Mont Blanc Ascended – Switzerland

The way for a time was excessively rough, our route being overspread with the fragments of peaks which had once reared themselves to our left, but which frost and lightning had shaken to pieces, and poured in granite avalanches down the mountain. We were sometimes among huge, angular boulders, and some-times amid lighter shingle, which gave way at every step, thus forcing us to shift our footing incessantly. Escaping from these we crossed the succession of secondary glaciers which lie at the feet of the Aiguilles, and, having secured firewood, found ourselves, after some hours of hard work, at the Pierre l’Echelle. Here we were furnished with leggings of coarse woolen cloth to keep out the snow; they were tied under the knees and quite tightly again over the insteps, so that the legs were effectually protected. We had some refreshment, possest our-selves of the ladder, and entered upon the glacier.

The ice was excessively fissured; we crossed crevasses and crept round slippery ridges, cutting steps in the ice wherever climbing was necessary. This rendered our progress very slow. Once, with the intention of lending a helping hand, I stept forward upon a block of granite which happened to be poised like a rocking stone upon the ice, tho I did not know it; it treacherously turned under me; I fell, but my hands were in instant requisition, and I escaped with a braise, from which, however, the blood oozed angrily. We found the ladder necessary in crossing some of the chasms, the iron spikes at its end being firmly driven into the ice at one side, while the other end rested on the opposite side of the fissure. The middle portion of the glacier was not difficult. Mounds of ice rose beside us right and left, which were sametimes split into high towers and gaunt-looking pyramids, while the space between was unbroken.

Twenty minutes’ walking brought us again to a fissured portion of the glacier, and here our porter left the ladder on the ice behind him. For some time I was not aware of this, but we were soon fronted by a chasm to pass which we were in consequence compelled to make a long and dangerous circuit amid crests of crumbling ice. This accomplished, we hoped that no repetition of the process would occur, but we speedily came to a second fissure, where it was necessary to step from a projecting end of ice to a mass of soft snow which overhung the opposite side. Simond could reach this snow with his long-handled ax; he beat it down to give it rigidity, but it was exceedingly tender, and as he worked at it he continued to express his fears that it would not bear us. I was the lightest of the party, and therefore tested the passage first; being partially lifted by Simond on the end of his ax, I crossed the fissure, obtained some anchorage at the other side, and helped the others over. We afterward ascended until another chasm, deeper and wider than any we had hitherto encountered, arrested us. We walked alongside of it in search of a snow-bridge, which we at length found, but the key-stone of the arch had, unfortunately, given way, leaving projecting eaves of snow at both sides, between which we could look into the gulf, till the gloom of its deeper portions cut the vision short.

Both sides of the crevasse were sounded, but no sure footing was obtained; the snow was beaten and carefully trodden down as near to the edge as possible, but it finally broke away from the foot and fell into the chasm. One of our porters was short-legged and a bad iceman; the other was a daring fellow, and he now threw the knapsack from his shoulders, came to the edge of the crevasse, looked into it, but drew back again. After a pause he repeated the act, testing the snow with his feet and staff. I looked at the man as he stood beside the chasm manifestly undecided as to whether he should take the step upon which his life would hang, and thought it advisable to put a stop to such perilous play. I accordingly interposed, the man withdrew from the crevasse, and he and Simond descended to fetch the ladder.

While they were away Huxley sat down upon the ice, with an expression of fatigue stamped upon his countenance; the spirit and the muscles were evidently at war, and the resolute will mixed itself strangely with the sense of peril and feeling of exhaustion. He had been only two days with us, and, tho his strength is great, he had had no opportunity of hardening himself by previous exercise upon the ice for the task which he had undertaken. The ladder now arrived, and we crossed the crevasse. I was intentionally the last of the party, Huxley being immediately in front of me. The determination of the man disguised his real condition from everybody but himself, but I saw that the exhausting journey over the boulders and debris had been too much for his London limbs.

