Editor’s Travels: Tackling the Highest Alpine Peak That is Mont Blanc
Mont Blanc wasn’t meant to be conquered in a day.
Located in the French Alps on the border between Italy and France, Mont Blanc is the highest peak in the Alps. Stretching approximately 1,200km across eight Alpine countries, La Dame Blanche or The White Lady, as the locals call her, thanks to the cloak of snow covering her mounds, stands 4,800m and change, the tallest of them all.
Some 30,000 people attempt to summit Mont Blanc annually, making it the most popular climb in the world. The majority of enthusiasts and amateurs will use the favoured Goûter Route, heading up to the namesake Goûter “Hut” (it’s more like a space-age domicile after the renovations) on the White Lady’s northwestern flank. Yet, her reputation as a “walk up” a snow-covered peak overshadows some darker statistics.
Mont Blanc Peak Ability
Over-confident guides and under-estimating tourists (myself among them) are among the primary reasons why Mont Blanc has one of the highest fatality rates in Europe. Compared to taller peaks like Mount Kilimanjaro or Mount Elbrus, Mont Blanc is technically and physically harder in terms of effort (distance, elevation gain, weight-carrying, and altitude) and skills (route-finding, glacier traverse, crevasse rescue, rope management, ice axe/crampons, placing and removing protection, and altitude adaptability).
Whilst training on Aiguille du Midi (3,800m), the day before our slated expedition up Mont Blanc (4,800m), between strained breaths as lungs attempted to draw oxygen from the rapidly thinning atmosphere, it dawned upon me that the spirit of exploration and that quintessential courage required to attempt an adventure like this one was analogous to the one experienced by men like Jérôme Lambert. Albeit deskbound, one can imagine the monumental task of then Montblanc CEO at taking a brand, heretofore synonymous with fine writing instruments, rapidly accumulating kudos for itself in the arena of small leather goods, then, about to embark on a treacherous journey in a market of self-proclaimed stalwarts of watch provenance, translated: watch geeks. Lambert’s task: take a luxury brand and add to its portfolio of skills that of a fine watchmaker, granted, with assistance from a veteran manufacture named Minerva. Thus, placing one crampon-ed boot in front of another and led by veteran Singaporean mountaineer Khoo Swee Chiow, we began the trek skyward.
Uphill or downslope, climbing in soft snow is an experience unlike any other; every footfall is considered, measured, and then properly planted. One would surmise that the early venture into the upward climb of Mont Blanc and horology would have a similar process. Each movement and complication is perfectly calibrated and communicated as one makes the ascent into the rarefied realm of high horology. Early in our expedition, improperly executed footfalls caused the snow to disperse, and instead of a stable surface, we found ourselves sinking into the ground at best; at worse, sliding down the slope. What’s the worst case one might wonder? Tenuously formed layers of snow could actually disappear as one discovers that they were actually traversing across a crevice, plummeting the man and the others tethered with him to their probable deaths.
An inopportune step or an ill-executed move as Montblanc absorbed the venerable Minerva into a duo of Villeret and Le Locle production facilities could possibly have doomed the enterprise to ignominious failure, but when Richemont moved then CEO Lambert from the top post at Jaeger-LeCoultre to Montblanc in 2013, the expedition leader took less than four years to make his mark on almost all aspects of the brand’s writing instruments, leather goods, and of course – his raison d’être – timepieces.
Villeret (formerly known as Minerva) is a name with which watch connoisseurs are well acquainted. The watchmaking workshop in the namesake town produces a limited number of critically acclaimed calibres, notably chronographs, but its technical ability literally gifts it the flexibility of making everything from cylindrical hairsprings to head-spinning, metamorphosing innovations. Its acquisition in 2006 added some measure of lustre (if not legitimacy by association) to Montblanc’s Le Locle 1997 watch facility, which produces more accessible models. When Lambert arrived, Villeret was given a greater a mandate, and new Montblanc timepieces with attractive hand-finished calibres were available in a broader price spectrum and in a variety of market appealing aesthetics from classic to modern.
Montblanc wasn’t built in a Day
According to Davide Cerrato, managing director of Montblanc’s watch division, building the legitimacy of Montblanc’s timepieces shares parallels with our attempt at summiting her muse. From the onset, ascending to a plane of high horology is akin to choosing a path and then discovering that your route suffers from intermittent rock falls, further complicated by rapidly changing climes thanks to climate change. Even then, what a veteran connoisseur sees is a direction and path, which however tenuously, are still properly connected. What a civilian, however erudite a consumer, sees is completely different. Montblanc is therefore under pressure to communicate the plan and somehow connect the disconnected paths to the summit.
Speaking to Cerrato, he’s quite confident in how its latest 1858 collection is an analogy for everything the brand has done and thus fitting for the 160th anniversary of Minerva. The 1858 Geosphere honours the spirit of exploration and the courage of mountain climbers and adventurers with a professional-grade, innovative timepiece. “What we are doing is taking the magnificent story of Minerva and recreating the connection with what Montblanc is expressing now in terms of watchmaking expertise. To do this, we needed to find a new way towards perfect integration between this well-known and appreciated path from the past and its new expression through the manufacture’s newest collection. Using Minerva to create the perfect engine fully rooted in a rich patrimony and heritage, and equipping it with a powerful, recognisable Montblanc aesthetic, we have the strength of the brand while remaining true to Minerva design codes,” Cerrato shares.
