Chamonix Mont Blanc History

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In June 1741, eight intrepid Englishmen, armed to the teeth set out from Geneva. Led by Windham and Pococke they were dressed somewhat bizarrely as Ottomans, perhaps they'd heard tails of the Saracens miners that inhabited the high mountain valleys?. They were on a ‘Tour’, a prototypical gap-year. Taking three days to reach Chamouni they were fearful of the locals and camped outside the village where they kept their fires burning during the night and guards on permanent watch. The people of Chamonix turned out to be friendlier than they expected and guided them as far as the Mer du Glace. The account of their journey was widely published an put Chamonix on the map.

On the 8th of August 1786, the Savoyard’s Dr Michel Paccard and Jacques Balmat discovered the route to the summit of Mont-Blanc. A year later a tourist, Colonel Mark Beaufoy from England, climbed to the summit. By the 1800s Chamonix had become an important holiday destination and in 1811 the English Sporting Magazine coined the word Tourism. Despite the first winter ascension of Mont Blanc by Isabella Stratton and her future husband, the guide Jean Charlet in 1876, tourism was pretty much confined to the summer months. The guides who accompanied clients on climbs worked on their farms or other trades during the rest of the year. Another doctor, Michel Payot, would popularize skiing in Chamonix. Payot was an evangalist for what he believed were the health giving properties of winter sports. He wanted to get the Chamoniards out of their overheated and stuffy houses where they spent the winter months and into the fresh air. In 1901 he acquired a pair of skis and, like Duhamel before him, set about learning their secrets. This was easier said than done, when walking on flat ground the skis would have the unnerving habit of slipping backwards and Payot found that the only way he could stop on slopes was to fall backwards. He gave the skis to his friend, the guide Joseph Ducroz. Ducros adapted a technique guides use to rapidly descend steep slopes, the glissade. Bending his knees, skis parallel he would lean on the single pole to keep his balance and control his speed.

Payot bought a second pair of skis so he and Ducroz could make some tours together. The first was to the Col du Balme, leaving at 1pm on the 12th of February, 1902 they took four hours in total. Convinced of the efficasity of skis for winter travel Payot tried to interest his friends but met with only limited success, only some of the guides could see the potential they offered.

The rail line linking Chamonix with Fayet gave a considerable boost to tourism, particuarly during the winter months but it was a crossing made by Dr Payot, Couttet, Alfred Simond and Joseph Ravanel that caught the imagination, at least amongst city folk. On the 16th of January 1903 the four skiers set out from Chamonix with the aim of crossing the mountains to Zermatt. They arrived on the 22nd and the High-Level or Haute Route passed into ski legend. Just two years later on the 25th of February 1905 the German skier, Hugo Mylius, and his three Swiss guides completed the first ascent of Mont-Blanc by skis.

In 1906 a project to reach the Aiguille du Midi by cable car was proposed but the town council was cautious about such a large project In the meantime the second international ski competition was organized by the French Alpine Club between the 3rd and 5th of January 1908. The first competition had been held a year earlier at Montgènevre. The indefatigable Dr Payot had been there and his first hand knowledge would be useful for the events at Chamonix. The owners of hotels and the luxurious palaces were finally waking up to the potential of large scale winter tourism and began to fit their properties with such luxuries as central heating, although in 1908 only four hotels were properly equipped for winter opening. In the end the competitors would face a problem more closely associated with the start of the 21st century, sunshine, warm temperatures and a lack of snow. Even this couldn’t dampen the enthusiasm. The events included ski jumping, cross country skiing but no downhill skiing. It would be fourteen years before Arnold Lunn would organize the first slalom competition on the slopes of Murrren in Swizterland. For the cross-country event the Norwegian team had a secret weapon that left the closest French competitor trailing by over an hour, two ski poles instead of one.

The development of winter sports encouraged the Chamonix town council to give the green light for the Aiguille du Midi cable car. On the 20th of September, 1909 a proposal by the Italians Ceretti and Tanfani was approved. The plan was to build a cable car in three sections. The Para, The Glaciers and the Col du Midi. A constraint imposed by the impossibility of making steel cables longer than 1000 meters. Work started in 1911 but the First World War interrupted progess and the 1688 meter Para station was finally opened in January 1924, just in time for the first Winter Olympics. The second stage was completed three years later and would serve the Piste des Glaciers used, most famously, for the 1948 Khandahar worldcup downhill race.

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