I had attempted Mont Blanc once before.
Two years ago I wrote on my FB timeline “Well it had to come at some point. My good fortune with weather on the major peaks that I have attempted came to an end on Mont Blanc. 35mph winds gusting to well over 50mph meant it was often hard to stand up. Got to 400m short of the summit before being forced to turn. Thanks to OB guide Steve Monks. The experience was enjoyable. In the meantime here’s a picture of an ibex met along the way.”
The disappointment of that July day rankled. An irritant that just had to be relieved. An itch that could only be effectively scratched by renewing my acquaintance with the mountain. I knew that, but for the weather, the summit had been within my grasp.
So this year an opportunity arose to have another attempt.
I asked around some friends to see if there was any interest and I considered using a guiding service. I even pondered undertaking a solo climb. In the end Caroline expressed an interest and dates were agreed and flights booked to Geneva.
At that time we had not booked huts. We decided that we were going to do the climb without a guide and to go via the Goûter route, the route I had been on in 2017. On that occasion, my guide and I had reached a point just above the Vallot shelter. There my guide had been blown over by a particularly ferocious gust and I was struggling to stay upright with crampons, axe and pole desperately trying to remain attached to the snow.
So I felt I knew the route, at least to that point and we are both experienced Scottish winter walkers. I have done quite a bit at altitude and Caroline is a climber. So our skills complemented each other to a degree.
The Goûter route is the most popular route on Mont Blanc, so obtaining space in one of the two huts used for summit attempts on that route can be tricky. The rules and regulations for this route have changed in recent years.
FFFCAM uses an online booking system. [See for example this link] The rules now require pre-booked accommodation to have been secured. Informal camping at the Goûter hut has been prohibited for a while. It is also now prohibited at the Tête Rousse hut without the prior permission of the warden there or using the official camping. Occasionally bookings can be made at the last minute by phoning the huts direct.
Regulations introduced in late 2017 specify the gear/equipment that all climbers are required to have. [See this link].
The huts are booked up very quickly. So I was online on the morning that public bookings were opened and secured the necessary accommodation. I looked again at the site the same afternoon. By then there was no availability around the time that we planned to be there. But we were ready to go.
Caroline and I met in Chamonix, she having had a missed connection at Schiphol. However, she was put on the next flight so just arrived a few hours later. We spent the first few days acclimatising first by taking the Aiguille du Midi telepherique and walking across the Mer de Glace to the Torino Hut for a couple of nights. This hut can also be reached by taking the cable car to Punta Helbronner. Then we walked back across the Mer de Glace for a night at the Cosmiques Hut in the face of deteriorating weather.
On the full day that we had at the Torino, we climbed the easy Aiguille de Toule. This is a PD rock route which is quite loose. But it did give a good view of our objective and took us to over 3600m.
And the Dent du Geant dominated the view.
With Gran Paradiso to the south.
The next day at the Cosmiques Hut we watched people come down the intimidating face of Mont Blanc du Tacul. The Trois Monts route to Mont Blanc is now back in condition.
Later in the afternoon the weather did deteriorate and snow began to fall.
The next morning the winds were strong and the Aiguille du Midi telepherique opening was delayed. We were due back in Chamonix that morning so the potential delay was worrying. Fortunately, by the time we were ready to leave the hut the Aiguille du Midi website was indicating that it was opening. So we stepped out into the gloom and wind for the 300m climb up to the Aiguille.
The final section of the climb is up a steep and narrow arête with large drops on both sides. In the wind and with parties also descending this required a lot of concentration. But we made it safely to the top.
We de-cramponed in the snow cave nearby before entering the tunnels leading to the telepherique. We were able to descend to Chamonix speedily in the cable car that swung in the wind. The temperature difference between the mountain and the valley was marked and we had to strip off a few layers before continuing.
I had booked two nights at the higher Goûter Hut for our ascent. This was done so as to give us two separate days to make our summit attempt should the weather not be in our favour on the preferred date. But the first of these nights was a day away.
The Gouter route traditionally taken is first to go to Les Houches a few miles down the valley where another cable car can be caught. This lifts you to Bellevue where the Tramway de Mont Blanc is intercepted. The Tramway then can be taken to its terminus at Nid d’Aigle at 2372m. From there a path leads in two to two and a half hours to the Tête Rousse Hut and the notorious Grand Couloir. Once across the Couloir there is a 600m scramble up the most difficult section, the north west face of the Aiguille du Goûter, to the Goûter Hut at 3817m. This hut is at the permanent snowline.
