© Yorkshire Ramblers' Club. Reproduction of this article is not permitted.
However, short extracts from it may be used, for non-commercial purposes, provided their source is fully cited, acknowledged and referenced as:
Woodward, A.M. (1924) A Glimpse Of Dauphiné. Yorkshire Ramblers' Club Journal Volume 5 Number 16: pp81-85. Leeds: YRC.

A Glimpse Of Dauphiné.

By A. M. Woodward.

It had been cold and gloomy when the car emerged from the tunnel at the top of the Col du Galibier and began to descend the long zig-zags of the road down into the valley of the Romanche. Across the valley the Meije was hiding its summit-ridge in clouds, which augured ill for fine weather, but increased the impressiveness of the great glaciers pouring down its northern face out of the mist far above our heads. A drizzle was falling when we halted at Lautaret, a favourite haunt of the Alpine botanist.

Here, indeed, art and science have come to Nature's aid, for in a garden adjoining the hotel the University of Grenoble has laid out an Alpine garden, where the rarest plants from the Alps are ranged trimly by species, in stony beds, with sections containing unfamiliar treasures from the Pyrenees, Iceland and the Himalaya. But to the lay mind their charm is lost, for man had put them there and labelled them; and orderly arrangement is not one of Nature's qualities in Dauphiné.

On reaching La Grave and strolling up the slopes behind the village, one's view was still dominated by the Meije, which reminded one that mountains, unlike, as some say, small children, are not merely to be seen and not heard, for the thunder of its ice-avalanches boomed now and then across the valley.

Next morning, however, was bright, and my plan of campaign was soon formed. Théophile Pic and his brother Florentin were engaged to accompany - or, should I say, conduct - me up the East Peak of the Meije, an attractive snow-pyramid not visible from La Grave. This is one of the few real snow-peaks in Dauphiné, and consequently thought beneath the notice of the expert climber, who attacks, as Dauphiné's pièce de résistance, the great West Peak, a glorious rock-climb, continuously difficult, and one of the most laborious expeditions in the Alps.

The Meije - East, Central and West Peaks. (From Rocher de l'Aigle Hut).  © Yorkshire Ramblers' Club
The Meije - East, Central and West Peaks. (From Rocher de l'Aigle Hut)

I had no such ambitions, and if I had, the powdering of freshly fallen snow would have put rock-climbing for the time out of the question. Florentin was out in pursuit of gibier when we had hoped to start, but when he returned empty-handed he shouldered our provision sack and we were off soon after 11 a.m., our immediate goal being the hut on the Rocher de l'Aigle. This is situated on the very crest of the main ridge of our peak, more than 11,000 feet up, where it slopes downwards to an outlier. The ascent to the hut needs no detailed description, for one glacier ascent is in general very like another, though fortunately the tourist does not always have to battle with such a raging wind as smote us on the slaty buttress leading up from the valley. Cold squalls of rain beat on us when we halted for lunch, and retreat was suggested, with a view to a fresh attempt next day, direct from La Grave, which would involve starting at midnight. But I was loth to lose the 1,800 feet we had already risen, not to mention a dislike to quitting my bed four hours before dawn, if there is any reasonable alternative. Optimistic counsels prevailed, and the clouds lifted to encourage us.

A steep grass slope and 20 minutes on a hateful moraine brought us to the Tabuchet glacier, which we followed up to the hut, except for a short scramble up the rocks on its left (true right) bank to turn the bergschrund. Here, I own it without shame, I fully appreciated the practical as well as the moral support of the rope, for the holds seemed mostly inadequate to my clumsy extremities. The clouds were down on us before we finally reached the hut, soon after five o'clock, well satisfied with our progress so far; for we had risen more than 6,000 feet in less than four hours and a half, excluding halts, and step-cutting on the steeper slopes had checked the pace.

