Scrambles Amongst the Alps

Edward Whymper



On the 23d of July, 1860, I started for my first tour in the Alps. As we steamed out into the Channel, Beachy Head came into view, and recalled a scramble of many years ago. With the impudence of ignorance, my brother and I, schoolboys both, had tried to scale that great chalk cliff. Not the head itself - where sea-birds circle, and where the flints are ranged so orderly in parallel lines - but at a place more to the east, where the pinnacle called the Devil’s Chimney had fallen down. Since that time we have been often in dangers of different kinds, but never have we more nearly broken our necks than upon that occasion.

In Paris I made two ascents. The first to the seventh floor of a house in the Quartier Latin - to an artist friend, who was engaged, at the moment of my entry, in combat with a little Jew. He hurled him with great good-will and with considerable force into some of his crockery, and then recommended me to go up the towers of Notre Dame. Half an hour later I stood on the parapet of the great west front, by the side of the leering fiend which for centuries has looked down upon the great city. It looked over the Hôtel Dieu to a small and commonplace building, around which there was always a moving crowd. To that building I descended. It was filled with chattering women and eager children, who were struggling to get a good sight of three corpses which were exposed to view. It was the Morgue. I quitted the place disgusted, and overheard two women discussing the spectacle. One of them concluded with, “But that it is droll;” the other answered approvingly, “But that it is droll;” and the Devil of Notre Dame, looking down upon them, seemed to say, “Yes, your climax, the cancan - your end, not uncommonly, that building: it is droll, but that it is droll.”

I passed on to Switzerland; saw the sunlight lingering on the giants of the Oberland; heard the echoes from the cow horns in the Lauterbrunnen valley and the avalanches rattling off the Jungfrau; and then crossed the Gemmi into the Valais, resting for a time by the beautiful Oeschinen See, and getting a forcible illustration of glacier-motion in a neighbouring valley - the Gasteren Thal. The upper end of this valley is crowned by the Tschingel glacier, which, as it descends, passes over an abrupt cliff that is in the centre of its course. On each side the continuity of the glacier is maintained, but in the centre it is cleft in twain by the cliff. Lower down it is consolidated again. I scrambled on to this lower portion, advanced toward the cliff, and then stopped to admire the contrast of the brilliant pinnacles of ice with the blue sky. Without a warning, a huge slice of the glacier broke away and fell over the cliff on to the lower portion with a thundering crash. Fragments rolled beyond me, although, fortunately, not in my direction. I fled, and did not stop until off the glacier, but before it was quitted learned another lesson in glacial matters: the terminal moraine, which seemed to be a solid mound, broke away underneath me, and showed that it was only a superficial covering resting on a slope of glassy ice.

On the steep path over the Gemmi there were opportunities for observing the manners and customs of the Swiss mule. It is not perhaps in revenge for generations of ill-treatment that the mule grinds one’s legs against fences and stone walls, and pretends to stumble in awkward places, particularly when coming round corners and on the brinks of precipices; but their evil habit of walking on the outside edges of paths (even in the most unguarded positions) is one that is distinctly the result of association with man. The transport of wood from the mountains into the valleys occupies most of the mules during a considerable portion of the year: the fagots into which the wood is made up project some distance on each side, and it is said that they walk intuitively to the outside of paths having rocks on the other side to avoid the collisions which would otherwise occur. When they carry tourists they behave in a similar manner; and no doubt when the good time for mules arrives, and they no longer carry burdens, they will still continue, by natural selection, to do the same. This habit frequently gives rise to scenes: two mules meet - each wishes to pass on the outside, and neither will give way. It requires considerable persuasion, through the medium of the tail, before such difficulties are arranged.

I visited the baths of Leuk, and saw the queer assemblage of men, women and children, attired in bathing-gowns, chatting, drinking and playing at chess in the water. The company did not seem to be perfectly sure whether it was decorous in such a situation and in such attire for elderly men to chase young females from one corner to another, but it was unanimous in howling at the advent of a stranger who remained covered, and literally yelled when I departed without exhibiting my sketch.

I trudged up the Rhone valley, and turned aside at Visp to go up the Visp Thal, where one would expect to see greater traces of glacial action, if a glacier formerly filled it, as one is said to have done.

