Although there are records of Italian sheep farmers inhabiting the valley as far back as the 11th century, it is, in fact, two Englishmen who take the credit for ‘discovering’ Chamonix over 250 years ago. Explorers William Windham and Richard Pococke found their way to the ‘Mer de Glace’ in 1741. As word spread, via literary journals of their exploits and achievements, so followed climbers, scientists and meteorologists all desperate to unravel the mysteries of the ‘Chamouny’ valley.
The Chamonix-Mont-Blanc Valley
By 1786, Mont Blanc had been conquered: local Alpinists Dr Joseph Vallot and Jaques Balmat arrived at the peak armed with only the most basic equipment. This paved the way for future ascents by famous scientists such as Saussure, Goethe and Bourrit, and in 1803 Marie Paradis became the first woman to look down from Western Europe’s highest point. Finally Mont Blanc’s reputation as a ill-fated and cursed mountain had been shed, but many lives continued to be lost in attempts to dominate its fearsome peaks. In 1821 one such accident resulted in the foundation of the now famous ‘Compagnie des Guides’.
Later in the 19th Century the Savoie region was re-united with France. Shortly after a personal visit Napoleon commissioned the construction of a carriage road linking Geneva and Chamonix. Now easily accessible, Chamonix’s development gathered pace. Once a peaceful market town that thrived mainly in the summer months, Chamonix now boasted an abundance of hotels, a modern railway and most importantly, a year-round presence as an energetic, bustling town.
One more obvious development took Chamonix’s reputation to the next level: skiing. The tail-end of the 19th Century witnessed the first forays onto the snow-covered slopes and in 1906/07 a winter sports competition organised by ‘Club Alpin Francais’ inspired the first big winter season. Possibly the ultimate accolade then followed: in 1924 Chamonix hosted the first ever Winter Olympics and has not looked back since. Very quickly Chamonix expanded into the huge resort it is today, cable-cars arrived throughout the valley: 1927 saw the completion of Plan-Praz; in 1930 came Brevent; the legendary Aiguille de Midi made its debut in 1955 with the Flegere cable-car arrived the following year.
2015 marks 150 years of Mountaineering in the Chamonix-Mont-Blanc Valley
Today Chamonix is the international capital of mountaineering. Unsurprisingly it has given birth to many new extreme sports in more recent years: snowboarding, white-water rafting, ice-climbing and many more. These modern sports show how Chamonix is striding into the 21st Century though a quick stroll around the town will uncover buildings, shops, and streets named after the heroes and heroines of years gone by – a clear indication of how fondly Chamonix remembers its history.