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Scrambles Amongst the Alps

by Edward Whymper


From Val Louise to La Bérarde by the Col de la Pilatte

"We saw a toe–it seemed to belong to moore-we saw reynaud a flying body."

From Ailefroide to Claux, but for the path, travel would be scarcely more easy than over the Pré de Madame Carle. The valley is strewn with immense masses of gneiss, from the size of a large house downward, and it is only occasionally that rock in situ is seen, so covered up is it by the débris, which seems to have been derived almost entirely from the neighbouring cliffs. It was Sunday, a day most calm and bright. Golden sunlight had dispersed the clouds and was glorifying the heights, and we forgot hunger through the brilliancy of the morning and beauty of the mountains.

We meant the 26th to be a day of rest, but it was little that we found in the cabaret of Claude Giraud, and we fled before the babel of sound which rose in intensity as men descended to a depth which is unattainable by the beasts of the field, and found at the chalets of Entraigues the peace that had been denied to us at Val Louise.

Again we were received with the most cordial hospitality. Everything that was eatable or drinkable was brought out and pressed upon us; very little curiosity was exhibited; all information that could be afforded was given; and when we retired to our clean straw we again congratulated each other that we had escaped from the foul den which is where a good inn should be, and had cast in our lot with those who dwell in châlets. Very luxurious that straw seemed after two nights upon quartz pebbles and glacier mud, and I felt quite aggrieved (expecting it was the summons for departure) when, about midnight, the heavy wooden door creaked on its hinges, and a man hem’d and ha’d to attract attention; but when it whispered, “Monsieur Edvard,” I perceived my mistake: it was our Pelvoux companion, Monsieur Reynaud, the excellent agent-voyer of La Bessée.

Monsieur Reynaud had been invited to accompany us on the excursion that is described in this chapter, but had arrived at Val Louise after we had left, and had energetically pursued us during the night. Our idea was, that a pass might be made over the high ridge called (on the French map) Crête de Bœufs Rouges, near to the peak named Les Bans, which might be the shortest route in time (as it certainly would be in distance) from Val Louise across the central Dauphiné Alps. We had seen the northern (or Pilatte) side from the Brèche de la Meije, and it seemed to be practicable at one place near the above-mentioned mountain. More than that could not be told at a distance of eleven miles. We intended to try to hit a point on the ridge immediately above the part where it seemed to be easiest.

We left Entraigues at 3.30 on the morning of June 27, and proceeded, over very gently-inclined ground, toward the foot of the Pic de Bonvoisin (following, in fact, the route of the Col de Sellar, which leads from the Val Louise into the Val Godemar);20 and at 5.00 a.m. finding that there was no chance of obtaining a view from the bottom of the valley of the ridge over which our route was to be taken, sent Almer up the lower slopes of the Bonvoisin to reconnoitre. He telegraphed that we might proceed, and at 5.45 we quitted the snow-beds at the bottom of the valley for the slopes which rose toward the north.

The course was north-north-west, and was prodigiously steep. In less than two miles’ difference of latitude we rose one mile of absolute height. But the route was so far from being an exceptionally difficult one that at 10.45 we stood on the summit of the pass, having made an ascent of more than five thousand feet in five hours, inclusive of halts.

Upon the French map a glacier is laid down on the south of the Crête de Bœufs Rouges, extending along the entire length of the ridge, at its foot, from east to west. In 1864 this glacier did not exist as one glacier, but in the place where it should have been there were several small ones, all of which were, I believe, separated from each other.21 We commenced the ascent from the Val d’Entraigues to the west of the most western of these small glaciers, and quitted the valley by the first great gap in its cliffs after that glacier was passed. We did not take to the ice until it afforded an easier route than the rocks: then (at 8.30) Croz went to the front, and led with admirable skill through a maze of crevasses up to the foot of a great snow couloir, that rose from the head of the glacier to the summit of the ridge over which we had to pass.

We had settled beforehand in London, without knowing anything whatever about the place, that such a couloir as this should be in this angle; but when we got into the Val d’Entraigues, and found that it was not possible to see into the corner, our faith in its existence became less and less, until the telegraphing of Almer, who was sent up the opposite slopes to search for it, assured us that we were true prophets.

Snow couloirs are nothing more or less than gullies partly filled by snow. They are most useful institutions, and may be considered as natural highways placed, by a kind Providence, in convenient situations for getting over places which would otherwise be inaccessible. They are a joy to the mountaineer, and, from afar, assure him of a path when all besides is uncertain; but they are grief to novices, who, when upon steep snow, are usually seized with two notions - first, that the snow will slip, and, secondly, that those who are upon it must slip too.

