Mt. Blanc massif seen from Italy
First things first, per Oct. 10 2001, the official height is 4810,40m. Most maps and trip reports will still give the old height of 4807m.
Mt. Blanc was ascended for the first time Aug 8, 1786. Dr. Michel Gabriel Paccard and Jaques Balmat from Chamonix reached the summit after crossing the Grand Plateau and bivouac on top of Montagne de la Cote. This feat would dramatically change the valley and the way of living.
Mt. Blanc was for a long time considered the highest mountain in Europe, but these days Elbrus (5642m, Caucasus) holds the title. In fact, Mt. Blanc does not even rank in the top 5 highest European mountans, due to higher mountains in the Caucasus region. Mt. Blanc is however the highest mountain in France, the Alps and western Europe. It is the high point on a massif that contains scenery almost out of this world. When viewed from Chamonix, the mighty spires north-east of the summit (Aiguille du Midi, Aiguille Vert, etc.) almost seem unreal. As if the sky had been painted, high above the valley.
Mt. Blanc (or Monte Bianco, as it is called in Italy) can be ascended fairly easily in technical terms. The Aiguille du Gouter route is classified as PD (peu difficile, not very hard), and sometimes PD-. The Grand Mulets route is classified as F (facile, easy) and sometimes PD-. As the Grand Mulets route is twice as long as the Aiguille du Gouter route, the latter is the most popular route. And it gives you a much higher starting elevation (2372m). A third popular route runs from Aiguille du Midi, across Mt. Blanc du Tacul and Mt. Maudit.
The low technical grades do not imply that the mountain is not dangerous. This is high altitude, and you are subject to challenges such as rockfalls, crevasses, storms, high-altitude sickness, etc. Do not attempt this mountain if you don't think you can master the challenges. And do not let Mt. Blanc be your first introduction to high altitude mountaineering. Apparently, number of deaths per year is close to 100, and thousands of people have been killed on the massif. This may be well the most dangerous mountain on this planet, as it attracts so many beginners that are not prepared for the challenges the mountain has to offer.
Mt. Blanc's primary factor is currently estimated to 4697m. The saddle is assumed to be along the Volga-Baltic Canal at 113m elev.
Please refer to guide books for proper trail descriptions to Mt. Blanc. The routes may change from season to season due to rockfall, crevasses or other reasons. However, this trip report may be useful as supplemental information on top of what you may already have. I accept no liability for any information published on this web site.
Why Mt. Blanc
I was looking for a true adventure, on the border of, but within my abilities. Mt. Blanc came up as a good candidate. I asked my friend Bjørn Gillholm if he was interested. As he has been doing a lot of skiing in Chamonix, I assumed he had given the mountain a look or two. He found the idea quite interesting, and we agreed that Aug 2003 would be the timeframe for this project. We knew little or nothing about the mountain. My friend Petter Bjørstad had climbed the mountain in the seventies, and suggested that the mountain was within my capabilities. I had been to the mountains with Bjørn several times before. But even if none of us were experienced with high altitude mountaineering, we had at least scratched the surface. And with common sense and proper equipment as the foundation, we decided to climb up unguided, like so many others do. The choice of route was via Refuge du Gouter, across Dome du Gouter and les Bosses (the bumps) ridge.
Altitude and weather considerations
I learned that I could acclimate to 3600m within less than 24 hours, during my trip to Rocky Mountains in 2002. Still, I suffered from pulsating headaches when I went above 4000m. Back to 3600m, the recovery time was just a few hours. For the Mt. Blanc trip, we were considering three options: a) Go directly to Refuge du Gouter (3817m) and climb the next morning. b) Sleep at Refuge de Tete Rousse (3167m) and either climb the mountain the next morning, or advance to Refuge du Gouter. c) Go to Refuge du Gouter, and spend one extra day there. For me, it was clearly best to acclimate fully to 3800m, as the recovery time would be short after descent. The question was if the weather allowed for one extra day.
