The Ascent of Mont Pelvoux
The district of which Mont Pelvoux and the neighbouring summits are the culminating points is, both historically and topographically, one of the most interesting in the Alps. As the nursery and the home of the Vaudois, it has claims to permanent attention: the names of Waldo and of Neff will be remembered when men more famous in their time are forgotten, and the memory of the heroic courage and the simple piety of their disciples will endure as long as history lasts.
This district contains the highest summits in France, and some of its finest scenery. It has not perhaps the beauties of Switzerland, but has charms of its own: its cliffs, its torrents and its gorges are unsurpassed, its deep and savage valleys present pictures of grandeur, and even sublimity, and it is second to none in the boldness of its mountain forms.
The district includes a mass of valleys which vie with each other in singularity of character and dissimilarity of climate. Some the rays of the sun can never reach, they are so deep and narrow. In others the very antipodes may be found, the temperature more like that of the plains of Italy than of alpine France. This great range of climate has a marked effect on the flora of these valleys: sterility reigns in some, stones take the place of trees, débris and mud replace plants and flowers: in others, in the space of a few miles, one passes vines, apple, pear and cherry trees, the birch, alder, walnut, ash, larch and pine alternating with fields of rye, barley, oats, beans and potatoes.
The valleys are for the most part short and erratic. They are not, apparently, arranged on any definite plan: they are not disposed, as is frequently the case elsewhere, either at right angles to, or parallel with, the highest summits, but they wander hither and thither, taking one direction for a few miles, then doubling back, and then perhaps resuming their original course. Thus long perspectives are rarely to be seen, and it is difficult to form a general idea of the disposition of the peaks.
The highest summits are arranged almost in a horse-shoe form. The highest of all, which occupies a central position, is the Pointe des Écrins; the second in height, the Meije, is on the north; and the Mont Pelvoux, which gives its name to the entire block, stands almost detached by itself on the outside.
At the beginning of July, 1861, I despatched to Reynaud from Havre blankets (which were taxed as “prohibited fabrics”), rope, and other things desirable for the excursion, and set out on the tour of France, but four weeks later, at Nimes, found myself completely collapsed by the heat, then 94° Fahrenheit in the shade, so I took a night train at once to Grenoble.
I lost my way in the streets of this picturesque but noisome town, and having but a half hour left in which to get a dinner and take a place in the diligence, was not well pleased to hear that an Englishman wished to see me. It turned out to be my friend MacDonald, who confided to me that he was going to try to ascend a mountain called Pelvoux in the course of ten days, but on hearing of my intentions agreed to join us at La Bessée on the 3rd of August. In a few moments more I was perched in the banquette en route for Bourg d’Oisans, in a miserable vehicle which took nearly eight hours to accomplish less than thirty miles.
At five on a lovely morning I shouldered my knapsack and started for Briançon. Gauzy mists clung to the mountains, but melted away when touched by the sun, and disappeared by jerks (in the manner of views when focused in a magic lantern), revealing the wonderfully bent and folded strata in the limestone cliffs behind the town. Then I entered the Combe de Malval, and heard the Romanche eating its way through that wonderful gorge, and passed on to Le Dauphin, where the first glacier came into view, tailing over the mountain-side on the right. From this place until the summit of the Col de Lautaret was passed, every gap in the mountains showed a glittering glacier or a soaring peak: the finest view was at La Grave, where the Meije rises by a series of tremendous precipices eight thousand feet above the road. The finest distant view of the pass is seen after crossing the col, near Monetier. A mountain, commonly supposed to be Monte Viso, appears at the end of the vista, shooting into the sky: in the middle distance, but still ten miles off, is Briançon with its interminable forts, and in the foreground, leading down to the Guisane and rising high up the neighbouring slopes, are fertile fields, studded with villages and church-spires. The next day I walked over from Briançon to La Bessée, to my worthy friend Jean Reynaud, the surveyor of roads of his district.
All the peaks of Mont Pelvoux are well seen from La Bessée - the highest point as well as that upon which the French engineers erected their cairn in 1828. Neither Reynaud nor any one else knew this. The natives knew only that the engineers had ascended one peak, and had seen from that a still higher point, which they called the Pointe des Arcines or des Écrins. They could not say whether this latter could be seen from La Bessée, nor could they tell the peak upon which the cairn had been erected. We were under the impression that the highest point was concealed by the peaks we saw, and would be gained by passing over them. They knew nothing of the ascent of Monsieur Puiseux, and they confidently asserted that the highest point of Mont Pelvoux had not been attained by any one: it was this point we wished to reach.
