As I said above, on July 15 we came up to stay at the Montenvers, so that we could leave at dawn the next day and venture down into the valley of ice. But where can you lay your head at the Montenvers? We slept in a château, for this is what the Chamoniards, a cheerful and mocking folk, ironically call the shabby refuge of the shepherd who guards the flocks on this alp.
|A view of the Montanvers by Carl Ludwig Hackert, c. 1781
Image by courtesy of Wikipedia
A large block of granite, carried there formerly by the glacier or by some more ancient turmoil, sits on one of its faces while another slopes up at an acute angle to the ground, thus leaving an empty space beneath it. The ingenious shepherd has sheltered himself from the circling winds by taking the projecting face of this block for the roof and ceiling of his castle, and the earth for his floor, and then walling this shelter round with dry stones. Leaving in the topmost part an open space, he has placed a doorway some forty inches high and sixteen wide. As for the windows, he has no need of them nor of a chimney; the daylight enters and the smoke seeps out through the gaps between the stones of the wall.
This is the interior of the Montenvers shepherd’s dwelling; this angular space between the granite block, and the earth and the wall forming his kitchen, bedroom, cellar and dairy, in sum all of what he calls his home. And he was kind enough to give it up to us for the night, which he himself spent with our guides in the open air around a fire that they kept going in the upper tracts of the forest. For ourselves, we strewed over the somewhat uneven floor of the castle a bale of straw that we’d brought up, yet we slept there better than one often sleeps in suites where art and luxury have exhausted all their resources. The next day, a little before daybreak, our guides came to awaken us: I was then fast asleep, and the light shining into us from behind them lit up the granite block under which we were lying so singularly that I was for some moments unable to understand where I was and what I saw.
|The Glacier des Bois and source of the Arveyon
By Jean-Anthoine Linck (via Wikipedia)
We set out at daybreak, and began by skirting the glacier, following a path fairly high above it. At first, this path is safe and easy; but a quarter of a league from the Montenvers it loses itself on the steep slope created by the slanting planes of veined granite slabs. On the two previous occasions that I had passed there, I found footing only on a few rugosities or dimples in the rock, and if one of us had slipped, he would have fallen a goodly distance onto the glacier below. But in 1778, as soon as I arrived in Chamonix, I sent two men there, who, during our trip to Buet set off some blasting charges in the rock and made this passage, if not exactly easy, at least rather less dangerous. Those who follow in our footsteps to visit the glacier will be obliged to us for having facilitated their access.
There are two passages like this, one after the other, which are known as Les Ponts. Having got by them, we went down to the glacier’s edge and for a while followed its moraine, as the rock and gravel that borders a glacier are known. We went past a freshet that springs from the rock in a natural alcove; its water is of an admirable freshness and limpidity, and hosts some beautiful Ranunculus glacialis, which grow in large clumps in a rock cleft, carpeting the whole alcove. At this point, we thought we’d try walking on the glacier, but it was still too jumbled, because its bed is still too steep here. As mentioned above, when discussing glaciers in general, they are only practicable where they are more or less level and not disrupted by the slope angle or an uneven bed.
The glacier eventually became more tractable, and we returned to it an hour and a half after leaving the Montenvers. Here, however, we faced a new difficulty. It had rained the day before, and the drops had frozen as they fell onto the glacier, forming an extremely slippery ice on its surface, which is usually rough. So we put on crampons so that we could keep our footing and step up our pace. Here and there we found crevasses that were a little too wide to cross, or slopes that were too steep to cross above these abysses; but we nevertheless kept heading east-south-east across and up the glacier. On the way, we remarked how large accumulations of hail had filled up hollows in the ice.
After a good half hour of walking on the glacier, we crossed an ice ridge heaped with earth, sand and rock debris. The ice under these ridges rises much higher than in the gaps between them because the accumulated debris keeps the sun off the ice, preventing it from melting or evaporating. Ten minutes later we crossed a second ridge higher than the first, and we judged that the ice was twenty or twenty-five feet higher under this debris than where the air and the rays of the sun could act freely upon it. We came up to a third ridge twenty minutes from the second, and the fourth, the final one, was close by.
Here we found ourselves at the point where the Glacier des Bois forks into two streams, as mentioned above, of which the one veering to the right, towards Mont Blanc, is known as the Glacier du Tacul. The other, leftward, stream is the Glacier de Léchaud. It would undoubtedly be more interesting to follow the right-hand fork, thus heading for Mont Blanc. As they looked to us, its snow and ice fields seemed to be by no means unscaleable, but appearances are deceptive. Glaciers seamed with deep crevasses masked here and there by thin layers of snow defend the approaches to this formidable mountain, although perhaps in a year with heavy snowfall, and by choosing a season when the snow is still firm, some skilful and courageous hunter might attempt this route. But, as matters stood then, an attempt would have been completely impossible for us, and so we followed the valley’s left-hand After two hours walking on the Glacier des Bois, we left it at the bottom of the Talèfre, which is where the latter glacier pours its ice into the Glacier des Bois, which is known here as the Léchaud glacier.
Translated from Horace-Bénédict de Saussure, Voyages dans les Alpes, édité et présenté par Julie Boch, Genève, Georg éditeur, 2002