How to climb Mont Blanc
Why this page?
The "nice" answer apparently should be like this: the largest part of information before going there I got from the internet and this included some really useful things. Thus it will only be fair, if I will make my own impressions available to other people who probably might find them also useful for themselves. On the other side, I certainly feel quite proud of being able to get to the top by myself and therefore strongly convinced that all others should be aware about this fact as well...
What is Mont Blanc?
Well, the obvious answer that just the highest mountain in Europe (probably 4808 m, there is slight variance between numbers in different maps - probably this depends from how much snow is up there). Whilst being the highest, it nevertheless turns out to be reachable by technically easy routes (unless one is specially looking for extra difficulties). Still another viewpoint, about which I first heard just shortly before going there, is that it might be (at least, one of) the worst place(s) in Alps regarding crowds of people that are trying to reach it every day, with implications on safety (somebody just accidentally can push you off the ridge) and enjoyment. At the time we were there (around 20th of June) the situation, however, was not so bad. The mountain certainly was inhabited, but most of the time we were able to walk alone and even were not seeing other people around for quite long periods of time. The "real season" starts in July and continues until August, and, from what I have read, I might be reluctant to go there during this time.
Where to find it?
Apparently this is not a very serious question, still... Usually Mont Blanc can be found in the south-east of France near Chamonix. However there are people who have spotted it in other places and in other countries, e.g. somewhere in Italy. I have read about this before, however I must admit that only a month or so after I have been there I finally realized what might be the reason why the French border is not quite clearly marked in my Mt Blanc map.
The other aspect of this question may be: which peak is the right one if you are looking from Chamonix? Whilst there seem to be statements around that Mt Blanc is nicely visible from Chamonix, in practice the location of the right peak seems to be quite confusing. The situation may depend from where exactly you are and the time of the day. However I realized which is the right one already after being up there. To gain some practice, you can try to spot the right summit in the following picture taken from the Chamonix valley.
Is it possible to climb
Or, how experienced/well prepared one should be to climb it? This is probably quite difficult to answer. If you chose the Goûter route there is little if any technical skills required - apart from walking on crampons and getting hold on fixed ropes that are attached in some more difficult/dangerous places. However, the climb may be physically still quite demanding (and there is a notable lack of oxygen up there), and, if you are going without a guide, you certainly must know what you are doing (if in doubt, at least do not go alone!)
Regarding guides - the most popular way of going up seems to be by getting attached to the rope of one of them. This is probably a thing that I would never enjoy to do (at least in a conveyor style they have at Mt Blanc); however I will still recommend a guide, if you have suspicions that you might need one.
Is this something worth
This was a kind of family adventure - me, Daiga and our two little muchachas. Muchachas however were restricted to the "base camp" (i.e. to the camping...) and to the places reachable from there.
Getting there and around
We arrived by car from the Swiss side - Chamonix is about 45 km from Martigny and about 25 km from the border. This stretch of the road is not particularly straight and even (you go more than half kilometre up and down again), but, if you are not in a hurry, it might be quite enjoyable.
Information about accommodation, local transportation and probably some other things can be obtained at the information centre (and this was not particularly hard to find). At the time we were there accommodation seemed not to be a problem, although we were aiming just for a camping. We chose Deux Glaciers mainly because we have seen this mentioned on internet. It is located about 3 kilometres from Chamonix in the "right" direction to les Houches. It turned out, that there are two other campings just next to this one, but afterwards we realized that we have made quite a good choice - Deux Glaciers looked much nicer than other two (their camping spaces are located on terraces with some trees in between and a small spring flowing through the territory, not just a flat space equally divided in squares). The price was slightly more than 100 FF per night (this depends from the number of persons, and they are not accepting credit cards).
There seems to be claims that one can get around quite easily by local transportation (mainly buses, but apparently there are also some trains). I might have seen a couple of buses, however there are no timetables or route maps generally available at stops, thus this still may be a kind of a problem. In principle it is possible to get around just by walking, however this can become somewhat annoying and often there are no walkways available - you have to walk by the side of road. Thus, either you have a car, or it might be useful to get the information about timetables etc. in advance (presumably they should have them at the information centre).
