American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

A Visit to Chamonix in 1857

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  • Publication Year: 1944

A Visit to Chamonix in 1857

(The Diary of Fred Trower, Jr.)

In 1857 Fred Trower, Jr., was about 14 years old. Toward the end of July he accompanied his father, mother, sister and a Mr. Winter on a first tour of the Continent, going by Antwerp, Dresden, Vienna and Tyrol to Venice, returning by Milan and the Simplon. In September, toward the end of this long journey, the young man went with his father and Mr. Winter to Chamonix, after which he was taken to attend Mr. Sillig’s school1 near Vevey.

In the following month, October, 1857, the entire school made an autumn excursion to Chamonix. The description which follows was written during this time. Young Trower had been there only a few weeks before, and his desire for writing was satiated; so he found it expedient, for a required task, to copy into his diary certain paragraphs from a huge journal completed in September. Nevertheless, he presents a lively picture of a vacation in the valley of Chamonix, when it was less frequented than in later times. The diary, in precise handwriting, fills a small octavo book of thin paper, bound in blue and gold. Inserted are a number of quaint lithographs illustrating the scenery of the valley. Punctuation, capital letters and paragraphing have been added to the transcription, for the young author was enjoying life too thoroughly to be troubled with trivial matters.

The Alpine Club Register mentions Henry Trower as an original member of the club, who accompanied William Longman on the latter’s first Alpine tour in 1856, an account of which they published jointly. It is probable that Henry Trower was a relative of the present diarist and the inspiration of the 1857 tour.—[Ed.]

It was in the month of October that, the weather being favorable, we decided to make our Autumn tour to Chamouny, taking a knapsack between two boys. The party was composed of the whole school, which then consisted of 65 boys and 7 masters, Mr. Sillig included. [On the first day they went on foot from Vevey to Villeneuve and Bex, thence by cart to Martigny, where they put up at the “hotel of the Tour.”]

2nd day. From Martigny to Chamouny. We were called at 6 a.m. and as the weather was very fine we determined to set off. So after having had breakfast, we started with 15 mules to carry the knapsacks and likewise for the boys when they got tired. Asall the boys knew how to ride, we did not require more than 4 guides to the 15 mules, and two going on in front to show the way. Immediately on leaving Martigny the ascent gets steep for half the way, the path crosses fine pastures, and for the other a good path which has lately been made and is covered with birch trees, so it makes the walk very agreeable. About I/2 an hour before arriving at the Forclaz we had a fine view of the course of the Rhone, and could likewise see Sion in the distance. We could not see Martigny, as it was hid by a mountain. At the top of the Forclaz we bought some refreshments, as we found the sun rather hot coming down on our backs.

After leaving the Forclaz the path began to descend rapidly. Before arriving at the hamlet of Trient, we passed the path that goes over the Col de Balme. We soon after crossed the torrent called the Trient, which descends from the glacier of Trient and the Tête Noire. After crossing the Trient the path again begins to ascend and passes through forests, and is very pleasant walking as the trees shade the path. The little village of Trient is situated in a deep valley, above which are fearful precipices and from which several rocks have fallen. After walking for some time through a forest, we at last came round a corner which brought us in sight of the Tête Noire, where there is a comfortable hotel. From there the scenery is very fine. A short time after passing by the Inn, we passed a place where a guide some years ago during the night fell down and broke his legs and arms. He now begs there. Just by there we passed through a tunnel cut out of the rocks so that it might give admittance to the path. Just after passing the tunnel we had a fine view of the Trient, which flows beneath.

After walking for about an hour’s time we came into the Valley of Orsine. We entered the valley by a narrow gorge and the scenery is not very fine, but in the season it abounds in all the wild fruit. The torrent of the Trient forces its way through into the more open valley below, acquiring in its course fresh forces from the contribution of numerous waterfalls and streams which descend from the glaciers above. In this gorge a sort of barrier or gate makes the frontier of Savoy, near to which a small redoubt has been thrown up. From there we had a fine view of the mountains above, which had a little snow on them. Before long we arrived at the hotel Barberine, where we were all very glad to arrive as we were rather fatigued with the walk and the heat ofthe sun. As soon as the mules arrived we ordered lunch and in the meanwhile we amused ourselves in buying different curiosities.

