Climbing Mont Blanc

by Steve Bragg

We arrived in Chamonix and found the Hotel Mont Blanc on a hillside near the climbing guide office.  We got a room on the top floor and went in search of John Landers, who had already arrived and was staying in a room on a lower floor.  We wandered outside for a look around and ended up in the offices of the guide service.  The attendant knew a little English and I knew a little French, so we eventually learned that the cog railway was closed due to snow on the tracks.  Snow had been falling on the upper reaches of the mountain for several days, and therefore not many people were climbing the peak.  The bad weather was expected to continue. Despite the questionable forecast, we reserved two spots in one of the upper mountain huts for the following night.

Chamonix has many restaurants and climbing shops.  We strolled through town, window shopping, and eventually entered an Italian restaurant with a view of Mont Blanc.  John and I plowed through vast bowls of spaghetti in preparation for the next day's climbing.  We glanced up occasionally at the peak.  Clouds cleared briefly, showing the gleaming snowfields near the summit.  It was 12,336 feet above Chamonix.  A long way.  We discussed the peak while sipping bottled water.

Mont Blanc has more history than most peaks, because of both its easy access from Chamonix and its height (15,771 feet).  It is the highest peak in western Europe.  It was first climbed by Michel-Gabriel Paccard and Jacques Balmat in August of 1786.  Many ascents followed, including the first ascent by a woman, Marie Paradis, in 1808.  In 1851, an English promoter named Albert Smith climbed it with a group that drank 96 bottles of wine, champagne, and cognac.  However, that was a minor excess compared to what followed; a plane landed on the summit in 1960, and descents have been made with a bicycle, motorcycle, and hang glider.  In 1985, a sled dog team made it to the top.  Recently, a Spaniard sat on the summit for 40 days, and finally departed due to boredom.  There was even an observatory on top, but it fell into a crevasse in 1907.

So much activity has created the impression that Mont Blanc is an easy peak.  On the right day, it is.  On the wrong day, it kills with great regularity.  In a typical year, 5,000 people climb the peak, while an average of 40 or 50 climbers die.  The peak has claimed the lives of over 2,000 people, far more than any other peak in the world.  Still, perfect conditions can make for a simple ascent.  The speed record is held by two Frenchmen who ran from Chamonix to the top and back again in 7 hours and 56 minutes.

The basic "tourist" route is as follows: During the best climbing season of late July through early August, leave Chamonix and drive to Les Houches (8 kilometers) at 8 a.m.  Take the Les Houches-Bellevue cable car ("telepherique") to la Chalette at 1,801 meters.  Then switch to the Tramway du Mont Blanc to reach the Nid d'Aigle restaurant at 2,372 meters.  Then hike past the Glacier de Bionnassay to the Tete Rousse hut at 3,167 meters (2 -2.5 hours) and finish the day by crossing the fifty-degree, hundred foot-wide Grand Couloir and hiking to the Aiguille du Gouter refuge at 3,817 meters (2 - 3 hours).  For the second day, get up at 2 a.m. and climb from the refuge to the Dome du Gouter, at 4,304 meters (2.5 hours).  Continue to the Vallot refuge at 4,362 meters (one hour) and go from there to the summit, at 4,808 meters, via the l'arete des Bosses (1.5 - 2 hours).  The quickest descent is back to the Vallot refuge, then the Col du Dome, and on to the Grands Mulets refuge at 3,050 meters.  Continue to the Plan de l'Aiguille at 2,300 meters, and then take a cable car back to Chamonix in the afternoon.  An increasingly common descent is to jump off the summit and parapente into Chamonix, usually in a double harness with your guide.

Sleeping that night was difficult.  I kept waking up, thinking about the climbing, rolling over, waking up Barb, and fallingasleep again. The next morning, we loaded the car and drove to les Houche for the cable car ride up to the lower reaches of the peak.  Barb took the car and went shopping in Geneva.

John and I paid $9 each for round-trip tickets on the cable car, and hauled our packs into the swaying car.  There was no one else in the station.  After a few minutes, an attendant peered in at us, nodded, and shut the door.  The cab lurched out through an opening in the building's side. We looked out the windows.  Forests faded away into the mist on both sides.  The far side of the valley was obscured by rain.  We ascended rapidly, and bumped to a stop after 2,600 vertical feet at a dim and gloomy station in the middle of nowhere.  We dragged our packs out onto the landing.  We had passed through a lower level of clouds which clustered about the massive feet of the surrounding peaks.  A second layer of clouds moved above us, blocking all views of the high snow fields.  A muddy track headed left from the hut. We followed it.  Rain fell in a light drizzle.  Mud squelched beneath our feet.  The trail followed the rounded shoulder of the hill, and gradually worked its way up into the next set of clouds.

