Dr. Michel-Gabriel Paccard, you’ll recall, invented the sport of mountain climbing on August 8, 1786, by making the first ascent of Mont Blanc, in the company of a local chamois hunter named Jacques Balmat. Following the ordeal, Balmat reported, “my eyes were red, my face black and my lips blue. Every time I laughed or yawned the blood spouted from my lips and cheeks, and, in addition, I was half-blind.” For their inestimable contribution to the future economic base of the community, the two original alpinists received a cash prize of what amounted to sixty U.S. dollars, the village center was designated Place Balmat, and the town’s main drag was christened the Rue du Dr. Paccard—along which, two centuries later, you will find not only Choucas and the spiffy new Patagonia store, but merchants selling everything from paragliders, Parisian lingerie, and postcards of climbing stars Jean-Marc Boivin and Catherine Destivelle, to graphite-shafted ice axes, titanium pitons, and state-of-the-art snowboards embossed with likenesses of the Manhattan skyline.
In the decades following the Paccard-Balmat climb, as accounts of that deed and subsequent ascents circulated across the Continent, Chamonix became an exceedingly fashionable destination for the rich and famous, and rapidly developed into the world’s first mountain resort (previously, as New Yorker writer Jeremy Bernstein has pointed out, mountains were generally regarded as “terrifying, ugly, and an obstacle to travel and commerce, and anyone living in or near them as subhuman”). Goethe, Byron, Ruskin, Percy Shelley, the Prince of Wales, and ex-Empress Josephine all sojourned there. By 1876, 795 men and women had reached the top of Mont Blanc, among them an Englishman named Albert Smith who passed out drunk on the summit after he and his companions put away ninety-six bottles of wine, champagne, and cognac in the course of their ascent.
As the heavy traffic on Mont Blanc began to rob the climb of its cachet (by its easiest routes, the 15,771-foot peak is not technically demanding or even very steep), ambitious alpinists turned their attention to the hundreds of sheer-walled satellite peaks—the fabled Chamonix Aiguilles—that stud the ridges of the massif like the spines of a stegosaur. In 1881, when Albert Mummery, Alexander Burgener, and Benedict Venetz bagged the fearsome-looking Aiguille du Grepon, it was lauded as a superhuman feat. Nevertheless, in a prescient moment following the climb, Mummery predicted that it would only be a matter of time before the Grepon lost its reputation as “the most difficult ascent in the Alps” and came to be regarded as “an easy day for a lady.”
A hundred years after Mummery’s heyday, new techniques, better equipment, and a population explosion on the heights have brought about just the sort of devaluation Mummery feared, not only of the Grepon, but of most of the other “last great problems” that followed: the Walker Spur, the Freney Pillar, the North Face of Les Droites, the Dru Couloir, to name but a few.
Although Mont Blanc is a mountain of genuinely Himalayan proportions, boasting an uninterrupted vertical rise of nearly thirteen thousand feet from base to summit, it also happens to sit squarely in the teeming lap of western Europe, and therein lies the rub. It’s this unlikely juxtaposition of radical topography and rarefied Continental culture that, for better and worse, begat modern Chamonix.
On a nice summer day, the streets will be peopled with a mix you’d expect to find in any French tourist town: mink-wrapped matrons, tourists from Cincinnati and Milan, frail old men in wool berets, leggy shop girls in black hose and miniskirts. What’s different about Cham—as the village is termed in the local patois—is that fully half the people walking past will be clomping along in climbing boots and have a coil of 8.8-millimeter perlon slung over a shoulder. And if you watch long enough, sooner or later you might see Boivin, or Profit, or Marc Batard stroll past, heros de la République all, whose exploits are regularly reported in the pages of large-circulation magazines like Paris-Match. Last year Boivin became the first man to fly a paraglider from the summit of Everest, his rival Batard became the first to ascend the same mountain in less than a day, and, in a coup that many French consider most impressive of all, Profit climbed the long, savage knife-edge of Mont Blanc’s Peuterey Ridge, alone and in winter, in nineteen hours flat.
When Profit or, say, world champion mono-skier Eric Saerens is spotted in a Chamonix restaurant, it sets the place abuzz in the same way that the presence of Mattingly or Magic Johnson would in the States. The French, it goes without saying, are far too urbane to fawn over their luminaries in public like we do. But there are exceptions: When rock climbing superstar Patrick Edlinger comes to town, says Twight, “everybody slobbers over him shamelessly. Two winters ago I went to a party at Choucas where Edlinger was in attendance, and it was like he was holding court. People were practically fighting each other for the chance to get to his table and pay homage.”
Not that all the alpinists in Cham are stars. Mont Blanc is now climbed by nearly six thousand people every year, and tens of thousands of others swarm over the adjacent Aiguilles. A million thrill chasers of one kind or another pass through Chamonix annually. The massif is encircled with hotels, peppered with multi-story “huts,” crisscrossed by fifty-seven chair lifts and aerial trams, and pierced by a seven-mile tunnel through which runs a major European highway.
At the apogee of climbing season the Vallee Blanche—the high glacial plateau that feeds the Mer de Glace—is crowded with so many alpinists that from the air it bears an uncanny resemblance to an ant colony. The number of new climbing routes documented in the record books of the Office de Haute Montagne is mind-addling; there’s scarcely a square meter of rock or ice left in the entire range that hasn’t been ascended by somebody.
One might conclude that every last ounce of challenge has long since been wrung from the mountains above Chamonix, but one would be wrong. The French, being a proud and creative people with a gift for self-dramatization, have had little trouble finding novel forms of alpine stimulation. In addition to the obvious variations—speed climbing, extreme solo climbing, extreme skiing—they have fervently embraced such activities as bungee jumping, le surf extrem (extreme snowboarding), le ski sur herbe (using wheeled skis to rocket down grassy summer slopes), ballule rolling (careering downhill inside giant inflatable balls), and—the most popular new game of all—flying off mountaintops with paragliders, which the French call parapentes.
Excerpt courtesy of Lyons Press from “Eiger Dreams: Ventures Among Men and Mountains,” by Jon Krakauer.