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8 August 2008

On this day in history: first ascent of Mont Blanc, 1786

In the mid-eighteenth century the Swiss aristocrat and naturalist Horace-Bénédict de Saussure became a regular visitor the French town of Chamonix, which sits at the foot of Mont Blanc, the alpine peak that spans the French-Italian border. He became obsessed with the mountain, wanting to reach the summit in order to carry out experiments. After making an unsuccessful attempt to reach the summit, in 1760 he offered a reward for anyone who can find a route to the top in the hope that the money would inspire the local guides.

De Saussure's reward proved popular with the mountain guides who tried a variety of routes to reach the summit. One of the most successful was an Italian chamois hunter named Jacques Balmat, who managed to find a route to the summit over a number of solo expeditions, but he was forced back each time. On 8th August 1786, he set off again, but this time he had a companion, Michel-Gabriel Paccard.

Paccard, another Italian, was a doctor in Chamonix and friend of de Saussure who had also made a number of attempts on the summit with other alpine guides. At 6.23 p.m. the two made it to the summit of Mont Blanc at an altitude of 4,810 metres (15,781 ft). During the descent Paccard suffered from snow-blindness and Balmat had to lead him by hand back down the mountain.

De Saussure presented the reward to Balmat, who also received the honourary title 'le Mont Blanc' from the king of Sardinia. The next year, De Saussure finally made it to the top of the mountain himself following Balmat's route. The interest caused by the ascent and the first use of many pieces of equipment mean that Balmat and Paccard's climb heralded the start of the modern era of mountaineering.

For another version of the story of the ascent, which places Dr. Paccard in the lead role, see Per Jerberyd's article The First Ascent of Mont Blanc.

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