Thursday, February 2, 2023

"Suddenly transported to a world forgotten by nature"

A visit to the Talèfre glacier on Mont Blanc during the Little Ice Age, as described by Horace-Bénédict de Saussure 

The view of the Talèfre glacier is majestic and awe-inspiring. As it descends an extremely steep slope, its jostling seracs surge up into towers and pyramids leaning this way and that, and threatening to obliterate any reckless traveller who dares approach them. To reach the glacier’s upper tier, where it is less steep and hence less broken up, we scaled the rocks to its left on the western side. Known as the Couvercle, this crag is dominated by an inaccessible summit, which as usual in these parts is called an “aiguille”, and taking the name of the nearby glacier, is known as the Aiguille du Talèfre.

View of the Talèfre glacier and the "Jardin" by Jean-Antoine Linck
Courtesy of the Alpine Museum of Chamonix-Mt Blanc

The slope by which one climbs the Couvercle is excessively steep; one follows a sort of groove that Nature has carved in the rock. Clinging to some nubbins of rock, we climbed with our hands as much as on our feet, or rather more so, which moved us to name this passage the “égralets” or ladders. However, the climb is not dangerous because the rock, a very coherent granite, always gives secure holds for one’s hands and feet, although its steepness would make it somewhat offputting on the descent. After reaching the top of these ladders, the slope angle eased and we walked over grass and large granite slabs to the edge of the Talèfre glacier basin. The basin is the high and more or less horizontal part where the glacier can be crossed.

It took us an hour and a quarter to climb from the Léchaud glacier to the Talèfre’s basin. We were tempted to rest for a moment before stepping onto it. Everything invited us to do so here, a beautiful lawn watered by a brook which emerged from under the snow and rolled its crystalline waters out onto silvery sands. Even more compelling, there was a view so vast and magnificent that no amount of description could do it justice. How could one, indeed, paint for the imagination these scenes that have nothing in common with anything seen in the rest of the world; how would one convey to the reader's soul the mingled impression of admiration and terror that is inspired by these immense masses of ice, which are surrounded and surmounted by these yet vaster pyramidal crags; the snow’s brilliance contrasting with the drab colour of the rocks streaming with the snow’s meltwater, the purity of the air, the radiance of the sunlight that lends an extraordinary sharpness and vividness to all these sights; the profound and majestic silence that presides over these vast solitudes, a silence disturbed only from afar by the crash of some great block of granite or ice falling from the top of some mountain, and the very starkness of these lofty crags, barren of any beast, or shrub or verdure of any kind.

Glacier du Jardin (detail) by Gabriel Loppe (1866)
MAH Museum of Art and History, Geneva

And when one calls to mind the beautiful herbage and the charming landscapes that one recently saw in the lower valleys, one could believe oneself suddenly transported to another world forgotten by nature. The view from Montenvers gives only a very imperfect idea of it; there you see only one glacier, whereas from here you see the three great glaciers of Les Bois, Léchaud and Tacul, not to mention a large number of less considerable ones which, like that of the Talèfre, pour their ice into the main glaciers.

View of Mont Blanc from the "Jardin", c.1890

After resting, and enjoying this beautiful spectacle, we walked onto the Talèfre glacier, and in twenty minutes came to a ridge of debris that divides the glacier along its length. As this was the highest point of our excursion, we took a long break to make observations with our instruments. To the south, the view from the middle of this glacier is similar to that from the Couvercle, but behind us to the north the Talèfre glacier itself, on which we stood, presents a scene as exquisite as it is singular. The glacier rises in stages to the foot of an exactly semicircular cirque, which walls it round it on the northern side. This cirque is formed by extremely high granite peaks, which end in sharply pointed summits of infinitely varied forms. The gaps between these peaks are filled by glaciers that flow into the Talèfre glacier. The same glaciers are crowned by snowslopes that rise in festoons sculpted in the shape of acanthus leaves between the black and vertical granite faces, where no snow can settle. The crest of this magnificent amphitheatre rises into the vault of the sky, which here takes on a blue so deep and azure that one could never see the like in the lowlands, and which singularly brings out the brilliance and contrast of the snow and the rocks.

