Scrambles Amongst the Alps

Edward Whymper


Ascent of the Aiguille Verte

On the Mer de Glace.

Michel Croz now parted from us. His new employer had not arrived at Chamonix, but Croz considered that he was bound by honour to wait for him, and thus Christian Almer of Grindelwald became my leading guide.

Almer displayed aptitude for mountaineering at an early age. Whilst still a very young man he was known as a crack chamois-hunter, and he soon developed into an accomplished guide. Those who have read Mr. Wills’ graphic account of the first ascent of the Wetterhorn56 will remember that when his party was approaching the top of the mountain two stranger men were seen climbing by a slightly different route, one of whom carried upon his back a young fir tree, branches, leaves and all. Mr. Wills’ guides were extremely indignant with these two strangers (who were evidently determined to be the first at the summit), and talked of giving them blows. Eventually they gave them a cake of chocolate instead, and declared that they were good fellows. “Thus the pipe of peace was smoked, and tranquillity reigned between the rival forces.” Christian Almer was one of these two men.

This was in 1854. In 1858-59 he made the first ascents of the Eigher and the Mönch, the former with a Mr. Harrington (?), and the latter with Dr. Forges. Since then he has wandered far and near, from Dauphiné to the Tyrol. With the exception of Melchior Anderegg, there is not, perhaps, another guide of such wide experience, or one who has been so invariably successful; and his numerous employers concur in saying that there is not a truer heart or a surer foot to be found amongst the Alps.

Before recrossing the chain to Courmayeur we ascended the Aiguille Verte. In company with Mr. Reilly I inspected this mountain from every direction in 1864, and came to the conclusion that an ascent could more easily be made from the south than upon any other side. We set out upon the 28th from Chamonix to attack it, minus Croz, and plus a porter (of whom I will speak more particularly presently), leaving our comrade very downcast at having to kick his heels in idleness, whilst we were about to scale the most celebrated of his native aiguilles.

Our course led us over the old Mer de Glace, the glacier made famous by De Saussure and Forbes. The heat of the day was over, but the little rills and rivulets were still flowing along the surface of the ice; cutting deep troughs where the gradients were small, leaving ripple-marks where the water was with more difficulty confined to one channel, and falling over the precipitous walls of the great crevasses, sometimes in bounding cascades, and sometimes in diffused streams, which marked the perpendicular faces with graceful sinuosities.57 As night came on, their music died away, the rivulets dwindled down to rills, the rills ceased to murmur, and the spark sparkling drops, caught by the hand of frost, were bound to the ice, coating it with an enameled film which lasted until the sun struck the glacier once more.

The weathering of the walls of crevasses, which obscures the internal structure of the glacier, has led some to conclude that the stratification which is seen in the higher glacier-regions is obliterated in the lower ones. Others - Agassiz and Mr. John Ball, for example - have disputed this opinion, and my own experiences accord with those of these accurate observers. It is, undoubtedly, very difficult to trace stratification in the lower ends of the Alpine glaciers, but we are not, upon that account, entitled to conclude that the original structure of the ice has been obliterated. There are thousands of crevasses in the upper regions upon whose walls no traces of bedding are apparent, and we might say, with equal unreasonableness, that it was obliterated there also. Take an axe and clear away the ice which has formed from water trickling down the faces and the weathered ice beneath, and you will expose sections of the mingled strata of pure and of imperfect ice, and see clearly enough that the primitive structure of the glacier has not been effaced, although it has been obscured.

