It’s been 234 years. It’s not an anniversary that ends with the number zero but an important anniversary to remember. And perhaps it’s not as well known as one might think. Yet we are talking about Mont Blanc, with its 4808 meters of altitude, the highest mountain in the Alps, in Italy, France and even in Europe according to the most accepted convention, that is, excluding the Caucasus and its Mount Elbrus.
Era l’8 agosto del 1786 quando due giovani di Chamonix raggiunsero la vetta, i primi due uomini a mettere piede sulle nevi fino ad allora inviolate del Monte Bianco e a lasciare un’asta con un fazzoletto rosso come testimonianza di questa loro straordinaria impresa. Si chiamavano Michel Gabriel Paccard e Jacques Balmat, nati in montagna e amanti di quelle cime innevate che conoscevano da sempre. Paccard, 29 anni, era un medico condotto. Balmat, 24 anni, un cercatore di cristalli.
It was August 8th, 1786 when two young people from Chamonix reached the summit, the first two men to set foot on the hitherto untouched snows of Mont Blanc and to leave an auction with a red handkerchief as evidence of their extraordinary feat. Their names were Michel Gabriel Paccard and Jacques Balmat, born in the mountains and lovers of those snow-capped peaks they had always known. Paccard, 29, was a medical practitioner. Balmat, 24, a crystal hunter.
Three guineas to win the mountain: the challenge of a scientist from Geneva
Unclimbed and mysterious peak, Mont Blanc, feared in those years because it was cloaked in stories and legends that wanted it to be a refuge for evil creatures. It took scientific rationality to think of challenging it. In fact, the idea of climbing it did not come first to the two young people from Chamonix but to a scientist from Geneva, Horace-Bénédict De Saussure. A great mountain lover who, a year after the first expedition, will personally ascend the Bianco accompanied by Jacques Balmat, on July 5, 1787. The story tells that already in 1760 De Saussure had promised a prize of three guineas to those who managed to climb first the snow-capped peaks he saw from the windows of his home in Geneva. An undertaking considered, at the time, difficult and adventurous, almost impossible. And in fact it took twenty-six years before the two climbers from Chamonix predicted this challenge.
On the top of Mont Blanc on 8 August 1786
The chronicle of the event. Before that 8 August 1786 some reconnaissance climbs had been carried out. One in particular, very dramatic, two months earlier. Balmat, he was the protagonist of the reconnaissance, during the descent he found himself alone at night, facing very low temperatures. He saved himself by digging a hole in the snow where he stayed until the following morning. The great mountain claimed its strength and its right to remain inviolate. Not for long. At 3 pm on Monday 7 August 1786, Michel Gabriel Paccard and Jacques Balmat left for the historic undertaking.
Raggiunsero la vetta del Monte Bianco alle 18.23 dell’8 agosto passando fra i Rochers Rouges. La loro ascesa fu seguita dal cannocchiale del barone prussiano Adolf Von Gersdorff che li osservava da un poggio sopra Chamonix. I due alpinisti restarono sulla vetta 34 minuti, giusto il tempo di assaporare la conquista e fare alcuni rilevamenti. Poi la discesa e il rientro a casa intorno alle 8 del mattino del 9 agosto. Così come annota nel suo resoconto il giornalista Théodore Bourrit.
Marie du Mont Blanc, the first woman to reach the top
Mont Blanc had been won. This was the first ascent of Balmat and Paccard ever. It was carried out during the summer season, therefore in better weather conditions. It will take almost a century for the first winter ascent, on January 31, 1876. The British mountaineer Mary Isabella Charlet-Straton with her future husband, Frenchman Jean-Estéril Charlet-Straton, conquered the summit in that January. with Sylvain Couttet.
But another woman had already reached the summit of Mont Blanc on 14 July 1808, accompanied by her 14-year-old son and Jacques Balmat as a guide. It was Marie Paradis, later known as Marie du Mont Blanc thanks to that extraordinary feat. The first ascension on the Italian side took place on August 13, 1863 and was carried out by three guides from Courmayeur: Julien Grange, Adolphe Orset and Jean-Marie Perrod.