Tainted by the city air, and with gases not natural even to the atmosphere of London, I gladly chimed in with the proposal of an experienced friend to live four clear days at Christmas on Welsh mutton and mountain air. On the evening of the 26th of December 1860 Mr. Busk, Mr. Huxley, and I found ourselves at the Penryhn Arms Hotel in Bangor. Next morning we started betimes. The wind had howled angrily during the night. It now swept over the frozen road, carrying the looser snow along with it, shooting the crystals with projectile force against our faces, and compelling us to lean forward at a considerable angle to keep upon our feet. Our destination was Capel Curig, with a prospective design upon Snowdon; but we had no bâtons fit for the ascent. At Bethesda, however, after many vain enquiries in Welsh and English about walking-sticks, we found a shop which embraced among its multitudinous contents a sheaf of rake-handles. Two of these we purchased at fourpence each, and had them afterwards furnished with rings and iron spikes, at the total cost of one shilling. Thus provided, we hoped that ‘old Snowdon’s craggy chaos’ might be invaded with a hope of success.
On the morning of the 28th we issued from our hotel. A pale blue, dashed with ochre, and blending to a most delicate green, overspread a portion of the eastern sky. Grey cumuli, tinged ruddily here and there as they caught the morning light, swung aloft, but melted more and more as the day advanced. The eastern mountains were all thickly covered with newly fallen snow. The effect was unspeakably lovely. In front of us was Snowdon; over it and behind it the atmosphere was closely packed with dense brown haze, the lower filaments of which reached almost half-way down the mountain, but still left all its outline clearly visible through the attenuated fog.
No ray of sunlight fell upon the hill, and the face which it turned towards us, too steep to hold the snow, exhibited a precipitous slope of rock, faintly tinted by the blue grey of its icy enamel. Below us was Llyn Mymbyr, a frozen plain; behind us the hills were flooded with sunlight, and here and there from the shaded slopes, which were illuminated chiefly by the light of the firmament, shimmered a most delicate blue. This beautiful effect deserves a word of notice; many doubtless have observed it during the late snow. Ten days ago, in driving from Kirtlington to Glympton, the window of my cab became partially opaque by the condensation of the vapour of respiration.
With the finger-ends little apertures were made in the coating, and when viewed through, these the snow-covered landscape flashed incessantly with blue gleams. They rose from the shadows of objects along the road, which shadows were illuminated by the light of the sky. The blue light is best seen when the eye is in motion, thus causing the images of the shadows to pass over different parts of the retina. The whole shadow of a tree may thus be seen with stem and branches of the most delicate blue. I have seen similar effects upon the fresh névés of the Alps, the shadow being that of the human body looked at through an aperture in a handkerchief thrown over the face.
The same splendid effect was once exhibited in a manner never to be forgotten by those who witnessed it, on the sudden opening of a tent-door at sunrise on the summit of Mont Blanc. At Pen-y-Gwryd Busk halted, purposing to descend to Llanberis by the road, while Huxley and I went forward to the small public-house known as Pen y Pass. Here our guide, Robert Hughes, a powerful but elderly man, refreshed himself, and we quit the road and proceeded for a short distance along a cart-track which seemed to wind round a spur of Snowdon. ‘Is there no shorter way up?’ we demanded. ‘Yes; but I fear it is now impracticable,’ was the reply. ‘Go straight on,’ said Huxley, ‘and do not fear us.’ Up the man went with a spurt, suddenly putting on all his steam. The whisky of Pen Pass had given him a flash of energy, which we well knew could not last. In fact, the guide, though he acquitted himself admirably during the day, had at first no notion that we should reach the summit; and this made him careless of preserving himself at the outset. Toning him down a little, we went forward at a calmer pace. Crossing the spur, we came upon a pony-track on the opposite side. It was rendered conspicuous by the unbroken layer of snow which rested on it. Huxley took the lead, wading knee-deep for nearly an hour. I, wishing to escape this labour, climbed the slopes to the right, and sought a way over the less loaded bosses of the mountain.
