Climbing Mont Blanc

Trip Start Jun 29, 2013
Trip End Jul 08, 2013

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Hotel Alpina

Flag of France  , Rhône-Alpes,
Sunday, June 30, 2013

Dubbed "the roof of Europe", Mont Blanc is the highest peak of European Alps. It is on the French-Italian border with an elevation of 4810 meters (15,781 feet) above sea level.  On July 6th, 2013, Mike Chen and myself climbed to the summit of Mont Blanc via the "3 Peaks Traverse" route. This route climbs Mont Blanc from the northeast via three lesser peaks: Aiguille du Midi (12,400 feet elevation), Mont Blanc du Tacul (13,937 feet), and Mont Maudit (14,649 feet). This is a more technical route than the standard Gouter route, which ascends Mont Blanc's northwest ridge. Our climb of Mont Blanc was a once in a lifetime experience, it was utterly beautiful and amazing.

After taking an overnight train from Paris we arrived in a little spa town in the foothills of the Alps - St Gervais Les Bains Le Fayet (a mouthful of a place name). A young French fellow who was also going to climb Mont Blanc joined us in the 4-bed cabin on the train. His planned summit day was the same as us - Thursday July 4th. He was concerned about bad weather forecasts for that day, hearing this news we became concerned as well.

From St Gervais Les Bains we took a bus instead of a connecting train due to difficulty of buying train tickets using the automated machines. Once the bus entered the Chamonix Valley impressive glaciers on the Mont Blanc Massif immediately popped into view. The bus conveniently dropped us off at the Chamonix train station, allowing us to explore the town using the same directions I mapped out before the trip.

Orienting ourselves to Chamonix turned out quite easy. We walked across the L'Arve river on a rustic covered bridge decorated with flowers, admired the whitish aquamarine waters surging below, the sunny warm atmosphere felt welcoming and enthralling. We found our hotel but it was too early to check in, so we walked to the Chamonix Guide Company (Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix) to confirm our guiding arrangement. Based on instructions from the guide company we then went to town to rent gear (referred to as the "Mont Blanc kit" - boots, crampons, ice ax, helmet, harness). This gear was in short supply, so Mike and I ended up renting from two different rental outlets. Strolling the promenades in the center of town Mike was fascinated by companies offering paragliding trips - at the same time we could see high above the valley numerous colorful paragliders flying about, free like a bird.

After some effort we got in touch with our assigned guide and scheduled to meet at 8:30 the next morning for the first training day. His name is J.M., an old school French fellow who spoke limited English, but we were able to communicate fairly well by making use of my limited French language skills. J.M. has a slight build, loves chatting with people, and despite being an older fellow, plays games on the iPhone whenever he gets a chance.

The first day of training was on the Mer de Glace ("Sea of Ice") glacier, the approach was via a cog-rail train. I took a ride on the same train two years ago while on a road trip with my partner Neil and my mom. When the train arrived at the Montenvers station we were enveloped by an astounding alpine scene: snow-capped jagged spires soaring dramatically above the vast sea of ice on three sides of the valley (Grands Charmoz on the right, Les Drus on the left, the Grandes Jorasses massif in the center). J.M. put us on rope and harness, then lead us down a series of vertical iron ladders mounted on granite cliffs (word is "via ferrata") to the glacier. During this 3-hour training day we practiced gear use - specifically crampons, ice ax, and roping techniques on a glacier. The day's lesson was around how to have near-absolute control when traveling on ice, in order to minimize any chance of slipping which can lead to fatal consequences - either falling off a cliff or into a crevasse. The lesson helped me gain a better foundation of glacier travel skills, for which I had never taken a formal lesson in the past. On the way back up the iron ladders to the cog-train station J.M. made a mad dash - partly a way to test our fitness and endurance. This made me huff and puff along the way, but I was able to arrive a short few minutes behind Mike and J.M. at the station. With his dramatic French accent J.M. said that he was happy with my fitness level, and that "it is possible for you to make the summit; for some clients I tell them 'it is not possible for you'".

We arrived back in town early afternoon to soak in the gorgeous weather as well as switching some gear based on J.M.'s advice. The next morning we were to arrive at the Aiguille du Midi cable car station before its first run at 7 am. At 12,400 feet elevation at the top the Aiguille du Midi is the world's highest cable car ride. Before J.M. arrived at the station there were already hundreds of climbers with heavy backpacks waiting in line, many accompanied by guides. The cable car ride was awe-inspiring: the cabin crammed with 70 people inside soared up against the near vertical north face of Aiguille du Midi peak, giving us close-up views of its dramatically steep ice chutes, sheer granite walls, and jagged towers. Freezing, rarefied air enveloped us as we arrived at the summit station of Aiguille du Midi.

