Preparations in Switzerland climbing on the Weissmies (4,017m), Lagginhorn (4,010m) and Allalinhorn (4,027m) to acclimatise hadn’t gone quite how I’d expected, with the altitude affecting me more than I’d hoped and boots hurting my feet on early descents before I changed the lacing and trimmed nails right back. Yet arriving in Chamonix in early August 2009, I felt positive that I was ready to give Mont Blanc a crack. Three (including me) of the four from the Saastal were joined by one from Zermatt and two from Arolla to make a group of six supported by three Swiss guides.
Walking around Chamonix it doesn’t take long to spot Mont Blanc, to say it dominates the valley is a massive understatement and on a clear day (like the one we arrived on) the views are spectacular. Despite how obviously huge the massif is both looking up to the heavens and then down onto a map, I felt better for finally setting my eyes on the mountain; I could see what lay ahead of me and begin to mentally prepare for the ascent.
And then as is usual, the news came in that the fantastic weather that had been in the area for the past week, was about to change for bad weather that’d put a stop to any attempts of ascending Mont Blanc. However, there was at least a glimmer of hope in the form of weather window coming through in the next couple of days and with poor weather expected across the entire region and the huts already booked, there was no point changing plans (sometimes groups head to the Gran Paradiso in Italy), we’d go sit it out in the hut and hope the weather cleared in time.
From Chamonix we went to Les Houches and the Bellevue cable car station, which took us up to just a short walk away from the Tramway du Mont-Blanc train that slowly trundled up to the Nid d’Aigle at 2372m where we’d begin the ascent. A quick fact (well I think it’s a fact, our guide told us and appeared genuine) is that the tramway was meant to go all the way up to the Goûter hut, but due to the Second World War construction stopped, so the station at the top is at an usually steep gradient and 800m is added to the total climb.
The ascent up to the hut is nice and easy over a mix of trail and rock, that takes around 2.5/3hrs. The views whilst pleasant don’t really register, you’re starting the ascent and it was plainly obvious each member of the group was now focused on the job at hand. After half way the trail crosses a rocky area and then you traverse up an outcrop, before appearing on top to see the hut with a dry glacier between. The glacier is relatively flat in places and having stopped moving there’s no worry from crevasses, meaning no need for ropes or even crampons/ice axes to come out.
After stories of the huts on the route being awful, we were pleasantly surprised upon arriving at the Tête Rousse, the communal area was spacious and bright if not massively comfortable (wooden benches) and the rooms whilst smelling a little damp were fine once you’d navigated the crazy corridor/door system downstairs. Once settled in (i.e. throwing a sleeping bag liner at a bed) and taking my book up to the communal area, conversation amongst the group soon focused on the weather as clouds swirled around outside the hut, allowing us only the occasional view up the route. Things didn’t look good from the forecast, and the guides’ attitude showed we were in for a wait even if they told us we should be ready to go at any time. The hut was surprisingly empty which also pointed to not much chance of an ascent even with the weather appearing to clear later in the afternoon.
After a surprisingly good night’s sleep, I woke up to see the weather looking reasonable and wondering why we’d not tried to at least get up to the Goûter hut, where had the weather been poor we could stop the night and remove a couple hours from our final ascent. Looking upward from the balcony though it was obvious that the wind was strong across the top and very quickly views were again obliterated by cloud. The guides also reminded us that much of the poor reputation of Mont Blanc huts is down to the Goûter, and that we’d be much better holed up lower a the Tête Rousse. So back to the book (The White Spider by Harrer, cracking book and not a bad place to read it) I went and soon it was lunch time; a fantastic omelette. The day wore on and as it did, more people arrived, those in the hut became more active, and finally our main guide told us there was a good chance we’d have weather early in the morning for an ascent. So I grabbed some sleep in the dorm in the afternoon, not wanting to wait until the evening and potentially lay in a noisy room trying desperately for sleep. After the evening meal I was soon back on the bunk, feeling actually really relaxed and quite keen having been stuck in the hut to get up the mountain the next day, I was asleep quickly.
