Mont Blanc

A few days ago, I’ve published here part I of the story of my ascend of the Mont Blanc – the acclimatization climb of the Weissmies. The Mont Blanc part has since been published on www.streettrotter.com, and I can post it here as well.

Day 8 – Chamonix

We arrive by the Mont Blanc Express to Chamonix. The forecast is not encouraging – thunderstorms for tomorrow and what comes next only God knows. We manage to squeeze our tent into a spot on the campsite where at least 200 tents are already pitched on what supposed to be 80 places. Almost everyone here have already tried ascending the Mont Blanc or are about to, and it looks more than anything like the circus is in town.

Day 9 – Desert de Pierre Ronde

In the morning, we leave excess luggage at the camping and go to town to rent gear. At the store, the attendant enquires in a thick French accent “and whitch mounta’n arrre you goin’g to climb” “Mont Blanc”, I answer, in the most casual way I can, enjoyng the disappearance of the smug expression from his face. “Oh la la! In thise shoos and with thise crrrampons? C’est no possible!”, and he runs off to sharpen the edges of my crampons. Good thing I didn’t add it was my second 4000’er and that the first was only three days ago. He might have gotten a stroke.

Erik in the Desert de Pierre Ronde, with Grand Colouir in the background

Erik in the Desert de Pierre Ronde, with Grand Colouir in the background

Geared up, we take the bus to Les Houches, 1100 m, the Téléphérique to Belleveu, 1800 m and the rail to Nid dAigle, 2400 m, and step right into the epicentre of the circus. Some 25 000 people (twenty five thousand!) attempt to reach the summit of the Mont Blanc every year (and dozens die in accidents), and the slopes are filled with climbers and tourists. Mothers with strollers, grandmothers with plastic bags, people in shorts and slippers mix with fully equipped alpinists (like us). Hiking up to the base of the Grand Couloir takes us 3 hours of strenious hike through the so-called Desert de Pierre Ronde. Literally this means “desert of the round rocks”, and its a French idea of a joke. There’s not a single round pebble among the mass of jugged boulders there. We camp near the Tête Rousse hut, at 3187 m, pitching our tent between Scots, Norwegians, Poles and Americans. The view of the Grand Colouir is excellent, and we see people climbing up and down and rocks flying (only down). This is the most dangerous part of the climb, and it is advised to pass early in the day, before the sun melts rocks out of the ice and snow. As night falls, the thunderstorm hits, but darkness, pouring rain and lightnings striking the rock face do not stop people from climbing, even at 2:00 at night.

Day 10 – Grand Colouir

As usual, we rise before dawn. The thunderstorm still rages, so we wait until it clears a bit. Around 9:00 we can finally start our ascend. It really is not that difficult (PD+ at most), but… Firstly, there are the steel cables supposed to make it easier to climb. Unfortunately, their fixing points actually ruin good grips and some of the cables have been there for a long time already, so they almost come off. Secondly, many ‘climbers’ do not pay any attention to what they’re doing, including groping a cable someone else is already hanging onto, which on an almost vertical rock face is really hair-raising. We pass safely and by 11:00 we already set our tent in the snow, above the Aiguille du Gouter hut, 3817 m, burying the pegs as deep as possible and lie down to enjoy the view for the rest of the day.

Our tent above the Aiguille du Gouter hut, at almost 4 km altitude

Our tent above the Aiguille du Gouter hut, at almost 4 km altitude

Day 11 – Summit

We rise at 2:30 and by 3:00 we already join the line of people light up by headlamps and sounding like a slave caravan with all that gear clittering. We are plowing our way up the mountain through the immense snow fields at -10 degrees. Nearby the Bivoac Vallot refuge, 4362 m, the first light reveals the hundreds of people lined up to the top like an ant track. Above the refuge the trail becomes a snow ridge, with horrendous gaps on both sides, hundreds of meters deep. The sun rises, lighting up the sea of clouds from below by the most gentle shade of pink for a brief minute, before flooding the sky and the snow by the brightest light.

Sunrise en route to the summit

Sunrise en route to the summit

The last stretch to the top is the steepest, and the wind is at gale force, being on a snow ridge a handpalm wide at almost 5 km altitude is no joke under these conditions. It is so good we took the time to acclimatize, otherwise these last meters would have been a nightmare. By 6:30 we’re at the top, the view is better than anything else in the world, but we are absolutely freezing up here. Clicking photos until the fingers start losing their grip on the camera, and we’re headed down. About 150 meters below the top and a bit out of the wind we sit together and rest for a few minutes. Going down is easier that up, but tiredness starts taking its toll. On the way down we hike up the top of the Dome du Gouter, 4304 m. Drowned in snow, its the flattest of mountains but it is classified as a separate peak. By 9:00 we are back at the tent. Kick off the shoes, put the kettle on and lie down on the matrass outside the tent in the morning sun — WOW!

Erik on the summit

Erik on the summit

Day 12 – down, down, down

Early start, again — we want to pass the Colouir before the masses. At 3:00 we dig out our tent pegs. The wind almost blows us off the mountain with tent and all. By now we’re working together too good as a team. The tent is already packed but it is still pitch dark, so we have to wait for the first light to go down the Grand Coulouir. Erik has already had enough of this and starts to grumble at whoever came up with the idea of climbing the Mont Blanc. I remind him that it was his idea, that shuts him up. Finally, first light, and we fly down the Coulouir in 1.5 hours. Erik releases the tension by screaming out loud at the Mont Blanc. I can understand his relief; it was already his third attempt here, and just this spring he spent a week alone in his tent under the Colouir waiting unsuccessfully for good weather, dodging avalanches. By 10:00 we are already back in Chamonix, where the guy in the gear store is hugely releived to see us back alive and well. We take the Mont Blanc Express back to Switzerland, to Michabel camping, where the tent frame snaps and breaks. A suitable ending to our adventure.

Michael (and a cup of tea) on the summit

Michael (and a cup of tea) on the summit

Camping rules:

‘Wild’ camping is technically forbidden. But authorities generally ignore the campers as long as they camp out of sight, above the tree line, do not leave trash and do not light fires. The golden rule ‘Leave the place cleaner than it was before you‘ was applied by us throughout the trip.

A word of warning:

The Mont Blanc is a serious climbing undertaking that requires a great deal of fitness, a full set of mountaineering gear and preferably an experienced guide. A fantastic alternative to actually ascending the summit is the Tour du Mont Blanc hiking trail around the mountain. Erik, who has continued climbing since, reaching as high as Mount Everest, would be happy to be your guide on that trail.

A list of GEAR you will most definitely need: 

  • Thermal base layer
  • Fleeces and waterproof outer shell
  • Rigid crampon-compatible boots
  • Glacier-proof sunglasses
  • Helmet
  • Headlight (with spare batteries)
  • Hat
  • Over-gloves
  • Liner gloves
  • Gaiters
  • High-factor sun cream
  • 30 to 50 meters of rope
  • Harness
  • Slings
  • Karabiners
  • Ice axe
  • Crampons
  • Deadman/snow fluke
  • Avalanche beacon
  • A snow probe
  • A shovel
  • Garbage bag — take everything down with you!
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