"Slowly and steadily we kept on our way over this dangerous part of the ascent, and I dare say it was fortunate for some of us that attention was distracted from the head by the paramount necessity of looking after the feet; FOR, WHILE ON THE LEFT THE INCLINE OF ICE WAS SO STEEP THAT IT WOULD BE IMPOSSIBLE FOR ANY MAN TO SAVE HIMSELF IN CASE OF A SLIP, UNLESS THE OTHERS COULD HOLD HIM UP, ON THE RIGHT WE MIGHT DROP A PEBBLE FROM THE HAND OVER PRECIPICES OF UNKNOWN EXTENT DOWN UPON THE TREMENDOUS GLACIER BELOW.

"Great caution, therefore, was absolutely necessary, and in this exposed situation we were attacked by all the fury of that grand enemy of aspirants to Monte Rosa--a severe and bitterly cold wind from the north. The fine powdery snow was driven past us in the clouds, penetrating the interstices of our clothes, and the pieces of ice which flew from the blows of Peter's ax were whisked into the air, and then dashed over the precipice. We had quite enough to do to prevent ourselves from being served in the same ruthless fashion, and now and then, in the more violent gusts of wind, were glad to stick our alpenstocks into the ice and hold on hard."

Having surmounted this perilous steep, they sat down and took a brief rest with their backs against a sheltering rock and their heels dangling over a bottomless abyss; then they climbed to the base of another ridge--a more difficult and dangerous one still:

"The whole of the ridge was exceedingly narrow, and the fall on each side desperately steep, but the ice in some of these intervals between the masses of rock assumed the form of a mere sharp edge, almost like a knife; these places, though not more than three or four short paces in length, looked uncommonly awkward; but, like the sword leading true believers to the gates of Paradise, they must needs be passed before we could attain to the summit of our ambition. These were in one or two places so narrow, that in stepping over them with toes well turned out for greater security, ONE END OF THE FOOT PROJECTED OVER THE AWFUL PRECIPICE ON THE RIGHT, WHILE THE OTHER WAS ON THE BEGINNING OF THE ICE SLOPE ON THE LEFT, WHICH WAS SCARCELY LESS STEEP THAN THE ROCKS. On these occasions Peter would take my hand, and each of us stretching as far as we could, he was thus enabled to get a firm footing two paces or rather more from me, whence a spring would probably bring him to the rock on the other side; then, turning around, he called to me to come, and, taking a couple of steps carefully, I was met at the third by his outstretched hand ready to clasp mine, and in a moment stood by his side. The others followed in much the same fashion. Once my right foot slipped on the side toward the precipice, but I threw out my left arm in a moment so that it caught the icy edge under my armpit as I fell, and supported me considerably; at the same instant I cast my eyes down the side on which I had slipped, and contrived to plant my right foot on a piece of rock as large as a cricket-ball, which chanced to protrude through the ice, on the very edge of the precipice. Being thus anchored fore and aft, as it were, I believe I could easily have recovered myself, even if I had been alone, though it must be confessed the situation would have been an awful one; as it was, however, a jerk from Peter settled the matter very soon, and I was on my legs all right in an instant. The rope is an immense help in places of this kind."

Now they arrived at the base of a great knob or dome veneered with ice and powdered with snow--the utmost, summit, the last bit of solidity between them and the hollow vault of heaven. They set to work with their hatchets, and were soon creeping, insectlike, up its surface, with their heels projecting over the thinnest kind of nothingness, thickened up a little with a few wandering shreds and films of cloud moving in a lazy procession far below. Presently, one man's toe-hold broke and he fell! There he dangled in mid-air at the end of the rope, like a spider, till his friends above hauled him into place again.

Mark Twain
Classic Literature Library

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