Scrambles Amongst the Alps

by Edward Whymper


Valley of Aosta and Ascent of the Grandes Jorasses

The bouquetin (Alpine Ibex)
The bouquetin.

The valley of Aosta is famous for its bouquetins and infamous for its crétins. The bouquetin, steinbock, or ibex, was formerly widely distributed throughout the Alps. It is now confined almost entirely, or absolutely, to a small district in the south of the valley of Aosta, and fears have been repeatedly expressed in late years that it will speedily become extinct.

But the most sanguine person does not imagine that crétinism will be eradicated for many generations. It is widely spread throughout the Alps, it is by no means peculiar to the valley of Aosta, but nowhere does it thrust itself more frequently upon the attention of the traveler, and in no valley where “every prospect pleases” is one so often and so painfully reminded that “only man is vile.”

It seems premature to fear that the bouquetins will soon become extinct. It is not easy to take a census of them, for, although they have local habitations, it is extremely difficult to find them at home. But there is good reason to believe that there are at least six hundred still roaming over the mountains in the neighbourhood of the valleys of Grisanche, Rhèmes, Savaranche and Cogne.

It would be a pity if it were otherwise. They appeal to the sympathies of all as the remnants of a diminishing race, and no mountaineer or athletic person could witness without sorrow the extinction of an animal possessing such noble qualities; which a few months after birth can jump over a man’s head at a bound, without taking a run; which passes its whole life in a constant fight for existence; which has such a keen appreciation of the beauties of Nature, and such disregard of pain, that it will “stand for hours like a statue in the midst of the bitterest storm, until the tips of its ears are frozen”! and which, when its last hour arrives, “climbs to the highest mountain-peaks, hangs on a rock with its horns, twists itself round and round upon them until they are worn off, and then falls down and expires”!!51 Even Tschudi himself calls this story wonderful. He may well do so. I disclaim belief in it, - the bouquetin is too fine a beast to indulge in such antics.

Forty-five keepers, selected from the most able chasseurs of the district, guard its haunts. Their task is not a light one, although they are naturally acquainted with those who are most likely to attempt poaching. If they were withdrawn, it would not be long before the ibex would be an extinct wild animal, so far as the Alps are concerned. The passion for killing something, and the present value of the beast itself, would soon lead to its extermination. For as meat alone the bouquetin is valuable, the gross weight of one that is full grown amounting to from one hundred and sixty to two hundred pounds, while its skin and horns are worth ten pounds and upward, according to condition and dimensions.

In spite of the keepers, and of the severe penalties which may be inflicted for killing a bouquetin, poaching occurs constantly. Knowing that this was the case, I inquired at Aosta, upon my last visit, if any skins or horns were for sale, and in ten minutes was taken into a garret where the remains of a splendid beast were concealed - a magnificent male, presumed to be more than twenty years old, as its massive horns had twenty-two more or less strongly-marked knobby rings. The extreme length of the skin, from the tip of the nose to the end of the tail, was one metre sixty-nine centimetres (about five feet seven inches), and from the ground to the top of its back had been, apparently, about seventy-seven centimetres. It is rare to meet with a bouquetin of these dimensions, and the owner of this skin might have been visited with several years’ imprisonment if it had been known that it was in his possession.

The chase of the bouquetin is properly considered a sport fit for a king, and His Majesty Victor Emmanuel, for whom it is reserved, is too good a sportsman to slaughter indiscriminately an animal which is an ornament to his domains. Last year (1869) seventeen fell to his gun at one hundred yards and upward. In 1868, His Majesty presented a fine specimen to the Italian Alpine Club. The members banqueted, I believe, upon its flesh, and they have had the skin stuffed and set up in their rooms at Aosta. It is said by connoisseurs to be badly stuffed - that it is not broad enough in the chest and is too large behind. Still, it looks well-proportioned, although it seems made for hard work rather than for feats of agility. From this specimen the accompanying engraving has been made.

It is a full-grown male about twelve years old, and if it stood upright would measure three feet three and a half inches from the ground to the base of its horns. Its extreme length is four, feet seven inches. Its horns have eleven well-marked rings, besides one or two faintly-marked ones, and are (measured round their curvature) fifty-four and a half centimetres in length. The horns of the first-mentioned specimen (measured in the same way) had a length of only fifty-three and a half centimetres, although they were ornamented with nearly double the number of rings, and were presumably of double the age of the former.52

The keepers and the chasseurs of this district not only say that the rings upon the horns of the ibex tell its age (each one reckoning as a year), but that the half-developed ones, which sometimes are very feebly marked indeed, show that the animal has suffered from hunger during the winter. Naturalists are skeptical upon this point, but inasmuch as they offer no better reason against the reputed fact than the natives do in its favour (one saying that it is not so, and the other saying that it is so), we may perhaps be permitted to consider it an open question. I can only say that if the faintly-marked rings do denote years of famine, the times for the bouquetin are very hard indeed; since in most of the horns which I have seen the lesser rings have been very numerous, and sometimes more plentiful than the prominent ones.

