If you’ve booked a trek with Mont Blanc Treks that begins in Chamonix, it’s quite likely that you’ll find yourself in the Hotel Pointe Isabelle. I was in there for trek briefing yesterday, had a refreshing beer and took in the meaning behind the name…
Pointe Isabelle isn’t just a hotel, it’s a mythical summit and one of the most beautiful viewpoints in the Mont Blanc Massif. Looking round the lobby of the hotel however, revealed the names surprising history. And it all centres around a 19th century English female mountaineer.
Chamonix History - Pioneer Alpiniste
Mary Isabella Straton (1838 – 12 April 1918) was a pioneer alpiniste. Born in the south of England she was well educated and wealthy. Isabella was introduced to climbing and mountaineering in her twenties, by her friend Emmeline. They travelled together to the Alps and Pyrenees with the ambition to hike, climb and go on expeditions. In the French Alps Isabella met the talented French mountain guide, Jean Charlet and together they made many ascents, including summiting Mont Blanc four times, notably the first ascent in winter. Isabella’s high mountain achievements were significant for a female in any era, and also included a first ascent of Pointe Isabella.
The lobby of the hotel is fascinating, housing early black and white photographs of her expeditions which allow Isabella’s story to unfold. Although the first photographic cameras had been invented earlier that century, these are supplemented with artistic images of Isabella - climbing in a full length gown with a corseted bodice and petticoats!
Other photographs taken at the time show that Isabella must have made a conscious and bold decision to dress for the mountains. Isabella cuts an impressive and athletic figure in knee length breeches with boots and gaiters. She wears a hip length woollen jacket, brimmed hat and white scarf. In gloved hands (she mentioned frost bite in a diary entry), Isabella carries a long staff. Her accompanying guides are dressed similarly with ice axes, ropes over their shoulders. And smoking a pipe seems to be quite typical for the mountain guides of this era.
Chamonix History - Argentiere
After climbing together for twenty years, Isabella and Jean eventually married. They both adopted the same surname ‘Charlet-Straton’. Was this perhaps another indication of Isabella’s rejection of female stereotyping and Jean’s acceptance of his partner’s achievements? Isabella and Jean Charlet Straton lived out a long and fulfilling life in Argentiere where she is buried. Argentiere is the overnight destination for the penultimate stage of the Tour du Mont Blanc, perhaps worth a look for Isabella’s grave there?
Isabella and Jean’s sons became climbers, achieving Mont Blanc summits aged thirteen and eleven. Their grandchildren opened a hotel in Chamonix in memory of their pioneering English grandmother. Quite a family! Isabella, perhaps unknowingly became not only a feted celebrity pioneer and role model for female mountaineers but also the image for the emerging women’s rights to vote movement in England.
All in all quite an inspiring story! If you’re in Hotel Pointe Isabelle at the start or finish of your trek do have a look in the hotel lobby.
Isabella Straton images and information are courtesy of Hotel Point Isabelle