The Mont Blanc
By Chamex mountain guide Pete Mason
4810m. The highest point in the Western Alps, first ascended in 1786, remains a challenge in the 21st century. The summit attracts mountaineers of all levels from around the world, it’s different aspects have routes that date from each era, climbed by the great mountaineers in their time. Chamonix is the birthplace of alpinism - the white dome presides over the steep rocky towers, chaotic crevasses, high valley pastures, bustling towns, the locals and the visitors alike.
How did the Mont Blanc climbing frenzy start?
The first ascent in 1786 was a leap in mountaineering and a new idea of what may be possible. Horace - Benedict de Saussure, a leading Genevan scientist, put a bounty up for the first ascent, inspired by his passion for science. After a failed attempt and an open bivouac on the glacier, Jaques Balmat proved, at the very least to himself, that demons resident in the glacier would not consume nighttime adventurers. Armed with this radical view and lured by the promise of a bounty for the first ascent, he was willing to go further than previous parties. A young Chamonix doctor, Michel-Gabriel Paccard, himself the author of multiple attempts- including multiple tries with Balmat, would be his companion. Laden with scientific equipment (Paccard wished to take a barometer reading from the top) and using wooden poles as ice axes they managed to navigate the Bossons glacier from the top of La Junction- the high rocky outcrop where they bivouacked before setting off. Perfect weather, a full moon, ignorance, courage, and good fortune put them on the top (and helped on the descent), the 8th of August, 1786. The Grands Mulets route, most commonly skied in late spring or early summer, is the closest modern variant to the first ascent line.
Once the impossible had been achieved, the Mt. Blanc ceded it’s flanks to multiple attempts- mostly scientific. The first woman reached the top in 1808 - Marie Paradis - accompanied by Balmat and a team of guides. A maid from Chamonix, she suffered from shortness of breath, extreme fatigue, and loss of speech - these are common symptoms of exposure to high altitude.
The Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix - the oldest guide company in the world and still very active 200 years later, was formed in 1821 (more on this important step in the history of the summit later). In 1887 Joseph Vallot spent three days and three nights on the summit to prove life in high altitudes was possible, and built an observatory on a rocky outcrop beneath the summit in 1890. Astronomer Pierre Janssen built an observatory on the summit in the same year, but the summit glacier cap soon swallowed it. The Vallot observatory and accompanying bivouac remain today- the bivouac provides emergency shelter to climbers on the Gouter route, and the observatory is used for high altitude physiological research.
As the community of alpinists enlarged and technology, techniques, and curiosity progressed, new routes opened on all sides of the Mt. Blanc. The Italian normal route, or Aiguilles Grises was descended before it was climbed by via the Aiguilles Grises route. Two world wars soon brought a halt to touristic alpinism, but the technological advances and nationally sponsored expeditions with their eyes on the Himalaya soon trained and pushed the technical levels further- seeking out ever steeper and more remote terrain. Each generation pushed, and continues to push, the boundaries of alpinism in the range. Speed has recently regained popularity- with mutant athletes seeking to better each others times. Kilian Jornet currently holds the record- lightening fast in under five hours (4h57min34sec) from the church in Chamonix to the top and back to the church!!
A guide’s perspective on the Mt. Blanc will always be highly individual, but the prosperity brought to both the Chamonix and Aosta valley by the presence of the Mt. Blanc is undeniable. Mountain guiding initially began with porters and local mule owners navigating high mountain passes. It quickly evolved as victorian era travellers sought out fresh glacier air and the adjacent thermal baths- used for treating scurvy, epilepsy, skin disorders, ulcers, and other diseases- increased in popularity. The rise in numbers led to a rise in fatalities, and a fated expedition in 1820 cost the lives of three guides. As a direct result the Compagnie des guides de Chamonix was created in 1821 as an aid to the families of guides. This became not only a way to insure the financial security of the guide’s families, but also helped distribute an ever increasing workload. A golden age was beginning in the range- where each adventure to a mountain pass or 4000 meter summit was a first ascent. Alpinism as recreation took hold in the Alps, and, with the exception of war time stoppages, never left.
A mountain guide who works consistently on the Mt. Blanc could easily summit more than 100 times over his or her career, and sometimes up to 10-15 times in one summer season. At one time St. Gervais guides permanently lodged in the Gouter hut could summit every day during long spells of good weather- welcoming new clients every day, and bidding farewell to these same clients the next afternoon. Information is scarce, but genepì fuelled rumours tell of past St Gervais guides summiting more than 500 times in their career!
The guiding tradition extends directly to today’s practice. Most successful parties on the Mt. Blanc will be accompanied by guides. The advantages of local help are many- from intimate knowledge of the conditions to complex hut bookings, help with technical equipment, developing necessary climbing skills, and pacing. The guides are in majority French, though many international guides also make their homes in the Chamonix valley on a permanent basis. Often driven by their passion for the mountains, guides can fill their agendas with enough work to then take time to pursue their own skiing and climbing. With an estimated 20,000 ascents per year for the Mt. Blanc alone, Chamonix generally has more work than available guides in the peak season.