Sleeping inside the Refuge was never an option. I knew I would suffer from nausea and headache once at the Gouter Refuge, and as the place was doomed to be crowded, I decided to bring my tent. When we asked about campsite regulations at the Mt. Blanc Tourist Information in Chamonix (Maison de la Montagne), they told us we could only bivouac from sunset to sunrise. So in worst case, we would have to bring the tent down during the day. Oh well, the worries were put to rest. Perhaps we felt OK to climb the mountain the very next morning. We just would have to wait and see. The weather forecast was uplifting but confusing. On the TV, they constantly showed rain over the alps. People we spoke to, said the weather would be good all week.
Getting on with it. Aug 4.
We arrived Chamonix Aug 3 (Oslo - Copenhagen - Geneva and rental car) and after learning about the weather forecast, we shopped the remaining items and got ready for the climb the very next day. The next morning, we drove to le Fayet, which is the start of the Tramway du Mont-Blanc railroad. Tickets to the 09:10AM train were already sold out, but we managed to get tickets for the 10:15AM departure. Within the hour, tickets for the next 4-5 hours were sold out. The train was packed full by the time we reached Nid d'Aigle at 11:20AM. Most were tourists or day hikers. By 11:30AM, we were on our way. We kept a slow, but efficient pace, and reached the Refuge de Tete Rousse 13:30PM. Water was melting from the glacier, and after filling up the bottle, I would have guessed it was caustic soda, or something of that sort. With the killer hot sun, I decided to take my chances with the water.
We both felt OK, and decided to continue up to Refuge du Gouter after a 30min break. I looked up the Grand Couloir and realized the 700m steep hillside would be a strenuous experience. The backpack was heavy (20Kg) and it was hot beyond words. After a short climb up on the Grand Couloir's left ridge, it was time to traverse the Couloir. This is a dangerous endeavour due to frequent stonefall from the mountain itself. A stonefall came just after we had crossed the Couloir. Some said the ridge was a safe area, but as the big chunks of rock got smashed inside the Couloir, smaller pieces flew around everywhere. A helmet is mandatory here. The Grand Couloir is also known as "the bowling alley", for obvious reasons.
The ridge got more challenging the higher we went, but not close to what I would call difficult. The part below the Refuge was secured by wires, providing welcome handholds in steep terrain. I was imagining Petter descending here in the seventies, without the wires and with a fresh layer of snow. That would be rock climbing. We were just dragging ourselves up with convenient means. We arrived the Refuge just after 16:00PM and continued up to the glacier to find a campsite. The main campsite was further ahead on the glacier, and looked crowded. We picked a spot just above the Refuge, and with a spectacular void between the tent and Chamonix. The sort of void that suggests you stay inside the tent during the night. The campsite was dirty, and might have been used as a toilet. Bjørn's shovel came in very handy. The view towards Aiguille du Midi and the adjacent needles were astounding. I had never seen mountains like this. And ahead of us was the giant glacier, providing the route up the top of western Europe. We both felt sort of OK, but I knew it was just a matter of time before I would feel far worse. Just after the tent was in place, headache and nausea came creeping in, just like clockwork. I vaguely noticed the rain that set in immediately after and the many avalanches that went off in the nearby hillsides.
Idle day, Aug 5
It was impossible to get real sleep until 22:00PM. People in the neighbour tents were constantly talking. Besides, we were in the middle of the trade route between the main campsite and the Refuge. At 01:00AM, the first climbers were heading up to the mountain, and people continued passing for the rest of the night, and the rest of the next day. Nobody seemed to care about bivouac regulations, and we kept the tent up. We spoke to a group of four Norwegians who had been on the mountain. 3 of 4 reached the summit. It is always nice talking your own language far away from home. Some other climbers told us about a tricky crevasse between the Vallot and the summit. We were told that some had turned around here. We were happy to learn that the Refuge sold water (and even Cola and beer). This meant we wouldn't have to dig through the dirty snow in order to boil water. Buying water was a deviation from regular camplife that I had no ethical problems with, whatsoever.