Nothing prevented our starting at once but the absence of MacDonald and the want of a bâton. Reynaud suggested a visit to the postmaster, who possessed a bâton of local celebrity. Down we went to the bureau, but it was closed: we hallooed through the slits, but no answer. At last the postmaster was discovered endeavouring (with very fair success) to make himself intoxicated. He was just able to ejaculate, “France! ’tis the first nation in the world!” - a phrase used by a Frenchman when in the state in which a Briton begins to shout, “We won’t go home till morning,” national glory being uppermost in the thoughts of one, and home in those of the other. The bâton was produced: it was a branch of a young oak, about five feet long, gnarled and twisted in several directions. “Sir,” said the postmaster, as he presented it, “France! ’tis the first - the first nation in the world, by its - ” He stuck. “Bâtons,” I suggested. “Yes, yes, sir: by its bâtons, by its - its - ” and here he could not get on at all. As I looked at this young limb, I thought of my own; but Reynaud, who knew everything about everybody in the village, said there was not a better one; so off we went with it, leaving the official staggering in the road, and muttering, “France! ’tis the first nation in the world!”
The 3d of August came, but MacDonald did not appear, so we started for the Val Louise, our party consisting of Reynaud, myself and a porter, Jean Casimir Giraud, nicknamed “Little Nails,” the shoemaker of the place. An hour and a half’s smart walking took us to La Ville de Val Louise, our hearts gladdened by the glorious peaks of Pelvoux shining out without a cloud around them. I renewed acquaintance with the mayor of La Ville. His aspect was original and his manners were gracious, but the odour which proceeded from him was dreadful. The same may be said of most of the inhabitants of these valleys.
Reynaud kindly undertook to look after the commissariat, and I found to my annoyance, when we were about to leave, that I had given tacit consent to a small wine-cask being carried with us, which was a great nuisance from the commencement. It was excessively awkward to handle: one man tried to carry it, and then another, and at last it was slung from one of our bâtons, and was carried by two, which gave our party the appearance of a mechanical diagram to illustrate the uses of levers.
At La Ville the Val Louise splits into two branches - the Val d’Entraigues on the left, and the Vallon d’Alefred (or Ailefroide) the right: our route was the latter, and we moved steadily forward to the village of La Pisse, where Pierre Sémiond lived, who was reputed to know more about the Pelvoux than any other man. He looked an honest fellow, but unfortunately he was ill and could not come. He recommended his brother, an aged creature, whose furrowed and wrinkled face hardly seemed to announce the man we wanted; but, having no choice, we engaged him and again set forth.
Walnut and a great variety of other trees gave shadow to our path and fresh vigor to our limbs, while below, in a sublime gorge, thundered the torrent, whose waters took their rise from the snows we hoped to tread on the morrow.
The mountain could not be seen at La Ville, owing to a high intervening ridge: we were now moving along the foot of this to get to the châlets of Alefred - or, as they are sometimes called, Aléfroide - where the mountain actually commences. From this direction the subordinate but more proximate peaks appear considerably higher than the loftier ones behind, and sometimes conceal them. But the whole height of the peak, which in these valleys goes under the name of the “Grand Pelvoux,” is seen at one place from its summit to its base - six or seven thousand feet of nearly perpendicular cliffs.
The châlets of Alefred are a cluster of miserable wooden huts at the foot of the Grand Pelvoux, and are close to the junction of the streams which descend from the glacier de Sapenière (or du Selé) on the left, and the glaciers Blanc and Noir on the right. We rested a minute to purchase some butter and milk, and Sémiond picked up a disreputable-looking lad to assist in carrying, pushing and otherwise moving the wine-cask.
Our route now turned sharply to the left, and all were glad that the day was drawing to a close, so that we had the shadows from the mountains. A more frightful and desolate valley it is scarcely possible to imagine: it contains miles of boulders, débris, stones, sand and mud - few trees, and they placed so high as to be almost out of sight. Not a soul inhabits it: no birds are in the air, no fish in the waters: the mountain is too steep for the chamois, its slopes too inhospitable for the marmot, the whole too repulsive for the eagle. Not a living thing did we see in this sterile and savage valley during four days, except some few poor goats which had been driven there against their will.