Above the hut a traverse is made of the Aiguille du Goûter before a long ascent of, and traverse around, the Dome du Goûter at 4304m. The route then drops to the Col du Dome before a steepish climb to the Vallot Shelter, an emergency shelter at 4382m. Above the shelter the slopes rise ever more steeply and then narrow to pass over and along the Bosses ridge and La Tournette before the final rise to the level summit ridge.
The greatest objective danger is at the Grand Couloir. This feature lies just above the Tête Rousse hut and is a notorious objective danger of the route due to the risk of rockfall. People are killed here every year by being hit. I was conscious of the need to cross the Grand Couloir at an early enough time to mitigate the risk. The earliest tram up to Nid d’Aigle only arrives at around 9.30am which means that the Grand Couloir is only reached around midday – late enough in the day that the risk of rockfall is considerably increased.
Therefore we made a last minute decision to see if there was any space available at the Nid d’Aigle hut. There was! This would enable us to reach the Couloir around 6am, early enough I hoped to cross without any problem.
So, having had a quick change of clothes and reprovision in Chamonix, we took the telecabine from Les Houches to Bellevue and hopped on the Tramway de Mont Blanc up to the nest of the eagle.
The Nid d’Aigle hut is a short 300m up from the tramway terminus. There were just us and a family of 4 there that evening.
This hut is normally ignored by those looking to climb Mont Blanc. I guess in the hurry to get up high and with limited time and/or a fixed timetable by a guiding service, it is logical to climb straight up to the Tête Rousse or Goûter huts. This was a more relaxing way to tackle the climb and the hut was a delight with a fresh cooked meal prepared for us that evening and a breakfast left out for us so we could make our early start the next day.
So it was that the next day we reached the Grand Couloir at just after 6am. We had started in the dark with headtorches, but it was getting light after an hour. We traversed the basin near the Baraque Forestiere des Rognes and climbed the easy ridge up to the edge of the Tête Rousse glacier, much diminished over recent years. The Aiguille du Midi soared to our left like a fairy-tale castle.
We could cross this glacier without crampons and without worrying about crevasses. Then we found shelter behind an overhanging rock by the edge of the Couloir and put our climbing helmets on.
We heard no noise from above so made a dash across the 40m or so wide shooting gallery. There was snow and ice on the rough track across that had to be negotiated. That slowed us down a bit. 75% of the way across I heard some rocks coming down. A few whistled through the air behind me. I was then hit by two. Fortunately they were small rocks but one gave me a nasty bang just below my left knee. Safety was reached on the other side. No lasting damage had been done. It is possible that the rocks had been released by climbers coming down the next section, the Arête de Goûter.
The next 2½ hours were spent ascending the Arête with its mixture of steep walking and scrambling at various grades of difficulty. It is normal to scramble on this section with gloves as the rock can be cold and rough. There are parts where wires are bolted into the rock to make things easier. We decided to solo this entire section. Guided parties will be roped.
I ran out of puff a little on the way up and, notwithstanding the prior acclimatisation, felt a little nauseous. So I had to stop and rest on a couple of occasions to let the nausea pass. Caroline in the meantime was bounding up the rock in her element.
The route ends at the old Goûter hut. I thought I had read somewhere that this was going to re-open at some point soon but it was still closed up. The old hut provides a crossing point where people coming down remove crampons, put on helmets and peer down the steep ground ahead. Those coming up may put on crampons, take off helmets and breathe a sigh of relief that the steepest ground is behind them.
There is a short ascent with fixed ropes to guide up on to a snow ridge. The snow ridge leads to the Goûter Hut at 3782m or, at a fork, up on to the higher mountain.
We took the fork to the Hut that we reached at around 10.30am. So we would have the rest of the day to rest and re-hydrate and generally fester. Caroline went off for a nap. I read. Dinner was at 6.30pm and breakfast would be at 2am.
We had been keeping an eye on the weather forecasts over the previous days hoping that our special day would be kind to us. The prediction was for high cloud, clear below, precipitation late in the day and light winds gusting to 35kph.
It was a wrench to drag ourselves out of bed at 2am. Indeed I had been in a deep sleep and had to be roused. Food and liquid were forced down, largely in silence. We delayed going down to the kit room to allow the initial surge to ready themselves and depart. Nonetheless we were away shortly after 3am into the inky black.
A sharp 20m climb led back up to the snow ridge. The ridge narrows and rises up to the summit of the Aiguille du Goûter at 3863m before 25m is lost and the ridge merges into the broad slopes of the Dome du Goûter.
