Bourrit and Ramond on Glaciers

Extracted from Romanticism: The CD-ROM, ed. Miall and Wu. Section titles are supplied by the editors. Prints (re-scanned) are from the Centre d'iconographie genevois; photos by D. S. Miall.

M. T. Bourrit, A Relation of a Journey to the Glaciers in the Dutchy of Savoy. Translated from the French by C. and F. Davy. Norwich: Richard Beatniffe, 1775.

1. Introductory

[1] General Description of the Valleys and Glaciers Situated in the Province and Barony of Fauciny in Savoy

The view of nature in her simplest and most uniform appearance, never fails to have its effects upon an attentive beholder; such impressions become more agreeable, as the objects which excite them are more varied; and that rich display of beauty, in her lesser elegant Designs, induces a serenity of pleasure, [2] which is still more captivating: but of all the pictures she presents us, those of mountains covered with eternal snows, whose summits reach beyond the clouds, and whose forms are so majestic, are by far the most affecting, as they fill the mind with an idea of her grandeur and sublimity.

It is easy for a man of taste to add to and embellish works of art, which he proposes for his imitation; but his utmost efforts must fall short of equaling the greater models of nature herself. This observation will be verified particularly here, where greatness and beauty are so exquisitely united in the same piece, that the powers even of Description can give [3] us but a very faint, imperfect representation of the inimitable originals.

The ideas men are apt to form of distant countries, from the relations of travellers, are generally raised above the truth: their ideas of the Alps are universally below it: except the common passages by France into Italy and Germany, the rest are almost wholly unknown to strangers; those especially which are in Savoy. The productions of the country draw but few persons into it: the difficulty of the roads, the straits which must be passed, to go from one valley into another, insulate (if I may use the expression) their different inhabitants: and the moderation of their desires, which are bounded almost by the [4] necessaries of life, prevents even the wish to go beyond their limits. There are indeed some few persons among them who are drawn into the world by commerce; but these, familiarized to objects constantly before them, in the places where they have been witnesses of their production, and less attentive probably to their forms, than to the inconveniences arising from them, set little value upon their beauties: With respect to the people in general, who live upon the outside of these valleys, as the mountains which environ them offer nothing to their sight but rocks and ice, they have not the least inclination to approach them out of curiosity.

At the same time how many scenes [5] are there highly worthy of our attention! fertile smiling valleys, rich delightful hills, beautiful and even extensive prospects; what variety of different forms! Here a level country finely cultivated, rising hills with farms and villages, and higher over these a ridge of mountains: on the other hand, luxuriant meadows intersected by the Arve, which breaks into a number of channels; whilst the eye conducted through the natural openings as through artificial vistos, travels on directly to the distance: or we look above the tops of neighbouring woods, that sloping from our feet wind down into the bottom of a dale.

The farther we penetrate, the more the sight is animated with the [6] beauties of this romantic region. The views become still more and more engaging as we advance; every valley appears like a new country from its different form; overhanging rocks of a prodigious height, and torrents pouring down in sheets from their very summits, are such wonders of nature, as it is impossible to look upon without a mixture of astonishment and awe; to heighten the picture, we may add the different tints of rocks and mountains, their contrast with the browner colour of the woods, and the whiteness of the snow and ice, especially when enlightened by the sun; their tops at sun rise taking the similitude of melted silver, at his setting that of gold, whilst the refractions of his rays by their angles, sometimes offer such a [7] variegated splendor, as exceeds description --

Mille trahens varios adverso sole colores.
[showing a thousand various colours with the sun opposite (Virgil, Aeneid 4.701)]

There is still a singular emotion which the sight of this country excites in the mind, from the prodigious height of the mountains, which surround these valleys on every side. Mount Blanc especially produces a sensation which is very difficult to express. An obelisk of one hundred yards, appears of a prodigious height, yet we can form a tolerable idea of it from recollection only; but when that height is thirty or nearly forty [(Footnote:) The height of Mount Blanc, from its base in the valley of Chamouni, falls little short of four thousand English yards] times increased, upon a [8] base proportionally massive, which yet the eye can take in at one view, the mind is almost lost in the sublimity of its own idea, and no tongue whatever is capable of describing, and conveying justly to others, the humiliating, elevated, awful feelings of the soul upon the sight of such an object.

