Board 13

The Goethe‘s way

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the great German poet (1749–1832), visited the Dent-de-Vaulion on the 25th of October 1779

The account of his ascension is astonishing; at a time when descriptions are rather approximative within that kind of literature, the author proves himself to be extremely precise. Everything is right, apart from the fact that that one cannot see the resurgence of the Orbe from the peak of the Dent de Vaulion, it is hidden behind the Crêt des Alouettes. 


Goethe travelled through Switzerland and visited the high valley of the Orbe during the autumn of 1779. He was accompanied by his friend, the prince Charles-August of Saxe-Weimar and the baron of Wedel, grand-master of waters and forests. The poet was 30 years old, the prince 22. Back then, Goethe was in close contact with his tender friend, Frau von Stein, a lady of the court of Weimar. From each leg, he sent her a description of his journey. These letters were later put together by Goethe himself under the title: Letters from Switzerland. They were translated into French by Jaques Prochat, a university professor who taught in Lausanne around 1840.


They left Rolle on horseback in the afternoon of 24th October, the travellers arrived at the Marchairuz Pass at sunset. Then, they arrived at our Haute-Combe : We thought we saw below us a vast lake, for a thick mist filled the whole valley which we overlooked.


At Les Brassus, our travellers found accommodation in a particular house ; and Goethe’s description has retained the attention of his admirers for many years. This house still exists : The company of the captain procured us lodgings in a house where strangers were not usually entertained. In its internal arrangement, it differed in nothing from usual buildings of the same kind, except that the great room in the centre was at once the kitchen, the anteroom and general gathering-place for the family. From it, you entered at once into the sleeping-rooms, which were either on the same floor with it, or had to be approached by steps. On the one side was the fire, which was burning on the ground on some stone slabs; while a chimney, built durably and neatly of planks, received and carried off the smoke. In the corner were the doors of the oven. All the rest of the floor was of wood, with the exception of a small piece near the window around the sink, which was paved. Moreover, all around and overhead, on the beams, a multitude of domestic articles and utensils were arranged in beautiful order and kept nice and clean.


This is an excellent description of a Combian house of that time with it great central chimney. The next day, Goethe and his companions, let by the grand-master of the Pays de Vaud, and they went up to the top of the Dent de Vaulion :


We rode back again over the bridge, toward Le Pont, and took a guide for the Dent. In ascending, we now had the great lake directly behind us. To the east, its boundary is the Noir Mont, behind which the bald peak of the Dole rises up to the west, it is shut in by the mountain ridge near Le Lieu. The sun felt hot; it was between eleven and twelve o’clock. By degrees, we gained a sight of the whole valley, and were able to discern in the distance the Lac des Rousses, and then, the district we had just ridden through, and the road which remained for our return. During the ascent, my guide discoursed of the whole range of the country and the lordships, which, he said, it was possible to distinguish from the peak. In the middle of such talk, we reached the summit, but a very different spectacle was prepared for us. Under a bright and clear sky nothing was visible but the high mountain chain. All the lower regions were covered with a white sea of cloudy mist, which stretched from Geneva northwards, along the horizon, and glittered brilliantly in the sunshine. Out of it rose, to the east, the whole line of snow and ice-capped mountains, acknowledging no distinction of name of either the princes or peoples who fancied they were owners of them, and owning subjection only to one Lord, and to the glance of the sun, which was tinging them with a beautiful red. Mont Blanc, right opposite to us, seemed the highest; next to it were the ice-crowned summits of Valais and Oberland; and lastly came the lower mountains of the canton of Berne. Towards the west, the sea of mist, which was unconfined to one spot. On the left, in the remotest distance, appeared the mountains of Solothurn; somewhat nearer, those of Neufchâtel; and right before us, some of the lower heights of the Jura. Just below lay some of the masses of the Vaulion, to which belongs the Dent (tooth) which takes from it its name. To the west, Franche-Comté, with its flat, outstretched, and wood-covered hills, shut in the whole horizon. In the distance, toward the northwest, one single mass stood out distinct from all the rest. This was the peak which gives this summit the name of a tooth. It descends precipitously, or rather with a slight curve, inwards; and in the bottom it is succeeded by a small valley of pine-trees, with beautiful grassy patches here and there, while right beyond it lies the valley of the Orbe, where you can see this stream coming out of the rock.

Most reluctantly we quitted the spot. A delay of a few hours longer (for the mist generally disperses in about that time) would have enabled us to distinguish the low lands with the lake, But, in order that our enjoyment should be perfect, we must always have something behind still to be wished. As we descended, we had the whole valley lying perfectly distinct before us. At Le Pont we again mounted our horses, and rode to the east side of the lake, and passed through L’Abbaye de Joux…


Then the travellers went back to the house in Les Brassus where they had already spent the night before. 


The name of the poet which later one was universally known, wasn’t as famous yet; but the grand-master whom the authorities in Bern had sent to guide these three travellers (for at that time, the Pays de Vaud was still under Bernese domination) couldn’t ignore their high qualities, particularly of the prince !


Other people who claimed the Dent-de-Vaulion :


Jean-Antoine Deluc, 1778

Horace-Benedict de Saussure, 1779

Ami Mallet aus Genf, 1786

Yvan Antonovich, 1789

Henri Venel d’Orbe, 1795


All of them left written accounts of their ascension.



Jean-André Deluc, with his Lettres physiques et morales sur les montagnes, from 1778, deserves particular attention. Born in Geneva in 1727, he died in Windsor in 1817, he was most of all interested in describing different effects of light generated by meteorological conditions. In this area, the mist was his passion! His prose is classic, typical of the 18th century where people really knew how to write, and his description of his walk at the Dent de Vaulion, which back then was still called Chichevaud, is a pure literary pleasure :


We had suggested leaving at an early hour from the house, but as the night had been cold, the lake had produced mist & and everything was covered in white frost. We therefore had to wait for the sun to warm up the air. We could prepare the carriage which was designed to take us up the highest peak, the carriage was called the Tooth of the three horses. This carriage was different from the one that had brought us up from Grindelwald & Chaumont; it was a long basket mounted on four wheels, usually used to take the coal down into the nearby valley; but straw & a mattress turned it into a comfortable and clear car.


This side of the mountain which we were going to ascend is opposed to the lake & the Alps; it is covered in pastures and forests. As we got up higher and higher, we discovered the lovely dales along the chain of the Jura, each of them was interspersed with little hamlets on the Swiss side; & the Lac the Joux, with its forests and residents around it brings life to the landscape; just like a mirror with a beautiful frame brings joy into an apartment. The frost of the morning had not destroyed the herbs and their fragrance, the pastures were covered by them & our carriage, driving over them, filled the air with their perfume.


By following those lovely paths, we arrived at a view that would have been worth the pain of difficult ones as well. Whereas all the peaks of the Jura were bright in the morning light, the valley was, just like the day before, covered in mist. But the vision was very different from here because of the different position of the sun and our higher position, which opened up the view of ethereal beauty over the valley while lifting up the frozen chain of the Alps from the rocks.


The rest is simply one long poem in honour of this beautiful and magical mountain and the nature surrounding it.