Wednesday, March 1, 2023

“The most beautiful pyramids of ice”

Translation: Horace-Bénédict de Saussure visits the Glacier des Bossons at Chamonix during the Little Ice Age

Like that of the Bois, the Bossons glacier is a spectacle of the Chamonix valley that most visitors will see. We pass below this glacier on the way to the Prieuré and there, at a small hamlet called the Bossons, which doubtless lent its name to the glacier, the guides await who offer to conduct travellers thither. 

Ice pyramids on the Glacier des Bossons
Engraving by Samuel Birmann of Basel (1793-1847)

It is a charming path, first through a small alder wood along the stream that comes out of the glacier, then through meadows and finally through a forest of fir trees. This last stretch is difficult because of its steepness, which is some thirty or thirty-one degrees. After overcoming this slope, the glacier is at hand, and one has the pleasure of seeing very close by the most beautiful pyramids of ice. As I have remarked before, wherever glaciers rest on a level plane, their surface is also more or less flat, but where they rest on a slope, their ice blocks topple and cram themselves together, taking on varied, often grotesque shapes and attitudes. Continuously washed by the waters that melt from them, the steep sides of these ice towers are absolutely clean and brilliant; neither sand nor gravel is to be seen on their flat surfaces, and they gleam a dazzling white where they reflect the sunlight, or a beautiful aquamarine green where the sun shines through them. Seen through the fir trees, which they often overtop, these brilliant and colourful pyramids make the most striking and extraordinary sight.

At the top of this short if steep ascent, one finds a stretch where the glacier rests on a level plane and offers a more or less equally flat surface. There, after crossing the dyke of stones and gravel that bounds borders almost any glacier, one can climb down onto the ice, cross the glacier and return to the Prieuré by a different route from the way up. As it is much narrower than that of the Montenvers, this glacier exhibits only a few of the great phenomena which we see on the Glacier des Bois. Nevertheless, there are quite large crevasses, and one can get an idea of the waves which we have compared with those of a rough sea. Travellers who have seen the Glacier des Bois can therefore dispense with the Bossons glacier but those for whom the Montenvers excursion is too strenuous would do well to go up to the Bossons, which is much lower.

Seen from the top of the Brévent, the Bossons glacier seems to descend directly down the side of the Mont Blanc valley. It is true that some optical illusions must be in play here, since the extreme brightness of the snow and ice, together with the absolute lack of aerial perspective because of the air’s purity, deprive the eye of any means of measuring distances, so that Mont Blanc, seen from Plianpra or from the top of the Brévent, appears to hover almost directly above the lower end of this glacier, even though there is really a horizontal distance of more than a league and a half. In spite of this distance, however, it is quite certain that snow and ice stretches uninterrupted from the summit of Mont Blanc to the bottom of the Bossons glacier. More than once, people have even attempted to reach the summit of Mont Blanc by entering this glacier at the top of the eminence known as La Côte, which separates it from the Taconay glacier.

Going up the eastern bank of this same Glacier des Bossons, one arrives at the Glacier des Pèlerins under the foot of the Aiguille du Midi, and then one can skirt the foot of the other aiguilles as far as Montenvers, making one’s descent along the Glacier des Bois. I did part of this route in 1761 but with too much haste; fearing benightment among these wildernesses, my guide made me descend with such haste that, as I was not yet fit enough to run through these mountains, I stumbled at almost every step. I did not return to Chamonix until well into the night, and this in a state of agitation and fatigue from which I had great difficulty in recovering.


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

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