We rested a little at a small spring, and then hastened onward till we nearly arrived at the foot of the Sapenière glacier, when Sémiond said we must turn to the right, up the slopes. This we did, and clambered for half an hour through scattered pines and fallen boulders. Then evening began to close in rapidly, and it was time to look for a resting-place. There was no difficulty in getting one, for all around it was a chaotic assemblage of rocks. We selected the under side of one, which was more than fifty feet long by twenty high, cleared it of rubbish, and then collected wood for a fire.
That camp-fire is a pleasant reminiscence. The wine-cask had got through all its troubles: it was tapped, and the Frenchmen seemed to derive some consolation from its execrable contents. Reynaud chanted scraps of French songs, and each contributed his share of joke, story or verse. The weather was perfect, and our prospects for the morrow were good. My companions’ joy culminated when a packet of red fire was thrown into the flames. It hissed and bubbled for a moment or two, and then broke out into a grand flare. The effect of the momentary light was magnificent: all around the mountains were illuminated for a second, and then relapsed into their solemn gloom. One by one our party dropped off to sleep, and at last I got into my blanket-bag. It was hardly necessary, for although we were at a height of at least seven thousand feet, the minimum temperature was above 40° Fahrenheit.
We roused at three, but did not start till half-past four. Giraud had been engaged as far as this rock only, but as he wished to go on, we allowed him to accompany us. We mounted the slopes, and quickly got above the trees, then had a couple of hours’ clambering over bits of precipitous rock and banks of débris, and at a quarter to seven got to a narrow glacier - Clos de l’Homme - which streamed out of the plateau on the summit, and nearly reached the glacier de Sapenière. We worked as much as possible to the right, in hope that we should not have to cross it, but were continually driven back, and at last we found that it was necessary to do so. Old Sémiond had a strong objection to the ice, and made explorations on his own account to endeavour to avoid it; but Reynaud and I preferred to cross it, and Giraud stuck to us. It was narrow - in fact, one could throw a stone across it - and was easily mounted on the side, but in the centre swelled into a steep dome, up which we were obliged to cut. Giraud stepped forward and said he should like to try his hand, and having got hold of the axe, would not give it up; and here, as well as afterward when it was necessary to cross the gullies filled with hard snow which abound on the higher part of the mountain, he did all the work, and did it admirably.
Old Sémiond of course came after us when we got across. We then zigzagged up some snow-slopes, and shortly afterward commenced to ascend the interminable array of buttresses which are the great peculiarity of the Pelvoux. They were very steep in many places, but on the whole afforded a good hold, and no climbing should be called difficult which does that. Gullies abounded among them, sometimes of great length and depth. They were frequently rotten, and would have been difficult for a single man to pass. The uppermost men were continually abused for dislodging rocks and for harpooning those below with their bâtons. However, without these incidents the climbing would have been dull: they helped to break the monotony.
We went up chimneys and gullies by the hour together, and always seemed to be coming to something, although we never got to it. The outline sketch will help to explain the situation. We stood at the foot of a great buttress - perhaps about two hundred feet high - and looked up. It did not go to a point as in the diagram, because we could not see the top, although we felt convinced that behind the fringe of pinnacles we did see there was a top, and that it was the edge of the plateau we so much desired to attain. Up we mounted, and reached the pinnacles; but, lo! another set was seen, and another, and yet more, till we reached the top, and found it was only a buttress, and that we had to descend forty or fifty feet before we could commence to mount again. When this operation had been performed a few dozen times it began to be wearisome, especially as we were in the dark as to our whereabouts. Sémiond, however, encouraged us, and said he knew we were on the right route; so away we went once more.
It was now nearly mid-day, and we seemed no nearer the summit of the Pelvoux than when we started. At last we all joined together and held a council. “Sémiond, old friend, do you know where we are now?” “Oh yes, perfectly, to a yard and a half.” “Well, then, how much are we below this plateau?” He affirmed we were not half an hour from the edge of the snow. “Very good: let us proceed.” Half an hour passed, and then another, but we were still in the same state: pinnacles, buttresses and gullies were in profusion, but the plateau was not in sight. So we called him again - for he had been staring about latterly as if in doubt - and repeated the question, “How far below are we now?” Well, he thought it might be half an hour more. “But you said that just now: are you sure we are going right?” Yes, he believe, we were. Believed! - that would not do. “Are you sure we are going right for the Pic des Arcines?” “Pic dei Arcines!” he ejaculated in astonishment, as if he had heard the words for the first time - “Pic des Arcines! No, but for the pyramid, the celebrated pyramid he had helped the great Capitaine Durand,” etc.