Such are the beauties of this country, which would probably have still continued unknown, but for the rude relations of its peasants, who bring us annually their honey and their crystals. The frightful picture which they gave of their valleys of ice, and of their stupendous mountains; those extraordinary accounts, (which procured these snowy precipices the [9] appellation of Les Montagnes Maudites [The accursed Mountains.]) excited the curiosity of two English gentlemen, who resided some time since at Geneva. . . .

[Their journey into Chamonix of 1741 is outlined (see Windham), followed by the journeys of De Saussure, whose account of penetrating up the glaciers was also published. This led Bourrit and some companions to make their journey. This and two subsequent visits made by Bourrit took place during 1770-1773.]

4. First visit to Mer de Glace

[75] Having taken this general survey of the Glaciers, we determined to spend the rest of our time in examining the construction of each of them particularly, and to begin with the valley of ice called des Bois.

For this purpose we ascended Montanvert, the mountain opposite to Mount Breven; it is less high, less steep, and more agreeable, being covered with beautiful fir trees, many of which we saw had been thrown down by the winds. The north winds blow with great violence thro' the valley in the spring, and in the [76] autumn the south wind; but that which they most dread, is a wind from the east, which pouring through the streights of the mountains, plunges towards their feet, tears up by the roots, or overturns all the trees in its way, and not uncommonly, reverberated by some other mountain which opposes its passage, it returns in eddies, unroofs the houses, and does infinite mischief. We had the good fortune however to experience none of its fury. The air was perfectly calm the whole time we staid at this place, and gave us an opportunity of enjoying in security the sight of its extraordinary objects.

Mer de Glace, Hackert, 1781We now looked over an entire valley of ice several leagues in length, [77] and a quarter of a league in breadth. At the distance of about three leagues, it divides into two branches, that on the right extends beyond the mountains commanded by Mount Blanc, and the second, turning to the left, goes on towards Val d'Aoste. [print: Hackert, 1781]

A sea vehemently agitated by a storm, and arrested by a severe sudden frost, represents very well the appearance of this Glacier; the waves, hardened by succeeding winters, are some of a dirty, and others of a clear white, divided by oblique fissures, which appear of a transparent blue. The waters murmur as they run along these clefts, some of which are very deep, and new ones are frequently opening; the prelude to these new ones, is a [78] bursting noise; and probably the melting away of some parts at the bottom of the Glacier, occasions the cracking upon its surface. This valley is formed by high mountains, which terminate in Spires or Needles . . .

[80] The earth at the edge of this valley, is white and friable like chalk; they call it serpentine. It is astonishing at this place, only to look at the height of the ice; its waves resemble little mountains, heaped upon one another, some of which are from forty to fifty feet high: it is difficult to make our way over them at first, but in proportion as we advance farther up into the valley, these waves of ice insensibly decrease in height, and become more even. We found here the bones of a poor Chamois, which was brought hither no doubt by an avalanche. The ice seems to encrease every year, and the old people [ 81] of Chamouni assured us, that formerly it was possible to penetrate from the extremity of this valley, even to Val d'Aoste, which the vast accumulation of ice has rendered at present impracticable.

5. Second visit to Mer de Glace

[105] We descended into the valley, about three quarters of an hour after sun rise . . . . scarcely had we gained our feet upon the ice, when we found ourselves retarded by the clefts, that opened quite across the [106] valley. We passed a number of them with the utmost gaiety and spirit; but others soon appeared, it seemed impossible to clear; nor could we even look at them without terror. Our guides accustomed to such objects ventured over boldly, provided with a staff or pole of seven or eight feet only in length; they sprung with an amazing strength, agility, and resolution, and encouraged, and instructed us to do the same. The farther we advanced, we met with openings wider yet, as well as deeper, and where even our guides were under a necessity of taking every possible precaution. In such cases they generally placed their pole horizontally under the left arm, with the longer part of it extending backward; so [107] that if they should not have sufficient strength to reach the farther side, they stood a chance at least to be suspended by it: one trembles at the idea only of such an accident! Happily no misfortune befell us, and we gained the middle of the valley: our exercise still rendered us more active, and habit gave us courage, which in truth was necessary every instant. [Further difficulties described.]

