MOUNTAINS—nature's most impressive creations—have since time immemorial been objects of fear. And for the climber, one of the greatest tests of skill or nerve is the Needles of Chamonix—a classic forest of granite spires clustered around the east and northern sides of Mont Blanc where Alpine France and Switzerland meet.
Looking at the Needles, or Aiguilles, with their jagged pillars and weathered flying buttresses, is like observing the ruined temples of the Titans. Symbols of impregnability—Grand Charmoz, Gr�pon, Aiguille Verte, Aiguille de Blati�re—the very names of these fragile sentinels suggest high adventure.
Though Mont Blanc was climbed as long ago as 1786 by a chamois hunter and local doctor, the highest of the steely Needles—Aiguille Verte (13,520 ft.)—was not conquered until 1865. Since then they have had an irresistible attraction for rock-climbers the world over. Last to fall was the Gr�pon, conquered by the famous English rock-climber, Alfred Mummery and his guides, Burgener and Venetz.
Early mountaineers, though their training and stamina left little to be desired, would be astounded at the acrobatics and intensiveness of training considered as necessary today. They would be amazed to know that the Mer de Glace face of the Gr�pon is almost a standard route and that the awesome west face of the Petit Dru has long since yielded to daring climbers.
Derek Boddy and John Temple, shown on the opposite page practicing their technique on one of the rock fangs, are young English climbers training, until the weather improves, for the higher Needles (see following page). The crystalline grain of the rock will toughen their hands, and proper use of the rope will condition their nerves to the exposure of the heights. At Chamonix climbing is more strenuous than on the delicate limestone rock of the Dolomites, and severe exercise above 10,000 feet affects the unseasoned climber more. Although both Temple and Boddy are competent climbers, Boddy has one advantage over University Student Temple—he is a steeplejack.
On the ridges of the Aiguilles Rouges behind Chamonix are Les Lames and Les Clochetons de Planpraz. The latter group is a series of towers, increasing in difficulty. To reach the third tower, the climber must lasso a horn of granite from the second and swing across on a self-made aerial tramway, to the excitement of his companions. Then this sensational feat is the next man's turn, while the tired but successful performer can sit back and laugh at someone else's difficulties.
Rock-climbing, which to some is the training phase of mountaineering, is a western notion, an idea that never came to the ancients in the east. As a sport, it was the invention of imaginative Englishmen who were born in the secure environment of the 19th century. Even though Queen Victoria suggested its being forbidden, the British set the seal of distinction on climbing and preserved it as a respectable practice in times of criticism. The acceptance was almost complete when a scientist of the social position of De Saussure climbed Mont Blanc.
Feats that depend on luck rather than skill tempt the ignorant to destruction, but sensible climbing is as free from danger as any other activity in life.
Though the basic rope techniques have not changed, mechanical innovations like the climbers' pitons, karabiners and stirrups have made the most awesome wall of the Chamonix Needles possible. But spirit and dedication are still the vital requisites—it is even a matter of record that men wearing patent leather shoes, silk socks and cutaway coats have successfully climbed Mont Blanc.
Climbers Boddy and Temple move up sheer mist-shrouded face of Le Brioche