Here was a fix. We had been talking about it to him for a whole day, and now he confessed he knew nothing about it. I turned to Reynaud, who seemed thunderstruck: “What do you suggest?” He shrugged his shoulders. “Well,” we said, after explaining our minds pretty freely to Sémiond, “the sooner we turn back the better, for we have no wish to see your pyramid.”
We halted for an hour, and then commenced the descent. It took us nearly seven hours to come down to our rock, but I paid no heed to the distance, and do not remember anything about it. When we got down we made a discovery which affected us as much as the footprint in the sand did Robinson Crusoe: a blue silk veil lay by our fireside. There was but one solution - MacDonald had arrived, but where was he? We soon packed our baggage, and tramped in the dusk, through the stony desert, to Alefred, where we arrived about half-past nine. “Where is the Englishman?” was the first question. He was gone to sleep at La Ville. We passed that night in a hay-loft, and in the morning, after settling with Sémiond, we posted down to catch MacDonald. We had already determined on the plan of operation, which was to get him to join us, return, and be independent of all guides, simply taking the best man we could get as a porter. I set my heart on Giraud - a good fellow, with no pretence, although in every respect up to the work. But we were disappointed: he was obliged to go to Briançon.
The walk soon became exciting. The natives inquired the result of our expedition, and common civility obliged us to stop. But I was afraid of losing my man, for it was said he would wait only till ten o’clock, and that time was near at hand. At last I dashed over the bridge - time from Alefred an hour and a quarter - but a cantonnier stopped me, saying that the Englishman had just started for La Bessée. I rushed after him, turned angle after angle of the road, but could not see him: at last, as I came round a corner, he was also just turning another, going very fast. I shouted, and luckily he heard me. We returned, reprovisioned ourselves at La Ville, and the same evening saw us passing our first rock, en route for another. I have said we determined to take no guide, but on passing La Pisse old Sémiond turned out and offered his services. He went well, in spite of his years and disregard of truth. “Why not take him?” said my friend. So we offered him a fifth of his previous pay, and in a few seconds he closed with the offer, but this time came in an inferior position - we were to lead, he to follow. Our second follower was a youth of twenty-seven years, who was not all that could be desired. He drank Reynaud’s wine, smoked our cigars, and quietly secreted the provisions when we were nearly starving. Discovery of his proceedings did not at all disconcert him, and he finished up by getting several items added to our bill at La Ville, which, not a little to his disgust, we disallowed.
This night we fixed our camp high above the tree-line, and indulged ourselves in the healthy employment of carrying our fuel up to it. The present rock was not so comfortable as the first, and before we could settle down we were obliged to turn out a large mass which was in the way. It was very obstinate, but moved at length - slowly and gently at first, then faster and faster, at last taking great jumps in the air, striking a stream of fire at every touch, which shone out brightly as it entered the gloomy valley below; and long after it was out of sight we heard it bounding downward, and then settle with a subdued crash on the glacier beneath. As we turned back from this curious sight, Reynaud asked if we had ever seen a torrent on fire, and told us that in the spring the Durance, swollen by the melting of the snow, sometimes brings down so many rocks that where it passes through a narrow gorge at La Bessée no water whatever is seen, but only boulders rolling over and over, grinding each other into powder, and striking so many sparks that the stream looks as if it were on fire.
We had another merry evening, with nothing to mar it: the weather was perfect, and we lay backward in luxurious repose, looking at the sky spangled with its ten thousand brilliant lights.The ranges stood Transfigured in the silver flood.
Their snows were flashing cold and keen,
Dead white, save where some sharp ravine
Took shadow, or the sombre green
Of hemlocks turned to pitchy black,
Against the whiteness at their back 1
MacDonald related his experiences over the café noir. He had traveled day and night for several days in order to join us, but had failed to find our first bivouac, and had encamped a few hundred yards from us under another rock, higher up the mountain. The next morning he discerned us going along a ridge at a great height above him, and as it was useless to endeavour to overtake us, he lay down and watched with a heavy heart until we had turned the corner of a buttress and vanished out of sight.
