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John Tyndall first ascent of Mont Blanc, 1857
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John Tyndall first ascent of Mont Blanc, 1857

 
John Tyndall first ascent of Mont Blanc, 1857

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John Tyndall Historical Report

FIRST ASCENT OF MONT BLANC, 1857. (Chap 11 in GLACIERS OF THE ALPS)


On Wednesday, the 12th of August, we rose early, after a
very brief rest on my part. Simond had proposed to go down
to Chamouni, and commence the ascent in the usual way,
but we preferred crossing the mountains from the Montan -
vert, straight to the Glacier des Bossons. At eight o'clock
we started, accompanied by two porters who were to carry
our provisions to the Grands Mulets. Slowly and silently
we climbed the hill-side towards Charmoz. We soon
passed the limits of grass and rhododendrons, and reached
the slabs of gneiss which overspread the summit of the
ridge, lying one upon the other like coin upon the table of
a money-changer. From the highest point I turned to
have a last look at the Mer de Glace ; and through a pair
of very dark spectacles I could see with perfect distinctness
the looped dirt-bands of the glacier, which to the
naked eye are scarcely discernible except by twilight.
Flanking our track to the left rose a series of mighty
Aiguilles the Aiguille de Charmoz, with its bent and
rifted pinnacles ; the Aiguille du Grepon, the Aiguille de
Blaitiere, the Aiguille du Midi, all piercing the heavens
with their sharp pyramidal summits. Far in front of us
rose the grand snow-cone of the Dome du Gouter, while,
through a forest of dark pines which gathered like a
cloud at the foot of the mountain, gleamed the white
minarets of the Glacier des Bossons. Below us lay the
Valley of Chamouni, beyond which were the Brevent and
the chain of the Aiguilles Rouges ; behind us was the
granite obelisk of the Aiguille du Dru, while close at hand
science found a corporeal form in a pyramid of stones

used as a trigonometrical station by Professor Forbes.
Sound is known to travel better up hill than down, because
the pulses transmitted from a denser medium to a
rarer, suffer less loss of intensity than when the transmission
is in the opposite direction ; and now the mellow voice
of the Arve came swinging upwards from the heavier air
of the valley to the lighter air of the hills in rich deep
cadences.
The way for a time was excessively rough, our route
being overspread with the fragments of peaks which had
once reared themselves to our left, but which frost and
lightning had shaken to pieces, and poured in granite
avalanches down the mountain. We were sometimes
among huge angular boulders, and sometimes amid lighter
shingle, which gave way at every step, thus forcing us
to shift our footing incessantly. Escaping from these, we
crossed the succession of secondary glaciers which lie at
the feet of the Aiguilles, and having secured firewood
found ourselves after some hours of hard work at the
Pierre a 1'Echelle. Here we were furnished with leggings
of coarse woollen cloth to keep out the snow ; they were
tied under the knees and quite tightly again over the
insteps, so that the legs were effectually protected. We
had some refreshment, possessed ourselves of the ladder,
and entered upon the glacier.
The ice was excessively fissured : we crossed crevasses
and crept round slippery ridges, cutting steps in the ice
wherever climbing was necessary. This rendered our progress
very slow. Once, with the intention of lending a
helping hand, I stepped forward upon a block of granite
which happened to be poised like a rocking stone upon the
ice, though I did not know it; it treacherously turned
under me ; I fell, but my hands were in instant requisition,
and I escaped with a bruise, from which, however, the
blood oozed angrily. We found the ladder necessary in

