The conquest of Mont Blanc

Key dates

1786 two Chamonix residents, Dr Michel Pacard and Jacques Balmat, reach the summit of Mont Blanc

1808 Marie Paradis is the first woman to stand on the summit of Mont Blanc

1876 Isabella Straton and her future husband Jean Charlet achieve the first winter ascent of Mont Blanc

1941 Premier de cordée (First on the Rope) by Roger Frison-Roche is published by Arthaud

1955 The cable car service opens at Aiguille du Midi

Mont Blanc in book form

Some 50,000 books have been published on Mont Blanc around the world. The highest mountain in the Alps was very quick to get the ink flowing: accounts of ascents, botanical descriptions, works of art and adventure stories. A novel by Roger Frison-Roche, a writer and guide who elected residence in Chamonix, entitled Premier de cordée ("First on the Rope") and published in 1942, brought the Mont Blanc massif global renown. The book sold over 15 million copies, was translated into every language and was adapted twice for cinema. And here is a heart-felt book by Walter Bonati, the Italian who speaks so strongly of Mont Blanc in his memoirs: Montagnes d'une vie (2001).

The conquest of Mont Blanc


Culminating at 4810 metres, the highest summit in Western Europe has been stirring dreams and inspiring vocations ever since its first ascent on 8 August 1786 - a conquest that opened the door to high-altitude mountain areas and launched the sport of mountain-climbing.

"There are some magnificent climbing routes in the Mont Blanc massif. But what I find exciting is opening up new ones. The way it used to be done: no maps, just a gut feeling. You spot a nice-looking rock, a passage. You weigh up your chances of making it. And you go for it." Jonathan Charlet, a fifth-generation Chamonix mountain guide, member of the Compagnie de Chamonix and 2013 free-ride world champion, tells how, with his friend Alex Pottin, they opened up a "little route" to Aiguille d'Argentière on 16 April. With their mobile phone, they took photos of the "totem-shaped rock" that had caught their eye. Then they mapped out their journey on a sheet of paper: route name, rock characteristics, equipment and stages.
No major expedition here. Just two young climbers, keeping alive the spirit of curiosity that has been driving mountain climbers since the conquest of Western Europe's rooftop on 8 August 1786. Forty-five years earlier, English climbers had enthralled learned circles with the first tales of the Sea of Ice. Beginning in 1760, Horace-Bénédict de Saussure, a scientist from Geneva, discovered Chamonix and dreamed of taking measurements at the summit of Mont Blanc. No-one had dared to venture there yet: there was still something diabolical about the ice-capped giant in the village people's eyes.
And yet, after more than 20 years of persistent efforts by the Geneva scientist and various failed attempts, two Chamonix natives, Dr Michel Paccard and Jacques Balmat, a chamois hunter and crystal miner, reached the summit at 6.23pm on 8 August 1786. There were no ice-axes or ropes. The only equipment the two adventurers had was alpenstocks (long, iron-tipped wooden sticks), crampons, hobnailed shoes and gaiters. Not to mention an iron will.

From "cursed" to "sublime"

"This first ascent radically changed people's vision of the mountain," said Claude Marin, a Chamonix guide in charge of organising the 150th anniversary of the sport of mountain-climbing in the city in 2015. "From being regarded as ‘cursed', the mountains went to being seen as ‘sublime'. Mont Blanc paved the way for the ascent of other summits in the Alps, in Europe and throughout the world." Mont Blanc became the legendary figurehead of mountaineering conquests.
Whymper's ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865 was a triumph for mountain-climbing and won its acceptance as a "sport". A large number of heroes, including many English people and quite a few people from Chamonix, added to the list of "firsts" in the Alps. They included three exceptional women: Marie Paradis, from Chamonix, was the first woman to reach the top of Mont Blanc in 1808, 30 years before Henriette d'Angeville. Then, in 1876, an English noblewoman, Isabella Straton, achieved the first winter ascent of Mont Blanc with her future husband, the Chamonix guide Jean Charlet.

100 rescues per year on Mont Blanc

The race to the top has its down side: mountain dramas. The first fatal accident in the massif, in 1820, led to the establishment of the Compagnie des guides de Chamonix in 1823. The following century, in 1956, the ill-fated rescue of two amateur mountain climbers prompted a shift to professional rescue services with the formation of a specialised high-altitude squad of French gendarmes (the PGHM). These mountain-top gendarmes, two-thirds of whom are mountain guides, do not however the the power to stop people climbing.
Everyone wants to "do Mont Blanc". Every day from June to September, between 200 and 300 people set off to climb to the top, often without a guide and sometimes without adequate preparation. The ascent of Mont Blanc alone generates about 100 of the 1,500 rescue operations carried out each year. "It's an enormous number", says Commander Jean-Baptiste Estachy from the PGHM. "Even if Mont Blanc is not as complex as some other routes, it is still a very technical trek at high altitudes. Above 4,000 metres, the weather changes fast, and the altitude can make people sick." Not to mention avalanches and rock falls, which are frequent in certain passages. Climbers need to be properly equipped, informed, trained and guided.

Subjugated by beauty

"What's more," added Claude Marin, "climbing mountains is not just about sport: it's also a cultural and personal adventure. A lot of people discover unexplored depths in themselves in the mountains. Mont Blanc is not just another spot to add to your trophy list, between a trail and hike in the desert."
Another win: taking in its beauty. Mont Blanc is the third most-visited natural site in the world and was also one of the first mountain tops to attract tourists. "Right from the first ascents in the late 18th century, visitors watched them through binoculars," explained Bernard Prudhomme, General Manager of the Chamonix-Mont Blanc Tourist Office. Even today, while 70% of visitors to Chamonix come for the sport, many people are simply curious. Every day, the Aiguille du Midi cable car takes thousands of sightseers up to 3,777 metres, then a lift carved into the rock carries them up to the summit, at 3,842 metres. There, Mont Blanc reigns supreme with a 360° view over its massif. It's not a strenuous exercise: it's the view that takes people's breath away.

Top

Mountain-top mystery

At the first ascent of Mont Blanc, no-one in Savoie took a great interest in the country's mountain-top border - that is, not until 1860, when Savoie was annexed to France. Ever since then, however, debate has raged about the exact position of the mountain top. Is it in France or Italy? In the municipality of Chamonix, Les Houches or Saint Gervais?
In 1946, an order issued by the Préfet of Haute-Savoie situated Mont Blanc in Saint Gervais. But in late 2013, a book with the provocative title of "A qui appartient le Mont Blanc ?" ("Who owns Mont Blanc?") revived the debate. In it, authors Paul Guichonnet and Christian Mollier state that "Mont Blanc is the joint, common property of France (municipality of Chamonix) and Italy (municipality of Courmayeur)".
The debate has yet to be settled. One thing we can be sure of, though, is that the "Mont Blanc" label is a guarantee of popularity and recognition the world over.

Stepping out into thin air at Aiguille du Midi


Over 1,000 metres of empty space under your feet. Despite the felt overshoes you have to don to avoid scratching the very thick glass, and despite the people who have gone before you and those who are waiting impatiently for their turn behind you, there is no escaping the little "gasp" in your stomach from the sensation of height.
For its latest attraction at Aiguille du Midi, opposite Mont Blanc, Compagnie des Alpes, the company that manages the cable car and its platform, paid out €500,000 for this impressive technical feat: the 1.5m deep, 2.5m wide balcony has five transparent walls, each consisting of three layers of 12mm thick tempered glass. Most importantly, no metal beams obstruct your field of vision: there is only emptiness, utter emptiness.