[109] We now were soon to see an end of these alarming hazards, and of our [110] excessive labour. Arriving near the fall of rocks upon the ice, we employed ourselves in search of crystals; all these rocks are filled with such productions: and we could discern the beds, or broken caverns they are formed in, at the summits of the mountains. The farther we advanced, the more we saw of objects to admire; yet surrounded by these beauties, we could not but reflect with horror, at the sight of this eternal frozen lake, its yawning clefts, and deep abysses; whilst the mountains which environed us, their venerable antiquity, their several different slopes, and the varied magnificence of their forms, together with those hills of rocks and ice, which broken off, had rolled into the valley, struck us with amazement. [111] In short, we were astonished at the recollection of our being in a place thus severed from the world, so vast, so extraordinary, where there reigned an universal stillness, in the midst of even a thousand dangers.

As we now proceeded forward, the valley was expanded wider, and the ice became more even: but although we had already walked upon it four hours, from our setting off, we had not yet reached the place at which the valley is separated into two branches: we gained this point however at last: what a picture was before us! we were surprized to a degree of transport, and incapable of expressing our admiration, but by frequent acclamations.

[112] We beheld a spacious icey plain entirely level; upon this there rose a mountain all of ice, with steps ascending to the top, which seemed the throne of some divinity. It took the form moreover of a grand cascade, whose figure was beyond conception beautiful, and the sun which shone upon it, gave a sparkling brilliance to the whole: it was as a glass, which sent his rays to a prodigious distance: a polish'd mirrour, upon which the objects were designed with such a perfect mixture of light and shade, as ravished our sight; and to compleat the beauty of the prospect, this even glassy lake was crowned with mountains differently coloured, and enlivened by a varnish of the clearest ice: these altogether, formed a composition [113] of the most delightful splendid objects, heightened by the deeper colour of a single neighbouring mountain, which graduated from top to bottom: whilst this again was interlaced with streams of snow, whose winding currents cast a lustre from the sun. In short, the whole of this enchanting view was terminated with the rocks of crystal, and by others, all whose several tints were richly and profusely varied.

New beauties still continued to delight us, astonished as we were at present, by a number of such objects so magnificent and vast.

The valley on our right was ornamented with prodigious Glaciers, [114] that shooting up to an immeasurable height between the mountains, blend their colours with the skies, which they appear to reach. The gradual rise of one of them, induced us to conceive it practicable to ascend it; and such is the engrossing nature of these objects, that they seem to efface every other idea. We are no longer our own masters; and it is next to an impossibility to stop the impulse of our inclinations. ---- It would open still new scenes, of more extensive grandeur -- That, as we certainly should gain a view beyond the Needles, such a point of elevation, (beyond which, no mortal whatever had yet gone) would not only present Mount Blanc to us under a new form, and with new beauties, but that in short, looking [115] towards the south, we should have a picture of all Italy before us as in a Camera Obscura. It was thus the wildness of imagination prompted us to think the project possible, and we were in the full enjoyment of our reverie, when a horrid noise from the very same Glaciers put an end to this delightful dream, and shattered all the scenery at once. Reason dictated immediately, that supposing such a fancied picture as we had represented to ourselves, to be real, and that it were possible to ascend the height of the Glacier to enjoy a sight of it, the execution of the plan would require our stay all night upon this frozen valley, which was absolutely impossible, from the want of fewel only.

[116] By this time rest was necessary to us; and the only situation where we could be safe, was in the middle of the valley; we might here at least be at a distance from the falling down of ice or rocks. The station of Mr. De Saussure appeared most eligible for the purpose, and we were coming to the very spot: it is a massy block of stone, precisely in the middle of the ice; we seated ourselves upon it, and having taken out our necessary refreshments, poured a sparkling libation to the honour of the Professor, as the first person who had resolution enough to penetrate thus far.

We rested here two hours, our minds voluptuously employed in the contemplation of so many wonders; [117] every moment was distinguished with some new discovery. A single glance over all these Glaciers together, seemed to throw a light upon their correspondence and extent . . .

[118] It was now high time to quit the place: we looked at all its wonders with a fresh astonishment and admiration: we saw them doubtless for the last time; for it is not with the beauties of this country as of others, [119] to be visited again with ease as inclination prompts us: but if our arrival at this point was not accomplished without labour and fatigue, the grandeur of the objects we had seen, made us ample satisfaction. We had taken every possible advantage of our journey; the weather had continually favoured us; and it is at one season of the year only, that such an enterprize can possibly be undertaken.

