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Mont Blanc: Discovery and Conquest of the Giant of the Alps

Mont Blanc: Discovery and Conquest of the Giant of the Alps. Stefano Ardito. The Mountaineers: Seattle, 1997. Profuse color photographs. $48.00.

Twenty years ago, when I first visited Chamonix, I was amazed to discover that the book many alpinists had adopted as the definitive guidebook to the area was Gaston Rebuffat’s The Mont Blanc Massif: The 100 Finest Routes. Amazed because the book was an expensive, hardcover, coffee-table volume filled with glossy color photographs—a far cry from the typical pocket climbing guide. True, the route list was selective, the topos were crude, and the French text in most local copies was incomprehensible, but those marvelous pictures—orange granite pillars and glistening blue couloirs in such sharp detail —they made toting that brick of a book around the Alps worth every ounce.

Now there’s an oversized collection of superb Mont Blanc photography guaranteed to break the backs of a new generation. Measuring a whopping ten by 14 inches—a third again the size of Rebuffat’s classic—Stefano Ardito’s Mont Blanc: Discovery and Conquest of the Giant of the Alps has taken the “picture is worth a thousand words” concept to the extreme. Many of the finest photographs ever made on and around this important mountain have been assembled here and reproduced with rich detail and in near poster-sized dimensions. One chapter alone boasts 26 plates showing the classic Mont Blanc perspectives (Brenva, Frêney, Jorasses, etc.) with important routes clearly marked. And fortunately, the book is far more comprehensive than its title implies, for as anyone who has ever visited or studied this area understands, Mont Blanc is much more than just the highest summit in Western Europe; its satellite peaks and formations, like the Dru, the Verte, and the toothy “aiguille” above Chamonix, all are part of the great collective that makes up the Mont Blanc massif—and all are included in this book.

Ardito’s text has been translated almost flawlessly from the original Italian (although the icefield on the north face of the Grandes Jorasses that most English-speaking mountaineers know as the Shroud is referred to as the Linceul) and is primarily a chronological history. Beginning in the mid-eighteenth century when the first mountain “tourists” arrived in Chamonix, he traces the birth and the evolution of mountaineering—all within the microcosm of the Mont Blanc massif—right through to the super enchaînements and audacious solo climbs of the present era. This discourse, though cursory (the entire book can probably be read in just a few hours), does an excellent job of bringing together many familiar names, routes, tragedies and triumphs and putting them all into an historic, “big picture” perspective that, until now, probably has eluded all but the most well-read mountaineers.

In fact, the only important bit of Mont Blanc history missing from these pages is the building of the téléphériques, the amazing cable-car network that revolutionized access and climbing throughout the range. The author has compensated, however, by including a unique and delightful chapter focusing purely on the diverse and extensive hut system that has similarly helped to make these mountains so accessible to the masses.

Regardless of what he is writing about, though, Ardito is at a distinct disadvantage. By opening Mont Blanc to any page, it is clear that this is primarily a “picture” book—and even Hemingway’s pen would have a hard time competing with Mont Blanc’s visual elements. The design team of Patrizia Balocco Lovisetti and Anna Galliani have given the book a dynamic but appealing layout through which the text ebbs and flows—and often disappears, with very little consequence. The earlier historical chapters are lavishly illustrated with colorful engravings and prints, as well as fascinating artifacts, such as the elaborate certificates of accomplishment the local mountain guides fashioned for their elite clientele. As the chronology progresses, historic black-and-white photos by the likes of Whymper, Mummery, and Sella precede the color negatives of the post-war generation, which, in turn, give way to stunning aerial and telephoto images of the modem tigers in action. Throughout the book, overlapping, cut-out and drop-shadowed design elements, artistic color treatments, and sidebar-length captions combine to create a stylish presentation that looks, feels, and reads more like a high-quality magazine or catalog.

It is ironic then, that Mont Blanc’s only conspicuous flaw concerns one of the most time-tested graphic elements: maps. Visualizing just how the myriad peaks and valleys that make up the Mont Blanc massif fit together is perhaps a visiting climber’s greatest challenge. It is disappointing then that this book, which clearly aspires to be the definitive printed resource for the Mont Blanc area, contains only a very few old or simplistic maps. One less two-page photo spread would not have been missed, but one more very detailed, up-to-date map could have strengthened the overall presentation greatly. It also is curious that the oblique overview illustration of the range—precisely the sort of thing that can really help a reader or visitor put everything into perspective—is a winter representation, as the vast majority of the climbing done here and documented in this book has been accomplished during summer conditions.

These are, however, minor chinks in an otherwise magnificent creation. With all due respect to the memory of Gaston Rebuffat, his must now be considered the penultimate book on Mont Blanc; for anyone with an interest in this important mountain and its history, Ardito’s Mont Blanc is the book to own. Whether it will ever find its way into the rucksacks of climbers visiting this area remains to be seen (although opened slightly and stood on edge, it could provide an effective A-frame bivouac shelter), but there is no doubt that Mont Blanc: Discovery and Conquest of the Giant of the Alps is destined to become the essential reference for scheming and dreaming between trips.

David Pagel