As soon as we had finished lunch we started again on the road for Chamouny. Soon after leaving the hotel we saw a little way from us the waterfall of the Barberine. Not far from here we crossed the torrent of the Trient by means of a bridge. We soon after arrived at the village of the Val’orsine. It is a poor village of a few inhabitants and has often been nearly destroyed by pieces of rock falling down from the neighboring mountains, its church having been so often nearly swept away that it is now propped up by walls. We then came into a very sterile valley, all covered with rocks and where wheat or barley is never brought to perfection. The Eau Noire, the torrent of the Val Orsine, passes through it. Looking up above us we saw the lofty snow tops of the mountain called the Buet. The next hamlet we came to was that of Contine. After about an hour’s walk we came in sight of the village of Argentière, near to where the road turns off to go over the Col de Balme. Argentière is the third and highest village in the valley. Here the magnificent glacier of Argentière is seen streaming down between the Aiguille of Argentière and La Tour. The mule path here is turned into a road for carts; the valley is much more fertile. At Argentière we waited for the mules to come up, but as they did not arrive we went on without them. From half way between Argentière and Chamouny we had our first view of Mont Blanc.

We arrived at Chamouny and went to the hotel de la Couronne, which Mr. Sillig had hired expressly for us. After waiting for about an hour the mules arrived with the knapsacks, and as soon as all the boys had arrived we sat down to dinner, which we were quite ready for. In the evening we walked about the town. It is now a large and important community, which displays almost the bustle of a English watering place in the most retired of the Alpine valleys. With the exceptions of the large hotels which have there been built, the village, as most other Swiss villages, consists of only a few cottages. Great part of it was burnt in the year 1855. Independently of the view of the fine Mont Blanc, the village has a desolate air about it. It is sometimes called from a Benedictine convent, La Prieurie, which was there founded in the year 1167. The name Chamouni is derived from the words Campus Munitus, or fortified field, on account of the mountains that surround it. It is impossible to imagine the bustle and excitement of Chamouny in summer. In June, July, August and September the hotels are often so full that the travellers coming in late at night have great difficulty in finding rooms. All the hotels are shut up from October to May, and likewise all the shops, as no visitors ever come there in winter, as there is a foot of snow generally on the ground. All the hotels and shops were shut up when we were there, but they opened them as they thought they might sell some things to us. In the evening when we arrived we had a fine view of Mont Blanc and the sky from all appearances seem to promise fine weather for the next day. As it grew dark we went to bed all very tired after a walk of 25 miles.

3rd day. Chamouny. We were called at 6 a.m. and after breakfast we started with 3 mules and 2 guides for the Mer de Glace and the Montanvert. Before leaving the town we had a fine view of Mont Blanc. We were very fortunate in having a fine day, because if it had been wet we should have had no view whatever and have had nothing to do. On leaving the village we crossed over the river, namely the Arve, and the path then passes through fine meadows, and the walk was very agreeable as the sun was not yet hot. After leaving the meadows the path suddenly gets worse and passes through rocks and by stumps of trees. After an hour’s walk the path got much steeper and every now and then passes by the places where the avalanches pass in winter. At last after a walk of very nearly 3 hours we arrived at the Montanvert, and the first thing we saw in arriving was the Mer de Glace. There is an inn up there where provisions can be procured. It is kept by an old guide, namely David Coupet [Couttet]. Formerly there was only an old hut2 which did not afford much shelter, but at present there is a very comfortable little house where a bed can be found if any body wished to sleep there in order to visit the Jardin early in the morning.