Nothing, perhaps, could look much more unpromising to those who do not know the virtues of couloirs than such a place as the engraving represents,22 and if persons inexperienced in mountain-craft had occasion to cross a ridge or to climb rocks in which there were such couloirs, they would instinctively avoid them. But practiced mountaineers would naturally look to them for a path, and would follow them almost as a matter of course, unless they turned out to be filled with ice or too much swept by falling stones, or the rock at the sides proved to be of such an exceptional character as to afford an easier path than the snow.

Couloirs look prodigiously steep when seen from the front, and, so viewed, it is impossible to be certain of their inclination within many degrees. Snow, however, does actually lie at steeper angles in couloirs than in any other situation: forty-five to fifty degrees is not an uncommon inclination. Even at such angles, two men with proper axes can mount on snow at the rate of seven hundred to eight hundred feet per hour. The same amount can only be accomplished in the same time on steep rocks when they are of the very easiest character, and four or five hours may be readily spent upon an equal height of difficult rocks. Snow-couloirs are therefore to be commended because they economise time.

Of course, in all gullies one is liable to be encountered by falling stones. Most of those which fall from the rocks of a couloir sooner or later spin down the snow which fills the trough, and as their course and pace are more clearly apparent when falling over snow than when jumping from ledge to ledge, persons with lively imaginations are readily impressed by them. The grooves which are usually seen wandering down the length of snow-couloirs are deepened (and perhaps occasionally originated) by falling stones, and they are sometimes pointed out by cautious men as reasons why couloirs should not be followed. I think they are very frequently only gutters, caused by water trickling off the rocks. Whether this is so or not, one should always consider the possibility of being struck by falling stones, and, in order to lessen the risk as far as possible, should mount upon the sides of the snow and not up its centre. Stones that come off the rocks then fly over one’s head or bound down the middle of the trough at safe distance.

At 9.30 a.m. we commenced the ascent of the couloir leading from the nameless glacier to a point in the ridge, just to the east of Mont Bans. So far, the route had been nothing more than a steep grind in an angle where little could be seen, but now views opened out in several directions, and the way began to be interesting. It was more so, perhaps, to us than to our companion, M. Reynaud, who had no rest in the last night. He was, moreover, heavily laden. Science was to be regarded - his pockets were stuffed with books; heights and angles were to be observed - his knapsack was filled with instruments; hunger was to be guarded against - his shoulders were ornamented with a huge nimbus of bread, and a leg of mutton swung behind from his knapsack, looking like an overgrown tail. Like a good-hearted fellow, he had brought this food, thinking we might be in need of it. As it happened, we were well provided for, and, having our own packs to carry, could not relieve him of his superfluous burdens, which, naturally, he did not like to throw away. As the angles steepened the strain on his strength became more and more apparent. At last he began to groan. At first a most gentle and mellow groan, but as we rose so did his groans, till at last the cliffs were groaning in echo and we were moved to laughter.

Croz cut the way with unflagging energy throughout the whole of the ascent, and at 10.45 we stood on the summit of our pass, intending to refresh ourselves with a good halt; but just at that moment a mist, which had been playing about the ridge, swooped down and blotted out the whole of the view on the northern side. Croz was the only one who caught a glimpse of the descent, and it was deemed advisable to push on immediately while its recollection was fresh in his memory. We are consequently unable to tell anything about the summit of the pass, except that it lies immediately to the east of Mont Bans, and is elevated about eleven thousand three hundred feet above the level of the sea. It is the highest pass in Dauphiné. We called it the Col de la Pilatte.

We commenced to descend toward the Glacier de la Pilatte by a slope of smooth ice, the face of which, according to the measurement of Mr. Moore, had an inclination of 54°! Croz still led, and the others followed at intervals of about fifteen feet, all being tied together, and Almer occupying the responsible position of last man: the two guides were therefore about seventy feet apart. They were quite invisible to each other from the mist, and looked spectral even to us. But the strong man could be heard by all hewing out the steps below, while every now and then the voice of the steady man pierced the cloud: “Slip not, dear sirs: place well your feet: stir not until you are certain.”

For three-quarters of an hour we progressed in this fashion. The axe of Croz all at once stopped. “What is the matter, Croz?” “Bergschrund, gentlemen.” “Can we get over?” “Upon my word, I don’t know: I think we must jump.” The clouds rolled away right and left as he spoke. The effect was dramatic. It was a coup de théâtre, preparatory to the “great sensation leap” which was about to be executed by the entire company.

Some unseen cause, some cliff or obstruction in the rocks underneath, had caused our wall of ice to split into two portions, and the huge fissure which had thus been formed extended on each hand as far as could be seen. We, on the slope above, were separated from the slope below by a mighty crevasse. No running up and down to look for an easier place to cross could be done on an ice-slope of 54°: the chasm had to be passed then and there.

