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Little Mother Up the Morderberg
My dear, is it right for me to be doing this? [Photo] Giulio Malfer
"This is where Herr Tomlinson's party fell," said one of the porters, after we'd committed ourselves to the edge for ten minutes or so.
"Some people could fall out of a four-post bed," I said.
"It'll freeze hard again before we come back," said the second guide, "and us with nothing but verdammt ginger inside of us."
"You keep your rope taut," said I.
A friendly ledge came to the help of mother in the nick of time, just as she was beginning to tire, and we sewed her up all but the feet in her hammock again, and roped her carefully. She bumped a bit, and at times she was just hanging over immensity and rotating slowly, with everybody else holding like grim death.
"My dear," she said, the first time this happened, "is it right for me to be doing this?"
"Quite right," I said, "but if you can get a foothold presently again—it's rather better style."
"You're sure there's no danger, dear?"
"Not a scrap."
"And I don't fatigue you?"
"You're a stimulant."
"The view," she said, "is certainly becoming very beautiful."
But presently the view blotted itself out, and we were in clouds and a thin drift of almost thawing snowflakes. We reached the upper snowfield about half-past one, and the snow was extraordinarily soft. The elder guide went in up to his armpits.
"Frog it," I said, and spread myself out flat, in a sort of swimming attitude. So we bored our way up to the crest and along it. We went in little spurts and then stopped for breath, and we dragged the little mother after us in her hammock-bag. Sometimes the snow was so good we fairly skimmed the surface; sometimes it was so rotten we plunged right into it and splashed about. I went too near the snow cornice once and it broke under me, but the rope saved me, and we reached the summit about three o'clock without further misadventure. The summit was just bare rock with the usual cairn and pole. Nothing to make a fuss about. The drift of snow and cloudwisp had passed, the sun was blazing hot overhead, and we seemed to be surveying all Switzerland. The Magenruhe Hotel was at our toes, hidden, so to speak, by our chins. We squatted about the cairn, and the guides and porters were reduced to ginger and vegetarian ham-sandwiches. I cut and scratched an inscription, saying I had climbed on simple food, and claiming a record.
Seen from the summit the snowfields on the northeast side of the mountain looked extremely attractive, and I asked the head guide why that way up wasn't used. He said something in his peculiar German about precipices.
So far our ascent had been a fairly correct ascent in rather slow time. It was in the descent that that strain in me of almost unprecedented originality had play. I wouldn't have the rope returning across the upper snowfield, because mother's feet and hands were cold, and I wanted her to jump about a bit. And before I could do anything to prevent it she had slipped, tried to get up by rolling over down the slope instead of up, as she ought to have done, and was leading the way, rolling over and over and over, down toward the guides' blessed precipices above the lower snowfield.
I didn't lose an instant in flinging myself after her, axe up, in glissading attitude. I'm not clear what I meant to do, but I fancy the idea was to get in front of her and put on the brake. I did not succeed, anyhow. In twenty seconds I had slipped, and was sitting down and going down out of my own control altogether.
Now, most great discoveries are the result of accident, and I maintain that in that instant mother and I discovered two distinct and novel ways of coming down a mountain.
It is necessary that there should be first a snow slope above with a layer of softish, rotten snow on the top of ice, then a precipice, with a snow-covered talus sloping steeply at first and then less steeply, then more snow slopes and precipices according to taste, ending in a snowfield or a not-too-greatly-fissured glacier, or a reasonable, not-too-rocky slope. Then it all becomes as easy as chuting the chutes.
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