There are plenty of restaurants and other eating places within the area, especially in the centre of Chamonix. The food is supposedly really good, however inexpensive food does not seem to be a particular local speciality (this depends from what you have been used to, but for me Chamonix appeared to be pricey even compared to Paris). A cheap and still quite good alternative is to relay on local food shops - there seems to be not too many of them around, but there is one just in the centre of Chamonix, we found another one at fuel station, about 2 km from les Houches in Chamonix direction.
Among the "easy routes" there seems to be three alternatives: Col du Midi route, Grands Mulets route and Goûter route. We chose Goûter route mainly because there were more information available about that, but there may be also objective reasons for its popularity. The problem with Col du Midi route is claimed to be that it is quite long and physically demanding (you traverse two smaller peaks on the way), besides there is some danger to fall in the crevasses. Grands Mulets is claimed to be dangerous due to the need to go through the area of a potential serac fall. The distinctive difficulty of Goûter route is the need to traverse the Grand Couloir just above the Tête Rousse. Although not particularly wide (and, if you are using the fixed rope that is there, not particularly difficult) this is a popular place for stone falls and avalanches. After the couloir you have to climb about 500 m of loose cliffs until you reach refuge de Goûter. There are fixed ropes or railings in difficult places, thus the climb may not be that difficult, still whilst being there you probably do not get a strong feeling of security, and, if you loose your way (e.g. in bad weather), you may quite quickly run into the problems.
The things that are absolutely necessary are crampons. There are no need for them to get as far as Tête Rousse (even if there is snow), but it will not be wise to go without them anywhere much further than that. You can buy them in Chamonix (that was what we did), the choice is good and the prices are, at least, reasonable (we paid around 350 FF for a pair). The serious "high mountain" boots probably are not necessary, at least in summer. We used reasonably good trekking boots (you still need some protection from cold and quite stiff soles to use them with crampons). Bring your boots to the shop when you are buying crampons - the right type seems to depend from the boots, and you will get a good demonstration how to attach them. An ice axe is useful (and may become really important if you happen to slip), but technically may not be required and some people are using ski poles instead.
Another almost mandatory thing is a (short) rope and (at least one) carabiner - you will need this to secure yourself whilst crossing the Grand Couloir. For us 10 meter pieces were just long enough to make an improvised harness (a good idea might be in advance to look up somewhere how this could be done) and attach the other end to the fixed rope here. However you might need a somewhat longer one, since according to some other reports the fixed rope is often higher above the ground (but, if you have a "real" harness, probably just 5 meters will be enough). This obviously does not include the length you might want to use to rope your group together.
A helmet is a good thing to have (although we did not had them) - apart from giving some extra protection when crossing the couloir, the other climbers in loose rocks area just above the couloir may make you nervous, if you do not have one. You will also need a head torch (Chamonix seems to be a good place to get them as well as spare batteries) as well as sunglasses (you can survive also with ordinary sunglasses as we did). Depending from the circumstances you may want to bring also a sleeping bag and tent. Tent is a kind of problem (formally staying in tent is not allowed and there are rumours that sometimes they get confiscated), still some people seems to be using them, and, if you use it only during the night, you are likely to be ok (we wanted to take one, but our rucksacks turned out to be too small for that).
Close to the top it can get surprisingly cold and windy (even in good weather), thus warm clothing is also essential. It seems that nowadays almost everybody is wearing dedicated high mountain garments, but one may probably survive with reasonably selected ordinary winter clothing (we did). Still on the very top I wished for something a little bit warmer, and on the way down somebody told me that it was really unusual to see a person wearing jeans on top of Mt Blanc.