Now we could see clusters of head torches above us. As Mont Blanc is such a popular mountain, there is a boot track that can be followed most of the way on this route. The next hour or so was a steady plod up and around the Dome to around 4270m. One part of the forecast was clearly wrong. There was a steady 30+kph wind. Luckily it was mainly behind us and it was not gusty. But it was cold. On the lee side of the Dome we were able to stop briefly for a drink. There is a drop of 60m down to the Col du Dome where there are a couple of marker posts.
There was a bit of light in the sky now, but up above by the Vallot shelter the beams of head lamps were being diffused in the cloud. We made short work of the steep rise up to this shelter and popped in with a view to sheltering from the wind and taking on some food and water. There were a few others in there. It is prohibited sleeping here, but there were a couple of people huddled in sleeping bags. There are some metal platforms to sit on and there are blankets to keep you warm. We stayed here over 20 minutes.
By the time we emerged we could see without head lamps. The cloud was down.
This was the only part of the route where there was no clear boot track. But we navigated up ever steepening ground towards the Grande Bosse. Here the numbers of feet had created an irregular stairway. This bit was quite tough with the steepness and slightly softer snow. Once on the ridge line, the angle eased and the exposure increased. We could see the hundreds of metres falling either side. It was not a place to trip.
There is a short drop off the Grande Bosse before the next rise up the Petite Bosse and a further narrowing. We started passing people coming down. Luckily the ridge was wide enough when this happened to allow all to pass safely. There was no sign of the bergschrund that sometimes affects this route.
The cloud broke and we could see Mont Maudit to our left.
Finally there was another knife-edge ridge to navigate. This section required a bit of nerve but in 15 minutes the ridge started to level out again and widen. We were arriving on the summit. There were a few people there.
We had made it! I did not behave disgracefully as I had done on reaching the summit here. Instead I showed my loyalties to God’s Own Country.
Not only that, but we had summited on our birthdays. Yes it was both my and Caroline’s birthday. A combined age of 120 years. What a way to celebrate.
We had made it in a few minutes over 4 hours and that included our stop at the Vallot shelter. Not bad going I thought. The wind remained quite strong and it was cold. A few people arrived via the Trois Monts route. But there were never more than 8 of us on the summit at any one time.
We were above the cloud (which according to the forecast was not supposed to be there). That limited the views to the neighbouring peaks, particularly the nearby ones. But we could make out Dom and the Matterhorn in the far distance.
We stayed on the summit for around 20 minutes but it was becoming uncomfortable in the wind. So we started our descent. We were almost immediately back in the cloud. A further brief break allowed us to see down onto the Bosses ridge.
And lower down figures emerged through the cloud still on their way up.
Then that was it for any views . We made our way back to the Vallot shelter where we had another stop – this time for half an hour. At this point we decided that we did not need to remain roped up any longer. Whilst there are crevasses on the Dome du Goûter, the boot track avoids them so we thought it safe to do this.
After that It took us less than an hour and a half to make our way back to the Gouter Hut from the shelter. In fact the track went quite close to four crevasses, only one of which I had noted in the dark on our ascent. But these were easily avoided. And as with the day before, we were back at the Goûter Hut at 10.30am.
Clearly we had the time to descend further but we had an other night booked there as an “insurance policy” in case we needed to go for the summit the following day. Caroline went off for another nap. I read (again) and drank. Later we celebrated our birthdays again with some fruit pie (rather than cake) and cream purchased at the hut – we sure know how to live it up – but it was nice.
The cloud remained outside. At dinner we found out that a group that had delayed its departure for the summit in the face of a promised improvement in the weather had in fact had the summit covered in cloud. The one part of the forecast that was right was that it started to rain in the late afternoon. After a couple of hours, the cloud began to break and provided us with a rather nice cloudscape.
The next day broke to cloudless skies. But it was a lot windier.
We were happy with the day we had had.
So we reversed our route of ascent, climbing down the Goûter Arête (in my case slowly, I needed more scrambling practice before going to the Alps), crossing the Couloir (this time without being hit), descending the Tête Rousse glacier and the ridge below and then running down snow patches to the Nid d’Aigle station.
We were back in Chamonix by early afternoon paying homage to Jacques Balmat (one of the first ascensionists) and Horace-Benedict de Saussure (a geologist who offered a reward to the first person to climb Mont Blanc and was himself in the third party to climb the mountain).