Tramping up the Alps on the trail of Mark Twain
Just over 100 years ago one of America's greatest humorists, Mark Twain, wrote a book called "A Tramp Abroad," and it includes some of his funniest stories. Although this book is not well known in the United States, it is widely read in Europe, especially in Switzerland where most of his stories took place.
But a travel writer he was not. On one occasion in the Alps I followed his directions to a tee and found myself up the wrong valley and finally on the wrong Alp. Twain's travels were a series of observations, exaggerations, and just plain fun.
He and his agent, Mr. Harris, made their trip in the summer of 1878. My agent and I tried to follow their exact route and repeated their major feats: We tell here of the climbing of Mt. Rigi (a story every Swiss child knows), and ascending the Riffelberg in Zermatt.
With a well-read and well-marked copy of "A Tramp Abroad," my "agent," Mr. Bumble, and I followed the exact route, trying to repeat all his adventures. We stayed at the same hotels (many of them still existed) and visited the same sightseeing attractions, which surprisingly had not changed much. Although Twain declares that his purpose is to walk, I feel sure after reading the book closely that we tramped on foot about as little, I suspect, as he did.
The grand experiences of Lucerne a century ago were the promenade along the lake (which still is most elegant) and the overnight excursion to MT. Rigi. MT. Rigi is 6,000 feet above sea level and 4,000 above Lake Lucerne. The great attraction then, as now, is to see the sun rise from the summit.
The first cog railroad in Europe was built up Mt. Rigi because it had become internationally renowned as a sightseeing extravaganza and it still is. Since Lucerne is not in the Alps, but on the edge of them, the view of the sunup over the Alps from Mt. Rigi is mind-boggling . . . I'm told. Both Twain and his agent and I and my agent made it to the Rigi Kulm Hotel at the summit on foot, but for different reasons none of us saw the sunrise.
wain, as every Swiss schoolboy knows, took 3 1/2 days to reach the summit in spite of the fact that the guidebooks of that day said it was a three-hour hike. Harris has hired a young lad to carry their satchels, overcoats, and things. They spent so much time stretched out in the grass, or stopping at the first inn for lunch, and just dawdling that the boy asked if he was being paid by the job or the year.
They decided to stay overnight where they lunched to see the sunup from that level. When they woke up the next morning at 11 a.m., Twain scolded Harris for their missing the sunup. The second day, after a hike of 200 yards they rested again. And hour further they stopped at the Kaltbad Inn where they were most determined to rise with the sun but did so at 3 p. m. next afternoon.
Finally, on the summit at the Rigi Kulm, having arrived in time to see the sunset, they went to bed early so the sunrise would not be missed this time. In those days before the telephone, the guests were awakened by a blast on the great alpenhorn. Not even Twain or Harris could sleep through that. By tradition the guests in their night garments wrapped themselves in large heavy red blankets provided by the hotel management, and they all trooped outside to watch the spectacle. Twain and Harris swooped out of bed into the chill of the room. At the last moment they decided not to go out into the cold but to watch from their window. They discovered too late their room faced west!
Since Twain had taken such an outrageous amount of time, three days, to climb the Rigi I decided to clock our "expedition" and beat his time. I had just the timepiece for the job. While traveling through a customs-free shop on the way to Switzerland, I had bought a new electronic wristwatch and combination calendar, day of the week, stop watch, lapsed time recorder, and an alarm clock all wrapped in a neat package by the Japanese.
My agent and I stepped out of the Schweizerhof at 12:46 and 19 seconds to catch the 1:20 lake steamer to Weggis, which was the town on the lake at the foot of Mt. Rigi.
We took the boat to Weggis, where we discovered that in later years Samuel Clemens came to vacation and rest, but there is no trace of his first trip when he made the climb. We walked through the pleasant sleepy village and as we started up the path toward the Rigi, i started my stopwatch.
We found the same landmarks that Twain saw. The first hotel where he overslept needed a major repair before I'd have stayed there . . . so I took a ten-minute nap on the lawn. We passed through a natural gateway called the Felsentor, formed by two enormous upright rocks. The Rigi hike is a perfect walk. The steep parts seem to be in the wooded areas so that you don't get overheated.
When we reached the Kaltbad station, which is now a beautiful modern resort, we stopped for refreshment. We didn't stay as long as Twain had done (he slept overnight and most of the next day) but left in the time to arrive at the summit just as the sun was going down. The Rigi Kulm Hotel had been rebuilt but the traditions were still the same. For this special occasion they got out the old carrying chairs and the alpenhorn that were used even before Twain's time.
Hiking time to the top! Two hours, 49 minutes, 18 seconds. We beat the guidebook by 10 minutes and 42 seconds and Twain by 33 hours, 11 minutes, and 42 seconds.
We were off to bed early because we didn't want to miss the gala event . . . sunrise on the Rigi. The tradition of waking the guests by alpenhorn had long been abandoned, and since i seemed to be the only one there who could get even a moan out of the horn, I wasn't about to try at 5 a.m. But I was prepared anyway for the appointed hour.
Twain missed the sunrise because he was looking west. I missed it because overnight the battery on my Japanese watch ran down . . . a sort of Swiss vengeance.
Following Twain up and down the face of Switzerland took careful reading of his book, being part detective and filling in the gaps the best we could, but that didn't keep us from getting lost. After Lucerne we traced his route to interlaken. He claims he made the trip through the Bruenig Pass and around the Brienze Lake by the Carriage. The local people today say that was impossible because there was no road around the lake in Twain's day.
