History of Chamonix
In 1760 Horace-Bénédict de Saussure, a Swiss naturalist, lay down the challenge of climbing Mont Blanc to anyone brave enough to attempt it. As the highest mountain in western Europe at 4,810m (15,774 feet) and with the limited equipment available at the time, few dared even consider the feat. It took 26 years before Jacques Balmat, a Chamonix crystal hunter, and Dr Michel-Gabriel Paccard, a local doctor, made the first ascent. Their success established Chamonix as the birthplace of modern mountaineering and statues celebrating their achievement stand in Place Balmat and Quai d’Arve in the centre of Chamonix today.
Tourism had taken root in Chamonix as early as the 1740s, as word spread from pioneering gentleman tourists like Pocock and Windham. Their dramatic description of the ‘Sea of Ice’ (Mer de Glace glacier) and the upswelling of interest following the early ascents of Mont Blanc ensured that Chamonix soon became a must-see on the European tours increasingly popular with wealthy Victorians.
The Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix was founded in 1821, primarily to escort visitors on the glacier, after they arrived at Montenvers on the back of mules. Nowadays the mules have given way to the famous Montenvers train, though they’re remembered in the name of the local free bus service, Le Mulet. As the popularity of winter sports grew throughout the last century, the number of lifts in the valley grew and today Chamonix boasts the highest cable-car in Europe, the Aiguille du Midi which reaches 3,842m above sea level.
In 1924 Chamonix hosted the inaugural Winter Olympic Games and has welcomed numerous world-class sporting events: the famous Kandahar leg of the Ski World Cup, the Marathon du Mont Blanc, the Freeride World Tour and the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc to name but a few.
Today, Chamonix has around 10,000 permanent inhabitants, with a further 30,000 visiting in the winter, and 60,000 people in resort during the summer months, totaling around 5 million visitors per year.
Not just famous for Mont Blanc, Chamonix features in many guises.
- The author of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley, spent time in the area with Lord Byron around the time she began writing her famous novel, and Chamonix is the scene of an encounter between the monster and the doctor.
- On the subject of Shelley and Byron, a book called Cham written Jonathan Trigell is also worth reading.
- Chamonix is a snow track on Sony’s Gran Turismo driving game.
- It is twinned with 6 towns, including Davos in Switzerland, Aspen in Colorado and Garmisch-Partenkirchen in Germany (pictured below). It is also one of the ‘Best of the Alps’ resorts.
- James Salter’s novel Solo Faces, based on the life of climber Gary Hemming, is set in Chamonix.
- The parents of Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond books, are reported to have died here in a climbing accident, and the ski scenes from The World Is Not Enough were filmed in Chamonix.
- The classic ski film Blizzard of Aahhhs was filmed in Chamonix.
Book your Chamonix holiday with us and make the most of your stay in Chamonix by visiting our Chamonix Resort Shop now. You can book all your holiday essentials from ski passes and hire to airport transfers.