After an hour, we arrived at a way-station of the cog railway.  The station was closed, but we heard the voices of a rail crew above us, repairing the track.  To avoid the crew, we followed a meager path above the line for a few hundred yards.  The path disappeared, leaving us in a precarious spot above the rail bed.  We slithered down a snow-filled gully to return to the track.  The next hour was punctuated by hikes through or around a series of railroad tunnels.  The insides were dim and wet.  Rain pattered down from the tunnel roofs and pooled on the uneven ground.  The rails ended at a hut that converted into a restaurant during the tourist season.  This was not the tourist season.

We stopped to eat.  Fog banks rolled past, dimming the edges of rocks.  We could see little, and peered through the murk to determine our path. I led to the right and stopped after a few hundred yards; the Bionnassay Glacier was in the way.  It was untidy, even for a glacier, tumbling down from the heights in great frozen blocks.

Looking around for another way, we saw two dozen hikers outlined against the skyline up to the left.  We followed them up a zig-zagging path to a ridge line, passing a little-used stone hut.  We turned right and followed the ridge along a narrow, winding path.  It stopped after a thousand vertical feet and struck off across a snow field towards yet another hut, the Tete Rousse.  The path branched off before reaching the hut and beat a way up through the snow.  We followed it to the top of the snow field, turned a corner, and reached the Grand Couloir.

The Couloir has about a fifty degree angle, and is about one hundred feet wide.  We had climbed into thick clouds during the last few minutes, and could now just see across the Couloir to the water-stained cliffs on the other side.  A cable spanned the gap.  I scrambled up to where the cable was bolted into the rock, clipped onto it, and warily walked across.  The Couloir opened up below me and faded into the clouds.  I reached the other side and belayed John across.  As soon as he reached the far side, a small boulder shot down from above, bounced over the cable, and vanished into the gloom below.

We stopped for a snack.  Behind us, a solo climber arrived at the far side of the Grand Couloir, inspected the route, and went back down.  We turned our attention to the ridge above us.  There was little to see.  The clouds came in tight on all sides.  The ridge was steep and covered with six inches of slushy snow.  We followed footprints up with some difficulty.  The fresh snow made the rock slippery, so that any misstep could send us sliding off the ridge and into the couloirs on either side.  The chance of this happening was not high, but we were tired and the route was long.  Then a long, rolling boom of thunder echoed across the mountain.  A storm had arisen behind us.  Now we were both tired and edgy.  I paused at a cross that was bolted into the rock.  On it was the picture of a climber who had died on that spot.  I looked over the edge of the ridge, but it looked no more mean and nasty than the rest of the ridge.  I was tempted to clip into the cross for protection, but realized that it would be an excellent lightening rod.  I continued up.  John has a more stoic disposition than me, and quietly climbed through the slush and bad weather.

The grade steepened as we caught up with a French group.  The woman who brought up the rear was frightened, and voiced her opinion loudly.  When the lightening crackled and the thunder rolled, her complaining rose to a screech.

Approaching the top of the ridge, we spotted a hut.  It appeared to be directly over our heads.  The route was straight up to the hut.  A cable appeared that was bolted into the rock face.  I gratefully clipped into it.  The finish was surprisingly long.  We plodded up and up and up, and finally emerged on an airy platform where the hut squatted, snuggled against a massive embankment of snow.

John struggled up behind me, and we stood together on the deck of the hut.  It had taken seven and a half hours to reach it.  A cold breeze rolled over the top of the hut and fended off an encircling line of thunderstorms.  A nearby outhouse perched on the edge of a 2,000-foot drop.  The hut was covered by a bruised skin of aluminum.  I ducked to enter the low doorway and my head struck a thundering blow against the top of the door frame.  I entered a dim antechamber, dizzy from the blow, and tripped over a small dog that yelped and shot into the next room.  We changed into oversized rubber clogs (provided by the hut management) and dragged our packs into the main room.  A score of climbers looked up from their bowls of porridge to eye us, and then immediately returned to shoveling food into their mouths.  The French woman sat at a nearby table, where she continued to bitch at her companions.  We paid $25 each to stay for the night, and went off to claim space in the bunk area.  The hut had a well-stocked kitchen, but we had brought many provisions and were determined to use them.  We cooked and ate enough freeze-dried meals for eight people (literally) and drank five quarts of water each.