crossing some of the chasms, the iron spikes at its end
being firmly driven into the ice at one side, while the
other end rested on the opposite side of the fissure. The
middle portion of the glacier was not difficult. Mounds of
ice rose beside us right and left, which were sometimes
split into high towers and gaunt-looking pyramids, while
the space between was unbroken. Twenty minutes' walking
brought us again to a fissured portion of the glacier,
and here our porter left the ladder on the ice behind him.
For some time I was not aware of this, but we were soon
fronted by a chasm to pass which we were in consequence
compelled to make a long and dangerous circuit amid
crests of crumbling ice. This accomplished, we hoped
that no repetition of the process would occur, but we
speedily came to a second fissure, where it was necessary
to step from a projecting end of ice to a mass of soft
snow which overhung the opposite side. Simond could
reach this snow with his long-handled axe ; he beat it
down to give it rigidity, but it was exceedingly tender,
and as he worked at it he continued to express his fears
that it would not bear us. I was the lightest of the
party, and therefore tested the passage first ; being partially
lifted by Simond on the end of his axe, I crossed
the fissure, obtained some anchorage at the other side, and
helped the others over. We afterwards ascended until
another chasm, deeper and wider than any we had hitherto
encountered, arrested us. We walked alongside of it in
search of a snow bridge, which we at length found, but the
keystone of the arch had unfortunately given way, leaving
projecting eaves of snow at both sides, between which we
could look into the gulf, till the gloom of its deeper portions
cut the vision short. Both sides of the crevasse were
sounded, but no sure footing was obtained ; the snow was
beaten and carefully trodden down as near to the edge as
possible, but it finally broke away from the foot and fell

into the chasm. One of our porters was short-legged and
a bad iceman ; the other was a daring fellow, and he now
threw the knapsack from his shoulders, came to the edge
of the crevasse, looked into it, but drew back again. After
a pause he repeated the act, testing the snow with his feet
and staff. I looked at the man as he stood beside the
chasm manifestly undecided as to whether he should take
the step upon which his life would hang, and thought it
advisable to put a stop to such perilous play. I accordingly
interposed, the man withdrew from the crevasse, and
he and Simond descended to fetch the ladder.
While they were away Huxley sat down upon the ice,
with an expression of fatigue stamped upon his countenance
: the spirit and the muscles were evidently at war,
and the resolute will mixed itself strangely with the sense
of peril and feeling of exhaustion. He had been only two
days with us, and, though his strength is great, he had had
no opportunity of hardening himself by previous exercise
upon the ice for the task which he had undertaken. The
ladder now arrived, and we crossed the crevasse. I was
intentionally the last of the party, Huxley being immediately
in front of me. The determination of the man disguised
his real condition from everybody but myself, but
I saw that the exhausting journey over the boulders and
debris had been too much for his London limbs. Converting
my waterproof havresack into a cushion, I made
him sit down upon it at intervals, and by thus breaking the
steep ascent into short stages we reached the cabin of the
Grands Mulets together. Here I spread a rug on the
boards, and placing my bag for a pillow, he lay down, and
after an hour's profound sleep he rose refreshed and well ;
but still he thought it wise not to attempt the ascent
farther. Our porters left us : a baton was stretched across
the room over the stove, and our wet socks and leggings
were thrown across it to dry; our boots were placed

around the fire, and we set about preparing our evening
meal. A pan was placed upon the fire, and filled with
snow, which in due time melted and boiled ; I ground some
chocolate and placed it in the pan, and afterwards ladled
the beverage into the vessels we possessed, which consisted
of two earthen dishes and the metal cases of our
brandy flasks. After supper Simond went out to inspect
the glacier, and was observed bj Huxley, as twilight
fell, in a state of deep contemplation beside a crevasse.
Gradually the stars appeared, but as yet no moon. Before
lying down we went out to look at the firmament, and
noticed, what I suppose has been observed to some extent
by everybody, that the stars near the horizon twinkled
busily, while those near the zenith shone with a steady
light. One large star in particular excited our admiration
; it flashed intensely, and changed colour incessantly,
sometimes blushing like a ruby, and again gleaming like
an emerald. A determinate colour would sometimes remain
constant for a sensible time, but usually the flashes
followed each other in very quick succession. Three planks
were now placed across the room near the stove, and
upon these, with their rugs folded round them, Huxley
and Hirst stretched themselves, while I nestled on the
boards at the most distant end of the room. We rose at
eleven o'clock, renewed the fire and warmed ourselves,
after which we lay down again. I at length observed a
patch of pale light upon the wooden wall of the cabin,
which had entered through a hole in the end of the edifice,
and rising found that it was past one o'clock. The cloudless
moon .was shining over the wastes of snow, and the
scene outside was at once wild, grand, and beautiful.
Breakfast was soon prepared, though not without difficulty
; we had no candles, they had been forgotten ; but I
fortunately possessed a box ofwax matches, of which Huxley
took charge, patiently igniting them in succession, and

