The Second American Ascent of Mont Blanc
Dr. Israel Tisdale Talbot, who made the second complete American ascent of Mont Blanc, was born at Sharon, Mass., in 1829, and died at Boston in 1899. Graduating from Homeopathic Medical College of Philadelphia with the class of 1853, he took the degree of M.D. at Harvard in the following year. He became Professor of Surgery at Boston University, 1873-78, then Dean, a position which he filled until his death. (For portrait and other details see A.A.J., ii, 363.)
He went abroad in the summer of 1854, being twenty-seven years of age in the year of his ascent. Dr. Talbot’s account, which follows, appeared as an Appendix to the Rev. Cyrus A. Bartol’s Pictures of Europe (Boston: 1855).—Ed.
MOUNTAIN-CLIMBING has now become so common among laymen, as well as professional rovers, that the wonderful adventures and hair-breadth escapes of the last half-century are almost unheard of today; or, if repeated, are only smiled at as the inexperience of juveniles, or the weakness of senility. Mountains have either very much decreased in size, or our ideas of their grandeur have undergone a radical change. Why! Mount Washington, that giant mountain, a few years since was far outside the bounds of civilization; and the first ascent of it was heralded by all the journals of the country, and would have drawn to the daring individual, who performed the feat, a life-pension from government, were it not that republics are ungrateful. Now it has become a fashionable place of resort for our pleasure- loving citizens when they wish to avoid the “melting mood;” and rival hotels at the summit seat their crowds of visitors at sumptuous dinners. The ascent is made with scarce an hour’s forethought, and becomes a morning ride or an afternoon ramble. Smaller mountains have sunk into insignificance; and few would think of going to the top of Wachusett, Monadnock, or Kiarsarge, and reporting that they had ascended a mountain. Mount Vesuvius, that entrance to Hades, or workshop of Vulcan, as one may choose to call it, is the place for sick people to visit when they wish to take a sulphur-bath on a grand scale; to feel the actual motion of the earth; to see eggs or potatoes roasted on the ground ; or to get impressions, from the molten rock rolling along at their feet, of coins which are skilfully extracted from their pockets by the ingenious beggars. ’T is a pleasant way of spending a day.
Mount Blanc itself has diminished in magnitude by the constant efforts of the guides “good and faithful.” The goat-path has been cleared of some of its rolling stones; the ladder has climbed to the last point of land, and given its name to the Pierre de l’Echelle, where it rests from its labors from year to year; and the stone hovel has been replaced by the Hotel des Grands Mulets. Above this, the “bald, awful head” remains conservative to all human influences, and only yields to the progressive changes of the descending snow, or the mighty, falling avalanches. The names can now be reckoned of nearly half a hundred who have stood upon its summit; and if the signs of the times be correct, ere the close of the present century, not scores, but thousands, will have gazed upon the grandest, most varied, magnificent, and illimitable scene which Nature, in her richest profusion, presents to mortal vision. Physical, like mental elevation, when unattended by fear, does in itself afford an indescribable sensation of pleasure. High up above the dust and grovelling passions of the lower earth, one seems to breathe a purer, lighter atmosphere, unpolluted by the sins and miseries of humanity. Never yet have I stood in such a position that I have not yet felt myself made better by it,—more thankful to our Father for the many blessings he has bestowed, the many beauties he has scattered over the earth, and the pre-eminent pleasure we may feel in our power of enjoying them. As my eye has wandered over the beautiful landscape, wide-spread beneath me, my mind has involuntarily ascended to find itself nearer the great First Cause. Pleasant it is to see others like myself enjoying mountain-scenery, even in its wildest and strangest phases; and, since there is at present such a decided upward tendency, each one should do something to improve the path for those next succeeding.
It is for this purpose, and perhaps to furnish reminiscences to those who have already made the trip, or an hour of pleasure to those who have not, and will not, that I transcribe some of the occurrences of the pleasantest excursion of my life, which, though not entirely devoid of danger, presented far less than I had always imagined, and than the popular mind attributes to it.
The ascent of Mont Blanc had been a cherished idea with me from early childhood; the origin of which might perhaps be traced to Saussure’s graphic account of his adventures, which I chanced to find in “A Book of Travels and Travellers.” The picture accompanying it perhaps added to the impression. It represented a man clinging by his hands to the edge of a terrible precipice, while none of his companions seemed to care for him; and, farther on, two men, at the top on an inaccessible point of ice, were pulling up a third by means of a rope. But how the first ever got there without wings, was a mystery to me. Later, Pococke and Windham’s description of Chamouni and the Glaciers came in my way; and my enthusiasm was not decreased by the brilliant accounts of more recent travellers which I read from time to time. An interview with the celebrated Dr. Hamel,1 whose attempted ascent in 1820 terminated so fatally, gave me much information regarding the trip; and, notwithstanding the sadness which settled on his brow as he referred to the poor lost guides, I determined to make the ascent at my earliest opportunity.