Taking a break at the peak of Aiguille du Midi, Facon, our intrepid guide took a glance at the various routes which were open to us. Familiar with our abilities (or lack thereof), seated among the various birds of prey, which waited patiently for us to toss scraps of protein bar or cashews in their general direction, he made the call to cross a wall of rocks. It was a perfidious journey, whilst the many rock outcroppings (thus potential hand and foot holds) made it look like an amateur’s path, it was anything but.
Cerrato commiserates on our kindred endeavour, “You need some time and trials to open your new way to the path. We needed some time to find the right way of fully integrating these two halves of the same entity. Now, we have found a very good way of doing it – creating powerful iconic watches through this integration. The 1858 Geosphere is case in point. Unique design, unique movement, rooted in the Minerva patrimony, but also strongly expressing Montblanc’s watchmaking expertise to create the perfect tool watch. Function and form perfectly integrated for the utmost pleasure of any watch lover.”
Skinned knees and bruised shins from trial but mostly error, repeatedly smashing into the rock face was not a pleasant experience. As I dangled from fingertips, waiting for my belayer and fellow journalist, Farhan Shah, to hook the line into the loop ring, the sole device keeping the four-man expedition from plunging down the mountainside, thoughts ran through my mind. Chiefly, “Why did I say yes?”; followed by, “Wow. If we die, the publicity might not be too great.” This got me thinking about many of Lambert’s early interviews with Forbes and Wall Street Journal, all alluding to the tough mission of guiding the nascent serious watchmaker with bigger ambitions – failure is not an option.
“OK. It’s secure!” shouted Shah, shaking me out of my reverie. Safely tethered to the rock face, I aimed for the solid boulder just a metre or two to my right and made my leap of faith. I missed.
Failure is not an option
I thought I used my internal voice, but the group attested that I did indeed shout “motherf….” as I tumbled down towards the edge of the cliff after missing my jump. My boots touched air before I finally felt the emotional security and physical pain of my harness biting into my nether regions. My fall was arrested.
“You’re OK!” shouted Facon. “Take a breath! You’re OK! Just pull yourself up!” Unfortunately, I had gotten a slight case of what climbers call “sewing-machine leg”, a phenomenon when your legs start shaking uncontrollably, either because you’re panicking or because you’re adrenaline pumped. I was both.
I cussed to regain some semblance of masculine bravado. On hindsight, I had rolled the dice with the god of death and survived; it shouldn’t have been mere semblance. My arms still worked. Putting my love for chin-ups to good use, I reached upwards and performed that Mission: Impossible “Ethan Hunt rock-climbing move” (or at least it felt bloody like it), and hoisted my body upwards through sheer force of will and honed (I had hoped) deltoids, triceps, and biceps. Eventually, my feet found stable rock, and I used the last ounces of strength in my quivering thighs to push my ass back into climbing position.
When Lambert took over as CEO of Jaeger-LeCoultre in 2002, aged 32, he was Richemont’s youngest-ever chief executive. The brand was only largely recognised for its then 71-year-old icon, the swivel-case Reverso, which accounted for the majority of its sales. By the time he was done, research and development was front and centre, and the brand had a new icon – the Master Ultra Thin. 11 years later, Richemont assigned him to what appeared to be another impossible mission – take a brand known for dominating a dying category of luxury writing instruments and remake it.
No one had ever asked him if he developed a case of “sewing-machine leg” when he got the assignment and the majority of the watch journalist community definitely respect him too much to ask. However, if you think about it, Montblanc has grown from a penmaker to having Augmented Paper and leather goods in its repertoire, in addition to a watchmaking enterprise where the sky is the limit. Not to mention, it’s also Richemont’s leading brand in terms of e-Commerce.
After a better of an hour on the rock face, multiple cuts and scrapes later, we finally made it to Aiguille du Midi’s Refuge des Cosmiques, a hut which provided us with lunch and a respite from the environs that took our breaths and threatened to take our lives. At altitude 3,613m, over cans of Coke and a shared platter of omelette and potatoes, my thoughts turned to Montblanc’s unlikely achievements across the decade. Immediately, I was struck by how exhausted I was as I contemplated if summiting Mont Blanc the morning after du Midi was even on the cards. We had just trained for slightly less than 10 hours, coupled with our inexperience and lack of acclimatisation to the altitude, the realisation of having bitten off more than I could chew was setting in.
One doesn’t summit Mont Blanc in a Day
12 years on, Montblanc’s Heritage collection is accruing critical acknowledgement. Its Perpetual Calendar had paved the way for watch collectors with a pocket-friendly high complication, which was nigh unheard off before Montblanc created one. Its GPHG-nominated Minerva monopusher chronograph is spoken in the same breath as a certain beloved double split chronograph. Today, in the hands of men like Davide Cerrato, the new guard is building upon a legacy of pioneers and explorers like Horace-Bénédict de Saussure, founder of alpinism, Jacques Balmat, his mountain guide (their statues are found in the Chamonix-Mont-Blanc town square), and corporate leaders like Lambert, forging new frontiers.
With scant training and no alpine experience, Cerrato’s last statement to me is quite apt as I agonised over the hubris of thinking one could summit Mont Blanc in a day. “The Seven Summit Challenge is the perfect metaphor of Montblanc carving out its own way. Reinhold Messner inspires us with an epic myth of Italian alpinism. Being able of achieving an extreme mountain challenge is the perfect metaphor for Montblanc’s own challenges over the years. We are climbing the slopes of high horology and getting there thanks to the experience and patrimony developed in Minerva 160 years ago.”