The Alps – Disaster On The Col Du Geant

ON the 18th of August, while Mr. Hawkins and I were staying at Breuil, rumours rcached us of a grievous disaster which had occurred on the Col du Géant. At first, however, the accounts were so contradictory as to inspire the hope that they might be grossly exaggerated or altogether false. But more definite intelligence soon arrived, and before we quitted Breuil it had been placed beyond a doubt that three Englishmen, with a guide named Tairraz, had perished on the col. On the 21st 1 saw the brother of Tairraz at Aosta, and learned from the saddened man all that he knew. What I then heard only strengthened my desire to visit the scene of the catastrophe, and obtain by actual contact with the facts truer information than could possibly be conveyed to me by description. On the afternoon of the 22nd I accordingly reached Courmayeur, and being informed that M. Curie, the resident French pastor, had visited the place and made an accurate sketch of it, I immediately called upon him. With the most obliging promptness he laced his sketches in my hands, gave me a written account of the occurrence, and volunteered to ac-company me. I gladly accepted this offer, and early on the morning of Thursday the 21st of August we walked up to the pavilion which it had been the aim of the travellers to reach on the day of their death. Wishing to make myself acquainted with the entire line of the fatal glissade, I walked directly from the pavilion to the base of the rocky couloir along which the travellers had been precipitated, and which had been described to me as so dangerous that a chamois-hunter had declined ascending it some days before. At Courmayeur, however, I secured the services of a most intrepid man, who had once made the ascent, and who now expressed his willingness to be my guide. We began our climb at the very bottom of the couloir, while M. Curie, after making a circuit, joined us on the spot where the body of the guide Tairraz had been arrested, and where we found sad evidences of his fate. From this point onward M. Curie shared the dangers of the ascent, until we reached the place where the rocks ended and the fatal snow-slope began. Among the rocks we had frequent and melancholy occasion to assure ourselves that we were on the exact track. We found there a pen-Knife, a small magnetic compass, and many other remnants of the fall.

At the bottom of the snow-slope M. Curie quitted me, urging me not to enter upon the slope, but to take to a stony ridge on the right. No mere inspection, however, could have given me the desired information. I asked my guide whether he feared the snow, and, his reply being negative, we entered upon it together, and ascended it along the furrow which still marked the line of fall. Under the snow, at some distance up the slope, we found a fine new ice-axe, the property of one of the guides. We held on to the track up to the very summit of the col, and as I stood there and scanned the line of my ascent a feeling of augmented sadness took possession of me. There seemed no sufficient reason for this terrible catastrophe. With ordinary care the slip might in the first instance have been avoided, and with a moderate amount of skill and vigour the motion, I am persuaded, might have been arrested sbon after it had begun.

Bounding the snow-slope to the left was the ridge along which travellers to Courmayeur usually descend. It is rough, but absolutely without danger. The party were, however, tired when they reached this place, and to avoid the roughness of the ridge they took to the snow. The inclination of the slope above was moderate; it steepened considerably lower down, but its steepest portion did not much exceed forty-five degrees of inclination. At all events, a skilful mountaineer might throw himself prostrate on the slope with perfect reliance on his power to arrest his downward motion.

It is alleged that when the party entered the summit of the col on the Chamouni side the guides . proposed to return, but the Englishmen persisted in going forward. One thing alone could justify the proposition thus ascribed to the guides by their friends–a fog so thick as to prevent them from striking the summit of the col at the proper point, and to compel them to pursue their own traces back-wards. The only part of the col hitherto regarded as dangerous had been passed, and, unless for the reason assumed, it would have been simply absurd to recross this portion instead of proceeding to Courmayeur. It is alleged that a fog existed ; but the summit had been reached, and the weather cleared afterwards. Whether, therefore, the English-men refused to return or not on the Montanvert side, it ought in no way to influence our judgment of what occurred on the Courmayeur side, where the weather which prompted the proposal to go back ceased to be blameable.

A statement is also current to the effect that the travellers were carried down by an avalanche. In connection with this point M. Curie writes to we thus : ‘ Il paraît qu’à Chamounix on répand le bruit que c’est une avalanche qui a fait périr les voyageurs. C’est là une fausseté que le premier vous saurez démentir sur les lieux.’ I subscribe without hesitation to this opinion of M. Curie. That a considerable quantity of snow was brought down by the rush was probable,but an avalanche properly so called there was not, and it simply leads to misconception to introduce the term at all.

