A Bad Five Minutes in the Alps, by Leslie Stephen

from Freethinking and Plainspeaking (adapted)

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."]

Louise de la Ramee