Without wasting any time we geared up with warm jacket, helmet, crampons, and ice ax. Having the three of us roped together, we exited the "alpinist exit" portal from the cable car station. The first view of the glacier walk outside the station was shocking in both extreme beauty and extreme danger. Extreme beauty was the pristine white world of vast glaciers and soaring spires, extreme danger was the route down the glacier: a narrow knife ridge of snow barely 3 feet wide, the left side a 60 degree ice slope dropping 9000 feet to the Chamonix Valley, the right side a 60+ degree snow chute dropping about 500 feet to the Vallee Blanche glacier. We gingerly walked down on our crampons and soon hit the flat glacier below, then ascended a small ridge next to the Cosmiques hut. This route would be the same as the first day of our summit climb. Instead of heading to the hut, the day's training objective was climbing the Arete des Cosmiques - the south ridge of Aiguille du Midi peak. This is an ice/rock mixed route with large granite blocks and several knife ridge traverses on snow. It was my first time climbing 5th class (YDS difficulty scale) rock in crampons, it felt uncomfortable but soon we got the hang of it. This was also Mike's first ever multi-pitch rock climb, and his first ever rappel. Along the climb there were several other parties waiting their turn, one was from the UK. The climbing parties helped each other out with rope management at key places, one helped me tie down loose straps on the crampon. Accidentally, J.M. hit his nose on Mike's helmet-mount GoPro camera and bled for the next few minutes. In-between some French cussing he continued to shepherd us up the amazingly exposed and dramatic ridge. The Arete des Cosmiques climb was the funnest climbing on this trip. We eventually arrived at a ladder leading to an observation deck - part of the Aiguille du Midi cable car station. By this time J.M.'s nose stopped bleeding, he returned to smiles. Tourists at the observation deck admiringly asked questions about our gear and what we were doing. It was an exciting day.

The next day (Wednesday) there was light rain in Chamonix all day before our scheduled meet-up time with J.M. Our original plan was to meet at 3 pm at the Aiguille du Midi cable car station for ascent to the Cosmiques hut in the afternoon. When J.M. met us, we discussed changing plans since the weather forecast called for 70 kilometers per hour (43 miles per hour) winds on our planned summit day (Thursday). The condition seemed unfavorable. We decided to continue with the same plan, but also made a backup plan of ascending on Friday or Saturday, both of which had sunny weather forecasts. For the backup plan we would go with a different guide since J.M. was already booked on Friday. J.M. confirmed the Cosmiques hut's availability on Friday, and that a new guide from the Chamonix Guide Company would be available.

We went up to the Cosmiques hut under a light snow fall in the afternoon, and had dinner with a number of other climbing parties from different countries - France, Italy, Netherlands, Switzerland, the UK. Everyone was disappointed that the weather had forced them to cancel their summit attempts. The guides huddled together to discuss conditions. J.M. told us that making a summit attempt as planned would be too dangerous due to avalanche danger. His words were: "some people have gone out to make the track to the summit - it would not be me - I have only one life, and so do you - if they come back and are not dead then I would go to the summit". I understood the grave risks of going out on steep slopes covered with a foot of fresh snow, and agreed with him. We went to bed in the bunk rooms, setting up alarm to wake up half an hour before 5 am to make the 5 am breakfast service (the hut serves breakfast 4 times in the morning - 1 am, 3 am, 5 am, and 7 am). The plan is to do another training day on Pointe Lachenal - a small peak nearby.

While we waited for sunrise, the snow fall gradually stopped, revealing blue skies with the parting of clouds. Dramatic crimson shades graced the pale bluish summits of nearby peaks, particularly the soaring rocky Aiguille du Midi and the higher Mont Blanc du Tacul - its top covered by massive glacial seracs glistening in the morning sun. We left the hut and headed to Pointe Lachenal, across the Vallee Blanche glacier next to the M.B. du Tacul. J.M. lead us to practice rappelling/down climbing on steep ice while protected by ice anchors. Once we are done we did some mixed climbing on the Arete a Laurence, a small ridge leading to the Cosmiques hut. From there we returned to Aiguille du Midi's cable car station, where J.M. again made a mad dash to test my fitness. I moaned and groaned while trying to keep up with him, only actually stopping once or twice along the 500 vertical feet climb. By the end he was happy with our speed.
 We were able to meet up with our new guide Julien that evening at the Chamonix Guides Company office. He is a tall and younger fellow, extremely soft spoken and spoke limited English, but there was little problem communicating with him. Found out he's been to the States and had done climbs in Yosemite (including Half Dome) and Utah. On Friday afternoon before taking the cable car to Aiguille du Midi, he allocated an hour to meticulously check our gear, making sure everything was in order. His advice to us was to carry a light pack, and to walk in a slower pace on the summit day to save energy. The summit day would involve 5000 vertical feet of uphill in 4.5 miles. After taking the cable car ride, our ascent to the Cosmiques hut was uneventful. Along the way Julien helped me improve crampon technique to avoid unnecessarily tiring myself. Once we're at the hut the plan is to have breakfast at 1 am the next morning, in order to get an early start to take advantage of firm snow conditions at nighttime. The weather was perfect on Friday and would continue that way on the summit day (Saturday).