6. Source of Arveron at foot of Mer de Glace

[128] To come at this collected mass of ice, we crossed the Arve, and travelled in a tolerable road, passed some villages or hamlets, whose inhabitants appeared extremely civil; they invited us to go in and rest ourselves, offered us a taste of their honey, and apologized for not having any thing better to present us.

After amusing ourselves some time amongst them, we resumed our road, and entered a beautiful wood of lofty firs, inhabited by squirrels; the bottom is a fine sand, left there by the inundations of the Averon: It [129] is a very agreeable walk, and exhibits some extraordinary appearances.

In proportion as we advanced into this wood, we observed the objects gradually to vanish from our sight; surprized at this circumstance, we were earnest to discover the cause; and our eyes sought in vain for satisfaction, till going out of the wood, the charm ceased. Judge of our astonishment, when we saw before us an enourmous mass of ice, twenty times as large as the front of our cathedral of St. Peter, and so constructed, that we have only to change our situation, to make it resemble whatever we please. It is a magnificent palace, covered over with the purest crystal; a majestic temple, ornamented [130] with a portico, and columns of several shapes and colours: It has the appearance of a fortress, flanked with towers and bastions to the right and left; and at bottom is a grotto, terminating in a dome of bold construction . This fairy dwelling, or this cave of Fancy, is the source of the Arveron, and of the gold which is found in the Arve: And if we add to all this rich variety, the ringing tinkling sound of water dropping from its sides, with the glittering of the solar rays, whilst tints of the most lively green, or blue, or yellow, or violet, have the effect of different compartments, in the several divisions of the grotto; the whole is so amazingly delightful, so compleatly picturesque, so beyond imagination [131] great and beautiful, that I can easily believe the art of man has never yet produced, nor ever will produce, a building so grand in its construction, or so varied in its ornaments. [the print below is by Bourrit]

Source of the Arveron, BourritDesirous of surveying every side of this mass, we crossed the river about four hundred yards from its source; and mounting upon the rocks and ice, approached the vault; but whilst we were attentively employed in viewing all its parts, astonished at the sportiveness of Fancy, we cast our eyes at one considerable member of the pile above us, which was unaccountably supported; it seemed to hold by almost nothing; our imprudence was too evident, and we hastened to retreat: yet scarcely had [132] we stept back thirty paces, before it broke off all at once, with a prodigious noise, and tumbled, rolling to the very spot where we were standing just before. It was a most fortunate escape; since had we staid an instant longer, it would certainly have crushed us by its fall.

There have been much reasoning and debate, about the causes that produce these heaps of ice. But being for the most part seated at the bottom of the Glaciers, (of which, if I may use the expression, they seem to me to lay the first foundations) it is probable that they are formed originally by an overfall of snow, which being heaped together by degrees, becomes in a succession of winters, a [133] considerable mass of ice; and such collections are augmented, either by the causes which at first produced them, or by the continued rolling down of snows and ice, which come from higher Glaciers.

The water of the Arveron, which runs out of this mass, is excellent, and though as cold as ice itself, there is no reason to be afraid of drinking it, even when one is very hot; and this is a general excellence of all those waters, which come from ice when they are drunk at the source.

7. Bossons Glacier

[138] Setting off again, we took the road across some meadows, and over several beds of stones, collected by the violence of torrents; when passing by the Glacier, already visited [Pélerin], we soon began to mount, ascending through the midst of woods. It was not till after walking a good league up a pretty slope, that we obtained a view of those amazing walls and buttresses, by which the Glacier is supported. They are solid masses of ice, which rise up perpendicularly, like the walls of a prodigious citadel, built with strong towers, that seem to be from about three to [139] four hundred feet high. The upper parts of these enormous towers, are transparent, in the same manner, and for the same reason, that the ends of our fingers appear so, when opposed to a strong light; we particularly admired a hole of an oval form, pierced through the wall, at an almost equal distance from each end of the range, towards the top, through which the sky appears; and the sun at a certain time of the day, having his rays collected by it as a speculum, darts them in a bundle to the very bottom of the valley. Our road lay directly under this icey wall, but the apprehension of danger, in being exposed to the fall of fragments from so brittle a fabric, made us draw more towards the right; we again therefore entered [140] into the woods, and ascending as before, found ourselves at last upon the Glacier.

