso as before. In this manner we consumed more than half the afternoon in descending a thousand feet of broken, precipitous slope; and it was almost sunset when we found ourselves upon the fields of level snow which lay white and thick over the whole interior slope of the amphitheatre.
The gorge below us seemed utterly impassable. At our backs the Mount Brewer wall rose either in sheer cliffs or in broken, rugged stairway, such as had offered us our descent. From this cruel dilemma the cross divide furnished the only hope, and the sole chance of scaling that was at its juncton with the Mount Brewer wall. Toward this point we directed our course, marching wearily over stretches of dense, frozen snow, and regions of débris, reaching about sunset the last alcove of the amphitheatre, just at the foot of the Mount Brewer wall.
It was evidently impossible for us to attempt to climb it that evening, and we looked about the desolate recesses for a sheltered camping-spot. A high granite wall surrounded us upon three sides, recurring to the southward in long, elliptical curves; no part of the summit being less than two thousand feet above us, the higher crags not infrequently reaching three thousand feet. A single field of snow swept around the base of the rock, and covered the whole amphitheatre, except where a few spikes and rounded masses of granite rose through it, and where two frozen lakes, with their blue ice-disks, broke the monotonous surface. Through the white snow-gate of our amphitheatre, as through a frame, we looked eastward upon the summit group; not a tree, not a vestige of vegetation in sight,—sky, snow, and granite the only elements in this wild picture.
After searching for a shelter we at last found a granite crevice near the margin of one of the frozen lakes,—a sort of shelf just large enough for Cotter and me,—where we hastened to make our bed, having first filled the canteen from a small stream that trickled over the ice, knowing that in a few moments the rapid chill would freeze it. We ate our supper of cold venison and bread, and whittled from the sides of the wooden barometer-case shavings enough to warm water for a cup of miserably tepid tea, and then, packing our provisions and instruments away at the head of the shelf, rolled ourselves in our blankets and lay down to enjoy the view.
After such fatiguing exercises the mind has an almost abnormal clearness: whether this is wholly from within, or due to the intensely vitalizing mountain air, I am not sure; probably both contribute to the state of exaltation in which all alpine climbers find themselves. The solid granite gave me a luxurious repose, and I lay on the edge of our little rock niche and watched the strange yet brilliant scene.
All the snow of our recess lay in the shadow of the high granite wall to the west, but the Kern divide which curved around us from the southeast was in full light; its broken sky line, battlemented and adorned with innumerable rough-hewn spires and pinnacles, was a mass of glowing orange intensely defined against the deep violet sky. At the open end of our horseshoe amphitheatre, to the east, its floor of snow rounded over in a smooth brink, overhanging precipices which sank two thousand feet into the King’s Cañon. Across the gulf rose the whole procession of summit peaks, their lower halves rooted in a deep, sombre shadow cast by the western wall, the heights bathed in a warm purple haze, in which the irregular marbling of snow burned with a pure crimson light. A few fleecy clouds, dyed fiery orange, drifted slowly eastward across the narrow zone of sky which stretched from summit to summit like a roof. At times the sound of waterfalls, faint and mingled with echoes, floated up through the still air. The snow near by lay in cold, ghastly shade, warmed here and there in strange flashes by light reflected downward from drifting clouds. The sombre waste about us; the deep violet vault overhead; those far summits, glowing with reflected rose; the deep, impenetrable gloom which filled the gorge, and slowly and with vapor-like stealth climbed the mountain wall, extinguishing the red light, combined to produce an effect which may not be described; nor can I more than hint at the contrast between the brilliancy of the scene under full light, and the cold, death-like repose which followed when the wan cliffs and pallid snow were all overshadowed with ghostly gray.
A sudden chill enveloped us. Stars in a moment crowded through the dark heaven, flashing with a frosty splendor. The snow congealed, the brooks ceased to flow, and, under the powerful sudden leverage of frost, immense blocks were dislodged all along the mountain summits and came thundering down the slopes, booming upon the ice, dashing wildly upon rocks. Under the lee of our shelf we felt quite safe, but neither Cotter nor I could help being startled, and jumping just a little, as these missiles, weighing often many tons, struck the ledge over our heads and whizzed down the gorge, their stroke resounding fainter and fainter, until at last only a confused echo reached us.