My first view of the “monarch of mountains” was the glorious one which bursts upon the vision from the summit of the Col de Balme. Surrounded by its Aiguilles, placed like sentinels at fixed distances, it rears its head high above all else; and yet even here it did not seem of such immense magnitude as one would suppose from its actual height. Still greater was the disappointment when it was seen from the valley of Chamouni. The Dôme de Goûté, a nearer and much smaller mountain, seems the larger, and is often mistaken by strangers for the crowned monarch of the hills. The Aiguille du Midi, too. from its apparent height and form, looks as though it might be a spire to this mighty dome.
Time had passed so rapidly amid the enchanting scenery of the Tyrol, that I was absolutely compelled to limit my journey- ings in Switzerland to a very few days. There was no time for carefully observing the barometer; none for a long preparation; hardly enough for the trip: and, even upon the spot, I felt that I should be obliged to relinquish the project I had for years so earnestly contemplated. Many were the long and lingering looks of disappointment and regret which I cast toward the summit; but all to no purpose. It neither seemed to beckon me nor nodits head in recognition of me, but remained as stolid and indifferent as though I had never given it a passing thought. The first two days at Chamouni were spent in making the usual trips to the Glaciers, the Cascade du Dard and des Pelerins, the source of the Arveiron, Montanvert, the Mer de Glace, and the strange and beautiful Jardin. It is not a light day’s work to go to the Jardin, and return; yet I wonder that so large a proportion of the strong, healthful, nature-loving, sight-seeing visitors of Chamouni should fail to make this trip, so replete with beauty, wildness, and adventure. The perpendicular mountain, against which we pressed ourselves and made our way, a hundred feet above the glacier, with scarce three inches footing, dignified by the name of bridge—Le Petit and Le Grand Pont; the mighty Mer de Glace, with its transfixed waves, from crest to crest of which we went, skipping, Switzer-like, aided by our long bâtons and the invigorating air which came fresh down the valley; Le Moulin, with its raging waters of unknown depth; the Couvercle, covered and partly formed by the immense mass of débris brought down by the glacier; then the Glacier du Talêfre, with its waves bright blue and sparkling; and a little farther, the Jardin itself, with its daisies, wild-flowers, and bright-green grass, situated in the midst of a sea of ice, and protected by lofty mountains, down whose precipitous sides the ice came tumbling in vast avalanches, but never touching the consecrated spot,—all have associations which cannot be forgotten by one who has once seen them.
As I lay upon the grass, contemplating the wild scene before me,—the Mer de Glace, with its waves glittering in the sunlight many hundred feet below; on the right the forked Aiguille des Charmoz, and on the left the Grandes Jorasses; directly in front the long, unbroken surface of the Glacier du Tacul, which seemed one grand highway up the side of Mont Blanc, with the mountain itself, seen best from this position, now towering above every thing else, and showing its true grandeur,—all these urged me to carry out my original intention. I had no power to resist, turning to my guide, I asked him if he would go with me to the summit on the following day. An emphatic “Oui monsieur,” and eyes sparkling with pleasure at the very thought, settled the matter with him at once. Seeking the other guides, of whom there were some ten or twelve on the Jardin, accompanying a still larger number of Englishmen, I chose the finest-looking of their number for my chief guide, who proved to be the famous David Couttet, noted for his coolness and excellent judgment; and I had no reason to regret my choice. To him I intrusted all the care of choosing the other guides, directing only that they should be of perfectly sober habits; and four braver, more active, and faithful fellows never trod the mountain-side.2
When my determination was made known to the company, they greeted me most cordially; and difference of nationality interposed no barrier to the interchange of the most friendly greetings. “God save the Queen” and “Hail Columbia” were sung with united voices; and the mountains echoed back the strains with peculiar sweetness. They then drank to my health, and success in the undertaking.
At rapid speed we hastened back to the village to make preparations for the following day. The lengthening shadows of the Brevent had already covered the valley; and the sunlight was rapidly creeping up the side of the mountain, as if to show me the easiest manner of ascent. I had little time for moralizing or admiring. A single night was left for completing our outfit; which consisted of clothing of extra thickness, overcoats, boots fitted with iron nails, fur collars, ear-pieces, mittens, green veils, blue spectacles, knapsacks, ropes, ice-axes, Alpen stocks, and all the et caeteras of the journey. The hostess of the Hotel de la Couronne, where I stopped, one of the faithful family of Tairraz, from whom I received many kindnesses during my sojourn, at once put all the culinary department of the establishment into active service, and prepared every thing to the entire satisfaction of the party.
Government compels every traveller to have no less than four guides; and each of these, as well as the traveller, must have a porter to accompany him as far as the Grand Mulets. It requires no small quantity of provisions to supply ten strong, healthy men, violently laboring for two or three days amid the glaciers. The following is the list3 of the principle edibles packed into the knapsacks:—
6 Large Loaves of Bread.
2 Quarters of Roast Veal.
Legs of Roast Mutton.
