Hilaire Belloc’s Getting Over the Alps into Italy in 1901: Helps and Perils on His March Afoot

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                                        7 March 2019

Saint Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274)

Epigraphs

***

“When you are high up [in this “knot of mountain ridges” (215)] on either wall you can catch the plan of all this, but to avoid a confused description and to help you [as inspired by Father Rabelais] to follow the marvellous Hannibalian and never-before-attempted charge and march which I made, and which, alas! ended only in a glorious defeatto help you to picture faintly to yourselves the mirific and horripilant adventure whereby I nearly achieved superhuman success in spite of all the powers of the air, I append a little map which is rough but clear and plain, and which I beg you to study closely, for it will make it easy for you to understand what next happened in my pilgrimage [to Rome].” (Hilaire Belloc, The Path to Rome (1902, 1936), pages 216-217—my emphasis added)

***

“But I was very hungry. The road falls quite steeply, and the Rhone [River], which it accompanies in that valley, leaps in little falls [waterfalls]….Altogether, I felt myself in the world again [having just crossed “a bridge” and seen “a priest” and “a child minding a goat” (232)], and as I was on a good road, all down hill, I thought myself capable of pushing on to the next village [“Ulrichen”]. But my hunger was really excessive, my right boot almost gone, and my left boot nothing to exhibit or boast of, when I came to a point where at last one looked down the Rhone valley for miles….At last, two miles farther [after passing Ehringen village], faint from lack of food, I got into Ulrichen, a village a little larger than the rest, and the place where I believed one should start to go either over the Gries [Pass] or the Nufenen Pass.” (Hilaire Belloc, The Path to Rome, pages 232-233—my emphasis added)

***

“In Ulrichen [in his Rabelaisian spirit once again] was a warm, wooden, deep-eaved, frousty, comfortable, ramshackle, dark, anyhow kind of a little inn called ‘The Bear.’ And entering, I saw one of the women whom God loves.

She was of middle age, very honest and simple in the face, kindly and good. She was messing about with cooking and stuff, and she came up to me stooping a little, her eyes wide and innocent, and a great spoon in her hand. Her face was extremely broad and flat, and I had never seen eyes set so far apart. Her whole gait, manner, and accent proved her to be extremely good, and on the straight way to heaven. I saluted her in the French tongue. She answered me in the same, but very broken and rustic, for her natural speech was a kind of mountain German. She spoke very slowly, and had a nice soft voice, and she did what only good people do, I mean, [she] looked you in the eyes as she spoke to you….

She put food before me and wine. The wine was good, but in the food was some fearful herb or other I had never tasted before—a pure spice or scent, and a nasty one. One could taste nothing else…; but I ate it for her sake.

Then very much refreshed, I rose, seized my great staff, shook myself and said, “Now it is about noon, and I am off for the frontier [with Italy to the south].”

At this she made a most fearful clamour, saying that it was madness, and imploring me not to think of it, and running out fetched from the stable a tall, sad, pale-eyed man who saluted me profoundly and [who] told me that he knew more of the mountains than any one for miles. And this by asking many afterwards I found out to be true. He said that he had crossed the Nufenen and the Gries whenever they could be crossed since he was a child, and [he said] that if I attempted it that day I should sleep that night in Paradise. (Hilaire Belloc, The Path to Rome, pages 233-234, and 236-237—my emphasis added)

***

One section of Hilaire Belloc’s recorded pilgrimage to Rome will especially help us to understand this versatile and vivid-souled man. His direct and manly attempt in mid-June of 1901 to cross over the stormy and still snowbound Gries Pass into Italy on foot will certainly cause us to reflect upon many matters of moment to man: to include some of our own perilous young adventures once; and the derivative “cautionary tales” we have also gratefully accumulated so as to tell and to help our own children and grandchildren—and to do it reliably and fostering a slow fruitfulness.

He was only thirty years of age when he made his largely direct march of over six hundred miles from Toul, France to Rome during the month of June in 1901. One year later he published his vivacious book about this pilgrimage, The Path to Rome.1 He presents many unforgettable perceptions and reflections, and he is so honest about his various attitudes of mind and candid moods, some of which are not entirely to be imitated in their grumpiness or despondency or extended sullenness. Belloc’s recurrent light irony and deft humor, however, should also encourage our own wholehearted pluck and spirit of grateful resilience.