A downward jump of fifteen or sixteen feet, and a forward leap of seven or eight feet, had to be made at the same time. That is not much, you will say. It was not much: it was not the quantity, but it was the quality of the jump which gave to it its particular flavour. You had to hit a narrow ridge of ice. If that was passed, it seemed as if you might roll down for ever and ever. If it was not attained, you dropped into the crevasse below, which although partly choked by icicles and snow that had fallen from above, was still gaping in many places, ready to receive an erratic body.

Croz untied Walker in order to get rope enough, and, warning us to hold fast, sprang over the chasm. He alighted cleverly on his feet, untied himself and sent up the rope to Walker, who followed his example. It was then my turn, and I advanced to the edge of the ice. The second which followed was what is called a supreme moment. That is to say, I felt supremely ridiculous. The world seemed to revolve at a frightful pace and my stomach to fly away. The next moment I found myself sprawling in the snow, and then, of course, vowed that it was nothing, and prepared to encourage my friend Reynaud.

He came to the edge and made declarations. I do not believe that he was a whit more reluctant to pass the place than we others, but he was infinitely more demonstrative: in a word, he was French. He wrung his hands: “Oh what a diable of a place!” “It is nothing, Reynaud,” I said, “it is nothing.” “Jump!” cried the others, “jump!” But he turned round, as far as one can do such a thing in an ice-step, and covered his face with his hands, ejaculating, “Upon my word, it is not possible. No, no, no! it is not possible.”

How he came over I do not know. We saw a toe - it seemed to belong to Moore; we saw Reynaud, a flying body, coming down as if taking a header into water, with arms and legs all abroad, his leg of mutton flying in the air, his baton escaped from his grasp; and then we heard a thud as if a bundle of carpets had been pitched out of a window. When set upon his feet he was a sorry spectacle: his head was a great snowball, brandy was trickling out of one side of the knapsack, Chartreuse out of the other. We bemoaned its loss, but we roared with laughter.

I cannot close this chapter without paying a tribute to the ability with which Croz led us through a dense mist down the remainder of the Glacier de la Pilatte.

As an exhibition of strength and skill it has probably never been surpassed in the Alps or elsewhere. On this almost unknown and very steep glacier he was perfectly at home, even in the mists. Never able to see fifty feet ahead, he still went on with the utmost certainty and without having to retrace a single step, and displayed from first to last consummate knowledge of the materials with which he was dealing. Now he cut steps down one side of a sérac, went with a dash at the other side, and hauled us up after him; then cut away along a ridge until a point was gained from which we could jump on to another ridge; then, doubling back, found a snow-bridge, across which he crawled on hands and knees, towed us across by the legs, ridiculing our apprehensions, mimicking our awkwardness, declining all help, bidding us only to follow him.

About 1.00 p.m. we emerged from the mist, and found ourselves just arrived upon the level portion of the glacier, having, as Reynaud properly remarked, come down as quickly as if there had not been any mist at all. Then we attacked the leg of mutton which my friend had so thoughtfully brought with him, and afterward raced down, with renewed energy, to La Bérarde.

Reynaud and I walked together to St. Christophe, where we parted. Since then we have talked over the doings of this momentous day, and I know that he would not, for a good deal, have missed the passage of the Col de la Pilatte, although we failed to make it an easier or a shorter route than the Col du Selé. I rejoined Moore and Walker the same evening at Venos, and on the next day went with them over the Lautaret road to the hospice on its summit, where we slept.

So our little campaign in Dauphiné came to an end. It was remarkable for the absence of failures, and for the ease and precision with which all our plans were carried out. This was due very much to the spirit of my companions, but it was also owing to the fine weather which we were fortunate enough to enjoy, and to our making a very early start every morning. By beginning our work at or before the break of day on the longest days in the year, we were not only able to avoid hurrying when deliberation was desirable, but could afford to spend several hours in delightful ease whenever the fancy seized us.

I cannot too strongly recommend tourists in search of amusement to avoid the inns of Dauphiné. Sleep in the châlets. Get what food you can from the inns, but by no means attempt to pass a night in them. Sleep in them you cannot. M. Joanne says that the inventor of the insecticide powder was a native of Dauphiné. I can well believe it. He must have often felt the necessity of such an invention in his infancy and childhood.


20. The height of Col de Sellar (or de Celar) is 10,073 feet (Forbes). I was told by peasants at Entraigues that sheep and goats can be easily taken across it.

21. It is perhaps just possible, although improbable, that these little glaciers were united together at the time that the survey was made. Since then the glaciers of Dauphiné (as throughout the Alps generally) have shrunk very considerably. A notable diminution took place in their size in 1869, which was attributed by the natives to the very heavy rains of that year.

22. This drawing was made to illustrate the remarks which follow. It does not represent any particular couloir, but it would serve, tolerably well, as a portrait of the one which we ascended when crossing the Col de la Pilatte.