French Physician and Mountaineer
Michel-Gabriel Paccard and his porter Jacques Balmat (1762-1834) were the first to ascend Mont Blanc, the tallest peak in Europe. With that climb, they became known as the two men who initiated the sport of modern mountaineering. Paccard and Balmat made the climb in 1786, more than two decades after Genevan scientist Horace-Bénédict de Saussure (1740-1799) offered a monetary prize to the first climbers of the mountain. Mont Blanc had significance not only because of its height, but because it was the site of nearly 40 square miles of glaciers, which carried substantial interest for scientists. The glaciers were periodically active, having advanced to such a degree in the seventeenth century that they buried valley farmland and homes in the Chamonix area of France.
Paccard was a doctor in the town of Chamonix, which lies at the base of Mont Blanc. At the age of 29, he employed the services of the 24-year-old Balmat, to make an attempt on the nearly 15,800-ft-tall (4,807-m) peak, which was often scoured by extreme winds and sudden weather changes. Like many other educated people of the time, Paccard was intrigued by the works of nature and particularly enthralled by mountains that were considered some of nature's grandest achievements. The prize money offered by Saussure was an incentive that held little interest for Paccard. Saussure, who first saw the summit in 1760 on a trip to Chamonix, thought of climbing it himself, but offered the reward to ensure that, if not him, someone would make the ascent.
Paccard and Balmat made their attempt in August 1786, leaving Chamonix for the north face of Mont Blanc. Had the men tried the east or "Brenva" face, they would have been met by a steep ice- and snow-covered mountainside. The south face is even steeper and presents 1,500-foot-tall pillars of rock. Paccard and Balmat set out on August 7, lacking the tools of modern mountain climbers. Without even rope, they began the ascent up relatively gentle but strenuously long snowy slopes, traversing numerous dangerous crevasses along the way.
The excitement in Chamonix was great as residents set up telescopes and used binoculars to watch the men make their way to the top. When Paccard and Balmat reached the summit at 6:23 P.M. on August 8, the word spread through the small town, and the church bells heralded their success. Paccard set aside the thrill of the conquest long enough to take scientific measurements before he and Balmat began the trip down.
The two men were cheered as heroes when they returned to Chamonix. Balmat went to Geneva to claim the prize money from de Saussure, but Paccard instructed Balmat to keep all of the money. The relationship between the two men turned sour afterward. Balmat told acquaintances—reportedly after imbibing in a few alcoholic beverages—that he was the true hero of the ascent, and that he not only reached the top first, but had to climb partway down to haul an exhausted Paccard to the summit. That story gained widespread acceptance when the well-known author of The Three Musketeers, Alexandre Dumas, Sr., published Balmat's account in 1832, five years after Paccard's death. Historians have since found evidence, including documents from Balmat himself, that the unflattering comments were untrue and that Paccard was likely the first to the top of Mont Blanc.
Paccard's name was forever cleared when France honored him on the 200th anniversary of his and Balmat's initial climb. As part of the celebration, a monument was dedicated in his honor.
LESLIE A. MERTZ