Scrambles Amongst the Alps

Edward Whymper


From St. Michel to La Bérarde on the Mont Cenis road by the Col des Aiguilles d’Arvess, Col de Martignare and the Brèche de la Meije

Michel Croz

When we arrived upon the highest summit of Mont Pelvoux, in Dauphine, in 1861, we saw, to our surprise and disappointment, that it was not the culminating point of the district, and that another mountain, distant about a couple of miles, and separated from us by an impassable gulf, claimed that distinction. I was troubled in spirit about this mountain, and my thoughts often reverted to the great wall-sided peak, second in apparent inaccessibility only to the Matterhorn. It had, moreover, another claim to attention - it was the highest mountain in France.

The year 1862 passed away without a chance of getting to it, and my holiday was too brief in 1863 even to think about it; but in the following year it was possible, and I resolved to set my mind at rest by completing the task which had been left unfinished in 1861.

In the mean time, others had turned their attention to Dauphine. First of all (in 1862) came Mr. F. Tuckett - that mighty mountaineer, whose name is known throughout the length and breadth of the Alps - with the guides Michel Croz, Peter Perm and Bartolommeo Peyrotte, and great success attended his arms. But Mr. Tuckett halted before the Pointe des Écrins, and, dismayed by its appearance, withdrew his forces to gather less dangerous laurels elsewhere. His expedition, however, threw some light upon the Écrins. He pointed out the direction from which an attack was most likely to be successful, and Mr. William Mathews and the Rev. T. G. Bonney (to whom he communicated the result of his labours) attempted to execute the ascent, with the brothers Michel and J. B. Croz, by following his indications, but they too were defeated.

The guide Michel Croz had thus been engaged in both of these expeditions in Dauphiné, and I naturally looked to him for assistance. Mr. Mathews (to whom I applied for information) gave him a high character, and concluded his reply to me by saying “he was only happy when upward of ten thousand feet high.”

I know what my friend meant. Croz was happiest when he was employing his powers to the utmost. Places where you and I would “toil and sweat, and yet be freezing cold,” were bagatelles to him, and it was only when he got above the range of ordinary mortals, and was required to employ his magnificent strength and to draw upon his unsurpassed knowledge of ice and snow, that he could be said to be really and truly happy.

Of all the guides with whom I traveled, Michel Croz was the man who was most after my own heart. He did not work like a blunt razor and take to his toil unkindly. He did not need urging or to be told a second time to do anything. You had but to say what was to be done and how it was to be done, and the work was done if it was possible. Such men are not common, and when they are known they are valued. Michel was not widely known, but those who did know him came again and again. The inscription placed upon his tomb truthfully records that he was “beloved by his comrades and esteemed by travellers.”

At the time that I was planning my journey, my friends Messrs. A. W. Moore and Horace Walker were also drawing up their programme, and, as we found that our wishes were very similar, we agreed to unite our respective parties. My friends had happily secured Christian Almer of Grindelwald as their guide. The combination of Croz and Almer was a perfect one. Both men were in the prime of life, both were endued with strength and activity far beyond the average, and the courage and the knowledge of each were alike undoubted. The temper of Almer it was impossible to ruffle: he was ever obliging and enduring - a bold but a safe man. That which he lacked in fire, in dash, was supplied by Croz, who, in his turn, was kept in place by Almer. It is pleasant to remember how they worked together, and how each one confided to you that he liked the other so much because he worked so well; but it is sad, very sad, to those who have known the men, to know that they can never work together again.

We met at St. Michel on the Mont Cenis road at mid-day on June 20, 1864, and proceeded in the afternoon over the Col de Valloires to the village of the same name. The summit of this pretty little pass is about thirty-five hundred feet above St. Michel, and from it we had a fair view of the Aiguilles d’Arves, a group of three peaks of singular form, which it was our especial object to investigate. They had been seen by ourselves and others from numerous distant points, and always looked very high and very inaccessible; but we had been unable to obtain any information about them, except the few words in Joanne’s Itinéraire du Dauphiné. Having made out from the summit of the Col de Valloires that they could be approached from the valley of Valloires, we hastened down to find a place where we could pass the night, as near as possible to the entrance of the little valley leading up to them.