thus giving us a tolerably continuous light. We had some
tea, which had been made at the Montanvert, and carried
to the Grands Mulets in a bottle. My memory of that
tea is not pleasant ; it had been left a whole night in contact
with its leaves, and smacked strongly of tannin. The
snow-water, moreover, with which we diluted it was not
pure, but left a black residuum at the bottom of the dishes
in which the beverage was served. The few provisions
deemed necessary being placed in Simond's knapsack, at
twenty minutes past two o'clock we scrambled down the
rocks, leaving Huxley behind us.
The snow was hardened by the night's frost, and we
were cheered by the hope of being able to accomplish
the ascent with comparatively little labour. We were
environed by an atmosphere of perfect purity ; the larger
stars hung like gems above us, and the moon, about half
full, shone with wondrous radiance in the dark firmament.
One star in particular, which lay eastward from the moon,
suddenly made its appearance above one of the Aiguilles,
and burned there with unspeakable splendour. We turned
once towards the Mulets, and saw Huxley's form projected
against the sky as he stood upon a pinnacle of rock ; he
gave us a last wave of the hand and descended, while we
receded from him into the solitudes.
The evening previous our guide had examined the glacier
for some distance, his progress having been arrested by a
crevasse. Beside this we soon halted : it was spanned at
one place by a bridge of snow, which was of too light a
structure to permit of Simond's testing it alone ; we therefore
paused while our guide uncoiled a rope and tied us
all together. The moment was to me a peculiarly solemn
one. Our little party seemed so lonely and so small amid
the silence and the vastness of the surrounding scene. We
were about to try our strength under unknown conditions,
and as the various possibilities of the enterprise crowded on

the imagination, a sense of responsibility for a moment
oppressed me. But as I looked aloft and saw the glory of
the heavens, my heart lightened, and I remarked cheerily
to Hirst that Nature seemed to smile upon our work.
"Yes," he replied, in a calm and earnest voice,
"and, God willing, we shall accomplish it."
A pale light now overspread the eastern sky, which
increased, as we ascended, to a daffodil tinge ; this afterwards
heightened to orange, deepening at one extremity
into red, and fading at the other into a pure ethereal hue
to which it would be difficult to assign a special name.
Higher up the sky was violet, and this changed by insensible
degrees into the darkling blue of the zenith, which
had to thank the light of moon and stars alone for its existence.
We wound steadily for a time through valleys of
ice, climbed white and slippery slopes, crossed a number
of crevasses, and after some time found ourselves
beside a chasm of great depth and width, which extended
right and left as far as we could see. We turned to the
left, and marched along its edge in search of a pout ; but
matters became gradually worse : other crevasses joined
on to the first one, and the further we proceeded the more
riven and dislocated the ice became. At length we
reached a place where further advance was impossible.
Simond in his difficulty complained of the want of
light, and wished us to wait for the advancing day ; I,
on the contrary, thought that we had light enough and
ought to make use of it. Here the thought occurred to me
that Simond, having been only once before to the top of the
mountain, might not be quite clear about the route ; the
glacier, however, changes within certain limits from year
to year, so that a general knowledge was all that could be
expected, and we trusted to our own muscles to make good
any mistake in the way of guidance. We now turned and
retraced our steps along the edges of chasms where the ice

was disintegrated and insecure, and succeeded at length in
finding a bridge which bore us across the crevasse. This
error caused us the loss of an hour, and after walking for this
time we could cast a stone from the point we had attained
to the place whence we had been compelled to return.
Our way now lay along the face of a steep incline of
snow, which was cut by the fissure we had just passed, in a
direction parallel to our route. On the heights to our
right, loose ice-crags seemed to totter, and we passed two
tracks over which the frozen blocks had rushed some short
time previously. We were glad to get out of the range of
these terrible projectiles, and still more so to escape the
vicinity of that ugly crevasse. To be killed in the open air
would be a luxury, compared with having the life squeezed
out of one in the horrible gloom of these chasms. The blush
of the coming day became more and more intense ; still the
sun himself did not appear, being hidden from us by the
peaks of the Aiguille du Midi, which were drawn clear
and sharp against the brightening sky. Right under this
Aiguille were heaps of snow smoothly rounded and constituting
a portion of the sources whence the Glacier du
Geant is fed ; these, as the day advanced, bloomed with a
rosy light. We reached the Petit Plateau, which we found
covered with the remains of ice avalanches ; above us upon
the crest of the mountain rose three mighty bastions,
divided from each other by deep vertical rents, with clean
smooth walls, across which the lines of annual bedding
were drawn like courses of masonry. From these, which
incessantly renew themselves, and from the loose and
broken ice-crags near them, the boulders amid which we
now threaded our way had been discharged. When they
fall their descent must be sublime.
The snow had been gradually getting deeper, and the
ascent more wearisome, but superadded to this at the Petit
Plateau was the uncertainty of the footing between the