The thermometer at nine o’clock marked twenty degrees above zero. We set the “minimum” and rolled ourselves together for the night. The longer I lay the less I liked that shelf of granite; it grew hard in time, and cold also, my bones seeming to approach actual contact with the chilled rock; moreover I found that even so vigorous a circulation as mine was not enough to warm up the ledge to anything like a comfortable temperature. A single thickness of blanket is a better mattress than none, but the larger crystals of orthoclase, protruding plentifully, punched my back and caused me to revolve on a horizontal axis with precision and frequency. How I loved Cotter! How I hugged him and got warm, while our backs gradually petrified, till we whirled over and thawed them out together! The slant of that bed was diagonal and excessive; down it we slid till the ice chilled us awake, and we crawled back and chocked ourselves up with bits of granite inserted under my ribs and shoulders. In this pleasant position we got dozing again, and there stole over me a most comfortable ease. The granite softened perceptibly. I was delightfully warm, and sank into an industrious slumber which lasted with great soundness till four, when we rose and ate our breakfast of frozen venison.
The thermometer stood at two above zero; everything was frozen tight except the canteen, which we had prudently kept between us all night. Stars still blazed brightly, and the moon, hidden from us by western cliffs, shone in pale reflection upon the rocky heights to the east, which rose, dimly white, up from the impenetrable shadows of the cañon. Silence,—cold, ghastly dimness, in which loomed huge forms,—the biting frostiness of the air, wrought upon our feelings as we shouldered our packs and started with slow pace to climb toward the “divide.”
Soon, to our dismay, we found the straps had so chafed our shoulders that the weight gave us great pain, and obliged us to pad them with our handkerchiefs and extra socks, which remedy did not wholly relieve us from the constant wearing pain of the heavy load.
Directing our steps southward toward a niche in the wall which bounded us only half a mile distant, we travelled over a continuous snow-field frozen so densely as scarcely to yield at all to our tread, at the same time compressing enough to make that crisp, frosty sound which we all used to enjoy even before we knew from the books that it had something to do with the severe name of regelation.
As we advanced, the snow sloped more and more steeply up toward the crags, till by and by it became quite dangerous, causing us to cut steps with Cotter’s large bowie-knife,—a slow, tedious operation, requiring patience of a pretty permanent kind. In this way we spent a quiet social hour or so. The sun had not yet reached us, being shut out by the high amphitheatre wall; but its cheerful light reflected downward from a number of higher crags, filling the recess with the brightness of day, and putting out of existence those shadows which so sombrely darkened the earlier hours. To look back when we stopped to rest was to realize our danger,—that smooth, swift slope of ice carrying the eye down a thousand feet to the margin of a frozen mirror of ice; ribs and needles of rock piercing up through the snow, so closely grouped that, had we fallen, a miracle only might save us from being dashed. This led to rather deeper steps, and greater care that our burdens should be held more nearly over the centre of gravity, and a pleasant relief when we got to the top of the snow and sat down on a block of granite to breathe and look up in search of a way up the thousand-foot cliff of broken surface, among the lines of fracture and the galleries winding along the face.
It would have disheartened us to gaze up the hard, sheer front of precipices, and search among splintered projections, crevices, shelves, and snow-patches for an inviting route, had we not been animated by a faith that the mountains could not defy us.
Choosing what looked like the least impossible way, we started; but, finding it unsafe to work with packs on, resumed the yesterday’s plan,—Cotter taking the lead, climbing about fifty feet ahead, and hoisting up the knapsacks and barometer as I tied them to the end of the lasso. Constantly closing up in hopeless difficulty before us, the way opened again and again to our gymnastics, until we stood together upon a mere shelf, not more than two feet wide, which led diagonally up the smooth cliff. Edging along in careful steps, our backs flattened upon the granite, we moved slowly to a broad platform, where we stopped for breath.