1 Boiled Ham.
Large Piece of Roast Beef. 12 Chickens.
5 Lbs. Chocolate.
5 Lbs. Sugar.
4 Lbs. Figs.
10 Bottles Vin Ordinaire.
1 Small Cask of Vin Ordinaire.
1 Bottle Brandy.
Besides these, there were numerous other articles, such as the guides thought necessary, convenient, or palatable. The small cask of wine was for the dinner at the Pierre de l’Echelle; and the bottle of brandy was returned unopened. The trip usually occupies three days, and is made by reaching the Grand Mulets the first, spending the night there, going to the summit and back the second, and returning to the village the third day. This is making easy work of it. But, being pressed for time, I resolved, that, at farthest, it should not occupy more than two days. Still it was necessary to have a good supply of provisions; and, from the state of the weather, we came near needing it all.
There was not much sleep for our party that night; and the next morning, as we collected together, we found that a cloud had been thrown over our prospects, as it had over the tops of the mountains. The weather, which for some weeks had been clear, was now cloudy; the barometer, which had stood at “fair weather” on the preceding evening, was now at “variable;” and no shaking of the instrument by the guides would change its position. Light, fleecy clouds floated up and down the mountainside ; and no breath from us, no wishes or entreaties, moved them. After watching and waiting a long time, the guides, anxious for the ascent, decided that it was clearing off; that the clouds were moving up the mountain, and it would be safe to proceed at once. Packing up as quickly as possible, when such was the word of command, at half-past eight, on the morning of the 25th August, 1854, we commenced the line of march on an expedition whose difficulties I little understood, and whose dangers had been greatly exaggerated. I confess to some slight misgivings as I placed a package of letters and papers in the hands of my friend, Mr. Beck, of Boston, and, with all the nonchalance possible, told him he must dispose of them according to circumstances. All fears vanished as we heard our footsteps on the bridge of the village, and felt ourselves really on the way. But soon our fearschanged to another direction. “ ’Tis raining, as I’m alive!” “Never mind; ’tis only a shower. We are in for it now: we have started, and must not turn back.” So on we go, through woods, over rocks, up, up, up the steep sides of the mountain. When seemingly above all human habitation, the tinkling of cowbells and a shepherd’s voice told us that we were not entirely alone. Here we were at the Châlet de la Para, a miserable hut, at which during the summer season, an old herdsman lives, tending his flock, and spending the time in knitting stockings and making cheese. We stopped to rest ourselves and talk with the old man, who told us that many summers he had passed four or five months here without seeing a single person with whom he could speak. He gave us some nice warm whey to drink, and butter and eggs to take to the Grand Mulets. As he declined accepting money, we offered him a bottle of wine in return; but even this he refused, saying that in the summer he never drank any thing stronger than the whey which he had in abundance. We gave him our thanks, and in exchange received his à Dieu, and kindest wishes for our success and safe return on the morrow.
Our pathway now ran over a rocky and uneven surface, formed by the débris of the Glacier des Bossons. The two large glaciers, des Bossons and du Tacconay, extend from Mont Blanc to the valley of Chamouni. Between these is a long ridge of rocks and earth,—the accumulation of centuries,—which is called Montagne de la Côte. It was by this route that all the earlier ascents were made; at its upper extremity still exist the ruins of the old cabin, erected at so much labor and expense for the celebrated Saussure, previous to his ascent in 1787. This route is now abandoned on account of its greater danger and difficulty, and the one to the left of the Glacier des Bossons is adopted in preference. This is over a ridge which extends to, and forms the buttress of, the Aiguille du Midi.
Soon after leaving the châlet, we came to the last signs of vegetation; and here all hands set to work to gather firewood from the dried branches of the stunted firs which grow even here. A little farther on, we came to the Pierre Pontue, a jutting rock, with a very narrow path, overhanging a precipice of a thousand or more feet in depth. Down far, far below, is heard the roar of the mighty waters which the glacier is pressing onward. Now you climb over the sharp rocks, piled on each other, and feel them give way beneath your feet: again, as you creep along the perpendicular side of some huge rock, with scarce an inch of footing, you wonder that your feet remain so firm. But nobody thinks of fear here; for every one gets safely over. Still a little farther, and we have the Pierre de l’Echelle, the last point of land.
