Running Water

Chapter XXIV

The Brenva Ridge

A.E.W. Mason

THE PEASANT was right. He had seen a man waving a signal of distress on the slopes of Mont Blanc above the great buttress. And this is how the signal came to be waved.

An hour before Chayne and Sylvia set out from Chamonix to cross the Col du Géant, and while it was yet quite dark, a spark glowed suddenly on an island of rocks set in the great white waste of the Brenva glacier. The spark was a fire lit by Pierre Delouvain. For Garratt Skinner’s party had camped upon those rocks. The morning was cold, and one by one the porters, Garratt Skinner, and Walter Hine, gathered about the blaze. Overhead the stars glittered in a clear, dark sky. It was very still; no sound was heard at all but the movement in the camp; even on the glacier a thousand feet below, where all night long the avalanches had thundered, in the frost of the early morning there was silence.

Garratt Skinner looked upward.

“We shall have a good day,” he said; and then he looked quickly toward Walter Hine. “How did you sleep, Wallie?”

“Very little. The avalanches kept me awake. Besides, I slipped and fell a hundred times at the corner of the path,” he said, with a shiver. “A hundred times I felt emptiness beneath my feet.”

He referred to a mishap of the day before. On the way to the gîte after the chalets and the wood are left behind, a little path leads along the rocks of the Mont de la Brenva high above the glacier. There are one or two awkward corners to pass where rough footsteps have been hewn in the rock. At one of these corners Walter Hine had slipped. His side struck the step; he would have dropped to the glacier, but Garratt Skinner had suddenly reached out a hand and saved him.

Garratt Skinner’s face changed.

“You are not afraid,” he said.

“You think we can do it?” asked Hine, nervously, and Garratt Skinner laughed.

“Ask Pierre Delouvain!” he said, and himself put the question. Pierre laughed in his turn.

“Bah! I snap my fingers at the Brenva climb,” said he. “We shall be in Chamonix to-night”; and Garratt Skinner translated the words to Walter Hine.

Breakfast was prepared and eaten. Walter Hine was silent through the meal. He had not the courage to say that he was afraid; and Garratt Skinner played upon his vanity.

“We shall be in Chamonix to-night. It will be a fine feather in your cap, Wallie. One of the historic climbs!”

Walter Hine drew a deep breath. If only the day were over, and the party safe on the rough path through the woods on the other side of the mountain! But he held his tongue. Moreover, he had great faith in his idol and master, Garratt Skinner.

“You saved my life yesterday,” he said; and upon Garratt Skinner’s face there came a curious smile. He looked steadily into the blaze of the fire and spoke almost as though he made an apology to himself.

“I saw a man falling. I saw that I could save him. I did not think. My hand had already caught him.”

He looked up with a start. In the east the day was breaking, pale and desolate; the lower glacier glimmered into view beneath them; the gigantic amphitheater of hills which girt them in on three sides loomed out of the mists from aerial heights and took solidity and shape, westward the black and rugged Peuteret ridge, eastward the cliffs of Mont Maudit, and northward sweeping around the head of the glacier, the great ice-wall of Mont Blanc with its ruined terraces and inaccessible cliffs.

“Time, Wallie,” said Garratt Skinner, and he rose to his feet and called to Pierre Delouvain. “There are only three of us. We shall have to go quickly. We do not want to carry more food than we shall need. The rest we can send back with our blankets by the porters.”

Pierre Delouvain justified at once the ill words which had been spoken of him by Michel Revailloud. He thought only of the burden which through this long day he would have to carry on his back.

“Yes, that is right,” he said. “We will take what we need for the day. To-night we shall be in Chamonix.”

And thus the party set off with no provision against that most probable of all mishaps—the chance that sunset might find them still upon the mountain side. Pierre Delouvain, being lazy and a worthless fellow, as Revailloud had said, agreed. But the suggestion had been made by Garratt Skinner. And Garratt Skinner was Gabriel Strood, who knew—none better—the folly of such light traveling.

The rope was put on; Pierre Delouvain led the way, Walter Hine as the weakest of the party was placed in the middle, Garratt Skinner came last; the three men mounted by a snow-slope and a gully to the top of the rocks which supported the upper Brenva glacier.

