“Heroic Balma” (MS VIII;
Works )—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 Balmat
ʼs 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.
ʼs 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
ʼs father presented him with Saussure
ʼs multivolume Voyages
as a gift for his 8 February 1834
(Diary of Mary Richardson, 1833
, 129; John Ruskin to John James Ruskin, 22 February 1834
Burd, ed., Ruskin Family Letters
Dearden, The Library of John Ruskin
, 303 [no. 2373]).
, a year after Balmat
successfully climbed to the summit, and Balmat
ʼs 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 Balmat
ʼs surviving his lonely ordeal of the night storm, awakening to find the path to the summit.
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.
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
in their joint venture to reach the summit, Hansen
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,
, in which Ruskin
expresses similar heroic sentiments).
In his poem, Ruskin
as heroically masculine, a quality he may have derived not only from Saussure
ʼs account, but also from tales about Balmat
that the family heard
when staying in Chamonix
was still alive in 1833
; and in the previous year, his fame had been given a new boost by
Alexandre Dumas, père
), who interviewed Balmat
as the basis for a heavily embellished re‐telling of his exploits in the travelogue,
Impressions of Swiss Travel
). In Dumas
ʼs version of the story,
grows larger than life, allegedly crowning himself “king of Mont Blanc
, 150; for a translation of selections
ʼs 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
[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
perished from a fall, while searching for a vein of gold on Mont Ruan
This accident would have occurred too late in 1834
to have occasioned Ruskin
ʼs poem. News of Balmat
ʼs death was at first kept secret by his guide, who maintained silence
while a search was made for Balmat
ʼs body. The search proving unsuccessful, a funeral was finally held in January 1835
, 165; Oxley, Jacques Balmat
Even then, news of Balmat
ʼs death must have taken time to reach England. In MS VIII
, the draft of Ruskin
ʼs poem precedes poetry for his fatherʼs May 1834
on which he began work as early as February 1834
(see MS VIII: Contents, b.2
ʼs 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 Saussure
Voyages dans les Alpes
for his 8 February 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 1850
s, 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
the journalist and lecturer, Albert Smith
), 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.
ʼs first visit to Chamonix
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
As published in Smith
ʼs book to accompany the show, The Story of Mont Blanc
with engraved illustrations (1853
ʼs 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