The role of a Mountain Guide is a very special one. It is a profession that requires constant rigorous examination, dedication, technical skill and mountain knowledge. Guides inspire, mentor, encourage and protect us as much as they can in our alpine adventures. Their high level of commitment makes them an indispensable and significant part of how we experience these wondrous lands. Mountain Guides are especially important in Chamonix where the mountains can be a very perilous place.
A Brief History of Mountaineering in Chamonix:
In the 1700s, curious mountain enthusiasts began to flock to the Alps to escape for a period of time, their cities and towns. Gone were the days where mountain and heavy glaciered lands were considered sinister and savage. Mountaineering, the sport of climbing mountains, was seen at this time to have a positive impact on the mind and body. By the mid 19th Century, Alpinism was fully recognised as a sport.
The beginning of Alpinism, saw the partnership between sport and science. Many physicists, meteorologists, geologists and other experts seeking adventure, were enticed to the Alps. One particular scientist and alpine explorer was Horace-Bénédict de Saussure. After several failed attempts to reach the top of Mont Blanc himself, he initiated a race. The first race to the summit was won in 1786 by Jacques Balmat, a local crystal collector and chamois hunter, and Dr. Michel Gabriel Paccard, a physicist.
The attraction of the Mont Blanc and its surrounding mountains widened beyond scientific curiosity and the general public began to visit Chamonix. As tourism grew, more and more visitors from all over the world sought the excitement of hiking and climbing in the mountains. From this, the first generation of Chamonix guides was created. Local people who knew the terrain and had experience on it, could then show people around the mountains and give visitors a more exciting holiday than just sightseeing.
On the 20th of August 1820, disaster struck on the Mont Blanc when a scientific expedition resulted in the death of 3 out of 5 of the party’s guides. Pierre Carrier, Pierre Balmat and Auguste Tairraz tragically lost their lives, leaving their families and loved ones behind with no support. It was this event, and the comprehension of the dangers that mountain guides face, that led to the establishment of an association that would support and protect guides and their families in case of an accident. In 1821, the Compagnie des guides de Chamonix was founded, making it the world’s oldest guiding association and today one of the largest, with over 150 guides. In 1924, the Emergency Fund was established which gives financial aid to members of the Compagnie des Guides, in case of injury or loss of a family member.
Each year during the month of August, we show our appreciation of the work that the Guides do and raise funds with the Chamonix Guides Festival. This unique event both celebrates and expresses our gratitude to all those who, past and present, serve to show us the way.
The festival will be held this year, starting with the Cham Au Sommet from the 9th-11th August, then the Fêtes des Guides will take over Chamonix from the 12-15th August. It is a real spectacle and testament to the abilities and skills of the Chamonix Mountain Guides. For more information about the festival and upcoming events, please check out the Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix.