Mont Blanc was first climbed in 1786; by the 1850s, the ‘Monarch of Mountains’ had been climbed over 40 times along what is now known as the Grands Mulets route, approaching the summit from the north out of Chamonix. By the mid 1850s, British climbers were actively seeking other routes to the summit of Mont Blanc, from the Italian border town of Courmayeur to the south and from St. Gervais to the west.
By the summer of 1861, the Rev. Charles Hudson (who would perish on the Matterhorn in 1865) and other Alpine Club members had succeeded in piecing together half of what was then known as the St. Gervais route: in 1853, from St. Gervais, Hudson ascended the treacherous 1,000 ft. rock face, now known as the Grand Couloir, onto the Dôme du Goûter. From this point, Hudson and his team rejoined the normal route. In 1859, Hudson, accompanied by Melchior Anderegg, climbed the normal route to the Dôme du Goûter, and then climbed (for the first time) the ridge known as ‘les Bosses du Dromadaire’ to the summit, proving that this was a viable route. By the summer of 1861, the two halves of the new route had been climbed in separate instances; what remained was to link them together in a single push. This was a shared project for Alpine Club members in the beginning of the 1861 climbing season.
Accordingly, on 10 July 1861 a large group consisting of Charles Hudson, Leslie Stephen, Francis Tuckett – a Quaker and passionate Egyptologist – Melchior Anderegg, four other guides and porters, and a novice climber, John Birkbeck, set off from Chamonix to explore other possible routes from the south up the Aiguille de Bionnassay. In an eerie foreshadowing of his fatal mistake on the Matterhorn in 1865, Hudson’s patronage of the teenage Birkbeck led to a nearly fatal accident, derailing this attempt at the new route. Birkbeck’s mistake was simple, even embarrassing, and yet he was very lucky to survive it: having begun their summit push on July 11 at 3:30 a.m., the group stopped for that mountaineering tradition known as ‘second breakfast’ at 7 a.m. Birkbeck took this occasion to walk away from the group without telling anyone, presumably to answer the call of nature in privacy. By the time the rest of the group noticed that he was gone, Birkbeck had fallen 1,800 feet from the top of the Col de Miage with his pants down around his ankles, scraping layers of skin from his exposed body. Miraculously, he was still alive: he had somehow avoided hitting the scattered rocks on the slope and his fall had slowed above a series of crevasses.
It took Hudson and Anderegg two ½ hours to reach Birkbeck, and to make the badly injured teenager somewhat comfortable on the sledge that Hudson had providentially brought along on the climb: it took the rest of the day to drag Birkbeck through the snow and down to the town of Bionay. Leslie Stephen, meanwhile, offered to put his long legs to good use: after giving Birkbeck his plaid (a woolen outer-coat) to use as a blanket, Stephen raced downhill to the valley, across the Col de Vosa, and thence to Chamonix, in an effort to find an ‘English doctor.’ By 6:30 p.m., Birkbeck was in St. Gervais attended by a French doctor who recommended bathing his wounds in cold compresses; the British climbers’ doubts about this treatment were affirmed when the English doctor, Dr. Metcalfe, subsequently arrived the next morning, recommending warm cloths and hot water bottles, with an application of brandy and milk (to be taken internally) every half hour. Under these more appropriate nationalistic ministrations, the patient quickly recovered: no doubt with a great deal to live down, young Birkbeck returned to Mont Blanc in subsequent summers, successfully climbing that mountain in both 1863 and 1864, making several attempts on the Matterhorn after the death of his mentor Hudson, and climbing with Leslie Stephen in the summers of 1871 and 1872.
While Hudson remained at Birkbeck’s side, Stephen, Tuckett, and Anderegg returned to Mont Blanc a week later in order to complete the project, successfully making the first complete climb of Mont Blanc on the St. Gervais route (now known as the Goûter route). Stephen and his party left St. Gervais at 4:15 a.m. on July 17, making it to the hut on the top of the Aiguille du Goûter by 3:45 p.m. Climbing the Aiguille du Goûter in the heat of the afternoon, as Stephen did, would have been the most dangerous passage during the climb: then as now, as Olivia and I discovered nearly 150 years later, this 1,000 ft. tall rock face wants to kill you with falling rocks, particularly as the ice melts out later in the day.
After that, the summit climb on July 18 would have been comparatively easy: Stephen, Tuckett, and Anderegg left the hut at the relatively civilized hour of 4:15 a.m., crossing the Dôme du Goûter and the Bosse du Dromadaire in good time, and reaching the summit at 8:15 that morning.
Considering that the Goûter route today is the most popular route up Mont Blanc, and that several thousand people each summer are following quite literally in Leslie Stephen’s footsteps, one could argue that this is Stephen’s most influential first ascent. Certainly it is his most traveled one. And yet, uncharacteristically, Stephen never wrote an article about this particular climb, perhaps feeling uneasy at claiming a route that another climber, Charles Hudson, had pursued for so long: the one mention Stephen makes of this ascent is in his essay, “The Regrets of a Mountaineer,” when he references the ‘lonely sublimity’ of a sunset seen from the Aiguille du Goûter. It seems likely that Hudson gave his blessing to the team to continue the project without him, while he himself remained with the injured Birkbeck, but it would have been bad form for Stephen to claim it (although posterity has long since awarded it to him).