Scrambles Amongst the Alps

Edward Whymper


The Ascent of the Pointe des Écrins

Descending the western arête of the Pointe des Écrins.

Before five o’clock on the afternoon of June 23 we were trotting down the steep path that leads into La Bérarde. We put up, of course, with the chasseur-guide Rodier (who, as usual, was smooth and smiling), and after congratulations were over we returned to the exterior to watch for the arrival of one Alexander Pic, who had been sent overnight with our baggage via Freney and Venos. But when the night fell and no Pic appeared, we saw that our plans must be modified, for he was necessary to our very existence: he carried our food, our tobacco, our all. So, after some discussion, it was agreed that a portion of our programme should be abandoned, that the night of the 24th should be passed at the head of the Glacier de la Bonne Pierre, and that on the 25th a push should be made for the summit of the Écrins. We then went to straw.

Our porter Pic strolled in next morning with his usual jaunty air, and we seized upon our tooth-brushes, but upon looking for the cigars we found starvation staring us in the face. “Hullo! Monsieur Pic, where are our cigars?” “Gentlemen,” he began, “I am desolated!” and then, quite pat, he told a long rigmarole about a fit on the road, of brigands, thieves, of their ransacking the knapsacks when he was insensible, and of finding them gone when he revived. “Ah, Monsieur Pic! we see what it is - you have smoked them yourself!” “Gentlemen, I never smoke - never!” Whereupon we inquired secretly if he was known to smoke, and found that he was. However, he said that he had never spoken truer words, and perhaps he had not, for he is reported to be the greatest liar in Dauphiné!

We were now able to start, and set out at 1.15 P M. to bivouac upon the Glacier de la Bonne Pierre, accompanied by Rodier, who staggered under a load of blankets. Many slopes had to be mounted, and many torrents to be crossed, all of which have been described by Mr. Tuckett. We, however, avoided the difficulties he experienced with the latter by crossing them high up, where they were subdivided. But when we got on to the moraine on the right bank of the glacier (or, properly speaking, on to one of the moraines, for there are several), mists descended, to our great hindrance, and it was 5.30 before we arrived on the spot at which it was intended to camp.

Each one selected his nook, and we then joined round a grand fire made by our men. Fortnum & Mason’s portable soup was sliced up and brewed, and was excellent; but it should be said that before it was excellent three times the quantity named in the directions had to be used. Art is required in drinking as in making this soup, and one point is this: always let your friends drink first; not only because it is more polite, but because the soup has a tendency to burn the mouth if taken too hot, and one drink of the bottom is worth two of the top, as all the goodness settles.

While engaged in these operations the mist that enveloped the glacier and surrounding peaks was becoming thinner: little bits of blue sky appeared here and there, until suddenly, when we were looking toward the head of the glacier, far, far above us, at an almost inconceivable height, in a tiny patch of blue, appeared a wonderful rocky pinnacle, bathed in the beams of the fast-sinking sun. We were so electrified by the glory of the sight that it was some seconds before we realised what we saw, and understood that that astounding point, removed apparently miles from the earth, was one of the highest summits of Les Écrins, and that we hoped, before another sun had set, to stand upon an even loftier pinnacle. The mists rose and fell, presenting us with a series of dissolving views of ravishing grandeur, and finally died away, leaving the glacier and its mighty bounding precipices under an exquisite pale blue sky, free from a single speck of cloud.

The night passed over without anything worth mention, but we had occasion to observe in the morning an instance of the curious evaporation that is frequently noticeable in the High Alps. On the previous night we had hung up on a knob of rock our mackintosh bag containing five bottles of Rodier’s bad wine. In the morning, although the stopper appeared to have been in all night, about four-fifths had evaporated. It was strange: my friends had not taken any, neither had I, and the guides each declared that they had not seen any one touch it. In fact, it was clear that there was no explanation of the phenomenon but in the dryness of the air. Still, it is remarkable that the dryness of the air (or the evaporation of wine) is always greatest when a stranger is in one’s party; the dryness caused by the presence of even a single Chamonix porter is sometimes so great that not four-fifths but the entire quantity disappears. For a time I found difficulty in combating this phenomenon, but at last discovered that if I used the wine-flask as a pillow during the night the evaporation was completely stopped.