I was bound for the valley of Saas, and my work took me high up the Alps on either side, far beyond the limit of trees and the tracks of tourists. The view from the slopes of the Wiessmies, on the eastern side of the valley, five or six thousand feet above the village of Saas, is perhaps the finest of its kind in the Alps. The full height of the three-peaked Mischabel (the highest mountain in Switzerland) is seen at one glance - eleven thousand feet of dense forests, green alps, pinnacles of rock and glittering glaciers. The peaks seemed to me then to be hopelessly inaccessible from this direction.

I descended the valley to the village of Stalden, and then went up the Visp Thal to Zermatt, and stopped there several days. Numerous traces of the formidable earthquake-shocks of five years before still remained, particularly at St. Nicholas, where the inhabitants had been terrified beyond measure at the destruction of their churches and houses. At this place, as well as at Visp, a large part of the population was obliged to live under canvas for several months. It is remarkable that there was hardly a life lost on this occasion, although there were about fifty shocks, some of which were very severe.

At Zermatt I wandered in many directions, but the weather was bad and my work was much retarded. One day, after spending a long time in attempts to sketch near the Hörnli, and in futile endeavours to seize the forms of the peaks as they for a few seconds peered out from above the dense banks of woolly clouds, I determined not to return to Zermatt by the usual path, but to cross the Görner glacier to the Riffel hotel. After a rapid scramble over the polished rocks and snow-beds which skirt the base of the Théodule glacier, and wading through some of the streams which flow from it, at that time much swollen by the late rains, the first difficulty was arrived at, in the shape of a precipice about three hundred feet high. It seemed that there would be no difficulty in crossing the glacier if the cliff could be descended, but higher up and lower down the ice appeared, to my inexperienced eyes, to be impassable for a single person. The general contour of the cliff was nearly perpendicular, but it was a good deal broken up, and there was little difficulty in descending by zigzagging from one mass to another. At length there was a long slab, nearly smooth, fixed at an angle of about forty degrees between two wall-sided pieces of rock: nothing, except the glacier, could be seen below. It was a very awkward place, but being doubtful if return were possible, as I had been dropping from one ledge to another, I passed at length by lying across the slab, putting the shoulder stiffly against one side and the feet against the other, and gradually wriggling down, by first moving the legs and then the back. When the bottom of the slab was gained a friendly crack was seen, into which the point of the bâton could be stuck, and I dropped down to the next piece. It took a long time coming down that little bit of cliff, and for a few seconds it was satisfactory to see the ice close at hand. In another moment a second difficulty presented itself. The glacier swept round an angle of the cliff, and as the ice was not of the nature of treacle or thin putty, it kept away from the little bay on the edge of which I stood. We were not widely separated, but the edge of the ice was higher than the opposite edge of rock, and worse, the rock was covered with loose earth and stones which had fallen from above. All along the side of the cliff, as far as could be seen in both directions, the ice did not touch it, but there was this marginal crevasse, seven feet wide and of unknown depth.

All this was seen at a glance, and almost at once I concluded that I could not jump the crevasse, and began to try along the cliff lower down, but without success, for the ice rose higher and higher, until at last farther progress was stopped by the cliffs becoming perfectly smooth. With an axe it would have been possible to cut up the side of the ice - without one, I saw there was no alternative but to return and face the jump.

It was getting toward evening, and the solemn stillness of the High Alps was broken only by the sound of rushing water or of falling rocks. If the jump should be successful, well: if not, I fell into that horrible chasm, to be frozen in, or drowned in that gurgling, rushing water. Everything depended on that jump. Again I asked myself, “Can it be done?” It must be. So, finding my stick was useless, I threw it and the sketch-book to the ice, and first retreating as far as possible, ran forward with all my might, took the leap, barely reached the other side, and fell awkwardly on my knees. Almost at the same moment a shower of stones fell on the spot from which I had jumped.

The glacier was crossed without further trouble, but the Riffel, which was then a very small building, was crammed with tourists, and could not take me in. As the way down was unknown to me, some of the people obligingly suggested getting a man at the châlets, otherwise the path would be certainly lost in the forest. On arriving at the châlets no man could be found, and the lights of Zermatt, shining through the trees, seemed to say, “Never mind a guide, but come along down: we’ll show you the way;” so off I went through the forest, going straight toward them. The path was lost in a moment, and was never recovered: I was tripped up by pine roots, I tumbled over rhododendron bushes, I fell over rocks. The night was pitch-dark, and after a time the lights of Zermatt became obscure or went out altogether. By a series of slides or falls, or evolutions more or less disagreeable, the descent through the forest was at length accomplished, but torrents of a formidable character had still to be passed before one could arrive at Zermatt. I felt my way about for hours, almost hopelessly, by an exhaustive process at last discovering a bridge, and about midnight, covered with dirt and scratches, re-entered the inn which I had quitted in the morning.