Converting my waterproof haversack into a cushion, I made him sit down upon it at intervals, and by thus breaking the steep ascent into short stages we reached the cabin of the Grands Mulets together. Here I spread a rug on the boards, and, placing my bag for a pillow, he lay down, and after an hour’s profound sleep he rose refreshed and well; but still he thought it wise not to attempt the ascent farther. Our porters left us; a baton was stretched across the room over the stove, and our wet socks and leggings were thrown across it to dry; our boots were placed around the fire, and we set about preparing our evening meal. A pan was placed upon the fire, and filled with snow, which in due time melted and boiled; I ground some chocolate and placed it in the pan, and afterward ladled the beverage into the vessels we possest, which consisted of two earthen dishes and the metal cases of our brandy flasks. After supper Simond went out to inspect the glacier, and was observed by Huxley, as twilight fell, in a state of deep contemplation beside a crevasse.

Gradually the stars appeared, but as yet no moon. Before lying down we went out to look at the firmament, and noticed, what I supposed has been observed to some extent by everybody, that the stars near the horizon twinkled busily, while those near the zenith shone with a steady light. One large star, in particular, excited our admiration; it flashed intensely, and changed color incessantly, sometimes blushing like a ruby, and again gleaming like an emerald. A de-terminate color would sometimes remain constant for a sensible time, but usually the flashes followed each other in very quick succession.

Three planks were now placed across the room near the stove, and upon these, with their rugs folded round them, Huxley and Hirst stretched themselves, while I nestled on the boards at the most distant end of the room. We rose at eleven o’clock, renewed the fire and warmed our-selves, after which we lay down again. I, at length, observed a patch of pale light upon the wooden wall of the cabin, which had entered through a hole in the end of the edifice, and rising found that it was past one o’clock. The cloudless moon was shining over the wastes of snow, and the scene outside was at once wild, grand, and beautiful.

Breakfast was soon prepared, tho not with-out difficulty; we had no candles, they had been forgotten; but I fortunately possest a box of wax matches, of which Huxley took charge, patiently igniting them in succession, and thus giving us a tolerably continuous light. We had some tea, which had been made at the Montanvert, and carried to the Grands Mulets in a bottle. My memory of that tea is not pleasant; it had been left a whole night in contact with its leaves, and smacked strongly of tannin. The snow-water, moreover, with which we diluted it was not pure, but left a black residuum at the bottom of the dishes in which the beverage was served. The few provisions deemed necessary being placed in Simond’s knapsack, at twenty minutes past two o’clock we scrambled down the rocks, leaving Huxley behind us.

The snow was hardened by the night’s frost, and we were cheered by the hope of being able to accomplish the ascent with comparatively little labor. We were environed by an atmosphere of perfect purity; the larger stars hung like gems above us, and the moon, about half full, shone with wondrous radiance in the dark firmament. One star in particular, which lay east-ward from the moon, suddenly made its appearance above one of the Aiguilles, and burned there with unspeakable splendor. We turned once toward the Mulets, and saw Huxley’s form projected against the sky as he stood upon a pinnacle of rock; he gave us a last wave of the hand and descended, while we receded from him into the solitudes.

The evening previous our guide had examined the glacier for some distance, his progress having been arrested by a crevasse. Beside this we soon halted: it was spanned at one place by a bridge of snow, which was of too light a structure to permit of Simond’s testing it alone; we therefore paused while our guide uncoiled a rope and tied us all together. The moment was to me a peculiarly solemn one. Our little party seemed so lonely and so small amid the silence and the vastness of the surrounding scene. We were about to try our strength under unknown conditions, and as the various possibilities of the enterprise crowded on the imagination, a sense of responsibility for a moment opprest me. But as I looked aloft and saw the glory of the heavens, my heart lightened, and I re-marked cheerily to Hirst that Nature seemed to smile upon our work. “Yes,” he replied, in a calm and earnest voice, “and, God willing, we shall accomplish it.”

A pale light now overspread the eastern sky, which increased, as we ascended, to a daffodil tinge; this afterward heightened to orange, deepening at one extremity into red, and fading at the other into a pure, ethereal hue to which it would be difficult to assign a special name. Higher up the sky was violet, and this changed by insensible degrees into the darkling blue of the zenith, which had to thank the light of moon and stars alone for its existence. We wound steadily for a time through valleys of ice, climbed white and slippery slopes, crossed a number of crevasses, and after some time found ourselves beside a chasm of great depth and width, which extended right and left as far as we could see. We turned to the left, and marched along its edge in search of a “pont”; but matters became gradually worse; other crevasses joined on to the first one, and the further we proceeded the more riven and dislocated the ice became.