That didn't seem to bother him; he still wrote in detail about the trip to Interlaken by carriage. When we left on the next leg of his trip we got so lost that we had to backtrack to get to our destinaton. He had us going up the Kiental valley to find the Fruitigen Inn which we finally found in another valley and then in an offhand way states that by that evening he was at his hotel in Kanderstag. It's really not a mystery, it's an impossibility unless he went as the crow flies . . . right over the Blumis Alps.
It soon became evident to Mr. Bumble and myself that something seemed amiss.Twain wrote about each place in detail, yet he left out important features of the area. How he could be in the Lauterbrannen Valley and not write about or mention the Jungfrau and Eiger is hard to understaind. But stranger yet was the fact that we never found proof of his stay in any of the hotels records or the guestbooks (which were the custom of the day) of any of the places he says he visited.
We followed in his footsteps from Lucerne through the Bruenig Pass to Interlaken, to Kanderstag to Leukerbad across the Rhone River to St. Nicolas and then up to Zermatt. We got on his trail to lausanne, then up Lake Geneva by boat to the Castle of Chillon made famous in Lord Byron's poem, "the Prisoner of chillon," and then down the lake by boat to Geneva. He spent 3 to 4 months making the trip and we spent 3 to 4 weeks following him, and we never came across one single document that proved he actually had been there.
I started to suspect a spoof when we finally arrived at Kanderstag more or less using his directions, which were a geographical impossibility. From Kanderstag he was supposed to have crossed the Gemmi Pass on foot. Mr. Bumble and I did cross the Gemmi Pass, and I was convinced when we reached the Schwartzenback Mountain hotel, which was at the halfway point, that Twain never made this hike. . . . It was too much work.
Mr. Stoller, a delightful hostess and owner of the mountain hut, assured us that Twain had indeed stayed there and showed us "his" room. Again we wanted proof and again, in spite of the fact that the records were over a hundred years old, neither Twain's name nor any of the four names ever appeared.
At the end of the day I was convinced that this trip was part of Twain's resourceful imagination. In the book he goes on at great length about the glacier at the far end of the Gemmi Pass, at the Daubensee (a lake at the end of the pass). Well, that did it for me because there was no glacier!
At the end of the 7,000-foot-high pass, just before you start the descent into the Leukerbad Valley, there is a small mountain hotel where Mr. Bumble and I stopped for a cold drink. I took that occasion to explain to my companion that I was sure now Twain was spoofing us. He seemed to be such a lazy fellow all through the book that i just counldn't see him making such a difficult hike, and the fact that there was no glacier at the very spot we were sitting at, at the end of the lake, was enough proof for me.
My agent, Mr. Bumble, although listening attentively to my theory was not looking at me but instead gazing above my head. Of course this is distracting and most disconcerting. I stopped speaking . . . followed his gaze to a picture on the wall hung above my head. It was a photograph of the very inn we were in. And low and behold, in the picture off to the side was the glacier.
I called for the manager. I asked him how old the photograph was and he told us in the best English that he thought it was about 90 years old. I asked him how old the inn was and he grinned from ear to ear, proudly saying "Exactly 100 years old this month." That rang a bell. I commanded Mr. Bumble to get the copy of "A Tramp Abroad" from his knapsack. I thumbed it until found the place I wanted.
Twain, exactly 100 years ago to the month, wrote about an inn that was being built overlooking the Leukerbad Valley. My apologies To Mr. Twain. I was wrong. Like Kilroy he had been here. So had the glacier. Glaciers, apparently , can advance or recede over the years.
A few days later we were following his footsteps to Zermatt, where ten or so years before Twain's arrival, the last mountain of Europe, the Matterhorn, had been conquered. The story of Edward Whympler's conquest of this great mountain was known world wide and Twain, it seems, came to Zermatt to add his "experience" to the annals of climbing literature. This one is even harder to believe.
It was from the Monte Rosa Hotel in Zermatt that Twain and Mr. Harris departed, as he claims, for the daring expedition to the Riffelberg. The Monte Rosa was traditionally the starting place for such feats. When Twain resolutely declared, "I will ascend the Riffelberg!" he reports his agent Harris pleaded for him to give up his purpose.
But Twain ordered his agent to make the preparations immediately for a 4 p.m. departure the next day.
In all honesty I must give truthful answer to Twain's outrageous reporting. First, I must state that his was the only expedition to have ever left the Monte Rosa at 4 p.m. All mountain climbers know that 4 a.m. is the hour of departure. Twain's excuse, that out of respect for the great number of tourists and local citizens who would have felt cheated if they did not see the start of the attack on the Riffelberg, that he choose to make the time convenient. Twain considered it such an important occasion that he and Mr. Harris wore evening dress.
It took Twain and his expedition seven days to make the ascent. We followed his route, and dear reader, I hate to disillusion you about America's great writer, but Samuel Langhorne Clemens was not at all times a truthful man. For example, after the first day of the "heroic exploit" he camps outside of Winkelmatten after throwing a detachment into the area to see if it was safe for the whole caravan. I should like to inform those readers in Cincinnati or Des Moines who have never ventured to the Alps that Winkelmatten is not a heroic exploit but only a few hundred yards out of the village of Zermatt and it is all downhill!
And when we finished the ascent, we discovered not the usual mountaintop hut but a fashionable hotel on the Riffelberg called The Riffelberg. It was built in 1853, 25 years before Twain made his epic climb. On inquiring, my agent found that the women of that day arrived at the hotel for their vacations on foot! What does that do to your expedition, Mister Clemens!