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List Of Contents | Contents of Letters From High Latitudes, by Lord Dufferin
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shore, rendered all hopes of reaching the land out of
the question. Our expectation of finding the north-west
extremity of the island disengaged from ice by the action
of the currents was--at all events for this
season--evidently doomed to disappointment.  We were
already almost in the latitude of Amsterdam Island--which
is actually its north-west point--and the coast seemed
more encumbered than ever. No whaler had ever succeeded
in getting more than about 120 miles further north than
we ourselves had already come; and to entangle ourselves
any further in the ice--unless it were with the certainty
of reaching land--would be sheer folly. The only thing
to be done was to turn back. Accordingly, to this course
I determined at last to resign myself, if, after standing
on for twelve hours longer, nothing should turn up to
improve the present aspect of affairs. It was now eleven
o'clock; P. M. Fitz and Sigurdr went to bed, while I
remained on deck to see what the night might bring forth.
It blew great guns, and the cold was perfectly intolerable;
billow upon billow of black fog came sweeping down between
the sea and sky, as if it were going to swallow up the
whole universe; while the midnight sun--now completely
blotted out--now faintly struggling through the ragged
breaches of the mist--threw down from time to time an
unearthly red-brown glare on the waste of roaring waters.

For the whole of that night did we continue beating up
along the edge of the ice, in the teeth of a whole gale
of wind; at last, about nine o'clock in the morning,--but
two short hours before the moment at which it had been
agreed we should bear up, and abandon the attempt,--we
came up with a long low point of ice, that had stretched
further to the Westward than any we had yet doubled; and
there, beyond, lay an open sea!--open not only to the
Northward and Westward, but also to the Eastward! You
can imagine my excitement." Turn the hands up, Mr. Wyse!"
"'Bout ship!" "Down with the helm!" "Helm a-lee!" Up
comes the schooner's head to the wind, the sails flapping
with the noise of thunder--blocks rattling against the
deck, as if they wanted to knock their brains out--ropes
dancing about in galvanised coils, like mad serpents--and
everything to an inexperienced eye in inextricable
confusion; till gradually she pays off on the other
tack--the sails stiffen into deal-boards--the staysail
sheet is let go--and heeling over on the opposite side.
Again she darts forward over the sea like an arrow from
the bow. "Stand by to make sail!" "Out all reefs!" I
could have carried sail to sink a man-of-war!--and away
the little ship went, playing leapfrog over the heavy
seas, and staggering under her canvas, as if giddy with
the same joyful excitement which made my own heart thump
so loudly.

In another hour the sun came out, the fog cleared away,
and about noon--up again, above the horizon, grow the
pale lilac peaks, warming into a rosier tint as we
approach.  Ice still stretches toward the land on the
starboard side; but we don't care for it now--the schooner's
head is pointing E. and by S. At one o'clock we sight
Amsterdam Island, about thirty miles on the port bow;
then came the "seven ice-hills"--as seven enormous glaciers
are called--that roll into the sea between lofty ridges
of gneiss and mica slate, a little to the northward of
Prince Charles's Foreland. Clearer and more defined grows
the outline of the mountains, some coming forward while
others recede; their rosy tints appear less even, fading
here and there into pale yellows and greys; veins of
shadow score the steep sides of the hills; the articulations
of the rocks become visible; and now, at last, we glide
under the limestone peaks of Mitre Cape, past the marble
arches of King's Bay on the one side, and the pinnacle
of the Vogel Hook on the other, into the quiet channel
that separates the Foreland from the main.

[Figure: fig-p170.gif]

It was at one o'clock in the morning of the 6th of August,
1856, that after having been eleven days at sea, we came
to an anchor in the silent haven of English Bay,
Spitzbergen.

And now, how shall I give you an idea of the wonderful
panorama in the midst of which we found ourselves? I
think, perhaps, its most striking feature was the stillness,
and deadness, and impassibility of this new world: ice,
and rock, and water surrounded us; not a sound of any
kind interrupted the silence; the sea did not break upon
the shore; no bird or any living thing was visible; the
midnight sun, by this time muffled in a transparent mist,
shed an awful, mysterious lustre on glacier and mountain;
no atom of vegetation gave token of the earth's vitality:
an universal numbness and dumbness seemed to pervade the
solitude.  I suppose in scarcely any other part of the
world is this appearance of deadness so strikingly
exhibited. On the stillest summer day in England, there
is always perceptible an under-tone of life thrilling
through the atmosphere; and though no breeze should stir
a single leaf, yet--in default of motion--there is always
a sense of growth; but here not so much as a blade of
grass was to be seen on the sides of the bald excoriated
hills. Primeval rocks and eternal ice constitute the
landscape.