There was no foothold above us. Looking down over the course we had come, it seemed, and I really believe it was, an impossible descent; for one can climb upward with safety where he cannot downward. To turn back was to give up in defeat; and we sat at least half an hour, suggesting all possible routes to the summit, accepting none, and feeling disheartened. About thirty feet directly over our heads was another shelf, which, if we could reach, seemed to offer at least a temporary way upward. On its edge were two or three spikes of granite; whether firmly connected with the cliff, or merely blocks of débris, we could not tell from below. I said to Cotter, I thought of but one possible plan: it was to lasso one of these blocks, and to climb, sailor-fashion, hand over hand, up the rope. In the lasso I had perfect confidence, for I had seen more than one Spanish bull throw his whole weight against it without parting a strand. The shelf was so narrow that throwing the coil of rope was a very difficult undertaking. I tried three times, and Cotter spent five minutes vainly whirling the loop up at the granite spikes. At last I made a lucky throw, and it tightened upon one of the smaller protuberances. I drew the noose close, and very gradually threw my hundred and fifty pounds upon the rope; then Cotter joined me, and for a moment we both hung our united weight upon it. Whether the rock moved slightly, or whether the lasso stretched a little, we were unable to decide; but the trial must be made, and I began to climb slowly. The smooth precipice-face against which my body swung offered no foot-hold, and the whole climb had therefore to be done by the arms, an effort requiring all one’s determination. When about half way up I was obliged to rest, and curling my feet in the rope managed to relieve my arms for a moment. In this position I could not resist the fascinating temptation of a survey downward.
Straight down, nearly a thousand feet below, at the foot of the rocks, began the snow, whose steep, roof-like slope, exaggerated into an almost vertical angle, curved down in a long, white field, broken far away by rocks and polished, round lakes of ice.
Cotter looked up cheerfully, and asked how I was making it; to which I answered that I had plenty of wind left. At that moment, when hanging between heaven and earth, it was a deep satisfaction to look down at the wild gulf of desolation beneath, and up to unknown dangers ahead, and feel my nerves cool and unshaken.
A few pulls hand over hand brought me to the edge of the shelf, when, throwing an arm around the granite spike, I swung my body upon the shelf, and lay down to rest, shouting to Cotter that I was all right, and that the prospects upward were capital. After a few moments’ breathing I looked over the brink, and directed my comrade to tie the barometer to the lower end of the lasso, which he did, and that precious instrument was hoisted to my station, and the lasso sent down twice for knapsacks, after which Cotter came up the rope in his very muscular way, without once stopping to rest. We took our loads in our hands, swinging the barometer over my shoulder, and climbed up a shelf which led in a zigzag direction upward and to the south, bringing us out at last upon the thin blade of a ridge which connected a short distance above with the summit. It was formed of huge blocks, shattered, and ready, at a touch, to fall.
So narrow and sharp was the upper slope that we dared not walk, but got astride, and worked slowly along with our hands, pushing the knapsacks in advance, now and then holding our breath when loose masses rocked under our weight.
Once upon the summit, a grand view burst upon us. Hastening to step upon the crest of the divide, which was never more than ten feet wide, frequently sharpened to a mere blade, we looked down the other side, and were astonished to find we had ascended the gentler slope, and that the rocks fell from our feet in almost vertical precipices for a thousand feet or more. A glance along the summit toward the highest group showed us that any advance in that direction was impossible, for the thin ridge was gashed down in notches three or four hundred feet deep, forming a procession of pillars, obelisks, and blocks piled upon each other, and looking terribly insecure.
We then deposited our knapsacks in a safe place, and, finding that it was already noon, determined to rest a little while and take a lunch, at over thirteen thousand feet above the sea.
