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Letter from Gertrude Bell to her father, Sir Hugh Bell

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Bell, Sir Thomas Hugh Lowthian
Bell, Gertrude Margaret Lowthian
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1 letter, paper

46.6482045, 8.1497133

Rosenlaui. Sunday 8th. Dearest Father. I sent you a postcard today, just to say that I was alive, and I am now going to give you a full history of my adventures. To begin with Friday: we set out before dawn, the mists lying low everywhere, on the sporting chance of finding fine weather above them. We walked up the hour and a half of steep wood which is the preface to every climb here, and got to our familiar scene of action, a rocky valley called the Ochscuthal. Our problem was to find a pass over a precipitous wall of the rock at the S. end of it. Now this rock wall had been pronounced impossible by the two experts of these parts and by their guides. We cast round and finally decided on a place where the rock wall was extremely smooth, but worn by a number of tiny water channels, sometimes as much as 3 inches deep by 4 across. These gave one a sort of handhold and foothold. Just as we started up it began to snow a little. The first 100 ft were very difficult and took us 3/4 of an hour. The rock was excessively smooth and in one place there was a wall some 6 ft high where Ulrich had to stand on Heinrich's shoulder. Above this 100 ft it went comparatively easily and in an hour we found ourselves in a delightful cave, so deep that it sheltered us from the rain and sleet which was now falling thick. Here we breakfasted, gloomily enough. After breakfast things looked a little better and we decided to go on though it was still raining. The next bit was easy, rocks and grass and little ridges, but presently we found ourselves on the wrong side of a smooth arête which gave us no hold at all. We came down a bit, found a possible traverse, and got over with some difficulty. A rotten couloir and a still more rotten chimney and we were on the top of the pass, 1 h. 20 m. from the cave. We were pleased with ourselves! It was a fine place; about 2000 ft of arête, less perhaps, between the great peak of the Engelhorn on the right and a lower peak on the left which is the final peak of that arête of 4 peaks we did the other day. We called this 5th peak of our arête the Klein Engelhorn. The pass is a great haunt of chamois. It is the place on which we had seen the 5 chamois three days before from our arête, and the day when we got to the top we saw a mother and a little one quite near us. They scampered off up the side of the Englehorn. The whole place up there is marked with chamois paths, no one, I expect, having ever been there before to disturb them. There is, however, an old old cairn on the lower slopes of the Engelhorn, which we expect has been made by some party who, having come over the Engelhorn tried to traverse down the N side and turned back at this place. We know that neither the N nor the S side of the Gemse Sattel, as we have called it, has ever been done. Indeed the S side may be impossible, but I don't think it is. They say it is, but we know that the experts may be mistaken. It was snowing so hard that we decided we could do no more that day and returned by the way we had come, lunching in the cave. There was a skeleton in the cave, a sheep which had been lost on the mountain side, or a Steinboch, we don't know which. We got own the smooth rocks with the help of the extra rope. It was most unpleasant for the water was streaming down the couloirs in torrents and we had to share the same couloir with it. It ran down one's neck and up one's sleeves and into one's boots - disgusting! However we got down and ran home through the woods. In the afternoon it cleared and at dawn on Saturday we were off again. We went again to the top of the Gemse Sattel; it was a beautiful day and we knew our way and did the rocks in an hour and 10 minutes less than we had taken the day before. Here we breakfasted and at 10 we started off to make a small peak on the right of the saddle which we had christened beforehand the Klein Engelhorn. We clambered up an easy little buttress peak which we called the Gemse Spitz and the Klein Engelhorn came into full view. It looked most unencouraging; the lower third was composed of quite smooth perpendicular rocks, the next piece of a very steep rock wall with an ill defined couloir or two, the top of great upright slabs with deep gaps between them. It turned out to be quite as difficult as it looked. We got down the Gemse Spitz onto a small saddle, did a very difficult traverse forwards and upwards above the smooth precipitous rocks, scrabbled up a very shallow crack and halted at the bottom of a smooth bit of overhanging rock. The great difficulty of it all was that it was so exposed, you couldn't ever get yourself comfortably wedged into a chimney, there was nothing but the face of the rock and up you had to go. For this reason I think it more difficult than the Simili Stock. Well, here we were on an awfully steep place under the overhanging place. Ulrich tried it on Heinrich's shoulder and could not reach any hold. I then clambered up onto Heinrich, Ulrich stood on me and fingered up the rock as high as he could. It wasn't high enough. I lifted myself still a little higher - always with Ulrich on me mind! - and he began to raise himself by his hands. As his foot left my shoulder I put up a hand straightened out my arm and made a ledge for him. He called out "I don't feel at all safe - if you move we are all killed." I said "All right, I can stand here for a week" and up he went by my shoulder and my hand. It was just high enough. Once up he got into a fine safe place and it was now my turn. I was on Heinrich's shoulder still with one foot and with one on the rock; Ulrich could not help me because he hadn't got my rope - I had been the last on the rope, you see, and I was going up second, so that all I had was the rope between the two guides to hold on to. It was pretty hard work but I got up. Now we had to get Heinrich up. He had a rope round his waist and my rope to hold, but no shoulder, but he could not manage it. The fact was, I think, that he lost his nerve, anyhow he declared that he could not get up, not with 50 ropes, and there was nothing to do but to leave him. He unroped himself from the big rope and we