As an aid to our deeper understanding of Belloc’s nuanced and concentrated pages (233-249), let us first note the suggestive variety of his own page-subtitles, which effectively constitute a sort of summary of his approaching “the enormous mountains” (254) and then nearly going up “over the crest of the Alps” (265), or through “the escarpment of the Alps” (257).

Belloc’s alluring shorthand list runs as follows: “The Second Good Woman”—“On the Mania of Universities”—“The Frightful Spice”—“The Impassable Hills”—“The School-Books” [of the Children]—“The Start”—“The Final Hollow”—“Doubt”—“All Snow”—“The Tourmente” [Storm]— “The Guide Despairs”—“His Dilemma”—“Defeat”—“The Retreat”—“We Reach Our Base”—“The Common Road” [hence, inescapably, “The Litany of the Vulgar”]. For “it is a bitter thing to have to give up [to surrender] one’s sword.” (249)

Let us now try to convey some of Belloc’s largesse to us, his recurrent festive communion and his perilous adventures—also his intermittent comic depictions (“…no one in the house [a large inn] understood me [my three languages, “French, English, and Latin”]—neither the servants nor any one; but the servants did not laugh at me as had the poor people near Burgdorf, they only stood round me patiently in wonder as cows do at trains.” (203-204—my emphasis added). Indeed looking at him with a bovine expression, as the Turks taught me to say, “like a cow watching the train go by”!

We propose now to consider Belloc’s famished arrival at “The Bear,” a small inn in Ulrichen:

And entering, I saw one of the women whom God loves….Her whole gait, manner, and accent proved her to be extremely good, and on the straight road to heaven….and she did what only good people do, I mean, [she] looked you in the eyes as she spoke to you….She put food before me and wine. The wine was good, but in the food was some fearful herb….; but I ate it for her sake.

Then, very much refreshed, I rose, seized my great staff, shook myself, and said, “Now it is about noon, and I am off to the frontier.”

At this she made a most fearful clamour, saying it was madness, and imploring me not to think of it, and running out fetched from the stable a tall, sad, pale-eyed man who saluted me profoundly and told me he knew more of the mountains than any one for miles. And this [fact and assessment] by asking many afterwards I found out to be true. He said that he had crossed the Nufenen and Gries [both of them high alpine crests and passes] 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. (233-234, 236-237)

“This good woman at the inn” (236), in part due to her empathy, effectively saved Belloc’s life.

The rationale for Belloc’s postponing, or even canceling, his proposed climb over the Gries, much less the Nufenen, went something like this:

The clouds on the mountain, the soft snow recently fallen, the rain that now occupied the valleys, the glacier on the Gries, and the pathless snow in the mist on the Nufenen would make it sheer suicide for him [the mountain man], an experienced guide, and for me [Belloc] a worse madness. Also he spoke of my boots and wondered at my poor cotton coat and trousers and threatened me with intolerable cold….

Hearing all this I said I would remain—but it was with a heavy heart. Already I felt a shadow of defeat over me. The loss of time was a thorn….Stronger than… these [other] motives against delay was a burning restlessness that always takes men when they are on the way to great adventures.

I made him [the mountain guide] promise to wake me next morning at three o’clock, and, short of tempest, to try and get me across the Gries….Hence my bargain that at least he should show me over the Gries Pass, and this he said, if man could do it, he would do the next day; and I, sending my boots to be cobbled (and therby breaking another vow), crept up to bed, and all afternoon read [in French] the school-books of the children. (237-238)

Belloc himself promptly then wonders–given the presence of the Calvinist heresy in “the school-books of the children” (238)—how “so devout a household” (238) could adequately “combat the Calvinism” and those “standard” elements of “the Genevese civilisation.” He saw that there was at least some Catholic resistance by means of the religious “missions” and they also displayed “statues in their rooms, not to speak of holy water stoups.” (238)

While reflecting on such poignant things as the sound religious formation of the children, he ominously hears the foul weather outside his window and responsively comes to express himself, first with an allusion and epic amplitude, and then again in a Rabelaisian manner of splendid exaggeration:

The rain beat on my window, the clouds came lower still down the mountain. Then (as finely written in the Song of Roland [the Old French Epic about Charlemagne’s tragic rearguard on the mountainous marches of Spain while resisting the Mohammedans]), “the day passed and the night came, and I slept.” But with the coming of the small hours [3:00 A.M.], and with my waking, prepare yourselves for the most extraordinary and terrible adventure that befel me out of all the marvels and perils of this pilgrimage, the most momentous and the most worthy of perpetual record, I think, of all that has ever happened since the beginning of the world. (239—my emphasis added)

Now we may closely follow the narrative of this memorable and near tragic adventure.