By nightfall we arrived at the entrance to this little valley (Vallon des Aiguilles d’Arves), and found some buildings placed just where they were wanted. The proprietress received us with civility, and placed a large barn at our disposal, on the condition that no lights were struck or pipes smoked therein; and when her terms were agreed to, she took us into her own châlet, made up a huge fire, heated a gallon of milk and treated us with genuine hospitality.

In the morning we found that the Vallon des Aiguilles d’Arves led away nearly due west from the valley of Valloires and that the village of Bonnenuit was placed (in the latter valley) almost exactly opposite to the junction of the two.

At 3.55 a.m. on the 21st we set out up the Vallon, passed for a time over pasture-land, and then over a stony waste, deeply channeled by water-courses. At 5.30 the two principal Aiguilles were well seen, and as by this time it was evident that the authors of the Sardinian official map had romanced as extensively in this neighbourhood as elsewhere, it was necessary to hold a council.

Three questions were submitted to it: Firstly, Which is the highest of these Aiguilles? Secondly, Which shall we go up? Thirdly, How is it to be done?

The French engineers, it was said, had determined that the two highest of them were respectively 11,513 and 11,529 feet in height; but we were without information as to which two they had measured. Joanne indeed said (but without specifying whether he meant all three) that the Aiguilles had been several times ascended, and particularly mentioned that the one of 11,513 feet was “relatively easy.”

We therefore said, “We will go up the peak of 11,529 feet.” But that determination did not settle the second question. Joanne’s “relatively easy” peak, according to his description, was evidently the most northern of the three. Our peak, then, was to be one of the other two, but which of them? We were inclined to favour the central one, but it was hard to determine, they looked so equal in height. When, however, the council came to study the third question, “How is it to be done?” it was unanimously voted that upon the eastern and southern sides it was certainly relatively difficult, and that a move should be made round to the northern side.

The movement was duly executed, and after wading up some snow-slopes of considerable steepness (going occasionally beyond 40°), we found ourselves in a gap or nick between the central and northernmost Aiguille at 8.45 A M. We then studied the northern face of our intended peak, and finally arrived at the conclusion that it was relatively impracticable. Croz shrugged his big shoulders, and said, “My faith! I think you will do well to leave it to others.” Almer was more explicit, and volunteered the information that a thousand francs would not tempt him to try it. We then turned to the northernmost peak, but found its southern faces even more hopeless than the northern faces of the central one. We enjoyed accordingly the unwonted luxury of a three hours’ rest on the top of our pass, for pass we were determined it should be.

We might have done worse. We were ten thousand three hundred or ten thousand four hundred feet above the level of the sea, and commanded a most picturesque view of the mountains of the Tarentaise, while somewhat east of south we saw the monarch of the Dauphiné massif, whose closer acquaintance it was our intention to make. Three sunny hours passed away, and then we turned to the descent. We saw the distant pastures of a valley (which we supposed was the Vallon or Ravine de la Sausse), and a long snow-slope leading down to them. But from that slope we were cut off by precipitous rocks, and our first impression was that we should have to return in our track. Some running up and down, however, discovered two little gullies filled with threads of snow, and down the most northern of these we decided to go. It was a steep way, but a safe one, for the cleft was so narrow that we could press the shoulder against one side whilst the feet were against the other, and the last remnant of the winter’s snow, well hardened, clung to the rift with great tenacity, and gave us a path when the rocks refused one. In half an hour we got to the top of the great snow-slope. Walker said, “Let us glissade;” the guides, “No, it is too steep.” Our friend, however, started off at a standing glissade, and advanced for a time very skilfully; but after a while he lost his balance, and progressed downward and backward with great rapidity, in a way that seemed to us very much like tumbling heels over head. He let go his axe and left it behind, but it overtook him and batted him heartily. He and it traveled in this fashion for some hundreds of feet, and at last subsided into the rocks at the bottom. In a few moments we were reassured as to his safety by hearing him ironically request us not to keep him waiting down there.

We others followed the tracks shown by the dotted line upon the engraving (making zigzags to avoid the little groups of rocks which jutted through the snow, by which Walker had been upset), descended by a sitting glissade, and rejoined our friend at the bottom. We then turned sharply to the left, and tramped down the summit ridge of an old moraine of great size. Its mud was excessively hard, and where some large erratic blocks lay perched upon its crest we were obliged to cut steps (in the mud) with our ice-axes.

