THE FIRST ASCENT OF MONT BLANC
by Per Jerberyd © 1999
Most people that are interested in climbing history regard Jaques Balmat and Dr Michel-Gabriel Paccard’s first ascent of the highest Alp of all Alps on 8 August 1786 as the start of modern alpinism. Mont Blanc is only half as high as Mount Everest, but for the early pioneers this summit offered dangers and hardships well compared to those Tenzing and Hillary met on Mount Everest in 1953.
This story is highly complicated and sevral versions exists, here I have decided to take most input from Paccard’s own version that is better known. After the successful ascent, Paccard wanted to glorify his own contribution to the climb as much as possible. But it is a fact that Balmat was the better mountaineer and after this ascent led sevral other groups to the summit. Balmat was also the first persion to bivouac high on Mont Blanc when he earlier had been left behind by his fellow climbers!
WANTED: A SAFE ROUTE TO THE SUMMIT
In 1760, the professor in philosophy and natural science, Horace-Bénédict Saussure established a price for the bergfurers in Charmonix. The first who found a way to the summit of Mont Blanchad money to collect! The crux was that the way to the summit had to be easy enough for non-professional bergfürers to use. Many attempts where done in the following years and all was unsuccessful. They all had chosen to take a route through Dome du Gôuter.
The reason for the competition was that Saussure himself desired to reach the summit to make scientific calculations. His ambition was probably just as much scientific as selfish; he wanted to get the reputation to be the first man who had made observations from the highest mountain in Europe.
However, since no one came to collect the professor’s price, it stayed permanent. No one found the safe way the professor wanted, in fact no one fond a way to the summit at all. Now people had started to doubt that perhaps climbing Mont Blanc wasn’t possibe. Atleast no safe way was to be found anywhere on this mountain!
THREE YEARS OF PLANNING
Dr Michel-Gabriel Paccard was a doctor in Charmonix and in his letters to his colleague Saussure in Geneva he described Mont Blanc as “our” mountain. No one outside Charmonix should get the honour to climb it first! He also wanted to proof that the calculations about the height of Mont Blanc was wrong and it in fact was even higher than previously thought. This was his main goal and the driving force to try climbing Mont Blanc.
Two possible routes had previously been tried. It was no real given routes, but more advices to keep away from the dangerous areas.Paccard didn’t care about any of these routes. He
asked the local bergfurers and neighbours for advice, but all thoughtthe way he later found as absolutely impossible.
Paccard made his preparation during three years; he kept “his” mountain under almost constant surveillance trough his binocular. His main interest was the Grand Plateau and it’s slopes. He tried to calculate how the weather and the consistency of the snow worked and tried to predict the avalanche danger. He never told why, but he probably considered the risks for avalanches less here where the mountain was steeper; simply there was never any chance for enough snow to be collected to make an avalanche. His choice of the route was exclusive made by his observations made through his binocular during tree years.
During his preparations he got in touch with one of the bergfürers in town, he was crystal hunter named Jaques Balmat. Balmat was very interested in the doctor’s plan and when he offered his services Paccard wasn’t late to involve him as his porter. Paccard never revealed what route they were going to ascend through. The only thing he said was that they were going to leave the valley through Montagne de la Cote. Balmat must have believed they where going to take the same route as everybody previously hadtried. Before he left he had told a businessman to keep looking for them on Dome du Gouter
Paccard had decided that the date for the ascent was set on 7 August. At dawn Mont Blanc was hidden in clouds, but when the sun rose the clouds disappeared and the summit was clear in sun. After just an hour the clouds returned and stayed put the rest of the day. It was a light wind blowing from west. The weather didn’t look to good but Paccard decided that it was now on never! At 14.00 pm he and Balmat left Charmonix. The combination wasn’t too unusual in the town, two men and the mountain.
Paccard carried a light pack, a barometer and a long pole. At 6.00 pm they started the ascent up Montagne de la Cote. The weather was still poor with Mont Blanc hidden in clouds. They pressed on until 9.00 pm when they decided to bivouac. They where then just above Mont Corbeau at 2.300 meters altitude. During the last hours they had ascended in moonlight.