On our remarking to Hughes that he had never assailed Snowdon under such conditions, he replied that he had, and under worse. The 12th of April last, he affirmed, was a worse day, and he had led a lady on that day almost to the summit. Unluckily for him, there was a smack of ‘bounce’ in the reply. It caused us to conclude that the same energy which had led the lady could lead us, and hence, when Huxley fell back, the guide was sent to the front, to break the way. He did this manfully for nearly an hour, at the end of which he seemed very jaded, and as he sat resting on a corner of rock I asked him whether he was tired. ‘I am,’ was his reply. Huxley gave him a sip of brandy, and I came for a short time to the front. I had no gaiters, and my boots were incessantly filled with snow.
My own heat sufficed for a time to melt the snow; but this clearly could not go on for ever. My left heel first became numbed and painful; and this increased till both feet were in great distress. I sought relief by quitting the track and trying to get along the impending shingle to the right. The high ridges afforded me some relief, but they were separated by cwms in which the snow had accumulated, and through which I sometimes floundered waist-deep. The pain at length became unbearable; I sat down, took off my boots and emptied them; put them on again, tied Huxley’s pocket handkerchief round one ankle, and my own round the other, and went forward once more.
It was a great improvement— the pain vanished, and did not return. The scene was grand in the extreme. Before us were the buttresses of Snowdon, crowned by his conical peak; while below us were three llyns, black as ink, and contracting additional gloom from the shadow of the mountain. The lines of weathering had caused the frozen rime to deposit itself upon the rocks, as on the tendrils of a vine, the crags being fantastically wreathed with runners of ice. The summit, when we looked at it, damped our ardour a little; it seemed very distant, and the day was sinking fast. From the summit the mountain sloped downward to a col which linked it with a bold eminence to our right.
At the col we aimed, and half an hour before reaching it we passed the steepest portion of the track. This I quitted, seeking to cut off the zig-zags, but gained nothing but trouble by the attempt. This difficulty conquered, the col was clearly within reach; on its curve we met a fine snow cornice, through which we broke at a plunge, and gained safe footing on the mountain-rim. The health and gladness of that moment were a full recompense for the entire journey into Wales. We went upward along the edge of the cone with the noble sweep of the snow cornice at our left. The huts at the top were all cased in ice, and from their chimneys and projections the snow was drawn into a kind of plumage by the wind. The crystals had set themselves so as to present the exact appearance of feathers, and in some cases these were stuck against a common axis, so as accurately to resemble the plumes in soldiers’ caps.
It was 3 o’clock when we gained the summit. Above and behind us the heavens were of the densest grey; towards the western horizon this was broken by belts of fiery red, which nearer the sun brightened to orange and yellow. The mountains of Flintshire were flooded with glory, and later on, through the gaps in the ranges, the sunlight was poured in coloured beams, which could be tracked through the air to the places on which their radiance fell.
The scene would bear comparison with the splendours of the Alps themselves. Next day we ascended the pass of Llanberis. The waterfalls, stiffened into pillars of blue ice, gave it a grandeur which it might not otherwise exhibit. The wind, moreover, was violent, and shook clouds of snow-dust from the mountain-heads. We descended from Pen-y-Gwrid to Beddgelert. What splendid skating surfaces the lakes presented— so smooth as scarcely to distort the images of the hills! A snow-storm caught us before we reached our hotel. This melted to rain during the night.
Next day we engaged a carriage for Carnarvon, but had not proceeded more than two miles when we were stopped by the snow. Huge barriers of it were drifted across the road; and not until the impossibility of the thing was clearly demonstrated did we allow the postilion to back out of his engagement. Luckily our luggage was portable. Strapping our bags and knapsacks on our shoulders, partly through the fields, and partly along the less encumbered portions of the road, we reached Carnarvon on foot, and the evening of the 31st of December saw us safe in London.
John Tyndall: ‘Hours of Exercise in the Alps. 1899.