Guided by the sound of a distant “moo,” we speedily found the highest châlets in the valley, named Rieu Blanc. They were tenanted by three old women (who seemed to belong to one of the missing links sought by naturalists) destitute of all ideas except in regard to cows, and who spoke a barbarous patois wellnigh unintelligible to the Savoyard Croz. They would not believe that we had passed between the Aiguilles: “It is impossible, the cows never go there.” “Could we get to La Grave over yonder ridge?” “Oh yes! the cows often crossed!” Could they show us the way? No, but we could follow the cow-tracks.

We stayed a while near these châlets to examine the western sides of the Aiguilles d’Arves, and, according to our united opinion, the central one was as inaccessible from this direction as from the east, north or south. On the following day we saw them again, from a height of about eleven thousand feet, in a south-easterly direction, and our opinion remained unchanged.

We saw (on June 20-22) the central Aiguille from all sides, and very nearly completely round the southernmost one. The northern one we also saw on all sides excepting from the north. (It is, however, precisely from this direction M. Joanne says that its ascent is relatively easy.) We do not, therefore, venture to express any opinion respecting its ascent, except as regards its actual summit. This is formed of two curious prongs or pinnacles of rock, and we do not understand in what way they (or either of them) can be ascended; nor shall we be surprised if this ascent is discovered to have been made in spirit rather than body - in fact, in the same manner as the celebrated ascent of Mont Blanc, “not entirely to the summit, but as far as the Montanvert!”

All three of the Aiguilles may be accessible, but they look as inaccessible as anything I have seen. They are the highest summits between the valleys of the Romanche and the Arc: they are placed slightly to the north of the watershed between those two valleys, and a line drawn through them runs pretty nearly north and south.

We descended by a rough path from Rieu Blanc to the châlets of La Sausse, which give the name to the Vallon or Ravine de la Sausse in which they are situated. This is one of the numerous branches of the valley that leads to St. Jean d’Arve, and subsequently to St. Jean de Maurienne.

Two passes, more or less known, lead from this valley to the village of La Grave (on the Lautaret road) in the valley of the Romanche - viz., the Col de l’Infernet and the Col de Martignare. The former pass was crossed just thirty years ago by J. D. Forbes, and was mentioned by him in his Norway and its Glaciers. The latter one lies to the north of the former, and is seldom traversed by tourists, but it was convenient for us, and we set out to cross it on the morning of the 22d, after having passed a comfortable but not luxurious night in the hay at La Sausse, where, however, the simplicity of the accommodation was more than counterbalanced by the civility and hospitality of the people in charge.15

We left the chalets at 4.15 a.m. under a shower of good wishes from our hostesses, proceeded at first toward the upper end of the ravine, then doubled back up a long buttress which projects in an unusual way, and went toward the Col de Martignare; but before arriving at its summit we again doubled and resumed the original course. At 6 A. M. we stood on the watershed, and followed it toward the east, keeping for some distance strictly to the ridge, and afterward diverging a little to the south to avoid a considerable secondary aiguille, which prevented a straight track being made to the summit at which we were aiming. At 9.15 we stood on its top, and saw at once the lay of the land.

We were very fortunate in the selection of our summit. Not to speak of other things, it gave a grand view of the ridge which culminates in the peak called La Meije (13,080 feet), which used to be mentioned by travellers under the name Aiguille du Midi de la Grave. It is the last, the only, great Alpine peak which has never known the foot of man, and one cannot speak in exaggerated terms of its jagged ridges, torrential glaciers and tremendous precipices. But were I to discourse upon these things without the aid of pictures, or to endeavour to convey in words a sense of the loveliness of curves, of the beauty of colour or of the harmonies of sound, I should try to accomplish that which is impossible, and at the best should succeed in but giving an impression that the things spoken of may have been pleasant to hear or to behold, although they are perfectly incomprehensible to read about. Let me therefore avoid these things, not because I have no love for or thought of them, but because they cannot be translated into language; and presently, when topographical details must of necessity be returned to again, I will endeavour to relieve the poverty of the pen by a free use of the pencil.