At 4.00 a.m. we moved off across the glacier in single file toward the foot of a great gully which led from the upper slopes of the Glacier de la Bonne Pierre to the lowest point in the ridge that runs from the Écrins to the mountain called Roche Faurio - cheered by Rodier, who now returned with his wraps to La Bérarde.

By five minutes to six we were at the top of the gully (a first-rate couloir about one thousand feet high), and within sight of our work. Hard, thin and wedge-like as the Écrins had looked from afar, it had never looked so hard and so thin as it did when we emerged from the top of the couloir through the gap in the ridge: no tender shadows spoke of broad and rounded ridges, but sharp and shadowless its serrated edges stood out against the clear sky. It had been said that the route must be taken by one of the ridges of the final peak, but both were alike repellent, hacked and notched in numberless places. They reminded me of my failure on the Dent d’Hérens in 1863, and of a place on a similar ridge from which advance or retreat was alike difficult. But, presuming one or other of these ridges or arètes to be practicable, there remained the task of getting to them, for completely round the base of the final peak swept an enormous bergschrund, almost separating it from the slopes which lay beneath. It was evident thus early that the ascent would not be accomplished without exertion, and that it would demand all our faculties and all our time. In more than one respect we were favoured. The mists were gone, the day was bright and perfectly calm, there had been a long stretch of fine weather beforehand, and the snow was in excellent order; and, most important of all, the last new snow which had fallen on the final peak, unable to support itself, had broken away and rolled in a mighty avalanche over schrund, névé, séracs, over hills and valleys in the glacier (levelling one and filling the other), completely down to the col, where it lay in huge jammed masses, powerless to harm us; and had made a broad track, almost a road, over which, for part of the way at least, we might advance with rapidity.

We took in all this in a few minutes, and seeing there was no time to be lost, despatched a hasty meal, left knapsacks, provisions and all encumbrances by the col, started again at half-past six, and made direct for the left side of the schrund, for it was there alone that a passage was practicable. We crossed it at 8.10. Our route can now be followed upon the annexed outline. The arrow marked D points out the direction Glacier de la Bonne Pierre. The ridge in front, that extends right across, leading from Roche Faurio toward the W.N.W. We arrived upon the plateau of the Glacier de l’Encula, behind this ridge, from the direction of D, and then made a nearly straight track to the left hand of the bergschrund at A.