At length we reached a place where further advance was impossible. Simond, in his difficulty complained of the want of light, and wished us to wait for the advancing day; I, on the contrary, thought that we had light enough and ought to make use of it. Here the thought occurred to me that Simond, having been only once before to the top of the mountain, might not be quite clear about the route; the glacier, however, changes within certain limits from year to year, so that a general knowledge was all that could be expected, and we trusted to our own muscles to make good any mistake in the way of guidance.

We now turned and retraced our steps along the edges of chasms where the ice was disintegrated and insecure, and succeeded at length in finding a bridge which bore us across the crevasse. This error caused us the loss of an hour, and after walking for this time we could cast a stone from the point we had attained to the place whence we had been compelled to return.

Our way now lay along the face of a steep in-cline of snow, which was cut by the fissure we had just passed, in a direction parallel to our route. On the heights to our right, loose ice-crags seemed to totter, and we passed two tracks over which the frozen blocks had rushed some short time previously. We were glad to get out of the range of these terrible projectiles, and still more so to escape the vicinity of that ugly crevasse. To be killed in the open air would be a luxuxy, compared with having the life squeezed out of one in the horrible gloom of these chasms. The blush of the coming day be-came more and more intense; still the sun himself did not appear, being, hidden from us by the peaks of the Aiguille du Midi, which were drawn clear and sharp against the brightening sky. Right under this Aiguille were heaps of snow smoothly rounded and constituting a portion of the sources whence the Glacier du Geant is fed; these, as the day advanced, bloomed with a rosy light. We reached the Petit Plateau, which we found covered with the remains of ice avalanches; above us upon the crest of the mountain rose three mighty bastions, divided from each other by deep, vertical rents, with clean smooth walls, across which the lines of annual bedding were drawn like courses of masonry. From these, which incessantly renew themselves, and from the loose and broken ice-crags near them, the boulders amid which we now threaded our way had been discharged. When they fall their descent must be sublime.

The snow had been gradually getting deeper, and the ascent more wearisome, but superadded to this at the Petit Plateau was the uncertainty of the footing between the blocks of ice. In many places the space was merely covered by a thin crust, which, when trod upon, instantly yielded and we sank with a shock sometimes to the hips. Our way next lay up a steep incline to the Grand Plateau, the depth and tenderness of the snow augmenting as we ascended. We had not yet seen the sun, but as we attained the brow which forms the entrance to the Grand Plateau, he hung his disk upon a spike of rock to our left, and, surrounded by a glory of interference spectra of the most gorgeous colors, blazed down upon us. On the Grand Plateau we halted and had our frugal refreshment.

At some distance to our left was the crevasse into which Dr. Hamel’s three guides were precipitated by an avalanche in 1820; they are still entombed in the ice, and some future explorer may, perhaps, see them disgorged lower down, fresh and undecayed. They can hardly reach the surface until they pass the snow-line of the glacier, for above this line the quantity of snow that annually falls being in excess of the quantity melted, the tendency would be to make the ice-covering above them thicker. But it is also possible that the waste of the ice underneath may have brought the bodies to the bed of the glacier, where their very bones may have been ground to mud by an agency which the hardest rocks can not withstand.

As the sun poured his light upon the Plateau the little snow-facets sparkled brilliantly, sometimes with a pure white light, and at others with prismatic colors. Contrasted with the white spaces above and around us were the dark mountains on the opposite side of the valley of Chamouni, around which fantastic masses of cloud were beginning to build themselves. Mont Buet, with its cone of snow, looked small, and the Brevent altogether mean; the limestone bastions of the Fys, however, still presented a front of gloom and grandeur. We traversed the Grand Plateau, and at length reached the base of an extremely steep incline which stretched upward toward the Corridor. Here, as if produced by a fault, consequent upon the sinking of the ice in front, rose a vertical precipice, from the coping of which vast stalactites of ice depended.

