The Alps – A Day Among The Seracs Of The Glacier Du Geant Fourteen Years Ago

HAVING fixed my headquarters at the Montanvert, I was engaged for nearly six weeks during the summer of 1857 in making observations on the Mer de Glace and its tributaries. Throughout this time I had the advantage of the able and unremitting assistance of my friend Mr. Hirst, who kindly undertook, in most cases, the measurement of the motion of the glacier. My permanent guide, Édouard Simond, an intelligent and trustworthy man, was assistant on these occasions, and having arranged with Mr. Hirst the measurements required to be made, it was my custom to leave the execution of them to him, and to spend much of my time alone upon the glaciers. Days have thus been occupied amid the confusion of the Glacier du Géant, at the base of the great ice-fall of La Noire, in trying to connect the veined structure of the glacier with the stratification of its névé ; and often, after wandering almost unconsciously from peak to peak and from hollow to hollow, I have found myself, as the day was waning, in places from which it required a sound axe and a vigorous stroke to set me free.

This practice gradually developed my powers of dealing with the difficulties of the glacier. On some occasions, however, I found the assistance of a companion necessary, and it was then my habit to take with me a hardy boy named Balmat, who was attached to the hotel at the Montanvert. He could climb like a cat, and one of our first expeditions together was an ascent to a point above Trélaporte, from which a magnificent view of the entire glacier is obtained. This point lies under the Aiguille de Charmoz, and to the left of a remarkable cleft, which is sure to attract the traveller’s attention on looking upwards from the Montanvert. We reached the place through a precipitous couloir on the Montanvert side of the mountain ; and while two chamois watched us from the crags above, we made our observations, and ended our survey by pledging the health of Forbes and other explorers of the Alps.

We descended from the eminence by a different route ; during both ascent and descent I had occasion to admire the courage and caution of my young companion, and the extraordinary cohesive force by which he clung to the rock. He, moreover, evidently felt himself responsible for my safety, and once when I asserted my independence so far as to attempt descending a kind of ‘ chimney,’ which, though rather dangerous-looking, I considered to be practicable, he sprang to my side, and, with outstretched arm and ringing voice, exclaimed, ‘ Monsieur, je vous défends de passer par là !’

Anxious to avoid the inconvenience of the rules of the Chamouni guides, my aim, from the first, was to render myself as far as possible independent of their assistance. Wishing to explore the slopes of the Col du Géant, not for the purpose of crossing into Piedmont, but to examine the fine ice-sections which it exhibits, and to trace amid its chasms the gradual conversion of the snow into ice, I at first thought of attempting the ascent of, the col alone ; but ‘ le petit Balmat,’ as my host at the Montanvert always named him, acquitted himself so well on the occasion referred to that I thought he would make a suitable companion. On naming the project to him he eagerly embraced my proposal ; in fact, he said he was willing to try Mont Blanc with me if I desired it.

On the morning of Friday, July 24, we accordingly set off for the Tacul, I making, as we ascended, such few observations as lay in our way. The sun shone gloriously upon the mountains, and gleamed by reflection from the surface of the glacier. Looked at through a pair of very dark spectacles, the see le was exceedingly striking and instructive. Terraces of snow clung to the mountains, exposing, here and there, high vertical sections, which cast dense shadows upon the adjacent plateaux. The glacier was thrown into heaps and ‘ hummocks,’ their tops glistening with white, silvery light, and their sides intensely shaded. When the lateral light was quite shut out, and all that reached the eyes had to pass through the spectacles, the contrast between light and shade was much stronger than when the glacier was viewed by the broad light of day. In fact, the shadows were no longer grey merely, but black ; to a similar augmentation of contrast towards the close of the day is to be referred the fact that the ‘ Dirt Bands’ of the Mer de Glace are best seen by twilight.

