FR. GEORGE BERNET talked to the pony whose reins he held. Stinging hail sent a thousand pinpricks into man and beast. The horseback pilgrimage through the Alps paused, and the Icelandic ponies rolled their eyes with fear.
But with 6,200 feet to climb over that day, we stumbled on again. The way was far from easy. We pressed against the sides of our mounts. Never had the smell of warm sweat from a creature seemed so friendly and welcome. They trusted us.
Fr. Bernet is a young Swiss Catholic priest living in the parish of Adliswil. Most of the time he looks just like another rider on horseback. But sometimes, for morning prayers, he will wear his clerical robes and still conduct the ceremony from the saddle.
Customarily he leads a pilgrimage annually through the Alps to Einsiedeln, where for a thousand years pilgrims have flocked. to revere a little "Black Virgin".
But this trek was different. Er. Bernet, caught by the inspiration of this "Year of the Alps", had planned something different.
We were following the route along which the escaping Russian General Suwaroff had led 4.500 men and 1,400 animals to their deaths in the winter of 1798.
His Kossacks were fighting against France which had just conquered Switzerland. The French Revolution was in full swing.
To make our journey easier we were tackling the route two months earlier in the year — and were not fleeing the French.
During the first days of the ride the sun had warmed us. and all had private thoughts that the way would be quite easy. But on the third day we had begun to climb. Higher and higher towards the snowline; slowly. doggedly, and it seemed almost endlessly, the priest had led us forward.
Without warning, on the fourth day the weather abruptly changed. The emerald green of the grass was chilled to a greyish hue. The mountains, sunlit and majestic the day before, changed to forbidding, massive unknown shapes. And the rains came. The way was stony and slippery and a slip would have meant at least a broken leg for the pony and at times threatened certain death. Water ran in rivulets over the rocks. Involuntarily one cried inwardly to God for help. One behind the other we had walked with a wall of silence around. From far off had come the tinkling of a cow-bell, remote and silvery. Nearby, only the heavy breathing of men and beasts could be heard and the sound of iron shod hooves sparking on the granite rocks.
Rest came at lag, after some ten hours' struggle against the elements. But only after the ponies were tended and fed did Fr. Bernet allow anyone to eat and rest.
The next day proved better and it was with joyful hearts the group had set off at sunrise. Lunch-time on Saturday brought us to the old Abbey at Muotathal. Here we were royally. entertained by the nuns. The Abbotess showed us the book in which her predecessor had written an account of the events during Suwaroff's stay.
But the days that followed grew steadily worse. We climbed higher still, and one morning we had to cross from Arosa to Lenzerheidc by way of the Weisshorn. The ride began at 7 a.m. in indifferent weather. By nine o'clock it was teeming with rain with that grey determination which meant it would last all day.
The path had petered out, a faint track could just be seen. We followed it slowly, for the altitude was making us short of breath. There was no sound of singing as earlier on the ride; each was occupied with his own thoughts.
Soon we had had to dismount, the cloud settling upon us and visibility making it impossible to see more than one pony ahead and one behind. Fr. Bernet gave the order for each of us to hold the bridle of our pony and the tail of the pony in front.
In this way, although we were following almost tslind, we would not get lost or sfray away from each other. The cloud hung like a ghostly shroud as we peered ahead and slowly edged forward.
Now snow was falling, but we kept going.
At three p.m. we arrived in the small mountain town of Lenzerheide. We were wet through, tired and cold, but curiously humble and aware that something almost nameless, intangible, had been achieved.