West of us stretched the Mount Brewer wall, with its succession of smooth precipices and amphitheatre ridges. To the north the great gorge of the King’s River yawned down five thousand feet. To the south the valley of the Kern, opening in the opposite direction, was broader, less deep, but more filled with broken masses of granite. Clustered about the foot of the divide were a dozen alpine lakes; the higher ones blue sheets of ice, the lowest completely melted. Still lower in the depths of the two cañons we could see groups of forest trees; but they were so dim and so distant as never to relieve the prevalent masses of rock and snow. Our divide cast its shadow for a mile down King’s Cañon, in dark blue profile upon the broad sheets of sunny snow, from whose brightness the hard, splintered cliffs caught reflections and wore an aspect of joy. Thousands of rills poured from the melting snow, filling the air with a musical tinkle as of many accordant bells. The Kern Valley opened below us with its smooth, oval outline, the work of extinct glaciers, whose form and extent were evident from worn cliff-surface and rounded wall; snow-fields, relics of the former névé, hung in white tapestries around its ancient birthplace; and as far as we could see, the broad, corrugated valley, for a breadth of fully ten miles, shone with burnishings wherever its granite surface was not covered with lakelets or thickets of alpine vegetation.
Through a deep cut in the Mount Brewer wall we gained our first view to the westward, and saw in the distance the wall of the South King’s Cañon, and the granite point which Cotter and I had climbed a fortnight before. But for the haze we might have seen the plain; for above its farther limit were several points of the Coast Ranges, isolated like islands in the sea.
The view was so grand, the mountain colors so brilliant, immense snow-fields and blue alpine lakes so charming, that we almost forgot we were ever to move, and it was only after a swift hour of this delight that we began to consider our future course.
The King’s Cañon, which headed against our wall, seemed untraversable—no human being could climb along the divide; we had, then, but one hope of reaching the peak, and our greatest difficulty lay at the start. If we could climb down to the Kern side of the divide, and succeed in reaching the base of the precipices which fell from our feet, it really looked as if we might travel without difficulty among the roches moutonnées to the other side of the Kern Valley, and make our attempt upon the southward flank of the great peak. One look at the sublime white giant decided us. We looked down over the precipice, and at first could see no method of descent. Then we went back and looked at the road we had come up, to see if that were not possibly as bad; but the broken surface of the rocks was evidently much better climbing-ground than anything ahead of us. Cotter, with danger, edged his way along the wall to the east and I to the west, to see if there might not be some favorable point; but we both returned with the belief that the precipice in front of us was as passable as any of it. Down it we must.
After lying on our faces, looking over the brink, ten or twenty minutes, I suggested that by lowering ourselves on the rope we might climb from crevice to crevice; but we saw no shelf large enough for ourselves and the knapsacks too. However, we were not going to give it up without a trial; and I made the rope fast around my breast, and, looping the noose over a firm point of rock, let myself slide gradually down to a notch forty feet below. There was only room beside me for Cotter, so I made him send down the knapsacks first. I then tied these together by the straps with my silk handkerchiefs, and hung them off as far to the left as I could reach without losing my balance, looping the handkerchiefs over a point of rock. Cotter then slid down the rope, and, with considerable difficulty, we whipped the noose off its resting-place above, and cut off our connection with the upper world.
“We’re in for it now, King,” remarked my comrade, as he looked aloft, and then down; but our blood was up, and danger added only an exhilarating thrill to the nerves.
The shelf was hardly more than two feet wide, and the granite so smooth that we could find no place to fasten the lasso for the next descent; so I determined to try the climb with only as little aid as possible. Tying it around my breast again, I gave the other end into Cotter’s hands, and he, bracing his back against the cliff, found for himself as firm a foothold as he could, and promised to give me all the help in his power. I made up my mind to bear no weight unless it was absolutely necessary; and for the first ten feet I found cracks and protuberances enough to support me, making every square inch of surface do friction duty, and hugging myself against the rocks as tightly as I could. When within about eight feet of the next shelf, I twisted myself round upon the face, hanging by two rough blocks of protruding feldspar, and looked vainly for some further hand-hold; but the rock, besides being perfectly smooth, overhung slightly, and my legs dangled in the air. I saw that the next cleft was over three feet broad, and I thought possibly I might, by a quick slide, reach it in safety without endangering Cotter. I shouted to him to be very careful and let go in case I fell, loosened my hold upon the rope and slid quickly down. My shoulder struck against the rock and threw me out of balance; for an instant I reeled over upon the verge, in danger of falling, but, in the excitement, I thrust out my hand and seized a small alpine gooseberry-bush, the first piece of vegetation we had seen. Its roots were so firmly fixed in the crevice that it held my weight and saved me.