Thus far there was no trouble, but the nature of the work changed immediately. If we regard the upper seven hundred feet alone of the final peak of the Écrins, it may be described as a three-sided pyramid. One face is toward the Glacier Noir, and forms one of the sheerest precipices in the Alps. Another is toward the Glacier du Vallon, and is less steep and less uniform in angle than the first. The third is toward the Glacier de l’Encula, and it was by this one we approached the summit. Imagine a triangular plane seven hundred or eight hundred feet high, set at an angle exceeding 50°; let it be smooth, glassy; let the uppermost edges be cut into spikes and teeth, and let them be bent, some one way, some another. Let the glassy face be covered with minute fragments of rock, scarcely attached, but varnished with ice: imagine this, and then you will have a very faint idea of the face of the Écrins on which we stood. It was not possible to avoid detaching stones, which, as they fell, caused words unmentionable to rise. The greatest friends would have reviled each other in such a situation. We gained the eastern arête, and endeavoured for half an hour to work upward toward the summit, but it was useless (each yard of progress cost an incredible time); and having no desire to form the acquaintance of the Glacier Noir in a precipitate manner, we beat a retreat and returned to the schrund. We again held a council, and it was unanimously decided that we should be beaten if we could not cut along the upper edge of the schrund, and, when nearly beneath the summit, work up to it. So Croz took off his coat and went to work, on ice - not that black ice so often mentioned and so seldom seen, but on ice as hard as ice could be. Weary work for the guides. Croz cut for more than half an hour, and we did not seem to have advanced at all. Some one behind, seeing how great the labor was and how slow the progress, suggested that after all we might do better on the arête. Croz’s blood was up, and, indignant at this slight on his powers, he ceased working, turned in his steps, and rushed toward me with a haste that made me shudder: “By all means let us go there! - the sooner the better.” No slight was intended, and he resumed his work, after a time being relieved by Almer. Half-past ten came: an hour had passed - they were still cutting. Dreary work for us, for there was no capering about to be done here; hand as well as foot holes were necessary; the fingers and toes got very cold; the ice, as it boomed in bounding down the bergschrund, was very suggestive; conversation was very restricted, separated as we were by our tether of twenty feet apiece. Another hour passed. We were now almost immediately below the summit, and we stopped to look up. We were nearly as far off it (vertically) as we had been more than three hours before. The day seemed going against us. The only rocks near at hand were scattered, no bigger than tea-cups, and most of these we found afterward, were glazed with ice. Time forbade cutting right up to the summit, even had it been possible, which it was not. We decided to go up to the ridge again by means of the rocks, but had we not had a certain confidence in each other, it unquestionably would not have been done; for this, it must be understood, was a situation where not only might a slip have been fatal to every one, but it would have been so beyond doubt: nothing, moreover, was easier than to make one. It was a place where all had to work in unison, where there must be no slackening of the rope and no unnecessary tension. For another hour we were in this trying situation, and at 12.30 we gained the arête again, but at a much higher point (B), close to the summit. Our men were, I am afraid, wellnigh worn out: cutting up a couloir one thousand feet high was not the right sort of preparation for work of this kind. Be it so or not, we were all glad to rest for a short time, for we had not sat down a minute since leaving the col, six hours before. Almer, however, was restless, knowing that mid-day was past, and that much remained to be accomplished, and untied himself and commenced working toward the summit. Connecting the teeth of rock were beds of snow, and Almer, but a few feet from me, was crossing the top of one of these, when suddenly, without a moment’s warning, it broke away under him and plunged down on to the glacier. As he staggered for a second, one foot in the act of stepping and the other on the falling mass, I thought him lost, but he happily fell on to the right side and stopped himself. Had he taken the step with his right instead of his left foot, he would, in all probability, have fallen several hundred feet without touching anything, and would not have been arrested before reaching the glacier, a vertical distance of at least three thousand feet.

Small, ridiculously small, as the distance was to the summit, we were occupied nearly another hour before it was gained. Almer was a few feet in front, and he, with characteristic modesty, hesitated to step on the highest point, and drew back to allow us to pass. A cry was raised for Croz, who had done the chief part of the work, but he declined the honour, and we marched on to the top simultaneously - that is to say, clustered round it, a yard or two below, for it was much too small to get upon.

According to my custom, I bagged a piece from off the highest rock (chlorite slate), and I found afterward that it had a striking similarity to the final peak of the Écrins. I have noticed the same thing on other occasions, and it is worthy of remark that not only do fragments of such rock as limestone often present the characteristic forms of the cliffs from which they have been broken, but that morsels of mica slate will represent, in a wonderful manner, the identical shape of the peaks of which they have formed part. Why should it not be so if the mountain’s mass is more or less homogeneous? The same causes which produce the small forms fashion the large ones: the same influences are at work - the same frost and rain give shape to the mass as well as to its parts.

Did space permit me, I could give but a sorry idea of the view, but it will be readily imagined that a panorama extending over as much ground as the whole of England is one worth taking some trouble to see, and one which is not often to be seen even in the Alps. No clouds obscured it, and a list of the summits that we saw would include nearly all the highest peaks of the chain. I saw the Pelvoux now - as I had seen the Écrins from it three years before - across the basin of the Glacier Noir. It is a splendid mountain, although in height it is equaled, if not surpassed, by its neighbour, the Aléfroide.