We are now prepared to discuss the accident. The travellers, it is alleged, reached the summit of the col in a state of great exhaustion, and it is certain that such a state would deprive them of the caution and firmness of tread necessary in perilous places. But a knowledge of this ought to have prevented the guides from entering upon the snow-slope at all. We are, moreover, informed that even on the gentler portion of the slope one of the travellers slipped repeatedly. On being thus warned of danger, why did not the guides quit the snow and resort to the ridge? They must have had full confidence in their power to stop the glissade which seemed so imminent, or else they were reckless of the lives they had in charge. At length the fatal slip occurred, where the fallen man, before he could be arrested, gathered sufficient momentum to jerk the man behind him off his feet, the other men were carried away in succession, and in a moment the whole of them were rushing downwards. What efforts were made to check this fearful rush, at what point of the descent the two guides relinquished the rope, which of them gave way first, the public do not know, though this ought to be known. All that is known to the public is that the two men who led and followed the party let go the rope and escaped, while the three Englishmen and Tairraz went to destruction. Tairraz screamed, but, like Englishmen, the others met their doom without a word of exclamation.

At the bottom of the slope a rocky ridge, forming the summit of a precipice, rose slightly above the, level of the snow, and over it they were tilted. I do not think a single second’s suffering could have been endured. During the wild rush downwards the bewilderment was too great to permit even of fear, and at the base of the precipice life and feeling ended suddenly together. A steep slope of rocks connected the base of this precipice with the brow of a second one, at the bottom of which the first body was found. Another slope ran from this point to the summit of another ledge, where the second body was arrested, while attached to it by a rope, and quite overhanging the ledge, was the body of the third traveller. The body of the guide Tairraz was precipitated much further, and was much more broken.

The question has been raised whether it was right under the circumstances to tie the men together. I believe it was perfectly right, if only properly done. But the actual arrangement was this : The three Englishmen were connected by a rope tied firmly round the waist of each of them ; one end of the rope was held in the hand of the guide who led the party ; the other end was similarly held by the hindmost guide, while Tairraz grasped the rope near its middle. Against this mode of attachment I would enter an emphatic protest. It, in all probability, caused the destruction of the unfortunate Russian traveller on the Findelen Glacier last year, and to it I believe is to be ascribed the disastrous issue of the slip on the Col du Géant. Let me show cause for this pro-test. At a little depth below the surface the snow upon the fatal slope was firm and ‘consolidated, but upon it rested a superficial layer, about ten inches or a foot in depth, partly fresh, and partly disintegrated by the weather. By the proper action of the feet upon such loose snow, its granules are made to unite so as to afford a secure footing ; but when a man’s body, presenting a large surface, is thrown prostrate upon a slope covered with such snow, the granules act like friction wheels, offering hardly any resistance to the downward motion.

A homely illustration will render intelligible the course of action necessary under such conditions. Suppose a boy placed upon an oilcloth which covers a polished table, and the table tilted to an angle of forty-five degrees. The oilcloth would evidently slide down, carrying the boy along with it, as the loose snow slid over the firm snow on the Col du Géant. But suppose the boy provided with a stick spiked with iron, what ought he to do to check his motion ? Evidently drive his spike through the oilcloth and anchor it firmly in the wood underneath. A precisely similar action ought to have been resorted to on the Col du Géant. Each man as he fell ought to have turned promptly on his face, pierced with his armed staff the superficial layer of soft snow, and pressed with both hands the spike into the consolidated mass underneath. He would thus have applied a break, sufficient not only to bring himself to rest, but, if well done, sufficient, I believe, to stop a second person. I do not lightly express this opinion : it is founded on varied experience upon slopes at least as steep as that under consideration.

Consider now the bearing of the mode of attach ment above described upon the question of rescue. When the rope is fastened round the guide’s waist, both his arms are free, to drive, in case of necessity, his spiked staff into the snow. But in the case be-fore us, one arm of each guide was virtually power-less ; on it was thrown the strain of the falling man in advance, by which it was effectually fettered. But this was not all. When the attached arm receives the jerk, the guide instinctively grasps the rope with the other hand ; in doing so, he relinquishes his staff, and thus loses the sheet-anchor of salvation. Such was the case with the two guides who escaped on the day now in question. The one lost his bâton, the other his axe, and they probably had to make an expert use of their legs to save even themselves from destruction. Tairraz was in the midst of the party. Whether it was in his power to rescue himself or not, whether he was caught in the coil of the rope or laid hold of by one of his companions, we can never know. Let us believe that he clung to them loyally, and went with them to death sooner than desert the post of duty.