John Tyndall to Faraday   22 July 1862

22nd July 1862

My dear Mr. Faraday

I quitted London with the desire above all things to give my head a rest, and to strengthen my general health which has been sadly broken in upon. My friend Huxley, tired as myself, started three days before me. I joined him at Grindelwald, remained there a week then walked along the ordinary route to the Rhone glacier, at the foot of which we stayed two or three days in a capital hotel recently erected there. Here we were joined by Mr. John Lubbock, according to an arrangement made previous to leaving England. Huxley, though suffering from neuralgia, and wishing to be quiet, accompanied us in our little excursions, and the only thing we did without him was to ascend the Galenstock, a mountain somewhat over eleven thousand feet high. We reached the summit from the hotel in five hours, so that the labour was by no means excessive. It was Lubbock’s first visit to Switzerland; he had never previously trodden on a snow mountain, and both he and myself were delighted with the glimpses which we obtained of the splendid névé of the Rhone. But the air thickened, and intermittent gushes of dense fog swept over us. We did not hope to see any thing from the summit, nevertheless we attained it and were rewarded:- not by the clearness of the prospect, but by the changes of the atmosphere, which were quite marvellous - sometimes shrouding all sometimes melting as if by magic and revealing the mountains. The atmosphere is a wondrous factory; the grand origin of all its power being overhead, lifting the snows and driving the clouds by his individual might.

From the Rhone glacier we passed on to that of the Aletsch; and here the presence of the Jungfrau suggested the thought of ascending it. Lubbock had showed himself so good a mountaineer on the Galenstock that our guide considered him quite fit to attack the Jungfrau. We made our preparations, proposing to spend the night previous in a grotto on the flank of an adjacent mountain. To this grot[to] we sent some food, firewood and covering. Our porters started at 12½ P.M. and we, accompanied by our guide Ben[n]en1, started at about 2 P.M. The weather was very promising, and we looked forward with confidence to a successful expedition. The stretch of the Aletsch Glacier between the AEggischhorn, which was our starting point, and the place where we purposed to spend the night, presents no difficulty; at least any mountaineer would say so; certainly an English lady of average walking powers, and properly guided would be able to accomplish it. Yet an accident upon this portion of the glacier, which threatened at one time to be of the most shocking character, defeated all our hopes and arrangements regarding the Jungfrau. Bennen, Lubbock, and myself marched securely along the ice, calculating on finding our two porters at the grotto. When about a mile distant from it, we saw a man standing on the lateral moraine, whom we at first imagined to belong to a party which had started the day before for the Jungfrau. On approaching him however we saw that he was one of our own porters. He did not move to meet us, but stood stolidly upon the moraine until we came up to him. Bennen spoke to him and he answered in the Swiss patois. A bewildered expression crossed Bennen’s countenance: “My God!” he exclaimed turning to me “Walters2 is dead!” Walters was a guide belonging to the party which had preceeded [sic] us. “No,” said the porter, “it is not Walters.” “Who then?” cried Bennen “Bielander”3 he replied, “my comrade who started with me from the hotel is killed.” Bielander was our second porter - a strong and daring fellow who had been brought up from Laax by Bennen that morning. I was utterly stunned, and for five minutes seemed to undergo the tortures of a lifetime. Bennen broke out into a frenzy of lamentation. Bielander had quitted his mother to accompany Bennen, and the thought of returning to the old woman without her son totally overpowered him. Ten minutes I suppose passed, before we could gather up the precise conditions of the case.

“How does he know that the man is dead?” demanded Lubbock. “Where is he?” I asked. “There,” said he, pointing to the glacier, “in a crevasse; but he is certainly dead.” We were speedily beside the fissure, and on looking into it, saw it at one place packed with ice and snow while adjacent to this the darkness of the cleft cut the vision short. We stood still for a moment; a low moan issued from the depths and was repeated. Here Bennen’s frenzy revived. “He lives, he lives, quick! quick! Let me down to him.” He was about to dart into the fissure at the imminent risk of ruin to himself. Our rope was in the chasm with the lost man. I tried to quench somewhat sternly Bennen’s excitement and to make clear to him that all now depended upon presence of mind.