A gentleman had started in the morning to cross the col, accompanied by two strong guides. We met a man returning from the Jardin, who told us that he had seen the party that preceded us; that they had been detained a long time amid the séracs, and that our ascending without ladders was quite out of the question. As we approached the Tacul, my lynx-eyed little companion ranged with the telescope over the snowy slopes of the col, and at length exclaimed, ‘ Je les vois, tous les trois ! ‘– the ‘ Monsieur’ in the middle, and a guide before and behind. They seemed like three black specks upon the shoulders of the Giant ; below them was the vast ice-cascade, resembling the foam of ten Niagaras placed end to end and stiffened into rest, while the travellers seemed to walk upon a floor as smooth as polished Carrara marble. Here and there, however, its uniformity was broken by vertical faults, exposing precipices of the stratified névé.

On an old moraine near the Tacul, piled up centuries ago by the Glacier de Léchaud, immense masses of granite are thrown confusedly together ; and one enormous slab is so cast over a number of others as to form a kind of sheltered grotto, which we proposed to make our resting-place for the night. Having deposited our loads here, I proceeded to the icefall of the Talèfre, while my companion set out towards the Couvercle in search of firewood. I walked round the base of the frozen cascade, and climbed up among its riven pinnacles, examining the structure as I ascended. The hollow rumble of the rocks as they fell into the crevasses was incessant. From holes in the ice-cliffs clear cataracts gushed, coming I knew not whence, and going I knew not whither. Sometimes the deep gurgle of sub-glacial water was heard, far down in the ice. The resonance of the water as it fell into shafts struck me suddenly at intervals on turning corners, and seemed, in each case, as if a new torrent had bounded into life. Streams flowed through deep channels which they themselves had worn, revealing beautifully the ‘ rib-boned structure.’ At the further end of the Glacier de Léchaud the Capucin Rock stood, like a preacher; and below him a fantastic group of granite pinnacles suggested the idea of a congregation. The outlines of some of the ice-cliffs were also very singular ; and it needed but a slight effort of the imagination to people the place with natural sculpture.

At six o’clock the shrill whistle of my companion announced that our time of meeting was come. He had found some wood—dry twigs of rhododendrons, and a couple of heavy Imps of juniper. I shouldered the largest of the latter, while he strapped his twigs on his back, and led the way to the Tacul. The sun shot his oblique rays against us over the heights of Charmoz, and cast our shadows far up the glacier. We filled our saucepan, which Balmat named ‘ a machine,’ with clear water, and bore it to our cavern, where the fire was soon crackling under the machine. I was assailed by the smoke, which set my eyes dripping tears ; but this cleared away when the fire brightened, and we boiled our chocolate and made a comfortable evening meal.

I afterwards clambered up the moraine to watch the tints of the setting sun ; cloud floated round the Aiguille de Charmoz, and were changed from grey to red, and from red to grey, as their positions varied. The shadows of the isolated peaks and pinnacles were drawn, at times, in black bands across the clouds ; and the Aiguille du Moine smiled and frowned alternately. One high snow-peak alone enjoyed the unaltered radiance of the sinking day; the sunshine never forsook it, but glowed there, like the steady light of love, while a kind of coquetry was carried on between the atmosphere and the surrounding mountains. The notched summits of the Grande and Petite Jorasse leaned peacefully against the blue firmament. The highest mountain-crags were cleft, in some cases, into fantastic forms ; single pillars stood out from all else, like lonely watchers, over the mountain scene; while little red clouds playfully embraced them at intervals, and converted them into pillars of fire.

The sun at length departed, and all became cold and grey upon the mountains ; but a brief secondary glow came afterwards, and warmed up the brown cliffs once more. I descended the moraine, the smell of the smoke guiding me towards the rock under which I was to pass the night. A fire was burning at the mouth of the grotto, reddening with its glare the darkness of the interior. Beside the fire at my little companion, with a tall, conical, red night-cap drawn completely over his ears ; our saucepan was bubbling on the fire ; he watched it meditatively, adding at times a twig, which sprung immediately into flame, and strengthened the glow upon his countenance. He looked, in fact, more like a demon of the ice-world than a being of ordinary flesh and blood. I had been recommended to take a bit of a tallow candle with me to rub my face with, as a protection against the sun; by the light of this we spread our rugs, lay down upon them, and wrapped them round us.

