Saturday 8 August 2015

Mont Blanc's first ascent, and the crazed crystal hunter who made it

There's a reason that August 8, 1786, is worth remembering. Mont Blanc's peaks are some of the deadliest in the world, but two mountaineers, Jacques Balmat and Michel Paccard, tackled them anyway. In the process, they gave birth to mountaineering and kindled a spirit of adventure that every climber chases today.

The highest mountain in the Alps, Mont Blanc had long captivated the adventurers of 18th-century Europe. One man of the era, Horace-Bénédict de Saussure, was especially obsessed. Saussure was a scientist fascinated with the geology and botany of the Alps, and that, along with a healthy sense of adventure, inspired him to try to scale the mountain.

Unfortunately, Saussure couldn't scale Mont Blanc himself — his efforts always came up short. So he decided to publicly offer a reward to any man who could scale the mountain and then help him reach the top (reports on the value of the prize vary). Overnight, prize-chasing adventurers joined in to try to scale the mountain, seeking fame and fortune.

A 26-year-old crystal and chamois hunter named Jacques Balmat was up to the challenge. A son of two peasants, he sold crystals to collectors, wandering between villages and in the mountains. He needed cash, but he wasn't only climbing for the award — for him, Mont Blanc had become an obsession.
The incredible adventure of reaching Mont Blanc's summit for the first time

Apic/Getty Images

This depicts an 1851 ascent of Mont Blanc, more than half a century after Balmat and Paccard conquered it.

"The determination to reach the summit of Mont Blanc was jogging in my head night and day," Balmat said. "At night I had hardly closed my eyes when I dreamt I was on my climb of discovery."

His thoughts were rivetingly recorded in 1881 by T. Louis Oxley in The First Ascent of Mont Blanc: A True Story. At night, Balmat dreamed of clamping his fingers onto the face of a rock. In his nightmares, he imagined dropping down and grabbing a branch just before his death.

That obsession drove him to attempt the climb. He told his wife he was off to hunt for the crystals he sold to collectors, and then he filled a gourd with brandy, got a piece of bread, and set off on his journey.

Mont Blanc's heights were challenging, but the problem of navigation was more important — it wasn't so much that people couldn't scale the mountain, but that they didn't know how to scale it. Crevasses, ice bridges, and byzantine routes made it not only an athlete's challenge, but an explorer's challenge as well.

Balmat spent his first night on a rock, waiting until morning to continue his climb. Bad weather forced him to descend after an initial attempt. At the village of Moud below, Balmat encountered a group of guides who'd attempted similar ascents, and he reluctantly linked up with them on the way back up the mountain. Along the way, they met other groups of hikers, all trying to claim the prize for themselves, but bad weather sent Balmat down the mountain yet again. He wouldn't return until three weeks later, on August 8, 1786.


That day, he found Dr. Michel Paccard, whom he already knew from hiking, and told him he was going to try again. After Balmat had done little convincing, they set off (once they'd acquired a little more brandy). Thanks to good weather, they rose quickly, though a rough wind slowed them down. They kept going, at one point gazing down and spotting a group looking back at them with telescopes.

Finally, on August 8, 1786, they reached the top. "I had reached the goal where no one had as yet been," Balmat said, "not even the eagle nor the chamois."

Numbed, broken, exhausted, and exhilarated, they descended, having climbed an unclimbable mountain and having changed mountaineering forever.
What really happened on top of that mountain?

B. Broussard via Wikimedia Commons

A sculpture of Balmat and Saussure.

Balmat's retelling paints himself as an unwavering hero and Paccard as, at best, a conscript to Balmat's great dream. In reality, Paccard was probably a more active and competent companion (a case that the Paccards actively made in the legacy-building years that followed). Only Balmat and Paccard really know the truth.

But whatever the true narrative, one part of the story is clear: Their feat changed mountaineering forever.

As recalled in The Summits of Modern Man, Balmat and Paccard quickly claimed their award from Saussure, and Balmat subsequently helped Saussure climb the mountain himself for further study. The unconquerable mountain had been conquered, and a new age of mountaineering was born, in which scientific enterprise and adventure were inextricably linked, thanks to a botanist, a doctor, and a very brave peasant.


For Balmat, everything changed, and, at the same time, not much changed at all. The explorer who had said he'd been thrown into "a state of rapture" at the top of the mountain never gave up chasing that rush. Many years later, in 1834, he chased after rumors of gold in the Sixt Valley, in hopes of partnering his glory with wealth. He fell into the chasm, and his body was never found. But he probably wouldn't have been satisfied if he hadn't gone on that journey.

Before reaching Mont Blanc, he said that "I felt I should live in a sort of purgatory if I did not succeed." Balmat could never stay in the safe middle — he was born for extremes. And he reached them, no matter how high they were.

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