The rain had continued at intervals during the ascent, sometimes in gentle drops or pelting showers; or, as it ceased, the up-lifting clouds displayed through the gracefully curling waves the checkered fields of the valley many thousand feet beneath. Some English friends, who had accompanied me thus far, were enraptured by the beautiful scenery which Nature was thus coquettishly displaying; and they now, too late, regretted that they had not made preparations to accompany me to the summit. Protected somewhat from the severe storm, still raging, by the generous old rock, we dined, and parted with many regrets,— I, that I should be alone; they, that they must lose the still more beautiful sights in advance. From underneath the old rock the trustworthy ladder was drawn out; wet knapsacks were adjusted to still wetter backs; and the firewood was broken up, and put into the most compact manner possible. Soon after leaving the Pierre de l’Echelle, we came upon the Glacier des Bossons; when suddenly the rain changed to hail, and the clouds settled about us thick and dark, as if to defeat our purpose. Crossing the glacier in every direction are immense crevasses, from five to fifty feet in width, with a depth of which we only judge by the long-continued clinking of the blocks of ice which we dropped into them. We were often obliged to make long détours to avoid these ; and the advantages of hob-nailed shoes became apparent as we walked upon the very brink of a crevasse with all the feeling of security we could have had upon the solid land. We were now in the wildest and most beautiful part of the glacier, as I found on my return on the following day. Whoever thinks that in the Mer de Glace he has seen one of Nature’s wildest freaks, can have very little conception of this place. Yawning on every side are the immense, unfathomable crevasses, with their deep-blue edges. Above them tower lofty masses, with long pendent icicles, forming towers, arches, and colonnades, of the purest turkois; and the rays of the sun, falling upon it, are reflected as by brilliants, until one feels that he is in one of the
magic palaces of Oriental story, instead of threading his way through the intricacies of an ice-field. But we had no time or inclination for admiration in our upward tour; for there was no sun to light up the magic temples; and the clouds, heavily laden with the descending hail and snow, so hemmed us in that the sense of vision was of very little service. Night was fast advancing; and we had no certainty of our position. If the cloud should thus continue, there was positive certainty of a night- bivouac in the snow. A crevasse was before us, to which there seemed no end; and the guides ran back and forth to find some means of escape. Just at this moment, the cloud lifted; and we saw, some hundreds of feet above our heads, the black, pointed rocks of the Grands Mulets. A shout of joy rose to the lips of all. Our day’s task seemed nearly at a close; and, summoning all our energies, we soon found our pathway, and were climbing at full speed up the rugged cliffs. The Grands Mulets seemed placed here, an oasis in a desert of snow and ice, to furnish rest and protection to the wearied traveller. It rises, in two or three peaks and a rugged mass of rocks, so far above the enchaining ice, that it is entirely protected from the falling avalanches. Seen from the village of Chamouni, a distance of eighteen or twenty miles, it looks like black spots on the white snow.
The march of improvement is plainly discernible here. The stone hovel, which for the last half-century has formed the only shelter, has now been superseded by a comfortable wooden building, some twenty feet long and eight feet wide, with stone walls on the outside to protect it from the wind, and provided with doors, windows, table, benches, stove and other furniture. How came this here, at a point so many miles distant from, and so many thousands of feet above, all human habitation? is the first question which suggests itself. Three years since, it was built by the combined efforts of the two hundred and forty guides of the valley, who brought upon their backs the necessary material, each guide putting his number in large figures upon his own articles; so that the inner part looks as though it had formed the basis of some important mathematical calculation.
Drenched to the skin, and chilled through by the hail and cold atmosphere, we were glad to find a pile of dry wood in the corner, left there by the last party. Soon it was crackling in flames in the stove, and afforded grateful rays of heat to thesurrounding party. Dry clothes were produced; and I was soon in a more comfortable condition. The guides who had any fresh clothing availed themselves of it; and the poor porters took off one piece after another, and held it to the stove until it was wholly or partially dry. Hats, caps, boots, mittens, overcoats, and all articles of apparel, were disposed of in the most advantageous position possible for drying; and the guides took especial care that every garment of mine should be perfectly dried for me before we should set out. A warm supper, with hot chocolate, formed no unpalatable dish, and caused our spirits to rise; and, as the shades of evening fell upon us, the light of two wax- candles, set in the mouths of wine bottles for candlesticks, gave a cheerful aspect to the room. As we all collected around the friendly, warm-hearted stove, our conversation turned upon the prospects for the morrow. On a previous occasion, one of the guides had, on account of the weather, waited here three days before he was able to proceed to the summit. A second had this season waited a week, and then been obliged to return. Another had five several times been disappointed by the bad weather. The heavy hail, falling upon the roof and driving against the door, reminded us what we, too, might expect. Once commenced, I had no disposition to leave the journey unfinished; and I made arrangements, should the storm continue, to have more provisions sent up,—resolved to remain until it became fair again. Determined to make the best of our position, I encouraged the guides to sing the “Ranz des Vaches,” which had a reviving effect; and for some hours they continued singing the wild mountain- melodies and relating stories of adventure. Gradually the conversation became less animated; and, one after another, they sought some support for their heads. Yielding to the general influence, I repaired to my couch on the floor at one end of the room, where, with my “Bay State” for a mattress and a knapsack for a pillow, I was soon sound asleep. At ten o’clock I awoke; and, hearing continued rappings at the door, went to it, only to receive a shower of hail in my face, and look out upon pitch darkness. A little more sleep; and at eleven, again the pitiless storm, the driving hail, the utter darkness, and back to bed once more.