The group opposite got up ever so slightly earlier than us, so when the alarms started going off on our side of the room I was already wide awake when the door open with news of good weather, we were finally going for it. Throwing my clothes on that I’d hung up next to the bed (I was wearing a base layer, tshirt, gore-tex jacket on top, schoeller trousers on the bottom as we left) and up the stairs I was surprised just how many people had arrived at night; the communal area was now a huge mass of sleeping bags with exhausted occupants hiding in their hoods from the room lights. As usual, stale bread and awful tasting coffee wasn’t quite what my body fancied, so I ate only a tiny amount before heading off to my locker and outside kitted up, ready to go.
Over a short rocky area we were back onto the dry glacier, very soon wearing crampons and in 3 rope teams of 3. The glacier was little problem and we were soon back onto rock, with the gradient increasing and occasional sections of short scrambling. And then our guide turned his head, “Oh that bit there was the Grand Colouir”, which despite it being the middle of the night and so unlikely to be full of falling rock was a bit odd to just get through without realising we’d passed one of the main objective dangers of the route. Then the scrambling proper started, and as I said to the other two on the rope at the time, I really enjoyed it. Despite that, our rope was slow going up the rock in the dark, with fresh snow on route and the light at the top signifying the hut seeming close at first but never getting any closer despite plenty of effort. Technically the route is simple stuff and with plenty of cable and stanchions there’s very little to get concerned about. It was just important at this stage to not think too far ahead, and instead just to enjoy a warm up to the rest of the route.
Two hours later at around 4:15am, we came up and onto the balcony area of the Goûter hut. Quickly inside we were able to grab a quick drink, put on extra layers and leave our helmets behind before heading back out into the darkness to crack on. So on went the overtrousers, the balaclava and my big gloves over the thinner pair I’d scrambled in, and out we went again.
The slope out of the hut was immediately steep, but only for about 15m or so before levelling out and giving us views up the Dôme du Goûter with a line of small white lights slowly snaking their way upward toward the top. After the plateau we were traversing the slope upward at decent pace, not really concerned by just how small the lights had been on such a huge mass. Around an hour and a half after leaving the Goûter hut we reached our highest point on the Dôme, the sky no longer dark but instead full of brilliant reds and oranges signifying the day was coming.
Reaching the crest and looking toward the rest of the route, it was clear whilst we’d come a long way, that there was still plenty to do before we were at the top (hopefully the little dots in the front of the picture below help with scale). So we headed down and then up toward the refuge, aware we’d soon have a chance to stop again and take on fluids and food. The slope was short but it was where I felt my legs starting to tire ever so slightly, but it was pleasing to have covered so much of the route without feeling the exertion or altitude much (particularly as we were now over 4300m at the refuge).
The Vallot refuge lives up to the hype, you really wouldn’t want to stay there, it’s a place where you stop for long only if you really have to. It’s dirty, full of rubbish, cold and uncomfortable, but as it’s no doubt saved lives, incredibly useful too! I cracked open the fizzy cola bottles I’d been carrying, which were greeted with smiles from the other two, and got my snow goggles, micro fleece and Stroke Association running vest out for the final section. Stood around waiting for even a short while in the refuge I soon became cold, in particular and worrying at the time was that my toes were freezing (the coldest they were all trip). Leaving the hut I had a tiny falling out with another English chap who thought his photograph of the Dôme was more important than safely allowing a single climber who looked shaky plenty of room on the rocks beneath the refuge… ahem. Crossing the rocks and back on route we spotted the last rope team coming up the slope, so we checked how they were doing, and decided to quickly go back into the refuge to wait for them and move together.
Beginning the traverse up toward Bosses Ridge at about 60-70m above the refuge, the other team member on the rope started to struggle particularly badly with his breathing and asked for a quick break. As we stood talking about whether he could continue, the weather began to show what it was capable of; with the wind sending lumps of snow sideways through the air, pounding us from the left. The other group found us chatting and had similar news, with one on that rope also struggling with the altitude. So quickly the ropes teams were changed completely, one team descended back toward the refuge, we turned our attention upward toward an increasingly wind swept ridge.
