The Alps already exists in your mind, but unless you’ve had the good fortune of visiting them, they probably look like a collage of snow-covered peaks, steaming cups Swiss hot chocolate, perhaps a sprinkling of Italy and France, some Tyrolian peaks, and maybe some lederhosen.
Indeed, this iconic European mountain range lives up to its reputation, a sea of snow and glaciated peaks in the colder months, offering thousands of vertical feet for skiing and snowing, and in the spring and summer, the grassy slopes blanketed with wild flowers. And while there are plenty of places to visit in the Alps, our favorite remains the the Mt. Blanc (Monte Bianco if you are in Italy) region.
At around 15,774 feet, Mt. Blanc, stands as the highest mountain in Western Europe (only the Russian Caucasus are higher) and 11th-most prominent in the world—even taking in to account that fluctuating glacial activity changes its “official” height. Ownership, and now stewardship, of the mountain is shared between France and Italy.
You can hike, drive, or even run around Mt. Blanc, or take the famous Mt. Blanc tunnel from Chamonix to Courmayeur. But our favorite mode of transportation is skiing and hiking via the extensive cable car system.
“At around 15,774 feet, Mt. Blanc, stands as the highest mountain in Western Europe…
You can travel the world, but you can’t beat the hospitality in Mt. Blanc.
The surrounding villages have been around for hundreds of years, and, due to the beauty, strategic location, and good food, tourism is not new. By the late 1870s, in the peaceful era of England’s Queen Victoria, the increased commerce of the industrial revolution provided a lot of people with the wealth and free time required to travel the world. Many people of all nationalities embarked on the “Grand Tour” of Europe, visiting its historic sites and architectural treasures.
And while the great cities were important stops, gazing upon the vast natural wonders, exploring high-mountain passes and reaching unspoiled summits was a big attraction. And people (mainly men, but some women) not only visited the local villages of Chamonix and Courmayeur, but took note of the activity that locals had been excelling at for hundreds of years—mountaineering. Soon the Alps became the playground for aspiring skiers, climbers, and hikers from Europe, Canada, and the United Staters.
Fortunately for these aspiring mountaineers, Chamonix and Courmayeur have a long history of guiding. This, plus an inherent rivalry between men and women of various nationalities for first ascents of the iconic alpine peaks inspired hundreds of efforts. In 1760, Horace Bénédict de Saussure, a Swiss nobleman and physics and philosophy professor from the Academy of Geneva and arguably the father of alpinism, visited Chamonix. He tried to climb Mt. Blanc in 1774 and 1785 (from the Italian side) without success and subsequently offered a reward to the first person to stand on the summit.
That honor would fall to Michel-Gabriel Paccard, a Sardinian doctor from Chamonix, and his guide, Jacques Balmat, a local hunter and crystal collector.
These two men ascended the mountain in 1786. There’s a statue of Saussure and Balmat in the square in Chamonix; Paccard was unfortunately left out of the granite and bronze tribute as another aspiring (but unsuccessful) mountaineer quickly sabotaged Paccard’s achievement (perhaps one of the first examples of the cutthroat nature of the race for first ascents). It was not until 1986 that a statue of Paccard was erected to honor his contributions.
Word of the conquest spread quickly, triggering a new interest in the region.
Interestingly enough, Paccard went on to marry Balmat’s sister. Balmat returned to guiding and in 1808, led 18-year-old Marie Paradis, a former lady’s maid, to the summit. Paradis made it her life’s work to bring more people to the mountains, even opening a snack concession to feed mountaineers on their descent.
Mark Twain, in A Tramp Abroad, wrote eloquently about “Marie de Mont Blanc.” In an ironic footnote to history, 30 years later, Henriette d’Angeville, an aristocrat from Geneva, hired six guides and six porters to guide her up the mountain. Upon summiting, the 44-year old opened a bottle of champagne and set loose a crate of pigeons to celebrate her success. D’Angeville considered herself the first “lady” to climb the mountain, as Paradis had been but a mere servant.
Watch the ultramarathon located in Mt. Blanc: