Henry Fairfield Montagnier, 1877-1933

Publication Year: 1934.



It has been a sad duty to write for the American Alpine Club the last memoirs of three great English-speaking Alpine historians —Coolidge, Farrar, and now, Montagnier—each, in his way, outstanding as mountaineer, in relation to his fellowman, and in approach to research.

Coolidge, unyielding in his opinions, yet revealed innate kindliness in his response to even trivial inquiries concerning the history of the Alps. Farrar, more than any man of his generation adding the art of friendship to the sport of mountaineering, specialized in the history of the Oberland. And now Montagnier, brilliant authority on the literature of Mont Blanc, has joined them. One knew that Farrar was right ; Coolidge demanded that you think him so ; Montagnier seemed always wistfully hoping that one believed in him.

Montagnier, although born in Cincinnati, passed his childhood in Terre Haute, Indiana, which his ancestors, a Lyonnais family, founded. He was educated at Armor Military School and at Princeton University, leaving the class of 1899—among whose members he was affectionately known as “Count”—in the spring of his junior year.

With his grandmother, a woman keenly interested in literature, he always spoke French, and to this association may be traced an inclination toward research which culminated in his devoting himself to the history of Alpine exploration. Montagnier’s parents died when he was young, and independent means permitted him to travel as his fancy dictated. When but seventeen, a bicycle trip with a friend through the Western Alps, and the reading of Whymper’s Scrambles, further directed his affection toward mountain ranges.

In 1897, at the age of twenty, he made several ascents in the Oberland, and thereafter climbed in nearly every season until the year of his death. In addition to visiting all districts of the Alps, he accomplished notable work in the Himalaya and on the volcanoes of the Canary Islands, his record being fully chronicled in the lists of the American Alpine Club.

A chance meeting with Wicks at the Schwarzegg hut in 1902 led to a friendship through which Montagnier eventually became acquainted with all the prominent mountaineers of his day. He joined the Alpine Club in 1903 and became a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society three years later. His climbing companions included such notable men as General Bruce, E. R. Blanchet and the Chevalier de Cessole.

For a number of years Montagnier lived in Italy, afterward residing in Berne (1915-20), and finally removing to Chalet Beau Revéil, Champery. There he built up his library, part of which has been presented to the American Alpine Club.

Montagnier’s name will endure largely as a commentator and investigator on the literature of Mont Blanc. He assisted Dübi in Paccard under Mont Blanc (1903), collaborated with Freshfield in the Life of H. B. de Saussure (1920), and with Commandant Gaillard in the monographs, Journal d’un Voyage à Chamouni (1926) and Le Mont Blanc et Le Col du Géant (1927). The Alpine Journal contains his papers: “A Bibliography of the Ascents of Mont Blanc (1786-1853).” “Dr. Paccard’s Lost Narrative,” “Early Extracts from the Travellers’ Book at Eggishorn,” “The Early History of the Col du Géant and the Legend of the Col Major,” “Early Records of Théodule, Weissthor, etc.,” “Records of Early Expeditions in the Zermatt District,” and “Thomas Blaikie and Michel-Gabriel Paccard.”

Several years ago Montagnier transferred his place of residence to Paris. Complications followed an operation at Montreux in May, 1933, and he died on July 16th, being fifty-five years of age.

Although he represented the American Alpine Club (which he joined in 1903) at the International Congress at Chamonix in 1932, it cannot be said that Montagnier was well known to the membership save through a brief visit to the United States some months earlier in the same year, when he attended the annual meeting of the Club. It is, therefore, not inappropriate to quote his lifelong friend, Dr. Claude Wilson, who describes him as “a good companion of pleasantly bon-vivant disposition, the rancon- teur with a tendency to impart ingenuous confidences on which one looks back with the smile of congenial reminiscence, the perfect host, the equally appreciative guest.”

Now Montagnier has gone; to that bourne of which Farrar once happily remarked: “But what a Valhalla! Upon my word we shall have some tales to tell them all.”

J M. T