Tartarin on the Alps, by Alphonse Daudet


The ascension of the Jungfrau. Vé! the oxen. The Kennedy crampons will not work. Nor the reedlamp either. Apparition of masked men at the chalet of the Alpine Club. The president in a crevasse. On the summit. Tartarin becomes a god.

Great influx, that morning, to the Hôtel Bellevue on the Little Scheideck. In spite of the rain and the squalls, tables had been laid outside in the shelter of the veranda, amid a great display of alpenstocks, flasks, telescopes, cuckoo clocks in carved wood, so that tourists could, while breakfasting, contemplate at a depth of six thousand feet before them the wonderful valley of Grindel-wald on the left, that of Lauterbrunnen on the right, and opposite, within gunshot as it seemed, the immaculate, grandiose slopes of the Jungfrau, its névés, glaciers, all that reverberating whiteness which illumines the air about it, making glasses more transparent, and linen whiter.

But now, for a time, general attention was attracted to a noisy, bearded caravan, which had just arrived on horse, mule, and donkey-back, also in a chaise à porteurs, who had prepared themselves to climb the mountain by a copious breakfast, and were now in a state of hilarity, the racket of which contrasted with the bored and solemn airs of the very distinguished Rices and Prunes collected on the Scheideck, such as: Lord Chipendale, the Belgian senator and his family, the Austro-Hungarian diplomat, and several others. It would certainly have been supposed that the whole party of these bearded men sitting together at table were about to attempt the ascension, for one and all were busy with preparations for departure, rising, rushing about to give directions to the guides, inspecting the provisions, and calling to each other from end to end of the terrace in stentorian tones.

“Hey! Placide, vé! the cooking-pan, see if it is in the knapsack!.. Don’t forget the reed-lamp, au mouain.”

Not until the actual departure took place was it seen that, of all the caravan, only one was to make the ascension: but which one?

“Children, are we ready?” said the good Tar-tarin in a joyous, triumphant voice, in which not a shade of anxiety trembled at the possible dangers of the trip — his last doubt as to the Company’s manipulation of Switzerland being dissipated that very morning before the two glaciers of Grindel-wald each protected by a wicket and a turnstile, with this inscription “Entrance to the glacier: one franc fifty.”

He could, therefore, enjoy without anxiety this departure in apotheosis, the joy of feeling himself looked at, envied, admired by those bold little misses in boys’ caps who laughed at him so prettily on the Rigi-Kulm, and were now enthusiastically comparing his short person with the enormous mountain he was about to climb. One drew his portrait in her album, another sought the honour of touching his alpenstock. “Tchemppegne!.. Tchemppegne!..” called out of a sudden a tall, funereal Englishman with a brick-coloured skin, coming up to him, bottle and glass in hand. Then, after obliging the hero to drink with him:

“Lord Chipendale, sir . . . And you?”

“Tartarin of Tarascon.”

“Oh! yes . . . Tartarine . . . Capital name for a horse,” said the lord, who must have been one of those great turfmen across the Channel.

The Austro-Hungarian diplomat also came to press the Alpinist’s hand between his mittens, remembering vaguely to have seen him somewhere. “Enchanted!.. enchanted!..” he enunciated several times, and then, not knowing how to get out of it, he added: “My compliments to madame . . . ” his social formula for cutting short presentations.

But the guides were impatient; they must reach before nightfall the hut of the Alpine Club, where they were to sleep for the first stage, and there was not a minute to lose. Tartarin felt it, saluted all with a circular gesture, smiled at the malicious misses, and then, in a voice of thunder, commanded:

“Pascalon, the banner!”

It waved to the breeze; the Southerners took off their hats, for they love theatricals at Tarascon; and at the cry, a score of times repeated: “Long live the president!.. Long live Tartarin!.. Ah! ah!..fen dé brut!..” the column moved off, the two guides in front carrying the knapsack, the provisions, and a supply of wood; then came Pascalon bearing the oriflamme, and lastly the P. C. A. with the delegates who proposed to accompany him as far as the glacier of the Guggi.

Thus deployed in procession, bearing its flapping flag along the sodden way beneath those barren or snowy crests, the cortège vaguely recalled the funeral marches of an All Souls’ day in the country.

Suddenly the Commander cried out, alarmed: ”Vé! those oxen!”

Some cattle were now seen browsing the short grass in the hollows of the ground. The former captain of equipment had a nervous and quite insurmountable terror of those animals, and as he could not be left alone the delegation was forced to stop. Pascalon transmitted the standard to the guides. Then, with a last embrace, hasty injunctions, and one eye on the cows:

“Adieu, adieu, qué!