Whilst we sat upon the Aiguille de la Sausse our attention was concentrated on a point that was immediately opposite - on a gap or cleft between the Meije and the mountain called the Rateau. It was, indeed, in order to have a good view of this place that we made the ascent of the Aiguille. It (that is, the gap itself) looked, as my companions remarked, obtrusively and offensively a pass. It had not been crossed, but it ought to have been; and this seemed to have been recognised by the natives, who called it, very appropriately, the Brèche de la Meije. It led to La Bérarde, a miserable village, without interest, without commerce, and almost without population. Why, then, did we wish to cross it? Because we were bound to the Pointe des Écrins, to which La Bérarde was the nearest inhabited place.

When we sat upon the Aiguille de la Sausse we were rather despondent about our prospects of crossing the Brèche, which seemed to present a combination of all that was formidable. There was evidently but one way by which it could be approached. We saw that at the top of the pass there was a steep wall of snow or ice (so steep that it was most likely ice), protected at its base by a big schrund or moat, which severed it from the snow-fields below. Then (tracking our course downward) we saw undulating snow-fields leading down to a great glacier. The snow-fields would be easy work, but the glacier was riven and broken in every direction, huge crevasses seemed to extend entirely across it in some places, and everywhere it had that strange twisted look which tells of the unequal motion of the ice. Where could we get on to it? At its base it came to a violent end, being cut short by a cliff, over which it poured periodical avalanches, as we saw by a great triangular bed of débris below. We could not venture there - the glacier must be taken in flank. But on which side? Not on the west - no one could climb those cliffs. It must, if anywhere, be by the rocks on the east, and they looked as if they were roches moutonnées.

So we hurried down to La Grave, to hear what Melchior Anderegg (who had just passed through the village with the family of our friend Walker) had to say on the matter. Who is Melchior Anderegg? Those who ask the question cannot have been in Alpine Switzerland, where the name of Melchior is as well known as the name of Napoleon. Melchior, too, is an emperor in his way - a very prince among guides. His empire is amongst the “eternal snows” - his sceptre is an ice-axe.

Melchior Anderegg - more familiarly and perhaps more generally known simply as Melchior - was born at Zaun, near Meiringen, on April 6, 1828. He was first brought into public notice in Hinchcliff’s Summer Months in the Alps, and was known to very few persons at the time that little work was published. In 1855 he was “Boots” at the Grimsel hotel, and in those days when he went out on expeditions it was for the benefit of his master, the proprietor: Melchior himself only got the trinkgelt. In 1856 he migrated to the Schwarenbach inn on the Gemmi, where he employed his time in carving objects for sale. In 1858 he made numerous expeditions with Messrs. Hinchcliff and Stephen, and proved to his employers that he possessed first-rate skill, indomitable courage and an admirable character. His position has never been doubtful since that year, and for a long time there has been no guide whose services have been more in request: he is usually engaged a year in advance.

It would be almost an easier task to say what he has not done than to catalogue his achievements. Invariable success attends his arms: he leads his followers to victory, but not to death. I believe that no accident has ever befallen travellers in his charge. Like his friend Almer, he can be called a safe man. It is the highest praise that can be given to a first-rate guide.

Early in the afternoon we found ourselves in the little inn at La Grave, on the great Lautaret road, a rickety, tumble-down sort of place, with nothing stable about it, as Moore wittily remarked, except the smell. Melchior had gone, and had left behind a note which said, “I think the passage of the Brèche is possible, but that it will be very difficult.” His opinion coincided with ours, and we went to sleep, expecting to be afoot about eighteen or twenty hours on the morrow.