At midnight, or a little past, I was awakened by the guides, and told that a star was visible. Anxious to confirm the good news, I sought the open air. One, two, three, were just visible overhead through the thin haze, which gradually disappeared; and out came the stars one by one, until the whole heavens seemed studded with them, twinkling as in the clear cold of a winter’s night. Beneath me, all was one dense mass of impenetrable cloud, gradually settling thicker and blacker into the valley. Soon a thunder-storm arose; and, as I sat by the door watching it below me, the heavy peals of thunder came rolling up the sides of the mountain; and the vivid lightning danced from cloud to cloud like some grand exhibition, such as no human pyrotechnist would dare attempt. To add to the grandeur and sublimity of the scene, immense avalanches of ice, loosened by the rain and snow of the preceding day, from time to time came rumbling down, shaking the mountain to its very foundation. This scene impressed me more than any thing else I saw in the mountains.
A little more sleep, and at four o’clock began our preparations for the ascent. Everything was bustle and confusion. A breakfast was to be prepared, with a cup of hot chocolate, ere we should encounter the deep snows and the cold breezes of the glaciers. But in the hot chocolate we were sadly disappointed; for, after spending more than half an hour in melting the ice and nicely preparing our beverage, to drink at the last moment before starting, with surprises and chagrin we found that a pair of the guides’ mittens, made of chamois-skin, had been violently boiling in the bottom of the kettle during the whole time. They had fallen into the kettle during the night, and in the dark had been unnoticed by the porter as he filled it. We had no time to repair our misfortune, much less disposition to taste the strangely seasoned mixture.
The guides take especial care in clothing the traveller to protect him from the cold. They wind flax about his feet, which are the most exposed part; put on two pairs of woollen stockings, with heavy leggins, extending above the knee, and firmly strapped to the foot, to prevent anything like the entrance of snow; double milled drawers; heavy Scotch-plaid pants; immoderately thick- flannel under-shirt; double-breasted vest; and two or three coats, according to the thickness. These constitute the principal part of the wardrobe. The fur about the neck and ears, a closely fitting hat, a veil, and spectacles, give a finishing touch to the unique costume. Robed in this manner, we started from the Grands Mulets at five a.m. As a first precaution, we tied ourselves together by ropes some fifteen feet long, firmly attached to the waist. The porters gave us a very hearty round of cheers, and wished us a speedy return. They were to remain here until the morning was well advanced, and then with the heavier baggage, to start for the village. The morning was as clear and beautiful as we could have wished. The rain and lightning had purified the atmosphere; and there seemed absolutely nothing to obstruct the vision. Low down in the valleys were clouds; and each had its own particular shade of color, varying from a light gray to a dark blue. Here and there a valley was entirely clear, and displayed, coursing along at its bottom, a silvery rivulet,— perhaps the accumulated tears of the mighty glaciers, weeping at their fallen state. The guides were constantly exclaiming, as they looked about them, “Quel beau temps, il fait magnifique ; quel grandeur, quel sublimité!” The morning sun was beginning to gild the tops of the mountains, and, by reflection of its rays, to cast a delicate shade on everything about us. I could not resist the temptation to stop and admire; although the guides hurried me on, fearing lest the mid-day sun should melt the snow and render the walking difficult ere we reached the summit. We had not gone far before a huge chasm, caused by the descent of an avalance of ice from the Dôme du Goûté, interposed to stop our further progress. It seemed absolutely impassable; and the demand of the guides à parler resulted in sending Devouas- soud, the lightest and most active of the company, in search of some new path. He was successful; but it required a detour of more than a mile; and then we were obliged to cross the chasm on a bridge of ice scarce three inches in width, and, in the narrowest place not more than two feet in depth,—thrown across like a piece of timber. Devouassoud went over first to try the strength of the bridge; while the athlete Couttet stood upon the edge and held firmly to the rope, letting it out slowly as he advanced. We were stationed lower down on the mountain, and strongly braced ourselves to support them in case the bridge should give way. The first once safely over, assistance was afforded from both sides to the next. All went over in safety; and in descending, though the sun had melted the ice considerably, it still remained true to its mission; and we could not but praise the frail structure which had rendered us such good service.