Each room had space for twenty people to sleep, and had rough pallets and wool blankets.  John and I took top bunks near the door.  The wall of our room was next to the kitchen, so heat radiated from it.  I peeled off clothes as the night progressed, but continued to sweat.  John had as much trouble sleeping as I did.  He got up in the middle of the night to visit the outhouse.  When he got back, he said it was cold and snowing outside.  The 2 a.m. wakeup call for climbers never came, and it became apparent that no one would be climbing that day -- the weather was not good enough to go for the summit.

We got up at 7 a.m. for a bowl of hot chocolate, bread, and orange juice.  I had some trouble eating, thinking about our ice-rimed descent route.  Still, we decided to get the descent over with, and were dressed and ready to go at 9 a.m.  Everyone else was still sitting in their long underwear -- except for a French guide and his two clients, who departed moments before us.  I followed them outside.  It was still cloudy, but it had stopped snowing.

I was startled to see the guide go up, not down.  He cramponed up a steep slope above the outhouse and disappeared from view almost immediately as the snow slope curled away from the hut.  I hurried back inside to tell John and cracked my head on the doorway again.  He looked up from a cup of cocoa.

"Why is your head bleeding?" He asked.

"Don't worry about that," I replied. "The French guide is going for the summit.  Let's follow him!"

"Right!"  John jumped into his boots, grabbed his backpack, and hurried into the antechamber.  There was a crash, and I ran out to find him swaying dizzily, clutching his forehead.

"Why is your head bleeding?" I asked.

"Don't worry about that," he replied.  "It's late.  We have to get moving right now."

We tied into a climbing rope and scrambled up above the hut.  We found ourselves on a flat, broad snow ridge that swept away from the hut and ascended the rounded bulk of the Dome de Gouter.  Off to the left was a breathtaking view -- the needle spire of the Aiguille du Midi jutted from a rolling plain of white clouds.  We were beneath a cloudless sky.

The route was covered with eighteen inches of fresh snow, which slowed our pace.  The guide and his clients were a few hundred yards in front of us.  A stiff breeze was already filling in their tracks with fresh powder.  We plowed through the snow, the rope hissing in the snow as it dragged between us.  The ridge took a long time to negotiate.  Ahead, the guide started the ascent of the Dome.  He was strong, leading steadily through the fresh snowfall.  We closed the gap steadily, but did not want to pass them, since we would then have to break trail.

The route became steeper.  The guide stopped to rest and called back to us (in French) to take the lead.  I called back (in English) that I did not understand.  He swore (in French) and made various expressive hand gestures.  I looked at John.  He looked at me.  We both sighed, hiked past the guide, and commenced breaking trail.

John led straight up for a long way.  When he started to stagger, I pushed past him and plowed through a series of switchbacks to near the top of the Dome.  John then passed me and continued to the crest.  I stopped for a rest and looked back.  In a long line, all the other climbers, several dozen, were coming up behind us.

John looked tired from forcing a path through the deep snow.  The guide saw this and took over the lead.  We gratefully fell in behind him and trooped around the top of the Dome and into a saddle on the far side.  The summit of Mont Blanc rose before us.  There was a minor drop into a wide saddle, followed by a moderate ascent to a narrow ridge that ended at the summit.  Light glinted from the metal sides of a shelter on the far side of the saddle.  Several people were on the summit, their forms tiny at this distance.

We continued to follow the guide, but noticed that he was bearing off to the left.  Behind us, the Germans crested the Dome and tramped down a separate path further to the right.  We stopped to see what was going on.  The guide was checking on a descent route to the Grands Mulets Refuge.  He evidently did not like what he saw, for he abruptly turned around and led his clients back down the ascent route.  John and I did not like this at all.  The guide was clearly the most experienced person on the peak, and he was turning back.  We decided to go the short distance to the hut, and then review our options.  We crossed the saddle and followed the other climbers to the hut.

The altitude was about 14,000 feet.  We had 1,770 vertical feet to go.  The weather was clear, and there were lots of people ahead of us to break trail.  However, we had started seven hours late, and had been going too slow all day because of the deep snow.  We estimated two more hours to reach the summit and another hour to return to the spot where we now stood.  That would put us back on the ridge to the Grand Couloir well after dark.  The alternative route to the Grands Mulet Refuge appeared to be impassable, since the French guide had turned around after seeing it.  The only options left were to bivouac until the next morning, or to return right away.   We were well equipped for a bivouac, but Barb and I had hotel reservations all over France that were tightly scheduled, and I had to be in Nice the next evening.  We decided to turn around and go back down.  John and I have regretted the decision ever since.

