Mont-Blanc is situated in the east of the French département of Haute-Savoie (74) département, where France, Switzerland and Italy meet. This awe-inspiring mountain, meaning literally “White Mountain” in French, is the highest mountain in the Alps, of France and of the European Union. Its summit rises 4,810.45 m (15,782 ft) above sea level, between the French and Italian towns of Chamonix and Courmayeur.
Mont-Blanc: an iconic mountain
The majestic Mont Blanc towers so much higher than the surrounding mountains that it stands out and can be seen from viewpoints right across Savoie, the Jura, the Massif Central or even the Vosges mountains.
Mont Blanc: a bit of history
Before the 18th century, Mont Blanc was locally nicknamed “the doomed mountain”. There is still a summit of the massif called as such: the Mont Maudit. Legend has it that an enchanted kingdom once existed at the summit of Mont Blanc, governed by a fairy (the “Déesse Blanche”). From the top of her verdant kingdom, she worked on the destiny of the inhabitants living down in the valley of Chamonix. However, until the mid-1700s, nobody, even local people, dared approach the summit, or even the glaciers, as they were considered to be a land inhabited by demons where witches and sorcerers used to dance to the sound of instruments.
But the perception of high mountains as doomed places was to be forever shaken in the 18th century when adventurous British visitors to Savoie went on many mountain pioneering trips in the Alps. In 1741, English travellers William Windham (1717-1761) and Richard Pococke organised a discovery expedition in the valley of Chamonix. There, he tackled the biggest glacier above Chamonix at Montenvert, which was named “Mer de Glace” (Sea of Ice) for the size of the glacier, and also for its ogives and curved colour bands formed at the base of the icefall.
The expedition teams went home re-telling the popular beliefs of the locals about their fear of glaciers, supposedly haunted by evil beings. It is believed that these frightening stories were partly due to the recent growth of glaciers as in older times, an ice-free passage used to link the valley of Chamonix to the Valley of Aosta. At the beginning of the 18th century, religious processions were organised to counter the effects of the Little Ice Age, as the Mer de Glace was dangerously approaching Chamonix.
On the 8th August 1786, the summit of Mont Blanc was reached for the first time in recorded history by local climber Jacques Balmat and Doctor Michel Paccard. This climb was initiated by Horace-Bénédict de Saussure, a Swiss scientist from Geneva, who offered a reward for the first person to climb Mont Blanc. This climb traditionally marks the start of modern mountaineering. De Saussure followed the next year, as did the first Brit, Colonel Mark Beaufroy, and Marie Paradis, the first woman to reach the summit in 1808.
Nowadays, Mont Blanc is climbed by an average of 20,000 mountaineer-tourists each year.
How high is Mont Blanc?
Until recently, French geography textbooks set the altitude of Mont-Blanc at 4,807 m until the IGN and expert surveyors, with the aid of GPS technology, changed the altitude to 4,810.40 m (15,782 ft). Of course, this could be altered by the thickness of the perennial ice and snow that cover the dome of the summit, whose actual rock summit is found to be at 4,792 m. And then, after the 2003 heatwave that touched Europe, a team of scientists downgraded the altitude to 4,808.45 m, before gaining altitude again in 2009 at 4,810.45 m.
At the summit, the wind speed can reach 150 kph and temperatures can drop to -40°C. Temperatures rarely rise above 0 °C (32 °F) even in summer.
From the altitude of 3,700 m, all precipitations fall in the form of snow, and contrary to general public knowledge, snow falls are more significant in summer than in winter, for the cold air does not contain much humidity.
From the summit of Mont Blanc, the view stretches to four mountains: the Jura, the Vosges, the Black Forest (Germany) and the Massif Central. However, it is not always possible to distinguish these mountains, even in sunny weather, as pollution emanating from the plains and the absence of wind can limit the visibility to 100 km.
Mont Blanc can be viewed from several places in eastern France, from the Ballon d’Alsace in the Vosges to Dijon, Lyon, Grenoble, and Geneva, Switzerland.
Mont Blanc: a protected area
The Mont Blanc massif is home to 25 animal species (including chamois, ibex, marmots and alpine chough) and 45 plant species, which must be respected and protected.
For many years, the massif of Mont Blanc has been a point of conflict between those who want to exploit it for economic and touristic reasons and those who wish to protect the site that they believe is threatened by the large amount of visitors. In summer, between 300 and 400 expeditions to the summit can be launched each day, and those in favour of the protection of the site estimate that in the future, more than 100,000 visitors could climb the summit, compared to 30,000 today. In summer 2003, French TV covered the news of tonnes of rubbish and faeces shamefully abandoned by alpinists in the area of the refuge du Goûter, irrespective of local laws forbidding wilderness camping. The Mayor of Saint-Gervais-Mont Blanc told about an open-air dump that exists.
In 2000, the French government has put forward the plan to add the site of the Mont Blanc massif to the UNESCO World Heritage list for its uniqueness and its cultural importance, being considered the birthplace and symbol of modern mountaineering. Such a plan would require the three governments of Italy, France and Switzerland to agree on the terms of a UNESCO listing.