Three hours’ fast walking brought us to the Grand Plateau, an irregularly level plain, with abrupt mountains on three sides. The sun was shining warmly; and, sheltered from the wind, we sat down upon the snow to take a repast from our chickens and other viands. Two or three miles’ walking on the level snow brought us near the spot where the fatal accident occurred to Dr. Hamel’s party in 1820. The guides involuntarily shuddered as they pointed to the spot where, buried in the snow at an unknown depth, are preserved the bodies of their former faithful companions, and then rapidly hurried on. A steep and circuitous ascent of some four miles winds around the Rochers Rouges, and is called the Corridor. The first part of this rises at an angle of sixty degrees, and the newly fallen snow rendered it very difficult to climb. At this point, Sir Thomas Talfourd4 and his son were obliged to give up the journey; and many others, from entire exhaustion, have been compelled to follow their example. The upper part was not so steep, but one continued and hard ascent. At the top of the Corridor is the famous Mur de la Côte, which, on account of the hardness of the ice, requires steps to be cut all the way to the top,—a height of about two hundred feet. From the account I had read, and the pictures I had seen, of this terrible “wall,” I had feared this part of the ascent very much; but was agreeably disappointed. The little intervals of rest, while the guides were cutting the steps, sufficed to invigorate me; and, by the time we reached the top of the Côte, I felt quite refreshed. A little incident occurred here, which, though perplexing at the time, was of slight importance. We had brought a pistol along with us, intending to fire it from the summit; but when near the top of the Mur de la Côte, on changing the knapsack from one guide to another, the pistol fell out; and away it went, whirling on at a furious rate to the glacier beneath. It was vexatious to see it quietly lying some two hundred feet beneath us; but we had no power to conjure it back.
A walk of fifteen minutes brought us to the Petits Mulets, the last rock seen on the route; and from this point commences the Calotte, or true Mont Blanc cone, which is ascended the entire distance by zigzags. From the first we had seen summits beforeus, which, when we had climbed, displayed others equally distant from us, until at last we began to lose all our confidence, and to doubt if there were really such a thing in existence; but the moment the guides separate and say, “Here is the summit: will you ascend first?” all doubts vanish; and a few steps more place you on the crowning point of all your labors, with a view bursting upon you which no pen can describe. Better might one attempt to tell the sublimity of lightning, or the grandeur of Niagara. A hundred miles are open to you in every direction; mountains of immense height are directly below; and, from an elevation of nearly sixteen thousand feet, France, Switzerland, Austria, and Italy are spread out like a map before you.
It was just mid-day when we reached the top. The wind was blowing freshly; but the sky was clear, and not a cloud to be seen. Directly overhead, the sky was of the deepest blue, almost approaching black; but, toward the horizon, it became a lighter and more common shade. The air was perfectly pure, with none of that indefinite haze which I have almost invariably found upon other occasions in Switzerland, even in the clearest weather, and which renders distance and distant objects partially obscure. The mountains and everything within the extensive range of vision were clearly and sharply defined; and the guides, who had all visited the place before, declared that they had never seen such an atmosphere.
A range of snow-capped mountains on the east seems almost the first object to attract attention. It is the beautiful Monte Rosa, with its graceful pizzos,—white, black, and red,—which stand as faithful guardians to their lovely queen. The picture is more vividly impressed upon my mind than any other seen from the summit. The most varied and extensive view is toward the north-west. Directly beneath is the fine valley of Chamouni, with the old Priory scarcely distinguishable; and the village itself, best pointed out by the smoke of the booming cannon, which apprised me that my friends were watching. Hardly higher were the Flégère and Brevent, with a valley to separate them from the still greater Buet. Just beyond this was the beautiful Vale of Sixt; then came the Mole; and seemingly but a very short distance was the Lake of Geneva, quietly embosomed in hills. Crescentic in form, it lay like a fragmentary mirror. The famed Jura were easily distinguished; and far beyond, and a little to the southward, spread out the plains of la belle France, watered by the meandering Rhone and Saone, visible as small silvery lines.
Farther east, in the centre of Switzerland, the mountain-peaks rise without number, many of them covered with snow. Among these may be recognized the Jungfrau, Mönch, Wetter, and Faul Horns; and still more distant, standing up in clear and solitary grandeur, the famous Righi Kulm.
The south-east presents no prominent points, but seems one vast plain, with here and there a little hill rising in the midst. This view is terminated by a slight irregularity, as if to give a finish—a kind of border or fringe—to the charming landscape. It is the Apennines, stretched from the most southern point of sunny Italy, till they come within sight of the snow-clad monarch.
The Mediterranean, it is said, has never been seen from this point by travellers; but far, far away to the south, a little line of blue, differing from the horizon, was visible; and the guides at once declared it must be the sea. To me it seemed incredible, as the Gulf of Genoa, the nearest part, cannot be less than one hundred and sixty or one hundred and seventy miles. But no doubts of mine could affect the decision of the guides; and I was quite willing to abide by it, and Balboa-like, consider myself the first discoverer.