We camped on the Couvercle (seventy-eight hundred feet) under a great rock, and at 3.15 the next morning started for our aiguille, leaving the porter in charge of the tent and of the food. Two hours’ walking over crisp snow brought us up more than four thousand feet, and within about sixteen hundred feet of the summit. From no other direction can it be approached so closely with equal facility. Thence the mountain steepens. After his late severe piece of ice-work, Almer had a natural inclination for rocks; but the lower rocks of the final peak of the Verte were not inviting, and he went on and on, looking for a way up them, until we arrived in front of a great snow-couloir that led from the Glacier de Talèfre right up to the crest of the ridge connecting the summit of the Verte with the mountain called Les Droites. This was the route which I intended to be taken, but Almer pointed out that the gully narrowed at the lower part, and that if stones fell we should stand some chance of getting our heads broken; and so we went on still more to the east of the summit, to another and smaller couloir which ran up side by side with the great one. At 5.30 we crossed the schrund which protected the final peak, and a few minutes afterward saw the summit and the whole of the intervening route. “Oh, Aiguille Verte!” said my guide, stopping as he said it, “you are dead, you are dead!” which, being translated into plain English, meant that he was cock-sure we should make its ascent.

Almer is a quiet man at all times. When climbing he is taciturn, and this is one of his great merits. A garrulous man is always a nuisance, and upon the mountain-side he may be a danger, for actual climbing requires a man’s whole attention. Added to this, talkative men are hindrances: they are usually thirsty, and a thirsty man is a drag.

Guide-books recommend mountain-walkers to suck pebbles to prevent their throats from becoming parched. There is not much goodness to be got out of the pebbles, but you cannot suck them and keep the mouth open at the same time, and hence the throat does not become dry. It answers just as well to keep the mouth shut, without any pebbles inside - indeed, I think, better; for if you have occasion to open your mouth you can do so without swallowing any pebbles.58 As a rule, amateurs, and particularly novices, will not keep their mouths shut. They attempt to “force the pace;” they go faster than they can go without being compelled to open their mouths to breathe; they pant, their throats and tongues become parched; they drink and perspire copiously, and, becoming exhausted, declare that the dryness of the air or the rarefaction of the air (everything is laid upon the air) is in fault. On several accounts, therefore, a mountain-climber does well to hold his tongue when he is at his work.

At the top of the small gully we crossed over the intervening rocks into the large one, and followed it so long as it was filled with snow. At last ice replaced snow, and we turned over to the rocks upon its left. Charming rocks they were - granitic in texture, gritty, holding the nails well. At 9.45 we parted from them, and completed the ascent by a little ridge of snow which descended in the direction of the Aiguille du Moine. At 10.15 we stood on the summit (13,540 feet), and devoured our bread and cheese with a good appetite.

I have already spoken of the disappointing nature of purely panoramic views. That seen from Mont Blanc itself is notoriously unsatisfactory. When you are upon that summit you look down upon all the rest of Europe. There is nothing to look up to - all is below; there is no one point for the eye to rest upon. The man who is there is somewhat in the position of one who has attained all that he desires - he has nothing to aspire to: his position must needs be unsatisfactory. Upon the summit of the Verte there is not this objection. You see valleys, villages, fields; you see mountains interminable rolling away, lakes resting in their hollows; you hear the tinkling of the sheep-bells as it rises through the clear mountain air, and the roar of the avalanches as they descend to the valleys; but above all there is the great white dome, with its shining crest high above; with its sparkling glaciers, that descend between buttresses which support them; with its brilliant snows, purer and yet purer the farther they are removed from this unclean world.

