Climbing Mont Blanc

 

There are very few purchases, that get us as psyched as buying international plane tickets. But for our Europe tour, we set a strict budget, meaning our flight schedule was less than desirable. When you’re at home, cosy in your jammies booking flights, it’s easy to ignore how taxing long-layovers and time-zone changes will be on your overall wellbeing. However, the 36 hours that followed our arrival into France, is time that we will not soon forget. Here are a few photos.

We arrived in France on September 12th around 1pm and by 7am on September 13th, we were in the car, headed for the Bellevue Cable Car in Les Houches, a small ski town just down valley from Chamonix. In the short 18 hours, that we were in Chamonix, we learned our weather window for climbing Mont Blanc was either “no good at all” or would only last 24-30 hours. So we slipped on our mountaineering boots, shouldered our packs and boarded the cable car to the top of the resort. The weather was perfect, we were nervous and pumped all at the same time.

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View from the cog train

After a short ride to the top we did a 150 meter walk to cog train station, like the one on Pikes Peak. After a short wait the cog train arrived. If you have never seen one of these look up the one on Pikes Peak…it is insane how steep of a slope these things can go up. The train had started an hour early in a town further down valley. After 20 minutes we hopped off at the end of the line, the start point to our climb at 7,800 feet.

With hardly a cloud in the sky and no wind we were off. We had reserved two spaces at France’s newest, and highest hut, Refuge Du Gouter. Here is Liz’s review of the hut. The only thing standing between us and the hut was 2.6 miles and 6,400 feet of hiking and climbing.

As we soon learned this route is straight up, then up some more, and finally more up. Within 20 minutes we could see the hut clinging to a ridge line far above, it almost seemed to be floating in space. Within three steps of leaving the cog train the trail started up. It never flattened or descended, ever.

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View of the hut from Aiguille du Gouter headwall

 

We were moving well. With our reservation (which are required) at the hut came bunk beds, amazing ones at that, a pillow, down comforter, dinner, breakfast, and a small cafe to buy drinks and snacks. This allowed us to save some weight on our backs as we didn’t need to bring camping supplies, although in a few hours we couldn’t tell that our packs were anything but bone crushingly heavy.

As I said, we were cooking right along. Liz set a great pace and at the 2 hour mark we pulled into 10,000 feet; the half way point of our elevation gain. The weather was perfect, we stopped for lunch feeling good about our effort and progress. Unbeknown to us, this was all about to change.

Having talked with the the OHM office (La Chamoniarde – Société de Prévention et de Secours en Montagne a non-profit similar to AAC) the day before we knew the mountain was in rough condition. What we found out later is that most guide companies stopped going up the mountain the week prior, due to the poor and dangerous conditions. Although we did run into a few guided groups.

Having finished lunch, a sandwich we bought on the way out of town, we shouldered our packs and headed up towards what was stated to be the most dangerous portion of our climb today, the Grand Couloir. It has this reputation because, it is a 50 meter wide gully which constantly shoots a gallery of rocks. Most parties go one at a time, running as best they can across it.

After crossing a small snow field we came to the base of a 2,000 foot rock wall, on top of which rested our hut. We quickly realized that first we had to cross this nasty couloir and then we realized we had to climb that 2,000 foot face of broken rock, loose scree, and a light dusting of snow and ice from a previous storm.

The couloir crossing turned out to be not too bad. Although while climbing the face we did see multiple rock falls in the gully that would have taken anyone, or anything, out that happened to be crossing it. With this behind us the enormity of the task at hand sank in.

What came next was 1,800 feet of exposed, ropeless rock climbing on loose rock covered by looser rock, some ice all with the knowledge that a fall would end more than just this trip. There is a narrow rib of rock that splits the face, this is the climbing route as rocks fall off of it, not down it. The guides stop coming because before the end of the season, which it is now, there is enough snow to use crampons and an ice axe. You simply kick steps into the snow and use the axe to steady yourself. Without the snow, this climb  becomes a fight for your freedom.

Because this narrow rib is the only line to and from the hut, which sleeps 100 per night by the way, all climbers going up and down are fighting for the same hand and foot holds. This means waiting under people hoping they don’t kick rocks on you, all the while worrying about kicking rocks down on those below, injuring, or knocking them from their perch.

The short breaks in the climbing were comprised of steep dirt trails that punished the calves and offered no solid place to take a break. The scenery was stunning; truly world class. The hut, always in sight, mocked us–as it seemed like we were getting no closer. Luckily for us, the weather was solid, as the second half of our ascent to the hut took more than double the first half.

After a few hours of testing our mental and physical limits, we reached the top of the rock face and stepped onto the the glacier. We were immediately met with stunning views of the Chamonix valley, its’ surrounding peaks and the dense glaciers coming off the upper slopes of Mont Blanc. We took a couple of photos and then made the short walk on a narrow snow ridge to our hut….we were gassed after six plus hours of effort and focus.

