By Annick Dournes & Frédéric de Poligny
Nothing predestined Isabella Straton and Jean Charlet to live one of the most romantic and adventurous love stories of the 19th century. She was a wealthy British heiress, he was a modest mountain guide of the Chamonix Valley and together they achieved the very first winter ascent of Mont Blanc, instantly becoming one of the most famous couples of the time.
A chance encounter
Isabella was born in Sussex in 1838. She lost her parents and sisters while in her twenties and inherited the Straton family fortune. Rich, free-spirited she decided to make something special of her life. In the 1860’s she met Emmeline Lewis Lloyd who already was a very good mountaineer. Emmeline introduced her to climbing and together they explored the Pyrenees and Alps.
Jean was born in the Chamonix Valley in 1840. He first worked as a mountain shepherd, then as a carpenter before succeeding to be a mountain guide. He had found his vocation. In 1871 he achieved the first climb of the “Aiguille du Moine” a 3,412-metre high belvedere facing Mont Blanc and the “Grandes Jorasses”. Isabella and Emmeline were two of his British clients and together they achieved several great ascents including a first in the “Aiguille de Triolet”. When they reached the summit of this 3,761-meter high peak Jean named it “Pointe Isabella”… obviously her charms didn’t leave him cold. It still bears this name today.
Defying Mont Blanc
Straton and Charlet actually climbed Mont Blanc four times. Once climbing up the “historical route”, a second time through the “Corridor”, a third time up the “Bosses” and the historical major first in wintertime. This winter climb had already been tried several times by great climbers of the time including famous Edward Whymper, but none of them was able to reach the summit. Isabella and Jean’s attempt really was a rare feat and impressed international public opinion.
Isabella, Jean along with another guide and two porters made a first attempt on December 30, 1875 but they were not able to get past the “Grands Mulets”, one of the high-mountain refuges of the route. They tried again in the last days of January 1876 but once again were stopped on their way at a late hour by the fog and by an accident of one of the porters. The poor guy fell into a crevasse and had to go back to Chamonix.
They went back down to the “Grands Mulets” and rested there for one day. They left the refuge at 3:40 am on January 31, 1876. A strong North wind blew over the “Bosses” passage creating thick clouds of snow. This was when Isabella realised that two of her fingers were frozen. They had to stop while jean massaged her hands to restore blood circulation. But their will power didn’t weaken and they finally reached the summit at 3 pm. It had taken them eleven hours and twenty minutes to get there, the temperature dropped to 24° C below zero (-11° F). We can easily imagine how thrilled they must have felt in spite of or maybe because of all the hardships they had experienced. Their return back to Chamonix was triumphant! It not only was the first successful winter climb of Mont Blanc, it was a female one!
Defying class prejudice
Isabella and Jean got married a few months later and they both changed their surname to Charlet-Straton. In those days many people may have though that she married beneath her but their love grown on mutual respect and admiration was stronger than class prejudice. They settled in the Chamonix Valley where Isabella was known as “The Lady”. Later on they made the first ascent of one of the spectacular “Aiguilles Rouges” and named it “Perseverance” in remembrance of the great perseverance they had shown before daring to confess their feelings of love.
They climbed together for twenty years and in the same time created a family. They had two sons who of course became good mountaineers at a very young age. One of them climbed Mont Blanc when only 13 years old and the second one at just 11 years! They had a happy family life while going on making first ascents. From 1871 till 1881 Charlet made no les than 10 firsts in the Mont Blanc Massif. Their oldest son Robert was killed in action in 1914. Isabella died in 1918, Jean in 1925. Their second son, Désiré who died in 1954 started a family in the valley. One of his sons founded a hotel in the heart of Chamonix. In tribute to his grandmother he named it “Pointe Isabella”. This hotel still exists. It’s a cosy 3-star hotel with 72 rooms facing the mountains. Although it has been renovated and extended since opening it still is a vivid memory of Isabella and Jean. If one day you go to Chamonix ask a local to show you “Pointe Isabella” or “Pointe Perseverance” and take a minute to remember this wonderful love story.