Others besides tourists got into difficulties. A day or two afterward, when on the way to my old station near the Hörnli, I met a stout curé who had essayed to cross the Théodule pass. His strength or his wind had failed, and he was being carried down, a helpless bundle and a ridiculous spectacle, on the back of a lanky guide, while the peasants stood by with folded hands, their reverence for the Church almost overcome by their sense of the ludicrous.

I descended the valley, diverging from the path at Randa to mount the slopes of the Dom (the highest of the Mischabelhorner), in order to see the Weisshorn face to face. The latter mountain is the noblest in Switzerland, and from this direction it looks especially magnificent. On its north there is a large snowy plateau that feeds the glacier of which a portion is seen from Randa, and which on more than one occasion has destroyed that village. From the direction of the Dom - that is, immediately opposite - this Bies glacier seems to descend nearly vertically: it does not do so, although it is very steep. Its size is much less than formerly, and the lower portion, now divided into three tails, clings in a strange, weird-like manner to the cliffs, to which it seems scarcely possible that it can remain attached.

Unwillingly I parted from the sight of this glorious mountain, and went down to Visp. A party of English tourists had passed up the valley a short time before with a mule. The party numbered nine - eight women and a governess. The mule carried their luggage, and was ridden by each in turn. The peasants - themselves not unaccustomed to overload their beasts - were struck with astonishment at the unwonted sight, and made comments, more free than welcome to English ears, on the nonchalance with which young miss sat, calm and collected, on the miserable beast, while it was struggling under her weight combined with that of the luggage. The story was often repeated; and it tends to sustain some of the hard things which have been said of late about young ladies from the ages of twelve or fourteen to eighteen.

Arriving once more in the Rhone valley, I proceeded to Viesch, and from thence ascended the Æggischhorn, on which unpleasant eminence I lost my way in a fog, and my temper shortly afterward. Then, after crossing the Grimsel in a severe thunderstorm, I passed on to Brienz, Interlachen and Berne, and thence to Fribourg and Morat, Neuchâtel, Martigny and the St. Bernard. The massive walls of the convent were a welcome sight as I waded through the snow-beds near the summit of the pass, and pleasant also was the courteous salutation of the brother who bade me enter. He wondered at the weight of my knapsack, and I at the hardness of their bread. The saying that the monks make the toast in the winter that they give to tourists in the following season is not founded on truth: the winter is their most busy time of the year. But it is true they have exercised so much hospitality that at times they have not possessed the means to furnish the fuel for heating their chapel in the winter.

Instead of descending to Aosta, I turned aside into the Val Pelline, in order to obtain views of the Dent d’Erin. The night had come on before Biona was gained, and I had to knock long and loud upon the door of the curé’s house before it was opened. An old woman with querulous voice and with a large goître answered the summons, and demanded rather sharply what was wanted, but became pacific, almost good-natured, when a five-franc piece was held in her face and she heard that lodging and supper were requested in exchange.

My directions asserted that a passage existed from Prerayen, at the head of this valley, to Breuil, in the Val Tournanche, and the old woman, now convinced of my respectability, busied herself to find a guide. Presently she introduced a native picturesquely attired in high-peaked hat, braided jacket, scarlet waistcoat and indigo pantaloons, who agreed to take me to the village of Val Tournanche. We set off early on the next morning, and got to the summit of the pass without difficulty. It gave me my first experience of considerable slopes of hard, steep snow, and, like all beginners, I endeavoured to prop myself up with my stick, and kept it outside, instead of holding it between myself and the slope, and leaning upon it, as should have been done. The man enlightened me, but he had, properly, a very small opinion of his employer, and it is probably on that account that, a few minutes after we had passed the summit, he said he would not go any farther and would return to Biona. All argument was useless: he stood still, and to everything that was said answered nothing but that he would go back. Being rather nervous about descending some long snow-slopes which still intervened between us and the head of the valley, I offered more pay, and he went on a little way. Presently there were some cliffs, down which we had to scramble. He called to me to stop, then shouted that he would go back, and beckoned to me to come up. On the contrary, I waited for him to come down, but instead of doing so, in a second or two he turned round, clambered deliberately up the cliff and vanished. I supposed it was only a ruse to extort offers of more money, and waited for half an hour, but he did not appear again. This was rather embarrassing, for he carried off my knapsack. The choice of action lay between chasing him and going on to Breuil, risking the loss of my knapsack. I chose the latter course, and got to Breuil the same evening. The landlord of the inn, suspicious of a person entirely innocent of luggage, was doubtful if he could admit me, and eventually thrust me into a kind of loft, which was already occupied by guides and by hay. In later years we became good friends, and he did not hesitate to give credit and even to advance considerable sums.

