Scrambles Amongst the Alps

Edward Whymper


The Ascent of the Grand Cornier

Our career in 1864 had been one of unbroken success, but the great ascent upon which I had set my heart was not attempted, and until it was accomplished I was unsatisfied. Other things, too, influenced me to visit the Alps once more. I wished to travel elsewhere, in places where the responsibility of direction would rest with myself alone. It was well to know how far my judgment in the choice of routes could be relied upon.

The journey of 1865 was chiefly undertaken, then, to find out to what extent I was capable of selecting paths over mountainous country. The programme which was drawn up for this journey was rather ambitious, since it included almost all of the great peaks which had not then been ascended, but it was neither lightly undertaken nor hastily executed. All pains were taken to secure success. Information was sought from those who could give it, and the defeats of others were studied, that their errors might be avoided. The results which followed came not so much, perhaps, from luck, as from forethought and careful calculation.

For success does not, as a rule, come by chance, and when one fails there is a reason for it. But when any notable or so-called brilliant thing is done, we are too apt to look upon the success alone, without considering how it was accomplished, whilst when men fail we inquire why they have not succeeded. So failures are oftentimes more instructive than successes, and the disappointments of some become profitable to others.

Up to a certain point the programme was completely and happily carried out. Nothing but success attended our efforts so long as the excursions were executed as they had been planned. Most of them were made upon the very days which had been fixed for them months beforehand; and all were accomplished, comparatively speaking, so easily that their descriptions must be, in the absence af difficulty and danger, less interesting to the general reader than they would have been if our course had been marked by blunders and want of judgment. Before proceeding to speak of these excursions, it will not be entirely useless to explain the reasons which influenced the selection of the routes which were adopted upon them.

In the course of the past five seasons my early practices were revolutionised. My antipathy to snow was overcome, and my predilection for rocks was modified. Like all those who are not mountaineers born, I was, at the first, extremely nervous upon steep snow. The snow seemed bound to slip, and all those who were upon it to go along with it. Snow of a certain quality is undoubtedly liable to slip when it is at a certain inclination. The exact states which are dangerous or safe it is not possible to describe in writing. That is only learnt by experience, and confidence upon snow is not really felt until one has gained experience. Confidence gradually came to me, and as it came so did my partiality for rocks diminish. For it was evident, to use a common expression, that it paid better to travel upon snow than upon rocks. This applies to snow-beds pure and simple, or to snow which is lying over glacier; and in the selection of routes it has latterly always been my practice to look for the places where snow-slopes or snow-covered glaciers reach highest into mountains.

It is comparatively seldom, however, that an ascent of a great mountain can be executed exclusively upon snow and glacier. Ridges peep through which have to be surmounted. In my earlier scramblings I usually took to, or was taken upon, the summits (or arêtes) of the ridges, and a good many mountaineers habitually take to them on principle, as the natural and proper way. According to my experience, it is seldom well to do so when any other course is open. As I have already said, and presently shall repeat more particularly the crests of all the main ridges of the great peaks of the Alps are shattered and cleft by frost; and it not unfrequently happens that a notch in a ridge, which appears perfectly insignificant from a distance, is found to be an insuperable barrier to farther progress, and a great detour or a long descent has to be made to avoid the obstacle. When committed to an arête, one is tied, almost always, to a particular course, from which it is difficult to deviate. Much loss of time must result if any serious obstruction occurs, and total defeat is not at all improbable.

But it seldom happens that a great Alpine peak is seen that is cut off abruptly, in all directions, from the snows and glaciers which surround it. In its gullies snow will cling, although its faces may be too steep for the formation of permanent snow-beds. The merits of these snow-gullies (or couloirs) have been already pointed out, and it is hardly necessary to observe, after that which was just now said about snow, that ascents of snow-gullies (with proper precautions) are very much to be preferred to ascents of rocky arêtes.

By following the glaciers, the snow-slopes above, and the couloirs rising out of them, it is usually possible to get very close to the summits of the great peaks in the Alps. The final climb will, perhaps, necessarily be by an arête. The less of it the better.

It occasionally occurs that considerable mountain-slopes or faces are destitute of snow-gullies. In that case it will, very likely, be best to adhere to the faces (or to the gullies or minor ridges upon them), rather than take to the great ridges. Upon a face one can move to the right or to the left with more facility than upon the crest of a ridge, and when a difficulty is arrived at, it is, consequently, less troublesome to circumvent.

In selecting the routes which were taken in 1865, I looked, first, for places where glaciers and snow extended highest up into the mountains which were to be ascended or the ridges which were to be crossed; next, for gullies filled with snow leading still higher; and finally, from the heads of the gullies we completed the ascents, whenever it was practicable, by faces instead of by arêtes. The ascent of the Grand Cornier (13,022), of the Dent Blanche (14,318), Grandes Jorasses (13,700), Aiguille Verte (13,540), Ruinette (12,727), and the Matterhorn (14,780), were all accomplished in this way, besides the other excursions which will be referred to by and by. The route selected before the start was made was in every case strictly followed out.