How far can you get without
There is a something like a tram (Tramway du Mont Blanc or TMB) that brings you as high as Nid d'Aigle (2372 m). According to map the tram originates from St Gervais. This seems to be a quite mysterious place - by having the tram St Gervais might be considered a natural starting point for ascents; however it seems that for some reason most people prefer to start from Chamonix (or, more precisely, from les Houches). The "traditional" way is to take a cable car from les Houches (993 m). That will bring you to la Chalette station (1801 m), which is two TMB stations away from Nid d'Aigle. The price for each trip is around 50 FF (one way). Apparently there should be some transportation between Chamonix and St Gervais (and thus, the possibility to take tram from there), but we were not able to find out about that and just were getting recommendations to start from les Houches.
The timetable for TMB and cable cars can be obtained from the information centre at Chamonix. The services are rather limited, so I could recommend paying more attention to the timetable than we did.
The easy part - up to the
Our initial plan was to start in the afternoon (20.06.2001.) and to be at Nid d'Aigle (2372 m) around 17:00. Then walk to Tête Rousse (3167 m), be there probably at 20:00, get some tea and some food and, depending from the circumstances, either to stay there, or to find some other refuge (one version was to go down (314 m) to baraque Forestière, which, as we understood, was a kind of place where you can stay for free). During the next day we expected to reach Goûter hut (3817 m), if possible then stay inside, if not, then somewhere outside, and at the next morning go to the summit. Of course, this was a kind of optimistic plan, assuming good weather and some luck.
The first problem we encountered was the size of our rucksacks - they were clearly too small to hold also the tent, so we had to go without it; of course this made "staying somewhere outside" option much less attractive .
Since we had not any information about buses or something, we walked 4 km from the camping to the cable car station at les Houches. Unfortunately the place seems not to be intended for walking - although we went through quite populated area, there were few walkways and most of the time you have to walk by the side of the road. Thus, it may be recommended to look for a bus; however, we also noticed that we had not seen any passing bus during the walk (and the same was true when we came back two days later).
It turned out that cable cars were not working until as late as we had expected, but we were still on time and quite soon got up to la Chalette. Muchachas then went down on their own and we started to wait for the next tram which had to be there within minutes. When the first tram arrived, it was going in the wrong direction, and, since there were only single tracks, we assumed that we still need to wait for some time. It was a little boring, thus we started to do some useless things (i.e. to study our timetable) and then realized that we are a couple of days before the tram we are waiting for starts running and that there will be no more services this day. There was no choice, so we had to walk also along the track up to Nid d'Aigle. This was not so bad, just unexpected. You can walk either on track or just beside it and enjoy quite nice views. On the upper half of the way occasional spots of melting snow started to appear, this was an opportunity to get some drinking water. Just below the Nid d'Aigle there is a short tunnel, but you can go around that, if there is a need to worry about an approaching tram.
Above the Nid d'Aigle the landscape changed - there was still a plenty of snow up there. The path branched in several directions, but it soon turned out that the steeper ones were just shortcuts. Still there was no need to use crampons. Shortly above the station we come quite close to a couple of larger animals (not sure how they are called, let's say some kind of goats), which made us suspicious, but fortunately turned out to be friendly. We reached baraque Forestière probably around 21:00. It was too late to try to go further to Tête Rousse and we had to stay here.
The baraque Forestière was quite different from what we had expected. It was really just a barrack and hardly has anything more to offer than just a roof and four walls. There are two floors, however in the middle of the lower one there was a large heap of garbage. The upper one was cleaner and apparently a better place for staying. The floor is not very stable, but hopefully may still survive for a couple of years. There was already a group of people here, and we were just lucky to get remaining two free spots on the upper floor. No water was available, we were fortunate that incidentally have bought a couple of cans of iced tee just before taking the cable car. Still, if you have a sleeping bag and your own food and water supply, this may be quite reasonable place to stay overnight (my guess is that snow melts here later in summer and some water also may be available nearby).
The morning surprised us with bright sunlight (that is, when we went outside - the barrack has no windows). From the ridge just above there was a nice view on Chamonix valley. In previous day we have managed to climb more than one kilometre in four hours, thus we still hoped to keep up with our initial plan. However, this was already a different altitude and we needed another three hours just to climb 314 meters to Tête Rousse. Apart from the altitude this still seems to be quite easy and safe stretch and there is no need for crampons, if you don't look for shortcuts. (A picture of Daiga somewhere on the way up there.)