“No imprudence, au mouain . . . ” they parted. As for proposing to the president to go up with him, no one even thought of it; ’twas so high, boufre! And the nearer they came to it the higher it grew, the abysses were more abysmal, the peaks bristled up in a white chaos, which looked to be insurmountable. It was better to look at the ascension from the Scheideck.

In all his life, naturally, the president of the Club of the Alpines had never set foot on a glacier. There is nothing of that sort on the mountainettes of Tarascon, little hills as balmy and dry as a packet of lavender; and yet the approaches to the Guggi gave him the impression of having already seen them, and wakened recollections of hunts in Provence at the end of the Camargue, near to the sea. The same turf always getting shorter and parched, as if seared by fire. Here and there were puddles of water, infiltrations of the ground betrayed by puny reeds, then came the moraine, like a sandy dune full of broken shells and cinders, and, far at the end, the glacier, with its blue-green waves crested with white and rounded in form, a silent, congealed ground-swell. The wind which came athwart it, whistling and strong, had the same biting, salubrious freshness as his own sea-breeze.

“No, thank you . . . I have my crampons . . . ” said Tartarin to the guide, who offered him woollen socks to draw on over his boots; “Kennedy crampons . . . perfected . . . very convenient . . . ” He shouted, as if to a deaf person, in order to make himself understood by Christian Inebnit, who knew no more French than his comrade Kaufmann; and then the P. C. A. sat down upon the moraine and strapped on a species of sandal with three enormous and very strong iron spikes. He had practised them a hundred times, these Kennedy crampons, manoeuvring them in the garden of the baobab; nevertheless, the present effect was unexpected. Beneath the weight of the hero the spikes were driven into the ice with such force that all efforts to withdraw them were vain. Behold him, therefore, nailed to the glacier, sweating, swearing, making with arms and alpenstock most desperate gymnastics and reduced finally to shouting for his guides, who had gone forward, convinced that they had to do with an experienced Alpinist.

Under the impossibility of uprooting him, they undid the straps, and, the crampons, abandoned in the ice, being replaced by a pair of knitted socks, the president continued his way, not without much difficulty and fatigue. Unskilful in holding his stick, his legs stumbled over it, then its iron point skated and dragged him along if he leaned upon it too heavily. He tried the ice-axe — still harder to manoeuvre, the swell of the glacier increasing by degrees, and pressing up, one above another, its motionless waves with all the appearance of a furious and petrified tempest.

Apparent immobility only, for hollow crackings, subterranean gurgles, enormous masses of ice displacing themselves slowly, as if moved by the machinery of a stage, indicated the inward life of this frozen mass and its treacherous elements. To the eyes of our Alpinist, wherever he cast his axe crevasses were opening, bottomless pits, where masses of ice in fragments rolled indefinitely. The hero fell repeatedly; once to his middle in one of those greenish gullies, where his broad shoulders alone kept him from going to the bottom.

On seeing him so clumsy, and yet so tranquil, so sure of himself, laughing, singing, gesticulating, as he did while breakfasting, the guides imagined that Swiss champagne had made an impression upon him. What else could they suppose of the president of an Alpine Club, a renowned ascensionist, of whom his friends spoke only with “Ahs!” and exultant gestures. After taking him each by the arm with the respectful firmness of policemen putting into a carriage an overcome heir to a title, they endeavoured, by the help of monosyllables and gestures, to rouse his mind to a sense of the dangers of the route, the necessity of reaching the hut before nightfall, with threats of crevasses, cold, avalanches. Finally, with the point of their ice-picks they showed him the enormous accumulation of ice, of névé not yet transformed into glacier rising before them to the zenith in blinding repetition.

But the worthy Tartarin laughed at all that: “Ha! vaï! crevasses!.. Ha! vaï! those avalanches!..” and he burst out laughing, winked his eye, and prodded their sides with his elbows to let them know they could not fool him, for he was in the secret of the comedy.

