to me as possible. He never lost sight of me, and on many occasions his arm supplied me with firm and solid support. He was strong, wiry, and apparently insensible to fatigue. He had another great advantage—the innate sentiment of equilibrium—for he never slipped or failed in his steps. The Icelanders, though heavily loaded, climbed with the agility of mountaineers.
Looking up every now and then, at the height of the great volcano of Sneffels, it appeared to me impossible to reach the summit on that side—at least if the angle of inclination did not speedily change.
Fortunately, after an hour of difficult climbing, and gymnastic exercises that would have been trying to an acrobat, we came to a vast field of ice, which completely surrounded the bottom of the cone of the volcano. The natives called it the table-cloth, probably for some such reason as the dwellers in the Cape of Good Hope call their mountain, Table Mountain, and their anchorage or roads, Table Bay.
Here, to our mutual surprise, we found an actual flight of stone steps, which considerably assisted our ascent. This singular flight of stairs was, like everything else, volcanic. It had been formed by one of those torrents of stones cast up by the eruptions, of which the Icelandic name is stina. If this singular torrent had not been checked in its descent by the peculiar shape of the flanks of the mountain, it would have swept into the sea, and formed new islands. Such as it was, it served us admirably. The abrupt character of the slopes momentarily increased, but these remarkable stone steps, a little less difficult than those of the Egyptian pyramids, were the one simple natural means by which we were enabled to proceed.
About seven in the evening of that day, after having clambered up two thousand of these rough steps, we found ourselves overlooking a kind of spur or projection of the mountain—like a buttress upon which the cone-like crater, properly so called, leaned for support.
The ocean lay beneath us at a depth of more than three thousand two hundred feet—a grand and mighty spectacle. We had reached the region of eternal snows. The cold was keen, searching and intense. The wind blew with extraordinary violence. I was utterly exhausted.
My worthy uncle, the Professor, saw clearly that my legs refused further service, and that, in fact, I was utterly exhausted. Despite his hot and feverish impatience, he decided, with a sigh, upon a halt. He called the eider-duck hunter to his side. That worthy, however, shook his head.
"Ofvanfor," was his sole spoken reply.
"It appears," says my uncle with a woe-begone look, "that we must go higher."
He then turned to Hans, and asked him to give some reason for this decisive response.
"Mistour," replied the guide.
"Ja mistour—yes, the mistour," cried one of the Icelandic guides in a terrified tone.
It was the first time he had spoken.
"What does this mysterious word signify?" I anxiously inquired.
"Look," said my uncle.
I looked down upon the plain below, and I saw a vast, prodigious volume of pulverized pumice-stone, of sand, of dust, rising to the heavens in the form of a mighty water-spout. It resembled the fearful phenomenon of a similar character known to the travelers in the desert of the great Sahara.
The wind was driving it directly towards that side of Sneffels on which we were perched. This opaque veil standing up between us and the sun projected a deep shadow on the flanks of the mountain. If this sand-spout broke over us, we must all be completely destroyed, crushed in its fearful embraces. This extraordinary phenomenon, very common when the wind shakes the glaciers, and sweeps over the arid plains, is in the Icelandic tongue called mistour.
"Hastigt, Hastigt!" cried our guide.
Now I certainly knew nothing of Danish, but I thoroughly understood that his gestures were meant to hurry us. The guide turned rapidly in a direction which would take us to the back of the crater, all the while ascending slightly. We followed rapidly, despite our excessive fatigue.
A quarter of an hour later Hans paused to enable us to look back. The mighty whirlwind of sand was spreading up the slope of the mountain to the very spot where we had proposed to halt. Huge stones were caught up, cast into the air, and thrown about as during an eruption. We were happily a little out of the direction of the wind, and therefore out of reach of danger. But for the precaution and knowledge of our guide, our dislocated bodies, our crushed and broken limbs, would have been cast to the wind, like dust from some unknown meteor.
Hans however did not think it prudent to pass the night on the bare side of the cone. We therefore continued our journey in a zigzag direction. The fifteen hundred feet which remained to be climbed took us at least five hours. The turnings and windings, the no-thoroughfares, the marches and marches, turned that insignificant distance into at least three leagues. I never felt such misery, fatigue and exhaustion in my life. I was ready to faint from hunger and cold. At the same time the rarefied air acted painfully upon my lungs.
At last, about eleven at night, when I thought I was gasping my last breath, we reached the summit of Mount Sneffels! it was in an awful state of mind, that despite my fatigue, I paused to behold the sun rise at midnight on the very day of its lowest declension, and enjoyed the spectacle of its ghastly pale rays cast upon the isle which lay sleeping at our feet, before I descended into the crater which was to shelter us for the night.
I no longer wondered at people traveling all the way from England to Norway, to behold this magical and wonderful spectacle.
THE SHADOW OF SCARTARIS
OUR supper was eaten with ease and rapidity, after which everybody did the best he could for himself within the hollow of the crater. The bed was hard, the shelter unsatisfactory, the situation painful—lying in the open air, 5,000 feet above the level of the sea! Nevertheless, very rarely did I sleep so well as I did that particular night. I did not even dream. So much for the effects of what my uncle called "wholesome fatigue."