On the summit day everything worked out exactly as planned. We headed out of the door from the Cosmiques hut by 2 am, and started walking slow and steady along the track made by the crampons of previous climbers. We first climber up Mont Blanc du Tacul's shoulder, then Mont Maudit's 50 degree steep couloir. The air was cold and crisp, without much wind. Headlamps of other climbers ahead of us formed a line up the steep north face of Tacul. While we were between Tacul and Maudit the sun started to rise, revealing hundreds of peaks in all directions in the blue haze. Several crevasses and serac zones were easily crossed before Julien set up a belay for us to climb Mont Maudit's couloir in two pitches. It was a bit scary to climb this 50 degree slope but it went by quickly. Crossing to Maudit's south face, Mont Blanc's bulky summit dome is finally in view, and a line of climbers can be seen following the flatter standard route from Dome du Gouter on the northwest ridge. While traversing Mont Maudit's steep south face Julien changed the rope arrangement to protect us better from a fall, which could be very ugly here. Below us a large crevasse was visible, further down you see the large field of seracs in the Bossons glacier. The final assault on Mont Blanc's summit dome was relatively easy, and I had sufficient energy to keep up a good pace. Mike had a headache but he also kept up without issue. At 8:20 am we finally walked onto the summit! 15,781 feet elevation, the highest peak of the European Alps. Joining a dozen elated climbers nearby, we scanned the horizon in all directions, took victory pictures with the ice ax in hand, and sat down to rest on the south face (facing Italy) which was protected from the light but cold wind. Mike recovered somewhat after taking a painkiller pill, while Julien and I split the lunch sandwich I bought from the hut. I felt so good and so satisfied.

Julien managed our descent from Mont Blanc just as well. We went back the same route to the Vallee Blanche glacier, then climbed up the final 500 vertical feet to the Aiguille du Midi cable car station. The descent took 5 hours and near the end I felt I had the beginning of a mental breakdown. I sat down and decided to take a painkiller pill as well, plus more energy gels. Julien noticed that something was not right, and patiently waited. I recovered and was able to complete the final climb with a steady pace. Mike was completely silent for the last part of the hike, it turned out it was due to not having taken enough food. The summit day took us over 11 hours but we came back safe and sound. I felt I was actually less exhausted than when I climbed Mount Shasta, or Kilimanjaro.

The next day we stayed in Chamonix and took a relaxing visit to the Brevent summit, where paragliders, rock climbers, hikers, trekkers, sightseers, all congregate at this modest 8200 feet elevation vantage point. Among gorgeous views of the rocky massifs in the foothills of the Alps, alpine lakes still covered by snow, green valleys, distant peaks in France, Italy, Switzerland, the highlight is a panoramic view of the "roof of Europe" - the Mont Blanc massif. From the Tower Spire, Chardonnet Spire, Argentiere Spire, Green Spire, Chamonix Spires, South Spire (Aiguille du Midi), to the "Three Peaks" (Mont Blanc du Tacul, Mont Maudit, Mont Blanc) which crown the Alps. As we marvel at this majestic scene it had still not totally sunk in that we had accomplished the monumental feat of summitting Mont Blanc just the previous day!

More photos of this trip:

Mike's video footage:
Note: click "x" on upper right of the video to skip ads (14 seconds before start of video)
0:00 Training climb to Arete des Cosmiques, a mixed rock and snow climb rated AD (more difficult than PD)
4:54 Summit day - pre-dawn start. Our guide Julien wearing blue, me wearing tan and black, Mike wearing green
6:03 Day break, we were already past Mont Maudit's 50 degree couloir climb, the only belayed section of the climb, rated PD. Gorgeous views of sunrise
6:35 Alpenglow on Mont Blanc ahead, as we hike toward Mont Blanc, a crevasse visible below us to the right
7:36 Final stretch to Mont Blanc. Glorious views of blue sky and white snow. Julien pointing out the two peaks we've climbed past.
9:00 Reaching summit of Mont Blanc! Julien hugs me, then Mike.
12:00 Heading down from Mont Blanc.
12:48 Descending Mont Maudit's 50 degree couloir, Julien belaying Mike and I on a single rope.
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