We inspected all of these mountains from neighbouring heights before entering upon their ascents. I explained to the guides the routes I proposed to be taken, and (when the courses were at all complicated) sketched them out on paper to prevent misunderstanding. In some few cases they suggested variations, and in every case the route was well discussed. The execution of the work was done by the guides, and I seldom interfered with or attempted to assist in it.

The 13th of June, 1865, I spent in the valley of Lauterbrunnen with the Rev. W. H. Hawker and the guides Christian and Ulrich Lauener, and on the 14th crossed the Petersgrat with Christian Almer and Johann Tännler to Turtman (Tourtemagne) in the Valais. Tännler was then paid off, as Michel Croz and Franz Biener were awaiting me.

It was not possible to find two leading guides who worked together more harmoniously than Croz and Almer. Biener’s part was subordinate to theirs, and he was added as a convenience rather than as a necessity. Croz spoke French alone, Almer little else than German. Biener spoke both languages, and was useful on that account; but he seldom went to the front, excepting during the early part of the day, when the work was easy, and he acted throughout more as a porter than as a guide.

The importance of having a reserve of power on mountain expeditions cannot be too strongly insisted upon. We always had some in hand, and were never pressed or overworked so long as we were together. Come what might, we were ready for it. But by a series of chances, which I shall never cease to regret, I was first obliged to part with Croz, and then to dismiss the others;40 and so, deviating from the course that I had deliberately adopted, which was successful in practice because it was sound in principle, became fortuitously a member of an expedition that ended with the catastrophe which brought my scrambles amongst the Alps to a close.

On June 15 we went from Turtman to Z’meiden, and thence over the Forcletta pass to Zinal. We diverged from the summit of the pass up some neighbouring heights to inspect the Grand Cornier, and I decided to have nothing to do with its northern side. The mountain was more than seven miles away, but it was quite safe to pronounce it inaccessible from our direction.

On the 16th we left Zinal at 2.05 a.m. having been for a moment greatly surprised by an entry in the hotel-book,41 and ascending by the Zinal glacier, and giving the base of our mountain a wide berth in order that it might the better be examined, passed gradually right round to its south before a way up it was seen. At 8.30 we arrived upon the plateau of the glacier that descends toward the east, between the Grand Cornier and the Dent Blanche, and from this place a route was readily traced. We steered to the north over the glacier, toward the ridge that descends to the east, gained it by mounting snow-slopes, and followed it to the summit, which was arrived at before half-past twelve. From first to last the route was almost entirely over snow. The ridges leading to the north and to the south from the summit of the Grand Cornier exhibited in a most striking manner the extraordinary effects that may be produced by violent alternations of heat and cold. The southern one was hacked and split into the wildest forms, and the northern one was not less cleft and impracticable, and offered the droll piece of rock-carving which is represented upon. Some small blocks actually tottered and fell before our eyes, and starting others in their downward course, grew into a perfect avalanche, which descended with a solemn roar on the glaciers beneath.

It is natural that the great ridges should present the wildest forms - not on account of their dimensions, but by reason of their positions. They are exposed to the fiercest heat of the sun, and are seldom in shadow as long as it is above the horizon. They are entirely unprotected, and are attacked by the strongest blasts and by the most intense cold. The most durable rocks are not proof against such assaults. These grand, apparently solid, eternal mountains, seeming so firm, so immutable, are yet ever changing and crumbling into dust. These shattered ridges are evidence of their sufferings. Let me repeat that every principal ridge of every great peak in the Alps amongst those I have seen has been shattered in this way, and that every summit amongst the rock-summits upon which I have stood has been nothing but a piled-up heap of fragments.

The minor ridges do not usually present such extraordinary forms as the principal ones. They are less exposed, and they are less broken up, and it is reasonable to assume that their annual degradation is less than that of the summit-ridges.

The wear and tear does not cease even in winter, for these great ridges are never completely covered up by snow,42 and the sun has still power. The destruction is incessant, and increases as time goes on; for the greater the surfaces which are exposed to the practically inexhaustible powers of sun and frost, the greater ruin will be effected.

The rock-falls which are continually occurring upon all rock-mountains are, of course, caused by these powers. No one doubts it, but one never believes it so thoroughly as when the quarries are seen from which their materials have been hewn, and when the germs, so to speak, of these avalanches have been seen actually starting from above.

These falls of rock take place from two causes: first, from the heat of the sun detaching small stones or rocks which have been arrested on ledges or slopes and bound together by snow or ice. I have seen such released many times when the sun has risen high: they fall gently at first, gather strength, grow in volume, and at last rush down with a cloud trailing behind, like the dust after an express-train. Secondly, from the freezing of the water which trickles during the day into the clefts, fissures and crannies. This agency is naturally most active in the night, and then, or during very cold weather, the greatest falls take place.43

When one has continually seen and heard these falls, it is easily understood why the glaciers are laden with moraines. The wonder is, not that they are sometimes so great, but that they are not always greater. Irrespective of lithological considerations, one knows that this débris cannot have been excavated by the glaciers. The moraines are borne by glaciers, but they are born from the ridges. They are generated by the sun and delivered by the frost. “Fire,” it is well said in Plutarch’s life of Camillus, “is the most active thing in nature, and all generation is motion, or at least with motion: all other parts of matter without warmth lie sluggish and dead, and crave the influence of heat as their life, and when that comes upon them they immediately acquire some active or passive qualities.”44

If the Alps were granted a perfectly invariable temperature, if they were no longer subjected alternately to freezing blasts and to scorching heat, they might more correctly be termed “eternal.” They might continue to decay, but their abasement would be much less rapid.

