Mount Blanc Climb
16/08 to 26/08/2010
It had been a dream of mine for several years to climb to the summit of Mount Blanc in Western Europe. Having climbed Elbrus, Europe’s highest in 2007 and 2009, I new I could handle the altitude and felt ready for this more technical mountain.
To this end I had booked a week course with a British run mountaineering company based in Chamonix France and duly arrived at their offices on the afternoon of Sunday the 15th of August. After being introduced to my room mate John we were debriefed at their offices in the evening as to what to expect for the rest of the week. There were several groups attempting different activities including a climb of the Materhorn, a week on the Monta Rosa Plato, a group on an introductory course and a large group for Mount Blanc.
Today we were taken to the Mer de Glace glacier via a rack and pinion railway, unfortunately due to global warming the glacier has receded so much since the station was built you actually have to climb down a series of ladders for several hundred feet before you set foot on the glacier, not what I expected. The object of this first day on the glacier was so the guides could get an idea of our crampon skills and give extra tuition if needed. The day had started overcast and by now it was raining, with the rain getting heavier and heavier, they decided they had seen enough and we headed back. Unfortunately this weather was to set the tone for the rest of the week, heavy rain down low means heavy snow up high.
Tuesday and Wednesday
Aiguille de Midi
Aiguille de Midi tunnel
The morning dawned bright and looked promising but the weather forecast at breakfast showed more bad weather for late afternoon. So it was off to the Aiguille de Midi for some acclimatisation and exposure to that very famous ridge. For those of you that have not been there, the cable car docks into the very heart of the mountain and you walk through a series of tunnels with the rest of the sightseers, until you reach a point were you can put your gear on. After hopping over a safety barrier the tunnel turns to ice before emerging straight onto the ridge itself. This sudden exposure can be a bit daunting at first; with steep drops of several thousand feet on both sides the Aiguille de Midi does not forgive mistakes so the utmost concentration is needed. From here we descended to the Valley Blanche were we spent the rest of Tuesday and Wednesday climbing several rock out crops and minor peaks, all designed to acclimatise us to the higher altitude of Mount Blanc.
Thursday and Friday
By Wednesday evening we all new that due to the Bad weather Mount Blanc was out of the question. As an alternative in the hope of finding better weather and salvaging something from the last two days, our guides took me, John and another party to Switzerland.
Indeed Thursday in Switzerland was bright and sunny as we hiked up to a very clean and eco friendly mountain hut for the night. After watching a spectacular red sun disappear over the mountains on the other side of the glacier, we were hopeful of a good day to come.
sunset over Switzerland
Sunrize in switzerland
As we readied ourselves in the dark before dawn I could feel the temperature had risen and not fallen as expected and sure enough as the daylight came it showed an overcast sky that threatened rain for the future. Never the less we set off across the glacier in soft snow and spent an enjoyable day climbing the two peaks of White Head and Petit Forshe before a long trek back down the valley to the cable car and the guide’s cars. As this was the last day for most of the groups we all met up for beer and an evening meal and swapped our stories. Although due to the bad weather our full ambitions were never realised, everybody seamed to have enjoyed themselves in the Alps, I however was staying an extra few days and was to get a second chance in the coming week.
Mount Blanc round two.
Of course the day after the course had finished out can the sun and although the recent snow falls still prohibited an attempt at Mount Blanc it was still a welcome sight. Not wanting to loose my acclimatisation and to clear a head cold which had suddenly developed, I took the cable car up the other side of the valley and hiked to Lake Brevent. This provided some excellent views of the Mount Blanc massif and is an excellent place to visit and a good day’s work out if you walk back down.
Mount Blanc across the valley
Come Monday the forecast showed good weather approaching with Wednesday and Thursday looking the best. I had been lucky enough to bump into Ian, a member of the Monte Rosa group who had also stayed an extra week for Mount Blanc. As I was due to travel back on the Thursday I was chomping at the bit to go for a Tuesday/Wednesday slot, even though the forecast for Tuesday was not perfect. As it turned out we could only get overnight space in the Gouter hut for Tuesday night, so after some frantic last minute searching, a guide from Mount Blanc guiding was finally found on the Monday night.
