Chamonix Excursion

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Chamonix Excursion

(COURIER: Your group may prefer to marvel at the mountain scenery as you drive from Geneva toward Mt. Blanc, so gauge your remarks to the prevailing mood, and don't force commentary on an unreceptive group.)

Haute-Savoie  This is the French department of Haute-Savoie, Upper Savoy, and northernmost part of the old Kingdom of Savoy, which once took up the whole area here from Switzerland down to northern Italy. The kings of Savoy had difficulty maintaining their independence against the French, who occupied the area several times; also the Spanish and Austrians intervened in Savoy's affairs. Savoy's Mediterranean seaport was Nice, which didn't become a part of France until later. Finally, in April of 1860, a plebiscite was held, and the Savoyards voted, 130,000 to 250, to join France. Nice at that time also became a permanent part of France. Today, the major "industry" of the area is sports and tourism, in both winter and summer.

Mont Blanc, which we can see ahead of us, is Europe's highest mountain: 15,900 feet. The highest peak sits just inside France, although the whole Mont Blanc Massif, which includes many lesser peaks, is spread out between France and Italy.

Conquest of Mont Blanc: Conquering the summit of the mountain was the lifelong dream of Prof. Saussure, a famous professor of geology and physics at the University of Geneva (18th century). He tried again and again, without success. In 1760, he offered a reward to anyone who scaled the summit. Two mountaineers, Jacques Balmat and Dr. Paccard, tried on August 8, 1786, but only got to the foothills. Still, this encouraged Saussure, who, the next year, tried it once again with a guide. After 2-1/2 days of climbing, they made it, remaining at the top for 4 hours before descending. As for Balmat, the man who had tried it earlier, he went up Mont Blanc again in 1834, looking for gold, which stories circulating locally had claimed could be found in the mountains around Mont Blanc. Balmat never came back, but the conviction that gold is to be found in the mountains continues, and many believe it today.

Chamonix Valley: (COURIER: Before passing the town of Bossons you enter the long Chamonix Valley.) The valley was long inaccessible, with virtually no roads. Thus, throughout the Middle Ages, the town of Chamonix was an independent little country, administered by the monks of the local priory. The princes of Savoy tried to incorporate this valley into their domains, but with great difficulty. Two English explorers, Windham and Pocock, "discovered" the valley and its scenic marvels in 1741. Tourists and mountaineers began to come to Chamonix. In the 19th century, the French Emperor Napoleon III and his wife visited the town, which assured its reputation. In 1924, Chamonix was selected as the site for the first Winter Olympic Games. Back then, there were few ski lifts, and one had to be hardy and devoted to skiing to make the runs. Nowadays, a series of cable cars can take you over the entire Mont Blanc massif to Italy! One ski lift will take you to a spot only 1800 feet below the summit of Mont Blanc, where you can ski down a run 17-1/2 miles long, with a drop of 11,000 feet. Chamonix remains one of the popular ski resorts of the French Alps region. In the town cemetery is buried Edward Whymper (1840-1911), the Englishman who first scaled the Matterhorn.

Bossons: As we pass through the little town of Bossons, look up to your right. That is one of three major glaciers in the area, the Bossons Glacier. Like all glaciers, this one was formed over centuries by snow piling up in a basin between two mountain ranges. Gradually the snow compacts into ice, forming an ice sheet. This ice sheet is crisscrossed by a network of crevices which carry off any melting snow (in summer). At the lower end of the glacier (i.e. the part closest to us) is a "tongue" that protrudes farther down the mountain. This tongue at its tip is covered over by woods and rocks, which were formed of the original debris deposited here when the glacier was created.

Mont Blanc Tunnel (COURIER: Use this as "filler" if you have time.) For years, the French and Italians had dreamed of creating either a tunnel or a pass over or around Mont Blanc to connect the two countries. One idea was to make use of a geological fault which had created a passage over the mountains. But the cost of constructing a road was found to be prohibitive. This passage is known as the Col du Geant (Giant Pass), but economic considerations dictated another solution. So it was decided to dig out a tunnel. It would be the longest such tunnel in the world: 12 kilometers, about 7-1/2 miles. France and Italy agreed to share the costs equally, with a French construction team working from the French side, and an Italian team working from the Italian side. On September 5, 1959, work began. A huge machine, supported by a scaffolding, began to dig through the mountain; the machine was called "Jumbo" for its huge size. The machine enabled the crews to dig 8 meters (8 yards) per day. On August 14, 1962, the French and Italian crews met — right in the middle of the mountain, as planned. It was a feat of engineering for them to meet up with each other on the exact, agreed-upon spot underground. Further refining and road paving came next, and on July 16, 1965, the tunnel was officially opened, with much fanfare. Not only was the tunnel the longest, but also the deepest: over the tunnel are 2,480 meters of sheer rock, and on top is the Aiguille du Midi, one of the highest peaks of the Mont Blanc Massif (12,700 feet). Each lane of the tunnel road is 7 meters wide, bordered by a footway. (Though no pedestrians are allowed to walk through the tunnel.) Every 300 meters is a stopping place for vehicles that have broken down. A very powerful ventilating system provides fresh air for 450 vehicles at a time and can put 600 cubic meters of fresh air into the tunnel every second. It takes an average of about 15 minutes to drive through the tunnel. If you travel from the French to the Italian side, you go slightly uphill: the French entrance is 1274 meters in elevation, the Italian entrance is 1370, a difference of 96 meters (yards), or about the length of a football fields.

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