American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

The First Ascent of Mont Blanc

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  • Publication Year: 1958

The First Ascent of Mont Blanc, by T. Graham Brown and Sir Gavin de Beer, with foreword by Sir John Hunt. London: Oxford University Press, 1957. 490 pages; ills. Price 70s.

Published on the occasion of the Centenary of the Alpine Club, this is an expensive book, but a necessary luxury for those interested in Alpine history, particularly in the events relating to the attempts on Mont Blanc and the successful effort of 1786. The collaboration of a great expert on the mountain (author of Brenva and former editor of AJ) with a noted historical authority bespeaks the integrity of its content.

The attainment of Mont Blanc on August 8, 1786 broke the magic barrier defending the hitherto almost ignored world of snow. Not only the highest summit of the Alps, this peak became symbolic as the portal to mountain adventure ; but its clouded history, particularly in connection with the controversy developing around Paccard and Balmat, fills many printed pages. Only in recent years has the truth become known and Paccard placed in his rightful position of honor. Whymper was the first to see this: the village doctor almost forgotten as the result of several detractors. First there was Balmat himself, greedy for gold, then vainglorious Bourrit, jealous of any effort more fortunate than his own, and finally romancing Dumas, who swung public attention to Balmat. Others such as C E. Mathews, Dr. Dübi, Freshfield, Mon-tagnier, and E. H. Stevens have since striven to set the facts aright, and it has now fallen to Graham Brown and de Beer to throw further light on the problem.

But the new and sad revelation of the present volume is that de Saussure, the one man whom one thought of as putting truth before all, a neutralist if not openly pro-Paccard, now turns up in the camp of the derogators. De Saussure was well aware of Paccard’s initiative; he must have known of the expedition to the Tacul basin, and certainly of the doctor’s attempt on the Aiguille de Gôuter. Instead of due acknowledgment in Voyages (vol. II), he repeated Bourrit’s emphasis and omissions, knowing they were false. When Paccard included his barometric readings on the Aiguille du Gouter in his letter of September 25, 1785, to de Saussare, he came into scientific competition with the professor, and the reaction of the latter was one of resentment. De Saussare could, with a stroke of his pen, have killed the myth of Balmat’s preeminence; but he did not, and thereby failed in his duty as an impartial scientist by supporting Bourrit’s falsehoods.

The second part of the book presents in their original form numerous documents, some hitherto unpublished, others in which the text was incomplete or erroneous. The illustrations include many plates in color, reproduced from old prints, portraits of Paccard and Balmat, various photos of Mont Blanc, and the original sketches made by von Gersdorf at Chamonix on the day of the first ascent.

J. Monroe Thorington

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