From the Montanvert the Mer de Glace is seen for an extent of 2 leagues up the valley towards the Mont Periades and the Aiguilles of Lechaud, on either side of which a branch continues; that on the W. forming the great glacier of Tacul and that on the E. the glacier of Lechaud. Directly across the Mer de Glace are some of the finest peaks, which form so striking and peculiar features to the scenery of Chamouny. The nearest is the Aiguille of Dru. The loftiest of this mass is the Aiguille Verte which rises 13,000 ft. above the level of the sea and nearly 7000 ft. above the Montanvert. The view of this enormous sea of ice is one of the most beautiful wished for; notwithstanding its size it is not appreciated so much at the first sight, but if you are not able to cross it, it is necessary to descend onto the glacier and examine the fine blue colour of its crevices. All the edges are covered with stones and give it a dirty appearance.

It is now very common to cross it to the Chapeau but, unfortunately, we were too many to do so. The passage of the glacier occupies about an hour and a half and in ordinary seasons presents no danger whatever; the mules can be sent around by the road to the other side. We had to content ourselves by going on to the glacier for 100 yards and then returning. From the Montanvert an excursion can be made across the Mer de Glace and from thence to the Jardin, but we could not walk it as it took too much time to do it in.

After having had some refreshments we retraced our steps toward Chamouny following the same path. When we arrived at Chamouny we amused ourselves by buying several things, such as souvenirs of the different places about, and of crystals found on the different glaciers. At 1 p.m. when all had returned from the Montanvert we had lunch, during which Mr. Sillig told us that in the afternoon we were going to the glacier of Bossons, everybody on a mule. So after dinner all the mules were arranged before the hotel and every boy was given one. And the people at Chamouny say they do not ever remember having seen so many mules out together for years. The number of mules was 70. I was fortunate in having a good one, but the reins and saddle were very bad. I broke my reins before leaving the village. We went in single file and trotted all the way. Shortly after leaving the village we passed by a wood which shaded us from the heat of the sun; but soon after leaving there we came to a halt. It was on account of Mr. Sillig’s saddle turning round, and he fell off and very seriously hurt his hand, which did not heal for months. As soon as Mr. Sillig’s hand was bound up we started on again, and before long we left the road and turned up to the left and hada good canter through the fields, which our mules had not had before for some months.

About half a league further on we crossed the stream that runs from the glacier of Taconay, and soon we arrived at the hamlet of Bossons, but we did not stop there but went on to the edge of the glacier where we left our mules, and they returned part of the way and were then brought up to meet us at the other side of the glacier. The glacier des Bossons stretches further out into the valley than any other. It is a beautiful object at a distance, but it deserves close examination on account of the purity of its ice and elegant forms of the pyramids; some of them at from 60 to 80 ft. high. There is no danger whatever in crossing it. The other thing is to keep your eyes open and look out that you do not fall into a crevice, but it is not safe to go across without a guide as you are liable to miss your road and it is not very distinctly marked. There are several precious stones there found, likewise crystals which can be bought at the shops at Chamouny, where they are sold very cheap.

When we got to the other side of the glacier we decided to go to the waterfall of Chède and there we would wait for the mules. It took us ¾ of an hour to get to the cascade but the walk was through a wood and very cool. When we arrived there we saw the mules in the distance. The cascade is very pretty; it comes out of a rock but there was not a great rush of water, but it is finer in the spring months. After we had seen the cascade and had rested ourselves we started to meet the mules, and it was great fun to see everybody fighting for his own mule. As soon as we were all mounted we set off for Chamouny again, but the road was too steep to trot down, so we had to walk them down till we arrived at the high road. When we there arrived we set off at full gallop and did not stop till we got to Chamouny, and people seemed much astonished to see us riding their mules so hard and they said that they would not lend them again. I do not think they had been ridden so hard for some years and they will not forget our visit. By the time we all had returned dinner was ready.

In the evening we amused ourselves by walking about the village and buying different souvenirs of the place. We had a fine view of Mont Blanc. The guides all charge very high, and it is because they are so many. They have to be taken in order, and if onegoes out of his turn he is fined. There are about 200 in all, and they get about 2 turns a year. There are about 150 mules, but they can be hired without their proprietor. At 9 p.m., as it got cold, we returned to the hotel and went to bed.