blocks of ice. In many places the space was merely
covered by a thin crust, which, when trod upon, instantly
yielded, and we sank with a shock sometimes to the hips.
Our way next lay up a steep incline to the Grand Plateau,
the depth and tenderness of the snow augmenting as we
ascended. We had not yet seen the sun, but, as we
attained the brow which forms the entrance to the Grand
Plateau, he hung his disk upon a spike of rock to our
left, and, surrounded by a glory of interference spectra
of the most gorgeous colours, blazed down upon us. On
the Grand Plateau we halted and had our frugal refreshment.
At some distance to our left was the crevasse into
which Dr. Hamel's three guides were precipitated by an
avalanche in 1820 ; they are still entombed in the ice,
and some future explorer may perhaps see them disgorged
lower down, fresh and undecayed. They can hardly reach
the surface until they pass the snow-line of the glacier, for
above this line the quantity of snow that annually falls
being in excess of the quantity melted, the tendency would
be to make the ice-covering above them thicker. But it
is also possible that the waste of the ice underneath may
have brought the bodies to the bed of the glacier, where
their very bones may have been ground to mud by an
agency which the hardest rocks cannot withstand.
As the sun poured his light upon the Plateau the little
snow-facets sparkled brilliantly, sometimes with a pure
white light, and at others with prismatic colours. Contrasted
with the white spaces above and around us were
the dark mountains on the opposite side of the valley of
Chamouni, around which fantastic masses of cloud were
beginning to build themselves. Mont Buet, with its cone
of snow, looked small, and the Brevent altogether mean ;
the limestone bastions of the Fys, however, still presented
a front of gloom and grandeur. We traversed
the Grand Plateau, and at length reached the base of an

extremely steep incline which stretched upwards towards
the Corridor. Here, as if produced by a fault, consequent
upon the sinking of the ice in front, rose a vertical precipice,
from the coping of which vast stalactites of ice depended.
Previous to reaching this place I had noticed a
haggard expression upon the countenance of our guide,
which was now intensified by the prospect of the ascent
before him. Hitherto he had always been in front, which
was certainly the most fatiguing position. I felt that I
must now take the lead, so I spoke cheerily to the man
and placed him behind me. Marking a number of points
upon the slope as resting places, I went swiftly from one
to the other. The surface of the snow had been partially
melted by the sun and then refrozen, thus forming a superficial
crust, which bore the weight up to a certain point,
and then suddenly gave way, permitting the leg to sink
to above the knee. The shock consequent on this, and the
subsequent effort necessary to extricate the leg, were extremely
fatiguing. My motion was complained of as too
quick, and my tracks as imperfect; I moderated the
former, and, to render my footholes broad and sure, I
stamped upon the frozen crust, and twisted my legs in the
soft mass underneath, a terribly exhausting process. I
thus led the way to the base of the Rochers Rouges, up to
which the fault already referred to had prolonged itself as
a crevasse, which was roofed at one place by a most dangerous-
looking snow-bridge. Simond came to the front ;
I drew his attention to the state of the snow, and proposed
climbing the Rochers Rouges ; but, with a promptness unusual
with him, he replied that this was impossible ; the
bridge was our only means of passing, and we must try it.
We grasped our ropes, and dug our feet firmly into the snow
to check the man's descent if the pont gave way, but to our
astonishment it bore him, and bore us safely after him.
The slope which we had now to ascend had the snow swept

from its surface, and was therefore firm ice. It was most
dangerously steep, and, its termination being the fretted
coping of the precipice to which I have referred, if we
slid downwards we should shoot over this and be dashed
to pieces upon the ice below. Simond, who had come to
the front to cross the crevasse, was now engaged in cutting
steps, which he made deep and large, so that they might
serve us on our return. But the listless strokes of his
axe proclaimed his exhaustion ; so I took the implement
out of his hands, and changed places with him. Step after
step was hewn, but the top of the Corridor appeared ever
to recede from us. Hirst was behind unoccupied, and could
thus turn his thoughts to the peril of our position : he felt
the angle on which we hung, and saw the edge of the precipice,
to which less than a quarter of a minute's slide
would carry us, and for the first time during the journey he
grew giddy. A cigar which he lighted for the purpose
tranquilized him.
I hewed sixty steps upon this slope, and each step had
cost a minute, by Hirst's watch. The Mur de la Cote
was still before us, and on this the guide-books informed
us two or three hundred steps were sometimes found
necessary. If sixty steps cost an hour, what would be the
cost of two hundred ? The question was disheartening in
the extreme, for the time at which we had calculated on
reaching the summit was already passed, while the chief
difficulties remained unconquered. Having hewn our way
along the harder ice we reached snow. I again resorted to
stamping to secure a footing, and while thus engaged became,
for the first time, aware of the drain of force to
which I was subjecting myself. The thought of being

absolutely exhausted had never occurred to me, and from
first to last I had taken no care to husband my strength. I
always calculated that the will would serve me even should
the muscles fail, but I now found that mechanical laws rule
man in the long run ; that no effort of will, no power of
spirit, can draw beyond a certain limit upon muscular force.
The soul, it is true, can stir the body to action, but its
function is to excite and apply force, and not to create it.
While stamping forward through the frozen crust I was
compelled to pause at short intervals ; then would set out
again apparently fresh, to find, however, in a few minutes
that my strength was gone, and that I required to rest
once more. In this way I gained the summit of the Corridor,
when Hirst came to the front, and I felt some relief
in stepping slowly after him, making use of the holes into
which his feet had sunk. He thus led the way to the base
of the Mur de la Cote, the thought of which had so long
cast a gloom upon us ; here we left our rope behind us,
and while pausing I asked Simond whether he did not feel
a desire to go to the summit " Bien sur" was his reply,
" mais ! " Our guide's mind was so constituted that the
u mais" seemed essential to its peace. I stretched my
hand towards him, and said,
"Simond, we must do it."
One thing alone I felt could defeat us : the usual time of
the ascent had been more than doubled, the day was
already far spent, and if the ascent would throw our subsequent
descent into night it could not be contemplated.
We now faced the Mur, which was by no means so bad
as we had expected. Driving the iron claws of our boots
into the scars made by the axe, and the spikes of our
batons into the slope above our feet, we ascended steadily
until the summit was attained, and the top of the mountain
rose clearly above us. We congratulated ourselves
upon this; but Simond, probably fearing that our joy
might become too full, remarked,
" Mais le sommet est encore Hen loin !"
It was, alas ! too true. The snow became
soft again, and our weary limbs sank in it as
before. Our guide went on in front, audibly muttering
his doubts as to our ability to reach the top, and at length
he threw himself upon the snow, and exclaimed,
" II faiit y renoncer ! "
Hirst now undertook the task of rekindling
the guide's enthusiasm, after which Simoiid rose, exclaiming,
"Ah! comme qa me fait mat aux genoux" and
went forward. Two rocks break through the snow between
the summit of the Mur and the top of the mountain ;
the first is called the Petits Mulets, and the highest the
Derniers Rochers. At the former of these we paused to
rest, and finished our scanty store of wine and provisions.
We had not a bit of bread nor a drop of wine left ; our
brandy flasks were also nearly exhausted, and thus we had
to contemplate the journey to the summit, and the subsequent
descent to the Grands Mulets, without the slightest
prospect of physical refreshment. The almost total loss
of two nights' sleep, with two days' toil superadded, made
me long for a few minutes' doze, so I stretched myself
upon a composite couch of snow and granite, and immediately
fell asleep. My friend, however, soon aroused me.
"You quite frighten me," he said; "I have listened for
some minutes, and have not heard you breathe once." I
had, in reality, been taking deep draughts of the mountain
air, but so silently as not to be heard.
I now filled our empty wine-bottle with snow and placed
it in the sunshine, that we might have a little water on
our return. We then rose ; it was half-past two o'clock ;
we had been upwards of twelve hours climbing, and I calculated
that, whether we reached the summit or not, we
could at all events work towards it for another hour. To
the sense of fatigue previously experienced, a new phenomenon
was now added the beating of the heart. We
were incessantly pulled up by this, which sometimes be