At 4.15 am they where ready and continued upwards. This day was more promising with clear weather and sun, though they where worried about the warm temperature and the snow bridges on the glaciers to come. They kept on for 45 minutes until they reached the first glacier. They where now on 2.600 metres altitude and just in the beginning of a
difficult passage through Le Jonction; a field filled with crevasses and seracs. The high temperature had made the snow bridges a real risky business, several times both Paccard and Balmat had to threw themselves stretched out to avoid crevasse falls.
At 10.00 am, they had reached to the middle of the Taconna Glacier. In front they had a steep wall and field of smooth snow. 100 meter higher up, Balmat got his first chock, instead of leaving the glacier to continue against Dome du Gouter, the doctor continued straight ahead. They had a short break for dinner. Balmat was doubtful, he thought it was madness and wanted to descend. They discussed, and Balmat explained he had to get back home since his youngest girl was sick and he had to help his wife. Paccard however managed to persuade him to continue. At 14.00 they had another break, Paccard made some observations and estimated their altitude to 3.852 meters. The temperature had rose even more and the northern wind was increasing. The doctor looked at their barometer; and they continued.
By now they had reached the Le Grand Plateau. This was virgin ground; no one else had ever been there before. They continued during the night and the cold made the way over the plateau safe and easy. After crossing the plateau, Balmat got his second chock. He now realised that Paccard wanted to reach the summit through the mountains extremely steep northeast slopes. At 3.00 am Balmat refused to continue. This time he was firm, it was pure madness to continue!
Paccards intention had been to camp on the summit itself, but now Balmat refused to continue; and the wind had increased even more. Paccard realised that they probably never would reach the summit before dawn even if they continued. Once again he managed to persuade Balmat to follow him. They continued with Paccard in the lead. At 5.00 am, the people in Charmonix was just as astoundingly as ever Balmat, they now could see the men reach the lower passage. They seemed to move fast.
Now it was only 360 meters left to the summit. Even though the last part was easy, Paccard decided to camp. He sent Balmat in front to find a suitable spot. Unluckily he could not find a suitable place. One again Paccard had to make a descision. He decided to continue, hoping to find a better place on the summit itself.
Balmat didn’t manage to continue with the same speed as the doctor, he immediately got behind but managed to catch up and at 6.30 pm the citizens of Charmonix could see how they reached the summit together. Paccard put up a pole with a red scarf blowing in the wind. It was seen all the way from the valley below. Then the doctor took his barometer to once and for all find out how high Mont Blanc is. To his disappointment it showed very low readings, even lower than what Shuckburgh earlier had calculated with his triangle-readings. The barometer had probable been damaged during one of his crevasse falls. His consolation was none, now when he finally had reached his life-goal he couldn’t make the readings he so hot had desired for. He could still not prove that Mont Blanc was the highest mountain in Europe!
They couldn’t find any shelter on the summit, but they saw a promising spot on the lower southeast summit. The also had spotted some rocks and hoped to find shelter behind it. It showed to be useless. Once again they returned to the summit; and the people in the village saw them this time too. The time was near 7.00 pm and the sun was setting for the night. The pair now descended to Petitis Rochers Rouges and kept on descending all the way to their previous bivouac. Both men where exhausted and in desperate need for a rest.
The next morning, both suffered badly from snow-blindness. Paccard was closely to totally blind and Balmat had to guide him down all the way. They reached the valley late in the afternoon; from there Balmat went straight home to La Baux, and immediately fell asleep in bed.
The village doctor had now found that desired reasonable safe route to the summit of Mont Blanc. During the following years, lot people decided to climb the mountain, many succeeded and even more failed. Professor Horace-Bénédict Saussure who initiated the first expedition climbed himself the mountain in 1787. This is often regarded as the start of the modern alpinism; soon almost every summit in the Alps were attacked and climbed just for the sport. Especially the Englishmen came to dominate the climbing sport in the Alps for a long time.