Sunday, 10 August 2014

Mont Blanc 4810m

Back in 1786 Jaques Balmat and Micheal Paccard sparked the birth of modern mountaineering with the first recorded ascent of Mont Blanc, the Highest mountain in the Alps, 228 years later to the day I recorded my own ascent by the most common route, the Gouter and Bosses ridges. Mont Blanc is a massive and incredibly diverse mountain with long glacier chains and some of the wildest and remotest faces in the Alps. Before the trip I had planned to look at the Tournette spur, a long eccentric ridge hidden away on the remotest part of the mountain however snow conditions had meant that I gave up on the idea.

Mont Blanc

I had been in the Chamonix valley for almost two weeks. There had been mixed weather and conditions but the good spells had been sufficient to keep me busy and get me feeling fit and acclimatized. A couple of days before we were due to leave for home there was a good forecast and I seen an opportunity to get a crack at Mont Blanc. It would mean making an ascent in the morning of the day I was due to leave but we had a late flight so decided to go for it.

My Dad came up with me on the Cablecar to Bellevue and then the Tramway to Nid d'Aigle arriving around 1820. He walked down to the valley from here while I started up to the Tete Rousse hut which sits at the foot of the spur where the route heads up to the Aiguille du Gouter. I arrived at the hut some time after 1900, this is the last spot it is legal to camp or bivouac on the route. They have started to enforce the restrictions due to the sheer numbers of people using the route. It started to rain a bit so I took shelter behind a shack, this was forecast and it wasn't a problem with the exception of some of my gear getting damp.

Camping area near the Tete Rousse hut

Relaxing at the Tete Rousse

By 2200 I was getting ready to start up the rib. I could see the head torches high above me of a small party that had got off the same train as me and had just kept going. Ideally I could have waited longer before I went up but I was getting a bit cold and wanted to get moving. After the snow slope above the 'camp site' I reached the infamous Grand Couloir. To my knowledge this is the biggest accident hotspot in the Alps due to rockfall. It was quite safe at this time and under the current conditions though. I seen the other party take around five minutes to cross it which seems completely unnecessary considering that it is no more than 50 yards long, is horizontal and has been tracked into a substantial ledge by the passing of thousands of climbers. I crossed it quickly and reached the bottom of the ridge.

The showers were still blowing through so I saved my inner gloves and just wore my outers, this way I would have a dry inner layer later on when my damp outers would likely freeze up. Not ideal but far better than my inners freezing up too or climbing the rib with bare hands. I took my time going up the rib and by the time I was nearing the top the sky had cleared to reveal an almost full moon which made me able to turn off my Head torch. A little higher sometime after midnight I came across the now disused Gouter hut. It had a very eerie feel about it especially since it was in darkness and there was snow backed up against its walls. Passing huts in the dark is something I seem to be making a habit of! Up behind the hut I climbed a short snow slope and reached the crest that forms the summit of the Aig. du Gouter. I then followed this towards the new hut where I had a short break. the tracks ended here telling me that the party I that had left before me had went no further.

Beyond that upwards towards the Dome du Gouter I was breaking a trail, there was evidence of the previous days efforts but fresh snow had fallen and drifted to cover it, there was not enough new snow however to make progress a hardship and I moved at a good pace. It felt special to be climbing the highest mountain in the Alps by its busiest route alone and under a strong moonlight. The Aig. de Bionnassay was clear now. I had climbed it the previous week. It had taken a massive amount of effort. probably the hardest thing I have done solo in the mountains, certainly a step up from the Weisshorn last year in both effort and difficulty. When viewed from the Dome's NW flank it is a very beautiful peak, a steep, sharp and graceful snow pyramid.

I continued upwards and around 0230 I reached the Vallot hut at 4362m, a shelter meant for emergency's, I remember reading of its use by Bonatti where he pushed over the Summit of Mont Blanc to reach it in a storm. I decided not to go any further as my extremities were cold in the now strong wind and I was fearful of frostnip. I expected it to be empty, I could see no real benefit to anyone attempting Mont Blanc to stay there. Perhaps those on their way down that had summited from the longer and harder climbs on the Italian flanks but not for the majority of those who climb the route I was on, how wrong was I! upon entering my Headtorch lit up a nest of bodies and sleeping bags taking up all the floor space available! I thought about continuing up again but ended up sitting on the stairs. after a while some parties began to stir and sometime after 0300 I got a small corner to take a rest in, I think I feel asleep for 30 mins or so but I felt a little sick and delirious to be honest, probably a mixture of Sleep deprivation with coldness, effort and altitude. Deciding that I was not going to feel much better I knew it was time to leave, at least I had got warmed up a bit.
upper section of the Bosses ridge, Weisshorn Visible on the left

On the Summit

Motivating myself I elected to have a shot at upwards progress and left the hut around 0500. It was busy outside now with parties arriving from the huts. As I moved on up the Bosses ridge I felt better, I was glad to have people ahead of me as it stopped me pushing too hard and made controlling my breathing easy. As parties stopped for breaks I overtook them and sat behind then next one upwards. It was cloudy now and the ridge seemed to last forever. Finally I knew I was close. light colours on the horizon began to appear above a break in the clouds, upon looking at the photos I realise now that the Weisshorn was visible soaring out the cloud some 45 miles away but I didn't notice it until well into the descent. Eventually the endless ended and I was on the summit. I got someone to take my photo and started the descent pretty much straight away.
People approaching the summit

The View west from the Bosses ridge

I pretty much ran down the whole thing and passed a lot of people coming up, I also overtook all that were going down. I had summited around 6am and I reached the gouter hut a little over an hour later appearing to be the first down by some margin. Even at 0730 there were still groups topping out by the old hut. The decent of the Dome was where I came out of the cloud and got some fantastic Views. It was here I noticed the staggering pyramid of the Weisshorn plastered with snow and incredibility vivid. The Clarity in all directions was unlike anything I had ever seen before.

Looking down the Bosses ridge


The Aiguille de Bionnassay
I was down at the Tete Rousse hut by 0830 and I stopped there for a bit before heading down to catch the tram. I ended up having to walk From Les Houches to Chamonix after missing the train by 30 seconds. For some reason there are big 2 hour gaps in the valley train schedule throughout the day.

Me with the Bionnassay

The Veiw East from the Aig du Gouter

The Gouter route of Mont Blanc gets a lot of bad press. Most of this is simply due to the busyness of it rather than the quality of the route which I found to be very fine. It does come across as a circus at times and people seem to have there own idea's about how Mont Blanc should be climbed and who am I to judge. I done it my way and as far as I'm concerned it could hardly have been better. Carrying pretty much the bare minimum and with an open plan depending on how I felt and things went. All in all it took around 15 hours return from Nid d'Aigle. I was lucky to have both solitude and the experience of the the crowds as well as moonlight and Sunlight.


Aig. Verte on the left, Midi in the foreground and the Weisshorn on the right in the distance

The old hut

The New Hut and the Aig de Bionnassay

Back down at Tete Rousse

The Tete Rouse hut


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