Nothing but the heavy breathing of our already sound - asleep comrades broke the solemn stillness of the night. It was a silence to be felt. Nothing! Hark! what is that dull booming sound above us? Is that nothing? There it is again, plainer: on it comes, nearer, clearer: ’tis a crag escaped from the heights above. What a fearful crash! We jump to our feet. Down it comes with awful fury: what power can withstand its violence? Dancing leaping, flying, dashing against others, roaring as it descends. Ah, it has passed! No: there it is again, and we hold our breath as, with resistless force and explosions like artillery, it darts past, with an avalanche of shattered fragments trailing in its rear. ’Tis gone, and we breathe more freely as we hear the finale on the glacier below.
We retired at last, but I was too excited to sleep. At a quarter-past four every man once more shouldered his pack and started. This time we agreed to keep more to the right, to see if it were not possible to get to the plateau without losing any time by crossing the glacier. To describe our route would be to repeat what has been said before. We mounted steadily for an hour and a half, sometimes walking, but more frequently climbing, and then found, after all, that it was necessary to cross the glacier. The part on which we struck came down a very steep slope, and was much crevassed. The word crevassed hardly expresses its appearance: it was a mass of formidable séracs. We found, however, more difficulty in getting on than across it, but, thanks to the rope, it was passed somehow: then the interminable buttresses began again. Hour after hour we proceeded upward, frequently at fault and obliged to descend. The ridge behind us had sunk long ago, and we looked over it and all others till our eyes rested on the majestic Viso. Hour after hour passed, and monotony was the order of the day: when twelve o’clock came we lunched, and contemplated the scene with satisfaction: all the summits in sight, with the single exception of the Viso, had given in, and we looked over an immense expanse - a perfect sea of peaks and snow-fields. Still the pinnacles rose above us, and opinions were freely uttered that we should see no summit of Pelvoux that day. Old Sémiond had become a perfect bore to all: whenever one rested for a moment to look about, he would say, with a complacent chuckle, “Don’t be afraid - follow me.” We came at last to a very bad piece, rotten and steep, and no hold. Here Reynaud and MacDonald confessed to being tired, and talked of going to sleep. A way was discovered out of the difficulty: then some one called out, “Look at the Viso!” and we saw that we almost looked over it. We worked away with redoubled energy, and at length caught sight of the head of the glacier as it streamed out of the plateau. This gave us fresh hopes: we were not deceived, and with a simultaneous shout we greeted the appearance of our long wished-for snows. A large crevasse separated us from them, but a bridge was found: we tied ourselves in line and moved safely over it. Directly we got across there arose before us a fine snow-capped peak. Old Sémiond cried, “The pyramid! I see the pyramid!” “Where, Sémiond, where?” “There, on the top of that peak.”
There, sure enough, was the cairn he had helped to erect more than thirty years before. But where was the Pic des Arcines which we were to see? It was nowhere visible, but only a great expanse of snow, bordered by three lower peaks. Somewhat sadly we moved toward the pyramid, sighing that there was no other to conquer, but hardly had we gone two hundred paces before there rose a superb white cone on the left, which had been hidden before by a slope of snow. We shouted, “The Pic des Arcines!” and inquired of Sémiond if he knew whether that peak had been ascended. As for him, he knew nothing except that the peak before us was called the Pyramid, from the cairn he had, etc., etc., and that it had been ascended since. “All right, then: face about;” and we immediately turned at right angles for the cone, the porter making faint struggles for his beloved pyramid. Our progress was stopped in the sixth of a mile by the edge of the ridge connecting the two peaks, and we perceived that it curled over in a lovely volute. We involuntarily retreated. Sémiond, who was last in the line, took the opportunity to untie himself, and refused to come on, said we were running dangerous risks, and talked vaguely of crevasses. We tied him up again and proceeded. The snow was very soft: we were always knee-deep, and sometimes floundered in up to the waist, but a simultaneous jerk before and behind always released one. By this time we had arrived at the foot of the final peak. The left-hand ridge seemed easier than that upon which we stood, so we curved round to get to it. Some rocks peeped out one hundred and fifty feet below the summit, and up these we crawled, leaving our porter behind, as he said he was afraid. I could not resist the temptation, as we went off, to turn round and beckon him onward, saying, “Don’t be afraid - follow me,” but he did not answer to the appeal, and never went to the top. The rocks led to a short ridge of ice - our plateau on one side, and a nearly vertical precipice on the other. MacDonald cut up it, and at a quarter to two we stood shaking hands on the loftiest summit of the conquered Pelvoux!
