Scrambles Amongst the Alps

Edward Whymper


The Col Dolent

The summit of the Col Dolent.
Men willingly believe what they wish.
- Cæsar

Freethinking mountaineers have been latterly in the habit of going up one side of an Alp and coming down the other, and calling the route a pass. In this confusion of ideas may be recognised the result of the looseness of thought which arises from the absence of technical education. The true believer abhors such heresies, and observes with satisfaction that Providence oftentimes punishes the offenders for their greediness by causing them to be benighted. The faithful know that passes must be made between mountains, and not over their tops. Their creed declares that between any two mountains there must be a pass, and they believe that the end for which big peaks were created - the office they are especially designed to fulfil - is to point out the way one should go. This is the true faith, and there is no other.

We set out upon the 26th of June to endeavour to add one more to the passes which are strictly orthodox. We hoped, rather than expected, to discover a quicker route from Courmayeur to Chamonix than the Col du Géant, which was the easiest, quickest and most direct pass known at the time across the main chain of Mont Blanc. The misgivings which I had as to the result caused us to start at the unusual hour of 12.40 a.m. At 4.30 we passed the châlets of Pré du Bar, and thence, for some distance, followed the track which we had made upon the ascent of Mont Dolent, over the glacier of the same name. At a quarter-past eight we arrived at the head of the glacier, and at the foot of the only steep gradient upon the whole of the ascent.

It was the beau-ideal of a pass. There was a gap in the mountains, with a big peak on each side (Mont Dolent and the Aiguille de Triolet). A narrow thread of snow led up to the lowest point between those mountains, and the blue sky beyond said, Directly you arrive here you will begin to go down. We addressed ourselves to our task, and at 10.15 a.m. arrived at the top of the pass.

Had things gone as they ought, within six hours more we should have been at Chamonix. Upon the other side we knew that there was a couloir in correspondence with that up which we had just come. If it had been filled with snow, all would have been well: it turned out to be filled with ice. Croz, who led, passed over to the other side, and reported that we should get down somehow, but I knew from the sound of his axe how the somehow would be, and settled myself to sketch, well assured that I should not be wanted for an hour to come. What I saw is shown in the engraving - a sharp aiguille (nameless), perhaps the sharpest in the whole range, backed on the left by the Aiguille de Triolet; queer blocks of (probably) protogine sticking out awkwardly through the snow; and a huge cornice from which big icicles depended, that broke away occasionally and went skidding down the slope up which we had come. Of the Argentiere side I could not see anything.

Croz was tied up with our good manila rope, and the whole two hundred feet were paid out gradually by Almer and Biener before he ceased working. After two hours’ incessant toil, he was able to anchor himself to the rock on his right. He then untied himself, the rope was drawn in, Biener was attached to the end and went down to join his comrade. There was then room enough for me to stand by the side of Almer, and I got my first view of the other side. For the first and only time in my life I looked down a slope of more than a thousand feet long, set at an angle of about fifty degrees, which was a sheet of ice from top to bottom. It was unbroken by rock or crag, and anything thrown down it sped away unarrested until the level of the Glacier d’Argentiere was reached. The entire basin of that noble glacier was spread out at our feet, and the ridge beyond, culminating in the Aiguille d’Argentiere, was seen to the greatest advantage. I confess, however, that I paid very little attention to the view, for there was no time to indulge in such luxuries. I descended the icy staircase and joined the others, and then we three drew in the rope tenderly as Almer came down. His was not an enviable position, but he descended with as much steadiness as if his whole life had been passed on ice-slopes of fifty degrees. The process was repeated, Croz again going to the front, and availing himself very skilfully of the rocks which projected from the cliff on our right. Our two hundred feet of rope again came to an end, and we again descended one by one. From this point we were able to clamber down by the rocks alone for about three hundred feet. They then became sheer cliff, and we stopped for dinner, about 2.30 p.m. at the last place upon which we could sit. Four hours’ incessant work had brought us rather more than halfway down the gully. We were now approaching, although we were still high above, the schrunds at its base, and the guides made out, in some way unknown to me, that Nature had perversely placed the only snow-bridge across the topmost one toward the centre of the gully. It was decided to cut diagonally across the gully to the point where the snow-bridge was supposed to be. Almer and Biener undertook the work, leaving Croz and myself firmly planted on the rocks to pay out rope to them as they advanced. It is generally admitted that veritable ice-slopes (understanding by ice something more than a crust of hard snow over soft snow) are only rarely met with in the Alps. They are frequently spoken of, but such as that to which I refer are very rarely seen, and still more seldom traversed. It is, however, always possible that they may be encountered, and on this account, if for no other, it is necessary for men who go mountaineering to be armed with ice-axes, and with good ones. The form is of more importance than might be supposed. Of course, if you intend to act as a simple amateur and let others do the work, and only follow in their steps, it is not of much importance what kind of ice-axe you carry, so long as its head does not fall off or otherwise behave itself improperly. There is no better weapon for cutting steps in ice than a common pick-axe, and the form of ice-axe which is now usually employed by the best guides is very like a miniature pick. My own axe is copied from Melchior Anderegg’s. It is of wrought iron, with point and edge steeled. Its weight, including spiked handle, is four pounds. For cutting steps in ice the pointed end of the head is almost exclusively employed: the adze-end is handy for polishing them up, but is principally used for cutting in hard snow. Apart from its value as a cutting weapon, it is invaluable as a grapnel. It is naturally a rather awkward implement when it is not being employed for its legitimate purpose, and is likely to give rise to much strong language in crushes at railway termini, unless its head is protected with a leathern cap or in some other way. Many attempts have been made, for the sake of convenience, to fashion an ice-axe with a movable head, but it seems difficult or impossible to produce one except at the expense of cutting qualities and by increasing the weight.