let down the thin rope to him, with which he tied himself, while we fastened our end firmly onto a rock. There we left him like a second Prometheus - fortunately there were no vultures about! So Ulrich and I went on alone and got as far as the top of the first great slab which was a sort of gendarme. Here Ulrich shouted down to me "It won't go!" My heart sank - after all this trouble to be turned back so near the top! Ulrich came down with a very determined face and announced that we must try lower down. We were now on the opposite side of the mountain from that on which we had left Heinrich. We went down a few feet and made a difficult traverse downwards above a precipice till we came to a chimney. I leant into the crack, Ulrich climbed onto my shoulder and got to the top. It was done! a few steps more brought us to the very top of all and we built a cairn and felt very proud. There was a difficult moment coming down the first chimney. We had left our thin rope with Heinrich, so we had to sling the thick rope round a rock for Ulrich to come down on. But it was still wet from the day before and when he got to the bottom the rope stuck. He went up and altered its position and came down and it stuck again. Again he went up, and this time he detached it and threw it down to me and came down without a rope at all. I gave him a shoulder and a knee at the last drop. So we got back and rescued Heinrich and after a great deal of complicated rope work we reached the Gemse Sattel again after 4 hours of as hard rock climbing as it woud be possible to find. Lunch was most agreeable. Our next business was to get up the Engelhorn by the arête up which I told you we saw the chamois climb the other day. This proved quite easy - it has not been done before however, and at 3.30 we were on the top of the Engelhorn. Now we had to come down the other side - this is the way the Engelhorn is generally ascended. It's a long climb, not difficult, but needing care especially at the end of a hard day when you have no finger tips left. There were quantities of chamois; they stood and looked at us from the tips of rocks. The end of it was that it was 7 o'clock before we reached the foot of the rocks. It was too late and too dark to think of getting down into the valley so we decided that we would sleep at the Eugen Alp at a shepherd's hut. But this was not so easy to do as you might think. We wandered over Alps and Alps - not the ghost of a hut was to be found. It was an exquisite starry night, one didn't the least mind how long one went on walking and I had almost resigned myself to the prospect of spending the whole night on the mountain side, when suddenly our lantern showed us that we had struck a path. We kept to it with varying fortune until at 9.30 we hove up against a chalet nestled in to the mountain side and looking exactly like a big rock. We went in and found a tiny light burning and in a minute 3 tall shepherds with pipes in their mouths joined us and slowly questioned us as to where we had come from and whither we were going. We said we were going no further and would like to eat and sleep. One of the shepherds lighted a blazing wood fire and cooked a quantity of milk in a 3 legged cauldron and we fell to on bowls of the most delicious bread and milk I ever tasted. The chÉlet was divided into two parts by a wooden partition. The first part was occupied by some enormous pigs, there was also a ladder in it leading up to a bit of wooden floor just under the roof, where the fresh hay was kept. Here I slept. The other room had a long berth all down one side of it, and a shelf along another filled with rows of great milk tins. The floors were just the hard earth and there was a wooden bench on which we eat and a low seat by it. I retired to my hay loft, wrapped myself in a new blanket and covered myself over with hay and slept soundly for 8 hours, when my neighbours the pigs woke me by grunting loudly to be let out. The shepherd gave us an excellent breakfast of milk and coffee - we had our own bread and jam. It was so enchanting waking up in that funny little place high up on the mountain side with noisy torrents all round it. The goats came flocking home before we left; they had spent a night out on the mountains, having been caught somewhere in the dark and they bleated loud complaints as they crowded round the hut, licking the shepherd's hand. It was about 7.30 before Ulrich and I set off down the exquisite Urbach Thal; Heinrich had gone on before. We walked down for a couple of hours discussing ways up the Engelhorn and the Communal System! then we turned into the valley of the Aar and dropped down onto Innertkirchen in the green plain below. This is Ulrich's native place. We went to his home and found his old father, a nice old man of 70, who welcomed us with effusion. It was an enchanting house, an old wooden chalet dated 1749, with low rooms and long rows of windows with muslin curtains and geranium pots in them. All spotlessly clean. They gave me a large - well lunch, it was 11.30, of eggs and tea and bread and cheese and bilberry jam, after which Ulrich and I walked up through the woods here and arrived at 2 in the afternoon.
I don't think I ever had two more delightful alpine days. Today is a resting day, for which we are not sorry. Tomorrow I go over to Grindelwald; the weather looks quite settled. Wednesday up to the hut from whence on Wed. night we try the Finsteraarhorn arête. If we do it we sleep at another hut on Thursday night, and at the Grimsel on {Saturday} Friday and Saturday. Sunday night we bivouac under the Lauteraarhorn and Monday try the arête to the Schreckhorn. Probably I would leave for England on Tuesday. This is all if the weather holds. If it doesn't I should come home sooner. I shall stay a night or two at 95 and if Aunt Maisie will have me, go to her for a night or two and then to the Pollocks.

I am very sorry to leave this nice place. It has been great fun and I have thoroughly enjoyed my peaks and my Colliers. What do you think is our fortnight's bag?:

2 old peaks

7 new peaks - one of them first class and 4 others very good

1 new saddle, also first class.

the traverse of the Engelhorn also new and first class.

That's not bad going, is it!

I shall find letters from you tomorrow at Grindelwald and answer them in the afternoon if there is anything that needs answering. Ever your very affectionate daughter Gertrude

IIIF Manifest