In 1916, Chamonix changed its name to Chamonix-Mont-Blanc. A name change designed to cement and place, in the public eye, the close ties that the town had established, and wished to preserve, with Mont Blanc the highest mountain in the European Alps.
In 1760 Horace Bénédict de Saussure, offered a financial reward to anyone who could complete the first ascent of Mont Blanc (Monte Bianco in Italian). Saussure was a Genevan Aristocrat, Geologist, Physicist and Alpine traveller. He also wrote Les Voyages dans les Alpes documenting his travels and is regarded by many as the founder of Alpinism.
Several unsuccessful attempts were made over the next few years to climb Mont Blanc and it wasn’t until 8 August 1786 that the reward was claimed by two local Chamonix men who climbed the mountain from the Chamonix valley. They were Jacques Balmat, a Chamois hunter and crystal collector, and Dr Michel Gabriel Paccard, a Chamonix doctor.
A bronze stature was erected in the town’s main square in 1887 to commemorate the centenary of the first ascent. Seen from behind, it is dramatic: two men, one of them pointing to Mont Blanc with an outstretched arm. You can sense the celebration inherent in the stance.
Walk around it and view it from the front and you will be surprised to find that the statue is not of Balmat and Paccard the two pioneering Mountaineers, but of Balmat and his ‘financier’ Saussure. What of Paccard? Why was he not part of this commemorative statue?
In our era we are familiar with the concept of events and stories being manipulated to massage egos and promote one person over another. It may come as a surprise to learn that the account of the first ascent of Mont Blanc was progressively mis-told and manipulated to promote one man (Balmat) and belittle his companion (Paccard).
The instigator of this misrepresentation was Marc-Theodore Bourrit, another Alpine traveller who had himself failed to find a route to the summit of Mont Blanc and who wrote accounts of the successful ascent denigrating the role Paccard played and promoting Balmat as the ‘braver and fitter’ leader. He even wrote to the King of Sardinia (the Chamonix region of France at that time being part of the Kingdom of Sardinia) who on the basis of the account supplied to him by Bourrit lauded Balmat as ‘Balmat le Mont Blanc’. Paccard didn’t take this lying down but reacted by demanding Balmat sign an affidavit denying Bourrit’s version of events. It had, in fact, been Paccard who was the leader of the two and who reached the summit first, Sadly by now the damage was done and Balmat (despite the affidavit that he signed for Paccard) continued to boast in a conceited way about his part in the ascent, and sadly Chamonix chose to believe him. And for many years thereafter articles and books including Balmat’s own autobiography continued to promote Balmat over his companion. With this knowledge it comes as no surprise that the Bronze statue erected at the time of the centenary effectively airbrushed Paccard out from the glory of that first ascent.
It was not until the bicentenary in 1986 that a second bronze statue was erected to commemorate Dr Paccard. Paccard’s statue is sited behind and about 150yds from the original statue on the edge of the square.
When I view these two magnificent bronzes I am always struck by the contrast between them. Paccard is seated. His gaze too is directed toward Mont Blanc. But there is no triumphalism about him.
His demeanor is one of silent, studied, thoughtful contemplation. Almost as if he wishes to distance himself from the excitable Balmat ahead of him, gesticulating dramatically to his companion Saussure whose gaze follows Balmat’s pointing finger. My eyes always rest finally on Saussure’s left hand, the fingers outstretched. You can almost hear him gushing out praise to the school-boyishly, excited Balmat.
In 1787 a year after the first ascent, Saussure accompanied by a party of 18 servants and guides also reached the summit where he conducted a number of scientific experiments.
The next post traces the route followed by the first ascent up the Montagne de la Côte. Click here to go to that Post.