The extreme summit undoubtedly changes very much at different times.5 In a picture I have lately seen, the summit is made to resemble nothing so much as a huge wasp’s nest, round, and the sides covered with little ridges; but at this time it had a very different aspect. It was about three hundred feet in length, a a little higher at one end than the other, and very sharp and narrow the entire length. The form and appearance were similar to a steep, tiled roof. The south-western extremity is an abrupt precipice of some hundreds of feet in depth. The wind was blowing strongly from the north-east; and the only manner of remaining on the summit was by being attached with cords to the four guides, who remained lower down the side of the mountain. With one foot upon either side of Mont Blanc, and aided by my faithful baton, I slowly advanced to the very highestpart, the crowning point of Europe, if not, from its position and importance, of the whole world. I had a pebble in my pocket, which, the summer previous, I had taken from the extreme summit of Mount Washington. I broke it at this place, and left it, as a first greeting from the White Mountains—the Mont Blanc of America—to the Mont Blanc of Europe. It was with reluctance that I turned to leave the spot; but I was obliged to obey the commands of the guides, whose faces were becoming quite blue from the effects of the wind and cold.
The descent is in striking contrast with the ascent; and so agreeable is it, that, were it performed first, I think half the world would make the journey. Instead of continual climbing, panting, and struggling, there was a gentle, easy, and rapid movement, without any fatiguing effort. The iron-shod heels were firmly set in the hard snow ; and, leaning back on the bâtons, the the company, still tied together, began slowly to slide down the snowy side. Soon we had accustomed ourselves to our new position, and, with confidence in our power of keeping right side up, increased our speed to a rapid, then to a furious, rate. Down, down, down we went, over hillocks and through valleys; now striking on a ridge of snow, and now bounding up into the air. “Don’t be frightened; you are neither a Pegasus, nor so high that gravitation will not reach you. You will come down again, even if it be some ten or fifteen feet below.” On, on, till the whistle of the conductor sound. “Down with the brakes!” which consisted of the aforesaid iron heels and steel-pointed bâtons, and the train was almost instantly stopped. “Les Petits Mulets. Passengers will please dine.” The distance was more than a mile, which we had traversed in less than five minutes. After making a good dinner from the remains of our cold fowls and leg of roast mutton, we started again, and, with walking, running, jumping, and sliding, managed to make good headway, and in two hours and three-quarters were at the Grands Mulets.
At the foot of the Mur de la Côte, near where our pistol had been lying, we found two wine-bottles, which had been left by some former party. These, with one of our own, we started down the corridor in advance of us. At first they moved slowly, but, with increased momentum, soon went leaping from crag to crag and point to point, now whirling through the air, and again glissading on the smooth surface, until they were lost tosight. They had taken different directions; and, supposing we had seen the last of them, what was our surprise, on descending some three or four miles, to find the three bottles, unbroken, lying, side by side, at the bottom of a small crevasse, not far from the spot where Dr. Hamel’s party were swept away! “Peut être les trois guides son pres de là-bas,” said the honest David, as he drew a deep sigh and brushed away a tear. “Allons! chacun fait son temps. C’est mieux dans la glace que dans la mer!”
Poor fellows! they never pass this spot without thinking of their former companions, whose bodies are embalmed in the depths of the mighty glacier. But, with all its dangers, these noble-hearted fellows love the free mountain-life with an ardor almost amounting to devotion; and, when deprived of it, a homesickness seized them, which has proved so common and fatal, that physicians have given it the name of Nostalgia. It is not strange that they should prefer a grave amid the glaciers to that which so many have found in the depths of the mighty ocean.
The only accident on the descent were the breaking of one of the guides’ bâtons while we were rapidly sliding, which caused him to make several revolutions before he could stop himself,— all done, however, without injury. At another time, Simond carelessly slid over a covered crevasse where the snow was soft. Instantly it gave way; and. quicker than thought, he twirled his bâton across the crevasse, and sprang backward in time to save himself. On examining the opening, we found the crevasse about two feet wide, and of immeasurable depth.
As we entered our “hotel” at the Grands Mulets, we heard the report of the cannon from the valley below, repeated five times,— the number of our party,—showing that they knew of our position and safety. Our bills were soon settled, baggage packed up, and we en route again. The glaciers were for the last time crossed ; the moraines, with their trembling rocks and narrow paths, were passed; the châlet de la Para, with fresh whey and sociable old man, reached; and then rapidly down the mountain-sides we went, until in two hours and three-quarters from the Grands Mulets we were once more safely in the village of Chamouni; thus making the entire descent in five and a half hours,—-a distance of about thirty-two miles. Here we found our friends, and in fact the whole village, in the streets, waiting to receive us.