4th day. From Chamouny to Martigny by the Col de Balme. We were called at 6 a.m. and again the weather was favourable and we had another view of Mont Blanc. After having had breakfast we arranged our knapsacks on the mules and then set off on foot for Martigny, some riding on the mules and the others walking; those who walked going by the Col de Balme and those who rode by the Tête Noire as it is easier for them, as there is not as much up hill work. We passed by the Mer de Glace, which looks very fine from the road, and by the side of the glacier we saw a very fine waterfall. It forms one of the affluents of the Arve and formerly issued from beneath a vault or cave of ice with which the Mer de Glace terminates, but by one of the changes to which glaciers are so liable the stream now finds its way out by the side of the glacier somewhat higher up. The scenery about the source is very fine, and the cave may be entered, but with difficulty and danger as great blocks of ice are liable to fall. Three people were crushed to death two years ago. The advance and recession of the glacier depends upon the seasons. In fine weather it advances, as the heat melts the ice and makes it spread. Several enormous blocks come down and sometimes do great damage.

Shortly after passing by the glacier we arrived at Argentière, where we had to wait till the guide came up to show us the road. At Argentière there is a very fine glacier where several crystals are found. We (the walkers) left the mules, they going back by the Tete Noire and we by the Col de Balme. The path began to ascend immediately on leaving the village. The path lies down over fine pasturages and passes by the chalets of Charmillan, and by the hamlet of La Tour, where cultivation, though scanty, is found. They manage to cultivate barley, oats and flax. Not far from there we passed by the torrent which is one of the springs of the Arve. On the banks of this torrent we observed several large heaps of slaty rubbish, so we asked what it was and the guide said it is brought down by the torrent, and the inhabitants pile it up and take great care of it, and that in winter, at least spring, when the snow is about to thaw they put this slaty rubbish on it and make it disappear a month or 6 weeks sooner than it would

do without it. The path was fatiguing as it kept winding round and round and was likewise rather steep, but every now and then we came to springs coming out of the mountain.

As we got higher up we got above the clouds and they resembled very much a large glacier. Mont Blanc looked very fine. After walking for another hour we arrived at the top of the pass where we found snow in several places. We found someone already at the inn; as he heard that we were coming he brought some things up there. It is too cold in winter to live up there, and very few people live at Chamouny during the winter months as there is a great deal of snow. While they were preparing our lunch, we amused ourselves by walking up the adjoining mountains. The view from the Col de Balme is something most beautiful, containing the valley of Chamouny and the Mer de Glace and the surrounding mountains. I forgot to say that before arriving at the col we passed by a fine glacier called La Tour. We were not sorry when lunch was ready, as the cold gave us an appetite. The lunch only consisted of bread, cheese and wine, as we could have no meat as there was none in the inn. Several of our provisions were brought from Chamouny by the guides. At the Col de Balme beds may be had if any body is overtaken by a storm, but from all appearances they are not very comfortable; not so comfortable as the Tête Noire.

After lunch we started again, but we could have gone round to the Tête Noire and have met the others if we had wished so to do, but we did not as it would have made the walk too tiring. The guide said that he had never walked so fast over the Col de Balme and that he hoped he would never do it again. Immediately on leaving the inn the descent gets very steep and the path is very bad, and was all covered with snow. The first houses we came to were called the Herbagères. Soon after, we passed through the forest called Magnin, which takes 40 minutes to traverse. The path through it is exceedingly steep, and every now and then crosses the stump of an old tree, and it is astonishing how the mules can pass them without falling, yet there is very rarely an accident. We soon after crossed the Trient and we then followed the margin upwards.

We soon joined the path coming from the Tête Noire and we expected to see the other boys there, but we arrived there an hour or more before them. We took some refreshments and the guide

owned he was very done up, and they never walk fast with the mules, and he said he did not at all like going with us. At last we feared that something was wrong, and at last one of the boys was seen coming up in sight, and soon he arrived so we inquired what was the matter. He said they had been delayed on account of one of the guides being kicked by a mule.