The countless noises heard upon the glacier during the day were now stilled, and dead silence ruled the ice-world ; the roar of an occasional avalanche, how-ever, shooting down the flanks of Mont Mallet broke upon us with startling energy. I did not sleep till towards four o’clock in the morning, when I dozed and dreamed, and mingled my actual condition with my dream. When I awoke, I found my head weary enough upon the clay of the old moraine, my ribs pressed closely against a block of granite, and my feet amid sundry fragments of the same material. It was nearly five o’clock on Saturday the 25th when I arose ; my companion quickly followed my example. He also had slept but little, and once or twice during the night I fancied I could feel him shiver. We were, however, well protected from the cold. The high moraine of the Glacier du Léchaud was on one side, that of the Glacier du Géant on the other, while the cliffs of Mont Tacul formed the third side of a triangle, which sheltered us from the sharper action of the wind. At times the calm was perfect, and I felt almost too warm ; then again a searching wind would enter the grotto, and cause the skin to shrink on all exposed parts of the body. It had frozen hard, and to obtain water for washing I had to break through a sheet of ice which coated one of the pools upon the glacier.

In a few minutes our juniper fire was crackling cheerily ; we made our .chocolate and breakfasted. My companion emptied the contents of a small brandy bottle into my flask, which, however, was too small to hold it all, and on the principle, I uppose, of avoiding waste, he drank what remained. It was not much, but sufficient to muddle his brain, and to make him sluggish and drowsy for a time. We put the necessary food in our knapsacks and faced our task, first ascending the Glacier du Tacul along its eastern side, until we came to the base of the séracs.

The vast mass of snow collected on the plateau of the Col du Géant, and compressed to ice by its own weight, reaches the throat of the valley, which stretches from the rocks called Le Rognon to the promontory of the Aiguille Noire. Through this defile it is forced, falling steeply, and forming one of the grandest ice-cascades in the Alps. At the summit it is broken into transverse chasms of enormous width and depth ; the ridges between these break across again, and form those castellated masses to which the name of séracs has been applied. In descending the cascade the ice is crushed and riven ; ruined towers, which have tumbled from the summit, cumber the slope, and smooth vertical precipices of ice rise in succession out of the ruins. At the base of the fall the fragments are again squeezed together, but the con-fusion is still great, the glacier being tossed into billowy shapes, scooped into caverns, and cut into gorges by torrents which expand here and there into deep green lakes.

Across this portion of the glacier we proceeded westward, purposing to attempt the ascent at the Rognon side.’ Perils and difficulties soon began to thicken round us. The confusion of ice-pinnacles, crags, and chasms was very bewildering. Plates of ice jutted from the glacier like enormous fins, up the sides of which we had to rise by steps, and along the edges of which we had to walk. Often, while perched upon these eminences, we were flanked right and left by crevasses, the depth of which might be inferred from their impenetrable gloom. At some places forces of extreme complexity had acted on the mass ; the ridges were broken into columns, and some of these were twisted half round ; while the chasms were cut up into shafts which resembled gigantic honeycombs. Our work was very difficult, sometimes disheartening : nevertheless, our inspiration was, that what man has done man may do, and we accordingly persevered. My fellow-traveller was silent for a time : the brandy had its effect upon him, and he confessed it ; but I thought that a contact with the cold ice would soon cause this to disappear, after which I resolved not to influence his judgment in the least.

Looking now to the right, I suddenly became aware that, high above us, a multitude of unstable crags and leaning columns of ice covered the precipitous incline. We had reached a position where protecting cliffs rose to our right, while in front of us was a space more open than any we had yet passed. The reason was that the ice avalanches had chosen it for their principal path. We had stepped upon this space when a peal above us brought us to a stand. Crash! crash ! crash ! nearer and nearer, the sound becoming more continuous and confused, as the descending masses broke into smaller blocks. Onward they came ! boulders half a ton and more in weight, leaping down with a kind of maniacal fury, as if their sole mission was to crush the séracs to powder. Some of them on striking the ice reboundcd like elastic balls, described parabolas through the air, again smote the ice, and scattered its dust like clouds in the atmosphere. Deflected by their collision with the glacier, some blocks were carried past us within a few yards of the spot where we stood. I had never before witnessed an exhibition of force at all comparable to this, and its proximity rendered that fearful which at a little distance would have been sublime.