What to see around Mont-Blanc
The Mont-Blanc massif is a touristic hotspot with many sites to explore. Here are a few suggestions (French-side only!):
The town of Chamonix
The resort town of Chamonix lies at the foot of Mont-Blanc and offer a wide range of outdoor activities from mountaineering, hiking and climbing to skiing and snowboarding. Find out more about Chamonix-Mont Blanc.
The Mont-Blanc Tunnel
Linking Chamonix, France to Courmayeur, Italy, the Mont-Blanc tunnel is one of France’s longest tunnel (11.6 kms).
Mer de Glace via Montenvers Railway
The Montenvers mountain railway (Chemin de fer du Montenvers) leaves Chamonix to reach the Montenvers Hotel (1.913 m) where you can enjoy a fine view to the Mer de Glace. More info on our Chamonix article.
The journey to Aiguille du Midi
Reaching the Aiguille du Midi (3,842 m) is one of the most exciting cable-car rides in the Alps. It offers fantastic views of the Swiss, Italian and French Alps as far as the Matterhorn and Monta Rosa. More info on our Chamonix article.
To admire one of the best views of the Mont Blanc massif, go to the top of Le Brévent. The mountain is accessible by gondola from the centre of Chamonix. More info on our Chamonix article.
The Mont Blanc tramway, Saint-Gervais-les-Bains
The Mont Blanc tramway is a mountain railway line which departs from the railway station of Le Fayet in the town of Saint-Gervais-les-Bains.
This popular tourist attraction is 12.4 km long and was completed in 1914. Initially worked by steam locomotives, the line was then electrified in 1956. The three coaches were named Anne, Marie and Jeanne, from the names of the three daughters of the line’s owner at the time of electrification. It is now operated by the Compagnie du Mont Blanc who also manage the Montenvers train and the Aiguille du Midi cable-car.
The line, which provides spectacular views of Mont Blanc, is made up of a few sections from Le Fayet to the tramway’s terminus, the Nid d’Aigle (Eagle Nest).
The first section of the line, from Le Fayet to the col de Voza (1,653 m), was opened in 1907.
The Nid d’Aigle, at the tramway’s terminus, reaches 2,386m and offers a fantastic viewpoint over the Bionnassay glacier, towered by the Aiguilles de Bionnassay (4,051m). From there, experienced and well-equipped alpinists can progress to the refuges of Tête Rousse and of Goûter in order to start the ascension of Mont-Blanc.
The Tour du Mont Blanc trail
The 170 km Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB) is a walking trail that circles the Mont Blanc massif through Chamonix (France), Martigny (Switzerland) and Courmayeur (Italy). It usually takes 7-10 days to cover the entire distance of this circular route. The route passes through seven valleys around Mont Blanc: the Chamonix (or Arve) valley, then Montjoie, and Vallée des Glaciers, in France, Val Veni and Val Ferret in Italy, Swiss Val Ferret, and either the Arpette or Trient valley in Switzerland.
It is possible to find accommodation along the Tour du Mont Blanc route, which can be broken into segments to suit virtually any fit person.
The highest points of the trail are the Col des Fours in France and the Fenêtre d’Arpette in Switzerland, both at an altitude of 2,665 m. Even during summer, some parts of the trail can be covered in snow, so hikers should carry crampons and heavy-duty waterproof jackets at all times.
It passes through (or near) the towns of Martigny, Courmayeur and Chamonix.
The villages of Cordon and Combloux
Situated between Sallanches and Megève, the villages of Cordon and Combloux command spectacular views to the Mont-Blanc massif. The onion-shaped spires of their churches surrounded by well-maintained chalets make Cordon and Combloux not-to-be-missed sites in the region.
How to get to the Mont-Blanc region
BY CAR. The Mont-Blanc region is easily accessible by car.
- From Paris, take the A6 to Mâcon and the A40 to Chamonix.
- From Marseille and Provence, take the A7 to Valence before connecting to the A49 to Grenoble and then the A41 through Chambéry and Annecy till it reaches the A40 motorway.
BY TRAIN. Chamonix is also easily accessible by train, with regular TGV service from Paris Gare de Lyon and to Geneva or Annecy. From there, take a TER (regional express train) to Saint-Gervais-les-Bains before connecting to Chamonix with the Mont-Blanc express service. Some TGV can also lead you directly to Saint-Gervais-les-Bains, located 20 km from Chamonix.
BY AIR. If you travel from Australia or America (or overseas!), take a flight to the Swiss airport of Geneva Cointrin (88 km) or to Lyon Saint-Exupéry (220 km) and rent a car from there. Geneva, Switzerland is by far the closest airport to the Savoie region.
Useful websites to organise your stay in the Mont-Blanc region
- The Official website of the Chamonix Valley
- The Tourist Info Board of Saint-Gervais-les-Bains
- The Tourist Info Board of Sallanches
- The website of Mont-Blanc Natural Resort: Practical info about ski lifts and mountain railways
We have published a few articles the region:
- the French Alps.
- Chamonix-Mont Blanc
- Photos of Mont Blanc seen from afar
- The historic province of Savoy
- The French département of Haute-Savoie
- The city of Annecy
Have you been to the Mont-Blanc region? Let us know where are your favourite sites by commenting below!
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