Page images
[blocks in formation]

leaving me no alternative but to finish my snow-house and move in. A tunnel some four or five feet in length was excavated in the snow, and a chamber about six feet long by four feet wide and three feet high was made at right angles to the tunnel. In this chamber I placed my blankets and other belongings, and, hanging a rubber coat on an alpenstock at the entrance, found myself well sheltered from the tempest. There I passed the day and the night following. At night the darkness and silence in my narrow tomb-like cell was oppressive; not a sound broke the stillness except the distant, muffled roar of an occasional avalanche. I slept soundly, however, and in the morning was awakened by the croaking of a raven on the snow immediately above my head. The grotto was filled with a soft blue light, but a pink radiance at the entrance told that the day had dawned bright and clear.

What a glorious sight awaited me! The heavens were without a cloud, and the sun shone with dazzling splendor on the white peaks around. The broad unbroken snow-plain seemed to burn with light reflected from millions of shining crystals. The great mountain peaks were draped from base to summit in the purest white, as yet unscarred by avalanches. On the steep cliffs the snow hung in folds like drapery, tier above tier, while the angular peaks above stood out like crystals against the sky. St. Elias was one vast pyramid of alabaster. The winds were still; not a sound broke the solitude; not. an object moved. Even the raven had gone, leaving me alone with the mountains.

As the sun rose higher and higher and made its warmth felt, the snow was loosened on the steep slopes and here and there broke away. Gathering force as it fell, it rushed down in avalanches that made the mountains tremble and awakened thunderous echoes. From a small beginning high up on the steep slopes, the new snow would slip downward, silently at first, and cascade over precipices hundreds of feet high, looking like a fall of foaming water; then came the roar, increasing in volume as the flowing snow involved new fields in its path of destruction, until the great mass became irresistible and ploughed its way downward through clouds of snow-spray, which hung in the air long after the snow had ceased to move and the roar of the avalanche had ceased. All day long, until the shadow of evening fell on the steep slopes, this mountain thunder continued. The echoes of one avalanche scarcely died away before they were

awakened by another roar. To witness such a scene under the most favorable conditions was worth all the privations and anxiety it cost.

Besides the streams of new snow, there were occasional avalanches of a different character, caused by the breaking away of portions of the cliffs of old snow, accumulated, perhaps, during several winters. These start from the summits of precipices, and are caused by the slow downward creep of the snow-fields above. The snow-cliffs are always crevassed and broken in much the same manner as are the ends of glaciers which enter the sea, and occasionally large masses, containing thousands of cubic yards, break away and are precipitated down the slopes with a suddenness that is always startling. Usually the first announcement of these avalanches is a report like that of a cannon, followed by a rumbling roar as the descending mass ploughs its way along. The avalanches formed by old snow are quite different from those caused by the descent of the new surface snow, but are frequently accompanied by surface streams in case there has been a recent storm. The paths ploughed out by the avalanches are frequently sheathed with glassy ice, formed by the freezing of water produced by the melting of snow on account of the heat produced by the friction of the moving mass. A third variety of avalanches, due to falling stones, has already been noticed.

The floor of my snow-chamber was the surface of the old snow on which we had pitched our tents at the time we first reached that camping place. On this hard surface, and forming the walls of the cell, there were thirty inches of clear white snow, the upper limit of which was marked by a blue layer of ice about a quarter of an inch thick. This indicated the thickness of snow that fell during the first storm. Its surface had been melted and softened during the days of sunshine that followed its fall, and had frozen into clear ice. Above the blue band which encircled the upper portion of my chamber was the soft, pure white snow of the second storm. The stratification of snow which I had seen fall rendered it evident that my interpretation of the stratification observed in the sides of crevasses was correct. The snow when it fell was soft and white, and composed of very fine crystals; but under the influence of the air and sunshine it changed its texture and became icy and granular, and then resembled the névé snow so common in high mountains.

[blocks in formation]

The day following the storm was bright and beautiful; the sunlight was warm and pleasant, but the temperature in the shadows was always below freezing. The surface of the snow did not melt sufficiently during the day to freeze and form a crust during the night. It thus became more and more apparent that the season was too far advanced to allow the snow to harden sufficiently for us to be able to climb the mountain. The snow settled somewhat and changed its character, but even at midday the crystals on the surface glittered as brilliantly in the sunlight as they did in the early morning. Although the snow did not melt, its surface was lowered slightly by evaporation. The tracks of the raven, at first sunken a quarter of an inch in the soft surface, after the first day of sunshine stood slightly in relief, but were still clearly defined.

