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Les Aiguilles de Chamonix

Les Aiguilles de Chamonix, by Henri Isselin. Paris: Arthaud, 1960. 267 pages, 38 photo-illustrations (including a 6-page panorama), 2 route sketches, an orientation map, and a folding contour map (1:20,000) of the aiguilles W. of the Mer de Glace. Price N.F. 16 ($3.25).

The title brings to the mind’s eye one of the most astonishing massifs of the Alps. The exceptional quality of its rocks and the variety of its climbs have brought it world-wide fame. The walls of the Blaitière and the fissures of the Grépon demand mastery of technique. In 1810 the Pole, Malczeski, gained the north summit of the Aiguille du Midi and, 135 years later, the brothers Lesueur triumphed on the northeast arête of the Dent du Caïman. Between these years the history and conquest of the spires unfold in more than a century of struggle and danger, coupled with the great names of Mummery, Fontaine, Knubel, Young, Ryan, Lépiney, Allain and many others. This book brings to life the drama as well as the progressive development of alpinism.

Between 1870 and World War I the most important climbing was done by the British. James Eccles (1838-1915) is credited with devising the first effective roped party of three, and E. R. Whitwell (1843-1922), who made the first ascent of the Aiguille de Blaitière in 1876, is noted as the first amateur who could undertake difficult expeditions on an equal footing with his guides. As Coolidge considered this effort as the last word in the mountaineering of the time, it is of interest to see how these older efforts are now graded (Lucien Devies in Alpinisme, 1933) :

The expedition of the Comte de Bouille on the Aiguille du Midi does not attain the first degree, "easy.”

The routes of the Victorians, north summit of the Blaitière and Aiguille du Plan do not exceed second degree, although the south and central summits of the Blaitière approach third degree.

Mummery’s climbs were never below third degree and, on the Grépon, attained fourth degree, "difficult.”

On the east arête of the Plan, Franz Lochmatter reached the upper limit of fourth degree and approached, without attaining it, fifth degree.

Grépon-Mer de Glace is classed as "difficult,” but the Knubel fissure is estimated as fifth superior, a little more than "very difficult.”

The southeast arête of the Fou (Pierre Allain’s route) is fifth degree, and the east arête of the Crocodile reaches fifth superior.

There is no route in the range that justifies a rating of sixth.

The illustrations, mostly full-page, are magnificent, particularly the telephoto panorama extending from the Aiguille de la République to the Aiguille du Midi. There is an amusing studio photo of Joseph Knubel and G. W. Young in contemplative attitudes, seated on property rocks dated Zermatt, 1907. Old prints, the careful drawings of Ruskin, the excellent portraits and views of climbers in action complement a text which evidences painstaking research. The book itself is the most recent in the Sempervivum series, which also includes the author’s volumes on the Barre des Écrins and the Meije.

J. Monroe Thorington