The chef of the keepers (who judges by the above-mentioned indications) tells me that the ibex not unfrequently arrives at the age of thirty years, and sometimes to forty or forty-five. He says, too, that it is not fond of traversing steep snow, and in descending a couloir that is filled with it will zig-zag down, by springing from one side to the other in leaps of fifty feet at a time! Jean Tairraz, the worthy landlord of the Hotel du Mont Blanc at Aosta (who has had opportunities of observing the animal closely), assures me that at the age of four or five months it can easily clear a height of nine or ten feet at a bound!

Long live the bouquetin! and long may its chase preserve the health of the mountaineering king, Victor Emmanuel! Long life to the bouquetin! but down with the crétin!

The peculiar form of idiocy which is called crétinism is so highly developed in the valley of Aosta, and the natives are so familiarised with it, that they are almost indignant when the surprised traveler remarks its frequency. One is continually reminded that it is not peculiar to the valley, and that there are crétins elsewhere. It is too true that this terrible scourge is widespread throughout the Alps and over the world, and that there are places where the proportion of crétins to population is, or has been, even greater than in the valley of Aosta; but I have never seen or heard of a valley so fertile and so charming - of one which, apart from crétinism, leaves so agreeable an impression upon the wayfarer - where equal numbers are reduced to a condition which any respectable ape might despise.

The whole subject of crétinism is surrounded with difficulty. The number of those who are afflicted by it is unknown, its cure is doubtful, and its origin is mysterious. It has puzzled the most acute observers, and every general statement in regard to it must be fenced by qualifications.

It is tolerably certain, however, that the centre of its distribution in the valley of Aosta is about the centre of the valley. The city of Aosta itself may be regarded as its head-quarters. It is there, and in the neighbouring towns of Gignod, Villeneuve, St. Vincent and Verrex, and in the villages and upon the high-road between those places, that these distorted, mindless beings, more like brutes than men, commonly excite one’s disgust by their hideous, loathsome and uncouth appearance, by their obscene gestures and by their senseless gabbling. The accompanying portrait of one is by no means overdrawn: some are too frightful for representation.

How can we account for this particular intensity toward the middle of the valley? Why is it that crétins become more and more numerous after Ivrea is passed, attain their highest ratio and lowest degradation at or about the chief town of the valley, and then diminish in numbers as its upper termination is approached? This maximum of intensity must certainly point to a cause, or to a combination of causes, operating about Aosta, which are less powerful at the two extremities of the valley; and if the reason for it could be determined, the springs of crétinism would be exposed. The disease would be even more puzzling than it is if it were confined to this single locality, and the inquirer were to find not merely that it was almost unknown upon the plains to the east and in the districts to the west, but that the valleys radiating north and south from the main valley were practically unaffected by it. For it is a remarkable circumstance, which has attracted the notice of all who have paid attention to crétinism, that the natives of the tributary valleys are almost free from the malady - that people of the same race, speaking the same language, breathing the same air, eating the same food, and living the same life, enjoy almost entire immunity from it, while at the distance of a very few miles thousands of others are completely in its power.

A parallel case is found, however, on the other side of the Pennine Alps. The Rhone valley is almost equally disfigured by crétinism, and in it, too, the extremities of the valley are slightly affected compared with the intermediate districts - particularly those between Brieg and St. Maurice.53 This second example strengthens the conviction that the great development of crétinism in the middle of the valley of Aosta is not the result of accidental circumstances.

It was formerly supposed that crétinism arose from the habitual drinking of snow- and glacier-water. De Saussure opposed to this conjecture the facts that the disease was entirely unknown precisely in those places where the inhabitants were most dependent upon these kinds of water, and that it was most common where such was not the case - that the high valleys were untainted, while the low ones were infected. The notion seems to have proceeded from crétins being confounded with persons who were merely goîtred, or at least from the supposition that goître was an incipient stage of crétinism.

Goître, it is now well ascertained, is induced by the use of chemically impure water, and especially hard water; and the investigations of various observers have discovered that goître has an intimate connection with certain geological formations. In harmony with these facts it is found that infants are seldom born with goîtres, but that they develop as the child grows up, that they will sometimes appear and disappear from mere change of locality, and that it is possible to produce them intentionally.

It is not so certain that the causes which produce goître should be regarded as causes of the production or maintenance of crétinism. It is true that crétins are very generally goitrous, but it is also true that there are tens of thousands of goitrous persons who are entirely free from all traces of crétinism. Not only so, but that there are districts in the Alps and outside of them (even in our own country) where goître is not rare, but where the crétin is unknown. Still, regarding the evil state of body which leads to goître as being, possibly, in alliance with crétinism, it will not be irrelevant to give the former disease a little more attention before continuing the consideration of the main subject.