We returned through increasingly slushy snow.  The ridge leading down from the Dome was a virtual microwave oven.  We returned to the Aiguille du Gouter hut, and I banged my head on the door as I went in.  The hut staff was sitting in the cafeteria, drinking coffee.

"Why is your head bleeding?" They asked.

"Don't worry about that," I replied.  "It's late.  I need water for my water bottle."

There was a crash behind me. John appeared.

"Why is your head bleeding?" I asked.

"Don't worry about that," he replied.  "It will be dark soon, and we need to get down that ridge."

The ridge took a long time.  The snow turned to slush, and we clambered and slid down for nearly three hours before reaching the Grand Couloir.  We descended into the clouds, and darkeness gathered as we clipped into the cable and prepared to cross the couloir.  There was a rumble somewhere further down the couloir, a muttering whoosh that faded away into the distance.  It was an avalanche.

I anxiously looked up the couloir to see if its upper stretches might cut loose as well.  There was no way to tell.  I jogged across quickly with John following close behind.  On the far side, we unclipped from the cable and coiled the climbing rope.  There was no need for it on the lower half of the peak.  While doing so, we heard another rumbling sound from around the next corner.  Another avalanche was sweeping the snow slope next to the Tete Rousse hut; a slope we needed to cross.

We turned the corner and surveyed the snow field.  There was little to see, for a fog bank enveloped the area.  We churned through knee-deep snow to the avalanche area.  The trail of footprints abruptly disappeared where a wide path had been swept through the snow, leaving chunks of debris behind.  We scrambled through the murk as fast as we could and finally reached the rocky ridge on the far side.  We dropped our backpacks and slopped water down our throats; we had not dared to stop until we were this far down the mountain.  There was no real danger left to worry about, but there was a long way to go, and it was already dark.  Behind us, we heard the slithering sound of another avalanche obliterating the path we had just crossed.

It was hard to focus on anything in the fog.  We travelled with our heads down, looking for footprints to follow.  The trail split, merged, and disappeared in turn.  Eventually, we reached the restaurant.  We looked down the railroad tracks, which faded at once into a dark tunnel from which the vapor of the thick evening fog flowed.  We strapped on headlamps.  Two bright beams of light cut through the swirling mist.  We walked through the tunnel, and several more in succession, before reaching the midway tram station.  It was nearly 8 p.m.  We did not know when the last gondola returned to the base of the peak, but it was possible that we might get lucky and arrive in time for the last one.  Despite eleven hours of climbing, we pushed ourselves into a fast walk and took the shortcut path back to the gondola station.  When we arrived, the station was closed.

We sat down in chairs next to the station, ate the remainder of our food, and considered our options.  It was now 8 p.m.  We could bivouac on the concrete platform by the station, or try to find a way down the 2,600 vertical feet to the bottom.  Neither of us liked to sleep on concrete.  We shouldered our packs, jumped over an electric fence, and hiked down through wet pastures.  Our gaiters were soon covered with a coagulated layer of grass and mud.

A trail cut through the meadows, which we followed well down into the trees.  The sun had long since gone down and our headlamp batteries had died, so we could not see very well.  The heavy rains of the past few days had turned the trail into a turgid stream with deep water holes.  We tripped over newly exposed roots and plunged into mud ponds from time to time.  The trail gradually widened and became a rough road.

When we found a rough cabin with a Century 21 real estate sign on it, we knew that civilization was close.  The final meadow had a real road on the far side of it, but there was a herd of cows in between.  We advanced carefully, ice axes at the ready, but the cows munched grass and ignored us.

The words "worn out" could not begin to describe our condition.  As the trail looped down past a series of mountain homes, John spotted a tricycle in someone's yard and considered stealing it for a quick ride to the bottom.  I imagined us both crowded onto the tricycle, flying down through the dark, covered with mud.  We kept walking.

It was 10 p.m.  We heard traffic sounds from the highway, which was somewhere nearby.  A hotel loomed ahead.  We trooped into the hallway, spilling clots of mud, grass, and small rodents onto the carget, and smiled at the proprietor.  I summoned my best French (roughly the same as my worst French) and asked for ataxi.  It arrived shortly, and we were soon back at the Hotel Mont Blanc.  John left the elevator at his floor, and I rode up to the top by myself.  Upon opening the door, Barb sniffed suspiciously and ordered me into the bathtub.  I cleaned up, was inspected, and got a second bath.