came so intense as to suggest danger. I counted the
number of paces which we were able to accomplish without
resting, and found that at the end of every twenty,
sometimes at the end of fifteen, we were compelled to
pause. At each pause my heart throbbed audibly, as I
leaned upon my staff, and the subsidence of this action
was always the signal for further advance. My breathing
was quick, but light and unimpeded. I endeavoured to
ascertain whether the hip-joint, on account of the diminished
atmospheric pressure, became loosened, so as to
throw the weight of the leg upon the surrounding ligaments,
but could not be certain about it. I also sought a
little aid and encouragement from philosophy, endeavouring
to remember what great things had been done by the
accumulation of small quantities, and I urged upon myself
that the present was a case in point, and that
the summation of distances twenty paces each must finally
place us at the top. Still the question of time left the
matter long in doubt, and until we had passed the Derniers
Rochers we worked on with the stern indifference of men
who were doing their duty, and did not look to consequences.
Here, however, a gleam of hope began to brighten
our souls ; the summit became visibly nearer, Simond
showed more alacrity ; at length success became certain,
and at half-past three P.M. my friend and I clasped hands
upon the top.
The summit of the mountain is an elongated ridge,
which has been compared to the back of an ass. It
was perfectly manifest that we were dominant over all
other mountains ; as far as the eye could range Mont
Blanc had no competitor. The summits which had looked
down upon us in the morning were now far beneath us.
The Dome du Gouter, which had held its threatening semes
above us so long, was now at our feet. The Aiguille du
Midi, Mont Blanc du Tacul, and the Monts Maudits, the

Talefre with its surrounding peaks, the Grand Jorasse, Mont
Mallet, and the Aiguille du Geant, with our own familialglaciers,
were all below us. And as our eye ranged over
the broad shoulders of the mountain, over ice hills and
valleys, plateaux and far-stretching slopes of snow, the
conception of its magnitude grew upon us, and impressed
us more and more.
The clouds were very grand grander indeed than anything
I had ever before seen. Some of them seemed to
hold thunder in their breasts, they were so dense and dark ;
others, with their faces turned sunward, shone with the
dazzling whiteness of the mountain snow ; while others
again built themselves into forms resembling gigantic elm
trees, loaded with foliage. Towards the horizon the luxury
of colour added itself to the magnificent alternations of
light and shade. Clear spaces of amber and ethereal green
embraced the red and purple cumuli, and seemed to form
the cradle in which they swung. Closer at hand squally
mists, suddenly engendered, were driven hither and thither
by local winds ; while the clouds at a distance lay
" like angels sleeping on the wing," with scarcely visible motion.
Mingling with the clouds, and sometimes rising above them,
were the highest mountain heads, and as our eyes wandered
from peak to peak, onwards to the remote horizon, space
itself seemed more vast from the manner in which the
objects which it held were distributed.
I wished to repeat the remarkable experiment of
De Saussure upon sound, and for this purpose had requested
Simond to bring a pistol from Chamouni ; but in the multitude
of his cares he forgot it, and in lieu of it my host at
the Montanvert had placed in two tin tubes, of the same
size and shape, the same amount of gunpowder, securely
closing the tubes afterwards, and furnishing each of them
with a small lateral aperture. We now planted one of
them upon the snow, and bringing a strip of amadou into

communication with the touchhole, ignited its most distant
end : it failed ; we tried again, and were successful, the
explosion tearing asunder the little case which contained
the powder. The sound was certainly not so great as I
should have expected from an equal quantity of powder at
the sea level.
The snow upon the summit was indurated, but of an
exceedingly fine grain, and the beautiful effect already
referred to as noticed upon the Stelvio was strikingly
manifest. The hole made by driving the baton into the
snow was filled with a delicate blue light ; and, by management,
its complementary pinky yellow could also be produced.
Even the iron spike at the end of the baton made
a hole sufficiently deep to exhibit the blue colour, which
certainly depends on the size and arrangement of the snow
crystals. The firmament above us was without a cloud, and
of a darkness almost equal to that which surrounded the
moon at 2 A.M. Still, though the sun was shining, a breeze,
whose tooth had been sharpened by its passage over the
snow-fields, searched us through and through. The day
was also waning, and, urged by the warnings of our ever
prudent guide, we at length began the descent.
Gravity was now in our favour, but gravity could not
entirely spare our wearied limbs, and where we sank in the
snow we found our downward progress very trying. I
suffered from thirst, but after we had divided the liquefied
snow at the Petits Mulets amongst us we had nothing to
drink. I crammed the clean snow into my mouth, but the
process of melting was slow and tantalizing to a parched