The hut is simply amazing. Having gust opened for business last year, it took six million Euros, three years, and countless helicopter flights to build. (Helicopters are how it is supplied, on our down climb there were helicopters dropping supplies there every five minutes–for an hour.) The entry is a gear room, where you put your boots in a cubby to dry, as they are not allowed in the building, grab a pair of flip flops or Crocs, that they provide, hang your climbing gear on the wall, and head on in.

We checked-in and they assigned us our bunks, meal time slots (dinner at 6:30pm and breakfast at 3am before setting off for the summit) and took our breakfast drink requests. We dropped the essentials on our bunks and stored our packs in a hallway. The bunks are separated into several rooms, spread between three floors. They are wicked sturdy, don’t make much noise, provide some privacy and even have storage. Our comforters and pillows were stacked neatly for us.

We then headed down to the dining area and quickly ordered a piece of quiche, a chocolate covered meringue, a Sprite, and a liter of water. Other options included pasta, soups and even beer! As we had not had enough to eat or drink, due to the exposed nature of the climb, we quickly consumed our goods while listening to the many languages being spoken all around….it was heaven.

For dinner we were assigned a table with six others. It turned out to be a major highlight of our trip. Together with a couple from France, a guide from Australia, his client from Great Britain and a couple from Austria, we enjoyed soup, cheese, lasagna, and a brownie for dessert. Nonstop talking commenced about past adventures, experiences and insights. Even though we were fighting to stay awake, we didn’t want it to end.

But end it did, as hut rules state –lights out and to bed at 8pm; early starts to be had. Each floor has its own bathroom, flushing toilets but no running water for facets. When you walked into the hallway soft blue lights lit your way and were timed long enough to light your way back.

We set our alarm for 2:50am, enough time to get dressed and make it to breakfast. We both slept maybe an hour. It wasn’t from noise in the room. It was from leg muscles aching, thoughts on the pending climb and worsening weather forecast we learned about at dinner. Our thoughts were also on the pending down climb of what we had already climbed up.

We were also still battling jet lag as we were on the mountain on only our third day in Europe. And we weren’t well acclimatized either as we were now sleeping at 12,200 feet, higher then we have been in a while.

By the time the alarm went off we were ready to get out of the bunks. The place became alive as people hurriedly got ready for the climb and shuffled into breakfast. This meal we got paired with two really funny gents from Great Britain. They has us rolling with tails of their three previous attempts on Mont Blanc, as well as from this one. The day before they had missed the cog train which required them to walk 2-hours up the tracks, just to start the climb.

As people started to head to the gear room we did what we always due before committing to a summit push, we talked it through. The decision we faced was tough. According to the guides and forecasts, the weather was going to turn for the worst in the afternoon. There was a storm coming in, that between that moment and the next day would bring a meter of new snow.

We knew that the climb to the summit would take between five and six hours, and that is if we were feeling well, which we were not. Our legs were tired so we would not move as fast as we liked or needed to, to beat the storm. We were still jet lagged and had only gotten an hour of sleep. Tack on another two to three hours to get back to the hut from the summit and we were starting to line ourselves up to climb down the rotten rock section in a snow storm.

The other fun variable is the cog train and aerial tram. The last train departs at 4:30pm. If we could not reach it in time, we would be forced into an unplanned bivy, as we did not have a  reservation at a lower hut. They are usually all booked, so we were staring a night out in a growing storm with no tent, no stove, no food, and no sleeping bag straight in the face. Once we weighed the fatigue, weather and all the other variable we made the tough decision to not go for the summit, only 3,300 feet above us. It was tough as the current weather was nice, cold, clear, and light winds.

So after finishing our breakfast we climbed back into our bunks and actually slept for a couple of hours, a sign that we made the right call. By 7:30am we were in the gear room preparing for the climb down. We were sad to leave this magical place, had some reservations about what was waiting for us on the rock face, and hoped that our energy reserves would hold out.

We made the short glacier walk to the top of the rock face and started down. It turned out to be better than we thought. There were way fewer people on the route that time of day, so no waiting and much less time standing around. The dirt and loose rocks were still frozen in place from the evening chill, and we were more focused from the food and rest we had gotten. An hour and a half later we crossed the Grand Couloir once more and scooted to our lunch spot just as the sun got there.

After a snack and shedding some layers Liz checked her trip plan notes for the cog train schedule. If we didn’t hustle, we would have to wait for the train on a bench in the middle of nowhere for two hours. So we tossed on our packs and did our best to hustle down the remaining 2,000 feet. We reached the station about five minutes before the train arrived. We found a spot amongst the day hikers and tourist that came to see the peaks and put our feet up. After the short train and tram ride we found ourselves back at our car. We loaded our gear into the back, put on our flip flops and then walked across the street to a small bar and ordered lunch and a beer.

What an adventure!!! The climb was just an idea we came up with a couple of days before leaving for Europe. Even though we didn’t summit we saw some of the prettiest places in the Alps, pushed ourselves yet again, spent a night at the highest and newest hut in France and met some amazing people from all over the world….this is why we do what we do!

 


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