Mont Blanc

Mountaineering and Polar Collections

Thomas Graham Brown
Graham Brown

Mont Blanc and its climbing history was an abiding interest of Professor Thomas Graham Brown, whose personal bequest is the foundation of the National Library of Scotland's mountaineering and polar collections. Consequently these collections are rich in materials relating to the Mont Blanc range of mountains and to the Chamonix Valley which lies below the mountain on its French side.

At 4,807 metres (15,782 feet), Mont Blanc (in Italian 'Monte Bianco') is the highest summit in Europe west of the Caucasus; its range embraces some 200 square miles of rugged peaks and pinnacles that touches the borders of three countries (France, Italy and Switzerland).

Europe discovers Mont Blanc

Mont Blanc first entered European consciousness in the 18th century, at a time when a new interest in and appreciation of mountains and mountain scenery was being engendered by such works as Haller's 'Die Alpen' (Library shelfmark: Lloyd.1249) and Rousseau's 'La Nouvelle Heloïse' (GB.398-403). William Windham and Peter Martel had awakened an interest in the scenic attractions of the Chamonix valley in their 'An account of the glaciers or ice-alps in Savoy' (GB.1183; Lloyd.1225).

However much of the early impetus to mountain exploration was scientific, and it was the Genevese scholar-scientist Horace Benedict de Saussure — his 'Voyages dans Les Alpes' (GB.590-593; Lloyd.1386-1389) was another influential work — who inspired the earliest attempts on Mont Blanc by offering a prize to anyone who could discover a route to its summit.

The first ascentionists

In 1786 Jacques Balmat and Michel Paccard from Chamonix made the first successful ascent of the mountain and it is this climb which is considered to mark the beginning of modern mountaineering history. Their feat was somewhat marred by a subsequent controversy over whose had been the leading role in the ascent. Gavin De Beer and Graham Brown's 'The First Ascent of Mont Blanc' (GB.768; NF.1281.b.15) is the definitive study on this episode. Saussure repeated the climb himself in 1787 and there were several other ascents in the following decades, but it was the easier travelling conditions following the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars that led to a significant increase in the number of visitors to Chamonix.

The coming of the British

Ascents of the mountain itself became more common, with the British to the fore. Several of them wrote accounts of their experiences which are among the first examples of pure mountaineering literature, in that the climbing was pursued for its own sake and not in any spirit of scientific enquiry. The collections includes many such accounts as, for example, 'Narrative of an ascent to the summit of Mont Blanc on the 8th and 9th, August, 1827' (GB.1280; Lloyd.1494) by John Auldjo and 'Narrative of an ascent to the summit of Mont Blanc made during the summer of 1827' (Lloyd.1230) by William Hawes and Charles Fellows.

This new genre of writing even attracted parody - as in Thomas Hood's 'Comic Annual of 1832' (GB.128), where a piece entitled 'An Assent [sic] to the summut [sic] of Mount Blank' [sic] purports to be the work of a cockney servant accompanying his master.

Beginnings of tourism

The first hotels were built in Chamonix to cater for the growing number of visitors, while in 1821 the local guides formed the Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix, a kind of trade union whose regulations governed the conduct of the guides and the tariffs for a variety of climbs and excursions on and around Mont Blanc. The collections include an 1852 copy of these regulations (GB.418), as well as the 1857 certificate of ascent which Thomas Hinchliff forced the chief guide to issue him with after he and his companion had reached the summit with fewer than the required number of guides as prescribed by the regulations. [GB/1322 (3)]

A huge boost to the number of British visitors to the Mont Blanc region was given by Albert Smith's show 'The Ascent of Mont Blanc' which ran at the Egyptian Halls, Piccadilly, from 1852 to 1858. The collections include a number of 'Albert Smithiana' materials — there is more information available on them in 'Albert Smith — the mountaineering showman' in 'Quarto' issue 12 and on Smith himself in 'Mont Blanc sideshow: the life and times of Albert Smith' by J M Thorrington (GB.975).

New trends in climbing

By the end of the 1860s most of the subsidiary peaks of the Mont Blanc range had been climbed and the attention of the leading climbers turned to making new routes on them and to climbing the various aiguilles (pinnacles) which are a feature of the range. A strength of the collections is the series of bound volumes of articles and pamphlets relating to various climbs in the Mont Blanc range (GB.1710-GB.1770). In the second half of the century, standards of map-making of the area improved significantly. In the Library's maps collections are Graham Brown's original collection of maps which include several fine examples of the new cartography: 'The chain of Mont Blanc' by A Adams-Reilly (GB.Map.b.1(5)), 'Le Massif du Mont Blanc' by E Viollet-le-Duc (GB.Map.b.1(7)) and 'La chaine du Mont-Blanc' by Xavier Imfeld (GB.Map.b.1.11(1)).

Chamonix — a tourist mecca

The railway reached Chamonix in 1901, and this, together with the introduction of skiing into the valley soon afterwards, helped it to become the prototype of those Alpine resorts which grew affluent on the back of all-year-round tourism. The collections contain a number of publications which document this development including all 16 editions of Whymper's guide 'Chamonix and the range of Mont Blanc' (Lloyd. 457-472).

Graham Brown

The British lost their dominant position in Alpine mountaineering after the First World War, as climbing became more of a mass sport on the continent and the continentals proved more ready to adopt new techniques that enabled them to make rock and snow and ice climbs of a previously unimaginable difficulty. The main exception to this in the inter-war years is the trilogy of climbs on the Brenva face of Mont Blanc made by Professor Graham Brown with Frank Smythe and the guides Alexander Graven and Josef Knubel. There is a wealth of material on these ascents and on his book 'Brenva' (GB.753) in Graham Brown's own papers which are in our manuscripts collections (Acc.4338)

Adding to the collections

The Graham Brown Fund enables the Library to further strengthen its mountaineering and polar collections through purchase of both current and retrospective materials. Among some recent Mont Blanc acquisitions are 'Avant projet d'une route a travers le Mont-Blanc' (GB.B/1525), an abortive 1932 plan for a tunnel under the mountain, and two sumptuously illustrated works — 'Mont Blanc: conquête de l'imaginaire' (GB/C.218) and 'Monte Bianco, Chamonix, Courmayeur nelle antiche stampe' (GB/B.1092).

Suggestions for further reading

  • 'How the English made the Alps', by Jim Ring (London: John Murray, 2000) [Library shelfmark: H3.201.0633]
  • 'Killing dragons: The conquest of the Alps', by Fergus Fleming (London: Granta, 2000) [H3.201.4635]
  • 'Mont Blanc: An anthology', by Claire Engel (London: Allen & Unwin, 1965) [NF.810.c.1]
  • 'Mont Blanc: Discovery and conquest of the giant of the Alps', by Stefano Ardito (Vercelli: White Star, 2000) [El.2.203.06]
  • 'Monte Bianco', by Alfonso Bernardi.(Bologna: Zanichelli, 1965-1966) three vols [GB/A.134-135]
  • 'Savage snows: The story of Mont Blanc', by Walt Unsworth (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1986) [H4.86.1766]
  • 'Tableau littéraire du Mont-Blanc', by Charles Vallot and Claire Engel (Chambery: Librairie Dardel, 1930) [GB.1314(5)]


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