Well at last I’m back on level ground after a remarkable journey skywards to the summit of Mont Blanc – the tallest mountain in western Europe 4810m. What an adventure!
I am writing this post from the perspective of a prospective climber who is trying to find out what’s involved in a Mont Blanc summit. Hopefully I can shed some light on this…
First up I know some people will be put off by Mont Blanc’s infamous record of consistently 20-30 deaths each year. Why is this number so high though?
The reason is Mt Blanc is just so accessible and cheap! That brings potential high altitude dangers such as rapidly changing weather, glacier travel and altitude sickness in direct contact with inexperienced and unassuming climbers.
If you go with one of many reputable guiding companies then you should be fine and have a blast. The people in the most danger are the ones who underestimate the difficulty of the mountain and stroll up in jeans and sneakers. No joke!
I spent a good deal of time researching companies and in the end decided on a company which in hindsight I’d definitely recommend, Mt Blanc Guides. They’ve been guiding on this mountain for 25 years.
A big part of making the summit was acclimatising to prepare our bodies for the 11.4% oxygen levels ahead (at sea level air is 20.9% oxygen) so that’s what we did. We drove a couple of hours into Italy to get a feel for things on Gran Paradiso, a reasonably challenging 4060m peak. Well past my previous highest of 2300m I’d climbed in Canada.
As well as providing good acclimatisation, starting here also gave our guides a chance to test our fitness and to give us a chance to see what we were getting ourselves into. A fair few clients bale out of Mt Blanc after they see just how hard this one is…regardless they still have a blast going on other mountaineering adventures around Chamonix.
The first day was an easy few hours climbing from 1800m to the “hut” at 2750m. I say “hut” because it was more like a hotel than what you envision a mountain hut as. This one had a restaurant, bar and slept more than 50 climbers. Alcohol is the enemy if you are trying to acclimatise so I stayed off it.
It was quite funny that first day though as all eight of us were making sure we didn’t lose a step in order to “pass” the silent fitness test. With a couple of hundred metres to the hut the guides stepped on it and it really felt like a definite test of fitness.
That night was almost sleepless for me as I felt my body working hard to adjust to the lack of oxygen. My breathing was heavy and my heart was racing at 92 bpm. I was also a bit anxious about how I would cope with the altitude.
Summit day was a tough 9 hours but satisfyingly all of us made it and the guides cleared us all to give Mont Blanc a crack. We learned how to use crampons, scramble down rock faces, travel roped together across a glacier and how our bodies coped with altitude.
Thankfully I fared pretty well, I felt a slight headache at 4000m but nothing worse. Still enough to keep me slightly concerned about how I will be 800m higher. Unfortunately there is no way to tell beforehand how your body will cope however the head guide said that only 10-15% of people don’t summit Mont Blanc due to altitude sickness.
After spending a second night at 2750m we descended and spent a night in Chamonix (1000m) before we embarked on the monstrous Mont Blanc the next day.
Chamonix sits on the valley floor and the mountains loom all around. I pointed to the mountain peaks from town and found my arm at a 45 degree angle!
The first day on Mont Blanc was similar to the first one on Gran Paradiso except this time we caught a train from a nearby town up to 2400m, then hiked up to our sleeping quarters at the Tete-Rousse hut at 3200m. It seemed like cheating a bit catching the train but with still 2400m to go I was happy to take the metres.
From the hut the route to the summit can be spilt into three distinct sections. First up is the 45 degree rock scramble from Tete-Rousse hut at 3200m to the Gouter hut at 3800m (2-2.5 hrs), next the “Gran Paridiso” like glacier travel up to the Dome du Gouter at 4300m (2 hrs), and finally the scary looking path along Bosses ridge, which is a series of narrow steep ridges, up to the summit 4810m (2 hrs).
Looking head on at the rock scramble is a bit daunting and two out of the eight of us pulled out that night. But how bad was it?
At 2:30am the next morning it was time to roll up the sleeves and get into it. A good 12 hours of effort ahead. The remaining six of us, along with four guides headed into the blackness and what looked like a vertical wall with dozens of head torches shining way way up high.
I thought it was quite fun climbing in the dark and really quite safe too even though it was steeper than I had anticipated. Two of us were roped up to a guide who would catch us if we fell and there were steel cables to grab onto for the worse parts. The last half hour the legs started to burn but that’s expected – 600m vertical is a long way.
A half hour break in the warmth of the Gouter hut and we hit the trail again. It was sunrise and a magical moment of the day where the snow and the clouds turned a brilliant pink. Everything felt so calm and at peace.
Section two of the climb was just a matter of grinding out slow and steady footsteps for two hours.
From here standing on the Dome du Gouter we could see the summit for the first time. That was encouraging! I had a slight headache here too.
Funnily enough there is a small descent here before we were greeted by Bosses ridge and a rush of lactic acid to our depleting legs.
There is no doubt that the last hour to the summit was the hardest of the whole climb. I never doubted I would make it but it was a physical challenge for sure.
It was fantastic to come up that final slope and be congratulated with magnificent views and handshakes all round. Eve, Sam and I summitted at 9:15am Thursday 11 July 2013.
It was cold up there, about -10 to -15 degrees so after some well earned pictures and time to soak up the moment we turned back.
Descending felt so easy in comparison, but you have to keep your head in the game because a fall on the descent is more dangerous.
1 hour 45 minutes later the three of us were refueling back in the Gouter hut waiting for the rest of our party. Out of the six of us who attempted the climb five made the top. Neil made it to within 150m and had a great story how he was on his hands and knees crawling up! His legs just said “enough” but his mind was not giving in.
The most dangerous part of the whole climb was to come – crossing the Grand Couler just before the Tete-Rousse hut. Rocks become dislodged 600m above and come tumbling down the slope at ferocious speeds.
We did this section in the dark on the way up so we didn’t appreciate it’s full danger until seeing it in the daylight. The risk is best managed by crossing it at the time when least rocks are falling – at the beginning of summer and in the morning when they are more frozen. Besides that we had spotters watching for rocks. If you are caught in the middle at least you have plenty of time to see it and avoid it.
All in all the week of climbing Mont Blanc was a fantastic experience. Highly recommended by me and one to be remembered for a long time. Now get out there and do it for yourself!