Most ascents will come from one of three routes. All are long, technical, and demand fitness and training. From the French side - either the three Mt. Blancs route from the Aiguille du Midi or the Gouter route from St. Gervais or Les Houches.
The prior is entirely on glaciated terrain- climbing prominent parts of the Mt. Blanc du Tacul (1 Mont) and the Mt. Maudit (2 Monts), typically without actually summiting either. Exposed to falling ice from overhanging glaciers and almost entirely above 4000m, this route remains popular because of its proximity to the Aiguille du Midi. If the Mt. Blanc summit seems close at 4810m (3 Monts) from the summit of the Aiguille at 3860m it is an illusion - complex and dangerous terrain divide the two points. Most ascents leave the Cosmique Refuge, near the base of the Aiguille du Midi, at 2 a.m. to achieve the summit at a reasonable hour.
Far more commonly undertaken, and thus more commercial, is the Gouter route. While not as technically demanding as other routes to the top, this route should not be taken lightly. Train access to the Nid D’aigle (2362m) and an approach hike allow access to the Tete Rousse Hut (3167m). This is typically the first night on a Chamex led trip. Two hours of technical scrambling from the Tete Rousse bring one to the recently constructed Gouter Refuge (3835m) for a brief break. Route finding and scrambling abilities are important up and down the Aiguille du Gouter’s west facing rock face. Global warming has drastically altered the route’s general conditions- making it impracticable in a warmer summer’s hottest stretches. Rock fall in the exposed Grand Couloir can be the cause of multiple accidents each season. Getting back and forth between the two huts is the technical crux.
From the Gouter hut the climbing changes from steep scrambling to lower angle glacial walking, as the Dome de Gouter is confronted. After approximately two hours Vallot’s bivouac is reached. The terrain steepens just before the hut, and the remainder of the route requires careful crampon use and attentive footwork. The Bosse arête resembles the humps on a camel’s back from Chamonix - but the difficulty of each step is magnified by the altitude and growing fatigue. Another hour - and the final summit crest is reached. The terrain is continually less steep - this unfortunately creates the illusion of an ever escaping summit- until the final summit plateau is attained. The descent to the Gouter Hut retraces the steps used to ascend- much easier but still requiring unwavering focus - it’s exposed! As the descent continues oxygen is more easily absorbed, and a celebratory beer awaits in the hut.
The Italian route from the Miage glacier and the Gonella hut (3071m) is the third and least popular option, though it can be an attractive alternative to the more commercial French side. Longer and more dependent on good glacier conditions, it requires fitter and more experienced alpinists. A long walk up the Val Veny leads to the refuge, and the 1400 meters of elevation gained on the approach the first day are only a third of the effort required to summit via the 1700 meters climbed past the Aiguilles Grises to the top. The Glacier du Dome is large, complex, and wild. Late season attempts may be thwarted by an impenetrable labyrinth of crevasses, revealed when winter’s snow has disappeared. The Italian route joins the Gouter route at the Dome de gouter, and the final hours to the summit are shared along the Mt. Blanc’s northwestern crest.
Other popular variations include the Royal traverse - tackling the Domes de Miage and the Aiguille de Bionnassay before arriving at the top of the Dome de Gouter - and the Grands Mulets route. The former offers a spectacular snow ridge traverse at 4000m, and the latter is the most popular ski touring variation, and is most similar to the route ascended by Balmat and Paccard on the first ascent. Both require alpine experience in the each domain. Skiing the Mt. Blanc is a long and technical ski tour for which, while generally only 2 days, requires good acclimatisation to be best enjoyed. The Royal traverse is a mission for trained mountaineers who have good endurance.
Each summit route has it’s own satisfaction, and each summit- even done multiple times by the same route - is unique and rewarding. While no longer the pioneering adventure upon which Balmat and Paccard endeavoured almost 250 years ago, the view from the top is undoubtedly similar to what they must have seen, and the elation of arriving on the top of Western Europe is an emotion shared by mountaineers from around the world.
Modern Mt. Blanc trips are more focused on preparation - clients will spend three or four days preparing and two or three days on the Mt. Blanc. This allows the best chances of success, as every client who attempts the climb has the rudimentary skills necessary to summit. In a three day summit push there is also some flexibility with the summit days in case of bad weather. Nature makes the rules in high altitude mountaineering, and even a brief storm or high wind can render the top unattainable.
Generally, clients who don’t make it to the top have arrived extremely unprepared. In extreme cases the question has been asked if crampons are needed to get to the top! While the guides and office team may do their best to help one realise their goals, active participation is necessary. Chamex tries to steer pure novice mountaineers away from the Mt. Blanc, and highly recommends, at the very least, a week long introduction to alpinism. This course is the ideal introduction to the many different skills that will render the beginning mountaineer more efficient and better prepared for alpine climbs. A minimum of familiarity with alpine terrain, material, and techniques make for a safe and enjoyable ascent. Chamex offers a three day summit add-on to our Alpi 1 course.