The headache and nausea had disappeared during the night, but we knew weren't fully acclimated. I listened to my blood pump working full speed to keep the body functioning normal. At 13:00PM, we felt marvellous and took a hike up to 4200m below Dome du Gouter. This part of the route seemed trivial, and rope wasn't necessary here. Back at the campsite, we just let the day go by. We went to sleep at 20:00PM and listened to the deep thunder and massive lightning roaming the mountains. It was a bit strange. I was lying nearly 3000m above Chamonix, on the very edge of a glacier with crevasses all around, but felt quite safe.
Summit day, Aug. 6
The plan was to start walking 03:00AM, but we woke up at 02:00AM and decided to leave earlier. We didn't feel for breakfast and settled for a tasty hot drink (Solbærtoddy, yum..) I looked out of the tent opening and saw nothing but stars. We felt good. This would be a wonderful day. As we left the tent 02:30AM, we saw a long chain of lights on the route up to Dome du Gouter. It was so dark that we couldn't see the glacier. Just the endless chain of lights. What an amazing view. It wasn't too cold either, and I dressed just as I do on a normal autumn hike in the local mountains. I had brought extra warm clothes in the backpack, but I knew it would be a hot day. Although the route up to the Dome was trivial, we roped up in order to get into the rhythm. Slowly, but yet efficient we headed upwards.
I felt we were going *real* slow, but still we caught up with one party after the other. Roped parties consisting of many people has a drawback when it comes to pace. There's always someone who needs extra rest, technical adjustment, etc. Bjørn struggled with his crampons until he found the recipe. It is best to sort these things out before the climb. Besides that, the hike went like a charm. As we passed the Dome, the silhouette of Mt. Blanc rose steep into the sky. I felt small. Dozens of lights indicated the direction, but I had no sense of the terrain to come. After having passed the Vallot bivouac shelter, we ran into the crevasse.
The crevasse was in an uphill, and was only one long step wide. But the snow was hard as ice, and care was clearly called for. There were two natural places to cross. The spot on the right hand side was occupied by a long party, hauling one member after the other across. We moved over to the left hand side, and I wasn't too happy about the situation. I considered asking the other team if we could join in. But then I figured that if we didn't handle this ourselves, we had little business on the mountain. However, I needed two axes. I borrowed Bjørn's axe, asked him to sit down and secure me while I leaned over the crevasse, getting the right grips for the move. When I felt good about the grips, I hauled myself over, sent Bjørn's axe back and secured him with my own axe. It only took us a few minutes, and we had advanced significantly in the queue.
Above 4600m, the other parties were moving slowly or just resting. We felt good and kept up the steady rhythm. The ridges were now narrow and steep. I wasn't really sure if I was truly enjoying this. I was also nervous about the fact that we were roped. At this altitude, reaction time is slower. I was convinced that if one fell, it would be fatal for both. But concluded that this sort of thinking doesn't get you anywhere. While driving a car, the margins are also minimal. The job is to keep the car on the road, in the right lane. It was just a matter of taking one safe step after the other. The worries disappeared.
A dominating headache set in as we reached the final summit ridge at 4700m, but I was more focused on doing the right things. Only a group of 5-6 people was returning from the summit, which meant that we had passed most groups on the way upwards. We arrived the summit 06:00AM, and I wasn't really sure how I felt about it. The hike had been unproblematic, almost trivial. I had been in rougher terrain before, and wasn't really sure how this compared. Those who already were on the summit congratulated me with a job well done. This was another aspect. Why congratulate if the hike is trivial? I decided I would ponder about this later. Next priority was a small dose of Decadron. I didn't want to descend these narrow ridges with an exploding headache. Last thing on the list was a round of pictures. Dawn came as we were on top. The mighty Aguille du Midi was just an insignificant needle, peaking out just above the clouds 1000m below. I wasn't able to grasp the beauty of it. It was almost unreal. Bjørn was delighted to be up here. I was very happy for him. He had been a good climbing mate. I started worrying about the descent. I realized I had forgot the sunglasses back at the campsite. What an idiot! I couldn't believe it. Of all the places to forget the sunglasses.....