Even upon this mountain-top it was impossible to forget the world, for some vile wretch came to the Jardin and made hideous sounds by blowing upon a horn. Whilst we were denouncing him a change came over the weather: cumulous clouds gathered in all directions, and we started off in hot haste. Snow began to fall heavily before we were off the summit-rocks, our track was obscured and frequently lost, and everything became so sloppy and slippery that the descent took as long as the ascent. The schrund was recrossed at 3.15 p.m., and thence we raced down to the Couvercle, intending to have a carouse there; but as we rounded our rock a howl broke simultaneously from all three of us, for the porter had taken down the tent, and was in the act of moving off with it. “Stop, there! what are you doing?” He observed that he had thought we were killed, or at least lost, and was going to Chamonix to communicate his ideas to the guide chef. “Unfasten the tent and get out the food.” But instead of doing so, the porter fumbled in his pockets. “Get out the food,” we roared, losing all patience. “Here it is,” said our worthy friend, producing a dirty piece of bread about as big as a half-penny roll. We three looked solemnly at the fluff-covered morsel. It was past a joke - he had devoured everything. Mutton, loaves, cheese, wine, eggs, sausages - all was gone past recovery. It was idle to grumble and useless to wait. We were light, and could move quickly - the porter was laden inside and out. We went our hardest - he had to shuffle and trot. He streamed with perspiration; the mutton and cheese oozed out in big drops; he larded the glacier. We had our revenge, and dried our clothes at the same time, but when we arrived at the Montanvert the porter was as wet as we had been upon our arrival at the Couvercle. We halted at the inn to get a little food, and at a quarter-past eight re-entered Chamonix amidst firing of cannon and other demonstrations of satisfaction on the part of the hotel-keepers.

One would have thought that the ascent of this mountain, which had been frequently assailed before without success, would have afforded some gratification to a population whose chief support is derived from tourists, and that the prospect of the perennial flow of francs which might be expected to result from it would have stifled the jealousy consequent on the success of foreigners.59

It was not so. Chamonix stood on its rights. A stranger had ignored their regulations, had imported two foreign guides, and furthermore he had added injury to that insult - he had not taken a single Chamonix guide. Chamonix would be revenged! It would bully the foreign guides: it would tell them they had lied - they had not made the ascent! Where were their proofs? Where was the flag upon the summit?

Poor Almer and Biener were accordingly chivied from pillar to post, from one inn to another, and at length complained to me. Peter Perm, the Zermatt guide, said on the night that we returned that this was to happen, but the story seemed too absurd to be true. I now bade my men go out again, and followed them myself to see the sport. Chamonix was greatly excited. The bureau of the guide chef was thronged with clamouring men. Their ringleader - one Zacharie Cachat, a well-known guide, of no particular merit, but not a bad fellow - was haranguing the multitude. He met with more than his match. My friend Kennedy, who was on the spot, heard of the disturbance and rushed into the fray, confronted the burly guide and thrust back his absurdities into his teeth.

There were the materials for a very pretty riot, but they manage these things better in France than we do, and the gendarmes - three strong - came down and dispersed the crowd. The guides quailed before the cocked hats, and retired to cabarets to take little glasses of absinthe and other liquors more or less injurious to the human frame. Under the influence of these stimulants they conceived an idea which combined revenge with profit. “You have ascended the Aiguille Verte, you say. We say we don’t believe it. We say, Do it again! Take three of us with you, and we will bet you two thousand francs to one thousand that you won’t make the ascent!”

This proposition was formally notified to me, but I declined it with thanks, and recommended Kennedy to go in and win. I accepted, however, a hundred-franc share in the bet, and calculated upon getting two hundred per cent, on my investment. Alas! how vain are human expectations! Zacharie Cachat was put into confinement, and although Kennedy actually ascended the aiguille a week later with two Chamonix guides and Peter Perm, the bet came to nothing.60

The weather arranged itself just as this storm in a teapot blew over, and we left at once for the Montanvert, in order to show the Chamonards the easiest way over the chain of Mont Blanc, in return for the civilities which we had received from them during the past three days.

56. Wanderings among the High Alps, 1858.

57. Admirably rendered in the accompanying drawing by Mr. Cyrus Johnson.

58. I heard lately of two well-known mountaineers who, under the influence of sudden alarm, swallowed their crystals. I am happy to say that they were able to cough them up again.

59. The Chamonix tariff price for the ascent of the Aiguille is now placed at £4 per guide.

60. It should be said that we received the most polite apologies for this affair from the chief of the gendarmes, and an invitation to lodge a complaint against the ringleaders. We accepted his apologies, and declined his invitation. Needless to add, Michel Croz took no part in the demonstration