Mr. T. S. Kennedy (of the firm of Fairbairn & Co.), whose practical acquaintance with mountaineering and with the use and manufacture of tools makes his opinion particularly valuable, has contrived the best that I have seen; but even it seems to me to be deficient in rigidity, and not to be so powerful a weapon as the more common kind with the fixed head. The simple instrument which is shown in the annexed diagram is the invention of Mr. Leslie Stephen, and it answers the purposes for which he devised it - namely, for giving better hold upon snow and ice than can be obtained from the common alpenstock, and for cutting an occasional step. The amateur scarcely requires anything more imposing, but for serious ice-work a heavier weapon is indispensable.

To persons armed with the proper tools, ice-slopes are not so dangerous as many places which appeal less to the imagination. Their ascent or descent is necessarily laborious (to those who do the work), and they may therefore be termed difficult. They ought not to be dangerous. Yet they always seem dangerous, for one is profoundly convinced that if he slips he will certainly go to the bottom. Hence, any man who is not a fool takes particular care to preserve his balance, and in consequence we have the noteworthy fact that accidents have seldom or never taken place upon ice-slopes.

The same slopes covered with snow are much less impressive, and may be much more dangerous. They may be less slippery, the balance may be more easily preserved, and if one man slips he may be stopped by his own personal efforts, provided the snow which overlies the ice is consolidated and of a reasonable depth. But if, as is more likely to be the case upon an angle of fifty degrees (or anything approaching that angle), there is only a thin stratum of snow which is not consolidated, the occurrence of a slip will most likely take the entire party as low as possible, and, in addition to the chance of broken necks, there will be a strong probability that some, at least, will be smothered by the dislodged snow. Such accidents are far too common, and their occurrence, as a rule, may be traced to the want of caution which is induced by the apparent absence of danger.

I do not believe that the use of the rope, in the ordinary way, affords the least real security upon ice-slopes. Nor do I think that any benefit is derived from the employment of crampons. Mr. Kennedy was good enough to present me with a pair some time ago, and one of these has been engraved. They are the best variety I have seen of the species, but I only feel comfortable with them on my feet in places where they are not of the slightest use - that is, in situations where there is no possibility of slipping - and would not wear them upon an ice-slope for any consideration whatever. All such adventitious aids are useless if you have not a good step in the ice to stand upon, and if you have got that nothing more is wanted except a few nails in the boots.

Almer and Biener got to the end of their tether: the rope no longer assured their safety, and they stopped work as we advanced and coiled it up. Shortly afterward they struck a streak of snow that proved to be just above the bridge of which they were in search. The slope steepened, and for thirty feet or so we descended face to the wall, making steps by kicking with the toes and thrusting the arms well into the holes above, just as if they had been rounds in a ladder. At this time we were crossing the uppermost of the schrunds. Needless to say that the snow was of an admirable quality: this performance would otherwise have been impossible. It was soon over, and we then found ourselves upon a huge rhomboidal mass of ice, and still separated from the Argentiere glacier by a gigantic crevasse. The only bridge over this lower schrund was at its eastern end, and we were obliged to double back to get to it. Cutting continued for half an hour after it was passed, and it was 5.35 p.m. before the axes stopped work, and we could at last turn back and look comfortably at the formidable slope upon which seven hours had been spent.55

The Col Dolent is not likely to compete with the Col du Géant, and I would recommend any person who starts to cross it to allow himself plenty of time, plenty of rope and ample guide-power. There is no difficulty whatever upon any part of the route, excepting upon the steep slopes immediately below the summit on each side. When we arrived upon the Glacier d’Argentiere our work was as good as over. We drove a straight track to the châlets of Lognan, and thence the way led over familiar ground. Soon after dusk we got into the high-road at Les Tines, and at 10.00 p.m. arrived at Chamonix. Our labors were duly rewarded. Houris brought us champagne and the other drinks which are reserved for the faithful, but before my share was consumed I fell asleep in an arm-chair, I slept soundly until daybreak, and then turned into bed and went to sleep again.

55. It occupies about one-sixth of an inch upon the map. I estimate its height at 1200 feet. The triangulation of Capt. Mieulet places the summit of the pass 11,624 feet above the sea. This, I think, is rather too high.