"MONT BLANC is the monarch of mountains" - The first ascent of the Montagne Maudite and the beginning of Modern Alpinism

8 August 1786, the first ascent of Mont Blanc was completed by Michel-Gabriel Paccard and Jacques Balmat and marks the beginning of modern mountaineering.

"MONT BLANC is the monarch of mountains: / They crowned him long ago / On a throne of rocks, in a robe of clouds, / With a diadem of snow // I am the spirit of the place, /  Could make the mountain bow / And quiver to his caverned base,— / And what with me wouldst Thou?" (Lord Byron, “Manfred”)

Montagne Maudite, the accursed mountain, looming ghostly in the background of J.M.W. Turner's
"Bonneville, Savoy, with Mont Blanc" (1803)

With an elevation of 15.781 ft (4.810 m), Mont Blanc is arguably Europe’s highest mountain and thus one of the Seven Summits – if you not count Mount Elbrus (5.642 m) in the Caucasus mountain range as European. Whatever may be the case, Mont Blanc towers over the western Alps at the borders of France and Italy and was a fount for legends since time immemorial. Mountain spirits, benign and malign, are quite common in European folklore, but the White Mountain was rumoured to house dragons and even a damned city as well. The name “Montagne Maudite“ (cursed mountain) was quite common and even entered in some maps from the 16th and 17th century.

John Martin (1789 - 1854): "The Witch of the Alps" (1837), illustrating a scene from Lord Byron's "Manfred"

With the rise of the Age of Enlightenment and Reason, such superstitions could no longer be taken into account and an ascent of the mountain was regarded as a scientific and sporting challenge. First attempts had been made during mid-18th century, but still nobody wanted to spend the night up on the glacier, even though the Geneva naturalist Horace Bénédict de Saussure had advertised a reward for making the ascent. In 1775, a group led by the Italian doctor Michel-Gabriel Paccard and the French hunter and crystal collector Jacques Balmat reached the the Grand Plateau at 4.000 m and discussed probable approaches to the summit with other mountaineers for the next years.

A contemporary copper engraving showing the descent of de Saussure’s Mont Blanc expedition a year later, illustrating quite vividly the equipment and methods Paccard and Balmat used a year before.

Paccard and Balmat gave it another try in August 7th 1786, put up for the night at Gîte à Balmat, a rock formation near the Bosson glacier at 2.300 m and finally made the ascent on August 8th via the northern flank of the mountain over the icefall of Jonction, the Grand Mulets and their Grand Plateau in a climb that took them 16 hours. Taken their equipment into consideration, most notably the lack of ropes and ice axes, it was the excellent weather conditions and sheer skill and determination that brought the two men up there and back alive. To this day, the local mountain rescue service records several rescue missions every year on Mont Blanc, some still ending fatal for unwary mountaineers. Paccard’s and Balmat’s first ascent is regarded as the birth of modern alpinism or mountaineering and the scientific aspects as well as the transfigured awe mountains inspired faded into the background in favour of the 19th century’s idea of getting in touch with nature and the sporting aspect – the record for climbing Mont Blanc is 4 hours and 7 minutes these days.

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