The day's delights were not over; as the sun went down a narrow band of sky, framed by the flat canopy of leaden cloud above and the rugged tops of the hills below, filled and glowed for a few minutes with all the colours of the rainbow ; then to the south-west the crags of the Pic Gaspard showed up intermittently through the driving clouds, with the young moon climbing above its shattered arête. The dusk came, and with it the soup, such as cannot be made except in a mountain hut; no recipe could impart the secret of its peculiar charm. Profoundly thankful that we were not back at La Grave with prospects of a midnight start, we turned in to our comfortable straw and blankets. Pleasant as it is "beneath the roof, to hear with drowsy ears the drip of rain," as Sophocles hath it (who, though accounted most fortunate of men, was not a climber), it is pleasanter still to hear nothing - beyond the moaning of the wind and the occasional snoring of one's companions - and to wake, as we did, to a cloudless morning.

The night had been cold, and the September sun had little power when we started at six o'clock for our peak, now barely 1,700 feet above us; beneath a frozen crust, the snow was soft and powdery, and when the slope grew steeper, Théophile was soon busy with his axe. After 40 minutes' going we surmounted a rocky outcrop on the ridge, freshly powdered with snow, but luckily not extensive, and were soon on the arête proper, which now steepened yet more, in places to 50 degrees. A halt for breath, when it widened again, to let Florentin take his turn at step-cutting, was associated with disappointment, when my companions mistook an allusion to my Kodak for one to cognac, with which we were unprovided. Progress was resumed, and soon after 8.30 we were shaking hands on the summit. For half an hour we enjoyed the view and endeavoured to restore circulation in our half-frozen feet, with more success than I could hope for in attempting to describe what we saw.

No words can do justice to the impression caused by the Central Peak of the Meije towering straight ahead of us; the Climber's Guide is moved for once from its cold and formal style to call it "a most amazing sight from the East Peak," on which we stood. From La Grave, and even from the Refuge, it is merely the second highest projection in a long jagged ridge dominated by the West Peak, but seen from here it has an individuality all of its own, with its summit apparently overhanging the terrific rock-wall which falls sheer to the Etancons Glacier, 4,000 feet below. More than this, it gives a sense of belonging to some world of fantasy, a new experiment of some unearthly architect, which might at any moment fall in ruin, never to be repeated. Well may the peasants in a valley away to the south-east call it Le Doigt de Dieu!

Doigt De Dieu (Meije, Central Peak) by AM Woodward. (From Rocher de l'Aigle Hut).  © Yorkshire Ramblers' Club
Doigt De Dieu (Meije, Central Peak) by AM Woodward

The other giants of Daupliné also claimed a share of attention, belles horreus, as Mr. Coolidge calls them, after exploring them for 20 years or more -a mass of toppling crags, seamed with avalanche-raked couloirs, mere experiments in bizarre mountain-building - dominated by the Écrins, on which one could follow and marvel at the route taken by Whymper's party up its northern face in their successful onslaught in 1864. To the north-east the summits of the Tarentaise, none reaching quite to the height at which we stood, greeted me again, for I had but recently been among them, skirmishing amid the outworks, rather than attacking the main strongholds; but beyond them, Mont Blanc towered as usual above all his neighbours, as though by divine right. Far to the east stretched the Pennine peaks in range after range, with a glimpse to be had, over their western end, of some outlying summits of the Oberland, too remote to identify at a distance of 120 miles.

All too soon we retraced our steps, and an hour's easy going brought us back to the hut. Lunch, a rest, and a pipe smoked in more comfort than that tried on the summit, consumed the rest of the forenoon. Our descent was uneventful, though the mauvais pas on the rocks seemed no less difficult than in ascent, and we were off the glacier by 1.30. A welcome halt by a spring, for rest after the descent of the loathsome moraine, gave us fresh vigour, and glissading down the last slaty slopes to the valley, we returned, flushed partly by our exertions, and one at least of us with satisfaction, to La Grave. The tale of pleasure was completed by the crowning mercy of a hot bath, and such regrets as came were confined to the thought that nearly a year must elapse before I could renew my acquaintance with the "peaks and pleasant pastures" of Dauphiné, for two days later I was due back in England.

[We are indebted to the Editorial Committee of the Gryphon for kind permission to reprint (with verbal alterations only) this article, which appeared in that magazine in 1914. - EDITOR ]