“Heroic Balma” (MS VIII; Poems [1891]; Works [1903])—Despite Ruskinʼs misspelling of the name, the poem clearly refers to Jacques Balmat (1762—1834), an agricultural laborer and crystal hunter, born to an established peasant family in the Chamonix Valley, who gained fame as the first man known to discover a passage for ascending to the top of Mont Blanc. Balmat completed the ascent on 8 August 1786 in the company of Michel‐Gabriel Paccard (1757–1827), a physician with an enthusiasm for natural history, who belonged to well‐educated Chamonixfamily.
In his poem, Ruskin summarizes the story of Balmatʼs discovery of the passage, which he found on the morning following “the night whose stormy might” he “braved” alone, having been left behind on the mountain by a group of climbers who were competing to achieve the summit, and whom Balmat had joined as an unwelcome interloper. Ruskinʼs most likely source for the story was Voyages dans les Alpes by Horace‐Bénédict de Saussure, a book that the family borrowed when staying in Chamonix and studied for its account of the ascent of Mont Blanc, according to Mary Richardson. Later, Ruskinʼs father presented him with Saussureʼs multivolume Voyages as a gift for his 8 February 1834 birthday (Diary of Mary Richardson, 1833, 129; John Ruskin to John James Ruskin, 22 February 1834, in Burd, ed., Ruskin Family Letters, 278; Dearden, The Library of John Ruskin, 303 [no. 2373]). In 1787, a year after Balmat and Paccard successfully climbed to the summit, and Balmat claimed Saussureʼs prize for discovery of the passage, Saussure himself made an expedition to the summit, led there by guides including Balmat. The narration of this ascent forms the climax of the volume of the Voyages that contains the story of Balmatʼs surviving his lonely ordeal of the night storm, awakening to find the path to the summit.
Saussure had spurred the race to gain the summit of Mont Blanc by offering a prize to the first man to achieve it, although Peter H. Hansen argues that a more compelling motivation arose from a growing sense of sovereignty of self, which in eighteenth‐century Savoy was supported by emancipation from feudal dues, a consequent sense of enfranchisement from ages of effective serfdom, and belief in republican ideas. Hansen also comments on the reputation of heroic masculinity that Saussure attached to Chamonix peasants like Balmat, romanticizing their dangerous pursuits amid the mountain heights of chamois hunting and exploring for the “crystal” (quartz and other mineral) specimens to sell to collectors. Competitive masculinity contributed significantly to both bonding and tension between Balmat and Paccard in their joint venture to reach the summit, Hansen speculates, men who otherwise stood poles apart in the social caste of Chamonix (Hansen, Summits of Modern Man, 62–68, 85–89; see also the poem, “Chamouni”, in which Ruskin expresses similar heroic sentiments).
In his poem, Ruskin portrays Balmat as heroically masculine, a quality he may have derived not only from Saussureʼs account, but also from tales about Balmat that the family heard when staying in Chamonix. Balmat was still alive in 1833; and in the previous year, his fame had been given a new boost by Alexandre Dumas, père (1802–70), who interviewed Balmat as the basis for a heavily embellished re‐telling of his exploits in the travelogue, Impressions of Swiss Travel (1834). In Dumasʼs version of the story, Balmat grows larger than life, allegedly crowning himself “king of Mont Blanc” (Hansen, 150; for a translation of selections from Dumasʼs account, along with scrutiny of its exaggerations, see Mathews, The Annals of Mont Blanc, 54–71, 91–107).
Here follows Ruskinʼs probable source for his poem, Saussureʼs account of Balmatʼs night on the mountain, in the original and a translation. Names are identified with the aid of Hansen, Summits of Modern Man.
[U]n de ceux qui avoient suivi François Paccard par la montagne de la Côte, étoit Jaques Balmat, devenu depuis célebre par son ascension à la cime du Mont‐Blanc. Il ne devoit point être de cette course, il se joignit à Paccard & à sa troupe presque malgré eux. En revenant du dôme du Gouté, comme il nʼétoit pas trop de bonne intelligence avec les autres, il marchoit seul, & sʼéloigna même pour aller chercher des crystaux dans un rocher écarté. Lorsquʼil voulut les rejoindre, ou du moins suivre leurs traces sur la neige, il ne les retrouva pas; sur ces entrefaites lʼorage survint, il nʼosa pas se hasarder seul, au milieu de ces déserts par lʼorage & à lʼentrée de la nuit, il préféra de se blotir dans la neige & dʼattendre patiemment la fin de lʼorage & le commencement du jour; il souffrit là beaucoup de la gréle & du froid; mais vers le matin le tems sʼéclaircit, & comme il avoit tout le jour pour redescendre, il résolut dʼen consacrer une partie à parcourir ces vastes & inconnues solitudes, en cherchant une route par laquelle ont pût parvenir à la cime du Mont‐Blanc. Cʼest ainsi quʼil découvrit celle quʼon a suivie & qui est bien certainement la seule par laquelle en puisse lʼatteindre.
