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Mont Blanc and the Seven Valleys

Mont Blanc and the Seven Valleys by R. Frison-Roche. First published in French (Les Beaux Pays series) by Arthaud, Paris. Translated and adapted by Roland Le Grand with the cooperation of Wilfred Noyce. New York; Oxford University Press, 1961. 8 vo, 267 pages, map and 169 heliogravure illustrations by Pierre Tairraz. Price $10.

From Victorian days into the early years of this century the Tour of Mont Blanc, the walk around the Great White Mountain, attracted countless tourists. It took about a week, and scarcely anyone makes it these days, its magnificence forgotten. This is a detailed book of its splendor. One begins at Saint Gervais up the Vallée de Montjoie and over the Cols du Bonhomme and de la Seigne, thence descending the Val Veni to Entrèves and Courmayeur. The Italian trench continues up to the Col Ferret, beyond which are the Swiss villages of Praz-de-Fort and Champex. The Vallée du Trient and the crossing of the Col du Balme brings one back to Chamonix. On both sides of the range travellers understood that the finest views were obtained from points not too close in. On the north one surveyed the glaciers and aiguilles from the Brevent or the Buet; on the south they admired the Aiguille Noire from Lake Miage, the face of Mont Blanc from above Lake Chécrouit, the Brenva cliffs from the Monts de la Saxe, and the Grandes Jorasses from above the Gruettaz Alp.

Whether guided or guideless, climbers of thirty years ago “were the object of a sort of respectful and conventional admiration. This was because they were few in number, because nothing was known of what occupied their thoughts, and because tragedies sometimes filled the closed world of mountaineers with grief. The national press had not yet invaded it, and there was a greater respect for the lives and deaths of men.” Everything has changed. The famous crossing of the Mer de Glace "took place on a level with the Montanvert railway station; there used to exist a flowery combe where fat heifers crossed the glaciers at a point below the Mauvais Pas. Now the ice has shrunk 300 feet in thickness and the right-hand moraine is inaccessible.”

The mountains themselves are far from eternal. In October, 1920, a tremendous landslide from the Aiguille Blanche de Peuterey ravaged the Brenva glacier, completely blocking the Val Veni. In 1925 the overhang on the Doigt de Mesure broke away and destroyed the Petit Doigt. In 1942 the Petit Dru was violently shaken, two thirds of the ascent being so altered that climbers reascending in the next year could not recognize the pitches.

Two hundred thousand people went up the Aiguille du Midi in 1957. "The cable railway is channelling off this excess of neo-mountaineers; like an enormous abscess, it at least saves the mountains from general contamination. The Aiguille du Midi has been sacrificed, but the Jardin de Talèfre and the upper Argentière basin have been saved.”

It can be said the Grandes Aiguilles of primeval rock are abandoned today. “Nobody does the famous Charmoz-Grépon traverse any more. Young people today do not know the golden mean. There was a time, just over a quarter of a century ago, when people did not complain of the long approach marches.”

Agricultural land is fast disappearing. For eight miles along the valley, from Les Houches to Les Tines, nearly all the fields where once grew hay have been sold to people from the towns. More than 100 new villas were built in 1957 alone. But “the skiing instructor who is also a good guide can find work continuously. The Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix is more flourishing than ever.” Perhaps more of us should include in our program the walk through the Seven Valleys.

J. Monroe Thorington