Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Petit Grepon: What's in a Name?

A few days ago a friend wrote with a query: "I just did the SW Corner route on the Petit yesterday (awesome) and was curious what 'Petit Grepon' actually means. And who else would know, if not you?" I confidently wrote back: "The Petit Grepon in Rocky Mountain National Park is named after the Aiguille du Grépon in Chamonix." And then I thought: Hold on, what the hell's a grépon?

It wasn't easy to track down, but after e-mails from knowledgeable friends in four countries and some time-wasting noodling on Google, I found a website that seemed authoritative on place names in the Chamonix area: Noms de Lieux de Suisse Romande, Savoie et Environs. The conclusion? Grépon is derived either from the French word "grappin," which means "grapnel" (a grappling hook or anchor with several flukes), or more likely from various Franco-Germanic or Celtic words for "rock." More specifically, the site said, grépon means "rock" in the patois of Haute Savoie, where the aiguille resides. Lindsay Griffin, ultimate source for mountain info, passed on a note from a friend, Luca Signorelli in Italy, who confirmed that grépon "comes from the dialect term 'greup,' which means a steep, rocky slope made mostly of slabs."

So there you have it: The Aiguille du Grépon is a "rocky needle, possibly resembling the fluke of an anchor." The Petit Grepon is its smaller cousin.

Alpine etymologists might also like to know that the Grandes Jorasses near Chamonix is not named after an African mammal, as Layton Kor would've had you believe when he named the Grande Giraffe in Colorado's Eldorado Canyon. Signorelli again: "Jorasse is an old word of Celtic origin (derives from 'juris'), and means 'mountain forest,' and of course Jura comes from it (and, incidentally, 'Jurassic.')" Of course.

Seems the south (Italian) side of the Grandes Jorasses once was heavily wooded, but repeated fires and the changing climate reduced it to the rocky slope we see today.

Class dismissed. There'll be a quiz on Monday.

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