I could no longer see Cotter, but I talked to him, and heard the two knapsacks come bumping along till they slid over the eaves above me, and swung down to my station, when I seized the lasso’s end and braced myself as well as possible, intending, if he slipped, to haul in slack and help him as best I might. As he came slowly down from crack to crack, I heard his hobnailed shoes grating on the granite; presently they appeared dangling from the eaves above my head. I had gathered in the rope until it was taut, and then hurriedly told him to drop. He hesitated a moment, and let go. Before he struck the rock I had him by the shoulder, and whirled him down upon his side, thus preventing his rolling overboard, which friendly action he took quite coolly.
The third descent was not a difficult one, nor the fourth; but when we had climbed down about two hundred and fifty feet, the rocks were so glacially polished and water-worn that it seemed impossible to get any farther. To our right was a crack penetrating the rock, perhaps a foot deep, widening at the surface to three or four inches, which proved to be the only possible ladder. As the chances seemed rather desperate, we concluded to tie ourselves together, in order to share a common fate; and with a slack of thirty feet between us, and our knapsacks upon our backs, we climbed into the crevice, and began descending with our faces to the cliff. This had to be done with unusual caution, for the foothold was about as good as none, and our fingers slipped annoyingly on the smooth stone; besides, the knapsacks and instruments kept a steady backward pull, tending to overbalance us. But we took pains to descend one at a time, and rest wherever the niches gave our feet a safe support. In this way we got down about eighty feet of smooth, nearly vertical wall, reaching the top of a rude granite stairway, which led to the snow; and here we sat down to rest, and found to our astonishment that we had been three hours from the summit.
After breathing a half-minute we continued down, jumping from rock to rock, and having, by practice, become very expert in balancing ourselves, sprang on, never resting long enough to lose the aplomb; and in this manner made a quick descent over rugged débris to the crest of a snow-field, which, for seven or eight hundred feet more, swept down in a smooth, even slope, of very high angle, to the borders of a frozen lake.
Without untying the lasso which bound us together, we sprang upon the snow with a shout, and glissaded down splendidly, turning now and then a somersault, and shooting out like cannon-balls almost to the midle of the frozen lake; I upon my back, and Cotter feet first, in a swimming position. The ice cracked in all directions. It was only a thin, transparent film, through which we could see deep into the lake. Untying ourselves, we hurried ashore in different directions, lest our combined weight should be too great a strain upon any point.
With curiosity and wonder we scanned every shelf and niche of the last descent. It seemed quite impossible we could have come down there, and now it actually was beyond human power to get back again. But what cared we? “Sufficient unto the day—”We were bound for that still distant, though gradually nearing, summit; and we had come from a cold, shadowed cliff into deliciously warm sunshine, and were jolly, shouting, singing songs, and calling out the companionship of a hundred echoes. Six miles away, with no grave danger, no great difficulty, between us, lay the base of our grand mountain. Upon its skirts we saw a little grove of pines, an ideal bivouac, and toward this we bent our course.
After the continued climbing of the day walking was a delicious rest, and forward we pressed with considerable speed, our hobnails giving us firm footing on the glittering, glacial surface. Every fluting of the great valley was in itself a considerable cañon, into which we descended, climbing down the scored rocks, and swinging from block to block, until we reached the level of the pines. Here, sheltered among roches moutonnées, began to appear little fields of alpine grass, pale yet sunny, soft under our feet, fragrantly jewelled with flowers of fairy delicacy, holding up amid thickly clustered blades chalices of turquoise and amethyst, white stars, and fiery little globes of red. Lakelets, small but innumerable, were held in glacial basins, the striæ and grooves of that old dragon’s track ornamenting their smooth bottoms.