A very singular piece of this picture is the flattened rock, situated like an island in the middle of the ice and snows of the Talèfre glacier. It is more or less circular in shape, standing a little above the glacier’s level. The eternal frosts that weigh on this whole region seem to respect it; they do not touch it, or at least they leave it much sooner than the rest of the mountain. This rock is even covered with a little greenery, which at this moment was only starting to appear, because early spring does not reach these high mountains until the middle of July, but at the end of August it would be covered with a beautiful lawn, spangled with a great variety of pretty Alpine flowers. The place is also known as the Courtil, a word that means 'garden' in both Savoyard and old French,. It is even walled in like a garden, since the glacier has deposited a ridge of stones and gravel around it, exactly in the manner of an enclosure. I very much wished to go there to see if there was not some hot spring, or some other local cause that melted the snow and favoured vegetation, but the deep crevasses of the glacier, lurking under soft and not very firm snow, would have made the way so dangerous then that our guides absolutely refused to take us there. Such a phenomenon is not unique in the history of glaciers; I have seen the like on Swiss glaciers, but perhaps not in such a beautiful situation, or covered with such beautiful verdure. When the snows have melted, this Jardin would be neither dangerous nor difficult of access.

After completing our observations, we set off again to finish our glacier crossing. We aimed to make our return on the opposite side, both to see new scenery and to avoid having to descend the “ladders”, which we reckoned would be even more awkward on the descent than they had been on the ascent. In crossing the glacier, however, we encountered more difficulties than had been apparent at first sight. If we moved on upwards, we would have to cross crevasses covered with snow, like those between us and the Courtil, and below us we saw frighteningly steep ice-slopes, while the middle way seemed to combine the hazards of both these extremes. While our guides were holding council, one of them, Pierre Balme, who is the one for whom I have the most regard and confidence since the death of Pierre Simon, and who was then in charge of the magnetometer, grew tired of the discussions and, deciding to underline his opinion by example, set off by the most direct route, and all but ran down the extremely steep slopes of sheer ice, edged as they were by declivities. We shuddered as we watched; the slightest false step would infallibly have cost him his life; but he came out of it scot-free. In such cases, there can be no middle way; either one must safeguard every move by cutting steps in the ice, or walk firmly enough for one’s bootnails to bite into the ice, and quickly too, so that there is no time to slip. Pierre Balme’s example decided us, and we followed, not exactly in his footsteps but down the fairly steep slopes, preferring these obvious yet transient dangers to the more drawn-out hazard of falling unexpectedly into a crevasse.

On leaving the glacier, we found ourselves on a slope of broken rock, by which we descended along a sort of corridor or gorge between the glacier on our right, and a large granite rock on our left, and this long and steep descent brought us back to the Léchaud glacier.

We were now facing the bottom of this glacier, which ends in a cirque bounded by the Aiguilles de Léchaud and by the Grande and Petite Jorasse. Like that of the Talèfre, this cirque is enclosed by granite walls crowned by extremely high peaks. Rising against these rocks, the ice gives way to very steep snow slopes that dwindle into narrow tongues between stark and vertical granite faces. Visiting this glacier in 1767, I went as far as the floor of the cirque and then climbed these snowfields as high as their ever-steepening pitch would allow; I then returned, skirting the foot of the Aiguilles de Léchaud and passing the boutes or caves of Léchaud, a sort of den made under the granite rocks to serve as an overnight refuge for crystal-hunters from Chamonix. There, for the first time, I had the pleasure of collecting Achillea nana, Gnaphalium alpinum and other alpine plants that grow there in small recesses with a good southern exposure.

On this occasion, we hurried back to Montenvers: clouds were piling up on the summits and the change of wind direction threatened bad weather, as already presaged in the morning by the sky’s deeper shade of blue. Walking as fast as we could on the ice, it took us nearly two hours from the bottom of the Talèfre glacier to the freshet near where we had stepped onto the glacier. On the way, we crossed several of those pretty streams, glinting like beryl or aquamarine in the sunlight, that flow along beds they have scoured into the ice. While quenching our thirst with this pure fresh water, we saw how several of the streams had joined together into a small river that cascades into a chasm of living ice, forming a beautiful waterfall.

Nearing the western edges of this great valley of ice by a somewhat different route from our outward way, we passed over great avalanche debris that had fallen in the spring from mountains above the glacier. Riven by large crevasses, just like the glacier, these snows had already congealed to a density close to that of ice, and, as they become saturated with water as the sun melts their surface, they will freeze during the following winter into ice exactly like that of the glacier itself. We returned to the château of Montenvers at five o'clock in the evening and, taking just a moment's rest there, descended thence in two hours to the Prieuré, somewhat fatigued but well satisfied with our day.


Translated from Horace-Bénédict de SaussureVoyages dans les Alpes, édité et présenté par Julie Boch, Genève, Georg éditeur, 2002

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