The guides at last ended by making merry with the Tarasconese songs, and when they rested a moment on a solid block to let their monsieur get his breath, they yodelled in the Swiss way, though not too loudly, for fear of avalanches, nor very long, for time was getting on. They knew the coming of night by the sharper cold, but especially by the singular change in hue of these snows and ice-packs, heaped-up, overhanging, which always keep, even under misty skies, a rainbow tinge of colour until the daylight fades, rising higher and higher to the vanishing summits, where the snows take on the livid, spectral tints of the lunar universe. Pallor, petrifaction, silence, death itself. And the good Tartarin, so warm, so living, was beginning to lose his liveliness when the distant cry of a bird, the note of a “snow partridge” brought back before his eyes a baked landscape, a copper-coloured setting sun, and a band of Taras-conese sportsmen, mopping their faces, seated on their empty game-bags, in the slender shade of an olive-tree. The recollection was a comfort to him.

At the same moment Kaufmann pointed to something that looked like a faggot of wood on the snow. ‘T was the hut. It seemed as if they could get to it in a few strides, but, in point of fact, it took a good half-hour’s walking. One of the guides went on ahead to light the fire. Darkness had now come on; the north wind rattled on the cadaverous way, and Tartarin, no longer paying attention to anything, supported by the stout arm of the mountaineer, stumbled and bounded along without a dry thread on him in spite of the falling temperature. All of a sudden a flame shot up before him, together with an appetizing smell of onion soup.

They were there.

Nothing can be more rudimentary than these halting-places established on the mountains by the Alpine Club of Switzerland. A single room, in which an inclined plane of hard wood serves as a bed and takes up nearly all the space, leaving but little for the stove and the long table, screwed to the floor like the benches that are round it. The table was already laid; three bowls, pewter spoons, the reed-lamp to heat the coffee, two cans of Chicago preserved meats already opened. Tartarin thought the dinner delicious although the fumes of the onion soup infected the atmosphere, and the famous spirit-lamp, which ought to have made its pint of coffee in three minutes, refused to perform its functions.

At the dessert he sang; that was his only means of conversing with his guides. He sang them the airs of his native land: La Tarasque, and Les Filles d’Avignon. To which the guides responded with local songs in German patois: Mi Vater isch en Appenzeller . . . aou . . . aou . . . Worthy fellows with hard, weather-beaten features as if cut from the rock, beards in the hollows that looked like moss and those clear eyes, used to great spaces, like the eyes of sailors. The same sensation of the sea and the open, which he had felt just now on approaching Guggi, Tartarin again felt here, in presence of these mariners of the glacier in this close cabin, low and smoky, the regular forecastle of a ship; in the dripping of the snow from the roof as it melted with the warmth; in the great gusts of wind, shaking everything, cracking the boards, fluttering the flame of the lamp, and falling abruptly into vast, unnatural silence, like the end of the world.

They had just finished dinner when heavy steps upon the ringing path and voices were heard approaching. Violent blows with the butt end of some weapon shook the door. Tartarin, greatly excited, looked at his guides . . . A nocturnal attack on these heights!.. The blows redoubled. “Who goes there?” cried the hero, jumping for his ice-axe; but already the hut was invaded by two gigantic Yankees, in white linen masks, their clothing soaked with snow and sweat, and behind them guides, porters, a whole caravan, on its return from ascending the Jungfrau.

“You are welcome, milords,” said Tartarin, with a liberal, dispensing gesture, of which the milords showed not the slightest need in making themselves free of everything. In a trice the table was surrounded, the dishes removed, the bowls and spoons rinsed in hot water for the use of the new arrivals (according to established custom in Alpine huts); the boots of the milords smoked before the stove, while they themselves, bare-footed, their feet wrapped in straw, were sprawling at their ease before a fresh onion soup.

Father and son, these two Americans; two red-haired giants, with heads of pioneers, hard and self-reliant. One of them, the elder, had two dilated eyes, almost white, in a bloated, sun-burned, fissured face, and presently, by the hesitating way in which he groped for his bowl and spoon, and the care with which his son looked after him, Tartarin became aware that this was the famous blind Alpinist of whom he had been told, not believing the tale, at the Hôtel Bellevue; a celebrated climber in his youth, who now, in spite of his sixty years and his infirmity, was going over with his son the scenes of his former exploits. He had already done the Wetterhorn and the Jungfrau, and was intending to attack the Matterhorn and the Mont Blanc, declaring that the air upon summits, that glacial breath with its taste of snow, caused him inexpressible joy, and a perfect recall of his lost vigour.

Différemment,” asked Tartarin of one of the porters, for the Yankees were not communicative, and answered only by a “yes” or a “no” to all his advances ”différemment inasmuch as he can’t see, how does he manage at the dangerous places?”