My companion held his breath, and then exclaimed, ‘C’est terrible ! it faut retourner.’ In fact, while the avalanche continued we could not at all calculate upon our safety. When we heard the first peal we had instinctively retreated to the shelter of the ice bastions ; but what if one of these missiles struck the tower beside us ! would it be able to withstand the shock ? We knew not. In reply to the proposal of my companion, I simply said, ‘By all means, if you desire it ; but let us wait a little.’ I felt that fear was just as bad a counsellor as rashness, and thought it but fair to wait until my companion’s terror had subsided. We waited accordingly, and he seemed to gather courage and assurance. I scanned the heights and saw that a little more effort in an upward direction would place us in a much less perilous position, as far as the avalanches were concerned. I pointed this out to my companion, and we went forward. Once indeed, for a minute or two, I felt anxious. We had to cross in the shadow of a tower of ice, of a loose and threatening character, which quite over-hung our track. The freshly broken masses at its base, and at some distance below it, showed that it must have partially given way some hours before. ‘ Don’t speak or make any noise,’ said my companion ; and, although rather sceptical as to the influence of speech in such a case, I held my tongue and escaped from the dangerous vicinity as fast as my legs and alpenstock could carry me.

Unbroken spaces, covered with snow, now began to spread between the crevasses ; these latter, how-ever, became larger, and were generally placed end to end en échelon. When, therefore, we arrived at the edge of a chasm, by walking along it we usually soon reached a point where a second one joined on it. The extremities of the chasms ran parallel to each other for some distance, one being separated from the other, throughout this distance, by a wall of incipient ice, coped at the top by snow. At other places, however, the lower portion of the partition between the fissures had melted away, leaving the chasm spanned by a bridge of snow, the capacity of which to bear us was often a matter of delicate experiment. Over these bridges we stepped as lightly as possible : ‘ Allez doucement ici,’ was the perpetual admonition of my companion, ‘ et it faut toujours sonder.’

In many cases, indeed, we could not at all guess at the state of matters underneath the covering of snow. We had picked up a few hints upon this subject, but neither of us was at this time sufficiently experienced to make practical use of them. The ‘ sounding’ too was rather weary work, as, to make it of any value, the bâton must be driven into the snow with considerable force. Further up in the névé the fissures became less frequent, but some of them were of great depth and width. On those silent heights there is something peculiarly solemn in the aspect of the crevasses, yawning gloomily day and night, as if with a never-satisfied hunger. We stumbled on the skeleton of a chamois, which had probably met its death by falling into a chasm, and been disgorged lower down. But a thousand chamois between these cavernous jaws would not make a mouthful. I scarcely knew which to choose—these pitfalls of the névé, or the avalanches. The latter are terrible, but they are grand, outspoken things ; the ice crags proclaim from their heights, ‘Do not trust us; we are momentary and merciless.’ They wear the aspect of hostility undisguised ; but these chasms of the névé are typified by the treachery of the moral world, hiding themselves under shining coverlets of snow, and compassing their ends by dissimulation.

After some time we alighted on the trace of those who had crossed the day before. The danger was over when we made the discovery, but it saved us some exploring amid the crevasses which still remained. We at length got quite clear of the fissures and mounted zigzag to the summit of the col. Clouds drove up against us from the valley of Courmayeur, but they made no way over the col. At the summit they encountered a stratum of drier air, mixing with which they were reduced, as fast as they came, to a state of invisible vapour. Upon the very top of the col I spread my plaid, and with the appetites of hungry eagles we attacked our chicken and mutton. I examined the snow and made some experiments on sound ; but little Balmat’s feet were so cold that he feared being frostbitten, and at his entreaty we started on our descent again as soon as possible.