We could stay on the summit but a short time, and at a quarter to two prepared for the descent. Now, as we looked down, and thought of what we had passed over in coming up, we one and all hesitated about returning the same way. Moore said, No. Walker said the same, and I too - the guides were both of the same mind: this, be it remarked, although we had considered that there was no chance whatever of getting up any other way. But those “last rocks” were not to be forgotten. Had they but protruded to a moderate extent, or had they been merely glazed, we should doubtless still have tried; but they were not reasonable rocks - they would neither allow us to hold nor would do it themselves. So we turned to the western arête, trusting to luck that we should find a way down to the schrund, and some means of getting over it afterward. Our faces were a tolerable index to our thoughts, and apparently the thoughts of the party were not happy ones. Had any one then said to me, “You are a great fool for coming here,” I should have answered with humility, “It is too true.” And had my monitor gone on to say, “Swear you will never ascend another mountain if you get down safely,” I am inclined to think I should have taken the oath. In fact, the game here was not worth the risk. The guides felt it as well as ourselves, and as Almer led off he remarked, with more piety than logic, “The good God has brought us up, and he will take us down in safety;” which showed pretty well what he was thinking about.

The ridge down which we now endeavoured to make our way was not inferior in difficulty to the other. Both were serrated to an extent that made it impossible to keep strictly to them, and obliged us to descend occasionally for some distance on the northern face and then mount again. Both were so rotten that the most experienced of our party, as well as the least, continually upset blocks large and small. Both arêtes were so narrow, so thin, that it was often a matter for speculation on which side an unstable block would fall.

At one point it seemed that we should be obliged to return to the summit and try the other way down. We were on the very edge of the arête: on one side was the enormous precipice facing the Pelvoux, which is not far from perpendicular - on the other a slope exceeding 50°. A deep notch brought us to an abrupt halt. Almer, who was leading, advanced cautiously to the edge on his hands and knees and peered over: his care was by no means unnecessary, for the rocks had broken away from under us unexpectedly several times. In this position he looked down for some moments, and then without a word turned his head and looked at us. His face may have expressed apprehension or alarm, but it certainly did not show hope or joy. We learned that there was no means of getting down, and that we must, if we wanted to pass it, jump across on to an unstable block on the other side. It was decided that it should be done, and Almer, with a larger extent of rope than usual, jumped: the rock swayed as he came down upon it, but he clutched a large mass with both arms and brought himself to anchor. That which was both difficult and dangerous for the first man was easy enough for the others, and we got across with less trouble than I expected, stimulated by Croz’s perfectly just observation, that if we couldn’t get across there we were not likely to get down the other way.

We had now arrived at C, and could no longer continue on the arête, so we commenced descending the face again. Before long we were close to the schrund, but unable to see what it was like at this part, as the upper edge bent over. Two hours had already passed since leaving the summit, and it began to be highly probable that we should have to spend a night on the Glacier Blanc. Almer, who yet led, cut steps tight down to the edge, but still he could not see below: therefore, warning us to hold tight, he made his whole body rigid, and (standing in the large step which he had cut for the purpose) had the upper part of his person lowered out until he saw what he wanted. He shouted that our work was finished, made me come close to the edge and untie myself, advanced the others until he had rope enough, and then with a loud jödel jumped down on to soft snow. Partly by skill and partly by luck he had hit the crevasse at its easiest point, and we had only to make a downward jump of eight or ten feet.

It was now 4.45 p.m.: we had been more than eight hours and a half accomplishing the ascent of the final peak, which, according to an observation by Mr. Bonney in 1862, is only 525 feet high.19 During this period we had not stopped for more than half an hour, and our nerves and muscles had been kept at the highest degree of tension the whole time. It may be imagined that we accepted the ordinary conditions of glacier traveling as an agreeable relief, and that that which at another time might have seemed formidable we treated as the veriest bagatelle. Late in the day as it was, and soft as was the snow, we put on such pace that we reached the Col des Écrins in less than forty minutes. We lost no time in arranging our baggage, for we had still to traverse a long glacier, and to get clear of two ice-falls before it was dark; so at 5.35 we resumed the march, adjourning eating and drinking, and put on a spurt which took us clear of the Glacier Blanc by 7.45 p.m. We got clear of the moraine of the Glacier Noir at 8.45, just as the last remnant of daylight vanished. Croz and myself were a trifle in advance of the others, and fortunately so for us; for as they were about to commence the descent of the snout of the glacier, the whole of the moraine that rested on its face peeled off and came down with a tremendous roar.