One of these, a sheet of pure beryl hue, gave us much pleasure from its lovely transparency, and because we lay down in the necklace of grass about it and smelled flowers, while tired muscles relaxed upon warm beds of verdure, and the pain in our burdened shoulders went away, leaving us delightfully comfortable.
After the stern grandeur of granite and ice, and with the peaks and walls still in view, it was relief to find ourselves again in the region of life. I never felt for trees and flowers such a sense of intimate relationship and sympathy. When we had no longer excuse for resting, I invented the palpable subterfuge of measuring the altitude of the spot, since the few clumps of low, wide-boughed pines near by were the highest living trees. So we lay longer with less and less will to rise, and when resolution called us to our feet, the getting-up was sorely like Rip Van Winkle’s in the third act.
The deep, glacial cañon-flutings across which our march then lay proved to be great consumers of time: indeed, it was sunset when we reached the eastern ascent, and began to toil up through scattered pines, and over trains of moraine rocks, toward the great peak. Stars were already flashing brilliantly in the sky, and the low, glowing arch in the west had almost vanished when we came to the upper trees, and threw down our knapsacks to camp. The forest grew on a sort of plateau-shelf with a precipitous front to the west,—a level surface which stretched eastward and back to the foot of our mountain, whose lower spurs reached within a mile of camp. Within the shelter lay a huge, fallen log, like all these alpine woods one mass of resin, which flared up when we applied a match, illuminating the whole grove. By contrast with the darkness outside, we seemed to be in a vast, many-pillared hall. The stream close by afforded water for our blessed teapot; venison frizzled with mild, appetizing sound upon the ends of pine sticks; matchless beans allowed themselves to become seductively crisp upon our tin plates. That supper seemed to me then the quintessence of gastronomy, and I am sure Cotter and I must have said some very good après-diner things, though I long ago forgot them all. Within the ring of warmth, on elastic beds of pine-needles, we curled up, and fell swiftly into a sound sleep.
I woke up once in the night to look at my watch, and observed that the sky was overcast with a thin film of cirrus cloud to which the reflected moonlight lent the appearance of a glimmering tent, stretched from mountain to mountain over cañons filled with impenetrable darkness, only the vaguely lighted peaks and white snow-fields distinctly seen. I closed my eyes and slept soundly until Cotter woke me at half-past three, when we arose, breakfasted by the light of our fire, which still blazed brilliantly, and, leaving our knapsacks, started for the mountain with only instruments, canteens, and luncheon.
In the indistinct moonlight climbing was very difficult at first, for we had to thread our way along a plain which was literally covered with glacier bowlders, and the innumerable brooks which we crossed were frozen solid. However, our march brought us to the base of the great mountain, which, rising high against the east, shut out the coming daylight, and kept us in profound shadow. From base to summit rose a series of broken crags, lifting themselves from a general slope of débris. Toward the left the angle seemed to be rather gentler, and the surface less ragged; and we hoped, by a long détour round the base, to make an easy climb up this gentler face. So we toiled on for an hour over the rocks, reaching at last the bottom of the north slope. Here our work began in good earnest. The blocks were of enormous size, and in every stage of unstable equilibrium, frequently rolling over as we jumped upon them, making it necessary for us to take a second leap and land where we best could. To our relief we soon surmounted the largest blocks, reaching a smaller size, which served us as a sort of stairway.
The advancing daylight revealed to us a very long, comparatively even snow-slope, whose surface was pierced by many knobs and granite heads, giving it the aspect of an ice-roofing fastened on with bolts of stone. It stretched in far perspective to the summit, where already the rose of sunrise reflected gloriously, kindling a fresh enthusiasm within us.
Immense bowlders were partly embedded in the ice just above us, whose constant melting left them trembling on the edge of a fall. It communicated no very pleasant sensation to see above you these immense missiles hanging by a mere band, knowing that, as soon as the sun rose, you would be exposed to a constant cannonade.
