The Mer De Glace
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
THE first and principal excursion from Chamouny is generally that to the Mer de Glace. It is not at all difficult, but if you have fine weather, it gives you some of the most sublime experiences of mountain scenery you can meet with in all the regions of the Alps. You cross the meadows in the vale of Chamouny, step over the newborn, furious Arve, and climb the mountain precipices to the height of 2,000 feet, by a rough, craggy path, sometimes winding amidst a wood of firs, and some-times wandering over green grasses. At Montanvert you find yourself on the extremity of a plateau, so situated, that on one side you may look down into the dread frozen sea, and on the other, by a few steps, into the lovely green vale of Chamouny ! What astonishing variety and contrast in the spectacle ! Far beneath, a smiling and verdant valley, watered by the Arve, with hamlets, fields and gardens, the abode of life, sweet children and flowers; far above, savage and inaccessible crags of ice and granite, and a cataract of stiffened billows, stretching away beyond sight—the throne of Death and Winter.
From the bosom of the tumbling sea of ice, enormous granite needles shoot into the sky, objects of singular sublimity, one of them rising to the great height of 13,000 feet, seven thousand above the point where you are standing. This is more than double the height of Mount Washington in our country, and this amazing pinnacle of rock looks like the spire of an interminable colossal Cathedral, with other pinnacles around it. No snow can cling to the summits of these jagged spires; the lightning does not splinter them; the tempests rave round them.; and at their base, those eternal drifting ranges of snow are formed, that sweep down into the frozen sea, and feed the perpetual, immeasurable masses of the glacier. Meanwhile, the laughing verdure, sprinkled with flowers, plays upon the edges of the enormous masses of ice---so near, that you may almost touch the ice with one hand, and with the other pluck the violet.
The impetuous arrested cataract seems as if it were ploughing the rocky gorge with its turbulent surges. Indeed the ridges of rocky fragments along the edges of the glacier, called moraines, do look precisely as if a colossal iron plough had torn them from the mountain, and laid them along in one continuous furrow on the frozen verge. It is a scene of stupendous sublimity. These mighty granite peaks, hewn and pinnacled into Gothic towers, and these rugged mountain walls and buttresses,—what a Cathedral ! with this cloudless sky, by starlight, for its fretted roof—the chaunting wail of the tempest, and the rushing of the avalanche for its organ. How grand the thundering sound of the vast masses of ice tumbling from the roof of the Arve-cavern at the foot of the glacier ! Does it not seem, as it sullenly and heavily echoes, and rolls up from so immense a distance before, even more sublime than the thunder of the avalanche above us? We could tell better, if we could have a genuine upper avalanche to compare with it. But what a stupendous scene ! "I begin now," said my companion, "to understand the origin of the Gothic Architecture." This was a very natural feeling; but, after all, it could not have been such a scene that gave birth to the great idea of that "frozen poetry" of the Middle Ages. Far more likely it was the sounding aisles of the dim woods, with their chequered green light, and festooned, pointing arches.
The colossal furrow of rocks and gravel along the edges of the ice at the shores of the sea are produced by the action of the frost and the avalanches, with the march of the glacier against the sides of the mountains. Nothing can be more singular than these ridges of mountain débris, apparently ploughed up and worked off by the moving of the whole bed of ice down the valley. Near the shore, the sea is turbid with these rocks and gravel; but as you go out into the channel, the ice becomes clearer and more glittering, the crevices and fissures deeper and more dangerous, and all the phenomena more astonishing. Deep, blue, pellucid founts of ice-cold water lie in the opening gulfs, and sometimes, putting your ear to the yawning fissures, you may hear the rippling of the rills below, that from the bosom of the glacier are hurrying down to constitute the Arve, bursting furiously forth from the great ice-cavern in the valley.