“That’s our road, Wallie,” said Garratt Skinner. He pointed to a great buttress of rock overlain here and there with fields of snow, which jutted out from the ice-wall of the mountain, descended steeply, bent to the west in a curve, and then pushed far out into the glacier as some great promontory pushes out into the sea. “Do you see a hump above the buttress, on the crest of the ridge and a little to the right? And to the right of the hump, a depression in the ridge? That’s what they call the Corridor. Once we are there our troubles are over.”

But between the party and the buttress stretched the great ice-fall of the upper Brenva glacier. Crevassed, broken, a wilderness of towering séracs, it had the look of a sea in a gale whose breakers had been frozen in the very act of over toppling.

“Come,” said Pierre.

“Keep the rope stretched tight, Wallie,” said Garratt Skinner; and they descended into the furrows of that wild and frozen sea. The day’s work had begun in earnest; and almost at once they began to lose time.

Now it was a perilous strip of ice between unfathomable blue depths along which they must pass, as bridge-builders along their girders, yet without the bridge-builders’ knowledge that at the end of the passage there was a further way. Now it was some crevasse into which they must descend, cutting their steps down a steep rib of ice; now it was a wall up which the leader must be hoisted on the shoulders of his companions, and even so as likely as not, his fingers could not reach the top, but hand holds and foot holds must be hewn with the ax till a ladder was formed. Now it was some crevasse gaping across their path; they must search this way and that for a firm snow-bridge by which to overpass it. It was difficult, as Pierre Delouvain discovered, to find a path through that tangled labyrinth without some knowledge of the glacier. For, only at rare times, when he stood high on a sérac, could he see his way for more than a few yards ahead. Pierre aimed straight for the foot of the buttress, working thus due north. And he was wrong. Garratt Skinner knew it, but said not a word. He stood upon insecure ledges and supported Delouvain upon his shoulders, and pushed him up with his ice-ax into positions which only involved the party in further difficulties. He took his life in his hands and risked it, knowing the better way. Yet all the while the light broadened, the great violet shadows crept down the slopes and huddled at the bases of the peaks. Then the peaks took fire, and suddenly along the dull white slopes of ice in front of them the fingers of the morning flashed in gold. Over the eastern rocks the sun had leaped into the sky. For a little while longer they advanced deeper into the entanglement, and when they were about half way across they came to a stop. They were on a tongue of ice which narrowed to a point; the point abutted against a perpendicular ice-wall thirty feet high. Nowhere was there any break in that wall, and at each side of the tongue the ice gaped in chasms.

“We must go back,” said Pierre. “I have forgotten the way.”

He had never known it. Seduced by a treble fee, he had assumed an experience which he did not possess. Garratt Skinner looked at his watch, and turning about led the party back for a little while. Then he turned to his right and said:

“I think it might go in this direction,” and lo! making steadily across some difficult ground, no longer in a straight line northward to Mont Blanc, but westward toward the cliffs of the Peuteret ridge under Garratt Skinner’s lead, they saw a broad causeway of ice open before them. The causeway led them to steep slopes of snow, up which it was just possible to kick steps, and then working back again to the east they reached the foot of the great buttress on its western side just where it forms a right angle with the face of the mountain. Garratt Skinner once more looked at his watch. It had been half-past two when they had put on the rope, it was now close upon half-past six. They had taken four hours to traverse the ice-fall, and they should have taken only two and a half. Garratt Skinner, however, expressed no anxiety. On the contrary, one might have thought that he wished to lose time.

“There’s one of the difficulties disposed of,” he said, cheerily. “You did very well, Wallie—very well. It was not altogether nice, was it? But you won’t have to go back.”

Walter Hine had indeed crossed the glacier without complaint. There had been times when he had shivered, times when his heart within him had swelled with a longing to cry out, “Let us go back!” But he had not dared. He had been steadied across the narrow bridge with the rope, hauled up the ice-walls and let down again on the other side. But he had come through. He took some pride in the exploit as he gazed back from the top of the snow-slope across the tumult of ice to the rocks on which he had slipped. He had come through safely, and he was encouraged to go on.