The anchorage where we had brought up is the best to be
found, with the exception perhaps of Magdalena Bay, along
the whole west coast of Spitzbergen; indeed it is almost
the only one where you are not liable to have the ice
set in upon you at a moment's notice. Ice Sound, Bell
Sound, Horn Sound--the other harbours along the west
coast--are all liable to be beset by drift-ice during
the course of a single night, even though no vestige of
it may have been in sight four-and-twenty hours before;
and many a good ship has been inextricably imprisoned in
the very harbour to which she had fled for refuge. This
bay is completely landlocked, being protected on its open
side by Prince Charles's Foreland, a long island lying
parallel with the mainland.  Down towards either horn
run two ranges of schistose rocks, about 1,500 feet high,
their sides almost precipitous, and the topmost ridge as
sharp as a knife, and jagged as a saw; the intervening
space is entirely filled up by an enormous glacier,
which,--descending with one continuous incline from the
head of a valley on the right, and sweeping like a torrent
round the roots of an isolated clump of hills in the
centre--rolls at last into the sea. The length of the
glacial river from the spot where it apparently first
originated, could not have been less than thirty, or
thirty-five miles, or its greatest breadth less than nine
or ten; but so completely did it fill up the higher end
of the valley, that it was as much as you could do to
distinguish the further mountains peeping up above its
surface. The height of the precipice where it fell into
the sea, I should judge to have been about 120 feet.

On the left a still more extraordinary sight presented
itself. A kind of baby glacier actually hung suspended
half way on the hill side, like a tear in the act of
rolling down the furrowed cheek of the mountain.

I have tried to convey to you a notion of the falling
impetus impressed on the surface of the Jan Mayen ice
rivers; but in this case so unaccountable did it seem
that the over-hanging mass of ice should not continue to
thunder down upon its course, that one's natural impulse
was to shrink from crossing the path along which a
breath--a sound--might precipitate the suspended avalanche
into the valley. Though, perhaps, pretty exact in outline
and general effect, the sketch I have made of this
wonderful scene, will never convey to you a correct notion
of the enormous scale of the distances, and size of its
various features.  These glaciers are the principal
characteristic of the scenery in Spitzbergen; the bottom
of every valley in every part of the island, is occupied
and generally completely filled by them, enabling one in
some measure to realize the look of England during her
glacial period, when Snowdon was still being slowly lifted
towards the clouds, and every valley in Wales was brimful
of ice. But the glaciers in English Bay are by no means
the largest in the island. We ourselves got a view--though
a very distant one--of ice rivers which must have been
more extensive; and Dr.  Scoresby mentions several which
actually measured forty or fifty miles in length, and
nine or ten in breadth; while the precipice formed by
their fall into the sea, was sometimes upwards of 400 or
500 feet high. Nothing is more dangerous than to approach
these cliffs of ice. Every now and then huge masses detach
themselves from the face of the crystal steep, and topple
over into the water; and woe be to the unfortunate ship
which might happen to be passing below.  Scoresby himself
actually witnessed a mass of ice, the size of a cathedral,
thunder down into the sea from a height of 400 feet;
frequently during our stay at Spitzbergen we ourselves
observed specimens of these ice avalanches; and scarcely
an hour passed without the solemn silence of the bay
being disturbed by the thunderous boom resulting from
similar catastrophes occurring in adjacent valleys.

As soon as we had thoroughly taken in the strange features
of the scene around us, we all turned in for a night's
rest. I was dog tired, as much with anxiety as want of
sleep; for in continuing to push on to the northward in
spite of the ice, I naturally could not help feeling that
if any accident occurred, the responsibility would rest
with me; and although I do not believe that we were at
any time in any real danger, yet from our inexperience
in the peculiarities of arctic navigation, I think the
coolest judgment would have been liable to occasional
misgivings as to what might arise from possible
contingencies. Now, however, all was right; the result
had justified our anticipations; we had reached the so
longed-for goal; and as I stowed myself snugly away in
the hollow of my cot, I could not help heartily
congratulating myself that--for that night at all events--

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