To the top of the séracs we retraced the course by which we had ascended, but here we lost the track, for there was no snow to retain it. A new lesson was before us. We kept nearer to the centre of the glacier than when we ascended, thereby avoiding the avalanches, but getting into ice more riven and dislocated. We were often utterly at a loss how to proceed. My companion made several attempts to regain the morning’s track, preferring to risk the avalanches rather than be blocked and ditched up in an ice-prison from which we saw no means of escape. Wherever we turned peril stared us in the face ; but the recurrence of danger had rendered us callous to it, and this indifference gave a mechanical surety to the step in places where such surety was the only means of avoiding destruction. Once or twice, while standing on the summit of a peak of ice, and looking at the pits and chasms beneath me, at the distance through which we had hewn our way, and at the work still to be accomplished, I experienced an incipient flush of terror. But this was immediately drowned in action. Indeed the case was so bad, the necessity for exertion so paramount, that the will acquired an energy which crushed out terror. We proceeded, however, with the most steady watch-fulness. When we arrived at a difficulty which seemed insuperable, we calmly inspected it, looking at it on all sides ; and though we had often to retrace our steps amid cliffs and chasms, still formidable obstacles repeatedly disappeared ‘ before our cool and searching examination. We made no haste, we took no rest, but ever tended downwards. With all our instincts of self-preservation awake, we crossed places which, without the spur of necessity to drive us, we should have deemed impassable.

Once, having walked for some distance along the edge of a high wedge of ice, we had to descend its left face in order to cross a crevasse. The ice was of that loose granular character which causes it to resemble an aggregate of little polyhedrons jointed together more than a coherent solid. I was not aware that the substance was so utterly disintegrated as it proved to be. To aid me in planting my foot securely on the edge of the crevasse, I laid hold of a projecting corner of the ice. It crumbled to pieces in my hand ; I tottered for a moment in the effort to regain my balance, my footing gave way, and I went into the chasm. I heard my companion scream, ‘ 0 ! mon Dieu, it est perdu ! ‘ but a ledge about two feet wide jutted from the side of the crevasse ; and this received me, my fall not amounting to more than three or four feet. A block of ice which partially jammed up the chasm concealed me from Balmat. I called to him, and he responded by another exclamation, ‘ 0 ! mon Dieu, comme j’ai peur !’ He helped me up, and, looking anxiously in my face, demanded ‘N’avez-vous pas peur ?’ Afterwards the difficulties lessened by degrees, and we began to gladden ourselves by mutual expressions of ‘ content’ with what we had accomplished. We at length reached the base of the séracs ; ordinary crevasess were trivial in comparison with those from which we had escaped, so we hastened along the glacier, without halting, to the Tacul.

Here a paltry accident caused me more damage than all the dangers of the day. I was passing a rock, the snow beside it seemed firm, and I placed my bâton upon it, leaning trustfully upon the staff. Through the warmth of the rock, or some other cause, the snow had been rendered hollow underneath ; it yielded, I fell forward, and although a cat-like capacity of helping myself in such cases saved me from serious hurt, it did not prevent my knee from being urged with all my weight against an edge of granite. I rested for half an hour in our grotto at the Tacul, and afterwards struggled lamely along the Mer de Glace home to the Montanvert. Bloodshot eyes, burnt cheeks, and blistered lips were the result of the journey, but these soon disappeared, and fresh strength was gained for further action.

The above account was written on the day following the ascent, and while all its incidents were fresh in my memory. Last September, guided by the tracks of previous travellers, I ascended nearly to the summit of the ice-fall, along its eastern side, and to those acquainted only with such dangers as I then experienced the account which I have just given must appear exaggerated. I can only say that the track which I pursued in 1858 bore no resemblance in point of difficulty to that which I followed in 1857. The reason probably is, that in my first expedition neither myself nor my companion knew anything of the route, and we were totally destitute of the adjuncts which guides commonly use in crossing the ‘Grand Col.’