“We won’t stop here, I think,” said Garratt Skinner. They had already halted upon the glacier for a second breakfast. The sun was getting hot upon the slopes above, and small showers of snow and crusts of ice were beginning to shoot down the gullies of the buttress at the base of which they stood. “We will have a third breakfast when we are out of range.” He called to Delouvain who was examining the face of the rock-buttress up which they must ascend to its crest and said: “It looks as if we should do well to work out to the right I think.”

The rocks were difficult, but their difficulty was not fully appreciated by Walter Hine. Nor did he understand the danger. There were gullies in which new snow lay in a thin crust over hard ice. He noticed that in those gullies the steps were cut deep into the ice below, that Garratt Skinner bade him not loiter, and that Pierre Delouvain in front made himself fast and drew in the rope with a particular care when it came to his turn to move. But he did not know that all that surface snow might peel off in a moment, and swish down the cliffs, sweeping the party from their feet. There were rounded rocks and slabs with no hold for hand or foot but roughness, roughness in the surface, and here and there a wrinkle. But the guide went first, as often as not pushed up by Garratt Skinner, and Walter Hine, like many another inefficient man before him, came up, like a bundle, on the rope afterward. Thus they climbed for three hours more. Walter Hine, nursed by gradually lengthening expeditions, was not as yet tired. Moreover the exhilaration of the air, and excitement, helped to keep fatigue aloof. They rested just below the crest of the ridge and took another meal.

“Eat often and little. That’s the golden rule,” said Garratt Skinner. “No brandy, Wallie. Keep that in your flask!”

Pierre Delouvain, however, followed a practice not unknown amongst Chamonix guides.

“Absinthe is good on the mountains,” said he.

When they rose, the order of going was changed. Pierre Delouvain, who had led all the morning, now went last, and Garratt Skinner led. He led quickly and with great judgment or knowledge—Pierre Delouvain at the end of the rope wondered whether it was judgment or knowledge—and suddenly Walter Hine found himself standing on the crest with Garratt Skinner, and looking down the other side upon a glacier far below, which flows from the Mur de la Côte on the summit ridge of Mont Blanc into the Brenva glacier.

“That’s famous,” cried Garratt Skinner, looking once more at his watch. He did not say that they had lost yet another hour upon the face of the buttress. It was now half past nine in the morning. “We are twelve thousand feet up, Wallie,” and he swung to his left, and led the party up the ridge of the buttress.

As they went along this ridge, Wallie Hine’s courage rose. It was narrow but not steep, nor was it ice. It was either rock or snow in which steps could be kicked. He stepped out with a greater confidence. If this were all, the Brenva climb was a fraud, he exclaimed to himself in the vanity of his heart. Ahead of them a tall black tower stood up, hiding what lay beyond, and up toward this tower Garratt Skinner led quickly. He no longer spoke to his companions, he went forward, assured and inspiring assurance; he reached the tower, passed it and began to cut steps. His ax rang as it fell. It was ice into which he was cutting.

This was the first warning which Walter Hine received. But he paid no heed to it. He was intent upon setting his feet in the steps; he found the rope awkward to handle and keep tight, his attention was absorbed in observing his proper distance. Moreover, in front of him the stalwart figure of Garratt Skinner blocked his vision. He went forward. The snow on which he walked became hard ice, and instead of sloping upward ran ahead almost in a horizontal line. Suddenly, however, it narrowed; Hine became conscious of appalling depths on either side of him; it narrowed with extraordinary rapidity; half a dozen paces behind him he had been walking on a broad smooth path; now he walked on the width of the top of a garden wall. His knees began to shake; he halted; he reached out vainly into emptiness for some support on which his shaking hands might clutch. And then in front of him he saw Garratt Skinner sit down and bestride the wall. Over Garratt Skinner’s head, he now saw the path by which he needs must go. He was on the famous ice-ridge; and nothing so formidable, so terrifying, had even entered into his dreams during his sleep upon the rocks where he had bivouacked. It thinned to a mere sharp edge, a line without breadth of cold blue ice, and it stretched away through the air for a great distance until it melted suddenly into the face of the mountain. On the left hand an almost vertical slope of ice dropped to depths which Hine did not dare to fathom with his eyes; on the right there was no slope at all; a wall of crumbling snow descended from the edge straight as a weighted line. On neither side could the point of the ax be driven in to preserve the balance. Walter Hine uttered a whimpering cry:

“I shall fall! I shall fall!”

Garratt Skinner, astride of the ridge, looked over his shoulder.

“Sit down,” he cried, sharply. But Walter Hine dared not. He stood, all his courage gone, tottering on the narrow top of the wall, afraid to stoop, lest his knees should fail him altogether and his feet slip from beneath him. To bend down until his hands could rest upon the ice, and meanwhile to keep his feet—no, he could not do it. He stood trembling, his face distorted with fear, and his body swaying a little from side to side. Garratt Skinner called sharply to Pierre Delouvain.

“Quick, Pierre.”

There was no time for Garratt Skinner to return; but he gathered himself together on the ridge, ready for a spring. Had Walter Hine toppled over, and swung down the length of the rope, as at any moment he might have done, Garratt Skinner was prepared. He would have jumped down the opposite side of the ice-arête, though how either he or Walter Hine could have regained the ridge he could not tell. Would any one of the party live to return to Courmayeur and tell the tale? But Garratt Skinner knew the risk he took, had counted it up long before ever he brought Walter Hine to Chamonix, and thought it worth while. He did not falter now. All through the morning, indeed, he had been taking risks, risks of which Walter Hine did not dream; with so firm and yet so delicate a step he had moved from crack to crack, from ice-step up to ice-step; with so obedient a response of his muscles, he had drawn himself up over the rounded rocks from ledge to ledge. He shouted again to Pierre Delouvain, and at the same moment began carefully to work backward along the ice-arête. Pierre, however, hurried; Walter Hine heard the guide’s voice behind him, felt himself steadied by his hands. He stooped slowly down, knelt upon the wall, then bestrode it.

“Now, forward,” cried Skinner, and he pulled in the rope. “Forward. We cannot go back!”

Hine clung to the ridge; behind him Pierre Delouvain sat down and held him about the waist. Slowly they worked themselves forward, while Garratt Skinner gathered in the rope in front. The wall narrowed as they advanced, became the merest edge which cut their hands as they clasped it. Hine closed his eyes, his head whirled, he was giddy, he felt sick. He stopped gripping the slope on both sides with his knees, clutching the sharp edge with the palms of his hands.

“I can’t go on! I can’t,” he cried, and he reeled like a novice on the back of a horse.

Garratt Skinner worked back to him.

“Put your arms about my waist, Wallie! Keep your eyes shut! You shan’t fall.”

Walter Hine clung to him convulsively, Pierre Delouvain steadied Hine from behind, and thus they went slowly forward for a long while. Garratt Skinner gripped the edge with the palms of his hands—so narrow was the ridge—the fingers of one hand pointed down one slope, the fingers of the other down the opposite wall. Their legs dangled.

At last Walter Hine felt Garratt Skinner loosening his clasped fingers from about his waist. Garratt Skinner stood up, uncoiled the rope, chipped a step or two in the ice and went boldly forward. For a yard or two further Walter Hine straddled on, and then Garratt Skinner cried to him:

“Look up, Wallie. It’s all over.”

Hine looked and saw Garratt Skinner standing upon a level space of snow in the side of the mountain. A moment later he himself was lying in the sun upon the level space. The famous ice-arête was behind them. Walter Hine looked back along it and shuddered. The thin edge of ice curving slightly downward, stretched away to the black rock-tower, in the bright sunlight a thing most beautiful, but most menacing and terrible. He seemed cut off by it from the world. They had a meal upon that level space, and while Hine rested, Pierre Delouvain cast off the rope and went ahead. He came back in a little while with a serious face.

“Will it go?” asked Garratt Skinner.

“It must,” said Delouvain. “For we can never go back”; and suddenly alarmed lest the way should be barred in front as well as behind, Walter Hine turned and looked above him. His nerves were already shaken; at the sight of what lay ahead of him, he uttered a cry of despair.

“It’s no use,” he cried. “We can never get up,” and he flung himself upon the snow and buried his face in his arms. Garratt Skinner stood over him.

“We must,” he said. “Come! Look!”

Walter Hine looked up and saw his companion dangling the face of his watch before his eyes.

