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.

13th June 1901: Take the Stranger’s Case

The Grimsel Pass is marked with an X. I don’t know what route precisely Belloc took so can only say perhaps it was the one I have arrowed.

Like a hobbit, Belloc had two breakfasts; the first at the hotel, where the waiters were very courteous even if they did charge the earth for his food and coffee, and then at an inn. Breakfast there comprised of brandy and, well, just that. Belloc does not say what the inn keeper was like or how much he charged.

Leaving the inn behind, Belloc began his ascent of the Grimsel Pass. In doing so, he left a ‘companion’ behind – the Aar river. A thousand feet later, he was at the top of the pass. It was another misty day. On the way down, he passed the Lake of the Dead, which sounds like it belongs in Middle-Earth. The mist lifted; hopefully, the world now seemed a little less dead.

Belloc continued his descent. Somewhere near the Rhone river, he came to a large hotel. He asked the hotelier what the cost of a meal would be.

… “Four francs,” they said.
“What!” said I, “Four francs for a meal! Come, let me eat in the kitchen, and charge me one.” But they became rude and obstinate, being used only to deal with rich people, so I cursed them, and went down the road.

Hilaire Belloc The Path to Rome p.232

Hilaire Belloc – either making friends or being as annoying as hell towards people. Okay, they were rude, but really.

Further on he met some moree – ‘a sad Englishman reading a book’ (The Path to Rome, p.232), ‘two American women in a carriage’ (Ibid), and then a priest. If he talked to them, though, he doesn’t record doing so. Interestingly, he does mention making an effort to touch iron after seeing the priest. From whence this superstition? The good news, though, is that Belloc felt good again. ‘… I thought myself capable of pushing on to the next village’ (The Path to Rome, pp.232-33) even though he was hungry and his boot was now severely damaged.

Despite this, he did walk on. He passed through ‘a village called “Between the Waters”‘ (The Path to Rome, p.233), and then ‘another called “Ehringen”” (Ibid). Finally, faint from hunger, he stopped at an inn in Ulrichen.

There, he me ‘one of the women whom God loves’ (Ibid) – a simply, kindly soul. She fed him (not very well, it seems, but at least she appears not to have overcharged him) and then persuaded Belloc not to set out for the Gries Pass on account of bad weather. When Belloc told her what he meant to do, she was horrified and called in a man, perhaps her husband, to warn Belloc off making the attempt.

[He] told me that he knew more of the mountains than any one for miles… He said that he had crossed the Nufenen and the Gries whenever they could be crossed since he was a child, and that if I attempted it that day I should sleep that night in Paradise.

The Path to Rome, pp. 236-7

Belloc – albeit reluctantly, for he was mindful of his ever shrinking purse – listened to him. He took a room at the inn but enjoined the man to wake him at three AM the next day and guide him over the mountain. The man agreed. Belloc sent his boots to be cobbled and settled down to read.

Anything that Belloc achieved after this day in 1901 we have the woman and her husband to thank. They proved better friends than many others, even though Belloc was only a stranger to them. They were better friends because of the goodness of their hearts which led them to be concerned for the stranger whom God had put into their home. Their witness to friendship, to love even, is an inspiration.