Tuesday morning our guide Guillaume picked us up and we drove down the valley to Les Houches, after a cable car and a short train ride we were on foot for the hike up to the Gouter hut. Although the day had started bright it was now overcast and before long it started to rain. As we finished lunch at the Tete Rousse hut the rain became persistent and we donned all our waterproofs. The slippery wet conditions made the mad dash past the rock falls of the Grand Couloir all the more difficult. Once past the couloir the way became a sustained steep scramble all the way to the Gouter hut, with the rain now turning to snow and freezing on the rocks the going became a little tougher. By the time we reached the hut in the late afternoon I was wet through despite the waterproofs. Sticking my gloves and base layers over chair legs and leaving them by the window I hoped they would dry while we all had a little rest in the communal bunk beds. When we rose for supper 2 hours later, the sun had come out to show us our first view of the rest of the route and hopefully dry my shirt.
view from Gouter hut
We were up at 2:45 the next morning ready for the off around 3:30. I estimate there were around 40 to 50 people crammed into the breakfast area in the Gouter hut, all readying themselves for their own summit attempts, what it must be like when it’s busy I hate to think. After a light breakfast we geared up outside with crampons and Ice axes and were ready to go by 3:30, just as soon as we let a few other groups go before us, let them break the trail in yesterdays snow. The walk up to the Dome du Gouter wasn’t to stressful and with a clear sky and in between breaths of ever thinning air, I was able to look around at the stars and the town lights below me. By the time we had dropped down from the Dome du Gouter and begun the climb up to the Valour refuge hut we had passed several groups with only a few people in front. From the Valour hut the going got tougher with steeper terrain and more ridge work. We could see the head torches of the groups in front but in the dark it was difficult to judge the distance, further more they had the rather annoying habit of stopping on the top of every ridge line making me believe that that was the top, only to find when we got there it was a false summit and another ridge lay beyond it, and another etc.
As we got higher and the night lost its grip, the wind picked up and the ridges got more knife edged. With the hood pulled tight against my face to keep at bay the blowing snow, I could see in the light of the new day the ridge we were on had started to flatten out. Up ahead not more than 100m stood the group that had been ahead of us, they hadn’t stopped for a cuppa, they had reached the summit and so had we. With strong wind, freezing temperatures and driving snow the summit was not the place to linger. Hand shakes all round and a few quick photos and we dropped down off the ridge to a more protected spot. Still in the wind but off the ridge we put on our goggles and sun gear and began the decent via a different route. Our guide had decided that a decent via Mount Blanc de Tacul and the Aiguille de Midi cable car would have the wind at our backs; it also gave the advantage of not having to pass all the groups that were behind us on those wind swept ridges.
Ian and me just back from summit
Once we had rounded Mount Maudit and reached the shoulder of Mount Blanc de Tacul we were out of the strong wind and back in the sunshine. The climb down from Mount Blanc de Tacul is very interesting, you first have to climb down 25m using your Ice axe’s before reaching a fixed rope for a further 100m. However trying to grip a frozen rope with frozen gloves gave me no confidence so I decided to climbing down backwards with the axes. After you loose the first 150m of height the decent is not so steep, although the people coming up in the opposite direction might not say so. Following our guides directions we then continued our way down between crevasse and seracs until we reached the valley blanch. By now the snow was been softened by the sun and although we needed a rest, below the seracs was not the place to stop. So we carried on a bit further until a safe spot was found get a drink of water, take a few photo’s and put on the sun cream.
Long way down
It was a long hot walk across the Valley Blanche towards the Aiguille de Midi only punctuated by a chocolate stop an a chance to remove some layers. The final push up the Aiguille de Midi seemed to take forever, with lungs, limbs and heart crying for rest we finally reached the tunnel around 11:30, a reasonable time according to our guide, not the world record pace my body told me we had achieved. As we stepped off the cable car we adjourned to the nearest bar for a beer and to say thank you to our Guide. Thanks Guillaume I couldn’t have done it without you and sorry I kept the rope a bit tight on the way up; your legs must be longer than mine. Yes in the evening Ian and I did celebrate with a few more beers, but not before an hour or two’s sleep.