It is for the interest of the hotel-keepers at Chamouni to make the most possible of any uncommon occurrence; and, on the occasion of an ascent, the village is all astir. The route up the mountain is visible the entire distance; and visitors repair by hundreds to the Brevent, Flégère, and other prominent points, where, with spy-glasses and lorgnettes, they watch the progress of the party, resembling black specks moving at snail-pace on the snow. Every incident was noticed by the watchers with most powerful glasses,—even to the sitting down to lunch, and the falling of the guide in the crevasse. It was nearly eight o’clock when we entered the village. All crowded around to learn particulars ; and all seemed to have a greater estimate of our fatigue than we felt at the time. Bouquets were placed in our hands; and slowly we were allowed to wend our way through the crowd to our hotel. An arch had been erected in front of the house, through which we passed; the house itself was trimmed and illuminated; and the parlor had its centre-table covered with bouquets and champagne bottles for myself and friends; and I was then and there expected to relate to the company something strange, wonderful, or terrible in respect to my adventure. Under the excitement I felt not the fatigue, but was glad to escape from the heat of the room, the crowd of friends who were pressing about me, and the deafening reports of the cannon, which had now become almost continuous, into the comparative quiet of my own room. A cold bath and a change of clothing prepared me for a good dinner; and then, to a few of my friends, I related all incidents connected with the ascent. Before I retired to rest, the midnight stars were twinkling, clear and bright, above the head of the old mountain-king, towards which I looked with mingled feelings of awe, gratitude, and affection. My sleep was considerably disturbed by a severely painful attack of ophthalmia,— occasioned. I suppose, by the intense reflection of the sun on the white snow; my eyes, at the time, not being sufficiently protected. This lasted but a few hours, when all painful reminiscences of the trip left me.
On the following day the guides brought me a formal document on stamped paper, signed by the Syndic of the Commune of Chamouni, and bearing his seal of state, together with the signature of the director-general of the guides, and the attestations of the four guides who accompanied me. This testifiesin an exaggerated way to my courage, intrepidity, and coolness in the most perilous situations, and that this ascension was made in less time than had ever before been known. I keep the document as an evidence of the manner in which governments there do business,—taking notice of the slightest occurrences. In the evening I gave a supper to the guides, according to the usual custom. Some individuals who had before made the ascent, together, with several friends, joined us; and, with toasts, speeches, and songs, we passed an evening not soon to be forgotten. It made a happy termination of my connection with those brave fellows, who had accompanied me up the mountain, through all the labor and fatigue, and whatever of insecurity there might have been.
The difficulties and dangers attending this journey have often been exaggerated. That it requires strong lungs, a steady head, and considerable exertion, no one, who has been to the top of Bunker-hill Monument, will for a moment doubt; but the real dangers I deem very slight, and only of two kinds: First, from avalanches, against which it would be impossible for the traveller to protect himself. But there are very few of these,—perhaps not more than half a dozen annually along the route; and there is only the very slightest possibility that one will occur at the precise time and spot where the party may be. Second, crevasses, which may always be avoided by a careful and observant guide. Regarding the rarefaction of the atmosphere, I. experienced no ill effects from it whatever. That we all had short, rapid, and panting respirations, is true; but there are very few persons who have not experienced the same on ascending much smaller mountains. Indeed, the year previous, I had the same difficulty, and to a still greater extent, on ascending Mount Washington; so that it cannot be wholly attributed to the altitude. The sharp wind and cold temperature would do much toward producing the blue lips and nails; and the over-exertion, continued for hours, would be sufficient to account for all drowsiness, congestion, dizziness, and fainting.
Writh no little experience in mountain-climbing, I must say, that I have always been better able to bear the fatigue, with less ill effects afterwards, by refraining entirely from the use of stimulants during the time of the exertion; and I must strongly urge any who intend making a long and severe journey, particularlyamong mountains and mountain-scenery, to leave the brandy- flask and wine-bottle at home, and, as far as possible, induce their guides or companions to do the same. However much they may indulge at other times, they ought, on these occasions at least, to have a clear head and steady hand. I regret to say that, from the testimony of all the guides whom I questioned on the subject, and from the accounts which have been published, a large number of those who have reached the summit of Mont Blanc, and a still greater number of those who have failed in the attempt, have had all the prostration of intoxication added to that of fatigue.
In reply to the question often asked, “Would you advise any one else to make the trip?” I would say: For the mere name of having been a little higher than others, or for curiosity alone, most emphatically, No! But to one young, active, and strong, who is willing to undergo the necessary toil, fatigue, and effort, and run all risks of bad weather or failure from any cause,—for a single cloud is sufficient to destroy the whole pleasure, and leave but the remembrance of hard work; if he will incur all this for the chance of seeing the grandest and most magnificent panorama the world presents, then go by all means; and, if successful, it will afford him, as it has me, many an hour of after-pleasure. Boston, Aug. 1, 1855.
1Dr. Hamel resided in London for a number of years, and was there in 1854.
2The names of these guides were David Couttet, Alexander DeVouassoud, François Tournet, and François Simond; either of whom would have risked his own life to save mine. I must particularly recommend Tournet to any one who wants a cool, active, and daring guide.
3From the size of the party, this list is larger than Albert Smith’s!
4Vacation Rambles, ii, 192.
5A very beautiful series of four views of the Ascent of Mont Blanc, by John McGregor, Esq., has recently been published by Baxter, of London. The first, a view of theS Glaciers at Sunset, is excellent; the others might be improved.