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Chamonix celebrates the 150th anniversary
of the golden age of mountaineering

During the eleven years from 1854 to 1865, modern mountaineering was born in the Alps. In 2015, Chamonix has chosen to pay homage to this golden age of mountaineering and celebrate the 150th anniversary of the truly exceptional year that was 1865. The Petzl Foundation is providing support to this event.

OCTOBER 2015

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Before the golden age, the high mountains had already experienced a fair amount of traffic. People traversed passes, explored the valleys and foothills. As early as 1741, the first tourists arrive in Chamonix, ascend to Montenvers, and are captivated by the "Mer de Glace" or "sea of ice." In 1760, naturalist and geologist Horace Bénédicte de Saussure sets foot for the first time in the valley and promises a reward to anyone who finds a way to the top of Mont Blanc. Twenty-six years later, on August 8th, 1786, two young men from Chamonix, crystal collector Jacques Balmat and Doctor Paccard, stand at an elevation of 4810 meters. This groundbreaking achievement is followed by several other ascents of Mont Blanc. The first female ascent, by Marie Paradis, took place on July 14, 1808.

Mountaineering serving science

At the turn of the 19th century, conquering summits and exploring the Alps is often combined with scientific measurements and experiments. The mountains transform into an outdoor research laboratory. Expeditions like that of Dr. Hamel on Mont Blanc in 1820 are a sign of the times. Thirteen guides and porters accompany Dr. Hamel, who would like to measure the exact altitude of the summit. This ascent finishes tragically with the first ever mountaineering accident: three guides die in an avalanche. This tragic episode leads to the creation of, in 1821, what will become the now famous Chamonix Guide Company or "Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix": guides come together to establish an emergency fund to structure and organize the profession.

Les débuts de l'alpinisme

During the four decades that follow, the interest in high-altitude adventures and ascents continues to grow. Scientists, writers, painters, and royalty make the trip to the Chamonix Valley. The expansion of the railroads in the 19th century contributes to this movement. The obsession with the mountains spreads throughout Europe and the English lead the way.

1865, the golden age of mountaineering: success, commitment, and tragedy…

1865, the golden age of mountaineering: success, commitment, and tragedy… In 1854, Englishman Alfred Willis, accompanied by two Chamonix guides, makes the first ascent of the Wetterhorn in the Bernese Alps just for recreation. This marks the beginning of what we refer to as the golden age of mountaineering, a period lasting eleven years with dozens of first ascents throughout the Alps, including more than thirty first ascents on 4000 meter peaks: Mont Rose, Mont Blanc du Tacul, the Aiguille du Midi, the Eiger, the Grande Casse, Mönch, Dent Blanche, Grand Paradis, and the list goes on and on. The major players of this epic era are primarily British. Most are members of the Alpine Club in London, the first mountaineering club, created in 1857. Guides play a vital role not only in Chamonix, but also in the Bernese Oberland and Zermatt. Together, the English and their guides form legendary rope teams, developing a clear passion for exploration, a mutual respect for each others' skills, and often close friendships. Leslie Stephen, one of the era's best English mountaineers, describes the Alps as "Europe's playground." This is the birth of “alpine style”, the preferred style for many mountaineers, a style of mountaineering involving self-sufficient, experienced rope teams where commitment is key. The hunger to establish new routes, the desire to seek out difficulty and beautiful unclimbed lines and the athletic component all characterize this alpine style.

The year 1865 also symbolizes the pinnacle of mountaineering success and commitment. No less than 55 world-class first ascents occurred in the Alps during this one year alone. In the Mont-Blanc Range, the flurry is extraordinary: the Brenva Spur on the Italian side of Mont Blanc, the Grandes Jorasses on the Italian side, the Aiguille du Chardonnet, and the Aiguille Verte by three routes.The now legendary Englishman, Edward Whymper, catches everyone's attention. With Chamonix guide Michel Croz they form an exceptionally gifted rope team. Unfortunately on July 14, 1865, after reaching the summit of the Matterhorn, an accident occurs on the descent that kills four mountaineers, including Croz. The era's heroic style of mountaineering experiences one of its first major accidents.

Edward Whymper et Michel Croz
Left: Edward Whymper. Center: a sketch of the Matterhorn's first ascent. Right: Michel Croz.

Over this ten-year period, a brash and athletic style of mountaineering is born, always pushing the envelope. Today, one-hundred and fifty years later the heritage of the golden age is still alive and well among countless mountaineers all throughout the world.

The Petzl Foundation is partnering with The Chamonix Summits Association for the event, "1865-2015: Chamonix celebrates the 150th anniversary of the golden age of mountaineering." We are providing support to the exhibit "The Grands Mulets, the first mountain hut" at Espace Tairraz, Chamonix until summer 2016.

For more info:
- Chamonix website
- Facebook page

Uploaded in October 2015


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