In 1865 Lewis Carroll published his children's novel Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, the first speed limit was introduced in Britain under the Locomotive Act - 2 mph in town, 4 mph in the country, and a party led by Edward Whymper made the first ascent of the Matterhorn.
That last little snippet signalled the start of an unstoppable tsunami of heroic British amateur adventurers who bagged most of the high Alpine peaks, much to the disgust of the locals who believed they would anger the devils known to live in the mountains.
This so-called ‘Golden Age’ of Alpinism saw 65 first ascents dominated by Brit gents perhaps best typified in the quintessentially-named Albert Smith, who believed in doing it the extravagant way. For sustenance on his jaunt up Mont Blanc he took; 60 bottles of vin ordinaire, 6 of claret, 10 of Nuits St Georges, 15 of St Jean, 3 of Cognac. On the rations side of things; 20 loaves, 4 legs of mutton, 4 shoulders of mutton, 6 pieces of veal, 1 piece of beef, and 46 fowl.
150 years of Alpinism
Albert slept under the sky during the ascent, waking to “peaks that looked like islands rising from a filmy ocean – an archipelago of gold”, a sight “more than the realisation of the most gorgeous visions that opium or hashish could evoke” At least with all the food he took, having the munchies was no problem.
An avowed publicist, our Albert was greeted by a brass band on return to Chamonix (at the foot of Mont Blanc) disgusting the leading Victorian John Ruskin who happened to be present. A sensational touring show put together by Smith, ‘The Ascent of Mont Blanc’, was seen by 800,000 including Queen Vic herself.
11 years later a tough no-nonsense 38 year-old Sussex woman stirred up disapproval when she made the first winter ascent, in a skirt, of Mont Blanc. Isabella Straton was accompanied by climbing ‘partner’ Jean Charlet, a local mountain guide, who later went on to marry her. Her feats included bagging a new peak, subsequently named ‘Pointe de la Persévérance’ after the perseverance shown by the couple before they dared confess their affection for one another. Many years later, Isabella's grandchildren opened a hotel in Chamonix as a tribute to their grandmother, naming it Pointe Isabelle. Renovated and reopened this year, it’s decorated with her photographs. Slap bang in the middle of town, its clientele are a fitting tribute to ‘Milady’; climbers from all over the globe, locals sipping an aperitif as the world goes by, and bags of tourists eager to see the sights the easy way, dressed in hi-tech Gortex, unlike the sturdy leather and hobnailed boots and long wool skirts of Isabella’s era.
Sit around Chamonix long enough and someone will point out a skinny curly-haired 27 year old running past. This is Local Hero Catalan ultra-marathon runner Kilian Jornet who set off with his mate Matheo at 04.46 one morning last year to reach the summit of Mont Blanc 4,810 m (15,781 ft) in an inconceivable 3 hours 33 minutes.
They took the same return route to Chamonix. During the descent, which is much, much more dangerous than the ascent, Matheo slipped and fell into a 6 m deep crevasse. Kilian stopped to get him out but a leg injury put an end to Matheo's record attempt. Kilian said, "Once Matheo was safely out of the crevasse, I decided to continue on alone." He ran at break-neck speed to make up for the lost time, descending from the summit in 1 hour 24 minutes, a record 4 hours 57 minutes for the round trip.
Fortunately for Matheo his record-busting fall wasn’t fatal. Dozens die on the mountain each year. For €57 you can buy a return cable car ticket to l'Aiguille du Midi, or go one-way, ski or walk down, or ascend the extra 1,000 m to the top. The air is thin and the weather can be brutal one minute, blue-sky the next. Winds easily top 100 mph.
Around the time that Albert and Isabelle were scampering up MB, those feeling a little liverish (Albert perhaps? 91 bottles of wine?) headed for the spa-town of Evian (other waters are available) bobbing gently on the southern shore of Lake Geneva (a.k.a. lac Léman, le Léman, sometimes lac de Genève, German: Genfersee) to…..yes, you’ve got it…. take the waters. A certain Marquis de Lessert, given to problems of the lower intestinal area, regularly supped from a spring above the village, and reported improvement to his doctors. Spotting a nice little earner they prescribed the water as a cure-all. A certain canny M. Cachat, from whose land the spring bubbled forth, immediately fenced off the freebie and started flogging it. Thermal baths appeared, permission was given to bottle, word spread, the public came, et voilà! A grand Casino where la foule riche could play the tables, see, and be seen sprang up, as did the biggest, grandest, maddest, blingiest hotel that money could buy, The Royal Evian, named for our very own Edward V11, ‘Fast Eddie’, who never got to stay. He popped his clogs before it was finished. He never got to ride the funicular railway from downtown, but now anybody can, and stay for a drink, or the night; but, a word in your ear, the Suite Royale will set you back €4,000 a night.
But you get a lovely view of the Alps where the Brave Brits threw themselves at those unclimbed peaks 150 years ago.
Full programme of excursions, events, conferences and films: 1865.chamonix.fr
He stayed at 3* Hotel Bar Bistro Pointe Isabelle, Chamonix. Summer prices from €139 per room per night (double room) B&B – half board www.pointeisabelle.com
The Royal Evian opens on 1st July after complete renovation
Rooms from €600 to €4000 per night www.evianresort.com
Alberts Smith's party reach a cabin in the Alps
The Hotel Royal Evian
Isabella Straton in the Alps
Hiking Mammoth Lakes