The day still continued everything that could be desired, and far and near countless peaks burst into sight, without a cloud to hide them. The mighty Mont Blanc, full seventy miles away, first caught our eyes, and then, still farther off, the Monte Rosa group; while, rolling away to the east, one unknown range after another succeeded in unveiled splendour, fainter and fainter in tone, but still perfectly defined, till at last the eye was unable to distinguish sky from mountain, and they died away in the far-off horizon. Monte Viso rose up grandly, but it was less than forty miles away, and we looked over it to a hazy mass we knew must be the plains of Piedmont. Southward, a blue mist seemed to indicate the existence of the distant Mediterranean: to the west we looked over to the mountains of Auvergne. Such was the panorama, a view extending in nearly every direction for more than a hundred miles. It was with some difficulty we wrenched our eyes from the more distant objects to contemplate the nearer ones. Mont Dauphin was very conspicuous, but La Bessée was not readily perceived. Besides these, not a human habitation could be seen: all was rock, snow or ice; and large as we knew were the snow-fields of Dauphine, we were surprised to find that they very far surpassed our most ardent imagination. Nearly in a line between us and the Viso, immediately to the south of Chateau Queyras, was a splendid group of mountains of great height. More to the south an unknown peak seemed still higher, while close to us we were astonished to discover that there was a mountain which appeared even higher than that on which we stood. At least this was my opinion: MacDonald thought it not so high, and Reynaud insisted that its height was much about the same as our own.
This mountain was distant a couple of miles or so, and was separated from us by a tremendous abyss, the bottom of which we could not see. On the other side rose this mighty wall-sided peak, too steep for snow, black as night, with sharp ridges and pointed summit. We were in complete ignorance of its whereabouts, for none of us had been on the other side: we imagined that La Bérarde was in the abyss at our feet, but it was in reality beyond the other mountain.
We left the summit at last, and descended to the rocks and to our porter, where I boiled some water, obtained by melting snow. After we had fed and smoked our cigars (lighted without difficulty from a common match), we found it was ten minutes past three, and high time to be off. We dashed, waded and tumbled for twenty-five minutes through the snow, and then began the long descent of the rocks. It was nearly four o’clock, and as it would be dark at eight, it was evident that there was no time to be lost, and we pushed on to the utmost. Nothing remarkable occurred going down. We kept rather closer to the glacier, and crossed at the same point as in the morning. Getting off it was like getting on it - rather awkward. Old Sémiond had got over, so had Reynaud: MacDonald came next, but as he made a long stretch to get on to a higher mass, he slipped, and would have been in the bowels of a crevasse in a moment had he not been tied.
It was nearly dark by the time we had crossed, but still I hoped that we should be able to pass the night at our rock. MacDonald was not so sanguine, and he was right; for at last we found ourselves quite at fault, and wandered helplessly up and down for an hour, while Reynaud and the porter indulged in a little mutual abuse. The dreary fact that, as we could not get down, we must stay where we were, was now quite apparent.
We were at least ten thousand five hundred feet high, and if it commenced to rain or snow, as the gathering clouds and rising wind seemed to threaten, we might be in a sore plight. We were hungry, having eaten little since three A. M., and a torrent we heard close at hand, but could not discover, aggravated our thirst. Sémiond endeavoured to get some water from it, but although he succeeded in doing so, he was wholly unable to return, and we had to solace him by shouting at intervals through the night.
A more detestable locality for a night out of doors it is difficult to imagine. There was no shelter of any kind, it was perfectly exposed to the chilly wind which began to rise, and it was too steep to promenade. Loose, rubbly stones covered the ground, and had to be removed before we could sit with any comfort. This was an advantage, although we hardly thought so at the time, as it gave us some employment, and after an hour’s active exercise of that interesting kind I obtained a small strip, about nine feet long, on which it was possible to walk. Reynaud was furious at first, and soundly abused the porter, whose opinion as to the route down had been followed, rather than that of our friend, and at last settled down to a deep dramatic despair, and wrung his hands with frantic gesture, as he exclaimed, “Oh, malheur, malheur! Oh misérables!”