“We are late. It is now twelve o’clock. We should have left this spot two hours ago and more,” he said, very gravely; and Pierre Delouvain exclaimed excitedly:

“Certainly, monsieur, we must go on. It will not do to loiter now,” and stooping down, he dragged rather than helped Walter Hine to his feet. The quiet gravity of Garratt Skinner and the excitement of Delouvain frightened Walter Hine equally. Some sense of his own insufficiency broke in at last upon him. His vanity peeled off from him, just at the moment when it would most have been of use. He had a glimpse of what he was—a poor, weak, inefficient thing.

Above them the slopes stretched upward to a great line of towering ice-cliffs. Through and up those ice-cliffs a way had to be found. And at any moment, loosened by the sun, huge blocks and pinnacles might break from them and come thundering down. As it was, upon their right hand where the snow-fields fell steeply in a huge ice gully, between a line of rocks and the cliffs of Mont Maudit, the avalanches plunged and reverberated down to the Brenva glacier. Pierre Delouvain took the lead again, and keeping by the line of rocks the party ascended the steep snow-slopes straight toward the wall of cliffs. But in a while the snow thinned, and the ax was brought into play again. Through the thin crust of snow, steps had to be cut into the ice beneath, and since there were still many hundreds of feet to be ascended, the steps were cut wide apart. With the sun burning upon his face, and his feet freezing in the ice-steps, Walter Hine stood and moved, and stood again all through that afternoon. Fatigue gained upon him, and fear did not let him go. “If only I get off this mountain,” he said to himself with heartfelt longing, “never again!” When near to the cliffs Pierre Delouvain stopped. In front of him the wall was plainly inaccessible. Far away to the left there was a depression up which possibly a way might be forced.

“I think, monsieur, that must be the way,” said Pierre.

“But you should know” said Garratt Skinner.

“It is some time since I was here. I have forgotten;” and Pierre began to traverse the ice-slope to the left. Garratt Skinner followed without a word. But he knew that when he had ascended Mont Blanc by the Brenva route twenty-three years before, he had kept to the right along the rocks to a point where that ice-wall was crevassed, and through that crevasse had found his path. They passed quickly beneath an overhanging rib of ice which jutted out from the wall, and reached the angle then formed at four o’clock in the afternoon.

“Our last difficulty, Wallie,” said Garratt Skinner, as he cut a large step in which Hine might stand. “Once up that wall, our troubles are over.”

Walter Hine looked at the wall. It was not smooth ice, it was true; blocks had broken loose from it, and had left it bulging out here, there, and in places fissured. But it stood at an angle of 65 degrees. It seemed impossible that any one should ascend it. He looked down the slope up which they had climbed—it seemed equally impossible that any one should return. Moreover, the sun was already in the West, and the ice promontory under which they stood shut its warmth from them. Walter Hine was in the shadow, and he shivered with cold as much as with fear. For half an hour Pierre Delouvain tried desperately to work his way up that ice wall, and failed.

“It is too late,” he said. “We shall not get up to-night.”

Garratt Skinner nodded his head.

“No, nor get down,” he added, gravely. “I am sorry, Wallie. We must go back and find a place where we can pass the night.”

Walter Hine was in despair. He was tired, he was desperately cold, his gloves were frozen, his fingers and his feet benumbed.

“Oh, let’s stop here!” he cried.

“We can’t,” said Garratt Skinner, and he turned as he spoke and led the way down quickly. There was need for hurry. Every now and then he stopped to cut an intervening step, where those already cut were too far apart, and at times to give Hine a hand while Delouvain let him down with the help of the rope from behind.

Slowly they descended, and while they descended the sun disappeared, the mists gathered about the precipices below, the thunder of the avalanches was heard at rare intervals, the ice-cliffs above them glimmered faintly and still more faintly. The dusk came. They descended in a ghostly twilight. At times the mists would part, and below them infinite miles away they saw the ice-fields of the Brenva glacier. The light was failing altogether when Garratt Skinner turned to his left and began to traverse the slopes to a small patch of rocks.

“Here!” he said, as he reached them. “We must sit here until the morning comes.”

Running Water - Contents    |     Chapter XXV - A Night on an Ice-Slope

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