14th June 1901: Failed Ascent

At three o’clock this morning, the man woke Belloc up. After a quick breakfast of coffee and bread, they set out.

To get to the Nufenen and Gries Passes they had to cross a ravine. There, they trod carefully as they ploughed through avalanche snow. The need to be careful was emphasised not long later when they saw a cross – planted in memory of a man who had fallen and died there just a couple of months earlier.

The walk did not easier.

We noticed… many disquieting things. First, all that bowl or cup below the passes was a carpet of snow, save where patches of black water showed, and all the passes and mountains, from top to bottom, were covered with very thick snow; the deep surface of it soft and fresh fallen. Secondly, the rain had turned into snow. It was falling thickly all around. Nowhere have I more perceived the immediate presence of great Death. Thirdly, it was far colder, and we felt the beginning of a wind. Fourthly, the clouds had come down.

Hilaire Belloc The Path to Rome (Ignatius Press 2003) p.241

The guide knew what the snow, coldness and wind, and low clouds meant – the passes would be closed, and told Belloc this, but he wanted and needed to advance on his pilgrimage and insisted they continue. Alas, Belloc was not as kind to this stranger as he and his wife had been to him, and it almost cost him his life.

The Nufenen Pass was clearly blocked so they made for the Gries Pass.

Neither of us spoke, but occasionally he looked back to make sure I had not dropped out.

The Path to Rome, p.242

The weather deteriorated – ‘the snow began to fall more thickly’ (The Path to Rome, p.242) and the wind grew in strength; Belloc thought the guide would protest but for now he kept his peace. A ‘sheer steep of snow’ (The Path to Rome, p.243) terrified Belloc as he was no climber. The guide promised him that it could be negotiated safely, and even if he fell, one might only die if one struck rocks.

They began climbing. Less than half an hour later, the wind was at gale force and the snow ‘whirring furiously past out ears’ (The Path to Rome, p.244). They took refuge under a great rock. Here, the guide told Belloc – shouted at him to make himself heard – that they could not continue. In his desperation, Belloc betrayed the man’s kindness and offered him such money as he had in his pocket to continue.

… it was folly in me, because if I had had enough to tempt him and if he had yielded we should both have died. Luckily it was but a little sum. He shook his head. He would not go on, he broke out, for all the money there was in the world.

The Path to Rome, p.245

The evil of our disordered hearts. It makes us do the most foolish things.

The guide told Belloc that they had to turn back. He did not disagree for by now the cold was starting to numb him. They made their way back to the inn; it was not an easy journey, being in its way almost as perilous as the climb. Belloc felt humiliated. Worse, he could not afford to wait at the inn for the weather to improve. He would have to make his way into Italy on the same route as all the dreadful tourists.

So, he did by going ‘over the Furka; exactly as easy a thing as going up St. James’ Street and down Piccadilly’ (The Path to Rome, p.249). He tells us that he stopped at ‘all the inns’ (Ibid) along the way – I wonder how much he drunk – and told whoever would listen about his failed attempt to cross the Gries Pass. But,

… they took me for a liar… I became silent even within my own mind.

The Path to Rome, p.250

In the evening, Belloc reached Airolo. He rejoiced to hear Italian being spoken – ‘the speech of civilised men’ (The Path to Rome, p.251). His lack of money, though, still weighed heavy on his heart. Boy, do I know that feeling. The first few days of my Camino involved plenty of worry over how much money I had and was spending. I never truly got over it.

Needing to get on, Belloc left the Airolians behind. That night, two hours out of Airolo, he left the Ticino valley behind and entered Faido where he slept.

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