Thunder commenced to growl and lightning to play among the peaks above, and the wind, which had brought the temperature down to nearly freezing-point, began to chill us to the bones. We examined our resources. They were six and half cigars, two boxes of vesuvians, one-third of a pint of brandy-and-water, and half a pint of spirits of wine - rather scant fare for three fellows who had to get through seven hours before daylight. The spirit-lamp was lighted, and the remaining spirits of wine, the brandy and some snow were heated by it. It made a strong liquor, but we only wished for more of it. When that was over, MacDonald endeavoured to dry his socks by the lamp, and then the three lay down under my plaid to pretend to sleep. Reynaud’s woes were aggravated by toothache: MacDonald somehow managed to close his eyes.
The longest night must end, and ours did at last. We got down to our rock in an hour and a quarter, and found the lad not a little surprised at our absence. He said he had made a gigantic fire to light us down, and shouted with all his might: we neither saw the fire nor heard his shouts. He said we looked a ghastly crew, and no wonder: it was our fourth night out.
We feasted at our cave, and performed some very necessary ablutions. The persons of the natives are infested by certain agile creatures, whose rapidity of motion is only equaled by their numbers and voracity. It is dangerous to approach too near them, and one has to study the wind, so as to get on their weather side: in spite of all such precautions my unfortunate companion and myself were now being rapidly devoured alive. We only expected a temporary lull of our tortures, for the interiors of the inns are like the exteriors of the natives, swarming with this species of animated creation.
It is said that once, when these tormentors were filled with an unanimous desire, an unsuspecting traveler was dragged bodily from his bed! This needs confirmation. One word more, and I have done with this vile subject. We returned from our ablutions, and found the Frenchmen engaged in conversation. “Ah!” said old Sémiond, “as to fleas, I don’t pretend to be different to any one else - I have them.” This time he certainly spoke the truth.
We got down to La Ville in good time, and luxuriated there for several days: we played many games of bowls with the natives, and were invariably beaten by them. At last it was necessary to part: I walked southward to the Viso, and MacDonald went to Briançon.
After parting from my agreeable companions, I walked by the gorge of the Guil to Abries, and made the acquaintance at that place of an ex-harbourmaster of Marseilles - a genial man, who spoke English well. Besides the ex-harbourmaster and some fine trout in the neighbouring streams, there was little to invite a stay at Abries. The inn - L’Éitoile, chez Richard - is a place to be avoided. Richard, it may be observed, possessed the instincts of a robber. At a later date, when forced to seek shelter in his house, he desired to see my passport, and catching sight of the words John Russell, he entered that name instead of my own in a report to the gendarmerie, uttering an exclamation of joyful surprise at the same time. I foolishly allowed the mistake to pass, and had to pay dearly for it, for he made out a lordly bill, against which all protest was unavailing.
I quitted the abominations of Abries to seek a quiet bundle of hay at Le Chalp, a village some miles nearer to the Viso. On approaching the place the odour of sanctity became distinctly perceptible; and on turning a corner the cause was manifested: there was the priest of the place, surrounded by some of his flock. I advanced humbly, hat in hand, but almost before a word could be said, he broke out with, “Who are you? What are you? What do you want?” I endeavoured to explain.
“You are a deserter - I know you are a deserter: go away, you can’t stay here: go to Le Monta, down there - I won’t have you here;” and he literally drove me away. The explanation of his strange behaviour was that Piedmontese soldiers who were tired of the service had not infrequently crossed the Col de la Traversette into the valley, and trouble had arisen from harbouring them. However, I did not know this at the time, and was not a little indignant that I, who was marching to the attack, should be taken for a deserter.
So I walked away, and shortly afterward, as it was getting dark, encamped in a lovely hole - a cavity or kind of basin in the earth, with a stream on one side, a rock to windward and some broken pine branches close at hand. Nothing could be more perfect - rock, hole, wood and water. After making a roaring fire, I nestled in my blanket-bag (an ordinary blanket sewn up, double round the legs, with a piece of elastic ribbon round the open end) and slept, but not for long. I was troubled with dreams of the Inquisition: the tortures were being applied, priests were forcing fleas down my nostrils and into my eyes, and with red-hot pincers were taking out bits of flesh, and then cutting off my ears and tickling the soles of my feet. This was too much: I yelled a great yell, and awoke to find myself covered with innumerable crawling bodies: they were ants. I had camped by an ant-hill, and, after making its inhabitants mad with the fire, had coolly lain down in their midst.