The trail felt steadily steep but nothing too bad, it was the combination of dropping temperature and winds reaching 60-70km/h (at one point it nearly took me off my feet) that were really starting to drain me of energy as we plodded upward ever slower, rarely looking up but aware that the top ahead wasn’t the summit but another point on the ridge. It was now that I really benefited from wearing my big gloves (Black Diamond Guides), snow goggles (Julbo Revolutions, a guy from the group wearing glacier glasses got mild snow blindness), and fleece/balaclava, others were caught out by the change in conditions. A couple of times the ridge narrowed, in particular one snow arête felt airy but the steady pace and focus on the goal ahead meant it did little to phase us. My legs began to complain a lot, my breathing told me I was getting high, but the pace and fact I’d managed to really hydrate meant I avoided the headaches that had been a problem in Switzerland. After plenty of hard work and false summits the route began to flatten out, 5 minutes later the ridge we were on started to curve downward… we’d reached the summit some 6 and a quarter hours after starting our ascent.
It was quite a feeling, and one that words do little to help explain. Stood looking across a beautiful panorama of snowy peaks, having made the top after worries of my condition prior and with the ascent made in memory of my Granddad, it was a wide range of emotion that swept across me. Put simply though, realising I’d made it when the slope stop gaining height was without doubt one of the most special moments of my life so far.
The final section from the Vallot refuge to the summit was by far the hardest part of the ascent, but the descent was the real killer and the most dangerous part of the climb. Coming back down from the route, me leading the rope, I came across a team of 3 with the 2 lowest on the rope on their stomachs shuffling down the snow arête… absolutely crazy and making things particularly dangerous for the other teams trying to cover the exposed sections quickly/safely, so we dropped down to the side and quickly passed them. Back toward the Goûter hut didn’t feel so bad; but I was really surprised just how much distance we’d covered coming up. By the time we reached the hut itself we were both shattered, the other rope member couldn’t stomach any food, whereas I had no problem putting away most of a sandwich I’d bought 3 days earlier in Chamonix along with a can of Orangina (this was all I’d eaten along with a piece of stale bread and some fizzy cola bottles all day).
Descending to the Tête Rousse was horrific, the route had iced up and was thick with groups, of varying competence, climbing up toward the Gouter hut to stop off before their attempted ascent. The extra numbers meant we had rocks flying past us throughout the descent, and had to lose the main line and attempt trickier (but often less icy sections) to make progress down. Toward the Grand Colouir things got really busy as people looked up and hesitated, almost expectant of hearing (the at this point of the day regular) screams from those above warning of falling rocks. We’d just made it across when a volley of rocks started to thunder down toward our position, so we quickly climbed up and out of the way, looking back to a queue waiting to cross behind us. And then soon we back on the glacier, by now feeling exhausted as well as jubilant that we were nearly back and our work done. After a short stop, another can of Orangina and a slow plod down over rock to the train station we were done. Finally back in Les Houches at 5pm, I just lay down in the car park, by now unable to care where I stopped, just content I could stop and rest, having done what I’d set out to achieve.
Mont Blanc is a truly incredible mountain, which is worthy of a lot more respect than it receives from people who fail to appreciate just how difficult and potentially dangerous the peak is to ascend (and descend). I was shocked at how ill equipped and incompetent some “climbers” on the route around us were; it’s reputation and status draw far too many people to make the attempt. It’s my first time on such a busy high mountain route, and I’m not rushing back to do something similar. Despite this the experience was incredible and the feelings at the top will stay with me for a very long time, if not forever. The route whilst busy and featuring a couple of snow plods is actually fairly mixed and enjoyable, the scramble is fun and the Bosses ridge to delivers you to the summit is a perfect mix of hard work, spectacular views and exposure to see you to the top of Western Europe. There’s enough other great routes up Mont Blanc that I’m in little rush to go back up via the Goûter, but just because it’s the “normal” way up doesn’t mean it’s not without excitement and splendour. Back down in the valley, laying exhausted in the cable car station car park in Les Houches, I could barely move to smile but inside I was over the moon, and already planning my next trip to the Alps.