It appeared that one of the mules was kicking most tremendously, and the guide saw it kicking, so he went up to stop it and the mule kicked him in the forehead and he dropped down senseless, and they thought he was dead. But soon after that they brought some water and happily he recovered his senses again, but had not the strength to walk, so they had to go to the hotel of the Tete Noire to fetch a shutter to carry him on, and they left him there under the care of the hotel keeper and sent on to Martigny for his parents and a doctor.

The view from the Forclaz is very fine indeed, over the valley of the Rhone and Martigny. As soon as all the boys arrived, we lef the Forclaz and descended very rapidly, and in two hours we arrived at Martigny. The path is very bad in some parts and it made it very tiring to walk down, almost as tiring as to go up. When we arrived at Martigny, as we had some time to spare, we went to visit the castle of La Batie [Bâtiaz], from where we had a very fine view over the valley of the Rhone. When we returned to the hotel we found all the others ready for dinner. After dinner, as we had nothing else to do, we walked about the town. When it got dark we returned to the hotel and were glad to get to bed after a walk of 29 miles.

5th day. From Martigny to Vevey. We were called at 8 a.m. After having had breakfast we started in carts to take us to Bex. At Martigny the Rhone makes an abrupt bend, forming nearly a right angle. For many miles above the valley through which it flows is a flat swamp, rendered desolate and unwholesome by the overflowing of the Rhone and its tributaries. Very nearly all the inhabitants of the valley are infected by the goitre and cretinism. The appearance of decrepitude, deformity and misery attracts attention at every step.

Marks of the inundation of 18183 are seen on the houses. It appears that in 1818 the people of Martigny were alarmed on account of the low state of the river Dranse, and every now and then they heard great noises. So in April some people determined to go and see what was the matter, and they found that vast masses of the glaciers of Gétroz and avalanches of snow had fallen in a narrow part of the valley, between Mont Pleureur and Mont Mauvoisin and formed a dike of ice and snow 600 ft. wide and 400 ft. high, behind which the waters of the Dranse had accumulated and formed a lake 7000 ft. long. So they immediately sent several men up there to work, so as to make a tunnel to carry the water off. It took them very nearly a month to pierce the tunnel through. At last, when it was finished, they warned the people of Martigny against the rush of water that was coming. The lake sunk 10 ft. in the first 32 hours and during the 24 following hours 20 ft. more. The greatest accumulation of water had been 800,000,000 cubic ft. At last the pressure on the tunnel was so great that it broke and the water come down with a most tremendous rush. In I/2 hour 530,000,000 cubic ft. of water passed. Through the first 70,000 ft. it passed at the velocity of 33 ft. per second. It was charged with rocks, earth, trees, houses and cattle. Thirty-four persons were killed, 400 cottages swept away, and the damage done in 2 hours exceeded a million Swiss pounds. All the bridges in its course were swept away.

Soon after leaving Martigny we passed by the Sallenche, where we got out of the carts and went quite close to the waterfall. It was not very fine, as there was not much water. After passing through St. Maurice we arrived at Bex, where we found Madame Sillig who had come to meet us. We dined at Bex and in the evening we returned by train to Villeneuve, from where we took the steamer to Vevey and at 8 p.m. arrived at Bellerive.

1 Oskar Sillig, whose school at La Tour de Peilz, near Vevey, was well patronized by English families, was a capable mountaineer. One of his most apt pupils, in 1890, was the German climber, W. Rickmer Rickmers, whom he first introduced to this sport.

2 The first shelter on the Montanvert was a shepherd’s hut, known as the Chateau. This was succeeded by Blair’s cabin (Utile dulci) in 1779, and by the Desportes shelter (à la Nature)—which still exists—in 1795. The old Montanvert inn was opened in 1840, and the present hotel in 1879. See A. J. 35, 165; La Semaine Littéraire, October 6th, 1923.

3 Charpentier, Course a L’Eboulement du Glacier du Gétros et au Lac de Mauvoisin, au fond de la Vallée de Bagnes, 16 mai 1818; Second course a la Vallée de Bagnes, 21 juin 1818.

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