The Col de Talèfre
The person who discovered the Col du Géant must have been a shrewd mountaineer. The pass was in use before any other was known across the main chain of Mont Blanc, and down to the present time it remains the easiest and quickest route from Chamonix to Courmayeur, with the single exception of the pass that we crossed upon the 3d of July for the first time, which lies about midway between the Aiguille de Triolet and the Aiguille de Talèfre, and which, for want of a better name, I have called the Col de Talèfre.
When one looks toward the upper end of the Glacier de Talèfre from the direction of the Jardin or of the Couvercle, the ridge that bounds the view seems to be of little elevation. It is overpowered by the colossal Grandes Jorasses and by the almost equally magnificent Aiguille Verte. The ridge, notwithstanding, is by no means despicable. At no point is its elevation less than eleven thousand six hundred feet. It does not look anything like this height. The Glacier de Talèfre mounts with a steady incline, and the eye is completely deceived.
In 1864, when prowling about with Mr. Reilly, I instinctively fixed upon a bent couloir which led up from the glacier to the lowest part of the ridge; and when, after crossing the Col de Triolet, I saw that the other side presented no particular difficulty, it seemed to me that this was the one point in the whole of the range which would afford an easier passage than the Col du Géant.
We set out from the Montanvert at 4 A. M. upon July 3, to see whether this opinion was correct, and it fortunately happened that the Rev. A. G. Girdlestone and a friend, with two Chamonix guides, left the inn at the same hour as ourselves, to cross the Col du Géant. We kept in company as far as our routes lay together, and at 9.35 we arrived at the top of our pass, having taken the route to the south of the Jardin. Description is unnecessary, as our track is laid down very clearly on the engraving at the head of this chapter.
Much snow had fallen during the late bad weather, and as we reposed upon the top of our pass (which was about eleven thousand six hundred and fifty feet above the level of the sea, and six hundred feet above the Col du Géant), we saw that the descent of the rocks which intervened between us and the Glacier de Triolet would require some caution, for the sun’s rays poured down directly upon them, and the snow slipped away every now and then from ledge to ledge just as if it had been water - in cascades not large enough to be imposing, but sufficient to knock us over if we got in their way. This little bit of cliff consequently took a longer time than it should have done, for when we heard the indescribable swishing, hissing sound which announced a coming fall, we of necessity huddled under the lee of the rocks until the snow ceased to shoot over us.
We got to the level of the Glacier de Triolet without misadventure, then steered for its left bank to avoid the upper of its two formidable ice-falls, and after descending the requisite distance by some old snow lying between the glacier and the cliffs which border it, crossed directly to the right bank over the level ice between the two ice-falls. The right bank was gained without any trouble, and we found there numerous beds of hard snow (avalanche débris), down which we could run or glissade as fast as we liked.
Glissading is a very pleasant employment when it is accomplished successfully, and I have never seen a place where it can be more safely indulged in than the snowy valley on the right bank of the Glacier de Triolet. In my dreams I glissade delightfully, but in practice I find that somehow the snow will not behave properly, and that my alpenstock will get between my legs. Then my legs go where my head should be, and I see the sky revolving at a rapid pace: the snow rises up and smites me, and runs away, and when it is at last overtaken it suddenly stops, and we come into violent collision. Those who are with me say that I tumble head over heels, and there may be some truth in what they say. Streaks of ice are apt to make the heels shoot away, and stray stones cause one to pitch headlong down. Somehow, these things always seem to come in the way, so it is as well to glissade only when there is something soft to tumble into.61
Near the termination of the glacier we could not avoid traversing a portion of its abominable moraine, but at 1.30 p.m. we were clear of it, and threw ourselves upon some springy turf, conscious that our day’s work was over. An hour afterward we resumed the march, crossed the Doire torrent by a bridge a little below Gruetta, and at five o’clock entered Courmayeur, having occupied somewhat less than ten hours on the way. Mr. Girdlestone’s party came in, I believe, about four hours afterward, so there was no doubt that we made a shorter pass than the Col du Géant; and I believe we discovered a quicker way of getting from Chamonix to Courmayeur, or vice versâ, than will be found elsewhere so long as the chain of Mont Blanc remains in its present condition.