In the early morning of 8 August 1786 two tired Frenchmen ventured onto the summit of Mont Blanc – with 4810m the highest Mountain in Western Europe right on the border of Italy and France. Its white top, endless glaciers and rocky spires dominate the western end of the alps. With their successful summit, Jacques Balmat and the doctor Michel Paccard claim a reward that had been set out by Horace-Bénédict de Saussure 24 years earlier. They did this ascent, dressed in tweed coats and without any ropes or ice axes etc – its success marked the start of modern mountaineering.
Eric Shipton wrote much later: “Theirs was an astounding achievement of courage and determination, one of the greatest in the annals of mountaineering. It was accomplished by men who were not only on unexplored ground but on a route that all the guides believed to be impossible.
On the main square of Chamonix, in between rows of mountaineering shops is a statute of the two – with Balmat pointing towards the summit, expressing the desire to get to the top.
These early pioneers of alpinism at the end of the 18th century ventured out from the villages, up the valleys onto the glaciers and its snowcovered peaks…. they were drawn to the unknown.
A similar desire has been with me since my early childhood – a fascination of mountains – and the biggest of all: Mt Blanc. I remember clearly hearing my parents talking about Mt Blanc, its beauty (and its altitude – I only learned much later that it wasnt the highest mountain in Europe – but that is more a definition on where to draw the Europe’s border and include the Caucasus). In my fathers library I doug into every story (my favourite: Gaston Rebuffat’s “the 100biggest problems of Mt Blanc”) and I was fascinated by classic mountain films like the tragedy on the Freney pillar.
On several occasions I tried the attempt the mountain myself – but the weather never played along. Last year, travelling together with Gerald and Judith, we got snowed in and instead summited Gran Paradiso (the highest mountain fully in Italy – see: https://dev.neilmatthews.com/paulniel/a-strangled-madonna-che-guevara-and-a-few-daisies/).
Last week the dream finally turned reality – having completed an amazing crossing on skies from Chamonix to Zermatt (also known as the Haute Route) all the pieces fell in place – great weather, great team!
Esther, Simon and me took the classic ski route – via the Grand Mulets. The hut was busy as expected under such fantastic conditions, so we decided to start our summit bid late (ie leave the hut at 4am rather than 3am) and hence were ascending pretty much alone.
Two broken headlamps and a rather scary serac fall couldnt deter us from our goal – in the bright late morning sun we were walking the last few hundred metres past the Vallot cabin up the L’arrête des Bosses to the top. The reward was simply: Amazing!
What a view: All the big peaks of the alps in front of us – the cold crystal winter sky allowing us to see almost to my home country Austria (well almost!)….
It might not have been as high as Everest or some other mountains I had climbed in the past, but it was a long persued childhood dream that had finally come true!