We had now the pleasure of walking over a plain that is known by the name of the Pré de Madame Carle, covered with pebbles of all sizes and intersected by numerous small streams or torrents. Every hole looked like a stone, every stone like a hole, and we tumbled about from side to side until our limbs and our tempers became thoroughly jaded. My companions, being both short-sighted, found the traveling especially disagreeable; so there was little wonder that when we came upon a huge mass of rock as big as a house, which had fallen from the flanks of Pelvoux, a regular cube that offered no shelter whatever, Moore cried out in ecstasy, “Oh, how delightful! the very thing I have been longing for! Let us have a perfectly extemporaneous bivouac.” This, it should be said, was when the night threatened thunder and lightning, rain and all other delights.

The pleasures of a perfectly extemporaneous bivouac under these circumstances not being novelties to Croz and myself, we thought we would try for the miseries of a roof, but Walker and Almer, with their usual good-nature, declared it was the very thing that they too were longing for; so the trio resolved to stop. We generously left them all the provisions (a dozen cubic inches or thereabouts of bacon fat and half a candle), and pushed on for the châlets of Aléfroide, or at least we thought we did, but could not be certain. In the course of half an hour we got uncommonly close to the main torrent, and Croz all at once disappeared. I stepped cautiously forward to peer down into the place where I thought he was, and quietly tumbled head over heels into a big rhododendron bush. Extricating myself with some trouble, I fell backward over some rocks, and got wedged in a cleft so close to the torrent that it splashed all over me.

The colloquy which then ensued amid the thundering of the stream was as follows: “Hullo, Croz!” “Eh, monsieur?” “Where are you?” “Here, monsieur.” “Where is here?” “I don’t know: where are you?” “Here, Croz;” and so on.

The fact was, from the intense darkness and the noise of the torrent, we had no idea of each other’s situation: in the course of ten minutes, however, we joined together again, agreed we had quite enough of that kind of thing, and adjourned to a most eligible rock at 10.15. How well I remember the night at that rock, and the jolly way in which Croz came out! We were both very wet about the legs, and both uncommonly hungry, but the time passed pleasantly enough round our fire of juniper, and until long past midnight we sat up recounting, over our pipes, wonderful stories of the most incredible description, in which, I must admit, my companion beat me hollow. Then throwing ourselves on our beds of rhododendron, we slept an untroubled sleep, and rose on a bright Sunday morning as fresh as might be, intending to enjoy a day’s rest and luxury with our friends at La Ville de Val Louise.

I have failed to give the impression I wish if it has not been made evident that the ascent of the Pointe des Écrins was not an ordinary piece of work. There is an increasing disposition now-a-days, amongst those who write on the Alps, to underrate the difficulties and dangers which are met with, and this disposition is, I think, not less mischievous than the old-fashioned style of making everything terrible. Difficult as we found the peak, I believe we took it at the best, perhaps the only possible, time of the year. The great slope on which we spent so much time was, from being denuded by the avalanche of which I have spoken, deprived of its greatest danger. Had it had the snow still resting upon it, and had we persevered with the expedition, we should almost without doubt have ended with calamity instead of success. The ice of that slope is always below, its angle is severe, and the rocks do not project sufficiently to afford the support that snow requires to be stable when at a great angle. So far am I from desiring to tempt any one to repeat the expedition, that I put it on record as my belief, however sad and however miserable a man may have been, if he is found on the summit of the Pointe des Écrins after a fall of new snow, he is likely to experience misery far deeper than anything with which he has hitherto been acquainted.

19. See vol. i., p. 73, of Alpine Journal. We considered the height assigned to the final peak by Mr. Bonney was too small, and thought it should have been 200 feet more.