At 2.40 the next morning we left La Grave, in a few minutes crossed the Romanche, and at 4.00 a.m. got to the moraine of the eastern branch of the glacier that descends from the Brèche.16 The rocks by which we intended to ascend were placed between the two branches of this glacier, and still looked smooth and unbroken. But by five o’clock we were upon them. We had been deluded by them. No carpenter could have planned a more convenient staircase. They were not moutonnée, their smooth look from a distance was only owing to their singular firmness. In an hour we had risen above the most crevassed portion of the glacier, and began to look for a way on to it. Just at the right place there was a patch of old snow at the side, and, instead of gaining the ice by desperate acrobatic feats, we passed from the rocks on to it as easily as one walks across a gangway. At half-past six we were on the centre of the glacier, and the inhabitants of La Grave turned out en masse into the road and watched us with amazement as they witnessed the falsification of their confident predictions. Well might they stare, for our little caravan, looking to them like a train of flies on a wall, crept up and up, without hesitation and without a halt - lost to their sight one minute as it dived into a crevasse, then seen again clambering up the other side. The higher we rose the easier became the work, the angles lessened and our pace increased. The snow remained shadowed, and we walked as easily as on a high road; and when (at 7.45) the summit of the Brèche was seen, we rushed at it as furiously as if it had been a breach in the wall of a fortress, carried the moat by a dash, with a push behind and a pull before, stormed the steep slope above, and at 8.50 stood in the little gap, 11,054 feet above the level of the sea. The Brèche was won. Well might they stare - five hours and a quarter had sufficed for sixty-five hundred feet of ascent.17 We screamed triumphantly as they turned in to breakfast.

Our day’s work was as good as over (for we knew from Messrs. Mathews and Bonney that there was no difficulty upon the other side), and we abandoned ourselves to ease and luxury; wondering alternately, as we gazed upon the Rateau and the Écrins, how the one mountain could possibly hold itself together, and whether the other would hold out against us. The former looked so rotten that it seemed as if a puff of wind or a clap of thunder might dash the whole fabric to pieces, while the latter asserted itself the monarch of the group, and towered head and shoulders above all the rest of the peaks which form the great horseshoe of Dauphiné. At length a cruel rush of cold air made us shiver, and shift our quarters to a little grassy plot three thousand feet below - an oasis in a desert - where we lay nearly four hours admiring the splendid wall which protects the summit of the Meije from assault upon this side.18 Then we tramped down the Vallon des Étançons, a howling wilderness, the abomination of desolation; destitute alike of animal or vegetable life; pathless, of course; suggestive of chaos, but of little else; covered almost throughout its entire length with débris, from the size of a walnut up to that of a house: in a word, it looked as if half a dozen moraines of first-rate dimensions had been carted and shot into it. Our tempers were soured by constant pitfalls: it was impossible to take the eyes from the feet, and if an unlucky individual so much as blew his nose without standing still to perform the operation, the result was either an instantaneous tumble or a barked shin or a half-twisted ankle. There was no end to it, and we became more savage at every step, unanimously agreeing that no power on earth would ever induce us to walk up or down this particular valley again. It was not just to the valley, which was enclosed by noble mountains - unknown, it is true, but worthy of a great reputation, and which, if placed in other districts, would be sought after and cited as types of daring form and graceful outline.

15. While stopping in the hospice on the Col de Lautaret, in 1869, I was accosted by a middle-aged peasant, who asked if I would ride (for a consideration) in his cart towards Briançon. He was inquisitive as to my knowledge of his district, and at last asked, “Have you been at La Sausse?” “Yes.” “Well, then, I tell you, you saw there some of the first people in the world.” “Yes,” I said, “they were primitive, certainly.” But he was serious, and went on - “Yes, real brave people;” and, slapping his knee to give emphasis, “but that they are first-rate for minding the cows!” After this he became communicative. “You thought, probably,” said he, “when I offered to take you down, that I was some poor -- , not worth a sou; but I will tell you, that was my mountain! my mountain! that you saw at La Sausse; they were my cows! a hundred of them altogether.” “Why, you are rich.” “Passably rich. I have another mountain on the Col du Galibier, and another at Ville-neuve.” He (although a common peasant in outward appearance) confessed to being worth four thousand pounds.

16. Our route from La Grave to La Bérarde will be seen on the accompanying map.

17. Taking one kind of work with another, a thousand feet of height per hour is about as much as is usually accomplished on great Alpine ascents.

18. This wall may be described as an exaggerated Gemmi, as seen from Leukerbad. From the highest summit of La Meije right down to the Glacier des Etançons (a depth of about 3200 feet), the cliff is all but perpendicular, and appears to be completely unassailable. The dimensions of these pages are insufficient to do justice to this magnificent wall, which is the most imposing of its kind that I have seen; otherwise it would have been engraved.