Previous to reaching this place I had noticed a haggard expression upon the countenance of our guide, which was now intensified by the prospect of the ascent before him. Hitherto he had always been in front, which was certainly the most fatiguing position. I felt that I must now take the lead, so I spoke cheerily to the man and placed him behind me. Marking a number of points upon the slope as resting places, I went swiftly from one to the other, The surface of the snow had been partially melted by the sun and then refrozen, thus forming a superficial crust, which bore the weight up to a certain point, and then suddenly gave way, permitting the leg to sink to above the knee. The shock consequent on this, and the subsequent effort necessary to extricate the leg, were extremely fatiguing. My motion was complained of as too quick, and my tracks as imperfect; I moderated the former, and to render my footholes broad and sure, I stamped upon the frozen crust, and twisted my legs in the soft mass underneath,-a terribly exhausting process. I thus led the way to the base of the Rochers Rouges, up to which the fault already referred to had prolonged itself as a crevasse, which was roofed at one place by a most dangerous-looking snow-bridge.

Simond came to the front; I drew his attention to the state of the snow, and proposed climbing the Rochers Rouges; but, with a promptness unusual with him, he replied that this was impossible; the bridge was our only means of passing, and we must try it. We grasped our ropes, and dug our feet firmly into the snow to check the man’s descent if the “pint” gave way, but to our astonishment it bore him, and bore us safely after him. The slope which we had now to ascend had the snow swept from its surface, and was therefore firm ice. It was most dangerously steep, and, its termination being the fretted coping of the precipice to which I have referred, if we slid downward we should shoot over this and be dashed to pieces upon the ice below.* Simond, who had come to the front to cross the crevasse, was now engaged in cutting steps, which he made deep and large, so that they might serve us on our return. But the listless strokes of his ax proclaimed his exhaustion; so I took the implement out of his hands, and changed places with him. Step after step was hewn, but the top of the Corridor appeared ever to recede from us.

Hirst was behind, unoccupied, and could thus turn his thoughts to the peril of our position; he “felt” the angle on which we hung, and saw the edge of the precipice, to which less than a quarter of a minute’s slide would carry us, and for the first time during the journey he grew giddy. A cigar which he lighted for the purpose tranquilized him.

I hewed sixty steps upon this slope, and each step had cost a minute, by Hirst’s watch. The Mur de la Cote was still before us, and on this the guide-books informed us two or three hundred steps were sometimes found necessary. If sixty steps cost an hour, what would be the cost of two hundred? The question was disheartening in the extreme, for the time at which we had calculated on reaching the summit was already passed, while the chief difficulties remained unconquered. Having hewn our way along the harder ice we reached snow. I again resorted to stamping to secure a footing, and while thus engaged became, for the first time, aware of the drain of force to which I was subjecting myself. The thought of being absolutely exhausted had never occurred to me, and from first to last I had taken no care to husband my strength. I always calculated that the “will” would serve me even should the muscles fail, but I now found that mechanical laws rule man in the long run; that no effort of will, no power of spirit, can draw beyond a certain limit upon muscular force. The soul, it is true, can stir the body to action, but its function is to excite and apply force, and not to create it.

While stamping forward through the frozen crust I was compelled to pause at short intervals; then would set out again apparently fresh, to find, however, in a few minutes, that my strength was gone, and that I required to rest once more. In this way I gained the summit of the Corridor, when Hirst came to the front, and I felt some relief in stepping slowly after him, making use of the holes into which his feet had sunk. He thus led the way to the base of the Mur de la Cote, the thought of which had so long east a gloom upon us; here we left our rope behind us, and while pausing I asked Simond whether he did not feel a desire to go to the summit. “Surely,” was his reply, “but !—” Our guide’s mind was so constituted that the “but” seemed essential to its peace. I stretched my hands toward him, and said : “Simond, we must do it.” One thing alone I felt could defeat us: the usual time of the ascent had been more than doubled, the day was already far spent, and if the ascent would throw our subsequent descent into night it could not be contemplated.

We now faced the Mur, which was by no means so bad as we had expected. Driving the iron claws of our boots into the scars made by the ax, and the spikes of our batons into the slope above our feet, we ascended steadily until the summit was attained, and the top of the mountain rose clearly above us. We congratulated ourselves upon this; but Simond, probably fearing that our joy might become too full, remarked: “But the summit is still far off!” It was, alas ! too true. The snow became soft again, and our weary limbs sank in it as before. Our guide went on in front, audibly muttering his doubts as to our ability to reach the top, and at length he threw himself upon the snow, and exclaimed, “I give up!”

