XVII. Over the Snow.
When Yejiro pushed the shoji and the amado (night shutters) apart in the morning, he disclosed a bank of snow four feet deep; not a snowfall over night, but the relic of the winter. I found myself in a snow grotto beyond which nothing was visible. He then imparted to me the cheerful news that the watchman had changed his mind, and now refused to set out with us. It was too late in the day to start, the man said, which, in view of his having informed us only the night before that the snow would not be fit to travel on till this very hour, was scarcely logical. The trouble lay not in the way, but in the will. The man had repented him of his promise. Things look differently as certainties in the morning from what they do as possibilities overnight. Fortunately he proved amenable to importunity, and finally consented to go. His fellow was much worried, and followed him distressfully to the outer threshold; whence in perturbation of spirit he watched us depart, calling out pathetically to his mate to be very careful of himself. His almost motherly solicitude seemed to me more comical at the time than it came to seem later.
The sky was without a fleck of cloud, and, as we struck out across the snow, I feared at first for my eyes, so great was the glare. For I had neither goggles nor veil. In fact, we were as unprepared a troop as ever started on such an expedition. We had not a pair of foot spikes nor a spiked pole to the lot of us.
The jagged peaks of the valley's wall notched the sky in vivid relief, their sharp teeth biting the blue. We below were blinking. Luckily before very long we had crossed the level and were attacking the wall, and once on it the glare lessened, for we were facing the south, and the slant of the slope took off from the directness of the sun's rays. The higher we rose, the greater the tilt became. The face of the slope was completely buried in snow except where the aretes stuck through, for the face was well wrinkled. The angle soon grew unpleasant to visage, and certainly looked to have exceeded the limit of stable equilibrium. In mid-ascent, as we were winding cautiously up, a porter slipped. He stopped himself, however, and was helped on to his feet again by his fellow behind. The bad bit was preface to a worse effect round the corner, for on turning the arete, we came upon a snow slope like a gigantic house-roof. It was as steep as you please, and disappeared a few hundred feet below over the edge into the abyss. Across and up this the guide, after looking about him, struck out, and I followed. The snow was in a plastic state, and at each step I kicked my toes well in, so wedging my footing. The view down was very unnerving. It soon grew so bad I fixed my thought solely on making each step secure, and went slowly, which was much against my inclination. In this manner we tacked gradually upward in zigzags, some forty feet apart, each of us improving the footprints of his predecessor.
After a short eternity, we came out at the top. I threw myself upon the snow, and when I had sufficiently recovered my breath asked the guide, with what I meant for sarcasm, whether that was his idea of "a good road." He owned that it was the worst bit on the way, but he somewhat grudgingly conceded it a "gake." I sat corrected, but in the interest of any future wanderer I submit the following definition of a "gake," which, if not strictly accurate, at least leans to the right side. If the cliff overhang, it is a "gake;" but if a plumb line from the top fall anywhere within the base, it is no longer a "gake," but "a good road."
On the other side the slope was more hospitable. Even trees wintered just below the crest, their great gaunt trunks thrust deep into the snow. We glissaded down the first few hundred feet, till we brought up standing at the head of an incipient gorge, likewise smothered in snow. Round the boles of the trees the snow had begun to thaw, which gave me a chance to measure its depth, by leaning over the rim of the cup and thrusting my pole down as far as I could reach. The point of it must have been over seven feet from the surface, and it touched no bottom. My investigations took time enough to put a bend of the hollow between me and the others, and when at last I looked up they were nowhere to be seen. As I trudged after them alone I felt like that coming historical character, the last man on our then frozen earth.
For some minutes past a strange, far-away musical note, like the murmur of running water, had struck my ear, and yet all about everything looked dead. Of animate or even inanimate pulsation there was no sign. One unbroken sheet of snow stretched as far as I could see, in which stood the great trees like mummies. Still the sound continued, seeming to come from under my feet. I stopped, and, kneeling down, put my ear to the crust, and there, as distinct as possible, I heard the wimpling of a baby brook, crooning to itself under its thick white blanket. Here then was the cradle of one of those streams that later would become such an ugly customer to meet. It was babily innocent now, and the one living thing beside myself on this May day in the great snow-sheeted solitude.