Bosson Glacier, BourritThis Glacier, though less elevated, and less considerable than that des Pelerins, is nevertheless exceedingly worthy of curiosity, and we advanced upon the ice, which is sufficiently difficult to get over, being in some places almost mountainous. [print by Bourrit]

Having reached the height of the Glacier, we had a view of the whole valley of Chamouni, which presents itself here in most agreeable perspective; a prospect of the other Glaciers, and heaps of ice, that of the rivers which run from them; the little islands which they form; the [141] cultivated fields; the tender verdure of the meadows; the contrast of the dark green of the firs, with the yellow colour of the woods of larch trees; all these different objects, which terminated this vast field of ice, from which we saw them, formed together one of the most singular picturesque landscapes we had ever beheld: Above us we admired afresh the majesty of Mount Blanc, and could better judge from this, than from any other point of view we had yet come at, of its immense height, and of the absolute impossibility of ascending it.

Having crossed to the other side of the Glacier, we kindled a fire, and sat down to dinner; immediately [142] after which we hastened to descend through the woods, to escape a violent shower and tempest, which seemed to advance upon us very fast. We were overtaken, notwithstanding all our expedition, but saved a part of the distress, by sheltering ourselves a while at the first house of the nearest village.

Observations on the Glacieres, and the Glaciers, by M. Ramond. Translated by Helen Maria Williams, and presented as Appendix, Vol. II, of A Tour in Switzerland (1798).

[Note to title: "The Glacieres are central mountains, on which the snow first collects itself."]

1. On the increase of the glaciers

[301] If we look nearer, and observe its partial effects, this deluge of ice appears still more formidable. We see it swallowing up in succession these vast wrecks of every age, each portion of which bears evidence of the ravages of a century. Stretched out like the veil of oblivion over these records of nature, it threatens [302] with destruction every vestige which time has left in its passage. Into whatever valley I penetrate, I see myself surrounded by ice; it menaces every communication; the most fruitful pasturages are threatened with its invasions; and the shepherds, hemmed in between the spaces which remain, point out to us, with sighs, those which have been subdued. Like torrents, if it had their rapidity and inconstancy; or lavas, if it did not bring in its train all the horrors of an eternal winter, the ice follows every declivity, accumulates in every depth, and presents itself like an immense volume, the descent of which is determined by its weight. The inhabitant of the plain beholds with astonishment the invader protruding amidst his harvests, bid defiance even to the sun by which they are ripened; the shepherd, seeking refuge at the foot of the precipice, perceives it with [303] terror, mounting the tops of the steep which separated him from it, and deluging his abode with torrents and avalanches.

We must allow, however melancholy be the fact, that the ice is gaining on the whole surface of the high Alps, and is tending to insulate the more temperate vallies which they inclose. I will not say that their increase is any proof of the refrigeration of the globe; for the Glaciers have in general gone far beyond the colder region which has produced them, and subsist by means of their extent in a warmer zone; but the situation itself of these Glaciers, in places which could not have given them birth, is sufficient to prove the extension of their original mass. Those therefore who have [304] gathered ripe fruits as the foot of the Glacier of Grindelwald, who with one hand have touched that of Montanvert, and with the other the corn ready for the sickle, may have supposed that the country of fruits is that of ice, and that these masses have not descended from the region above. Besides, what system, or what particular observations, shall we oppose to attested facts and uniform traditions? We must have had but little knowledge of these masses of ice, and been less conversant with the shepherds who dwell in [305] their terrific neighbourhood, not to know how many Glaciers bear the name of the pasturages which they have recently invaded; how many passages were open, within a century, which are now for ever closed; all these places are known; the registers of communities and of families have preserved the memorial of these public calamities, and of the monuments by which they are attested. [306] And if to so much evidence it was necessary to add an higher authority in a case of this nature than any others which have hitherto been cited, I should name the illustrious Haller, the Pliny of Switzerland; this learned man, then fourscore years of age, has affirmed to me, that in his early youth he had seen from Berne, mountains stript of their snows during the greater part of the summer, which are now constantly covered.

2. The silence of the high mountains

[333] [After writing of the different forms taken in the high mountains by the ice and glaciers.]

