Mont Blanc, at 15,780 ft, is the highest peak in Western Europe and the EU. Until the 1980’s it was mostly considered to be the highest peak in all of Europe until geographers decided that Mount Elbrus in Russia was actually within Europe (and 3000 feet higher). Plus, before the Soviet Union fell apart Mont Blanc was much easier to access!
Mont Blanc, also known as Monte Bianco in Italian, means “white mountain” in english and straddles both France and Italy. The French side is predominately glaciers while the wild Italian side takes on a different character with massive rock ridges comprising some the most difficult and classic alpine routes on the continent such as the “Inomminata Ridge”, the “Peuterey Integral” and the “Central Pillar of Freney” among others. The French side boasts the two most popular and easier routes on the mountain, the standard “Gouter Route” and the longer “Three Monts Route”. The French side is also a popular ski mountaineering objective in the spring via the Grand Mulet route.
The mountain is steeped in alpine mountaineering history. It is the site of the birth of mountain climbing as a sport when in the late 1700’s a wealthy Frenchman put up a large sum of money to anyone who would dare be the first to climb it. In 1786 two Frenchmen, Jaques Balmat and Michel Passard set out from Chamonix clad in the costume of the day. They summited on Aug 8th and heralded the beginning of modern mountaineering.
In the very late 1800’s a plan was hatched to build a train route all the way to the summit via tunnels under the glaciers. Fortunately, the project ran out of money and the train currently stops low down at about 8000 feet and now provides access to the Normal climbing route.
In other interesting Mont Blanc history, in 1966 an Air India flight carrying 117 people misjudged their approach to Geneva and smashed into the Bossons Glacier killing everyone on board including the designer of India’s first nuclear weapons. Just last year, some tourists found an Indian diplomatic pouch melting out of the glacier from that same crash and it was returned to India.
Mont Blanc also has the dubious distinction of being one of the deadliest peaks in Europe. More mountaineering accidents happen here than anywhere else in the Alps due to it’s high altitude and the presence of objective hazards on the two most popular routes. But, with up to 20,000 people attempting the peak each year the per capita accident rate is really not that bad.
Regardless of the hazards of the mountain, Mont Blanc is a great objective for climbers who are experienced in Alps climbing or for those going with a qualified guide who can mitigate the hazards. While not technically difficult, climbing the EU’s highest peak is very physically challenging. However, the views of the entire Western Alps and the chance to walk in the footsteps of mountaineering history are well worth the effort!