The night was fine, and as I settled down in more comfortable quarters, a brilliant meteor sailed across full 60° of the cloudless sky, leaving a trail of light behind which lasted for several seconds. It was the herald of a splendid spectacle. Stars fell by hundreds, and, not dimmed by intervening vapours, they sparkled with greater brightness than Sirius in our damp climate.
The next morning, after walking up the valley to examine the Viso, I returned to Abries, and engaged a man from a neighbouring hamlet for whom the ex-harbourmaster had sent - an inveterate smoker, and thirsty in proportion, whose pipe never left his mouth except to allow him to drink. We returned up the valley together, and slept in the hut of a shepherd whose yearly wage was almost as small as that of the herdsman spoken of in Hyperion by Longfellow; and the next morning, in his company, proceeded to the summit of the pass which I had crossed in 1860; but we were baffled in our attempt to get near the mountain. A deep notch with precipitous cliffs cut us off from it: the snow-slope, too, which existed in the preceding year on the Piedmontese side of the pass, was now wanting, and we were unable to descend the rocks which lay beneath. A fortnight afterward the mountain was ascended for the first time by Messrs. Mathews and Jacomb, with the two Crozes of Chamonix. Their attempt was made from the southern side, and the ascent, which was formerly considered a thing totally impossible, has become one of the most common and favourite excursions of the district.
We returned crest-fallen to Abries. The shepherd, whose boots were very much out of repair, slipped upon the steep snow-slopes and performed wonderful but alarming gyrations, which took him to the bottom of the valley more quickly than he could otherwise have descended. He was not much hurt, and was made happy by a few needles and a little thread to repair his abraded garments: the other man, however, considered it wilful waste to give him brandy to rub in his cuts, when it could be disposed of in a more ordinary and pleasant manner.
The night of the 14th of August found me at St. Veran, a village made famous by Neff, but in no other respect remarkable, saving that it is supposed to be the highest in Europe. The Protestants now form only a miserable minority: in 1861 there were said to be one hundred and twenty of them to seven hundred and eighty Roman Catholics. The poor inn was kept by one of the former, and it gave the impression of great poverty. There was no meat, no bread, no butter, no cheese: almost the only things that could be obtained were eggs. The manners of the natives were primitive: the woman of the inn, without the least sense of impropriety, stayed in the room until I was fairly in bed, and her bill for supper, bed and breakfast amounted to one-and-sevenpence.
In this neighbourhood, and indeed all round about the Viso, the chamois still remain in considerable numbers. They said at St. Veran that six had been seen from the village on the day I was there, and the innkeeper declared that he had seen fifty together in the previous week! I myself saw in this and in the previous season several small companies round about the Viso. It is perhaps as favourable a district as any in the Alps for a sportsman who wishes to hunt the chamois, as the ground over which they wander is by no means of excessive difficulty.
The next day I descended the valley to Ville Vieille, and passed, near the village of Molines, but on the opposite side of the valley, a remarkable natural pillar, in form not unlike a champagne bottle, about seventy feet high, which had been produced by the action of the weather, and in all probability chiefly by rain. In this case a “block of euphotide or diallage rock protects a friable limestone:” the contrast of this dark cap with the white base, and the singularity of the form, made it a striking object. These natural pillars are among the most remarkable examples of the potent effects produced by the long-continued action of quiet-working forces. They are found in several other places in the Alps, as well as elsewhere.
The village of Ville Vieille boasts of an inn with the sign of the Elephant, which, in the opinion of local amateurs, is a proof that Hannibal passed through the gorge of the Guil. I remember the place because its bread, being only a month old, was unusually soft, and for the first time during ten days it was possible to eat some without first of all chopping it into small pieces and soaking it in hot water, which produced a slimy paste on the outside, but left a hard, untouched kernel.
The same day I crossed the Col d'Izoard to Briançon. It was the 15th of August, and all the world was en fête; sounds of revelry proceeded from the houses of Servières as I passed over the bridge upon which the pyrrhic dance is annually performed, and natives in all degrees of inebriation staggered about the paths. It was late before the lights of the great fortress came into sight, but unchallenged I passed through the gates, and once more sought shelter under the roof of the Hôtel de l’Ours.