This Mer de Glace is an easy and excellent residence for the scientific study of the glaciers, a subject of very great interest, formerly filled with mysteries, which the bold and persevering investigations and theories of some modern naturalists have quite cleared up. The strange movements of the glaciers, their apparent wilful rejection of extraneous bodies and substances to the surface and the margin, their increase and decrease, long remained invested with something of the supernatural; they seemed to have a soul and a life of their own. They look motion-less and silent, yet they are always moving and sounding on, and they have great voices that give prophetic warning of the weather to the shepherds of the Alps. Scientific men have set up huts upon the sea, and landmarks on the mountains opposite, to test the progress of the icy masses, and in this way it was found that a cabin constructed by Professor Hugi on the glacier of the Aar, had travelled between the years 1827 and 1840 a distance of 4,600 feet. It is supposed that the Mer de Glace moves down between four and five hundred feet annually.
It is impossible to form a grander image of the rigidity and barrenness, the coldness and death of winter, than when you stand among the billows of one of these frozen seas; and yet it is here that nature locks up in her careful bosom the treasures of the Alpine valleys, the sources of rich summer verdure and vegetable life. They are hoarded up in winter, to be poured forth beneath the sun, and with the sun in summer. Some of the largest rivers in Europe take their rise from the glaciers, and give to the Swiss valleys their most abundant supply of water, in the season when ordinary streams are dried up. This is a most interesting provision in the economy of nature, for if the glaciers did not exist, those verdant valleys into which the summer sun pours with such fervor, would be parched with drought. So the mountains are parents of perpetual streams, and the glaciers are reservoirs of plenty.
The derivation of the German name for glacier, gletscher, is suggested as coming not from their icy material, but their perpetual motion, from glitschen, to glide; more probably, however, from the idea of gliding upon their surface. These glaciers come down from the air, down out of heaven, a perpetual frozen motion, ever changing and gliding, from the first fall of snow in the atmosphere, through the state of consolidated grinding blocks of ice, and then into musical streams that water the valleys. First it is a powdery, feathery snow, then granulated like hail, and denominated firn, forming vast beds and sheets around the highest mountain summits, then frozen into masses, by which time it has travelled down to within seven thousand feet above the level of the sea, where commences the great ice-ocean that fills the uninhabited Alpine valleys, unceasingly freezing, melting, and moving down. It has been estimated by Saussure and others that these seas of ice, at their greatest thickness, are six or eight hundred feet deep. They are traversed by deep fissures, and as they approach the great precipices, over which they plunge like a cataract into the vales, they are split in all directions, and heaved up into waves, reefs, peaks, pinnacles, and minarets. Underneath they are traversed by as many galleries and caverns, through which run the rills and torrents constantly gathering from the melting masses above. These innumerable streams, gathering in one as they approach the termination of the glacier, rush out from beneath it, under a great vault of ice, and thus are born into the breathing world, full-grown roaring rivers, from night, frost, and chaos.
This Sea of Ice, which embosoms in its farthest re-cesses a little living flower-garden, whither the bumble-bees from Chamouny resort for honey, is also bordered by steep, lonely beds of the fragrant Rhododendron, or Rose of the Alps. This hardy and beautiful flower grows from a bush larger than our sweet fern, with foliage like the leaves of the ivory-plum. It continues blooming late in the season, and sometimes covers vast declivities on the mountains at a great height, where one would hardly suppose it possible for a handful of earth to cling to the rocky surface. There, amidst the snows and ice of a thousand winters, it pours forth its perfume on the air, though there be none to inhale the fragrance, or praise the sweetness, save only "the little busy bees," that seem dizzy with delight, as they throw themselves into the bosom of these beds of roses.
Higher still on the opposite side of this great Ice-Sea, there are mountain slopes of grass at the base of stupendous rocky pinnacles, whither the shepherds of the Alps drive their herds from Chamouny, for three months' pasturage. They have no way of getting them there but across the dangerous glacier; and it is said that the pass-age is a sort of annual celebration, when men, women, and children go up to Montanvert to witness and assist the difficult transportation. When the herds have crossed, one peasant stays with them for the whole three months of their summer excursion, living upon bread and cheese, with one cow among the herd to supply him with milk. When he is not sleeping, he knits stockings, and ruminates as contentedly as the browsing cattle, his only care being to increase his store.