Refuge de Tête Rousse is already quite a civilized place. We got hot water for tea (16 FF for one litre) and tried to decide what to do next. With the same speed as this morning we would need at least 6 hours to get 650 meters up to refuge de Goûter, and this part of the way would certainly be more difficult, thus the only reasonable option was to stay where we were. Fortunately there were free places in the hut (thus no need to learn in practice how easy (or not) it is to build an igloo), the price was about 250 FF per person (including meals; since they asked about that, just staying probably might be slightly cheaper, but such option was not advertised) and another nice thing was that they were accepting credit cards (we already have realized that we probably had to start with more cash than we had with us). (A picture of Daiga and picture of me somewhere nearby the hut.)
There were still plenty of time until the evening, so a good opportunity to take some short walks and try out crampons. If you climb a small ridge you get another nice view on Chamonix. Another useful walk is about 100 (or so) meters up to the Grand Couloir. The couloir was not looking that difficult. There was a well made path across it and, although the slope was quite steep, the affixed rope gave impression that crossing is reasonably secure. The question was what to do if there is a stone fall or an avalanche, but (it was in early afternoon) there were no signs of such things and thus no opportunity to learn from examples (i.e. how the current group on the couloir is behaving in such a case and how this may end...)
Where the path continues after the couloir was not that clear. Goûter hut was visible on the top of what appeared to be a small peak by itself, and it was certain that the path continues up somewhere on the rocks above, but it was not apparent exactly where. Still confusing was also the location of Mt Blanc - in almost the opposite direction from Goûter hut across the deep gorge raised quite an impressive wall which resembled what we have seen in pictures. The view was not particularly encouraging - the only visible way up there was by a long and narrow ridge, unless there was a better approach from the hidden side. Fortunately our assumption turned out to be inconsistent with a map, as a downside we realized that we probably still have not seen Mt Blanc at all. (A picture of me in front of Aiguille de Bionnassay.)
Another unpleasant realization was that Daiga still has not adapted to the altitude, and, if I am making an attempt next morning, I have to go alone (there was a possibility next day to go just to the Goûter hut, but we have heard that it must be booked weeks in advance and the option "just to stay somewhere" already wasn't something that we were looking for). The hut gradually filled up with other climbers (still, it did not get overcrowded) who seemed much better equipped and self convinced than we were, and the chances of the next days attempt started to look quite slim. In addition, during the evening we happened to see an avalanche in Grand Couloir, not a large one, but sufficient to reconsider the safety of that place.
The wake up time for those who planned to go right to the top was at 1:00, thus I tried to get some sleep although not very successfully. Daiga stayed up until the sunset and managed to get some really nice pictures. (A picture, another picture and yet another picture from Tête Rousse at sunset.) When she came in she told that there has been another avalanche on the short slope leading to the couloir. I didn't believe her - there were no reason for avalanches on such a small hill.
The final 1641 meters
I probably got a couple of hours sleep before wake up time at 1:00. The breakfast was not particularly great (I would expect more liquid and quick calories at such an occasion), but probably this was not too important. There were surprisingly few people who started up at this time - less than ten, when there seemed to be a full hut of potential climbers yesterday evening. I got a litre of hot water for my thermos, after some effort finally managed to make from the rope something like an improvised harness, put on crampons and left more or less together with most of others. The time was around 1:45. The walking somehow seemed to be quite difficult, I just started to ascend the short slope leading to the couloir and already felt quite exhausted (and yesterday this was a trivial walk!) Well, apparently there is no hope to get anywhere, the best thing would be just return to the hut and admit that Mt Blanc is not for me. Still probably I can reach the couloir and then turn back. On the upper half of slope the path disappeared and, unbelievably as it was, I had to accept that there was some truth in the Daiga's story about an avalanche.