throat, while the chill was painful to the teeth. We marched
along the Corridor, and crossed cautiously the perilous slope
on which we had cut steps in the morning, breathing more
freely after we had cleared the ice-precipice before described.
Along the base of this precipice we now wound,
diverging from our morning's track, in order to get surer
footing in the snow ; it was like flour, and while descending
to the Grand Plateau we sometimes sank in it nearly to
the waist.When I endeavoured to squeeze it, so as to fill
my flask, it at first refused to cling together, behaving
like so much salt ; the heat of the hand, however, soon
rendered it a little moist, and capable of being pressed into
compact masses. The sun met us here with extraordinary
power ; the heat relaxed my muscles, but when fairly immersed
in the shadow of the Dome du Gouter, the coolness
restored my strength, which augmented as the evening
advanced. Simond insisted on the necessity of haste, to
save us from the perils of darkness. " On peut perir
" was his repeated admonition, and he was quite right. We
reached the region of ponts, more weary, but, in compensation,
more callous, than we had been in the morning, and
moved over the , soft snow of the bridges as if we had been
walking upon eggs. The valley of Chamouni was filled with
brown-red clouds, which crept towards us up the mountain ;
the air around and above us was, however, clear, and the
chastened light told us that day was departing. Once as
we hung upon a steep slope, where the snow was exceedingly
soft, Hirst omitted to make his footing sure ; the soft
mass gave way, and he fell, uttering a startled shout as he
went down the declivity. I was attached to him, and, fixing
my feet suddenly in the snow, endeavoured to check his
fall, but I seemed a mere feather in opposition to the force
with which he descended.* I fell, and went down after him ;
and we carried quite an avalanche of snow along with us,

in which we were almost completely hidden at the bottom
of the slope. All further dangers, however, were soon
past, and we went at a headlong speed to the base of the
Grands Mulets ; the sound of our batons against the rocks
calling Huxley forth. A position more desolate than his
had been can hardly be imagined. For seventeen hours
he had been there. He had expected us at two o'clock in
the afternoon ; the hours came and passed, and till seven
in the evening he had looked for us. " To the end of my
life," he said, " I shall never forget the sound of those
batons." It was his turn now to nurse me, which he did,
repaying my previous care of him with high interest. We
were all soon stretched, and, in spite of cold and hard
boards, I slept at intervals ; but the night, on the whole,
was a weary one, and we rose next morning with muscles
more tired than when we lay down.
Friday, 14^ August. Hirst was almost blind this morning;
and our guide's eyes were also greatly inflamed.
We gathered our things together, and bade the Grands
Mulets farewell. It had frozen hard during the night,
and this, on the steeper slopes, rendered the footing very
insecure. Simond, moreover, appeared to be a little bewildered,
and I sometimes preceded him in cutting the
steps, while Hirst moved among the crevasses like a blind
man ; one of us keeping near him, so that he might feel for
the actual places where our feet had rested, and place his own
in the same position. It cost us three hours to cross from
the Grands Mulets to the Pierre a 1'Echelle, where we discarded
our leggings, had a mouthful of food, and a brief
rest. Once upon the safe earth Simond's powers seemed to
be restored, and he led us swiftly downwards to the little
auberge beside the Cascade du Tard, where we had some
excellent lemonade, equally choice cognac, fresh strawberries
and cream. How sweet they were, and how beautiful
we thought the peasant girl who served them ! Our

guide kept a little hotel, at which we halted, and found it
clean and comfortable. We were, in fact, totally unfit to
go elsewhere. My coat was torn, holes were kicked
through my boots, and I was altogether ragged and shabby.
A warm bath before dinner refreshed all mightily. Dense
clouds now lowered upon Mont Blanc, and we had not
been an hour at Chamouni when the breaking up of the
weather was announced by a thunder-peal. We had
accomplished our journey just in time.

Images

John Tyndall 1820-1893