On the sixth day after separating from my companions, judging that they must have returned at least to the camping place where we had separated, I packed my blankets and what food remained, abandoned the tent and oil-stove, and started to descend the mountain. The snow had settled somewhat, but was still soft and yielding and over six feet deep. Tramping wearily on through the chaff-like substance, I slowly worked my way downward, and again threaded the maze of crevasses, now partially concealed by the layer of new snow, with which we had struggled several times before. Midway to the next camping place I met my companions coming up to search for me. Instead of meeting three men, as I expected, I saw five tramping along in single file through the deep snow. The sight of human beings in that vast solitude was so strange that I watched them for some time before shouting. Glad as I was to meet my companions once more, I could not help noticing their rough and picturesque appearance. Each man wore colored glasses and carried a long alpenstock, and two or three had packs strapped on their backs. Several weeks of hard tramping over moraines and snow-fields had made many rents in their clothes, which had been mended with cloth of any color that chanced to be available. Not a few rags were visible fluttering in the wind. To a stranger they would have appeared like a dangerous band of brigands.

The reason for the presence of five men instead of three was this: Lindsley and Stamy, when they left us at Rope cliff to

22-NAT. GEOG. MAG., VOL. III, 1891.

return for additional rations, were obliged to go back to Camp 12 in order to get a tent and an oil-stove. On reaching that place the temptation to return to Blossom island was so great that Lindsley could not resist it and went back to the base-camp, where he reported that Kerr and I were storm-bound in the mountains and in need of assistance. Three men, Partridge, Doney, and White, started at once, and found Stamy, who had waited for their arrival at Camp 12. A day was thus lost, which increased Mr. Kerr's hardship and might have proved disastrous. The party then returned to Rope cliff and joined Kerr on the evening of August 29. On this occasion, as on several others, I found myself indebted to Stamy for willing assistance when others hesitated.

During my imprisonment at the highest camp, Mr. Kerr was detained under similar circumstances at the camp below Rope cliff. On endeavoring to rejoin me with the supply of coal oil, so very valuable under the circumstances, he was caught in the storm and was unable to reach the rendezvous appointed. He reached Rope cliff late in the afternoon of the first day of the storm, climbed the precipice, and found his way through the gathering darkness, along the nearly obliterated trail beneath the avalanche cliffs, and up the steps cut in the snow-cliff, to the site of our bivouac camp. Finding nothing there, and being unable to proceed farther through the blinding storm, he abandoned the attempt and returned to the camp below Rope cliff. In descending the rope, he found that its lower end had become fast in the snow. The taut line, sheathed with ice, was an uncertain help in the darkness. Midway in the descent his hands slipped and he slid to the bottom; but the cushion of new snow broke the fall and prevented serious injury. Alone, without fire, without blankets, having only a canvas cover and a rubber cloth for shelter, and with but little food, he passed three anxious days and nights before the arrival of the camp hands.


Deciding that the ascent of Mount St. Elias could not be accomplished through the new snow, which refused to harden, it was decided to abandon the attempt and return to Blossom island. Our retreat was none too soon. Storm succeeded storm throughout September. Each time the clouds lifted, the mantle

[blocks in formation]

of new snow was seen to have descended lower and lower. Our last view showed the wintry covering nearly down to timberline.

On the night of August 31 we slept at the camp beneath Rope cliff, but had a most uncomfortable night. Six men sleeping in a tent measuring seven by seven feet, with but little protection from the ice beneath, certainly does not seem inviting to one surrounded by the comforts of civilization. A large part of the night was occupied by Doney in preparing breakfast over our oil-stove. An early start was welcome to all; we were disappointed at not being able to reach the top of St. Elias, and were anxious to return to more comfortable quarters. Kerr concluded to return at once to Blossom island to recuperate, while I made an excursion up the Seward glacier, with the hope of gaining the upper ice-fall and seeing the amphitheatre beyond.

We left Rope cliff about six in the morning, and found the snow hard and traveling easy for several hours. After descending the lower ice-fall, however, the snow became soft, and a change in the atmosphere indicated the approach of another storm. Kerr and Doney pressed on and were soon lost to sight, while the rest of the party were delayed, owing to Partridge having become snow-blind and almost helpless. As the crevasses were exceedingly numerous and the snow-bridges soft and uncertain, the task of conducting a blind man to a place of safety was by no means light. Partridge bore up bravely under his affliction, however, and did not hesitate in crawling across the treacherous snow-bridges with a rope fastened about his body and a man before and behind to assist his movements. Late in the day we reached our camping place at the eastern border of the Agassiz glacier, while Kerr and Doney crossed Dome pass and spent the night in a tent that had been left standing at the first camping east of the pass. We pitched a tent on our old camping place at Camp 16, and had the luxury of a rocky bed to sleep on that night. As Partridge's blindness still continued, White was sent ahead to tell Kerr and Doney to wait for us in the morning, so that Partridge could accompany them to Blossom island. Rain continued all that night and all the next day. As Partridge's eyes were still unserviceable in the morning, I concluded to wait a day before allowing him to start for Blossom island.

Toward evening on September 21 we moved our camp across

« PreviousContinue »