We may fittingly begin with Beloc’s reveille and the promised summons:

At three o’clock [in the early morning] the guide [as promised] knocked at my door, and I rose and came out to him. We drank coffee and ate bread. We put into our sacks ham and bread, and he white wine and I brandy. Then we set out. The rain had dropped to a drizzle and there was not wind. The sky was obscured for the most part, but here and there was a star. The hills hung awfully above us in the night as we crossed the spongy valley. A little wooden bridge took us over the young Rhone [River], here only a stream, and we followed a path up into the tributary ravine which leads to the Nufenen and the Gries. In a mile or two [of the ascent] it was a little lighter, and this was as well, for some weeks before a great avalanche had fallen, and we had to cross it gingerly. Beneath the wide cap of frozen snow ran a torrent roaring….We went on in the uneasy dawn. The woods began to show, and there was a cross where a man had slipped from above that very April [two months earlier in 1901] and been killed. Then most ominous and disturbing, the drizzle changed to a rain, and the guide said it would be snowing higher up. (239-240)

After crossing a bridge, they “halted at a shed where cattle lie in the late summer when the snow is melted” (240) and they “rested a moment”:

But on leaving its shelter we noticed many disquieting things….First, all the bowl or cup below the [Gries and Nufenen] passes was a carpet of snow,…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 to 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 quite low down.

The guide said it could not be done, but I said we must attempt it. (240-241)

After what had already transpired and portended, one would have reasonably expected that Belloc would have accepted the guide’s experience and practical wisdom and turned to go now back down the mountain. Nonetheless, Belloc admits that he was still feisty and resolute about the mission:

I was eager, and had [surprisingly] not yet felt the awful grip of cold. We left the Nufenen on our left, a hopeless steep of new snow buried in fog, and we attacked the Gries. For half-an-hour we plunged on through the snow above our knees, and my thin cotton clothes were soaked. So far the guide knew we were more or less on the path, and he went on and I panted after him. Neither of us spoke, but occasionally he looked back to make sure I had not dropped out.

The snow began to fall more thickly, and the wind had risen somewhat. I was afraid of another protest from the guide, but he stuck to it well, and I after him, continually plunging through the soft snow and making yard after yard upwards. The snow fell more thickly and the wind still rose. (241-243)

Belloc will now help us understand the felt contrast between the “warm season” on an alp (“a slope of grass, very steep but not terrifying”) and a time of severe cold and growing wind:

Now, however, when everything was still Arctic it [a steep and slippery alp] was a very different matter. A sheer steep of snow whose downward plunge ran into the driving storm [called, locally, a “tourmente”] and was lost…[yet] had to be crossed if we were to go any farther; and I was terrified, for I knew nothing of climbing. The guide [,however,] said there was little danger,…or one might (much less probably) get over rocks and be killed. I was chattering a little with cold; but as he did not [not yet!] propose a return, I followed him….

We had been about twenty minutes crawling over that wall of snow and ice; and it was more and more apparent that we were in for danger. Before we had quite reached the farther side [of the alp], the wind was blowing a very full gale and roared past our ears….The rocks on the far side of the slope, rocks which had been our goal when we set out to cross it, had long ago disappeared in the continued rush of the blizzard. Suddenly as we were still painfully moving on [in the “whistling wind” whose combined heavy snow now “blinded us” (244)], stooping against the mad wind, these rocks loomed up over [us] as large as houses, and we saw them through the swarming snow-flakes as great hulls are seen through a fog at sea.

The guide crouched under the lee of the nearest [rock]; I came up close to him and he put his hands to my ear and shouted to me that nothing further could be done—he had to shout because in among the rocks the hurricane made a roaring sound, swamping the voice. (243-244)

After the guide himself seemed to despair, Belloc had to face a deepening dilemma as he considered their alternate courses of action, to include surrender:

I asked how far we were from the summit. He said he did not know where we were exactly, but that we could not be more than 800 feet from it. I was but that [far] from Italy and I would not admit defeat. I offered him all I had in money to go on, but 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 in the world. He shouted me to eat and drink, and so we both did.

