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Authors: Alan; Sillitoe

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In the historical note on Geneva Baedeker tells us that Jean Jacques Rousseau, the son of a watchmaker, was born there in 1712, and lived in the town during his early youth. ‘His writings, which exhibited ability of the highest order, exercised a great influence over the opinions of his age, but their tendency was highly injurious to society, and he passed a troubled and agitated life. At the instigation of Voltaire and the university of Paris, and by order of the magistrates of Geneva, his “
” and “
Contrat Social
” were burnt in 1763 by the hangman.'

Well might Dostoevsky, in a letter to his sister, complain that ‘Geneva is a dull, gloomy, Protestant, stupid town with a frightful climate, but very well suited for work.'

If our traveller came towards Mont Blanc from the Valley of Aosta he would find that it was ‘more perhaps than any other in Piedmont afflicted in a horrid degree with cretinism and goitre. Nowhere are they more prevalent than in this beautiful valley. The peasantry appear squalid and filthy a race of beings generally stunted and diseased. Of the whole population in the neighbourhood of Aosta, one in fifty is a cretin; and above half are more or less goitred. Some of these are horrid objects. Tumours as large as their heads are appended to their throats, varying in number, size, and colour. The dirt, deformity, and imbecility of the inhabitants presented a scene so wretched, that it harrowed our feelings. Not a well-dressed or decent-looking person is to be met with; all bear the marks of poverty, disease, and wretchedness; and this too amidst scenes for which nature has done so much. Something weighs upon the people like a curse. Many conjectures have been offered upon the cause of goitres and cretinism. Labour, food, water, air, have all been offered in explanation; but none of these account for it satisfactorily. The opinion of our guide was, that it was chiefly owing to the villainously dirty habits of the people most afflicted with it. He said that among the mountaineers this was the general opinion; and though it sometimes descended in families, and often was observed in infancy, yet it might be traced to the filthy habits of preceding generations.' Similar views were expressed in later editions but, by the end of the century, guidebooks had ceased referring to the disease, which suggested that it had more or less died out.

To reach Chamonix and Mont Blanc from Geneva Baedeker recommends taking the diligence as far as St Gervais, then walking the rest of the way in six or seven hours over a five-thousand-foot col – no great feat for a pedestrian, then or now. The highway is, however, ‘beset by all sorts of vagabonds, who plant themselves in the way openly as beggars, or covertly as dealers in mineral specimens, guides to things which do not require their aid, dealers in echoes, by firing small cannon where its reverberation may be heard two or three times. Such idle nuisances should be discountenanced.'

All guidebooks gave advice on walking, suggesting that inexperienced Alpine travellers should accustom themselves, for some time before they set out, to look down from heights and over precipices, ‘so that, when they really enter upon a dangerous path, the eye may be familiarized with the depths of the abyss, and the aspect of danger, and the head relieved from vertigo which the sudden sight of a precipice is otherwise apt to produce'.

No one should attempt to cross a glacier without a guide, who must always be allowed to take the lead. Only double-soled boots should be worn, Murray says, ‘with iron heels and hob-nails; the weight of a shoe of this kind is counter balanced by the effectual protection afforded to the feet against sharp rocks and loose stones, which cause contusions.'

Blistered feet should be rubbed with spirits before going to bed, ‘mixed with tallow dropped from a candle into the palm of the hand; on the following morning no blister will exist. The spirits seem to possess the healing power, the tallow serving only to keep the skin soft and pliant. To prevent the feet blistering, it is a good plan to soap the inside of the stocking before setting out.'

Baedeker says that, in spite of possible discomforts: ‘The pedestrian is of all travellers the most capable, both physically and morally, of enjoying a tour in Switzerland. The first golden rule is to start on his way betimes in the morning. If strength permits, and a suitable halting-place is to be met with, a two hours' walk may be accomplished before breakfast. At noon a moderate luncheon is preferable to the regular table-d'hôte dinner. Repose should be taken during the hottest hours, and the journey then continued till 5 or 6 p.m., when a substantial meal may be partaken of.'