“Oh! he has got the mountaineer’s foot; besides, his son watches over him, and places his heels . . . And it is a fact that he has never had an accident.”

“All the more because accidents in Switzerland are never very terrible, qué?“ With a comprehending smile to the puzzled porter, Tartarin, more and more convinced that the “whole thing was blague,” stretched himself out on the plank rolled in his blanket, the muffler up to his eyes, and went to sleep, in spite of the light, the noise, the smoke of the pipes and the smell of the onion soup . . .

“Mossié!.. Mossié!..”

One of his guides was shaking him for departure, while the other poured boiling coffee into the bowls. A few oaths and the groans of sleepers whom Tartarin crushed on his way to the table, and then to the door. Abruptly he found himself outside, stung by the cold, dazzled by the fairy-like reflections of the moon upon that white expanse, those motionless congealed cascades, where the shadow of the peaks, the aiguilles, the séracs, were sharply defined in the densest black. No longer the sparkling chaos of the afternoon, nor the livid rising upward of the gray tints of evening, but a strange irregular city of darksome alleys, mysterious passages, doubtful corners between marble monuments and crumbling ruins — a dead city, with broad desert spaces.

Two o’clock! By walking well they could be at the top by mid-day. ”Zou!“ said the P. C. A., very lively, and dashing forward, as if to the assault. But his guides stopped him. They must be roped for the dangerous passages.

“Ah! vaï, roped!.. Very good, if that amuses you.”

Christian Inebnit took the lead, leaving twelve feet of rope between himself and Tartarin, who was separated by the same length from the second guide who carried the provisions and the banner. The hero kept his footing better than he did the day before; and confidence in the Company must indeed have been strong, for he did not take seriously the difficulties of the path — if we can call a path the terrible ridge of ice along which they now advanced with precaution, a ridge but a few feet wide and so slippery that Christian was forced to cut steps with his ice-axe.

The line of the ridge sparkled between two depths of abysses on either side. But if you think that Tartarin was frightened, not at all! Scarcely did he feel the little quiver of the cuticle of a freemason novice when subjected to his opening test. He placed his feet most precisely in the holes which the first guide cut for them, doing all that he saw the guide do, as tranquil as he was in the garden of the baobab when he practised around the margin of the pond, to the terror of the goldfish. At one place the ridge became so narrow that he was forced to sit astride of it, and while they went slowly forward, helping themselves with their hands, a loud detonation echoed up, on their right, from beneath them. “Avalanche!” said Inebnit, keeping motionless till the repercussion of the echoes, numerous, grandiose, filling the sky, died away at last in a long roll of thunder in the far distance, where the final detonation was lost. After which, silence once more covered all as with a winding-sheet.

The ridge passed, they went up a névé the slope of which was rather gentle but its length interminable. They had been climbing nearly an hour when a slender pink line began to define the summits far, far above their heads. It was the dawn, thus announcing itself. Like a true Southerner, enemy to shade, Tartarin trolled out his liveliest song:

Grand souleu de la Provenço

Gai compaire dou mistrau —

A violent shake of the rope from before and behind stopped him short in the middle of his couplet. “Hush . . . Hush . . . ” said Inebnit, pointing with his ice-axe to the threatening line of gigantic séracs on their tottering foundations which the slightest jar might send thundering down the steep. But Tartarin knew what that meant; he was not the man to ply with any such tales, and he went on singing in a resounding voice:

Tu qu ‘escoulès la Duranço

Commo un flot dé vin de Crau.

The guides, seeing that they could not silence their crazy singer, made a great détour to get away from the séracs, and presently were stopped by an enormous crevasse, the glaucous green sides of which were lighted, far down their depths, by the first furtive rays of the dawn. What is called in Switzerland “a snow bridge” spanned it; but so slight was it, so fragile, that they had scarcely advanced a step before it crumbled away in a cloud of white dust, dragging down the leading guide and Tartarin, hanging to the rope which Rodolphe Kaufmann, the rear guide, was alone left to hold, clinging with all the strength of his mountain vigour to his pick-axe, driven deeply into the ice. But although he was able to hold the two men suspended in the gulf he had not enough force to draw them up and he remained, crouching on the snow, his teeth clenched, his muscles straining, and too far from the crevasse to see what was happening.

Stunned at first by the fall, and blinded by snow, Tartarin waved his arms and legs at random, like a puppet out of order; then, drawing himself up by means of the rope, he hung suspended over the abyss, his nose against its icy side, which his breath polished, in the attitude of a plumber in the act of soldering a waste-pipe. He saw the sky above him growing paler and the stars disappearing; below he could fathom the gulf and its opaque shadows, from which rose a chilling breath.

Nevertheless, his first bewilderment over, he recovered his self-possession and his fine good-humour.

“Hey! up there! père Kaufmann, don’t leave us to mildew here, qué! there ’s a draught all round, and besides, this cursed rope is cutting our loins.”

Kaufmann was unable to answer; to have unclenched his teeth would have lessened his strength. But Inebnit shouted from below:

“Mossié . . . Mossié . . . ice-axe . . . ” for his own had been lost in the fall; and, the heavy implement being now passed from the hands of Tartarin to those of the guide (with difficulty, owing to the space that separated the two hanged ones), the mountaineer used it to make notches in the ice-wall before him, into which he could fasten both hands and feet.

The weight of the rope being thus lessened by at least one-half, Rodolphe Kaufmann, with carefully calculated vigour and infinite precautions, began to draw up the president, whose Tarasconese cap appeared at last at the edge of the crevasse. Inebnit followed him in turn and the two mountaineers met again with that effusion of brief words which, in persons of limited elocution, follows great dangers. Both were trembling with their effort, and Tartarin passed them his flask of kirsch to steady their legs. He himself was nimble and calm, and while he shook himself free of snow he hummed his song under the nose of his wondering guides, beating time with his foot to the measure:

Brav . . . brav . . . Franzose . . . ” said Kaufmann, tapping him on the shoulder; to which Tartarin answered with his fine laugh:

“You rogue! I knew very well there was no danger . . . ”

Never within the memory of guides was there seen such an Alpinist.

They started again, climbing perpendicularly a sort of gigantic wall of ice some thousand feet high, in which they were forced to cut steps as they went along, which took much time. The man of Tarascon began to feel his strength give way under the brilliant sun which flooded the whiteness of the landscape and was all the more fatiguing to his eyes because he had dropped his green spectacles into the crevasse. Presently, a dreadful sense of weakness seized him, that mountain sickness which produces the same effects as sea-sickness. Exhausted, his head empty, his legs flaccid, he stumbled and lost his feet, so that the guides were forced to grasp him, one on each side, supporting and hoisting him to the top of that wall of ice. Scarcely three hundred feet now separated them from the summit of the Jungfrau; but although the snow was hard and bore them, and the path much easier, this last stage took an almost interminable time, the fatigue and the suffocation of the P. C. A. increasing all the while.

Suddenly the mountaineers loosed their hold upon him, and waving their caps began to yodel in a transport of joy. They were there! This spot in immaculate space, this white crest, somewhat rounded, was the goal, and for that good Tartarin the end of the somnambulic torpor in which he had wandered for an hour or more.

“Scheideck! Scheideck!” shouted the guides, showing him far, far below, on a verdant plateau emerging from the mists of the valley, the Hôtel Bellevue about the size of a thimble.

Thence to where they stood lay a wondrous panorama, an ascent of fields of gilded snow, oranged by the sun, or else of a deep, cold blue, a piling up of mounds of ice, fantastically structured into towers, flèches, aiguilles, arêtes, and gigantic heaps, under which one could well believe that the lost megatherium or mastodon lay sleeping. All the tints of the rainbow played there and met in the bed of vast glaciers rolling down their immovable cascades, crossed by other little frozen torrents, the surfaces of which the sun’s warmth liquefied, making them smoother and more glittering. But, at the great height at which they stood, all this sparkling brilliance calmed itself; a light floated, cold, ecliptic, which made Tartarin shudder even more than the sense of silence and solitude in that white desert with its mysterious recesses.

A little smoke, with hollow detonations, rose from the hotel. They were seen, a cannon was fired in their honour, and the thought that they were being looked at, that his Alpinists were there, and the misses, the illustrious Prunes and Rices, all with their opera-glasses levelled up to him, recalled Tartarin to a sense of the grandeur of his mission. He tore thee, O Tarasconese banner! from the hands of the guide, waved thee twice or thrice, and then, plunging the handle of his ice-axe deep into the snow, he seated himself upon the iron of the pick, banner in hand, superb, facing the public. And there — unknown to himself — by one of those spectral reflections frequent upon summits, taken between the sun and the mists that rose behind him, a gigantic Tartarin was outlined on the sky, broader, dumpier, his beard bristling beyond the muffler, like one of those Scandinavian gods enthroned, as the legend has it, among the clouds.


Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 15:53