Then I understood his wisdom, for in a little while the cold began to seize me in my thin clothes. My hands were numb, my face already gave me intolerable pain, and my legs suffered and felt heavy. I learnt another thing (which had I been used to mountains I should have known), that it was not a simple thing to return [downhill to the base and starting point below]. The guide was hesitating whether to stay in this rough shelter, or to face the challenges of the descent. This terror had not crossed my mind, and I thought as little of it as I could, needing my courage, and being near to breaking down from the intensity of the cold. (245)

Belloc then gives the reader a further glimpse of their combined and considered reasoning at this junction, which led to a fearsome decision, nonetheless:

It seems that in a tourmente (for by that excellent name do the mountain people call such a storm) it is always a matter of doubt whether to halt or to go back. If you go back through it and lose your way, you are done for. If you halt in some shelter, it [the storm] may go on for two or three days, and then there is the end of you.

After a little he decided to return, but he told me honestly what the chances were, and my suffering from cold mercifully mitigated my fear. But even in that moment, I felt in a confused but very conscious way that I was defeated.

I had crossed so many great hills and rivers, and pressed so well on my undeviating arrow-line to Rome, and I had charged this one great barrier manfully where the straight path on my pilgrimage crossed the Alps—and I had failed! Even in that fearful cold I felt it, and it ran through my doubt of return like another deeper current of pain. Italy was there, just above, right to my hand. A lifting of a cloud, a little respite, and every downward step [over the pass towards the south] would have been towards the sunlight. As it was, I was being driven back northward, in retread and ashamed. The Alps had conquered me. (245-246—my emphasis added)

After some dubious metaphorical or analogical words and such about the enduring “combat” against the Alps and “their immensity and their will” and “the inhuman guards that hold the gates of Italy” (246), Belloc tells us some more accessible and very vivid things about “The Retreat”:

Well, we returned. Twice the guide rubbed my hands with brandy, and once [on the descent] I had to halt and recover for a moment, failing and losing my hold. Believe it or not, the deep footsteps of our ascent were already lost and covered by the new snow since our halt, and even had they been visible, the guide would not have retraced. He did what I did not at first understand, but what I soon saw to be wise. He took a steep slope downward over the face of the snow-slope, and though such a pitch of descent a little unnerved me, it was well in the end. For when we had gone down perhaps 900 feet, or a thousand, in perpendicular distance, even I, half numb and fainting, could feel that the storm was less violent….

When we saw this, the guide said to me, “Hold your stick thus, if you are strong enough, and let yourself slide.” I could just hold it, in spite of the cold. Life was returning to me with intolerable pain. We shot down the slope almost as quickly as falling, but it was evidently safe to do so, as the end was clearly visible, and had no break or rock in it. (247-248)

After giving us more and very vivid details about the final part of their safe return, he also comes to return to the hospitable inn that he entered when he first arrived in Ulrichen—but, apparently, it was not to show any special or further gratitude. For he fails to mention the hostess, much less thank her for first rescuing him from his likely mortal peril. In any case, Belloc is now quite self-absorbed in his evident inability to surrender wholeheartedly and to accept defeat:

I re-entered “the Bear,” silent and angered, and not accepting the humiliation of that failure. Then, having eaten, I determined in equal silence [but without his even gratefully mentioning the presence of the “Good Woman”, nor her earlier and important rescuing-help given to him as a well-informed and sympathetic hostess!], to take the road like any other fool…like any tourist;…and not to look heaven in the face again till I was back, after my long detour [morally, too?], on the straight road again for Rome.

But to think of it! I who had all that planned out, and had so nearly done it! I who had cut a path across Europe like a shaft, and seen so many strange places— now have to recite all the litany of the vulgar; Bellinzona, Lugano, and this and that, which any railroad travelling fellow can tell you. Not till Como [and its very beautiful lake in Italy] should I feel a man again….

Indeed it is a bitter thing to have to give up one’s sword. (248-249—my emphasis added)

CODA

Despite the variously unexpected barriers and detours along the way, Hilaire Belloc heroically and gratefully accomplished his ardent intent and mission of arriving in Rome on 29 June 1901 for the High Feast of Saint Peter and Saint Paul—when the elderly Leo XIII was still the Pope; and it was to be just two years before the accession of Pope Saint Pius X on 4 August 1903, one year after Belloc’s The Path to Rome was memorably published concerning his own profound discoveries and deeper pilgrimage of faith.

–Finis–

© 2019 Robert D. Hickson

1Hilaire Belloc, The Path to Rome (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1902, 1936). All further references to this 1902,1936 edition will be placed above in parentheses in the body of this essay We shall now concentrate only on pages 233-249.

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