Monday, October 19, 2009

An Alpine Storm

Falls of the Handeck, Switzerland July 29, 1873

The surrounding scenery is anything but picturesque or even interesting when compared with Alpine grandure. My companions deem it advisable to spend an hour more in repose and I will consequently sojourn alone as far as Guttannen. From Handeck numerous groves of pines and bracken are in the valley, and abundant evidences of Glacial formations are to be seen in various places. The valley is narrow and the Aare River is frequently crossed. In many places the mountains rise almost perpendicularly on both sides of the valley which gives it a somber appearance, and in no place have I seen so many traces of destructive avalanches as here. In many places the ground is completely covered with stones for a great distance. Before arriving at Guttanen, the valley widens into somewhat of a semi-circular cove, in the center of which the small and poverty stricken village of Guttannen is located. The village contains a few mountain huts and is surrounded by countless numbers of stone piles. As I look around and see the work of avalanche and flood, I ask myself," Why will man continue to reside in such a world of chance as this? Now there is a beautiful meadow lawn before my eyes, but will it be so tomorrow?" I doubt it very much if the barometer at the inn is any index of the weather for the next six hours. A storm of two hours duration may precipitate enough water to completely deluge this bright spot, and in an hour afterwards leave it as barren and desolate as a mountain river bed.

I have refreshed myself with a good Swiss dinner, and am ready to continue my journey just as my companions are arriving. They will rest awhile and I will not wait for them, but will go on to Imhof and engage coaches to take us to Brienz this evening. The landlady admonishes me to be careful and not to be caught in the mountains today as a terrific storm is expected to take place this afternoon. I have surveyed the heavens, but I can`t see as much storm as the landlady predicts and as the barometer indicates. With no time to spend in waiting for a storm to pass by, I continue my journey, contrary to the advice of the villagers, who are watching the barometer with anxiety and preparing for a storm of great violence.
As I proceed down the valley, I am more fully convinced of its poverty stricken condition. Reader, if you have ever talked of poverty in our own broad land, and you should chance to come to Oberhaslithal, you will blush with shame for what you have said when you see real poverty among a frugal and industrious people. Below Guttannen the valley again becomes narrow, picturesque and really romantic. An occasional chalet is passed where there is enough arable ground to cultivate half a dozen hills of potatoes, and where the declivity is not so steep as to require chickensto be constantly rough-shod to keep them from slipping off.
I now begin to hear an occasional peal of thunder and that small portion of sky which is visible is overcast with dark clouds. From what point of the compass the storm is approaching, I cannot tell as there appears to be no current of air, and but one black cloud which seems to be stationary is visible. It thunders in every point of the compass and I can see about as much of the heavens above me as if I were inside of a barrel looking out of the cork-hole. A hurried look at the general contour of the valley satisfies me that I don`t want to be caught here during a storm if I ever decide to see Yankee-land again. The general shape is much like an ordinary tunnel and a heavy storm would soon deluge it so as to render it entirely unsafe for passage. The deafening peals of increasing thunder, the glaring lightning, and the almost midnight darkness caused me to pass over the space toward Imhof at a brisk run. The admonishments of the villagers of Guttanen and my experience of a few days ago near Furca Pass were vivid in my mind and prompted me to make every exertion to reach a place of shelter before the storm would commence its raging. I passed many beautiful nooks where I would like to have tarried and feasted on the beauties of nature, but I had to be contented with a wishful glance over my shoulder as I pressed forward with all speed possible. When once out of the most desolate part of the valley, I sought refuge and rest in a small barn about a mile from Imhof where I now am and am watching the awesome inspiring approach of a storm in the Alps.

I have used the term "the approach of the storm," which although incorrect when considering the nature of a storm in the Alps, is really the best term I have at command to express myself. There is really no approach as I can detect, no movement of clouds from here. A dense black cloud overhangs the valley and the adjacent mountain peaks, in which the lightning`s glare and the thuder`s roll is incessant. I can hear the common rush and roar attending violent storms, but I can detect no movement in the lower strata of clouds which have now assumed an inky blackness. From what I have seen, I am led to believe that this black cloud is the nucleus of the storm which was arrested between the snow-clad peaks of the Alps. The vapor being condensed by the cold has caused it to slowly descend into the valley, leaving a partial vacuum above which is being filled by clouds coming from every direction, which likewise have their vapor condensed to sink to this lower stratum. This appears to be the nature of this storm cloud. As the condensed vapor from above is increasing, the increased downward pressure forces the cloud lower into the valley, at the same time making it more dense. When this downward pressure becomes strong enough to condense the vapor into water, it will rain, which has just now taken place. This downward pressure has not only produced raindrops but hailstones which vary from the size of a hickory nut to that of a hen`s egg. It has hailed only a few moments, but the rain is descending not in drops but in what appears to be in continous sheets as if it were being poured down with buckets. Since there is no movement of the clouds, it will rain here until every drop of moisture is squeezed out of this cloud, and then I will see clear sky again and not before. It has rained now just one hour and the clouds begin to assume a lighter color and have risen somewhat higher, but it rains yet very steadily, although not as fast as it did the first half hour.
Every space seems deluged and the Aare River is rising with fearful rapidity. As the storm is abating, the rush and roar of the falling water increases. It has rained a little longer than one and a half hours and the blue sky is again to be seen. The storm is over and the flood has commenced. Every cliff has its cascade, many of which portray the grand and sublime. The Aare has already risen many feet above high water-mark and has deluged many bright spots with mud and stones. With much difficulty I have arrived at Imhof where I find that the Aare has risen 5 feet 4 inches above ordinary high water-mark and is in many places overflowing the levees.
The channel of the Aare of late years has been straightened and large levees constructed to prevent disasterous inundations, but the present storm has been such an unprecedented one as to over awe all preparations. Here at Imhof the Aare is as straight as an arrow for several miles and has sufficient fall to make it a continous rapid. It carries with it large masses of rock the grating of which can be heard at a considerable distance. Just now my friends have arrived, some of whom look as if it had rained lately. Coaches for eight and we are away for Brienz. P.D. Reefy

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