The dangerous and unforgettable descent
We left the summit after 10-15 minutes. My skull wasn't quite ready, but I felt good enough. On the summit ridge, we met another Norwegian party. Two had already turned around, but these two would surely make it to the summit. They had left the campsite more than one hour earlier than us. We chatted some. The summit ridge of Mt. Blanc is one of those places were you can cause a queue to be built up, but where very few seem to mind. A good chance for some extra rest. I felt better and better for each step, and studied the faces of the people ascending. For quite a number of persons, this hike was far from trivial. Many of these climbers had spent less than 12 hours at 3800m, and was now paying the price. I realized that in addition to being reasonably fit, we were also sufficently acclimated. Some were crying, some were throwing up. Some turned around. Sporty and fit people I had seen at the campsite were staring empty into the snow. I guess this is the normal scene at 4600m. High altitude is a serious matter.
The crevasse was a major bottleneck for the ascending parties. We jumped across it and continued towards the campsite. I was fortunate, as the glacier route was mostly within shadows all the way back. The lack of sunglasses posed no problems. We arrived the campsite 08:00AM, fully charged and enthusiastic. No reason to rest. By 09:00AM, the tent was down, the backpacks were ready and we were leaving the glacier.
The descent from Refuge du Gouter got a dramatic flavour when some major rockfall in the Couloir caused rock to fly everywhere. We were not safe on the ridge unless we hid below large, firm rocks. After lying still for a while, I decided to look up the Couloir. I got a glimpse of a razor sharp rock, coming down in 200Km/h, passing just meters away. It smashed into another rock, 2-3 meters away from a party of five, just below me. I'll never forget the looks in their faces. As we approached the crossing place, the Couloir was like a river of slow moving rocks. And everytime it seemed to calm down, another major rockfall forced everyone to take cover. I was wondering if we had to spend the summer up here.
After 45 minutes, two people decided to cross the Couloir. As they were half way over, I looked up and saw a shiny, giant, silent chunk of rock come flying through the air. "Rooockk", I yelled, which was immediately translated into 4 other languages. "Very large rock", I whispered to myself and took cover. I watched the guys in the Couloir run across while everyone was yelling. There was no time for them to get off the ridge, and they could do little but squeeze into the mountain on the other side. I gave them little chance, as the stonefall was truly of the serious sort. Bjørn told me that the fun was over. I silently agreed. The hike wasn't trivial anymore. I was looking at a guy and a girl who had taken cover. She was devestated, and couldn't move. Her boyfriend tried to comfort her, but with apparent little luck. I wanted to help, but what can you say when the mountain comes falling down above you? Amazingly enough, after 5 minutes, the guys in the Couloir could leave the ridge, safe and sound. Now, everything happened very fast. Guides with roped teams ran across the Couloir, only interrupted by some odd rocks that came thumbling down by themselves. Bjørn ran across first, and I followed after when I saw that he was safe across. A bunch of people followed in my footsteps. This was clearly stupid, because if a rockfall came when I climbed up on the other side, some would be trapped in the Couloir. But I couldn't blame them. They wanted to escape this hellgate as much as I wanted to. Once in safer terrain above Refuge de Tete Rousse, I saw rock flying through the air again. I thanked the higher authorities for our window. We reached Nid d'Aigle at 12:35PM and caught the 12:45PM train to le Fayet. The adventure was physically over, but I knew the hike would be hard to forget. Back in town, we learned that a girl had been killed in the couloir the day after. And a couple of others were seriously injured.
The following note was posted on the OHM web site, Aug 7, 2003:
|Couloir du Goûter is very dangerous. The weather conditions increase the falling rocks. The corridor's crossing and Aiguille du Goûter climbing are very dangerous. Remember that your carelessness may endanger someone else's life. [ August 7th, 2003 - warning issued by the Mayor of Saint-Gervais ]|
In Norwegian news Aug 11, it was said that a large number of people had to be evacuated with helicopter from the mountain due to non-stop rockfall. My guess is that they have now closed the Gouter route until snowfall.
One week after we summited, the French health officials stated that as many as 3,000 people around the country is feared dead after the heatwave.
Move cursor to read notes, and click on the images to see full version.
Some of the thumbnails may have been cropped to fit the format.
Pictures are presented in the order they were taken.
Prior to the climb
Other hordaland mountains westcoastpeaks.com