He has much to say on the drawback of having too much luggage, which renders the travellers a prey to porters at every stop. ‘Who has not experienced the exultation which attends the shouldering of the knapsack or wielding of the carpet-bag, on quitting a steamboat or railway station? Who in his turn has not felt the misery of that moment when, surrounded by his “impedimenta”, the luckless tourist is almost distracted by the rival claims of porters, touters, and commissionaires? A light game-bag amply suffices to contain all that is necessary for a fortnight's excursion. A change of flannel shirts and worsted stockings, a few pocket-handkerchiefs, a pair of slippers, and the necessary “objets de toilette” may be carried with hardly a perceptible increase of fatigue. A piece of green crepe or coloured spectacles to protect the eyes from the glare of the snow, and a leather drinking-cup will also be found useful …'

The foremost ‘Rule' for the enthusiast is that he should curb his ardour at the beginning of the tour, and rarely exceed ten hours a day. In the tone of the fatherly schoolmaster Baedeker tells him: ‘Animal spirits are too often in excess of powers of endurance; overtaxing the strength on a single occasion sometimes incapacitates altogether for several days. When a mountain has to be breasted, the prudent pedestrian will pursue the “even tenor of his way” with regular and steady steps; the novice alone indulges in “spurts”. If the traveller will have a third golden maxim for his guidance it may be, “When fatigue begins, enjoyment ceases.”'

We are forewarned about the chilling reality of actual experience. ‘The first night in a
dispels many illusions. Whatever poetry there may be theoretically in a bed of hay, the usual concomitants of the cold night-air piercing abundant apertures, the ringing of the cow-bells, the sonorous grunting of the swine, and the undiscarded garments, hardly contribute to that refreshing slumber of which the wearied traveller stands in need.'

Baedeker's edition of 1911 frowns heavily on: ‘The senseless habit of breaking empty bottles and scattering the fragments (which) has led to inconvenience and even danger near some of the more frequented of these club huts. Bottles when done with should be deposited in some suitable spot where they will be out of the way.'

As for experiencing the rarefied effects of air in the mountains, Francis Galton in
The Art of Travel
suggests a cruel and bizarre method of gauging it: ‘On the high plateaux newcomers must expect to suffer. The symptoms are described by many South American travellers; the attack of them is there, among other names, called the
. The disorder is sometimes fatal to stout plethoric people; oddly enough, cats are unable to endure it. Numerous trials have been made with these unhappy feline barometers, and the creatures have been found to die in frightful convulsions.'

The first view of Mont Blanc from the northwest is obtained at Sallenches, where the traveller enters the bustling courtyard of the hotel of that name and, during the season, ‘never fails to meet numerous travellers going to or from Chamonix; the latter imparting their impressions of the wonders of Mont Blanc, and their adventurous scrambles in the presence of the “monarch” to the listening expectants of such enjoyment; – all is excitement.'

A few miles beyond Sallenches is St Gervais, ‘a little fairy spot, in a beautiful valley, where excellent accommodation may be had
en pension;
hot mineral baths for the sick, and delightful walks around this little paradise for the convalescent … One of the pleasures of this place is its solitude, amidst scenes so beautiful and wild, that it would be difficult to find it, without a guide.'

This difficulty might have been a positive advantage on 11 July 1892 for, to quote from Edward Whymper's guidebook to the area, ‘the whole of the central (and oldest) portion of these buildings, and the farther ends of the two wings, were erased by the sudden bursting of a sub-glacial reservoir … The flood first coursed down the valley, and at its mouth half obliterated the village of Bionnay. It then joined the Bon Nant Torrent, and did little further mischief until it was compressed between the walls of the Gorge of Crepin; from the lower extremity of which it issued with tremendous violence, and in a few minutes battered the Baths to ruin, and swept away and drowned the greater part of the visitors. Those who were in the building on the left escaped; but, with few exceptions, all who were in the central and in the farthest blocks perished. How many were lost is unknown. It is supposed that at the Baths alone the number exceeded one hundred and twenty.'

