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Lost in the Snow, from Harper's


Among the dangers of the winter in the Pass of St. Gothard is the fearful snow-storm called the "guxeten" by the Germans, and the tourmente or "tormenta" by the Swiss. The mountain snow differs in form, as well as in thickness and specific gravity, from the star-shaped snow-flakes on the lower heights and in the valleys. It is quite floury, dry, and sandy, and therefore very light. When viewed though a microscope it assumes at times the form of little prismatic needles, at other times that of innumerable small six-sided pyramids, from which, as from the morning star, little points jut out on all sides, and which, driven by the wind, cut through the air with great speed. With this fine ice-dust of the mountain snow, the wind drives its wild game through the clefts of the high Alps and over the passes, particularly that of St. Gothard. Suddenly it tears up a few hundred thousand cubic feet of this snow, and whirls it up high into the air, leaving it to the mercy of the upper current, to fall to the ground again in the form of the thickest snow-storm, or to be dispersed at will like glittering ice-crystals. At times the wind sweeps up large tracts of the dry ice-dust, and pours them down upon a deep-lying valley amid the mountains, or on to the summit of the passes, obliterating in a few seconds the laboriously excavated mountain road, at which a whole company of rutners have toiled for days. All these appearances resemble the avalanches of other Alps, but can not be regarded in the same light as the true snow-storm, the tormenta or guxeten. This is incomparably more severe, and hundreds on hundreds of lives have fallen sacrifices to its fury. These have mostly been travelling strangers, who either did not distinguish the signs of the coming storm, or, in proud reliance on their own power, refused to listen to well-meant warnings, and continued their route. Almost every year adds a large number of victims to the list of those who have fallen a prey to the snow-storm.

History and the oral tradition of the mountains record many incidents of accidents which have been occasioned by the fall of avalanches. During the Bellinzona war, in 1478, as the confederates, with a force of 10,000 men, were crossing the St. Gothard, the men of Zürich were preceding the army as van-guard. They had just refreshed themselves with some wine, and were marching up the wild gorge, shouting and singing, in spite of the warnings of their guides. Then, in the heights above, an avalanche was suddenly loosened, which rushed down upon the road, and in its impetuous torrent buried sixty warriors far below in the Reuss, in full sight of those following.

On the 12th of March, 1848, in the so-called Planggen, above the tent of shelter at the Mätelli, thirteen men who were conveying the post were thrown by a violent avalanche into the bed of the Reuss, with their horses and sledges. Three men, fathers of families, and nine horses were killed; the others were saved by hastily summoned help. But one of their deliverers, Joseph Müller, of Hospenthal, met a hero's death while engaged in the rescue. He had hastened to help his neighbors, but in the district called the "Harness" he and two others were overwhelmed by a second violent avalanche, and lost their lives. In the same year the post going up the mountain from Airola was overtaken by an avalanche near the house of shelter at Ponte Tremola. A traveller from Bergamo was killed; the rest escaped.

History tells of a most striking rescue from an avalanche on the St. Gothard. In the year 1628, Landamman Kaspar, of Brandenburg, the newly chosen Governor of Bellenz, was riding over the St. Gothard from Zug, accompanied by his servant and a faithful dog. At the top of the pass the party was overtaken by an avalanche which descended from the Lucendro. The dog alone shook himself free. His first care was to extricate his master. But when he saw that he could not succeed in doing this, he hastened back to the hospice, and there, by pitiful howling and whining, announced that an accident had happened. The landlord and his servants set out immediately with shovels and pickaxes, and followed the dog, which ran quickly before them. They soon reached the place where the avalanche had fallen. Here the faithful dog stopped suddenly, plunged his face into the snow, and began to scratch it up, barking and whining. The men set to work at once, and after a long and difficult labor succeeded in rescuing the Landamman, and soon afterward his servant. They were both alive, after spending thirty-six fearful hours beneath the snow, oppressed by the most painful thoughts. They had heard the howling and barking of the dog quite plainly; and had noticed his sudden departure, and the arrival of their deliverers; they had heard them talking and working, without being able to move or utter a sound. The Landamman's will ordained that an image of the faithful dog should be sculptured at his feet on his tomb. This monument was seen till lately in St. Oswald's Church, at Zug.