The east side of the peak, which we could now partially see, was too precipitous to think of climbing. The slope toward our camp was too much broken into pinnacles and crags to offer us any hope, or to divert us from the single way, dead ahead, up slopes of ice and among fragments of granite. The sun rose upon us while we were climbing the lower part of this snow, and in less than half an hour, melting, began to liberate huge blocks, which thundered down past us, gathering and growing into small avalanches below.
We did not dare climb one above another, according to our ordinary mode, but kept about an equal level, hundred feet apart, lest, dislodging the blocks, one should hurl them down upon the other.
We climbed up smooth faces of granite, clinging simply by the cracks and protruding crystals of feldspar, and then hewed steps up fearfully steep slopes of ice, zigzagging to the right and left, to avoid the flying bowlders. When midway up this slope we reached a place where the granite rose in perfectly smooth bluffs on either side of a gorge,—a narrow cut or walled way leading up to the flat summit of the cliff. This we scaled by cutting ice steps, only to find ourselves fronted again by a still higher wall. Ice sloped from its front at too steep an angle for us to follow, but had melted in contact with it, leaving a space three feet wide between the ice and the rock. We entered this crevice and climbed along its bottom, with a wall of rock rising a hundred feet above us on one side, and a thirty-foot face of ice on the other, through which light of an intense cobalt-blue penetrated.
Reaching the upper end, we had to cut our footsteps upon the ice again, and, having braced our backs against the granite, climbed up to the surface. We were now in a dangerous position: to fall into the crevice upon one side was to be wedged to death between rock and ice; to make a slip was to be shot down five hundred feet, and then hurled over the brink of a precipice. In the friendly seat which this wedge gave me, I stopped to take wet and dry observations with the thermometer,—this being an absolute preventive of a scare,—and to enjoy the view.
The wall of our mountain sank abruptly to the left, opening for the first time an outlook to the eastward. Deep—it seemed almost vertically—beneath us we could see the blue water of Owen’s Lake, ten thousand feet down. The summit peaks to the north were piled in Titanic confusion, their ridges overhanging the eastern slope with terrible abruptness. Clustered upon the shelves and plateaus below were several frozen lakes, and in all directions swept magnificent fields of snow. The summit was now not over five hundred feet distant, and we started on again with the exhilarating hope of success. But if nature had intended to secure the summit from all assailants, she could not have planned her defences better; for the smooth granite wall which rose above the snow-slope continued, apparently, quite around the peak, and we looked in great anxiety to see if there was not one place where it might be climbed. It was all blank except in one spot; quite near us the snow bridged across the crevice and rose in a long point to the summit of the wall,—a great icicle-column frozen in a niche of the bluff,—its base about ten feet wide, narrowing to two feet at the top. We climbed to the base of this spire of ice, and, with the utmost care, began to cut our stairway. The material was an exceedingly compacted snow, passing into clear ice as it neared the rock. We climbed the first half of it with comparative ease; after that it was almost vertical, and so thin that we did not dare to cut the footsteps deep enough to make them absolutely safe. There was a constant dread lest our ladder should break off, and we be thrown either down the snow-slope or into the bottom of the crevasse. At last, in order to prevent myself from falling over backward, I was obliged to thrust my hand into the crack between the ice and the wall, and the spire became so narrow that I could do this on both sides, so that the climb was made as upon a tree, cutting mere toe-holes and embracing the whole column of ice in my arms. At last I reached the top, and, with the greatest caution, wormed my body over the brink, and, rolling out upon the smooth surface of the granite, looked over and watched Cotter make his climb. He came steadily up, with no sense of nervousness, until he got to the narrow part of the ice, and here he stopped and looked up with a forlorn face to me; but as he climbed up over the edge the broad smile came back to his face, and he asked me if it had occurred to me that we had, by and by, to go down again.
We had now an easy slope to the summit, and hurried up over rocks and ice, reaching the crest at exactly twelve o’clock. I rang my hammer upon the topmost rock; we grasped hands, and I reverently named the grand peak Mount Tyndall.
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