When rocks are covered by a sheet of glacier they do enjoy an almost invariable temperature. The extremes of summer and winter are unknown to rocks which are so covered up: a range of a very few degrees is the most that is possible underneath the ice.45 There is then little or no disintegration from unequal expansion and contraction. Frost then does not penetrate into the heart of the rock and cleave off vast masses. The rocks then sustain grinding instead of cleaving. Atoms then come away instead of masses. Fissures and overhanging surfaces are bridged, for the ice cannot get at them; and after many centuries of grinding have been sustained, we still find numberless angular surfaces (in the lee-sides) which were fashioned before the ice began to work.

The points of difference which are so evident between the operations of heat, cold and water, and the action of glaciers upon rocks, are as follow. The former take advantage of cracks, fissures, joints and soft places - the latter does not. The former can work underneath overhanging masses - the latter cannot. The effects produced by the former continually increase, because they continually expose fresh surfaces by forming new cracks, fissures and holes. The effects which the latter produces constantly diminish, because the area of the surfaces operated upon becomes less and less as they become smoother and flatter.

What can one conclude, then, but that sun, frost and water have had infinitely more to do than glaciers with the fashioning of mountain-forms and valley-slopes? Who can refuse to believe that powers which are at work everywhere, which have been at work always, which are so incomparably active, capable and enduring, must have produced greater effects than a solitary power which is always local in its influence, which has worked comparatively but for a short time, which is always slow and feeble in its operations, and which constantly diminishes in intensity?

Yet there are some who refuse to believe that sun, frost and water have played an important part in modelling the Alps, and hold it as an article of their faith that the Alpine region “owes its present conformation mainly to the action of its ancient glaciers”!46

My reverie was interrupted by Croz observing that it was time to be off. Less than two hours sufficed to take us to the glacier plateau below (where we had left our baggage): three-quarters of an hour more placed us upon the depression between the Grand Cornier and the Dent Blanche (Col du Grand Cornier), and at 6.00 p.m. we arrived at Albricolla. Croz and Biener hankered after milk, and descended to a village lower down the valley, but Almer and I stayed where we were, and passed a chilly night on some planks in a halt-burnt châlet.

40. See Chapter 20.

41. It was an entry describing an ascent of the Grand Cornier (which we supposed had never been ascended) from the very direction which we had just pronounced to be hopeless! It was especially startling, because Franz Biener was spoken of in it as having been concerned in the ascent. On examining Biener it was found that he had made the excursion, and had supposed at the time he was upon his summit that it was the Grand Cornier. He saw afterwards that they had only ascended one of the several points upon the ridge running northwards from the Grand Cornier - I believe, the Pigne de l’Allée (11,168 feet)!

42. I wrote in the Athenæum, August 29, 1863, to the same effect. “This action of the frost does not cease in winter, inasmuch as it is impossible for the Matterhorn to be entirely covered by snow. Less precipitous mountains may be entirely covered up during winter, and if they do not then actually gain height, the wear and tear is, at least, suspended. . . . We arrive, therefore, at the conclusion that, although such snow-peaks as Mont Blanc may in the course of ages grow higher, the Matterhorn must decrease in height.” These remarks have received confirmation. The men who were left by M. Dollfus-Ausset in his observatory upon the summit of the Col Theodule, during the winter of 1865, remarked that the snow was partially melted upon the rocks in their vicinity upon 19th, 20th, 21st, 22d, 23d, 26th, 27th December of that year, and upon the 22d of December they entered in their Journal, “Nous avons vu au Matterhorn que la neige se fondait sur roches et qu’il s’en écoulait de l’eau.” - Matériaux pour l’étude des Glaciers, vol. viii. part i, p. 246, 1868; and vol. viii. part ii. p. 77, 1869.

43. In each of the seven nights I passed upon the south-west ridge of the Matterhorn in 1861-3 (at heights varying from 11,844 to 12,992 feet above the level of the sea), the rocks fell incessantly in showers and avalanches.

44. Tonson’s Ed. of 1758. Bacon may have had this passage in mind when he wrote, “It must not be thought that heat generates motion, or motion heat (though in some respects this be true), but that the very essence of heat, or the substantial self of heat, is motion and nothing else.” - Novum Organum, book ii. Devey’s Translation.

45. Doubtless, at the sides of glacier-beds, the range of temperature is greater. But there is evidence that the winter cold does not penetrate to the innermost recesses of glacier-beds in the fact that streams continue to flow underneath the ice all the year round, winter as well as summer, in the Alps and (I was informed in Greenland) in Greenland. Experimental proof can be readily obtained that even in midsummer the bottom temperature is close to 32° Fahrenheit.

46. Professor Tyndall “On the conformation of the Alps,” Phil. Mag., Sept. 1862.