Hirst now undertook the task of rekindling the guide’s enthusiasm, after which Simond rose, exclaiming : “Oh, but this makes my knees ache!” and went forward. Two rocks break through the snow between the summit of the Mur and the top of the mountain; the first is called the Petits Mulets, and the highest the Derniers Roehers. At the former of these we paused to rest, and finished our scanty store of wine and provisions. We had not a bit of bread nor a drop of wine left; our brandy flasks were also nearly exhausted, and thus we had to contemplate the journey to the summit, and the subsequent descent to the Grands Mulets, with out the slightest prospect of physical refreshment. The almost total loss of two nights’ sleep, with two days’ toil superadded, made me long for a few minutes’ doze, so I stretched myself upon a composite couch of snow and granite, and immediately fell asleep.

My friend, however, soon aroused me. “You quite frighten me,” he said; “I have listened for some minutes, and have not heard you breathe once.” I had, in reality, been taking deep draughts of the mountain air, but so silently as not to be heard.

I now filled our empty wine-bottle with snow and placed it in the sunshine, that we might have a little water on our return. We then rose; it was half-past two o’clock; we had been upward of twelve hours climbing, and I calculated that, whether we reached the summit or not, we could at all events work “toward” it for another hour. To the sense of fatigue previously experienced, a new phenomenon was now added–the beating of the heart. We were incessantly pulled up by this, which sometimes became so intense as to suggest danger. I counted the number of paces which we were able to accomplish without resting, and found that at the end of every twenty, sometimes at the end of fifteen, we were compelled to pause. At each pause my heart throbbed audibly, as I leaned upon my staff, and the subsidence of this action was always the signal for further advance. My breathing was quick, but light and unimpeded.

I endeavored to ascertain whether the hip-joint, on account of the diminished atmospheric pressure, became loosened, so as to throw the weight of the leg upon the surrounding ligaments, but could not be certain about it. I also sought a little aid and encouragement from philosophy, endeavoring to remember what great things had been done by the accumulation of small quantities, and I urged upon myself that the present was a case in point, and that the summation of distances twenty paces each must finally place us at the top. Still the question of time left the matter long in doubt, and until we had passed the Derniers Rochers we worked on with the stern indifference of men who were doing their duty, and did not look to consequences. Here, however, a gleam of hope began to brighten our souls : the summit be-came visible nearer, Simond showed more alacrity; at length success became certain, and at half-past three p.m. my friend and I clasped hands upon the top.

The summit of the mountain is an elongated ridge, which has been compared to the back of an ass. It was perfectly manifest that we were dominant over all other mountains; as far as the eye could range Mont Blanc had no competitor. The summits which had looked down upon us in the morning were now far beneath us. The Dome du Goute, which had held its threatening “seracs” above us so long, was now at our feet. The Aiguille du Midi, Mont Blanc du Tacul, and the Monts Maudits, the Talefre, with its surrounding peaks, the Grand Jorasse, Mont Mallet, and the Aiguille du (leant, with our own familiar glaciers, were all below us. And as our eye ranged over the broad shoulders of the mountain, over ice hills and valleys, plateaux and far-stretching slopes of snow, the conception of its magnitude grew upon us, and imprest us more and more.

The clouds were very grand—grander, indeed, than anything I had ever before seen. Some of them seemed to hold thunder in their breasts, they were so dense and dark; others, with their faces turned sunward, shone with the dazzling whiteness of the mountain snow; while others again built themselves into forms resembling gigantic elm trees, loaded with foliage. Toward the horizon the luxury of color added itself to the magnificent alternation of light and shade. Clear spaces of amber and ethereal green em-braced the red and purple cumuli, and seemed to form the cradle in which they swung. Closer at hand squally mists, suddenly engendered, were driven hither and thither by local winds; while the clouds at a distance lay “like angels sleeping on the wing,” with scarcely visibly motion. Mingling with the clouds, and sometimes rising above them, were the highest mountain heads, and as our eyes wandered from peak to peak, onward to the remote horizon, space itself seemed more vast from the manner in which the objects which it held were distributed.

The day was waning, and, urged by the warnings of our ever-prudent guide, we at length began the descent. Gravity was in our favor, but gravity could not entirely spare our wearied limbs, and where we sank in the snow we found our downward progress very trying. I suffered from thirst, but after we had divided the liquefied snow at the Petits Mulets among us we had nothing to drink. I crammed the clean snow into my mouth, but the process of melting was slow and tantalizing to a parched throat, while the chill was painful to the teeth.