Surprisingly, when I reached the couloir there was only a rope of two people in front of me. Well, probably I can still try to cross it and look at these rocks that await on the other side. The crossing however wasn't without problems - after the avalanche the (more or less) horizontal path was gone, instead there was a steep slope of hard snow on which crampons hardly got a hold. At one instant I slipped and almost lost the hold also from the affixed rope (well, I was still attached by a carabiner as the last reserve...) After the couloir things somewhat improved - the path got technically more difficult (you had to rely also on your hands), but still manageable and not particularly dangerous. In more difficult places there were affixed ropes, initially probably more than there was actually needed. The two people rope in front of me was a good lead to follow (showing the way and not too quick to loose them out of sight). At one moment they offered me to overtake them, but moving faster seemed to be out of my capabilities. After some time the things started to get more difficult and advancing already depended heavily on use of affixed ropes and other holds. Fortunately this was also the sign that the hut is near. It was around 4:00 and I was quite surprised finding me there, since not that long ago I have almost given up.
This looked to be a good opportunity to get a cup of hot tea (I had a thermos, but there was still a long way ahead), however the hut was open, but that was it. The people going to Mt Blanc had already left and there seemed to be no signs of life at all (so, I had to use my own thermos...) The next problem was to find where to go now, however this was easy. Goûter hut (the picture obviously was taken later, when there was more light) stands on the very edge of cliff and on the other side there rises a snow field which is higher than the hut (one may only wonder why the hut does not get pushed off...) Apart from way down another path goes up to the snow field and afterwards there (hopefully) is only one and quite a noticeable track left by climbers from Goûter hut.
After the rocks the initial part could be called "horizontal" and looked really easy (in couple of places there actually were slight descents). Somewhere here I also noticed a couple of tents. However "horizontality" gradually disappeared and path started to ascend an endless slope (later I found out that apparently this was Dome de Goûter). This still was not too hard, but I had to make regular stops to catch a breath. (A day before I had noticed that one of the guides told his group not to take stops and move slower, but continuously. I still do not believe that with such tactics I had gone anywhere at all.) At the very top there were visible some lights from those who have left from Goûter hut - another encouraging sign after such hopeless start (the rope with whom I reached the hut had opted for longer rest and where out of sight). Later I actually managed to overtake a couple of groups, however quite a few and some of them seemed to consist of old ladies who probably did not made it much further than where I met them.
When I got to the top of the dome it already was quite bright and for the first time became visible the mountain I was going to. (My first picture of Mt Blanc). From here the mountain looked really nice and at this point I finally started to believe that I likely will make it. The path started to descend and then followed a steeper climb up to the Vallot hut (the picture is taken on the way back). Somewhere here I noticed somebody on skis approaching from the left side. Well, these skiing enthusiasts seem to be everywhere... The hut itself left somewhat strange impression - after the previous two, which certainly looked like a high altitude constructions, this one quite resembled a countryside cottage. This impression probably was due to the fact that while I approached there was a couple of people outside doing some "country work" and that there were actually two buildings (but I may be wrong here...). Unfortunately the hut is intended only for more serious climbers, not those going straight up to Mt Blanc, or for the emergency, thus to get some tea I again had to rely on my thermos.
From the Vallot hut the goal looks already quite close, although you still have to climb almost a half kilometre. This might depend from the experience, but for me this was also the point from which the path started again to have some objective dangers. As an additional annoyance, above the hut it starts to get quite windy as well as cold (and I assume that I was there at a really good whether). The next slope after the hut was already suspiciously steep, still, by following the "main" track it turned out to be negotiable and I didn't encountered places in which I felt really in danger. (A picture taken somewhere around here.) What made me feel more uneasy were the places where path followed the top of a snow ridge with, well, not really abysses, but sufficiently steep slopes on both sides for me not to be willing to check whether I can get hold on these. To make things worse, this was also the place where I started to meet groups already on the way down. The interchange on some narrower places was not really enjoyable and it remained only to hope that I will not be pushed off the path. (Here you can see probably some of the nastier places.)
