The sun was now above the horizon for seven or eight hours a day, and its oblique rays afforded plenty of light.
At nine o’clock, after a short halt, the party descended the slope of Cape Michael and made their way across the ice-fields in a southeasterly direction. On this side the ice wall rose not three miles from the cape.
The march was of course very slow. Every minute a crevasse had to be turned, or a hummock too high to be climbed. It was evident that a sledge could not have got over the rough distorted surface, which consisted of an accumulation of blocks of ice of every shape and size, some of which really seemed to retain their equilibrium by a miracle. Others had been but recently overturned, as could be seen from the clearly cut fractures and sharp corners. Not a sign was to be seen of any living creature, no footprints told of the passage of man or beast, and the very birds had deserted these awful solitudes.
Mrs Barnett was astonished at the scene before her, and asked the Lieutenant how they could possibly have crossed the ice-fields if they had started in December, and he replied by reminding her that it was then in a very different condition; the enormous pressure of the advancing icebergs had not then commenced, the surface of the sea was comparatively even, and the only danger was from its insufficient solidification. The irregularities which now barred their passage did not exist early in the winter.
They managed, however, to advance towards the mighty ice-wall, Kalumah generally leading the way. Like a chamois on the Alpine rocks, the young girl firmly treaded the ice-masses with a swiftness of foot and an absence of hesitation which was really marvellous. She knew by instinct the best way through the labyrinth of icebergs, and was an unerring guide to her companions.
About noon the base of the ice-wall was reached, but it had taken three hours to get over three miles.
The icy barrier presented a truly imposing appearance, rising as it did more than four hundred feet above the ice-field. The various strata of which it was formed were clearly defined, and the glistening surface was tinged with many a delicately-shaded hue. Jasper-like ribbons of green and blue alternated with streaks and dashes of all the colours of the rainbow, strewn with enamelled arabesques, sparkling crystals, and delicate ice-flowers. No cliff, however strangely distorted, could give any idea of this marvellous half opaque, half transparent ice-wall, and no description could do justice to the wonderful effects of chiara-oscuro produced upon it.
It would not do, however, to approach too near to these beetling cliffs, the solidity of which was very doubtful. Internal fractures and rents were already commencing, the work of destruction and decomposition was proceeding rapidly, aided by the imprisoned air-bubbles; and the fragility of the huge structure, built up by the cold, was manifest to every eye. It could not survive the Arctic winter, it was doomed to melt beneath the sunbeams, and it contained material enough to feed large rivers.
Lieutenant Hobson had warned his companions of the danger of the avalanches which constantly fall from the summits of the icebergs, and they did not therefore go far along their base. That this prudence was necessary was proved by the falling of a huge block, at two o’clock, at the entrance to a kind of valley which they were about to cross. It must have weighed more than a hundred tons, and it was dashed upon the ice-field with a fearful crash, bursting like a bomb-shell. Fortunately no one was hurt by the splinters.
From two to five o’clock the explorers followed a narrow winding path leading down amongst the icebergs; they were anxious to know if it led right through them, but could not at once ascertain. In this valley, as it might be called, they were able to examine the internal structure of the icy barrier. The blocks of which it was built up were here arranged with greater symmetry than outside. In some places trunks of trees were seen embedded in the ice, all, however, of Tropical not Polar species, which had evidently been brought to Arctic regions by the Gulf Stream, and would be taken back to the ocean when the thaw should have converted into water the ice which now held them in its chill embrace.