Mont Blanc—The “Roof” of Europe
FROM childhood, Swiss naturalist Horace-Bénédict de Saussure (1740-1799) had been fascinated by the imposing massif now known as Mont Blanc, the giant of the Alps. Impressed by its inaccessibility, he offered a prize to the first climber to reach its highest point—15,771 feet [4,807 m]. The earliest systematic efforts to conquer the summit were made in 1741. But only in August 1786 did two inhabitants of Chamonix, France—Jacques Balmat, a crystal prospector, and Michel-Gabriel Paccard, a doctor—reach the peak of the massif, Mont Blanc itself. The next year, Saussure reached the highest point in Europe with a scientific expedition, and in 1788 he scaled Col du Géant, staying there for 17 days. These were the first documented feats of mountaineering as a sporting discipline.
In 1855 a team led by Italian guides conquered another face of Mont Blanc, more demanding than the first. Only nine years later, the peak was reached from the Italian side. Those bold pioneers climbed without modern equipment, using only iron-tipped staffs. Back then, “the conquest of a peak, setting off from the valley bottom and following completely unknown routes, required a physical resilience and moral fiber perhaps difficult to imagine for those who go up into the mountains today,” commented geographer Giotto Dainelli. Now, even the most out-of-the-way corners of the massif have been reached several times.
In antiquity, Mont Blanc was considered an unexplored land, even though it is right in the middle of Europe. The first known document specifically identifying it dates back to 1088 C.E. A property survey map belonging to the Benedictine monks of Chamonix calls it rupes alba, meaning “white mountain.” For centuries, however, local people called it Accursed Mountain because of the legendary demons and dragons said to inhabit it. Apparently, the name Mont Blanc appeared for the first time on a drawing in 1744, a sign that its ominous reputation would soon pass away.
Contrasts in the Mountain Range
Only by airplane is it possible to view the whole Mont Blanc massif. It covers an area of some 230 square miles [600 sq km], has a ridge more than 30 miles [50 km] long—which divides Italy, France, and Switzerland—and has several peaks surpassing 13,000 feet [4,000 m]. The massif is formed by crystalline schists and granites, formed deep in the earth’s crust. Geologists consider it a young mountain group, “just” 350 million years old. Atmospheric agents and glaciers have modified the granitic rock, which now presents fractures, jagged ridges, peaks, and pinnacles of incomparable beauty and exceptional interest for mountaineers.
Mont Blanc Close-Up
Even those who are not expert mountaineers can see the central part of the massif close-up, using the cable car that came into operation in 1958. The highest point reached by the cable car is at the Aiguille du Midi, 12,605 feet [3,842 m] above sea level, which offers an extraordinary panorama of the Chamonix Valley below.
Today, from a topographical point of view, Mont Blanc no longer hides any secrets. Rather, it offers a beautiful spectacle, especially at dawn and dusk, when the sun’s rays tinge the cold rock faces of the “roof” of Europe with all the shades of red, setting the granite ablaze.
[Box/Picture on page 23]
The Mont Blanc Tunnel—Intuition Proves True
“I see two valleys in which the same language is spoken and where the people are the same. The day will come when a road will be built under Mont Blanc and the two valleys will be united.” Two centuries had to pass before Horace-Bénédict de Saussure’s intuition proved true. In 1814 a first request was made to the king of Piedmont and Sardinia; however, work began only in 1959 and ended in 1965.* The tunnel, 7.2 miles [11.6 km] long, begins in Italy at an elevation of 4,531 feet [1,381 m] and ends in France at 4,204 feet [1,274 m].
On March 24, 1999, a truck caught fire in the tunnel, causing a disaster. The temperature rose to 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit [1,000°C], melting dozens of vehicles. Thirty-nine people died from asphyxia, and some 30 more were injured. After a year of investigation, reconstruction work began. The tunnel was reopened on June 25, 2002, in spite of protests from environmentalists and local residents, who argued that heavy truck traffic causes pollution. In a recent four-month period, 132,474 vehicles passed through the tunnel.
For details see Awake! of February 8, 1963, pages 16-19.
Monument of H. B. de Saussure, Chamonix, France
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Photochrom Collection, LC-DIG-ppmsc-04985
[Box/Picture on page 24, 25]
WALKING AROUND THE “GIANT”
Though the Mont Blanc massif is the domain of expert climbers and mountaineers, even those who have never been high up in the mountains can enjoy its marvels simply by traveling around it. Usually, the best photographs of a mountain are taken, not from its summit, but from a distance. Mont Blanc is surrounded by observation points offering breathtaking views. People who love nature and have good legs can walk the 80 miles [130 km] of trails. The so-called Mont Blanc Tour, created by joining some of the trails together, is a walk that follows a circular route and takes you into France, Italy, and Switzerland. Divided into ten stages of between three and seven hours a day, the tour enables you to admire picturesque vistas. Those who do not have much time can enjoy a walk on one of the many mountains that surround the “giant.”
Aiguille du Midi is the highest point reached by the cable car
Courtesy Michel Caplain; http://geo.hmg.inpg.fr/mto/jpegs/020726/L/12.jpg
[Map on page 22]
(For fully formatted text, see publication)
[Picture on page 22]
Saussure climbs Mont Blanc in 1787 (an artist’s impression)
© The Bridgeman Art Library International
[Picture on page 23]