All the coats of the party were instantly taken off and knotted together. Bennen I saw in the intensity of his emotion was neglecting to make the knots sure, and I flatly refused to trust his connexions until I had tested them. One half of them gave way, partly though bad material, and partly though bad tying. All being secured we let him down, and I was let down after him, mainly by my friend Lubbock, for the porter was too stupefied to be trusted. The moaning continued, and we at first rooted about here and there amid the frozen débris, to make sure of the place whence the sounds issued. A layer of about four feet of ice and snow was cleared away, and here a hand was seen. It looked like the hand of a corpse, perfectly bloodless, but the fingers moved at intervals. I shall never forget the look of it. Bennen’s excitement again rose, and I was again forced to act the tyrant. The jammed fragments of ice and snow seemed terribly intractable, and Bennen’s strength was hampered by the narrowness of the space in which he had to wield his axe. The knapsack of the man was next cleared, and soon afterwards his head emerged from the debris. My brandy flask was immediately at his lips, and the stimulant seemed to revive him, his mutterings became intelligible. His head and shoulders being freed, we passed the rope under his arms and tried to draw him out bodily; but he was too firmly wedged. We repeated this attempt four or five times, but were compelled to clear away the debris to the very feet before the man could be extricated. It was a great relief to find him perfectly free, for we feared his dying though inanition. With Lubbock, the porter and myself straining at the rope, and Bennen’s strength exerted below, we raised him from platform to platform of the chasm, and finally placed him on the glacier. We lost no time in getting him to the side. Bennen’s idea was to strike for home instantly; he thinking that he could carry the man a good part of the way upon his back. I dissented from this and had him carried to the grotto. Bennen had miscalculated his strength. We had been in the chasm nearly an hour; during which time the dripping of the melting ice had drenched us. Bennen’s efforts moreover had been prodigious and on quitting the crevasse he was seized by a painful trembling fit.

After carrying the man for ten minutes his force failed, and I then got him on my back: we took him thus by turns: Bennen’s strength returned, and we finally had the satisfaction of seeing our charge on a bed of grass in the grotto, not knowing however how the matter was likely to end. His wet clothes were changed; his wrists were rubbed, a hot water bottle was placed against his feet, and he had a copious draught of warm wine. For a long time he shook violently, and continued to moan: by degrees this subsided, and once Bennen said to me with some alarm, “We cannot hear him.” I placed my ear to his face and found him breathing quietly. I felt his pulse, it was striking quietly but regularly. We piled all our clothes upon him, and tended him through the night. Next morning he was able to walk home with us, and he is at this moment in good health and spirits and without a broken bone. He fell through a space of about 40 feet, and we found him quite upright packed closely in the ice.

Depend upon it there is less to be feared from the presence of danger than from the absence of caution. There was certainly no more real danger of falling into a crevasse on the Aletsch Glacier, than there is of being run over by a cab in crossing from Albemarle Street to James’s Street4. Recklessness however makes both positions dangerous, and recklessness amid the Alps and glaciers is far more to be deprecated than the confronting of their dangers where true caution is exercised. Give my kindest regards to Mrs Faraday and Miss Barnard. I hope in a day or two to write to Dr Bence Jones. Excuse this rambling narrative and believe me

Ever yours most sincerely, | John Tyndall

Would you kindly allow Dr Bence Jones, Mr Barlow and Mr Pollock to see this letter. It is badly written but may interest them.

Johann Joseph Bennen (1824–1864, Clark (1949), 188-9). An Alpine guide from Laax.
Anton Walter. A Valasian mountain guide. Whymper (1871), 126.
Unidentified.
That is across Piccadilly.

Bibliography

CLARK, Ronald (1949): The Early Alpine Guides, London.

Please cite as “Faraday4202,” in Ɛpsilon: The Michael Faraday Collection accessed on 10 April 2021, https://epsilon.ac.uk/view/faraday/letters/Faraday4202