When already close to the finish, the remaining part of the mountain starts to look like a snow pyramid with path leading straight up - a nice view I had noticed in several pictures (and apparently a sign that you are going to succeed). From here you continue until it becomes unclear whether the highest point is still in front of you, or you have already passed it. I took some pictures in all possible directions (afterwards they anyway looked more or less the same), and asked somebody to take also a picture on me (this may sound not to be a problem, but at that moment there were surprisingly few people around).
Back to the civilization
The way down actually turned out to be in some sense more complicated than the way up. On the steepest places it was not particularly convincing that it is secure to descend facing the valley. Descent facing the slope and additionally securing myself with the ice axe seemed to be safer, however required more efforts and was slower. In addition I soon noticed that I have a strange feeling somewhat similar to being slightly drunk, apparently the first sign of mountain sickness. Fortunately I was already descending and it never went so bad that there was a reason to be really worried (at least, I hope so). Still, I realized that I need to reach the Vallot hut as soon as possible to be in relative safety. Of course, the life again was made more difficult by climbers that were still going up (still, with reversed directions they seem less irritating, and, if asked, you can proudly tell them that the finish is "quite close"). (A picture taken somewhere on the way down.)
I stopped by the Vallot hut for another cup of tea. Near that; was already a kind of forest made from the skis. It is interesting that again I associated this more with the leisure skiers, not with the people heading for Mt Blanc. Below the hut any signs of mountain sickness really disappeared. This was already an easy walk, although longer than I had remembered. When starting to descend from Dome de Goûter you sadly realize that this is the last opportunity to glance at the mountain, at least for quite a long time. (The last picture of Mt Blanc and really the last picture of Mt Blanc.) Later there was an opportunity to enjoy a view on "unreachable" Aiguille de Bionnassay, this time from the above (well, it still looked quite unreachable...)
Since there were no immediate difficulties for some time, this was a good opportunity to start to worry about the potential problems ahead. Rocks below the Goûter hut were not a very nice place and I still too well remembered me slipping in the couloir this morning, during the day the crossing will be much more dangerous due to the risk of stone falls or avalanches. At some point I became really worried and felt that the most dangerous part is still ahead.
I reached the Goûter hut around 10:00 with happy thoughts about unlimited supplies of tea. After taking off my crampons however, I found out that accidentally I had forgotten to take any money. I felt really thirsty and had to be glad that there was still one cup left in my thermos. The rocks below fortunately did not appear as dangerous as I had imagined. In some places I had to search for footholds, but this got never really difficult. The threat of falling stones from people above also was reasonably small. However I was already very exhausted and descended unexpectedly slowly. The last dangerous place - the couloir. A path across it was already established and the crossing was much simpler than in the morning, I assume I was still sufficiently early for risk of stone falls or avalanches also not to be very high. When I reached the hut it was 12:30 - it took me longer to descend these rocks than to climb them up.
Finally unlimited supplies of tea - I started with a couple of litres, but still felt thirsty. Also I had to ask Daiga to pack my rucksack, I felt too tired for that. We left around 14:00 (as it turned out, then more or less at the same time as quite a number of others) with intention to catch the tram from Nid d'Aigle at 17:00 or so, assuming that there is another one later, if we miss this one. The snow however was melting and the walking down was much less pleasant than the day before, when we went up. Some people were taking shortcuts and descending some quite steep slopes, however after the yesterdays avalanche at "a completely safe place" we preferred not to try this. At some point we started to doubt that we will manage it before 17:00 and re-checked the timetable. Unbelievably, but we again have got it wrong - there were some additional services which started from today, still we were a couple of days too early for the "next" tram. Well, we were the last and 15 minutes too late, but still got on the tram - fortunately it seems that it is used to wait a little longer, if necessary, and somebody probably had noticed us. Yet another annoying 4 km walk half an hour later (why they have so few buses after all...), however this time with an opportunity to buy some champagne on the way, and, when arriving at Deux Glaciers, a happy realization that muchachas had not been lost, but seems to have had quite a good time.
So, what next?
Matterhorn? Well, of course! (Or, probably, depends - as I have heard, it is yet another candidate for "the worst place(s) in Alps"...)