In this country the possession of a goître is considered a misfortune rather than otherwise, and individuals who are afflicted with these appendages attempt to conceal their shame. In the Alps it is quite the reverse. In France, Italy and Switzerland it is a positive advantage to be goîtred, as it secures exemption from military service. A goître is a thing to be prized, exhibited, preserved - it is worth so much hard cash; and it is an unquestionable fact that the perpetuation of the great goitrous family is assisted by this very circumstance.

When Savoy was annexed to France the administration took stock of the resources of its new territory, and soon discovered that although the acres were many the conscripts would be few. The government bestirred itself to amend this state of affairs, and after arriving at the conclusion that goître was produced by drinking bad water (and that its production was promoted by sottish and bestial habits), took measures to cleanse the villages, to analyse the waters (in order to point out those which should not be drunk), and to give to children who came to school lozenges containing small doses of iodine. It is said that out of five thousand goitrous children who were so treated in the course of eight years, two thousand were cured, and the condition of two thousand others was improved; and that the number of cures would have been greater if the parents “had not opposed the care of the government, in order to preserve the privilege of exemption from military service.” These benighted creatures refused the marshal’s bâton and preferred their “wallets of flesh!”

No wonder that the Préfet for Haute-Savoie proposes that goitrous persons shall no longer be privileged. Let him go farther, and obtain a decree that all of them capable of bearing arms shall be immediately drafted into the army. Let them be formed into regiments by themselves, brigaded together and commanded by crétins. Think what esprit de corps they would have! Who could stand against them? Who would understand their tactics? He would save his iodine and would render an act of justice to the non-goîtred population. The subject is worthy of serious attention. If goître is really an ally of crétinism, the sooner it is eradicated the better.

De Saussure substituted heat and stagnation of air as the cause of crétinism, in the place of badness of water. But this was only giving up one unsatisfactory explanation for another equally untenable; and since there are places far hotter and with pernicious atmospheres where the disease is unknown, while, on the other hand, there are situations in which it is common where the heat is not excessive, and which enjoy a freely circulating atmosphere, his assumption may be set aside as insufficient to account for the crétinism of the valley of Aosta. And in regard to its particular case it may be questioned whether there is anything more than an imaginary stagnation of air. For my own part, I attribute the oppression which strangers say they feel in the middle of the valley not to stagnation of air, but to absence of shadow in consequence of the valley’s course being east and west; and believe that if the force of the wind were observed and estimated according to the methods in common use, it would be found that there is no deficiency of motion in the air throughout the entire year. Several towns and villages, moreover, where crétins are most numerous, are placed at the entrances of valleys and upon elevated slopes, with abundant natural facilities for drainage - free from malaria, which has been suggested as accounting for the crétinism of the Rhone valley.

Others have imagined that intemperance, poor living, foul habits and personal uncleanliness sow the seeds of crétinism; and this opinion is entitled to full consideration. Intemperance of divers kinds is fruitful in the production of insanity, and herding together in filthy dwellings, with little or no ventilation, may possibly deteriorate physique, as much as extreme indulgence may the mind. These ideas are popularly entertained, because crétins are more numerous among the lower orders than among the well-to-do classes. Yet they must, each and all, be regarded as inadequate to account for the disease, still less to explain its excess in the centre of the valley; for in these respects there is little or no distinction between it, the two extremities and the neighbouring districts.

A conjecture remains to be considered regarding the origin of crétinism which is floating in the minds of many persons (although it is seldom expressed), which carries with it an air of probability that is wanting in the other explanations, and which is supported by admitted facts.

The fertility of the valley of Aosta is proverbial. It is covered with vineyards and cornfields, flocks and herds abound in it, and its mineral resources are great. There is enough and to spare both for man and beast. There are poor in the valley, as there are everywhere, but life is so far easy that they are not driven to seek for subsistence in other places, and remain from generation to generation rooted to their native soil. The large numbers of persons who are found in this valley having the same surnames is a proof of the well-known fact that there is little or no emigration from the valley, and that there is an indefinite amount of intermarriage between the natives. It is conjectured that the continuance of these conditions through a long period has rendered the population more or less consanguineous, and that we see in crétinism an example; upon a large scale, of the evil effects of alliances of kindred.

This explanation commends itself by reason of its general applicability to crétinism. The disease is commonly found in valleys, on islands or in other circumscribed areas in which circulation is restricted or the inhabitants are non-migratory; and it is rare on plains, where communications are free. It will at once be asked, “Why, then, are not the tributary valleys of the valley of Aosta full of crétins?” The answer is, that these lateral valleys are comparatively sterile, and are unable to support their population from their internal resources. Large numbers annually leave and do not return - some come back, having formed alliances elsewhere. There is a constant circulation and introduction of new blood. I am not aware that there are returns to show the extent to which this goes on, but the fact is notorious.