De retour à Chamouni, il tint dʼabord sa découverte secrette. Mais comme il apprit que le D. Paccard pensoit à faire quelques tentatives dans le même but, il lui communiqua son secret & lui offrit de lui servir de guide. Le succès de cette entreprise a été connu du public par les relations quʼen ont données le D. Paccard & M. [Marc‐Théodore] Bourrit.
Il y a ceci de remarquable dans la découvette de cette route, cʼest que cʼest celle qui se présente le plus naturellement à ceux qui regardent le Mont‐Blanc depuis Chamouni, & que cʼest aussi celle quʼont tenue les premiers qui ont essayé dʼy monter; mais on sʼen étoit dégoûté par une singuliere prévention. Comme elle suit une espece de vallée entre de grandes hauteurs, on sʼétoit imaginé quʼelle étoit trop chaude & trop peu airée. Cette vallée est cependant bien large, bien accessible aux vents, & les glaces qui en forment le fond & les parois, ne sont pas propres à la réchauffer. Mais la fatigue & la rareté de lʼair donnoient, à ceux qui firent les premieres tentatives, cet accablement dont jʼai souvent parlé; ils attribuerent ce mal‐aise à la chaleur & à la stagnation de lʼair, & ils ne chercherent plus à atteindre la cime que par des arrêtes découvertes & isolées comme celle du Gouté. Les gens de Chamouni croyoient aussi que le sommeil seroit mortel dans ces grandes hauteurs, mais lʼépreuve quʼen fit Jaques Balmat, en y passant la nuit, dissipa cette crainte; & lʼimpossibilité de parvenir en passant sur les arrêtes, contraignit à reprendre la route la plus connue & la plus naturelle.
(Saussure, Voyages dans les Alpes, 7:222–24 [Quatrieme Voyage: Cime du Mont‐Blanc, chap. 1])
[O]ne of those who had followed François Piccard [a party of climbers including the brothers François and Michel Paccard, cousins of Dr. Michel‐Gabriel Paccard, who were racing another party to the summit of Mont Blanc via the Dôme du Goûter] by way of the Montagne la Côte was Jaques Balmat, who has since been celebrated for his ascension to the summit of Mont Blanc. He was not supposed to be part of this group effort; he joined Paccard and his group almost against their wishes. On his way back from the Dôme du Goûter, because he was not on good terms with the group, he walked alone and even went to look for mineral specimens in a rock formation off the beaten path. When he wanted to rejoin them, or at least to follow their tracks in the snow, he couldnʼt find the tracks; in the meantime, a storm had developed, and he dared not proceed alone, in the middle of the wilderness during a storm and at the fall of night. He preferred to burrow into the snow and wait patiently for the end of the storm and the break of day; he suffered a great deal from the hail and the cold; but toward morning the weather cleared, and as he had the entire day to descend, he resolved to consecrate a portion of this time to wandering among these vast and unknown empty places while searching for a route by which one could reach the peak of Mont Blanc. This is how he discovered that route which one follows now, and is almost certainly the only one by which the summit can be reached.
Back at Chamouni, he at first kept his discovery secret. But when he learned that [Michel‐Gabriel] Paccard thought to make some attempts to achieve the same goal, he told him his secret and offered to act as his guide. The success of that enterprise has become known to the public by the accounts given by Paccard and [Marc‐Théodore] Bourrit [artist and musician, a leader of the Geneva republicans, who had himself attempted to reach the summit of Mont Blanc, and who had published a proposed route via the Aiguille and Dôme du Goûter].
What is remarkable about the discovery of this route is that itʼs the most obvious one to those who look at Mont Blanc from CChamouni, and it’s also the one taken by those who first tried to climb the mountain; but they had been turned back by a distinctive obstacle. As the route follows a sort of valley between very high walls, the assumption had been that it was too hot and too little aired. This valley is nevertheless quite large, quite accessible to wind, and the ice, which forms its bottom and sides, keeps it from heating up. But fatigue and the thinness of the air created, in those who made the first attempts, that oppression of which I have often spoken; they attributed this malaise to heat and the stagnant air and they did not make any further efforts to get to the peak except by the isolated and known ridges like the Gouté. The people of Chamouni also thought that sleep would be fatal at these great elevations, but the test of this theory made by Jaques Balmat, by passing the night there, dissipated this fear; and the impossibility of advancing by traversing the ridges constrained one to take the route that was the best known and the most natural.
(Translation by Thomas H. Fick
In September 1834, Balmat perished from a fall, while searching for a vein of gold on Mont Ruan above Sixt‐Fer‐à‐cheval. This accident would have occurred too late in 1834 to have occasioned Ruskinʼs poem. News of Balmatʼs death was at first kept secret by his guide, who maintained silence while a search was made for Balmatʼs body. The search proving unsuccessful, a funeral was finally held in January 1835 (Hansen, 165; Oxley, Jacques Balmat, 32–34). Even then, news of Balmatʼs death must have taken time to reach England. In MS VIII, the draft of Ruskinʼs poem precedes poetry for his fatherʼs May 1834 birthday, on which he began work as early as February 1834 (see MS VIII: Contents, b.2). Ruskinʼs poem, if occasioned by any particular event, was certainly not a memorial to the heroʼs death, but more likely was prompted by the receipt of Saussureʼs Voyages dans les Alpes for his 8 February 1834 birthday.