My sketches from Breuil were made under difficulties: my materials had been carried off, nothing better than fine sugar-paper could be obtained, and the pencils seemed to contain more silica than plumbago. However, they were made, and the pass was again crossed, this time alone. By the following evening the old woman of Biona again produced the faithless guide. The knapsack was recovered after the lapse of several hours, and then I poured forth all the terms of abuse and reproach of which I was master. The man smiled when called a liar, and shrugged his shoulders when referred to as a thief, but drew his knife when spoken of as a pig.

The following night was spent at Courmayeur, and the day after I crossed the Col Ferrex to Orsières, and on the next the Tête Noir to Chamonix. The Emperor Napoleon arrived the same day, and access to the Mer de Glace was refused to tourists; but, by scrambling along the Plan des Aiguilles, I managed to outwit the guards, and to arrive at the Montanvert as the imperial party was leaving, failing to get to the Jardin the same afternoon, but very nearly succeeding in breaking a leg by dislodging great rocks on the moraine of the glacier.

From Chamonix I went to Geneva, and thence by the Mont Cenis to Turin and to the Vaudois valleys. A long and weary day had ended when Paesana was reached. The inn was full, and I was tired and about to go to bed when some village stragglers entered and began to sing. They sang to Garibaldi! The tenor, a ragged fellow, whose clothes were not worth a shilling, took the lead with wonderful expression and feeling. The others kept their places and sang in admirable time. For hours I sat enchanted, and long after I retired the sound of their melody could be heard, relieved at times by the treble of the girl who belonged to the inn.

The next morning I passed the little lakes which are the sources of the Po, on my way into France. The weather was stormy, and misinterpreting the patois of some natives - who in reality pointed out the right way - I missed the track, and found myself under the cliffs of Monte Viso. A gap that was occasionally seen in the ridge connecting it with the mountains to the east tempted me up, and after a battle with a snow-slope of excessive steepness, I reached the summit. The scene was extraordinary, and, in my experience, unique. To the north there was not a particle of mist, and the violent wind coming from that direction blew one back staggering. But on the side of Italy the valleys were completely filled with dense masses of cloud to a certain level; and there - where they felt the influence of the wind - they were cut off as level as the top of a table, the ridges appearing above them.

I raced down to Abries, and went on through the gorge of the Guil to Mont Dauphin. The next day found me at La Bessée, at the junction of the Val Louise with the valley of the Durance, in full view of Mont Pelvoux; and by chance I walked into a cabaret where a Frenchman was breakfasting who a few days before had made an unsuccessful attempt to ascend that mountain with three Englishmen and the guide Michel Croz of Chamonix - a right good fellow, by name Jean Reynaud.

The same night I slept at Briançon, intending to take the courier on the following day to Grenoble, but all places had been secured several days beforehand, so I set out at 2.00 p.m. on the next, day for a seventy-mile walk. The weather was again bad, and on the summit of the Col de Lautaret I was forced to seek shelter in the wretched little hospice. It was filled with workmen who were employed on the road, and with noxious vapours which proceeded from them. The inclemency of the weather was preferable to the inhospitality of the interior. Outside, it was disagreeable, but grand - inside, it was disagreeable and mean. The walk was continued under a deluge of rain, and I felt the way down, so intense was the darkness, to the village of La Grave, where the people of the inn detained me forcibly. It was perhaps fortunate that they did so, for during that night blocks of rock fell at several places from the cliffs on to the road with such force that they made large holes in the macadam, which looked as if there had been explosions of gunpowder. I resumed the walk at half-past five next morning, and proceeded, under steady rain, through Bourg d’Oisans to Grenoble, arriving at the latter place soon after seven p.m., having accomplished the entire distance from Briançon in about eighteen hours of actual walking. This was the end of the Alpine portion of my tour of 1860, on which I was introduced to the great peaks, and acquired the passion for mountain-scrambling the development of which is described in the following chapters.