This conjecture explains, far better than the other guesses, why it is that crétinism has so strong a hold upon the lower classes, while it leaves the upper ones almost untouched; for the former are most likely to intermarry with people of their own district, whilst the latter are under no sort of compulsion in this respect. It gives a clue, too, to the reason of the particular intensity in the centre of the valley. The inhabitants of the lower extremity communicate and mix with the untainted dwellers on the plains, whilst the conditions at the upper extremity approximate to those of the lateral valleys. Before this explanation will be generally received a closer connection will have to be established between the assumed cause and the presumed effect. Accepting it, nevertheless, as a probable and reasonable one, let us now consider what prospect there is of checking the progress of the disease.

It is, of course, impossible to change the habits of the natives of the valley of Aosta suddenly, and it would probably be very difficult to cause any large amount of emigration or immigration. In the present embarrassed condition of Italian finances there is very small chance of any measure of the sort being undertaken if it would involve a considerable expenditure. The opening of a railway from Ivrea to Aosta might possibly bring about, in a natural way, more movement than would be promoted by any legislation, and by this means the happiest effects might be produced.

There is little hope of practical results from attempts to cure crétins. Once a crétin, you are always one. The experiments of the late Dr. Guggenbühl demonstrated that some half-crétins may even become useful members of society if they are taken in hand early in life, but they did not show that the nature of the true or complete crétin could be altered. He essayed to modify some of the mildest forms of crétinism, but did not strike at the root of the evil. If fifty Guggenbühls were at work in the single valley of Aosta, they would take several generations to produce an appreciable effect, and they would never extirpate the disease so long as its sources were unassailed.

Nor will the house which has been built at Aosta to contain two hundred crétin beggars do much, unless the inmates are restrained from perpetuating their own degradation. Even the lowest types of crétins may be procreative, and it is said that the unlimited liberty which is allowed to them has caused infinite mischief. A large proportion of the crétins who will be born in the next generation will undoubtedly be offspring of crétin parents. It is strange that self-interest does not lead the natives of Aosta to place their crétins under such restrictions as would prevent their illicit intercourse; and it is still more surprising to find the Catholic Church actually legalizing their marriage. There is something horribly grotesque in the idea of solemnizing the union of a brace of idiots; and since it is well known that the disease is hereditary, and develops in successive generations, the fact that such marriages are sanctioned is scandalous and infamous.

The supply, therefore, is kept up from two sources. The first contingent is delved from apparently healthy parents; the second, by inheritance from diseased persons. The origin of the first is obscure; and before its quota can be cut off, or even diminished, the mystery which envelops it must be dissipated. The remedy for the second is obvious, and is in the hands of the authorities, particularly in those of the clergy. Marriage must be prohibited to all who are affected, the most extreme cases must be placed under restraint, and crétins whose origin is illegitimate must be subject to disabilities. Nothing short of the adoption of these measures will meet the case. Useless it will be, so long as the primary sources of the disease are untouched, to build hospitals, to cleanse dwellings, to widen streets, or to attempt small ameliorations of the social circumstances of the natives. All of these things are good enough in themselves, but they are wholly impotent to effect a radical change.

No satisfactory conclusion will be arrived at regarding the origin of crétinism until the pedigrees of a large number of examples have been traced. The numerical test is the only one which is likely to discover the reality. The necessary inquiries are beyond the powers of private persons, and their pursuit will be found sufficiently difficult by official investigators. Great reluctance will be exhibited to disclose the information which should be sought, and the common cry will certainly be raised that such scrutiny is without general advantage and is painful to private feelings. But in matters which affect mankind in general, individual feelings must always be subordinated to the public interest; and if the truth is to be arrived at in regard to crétinism, the protests of the ignorant will have to be overridden.

Crétinism is the least agreeable feature of the valley of Aosta, but it is, at the same time, the most striking. It has been touched upon for the sake of its human interest, and on account of those unhappy beings who - punished by the errors of their fathers - are powerless to help themselves; the first sight of whom produced such an impression upon the most earnest of all Alpine writers, that he declared, in a twice-repeated expression, its recollection would never be effaced from his memory.54

51. Tschudi’s Sketches of Nature in the Alps.

52. Mr. King, in his Italian Valleys of the Alps, says, “In the pair (of horns) I possess, which are two feet long, there are eight of these yearly rings.” It would seem, therefore (if the rings are annual ones), that the maximum length of horn is attained at a comparatively early age.

53. It was stated a few years ago that one in twenty-five of the natives of the Canton Valais (which is chiefly occupied by the valley of the upper Rhone) were crétins. This would give about 3500 to the canton. At the same time the valley of Aosta contained about 2000 crétins.

54. De Saussure, §§ 954, 1030.