Beyond Ruskinʼs 1834 poem, the index to the Library Edition contains no further entries on Balmat, but the story of the CChamonix peasantʼs ordeal on the mountain, rewarded by his discovery of the path to the summit, continued to be told in many versions published throughout the nineteenth century. In a popular account of the 1850s, based on an exploit that Ruskin scorned as a “Cockney ascent of Mont Blanc” (John Ruskin to John James Ruskin, Chamonix, 16 August 1851, in Ruskin, Works, 36:117), the journalist and lecturer, Albert Smith (1816–60), profited from his ascent to the summit (he had to be carried up, much of the way) by producing a long‐running theatrical extravaganza, in which he guided his audiences on a virtual climb up the mountain. From Smithʼs first visit to Chamonix in 1838 (when Ruskin was publishing his essays on the picturesque, The Poetry of Architecture, in which he lamented the effects of Swiss dioramas and panoramas), the entrepreneur combined his travel experience with technologies of visual culture to entertain audiences with visual illusion. His first contrivance was a lecture illustrated by a toy panorama, the “Alps in a box”. His next, the show entitled , created “panoramania” among London audiences at the Egyptian Hall, lasting for two‐thousand performances from 1852 to 1859 (Altick, Shows of London, 472–78; Hansen, 174–79). As published in Smithʼs book to accompany the show, The Story of Mont Blanc with engraved illustrations (1853), Smith relates Balmatʼs story, seemingly using Saussure's version as scaffolding, but draped with melodramatic detail and lighting:
It so happened that one of Paccardʼs party, named Jacques Balmat,—who appears just at this time not to have been very popular in the valley [of Chamonix],—had presented himself without invitation, and followed them against their will. When they turned to descend they did not tell this poor man of their intention. Being on unfriendly terms with them, he had kept aloof; and whilst stopping to search for some crystals, under a rock, he lost sight of them, just as the snow began to fall, which rapidly obliterated their traces.
The storm increased, and not daring to expose himself to the dangers of a solitary descent in the darkness, he resolved to spend the night, alone, in the centre of this desert of ice, and at an elevation of fourteen thousand feet above the level of the sea!
He had no food, and was but poorly clad; night was rapidly coming on, and the frozen flakes fell more heavily every minute. He therefore got under the lee of one of the rocks, and contrived to heap up against it sufficient snow to form a kind of niche, into which he crept, and blockaded himself as well as he was able, from the storm. And there—an atom on the ghastly and immeasurable waste of eternal frost that extended on every side around him, in awful unearthly silence, unbroken by any sound from the remote living world—half dead already from the piercing cold, and with limbs inflamed and stiffened by the labour he had already undergone, he passed the long uncertain hours of that terrible night.
At last morning broke. Far away in the east Balmat saw its earliest lights rising behind the giants of the Bernese Oberland who guarded the horizon, and one after another the Jungfrau, Eiger and the Finsteraarhorn stood out bright and sharp in the clear cold air. The storm had cleared altogether; the morning was calm and mild; comparatively so even at that elevation; and as Balmat painfully endeavoured to move his almost paralyzed limbs into action, he found that his feet had lost all sensation—they were frostbitten! He could, however, move them, and without pain. The night frost had hardened the snow; presently the sunlight came down the top of Mont Blanc to the Dome du Gôuté [sic], and then, still keeping up his courage through everything, this brave fellow determined to devote the day to surveying the mountain, and seeing if any practicable course to the summit presented itself on the vast and hitherto untrodden deserts of snow. His courage was rewarded: he found that if the crevices that border the Grand Plateau were once crossed, the path to the top of Mont Blanc was clear and unbroken before him, and he then traced out the route, which has, with little variation, been followed ever since, and which appears to be, beyond doubt, the only practicable one.
Balmat returned that evening to Chamouni, and his energy was all exhausted by the time he reached the village. He took to his bed immediately, and did not leave it for weeks. Nobody knew of his success. He kept his secret close, until, moved with gratitude to Dr. Paccard, the village physician, for his great care and attention, the line of road was hinted at, and an attempt agreed upon as soon as Balmat recovered.


“Goutes height” (MS VIII; Poems [1891]; Works [1903])—“The Dôme, or the Aiguille, du Goûter” (Ruskin, Works, 2:385 n. 1). In this gloss, the editors of the Library Edition cannot mean that these two heights are one in the same, but must mean that Ruskinʼs phrase in the poem might refer to either one (or both). Viewed from the valley of Chamonix, the three heights form a rising line extending southwest to southeast: the Aiguille du Goûter is nearest to the valley; then extending to the southeast, connected to the aiguille by a ridge, rises the higher summit of the Dôme du Goûter; and then farther to the southeast, beyond the dôme, stands the summit of Mont Blanc. Between the Aiguille du Goûter and the Aiguille du Midi nearer to the village of Chamonix, the Bossons Glacier runs down from Mont Blanc toward the village. (In the nineteenth century, the glacier approached quite close to the village, halting on the south bank of the Arve.)