Whymper's guide, one of the most thorough, tells us in the introduction, under practical matters: ‘Soap. – There is a great opening for soap in Alpine regions, and at the present time it pays to carry a cake.' As for those who travel light, meaning pedestrians, ‘… inkeepers look with suspicion upon travellers with little or no baggage, and are apt to thrust them into the very worst rooms'.

Chamonix, while not in Switzerland, is dealt with in Murray because of its nearness to Mont Blanc. Out of several good inns he recommends the Hôtel de Londres et d'Angleterre, since this is ‘the oldest establishment, and has never forfeited the reputation of being one of the best held and appointed inns to be found in the Alps; where Victor Tairrez and his excellent wife are so practised in their acquaintance with, and their provision for, the wants of travellers, especially English, that more
will be found there than in almost any other inn out of England'.

As opposed to this solid praise Murray takes hotel guests to task, sternly reminding them that: ‘At Chamonix and elsewhere, the travellers' books at the inns are great sources of amusement; often containing, in remarks of preceding travellers, useful information. A most disgraceful practice has too often prevailed, of removing leaves for the sake of autographs; it is difficult to imagine any act more unworthy, for this selfish gratification they destroy what would be pleasure to hundreds.'

Whymper, a great Alpinist himself, discusses with the reader the advisability or otherwise of employing guides, concluding that: ‘Everyone must decide for himself. Some persons are competent to carry out all the excursions that are mentioned. A larger number, however, are not equal to this.'

Baedeker says that the services of a guide are unnecessary in good weather on well-trodden routes, and that: ‘The traveller may engage the first urchin he meets to carry his bag or knapsack for a trifling gratuity.' Guides were said to be indispensable, however, for expeditions among, ‘the higher mountains, especially on those which involve the passage of glaciers. Only novices undervalue their services and forget that snowstorms or mist may at any moment change security to danger. As a class, the Swiss guides will be found to be intelligent and respectable men, well versed in their duties, and acquainted with the people and resources of the country.'

He tells us in his preface that: ‘The achievements of the English and Swiss Alpine Clubs have dimmed the memory of the pioneers of these icy regions, whilst latterly the fair sex have vied in deeds of daring with those by whom the dangers of adventure are more appropriately encountered.'

A chapter in Whymper's guidebook is devoted to accidents in the Mont Blanc area, one of which, in 1909, ‘did not present any great novelty. In September a tourist named Eugène Ribaud, who was said to be an architect of Lyons, leant against a balustrade in the Gorge of Trient, which gave way, and he fell to the bottom of a cliff, where his corpse was found.'

Sixty-two climbers and guides were killed from 1820 to 1909, and details are given of each accident. One that did not end fatally is a good example of stiff-upper-lip reporting:

On the 11th of July, 1861, a large party of tourists was assembled on the top of the Col de Miage, with the object of discovering whether an ascent of Mont Blanc could be made from this direction. Whilst the rest were stopping for breakfast, one of the party, Mr. Birkbeck, went aside, and the others did not at first remark his absence. When it was noticed, his track was followed, and it was found that he had fallen down precipitous slopes of snow and ice, and was descried nearly half a mile away, at the foot of the slope, at the head of the French Glacier de Miage. His friends went to his assistance as quickly as possible, but nearly 2½ hs. elapsed before they could reach him.

Between the place where Mr. Birkbeck commenced to slide or fall and the place where he stopped there was a difference of level of about 1700 feet!
The slope was gentle where he first lost his footing, and he tried to stop himself with his fingers and nails, but the snow was too hard. Sometimes he descended feet first, sometimes head first, then he went sideways, and once or twice he had the sensation of shooting through the air. He came to a stop at the edge of a large crevasse. When reached, it was found that he was almost half-skinned by abrasion and friction. By his passage over the snow, the skin was removed from the outside of the legs and thighs, the knees, the whole of the lower part of the back and part of the ribs, together with some from the nose and forehead. He had not lost much blood, but he presented a most ghastly spectacle of bloody raw flesh. He was transported to St. Gervais, and remained there in a critical condition for some weeks, but ultimately recovered better than might have been expected.

BOOK: Leading the Blind
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