I leave, without reluctance, particular descriptions of objects, and frigid details, to writers who make a point of explaining every thing; but I regret that I have not been able to bring back from this new world the power of painting to the imagination, [334] as it was pictured before my eyes; to retrace the sentiments with which it inspired me, and the ideas to which it gave birth. Let no one judge of its solitudes by the solitudes of our plains. Here below, every thing lives, sensation pervades the whole. In the most distant retreat, in deserts where I do not find the footsteps of man, I find a family of birds, which is the emblem of our own; a republic of insects, which recalls the idea of our nations; their industry, their relations and antipathies. The waving of a tree, the shaking of a shrub, the rapid course, or murmuring flow of a rivulet, every things brings me back to the sentiment of existence, by giving me the idea of motion, the most soothing of all ideas, because it is the most remote from annihilation. But how different the immense deserts of the Alps! One uniform carpet covers their icy labyrinths, from the [335] proudest summits to the most unsearchable abysses; it is the livery of the eternal winters of the pole, a winding sheet which enwraps the expiring earth.

An eternal silence reigns over this secluded region. If at remote distances an avalanche falls amidst its precipices; if a rock rolls over its ice, the noise will be insulated; no living creature answers it by a cry of terror, no timid birds fly away affrighted; the winding labyrinths of these mountains, carpeted with snow, receive, in silence, the sound, which is repeated by no echo. Who, but the observer of nature, would suspect that this vast tomb contains its secret laboratory, and that like the careful monarch who, in the tranquil retirement of his palace, dwells with anxiety on the happiness of his people, the mother of the world prepares in this abode, defended by such [336] terrible avenues, the flowers with which she is to deck our plains.

3. Imagination and the eternal

[348] [On the experience of ascending to the heights of the mountains.]

The most excessive fatigue vanishes in an instant; strength is renewed; courage and tranquillity take place of uneasiness; in a word, the body and mind undergo a transformation which extends and multiplies all their faculties. However wonderful what I have advanced may appear, I shall not want evidences of its truth, and shall only find those incredulous, who have never ascended above the plain. I call these to witness, who have scaled some of [349] the heights of the globe; is there a single person who did not find himself regenerated; who did not feel with surprise, that he had left at the feet of the mountains, his weakness, his infirmities, his cares, his troubles, in a word, the weaker part of his being, and the ulcerated portion of his heart? Who among them but will acknowledge that at no moment of his life, in the age even of his warmest passions, in the midst of circumstances which have given the greatest force to his imagination, he has never felt himself so disposed to that kind of enthusiasm which kindles great ideas!

In fine, who, in beholding from that station the immensity of the celestial spheres, and the nothingness of our planet, can think without some feeling of contempt on what we call great, or of pity on what we [350] deem important? Let not this appear wonderful; every thing in these regions is of collossal magnitude: the eye lost in the immense chaos of mountains which it surveys, thinks it beholds an universe, and this universe is but a point when it contemplates the azure space in which we wander. Nothing distracts or misleads the mind employed on these sublime objects. The silence of these deserts, where nothing breathes, or moves, beyond the tumult of the habitable world; the view of these profound abysses; of valleys which those immoveable cliffs have beheld alternately desert and cultivated, peopled to day, to morrow desolated, the asylum of so many alternately happy and miserable mortals, the theatre of so many changes; every thing concurs to make our meditations more profound; to give them that melancholy hue, that sublime [351] character which they acquire, when the soul, taking that flight which makes it contemporary with every age, and co existent with all beings, hovers over the abyss of time. In vain would reason strive to count by years. The solidity of these enourmous masses, opposed to the accumulation of their ruins, startles and confounds all its calculations. Imagination seizes the reins which Reason drops, and in that long succession of periods, catches a glimpse of the image of eternity, which she hails with religious terror. How has every thing vanished, which occupies, enchants, and astonishes us here below, when we compare it with the objects of glory that are set before us! Thus, our most extended ideas, and our most elevated and noble sentiments have their origin in the wanderings of the imagination; but let us forgive its chimeras, for what would there be great [352] in our conceptions, or glorious in our actions, if finite was not, through its illusions, continually changed into infinite, space into immensity, time into eternity, and fading laurels into immortal crowns!

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Document created February 28th 2003