Gaston Rébuffat, famous French alpinist and writer, listed the 100 finest routes in the Mont Blanc range by order of difficulty- from the easiest climbs and training days to the hardest routes on in the range. The Mt. Blanc, by the Gouter route, ranks 24th. In Rébuffat’s opinion a climber would have already spent a minimum of three to four weeks mountaineering and gaining experience prior to attempting the route, if one were to proceed in a progressive manor. While certainly possible for some to go from zero to the top in the space of a week, this remains an exception and is not recommended.
Not every climber has time, access, or the budget to spend on training in the alps. For those that can’t be here - some tips (also valid for those taking an intro to alpinism course!).
- Do not underestimate how difficult the Mt. Blanc is. Just because your neighbour did it and told you it was easy does not guarantee your success. Also, memory can be extremely selective, especially in mountaineering.
- Make fitness a priority. Multiple, successive days doing long walks, running, cycling, stair master, avoiding the elevator, etc. are all valid methods to increase one’s overall fitness. Most of the training should emphasise long term endurance, as a typical alpine day can be anywhere from 6-10 hours on the move. You can also find what works for you regarding nutrition and hydration- There is information available for this type of training. You must arrive in shape. You can acclimatise and learn over the space of a three day prep, but your fitness will not improve. Clients who are unfit will be doing other activities- not the Mont Blanc. This rule is for the well being of everyone, and while nobody likes to be told they can’t go it really is best sometimes, -the stubborn, unfit climber has no idea what they are asking their guide to agree to.
- Go climbing. Familiarity with basic rock climbing techniques (and some fitness!) will allow you to climb every 4000m peak in the alps. You don’t need to be a great climber- just do what you can, have fun with it, and general alpine terrain will be easy. Poor propriception and an unwillingnness to trust your feet can decelerate your movement to a stop, or require more effort as a result of poor efficiency. A solid climber is also safer.
- Gear. Shoes are the most important element. While many shops here will rent mountaineering boots, a good pair of your own boots, broken in to your foot shape is best. The boots must be crampon compatible and warm enough for high altitude cold. Boot selection is personal, and fit trumps all other attributes. Also, personal warmth is also extremely individual- if you suffer from cold toes, don’t try with light boots. Compeed or the equivalent (and basic, personal first aid kit) is essential- take care of your feet as it is unfortunate to cancel plans because of sore, infected blisters. Earplugs for noisy dormitories can be very helpful. For the rest of the gear- light is right, and warmth is a priority. Good, functional, technical clothing is important. A lightweight 30-40 liter rucksack. 12 point steel crampons, a classic mountaineering axe, walking poles, harness, helmet may be rented, as well, but it is also possible to shave grams (which often lightens the wallet as well) by making keen selections. Chamex can offer advice, and there is an equipment page on the website.
- Use your passion to inspire you to do your homework. The physical training and the gear are important; it is also important to know exactly what you are getting into. Thorough preparation is key- every step of your trip should be researched. Knowing the course itinerary, seeing other’s blogs or you tube adventures can really give you an idea about what to expect, and will be expected.
Why to Climb the Mont Blanc?
While the comfort of the huts, the generally easy access, diligent preparation, and 250 years of advances in hardware, textiles, and navigation increase the chances of success, there are many who are forced to turn back for any number of reasons. If the summit remains elusive to the 21st century mountaineer, this too is an emotion shared by countless failed attempts across almost three centuries. Weather, foot problems and lack of fitness are the most common reasons why the climbing week may end without a summit shot. But the experience gained is an irrevocable precious future commodity (even if you never climb again!).
Much fun lies in the preparation and the challenge as well - the richness of the journey should never be overshadowed by the ultimate goal. Nature does not create or measure summits - and holding oneself to the standards put forth by men is seldom as rewarding as may have been imagined at the outset. The Mt. Blanc was present before and will be standing long after man’s brief history is erased. Each climber has their own unique and valid motivation for seeking a challenge - perhaps best discussed with good wine in a quiet hut after a warm dinner…
The stars in the dark early morning, the Milky Way in full splendour, unspoiled by city lights. The sunrise on the summit, and it’s long shadow stretching across the valley below. The final summit crest- one of the most aesthetic in the alps. Views of potential future objectives- the Matterhorn, Mt. Rosa, the Aiguille Verte and the Grands Jorasses - all appear short from the snowy top. Conditions permitting a picnic and a rest in the sun - enjoying the moment, congratulatory hugs and photos…. The camaraderie developed over the week - a celebration of the fraternity earned suffering, summiting, laughing, eating, learning, together. See you up there!
By Chamex mountain guide Pete Mason
23 December 2021