20140726: L’Ascension du Mont Blanc (Haute-Savoie, French Alps)

Agency: World Expeditions/ Odyssée Montagne
Guides: Cyril Cavalli lead guide, Gaylord “Ashton Kutcher”, Julien “Ben Affleck”
Guests: Sam, Arran and Mari from London, David from Bristol, Pat from Sydney
Itinerary: 2 days Glacier du Tour et Petit Fourche + 3 days Mont Blanc massif

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The door to room 223 at the Mercure hotel in Chamonix-Centre was opened by a blonde woman smiling widely at me. Sam, as in Sarmite. Russian, living in London. They told me I would be sharing a room with a woman from Canada. Have you been to Chamonix before? Have you done this sort of thing before?

We met the rest of the group that evening; we were 6 in total. We’d be spending a couple days on the Swiss-most end of the Chamonix Valley on the Glacier du Tour and climb Petit Fourche. Then if Cyril deemed us sufficiently adept for Mont Blanc we’d pick up two other guides for a 2:1 ratio and head to the other end of the valley to the town of Les Houches. This would be the starting point from which we’d eventually attain the summit of Mont Blanc, hopefully, the “roof of the alps” via the Goûter ridge. Mont Blanc’s elevation has been measured at 4810m or 4807m depending on your source, snowfall accounting for the discrepancy in measurements I suppose.

According to Cyril the success of summiting MB is around 90% on our 3-day schedule but drops to a mere 40% on a 2-day schedule. In poor conditions the extra day allows more time for the alpinist to wait out the weather, and where altitude sickness is a factor the extra day allows not so much acclimatization but, at least, a bit of time for medication, rest, and recovery. The weather would definitely be a hindrance on our trip. The entire summer the Chamonix region had been hit unusually hard by precipitation, low visibility, and wind. I was measured in my enthusiasm so as to not get my hopes up…

You should never expect to be successful on giant alpine peaks; reaching the summit is very secondary up there – Ray, to K7 Climbing members by email with subject line: Big Alpine Climbs – A word of caution

One thing about the Cham valley… Below treeline hiking is virtually eliminated for those who want to shortcut into the alpine. There are lifts everywhere, and I mean everywhere, that can zoom you (and your bike, or your skis, or your dog, or whatever) out of the treeline in literally seconds. On this I have some ambivalent thoughts. Bird-eye views are not so hard-earned this way. But I’m not complaining today, nope. I took the telechaise and then the ski lift happily.

Getting a lift
Getting a lift
Hiking up to the Glacier du Tour
Hiking up to the Glacier du Tour
We're slowly getting higher and higher...
The Glacier du Tour waterfalls. We’re slowly getting higher and higher…
 We overnighted in the new hut, built 2013
the old Albert 1er Refuge appears at the end of our trail, perched on the edge of the Tour glacier and Mt Chardonnet behind. We overnighted in the new hut, built 2013
we took to the glacier
After lunch (which we’d discover would invariably be, over the next days, baguette, local cheese, meat) we took to the glacier
Big seracs; see the tiny person walking on the glacier for scale
Big seracs; see the tiny person walking on the glacier for scale

About the French Alpine Club huts: yes, they are like hotels! Very nicely maintained. Albert 1er is named after a Belgian member of royalty who is an avid alpinist and who donated the funds for construction of the original hut.

The next morning, we set our sights on Petit Fourche.

the bunk beds at Ref. Albert 1er. Random ceiling b
The bunk beds at Ref. Albert 1er. Random ceiling beams everywhere meant banging your head on them too frequently and at inopportune times. Albert 1er sleeps 120.
Morning
Morning. We’d be catching zzz’s whenever we could due to early wake up calls; sometimes that meant trying to nap in the middle of the day
Sunrise
Sunrise
A team walking into Switzerland
A team walking into Switzerland. During the trip, we ran into lots of Europeans, not many North Americans (none?)
Headed up Petit Fourche
Headed up Petit Fourche
Looking across from Petit Fourche
Looking across from Petit Fourche
yours truly
yours truly

OK. Skills assessment was great, but I was eager to get on with it. Eager, and apprehensive. Cyril, and the two guides who joined us (Julien and Gaylord), were checking the weather forecasts hourly if not more frequently.  Finally, with many options carefully considered and constrained by reservations at the alpine huts, we ended up 1 night at Tête Rousse, 1 night at Goûter, and a start time of 2:30am with the aim of getting back down to the safety of Tête Rousse by noon on the third day. Many people want to save money by not going with a guide, but for someone with my level of experience, the guides’ assessment and judgment was invaluable.

Starting off from the town of Les Houches, taking the telecabine up to Bellevue
The Mont Blanc journey begins in earnest! From the town of Les Houches, taking the telecabine up to Bellevue
From  Bellevue, taking the Tramway du Mont Blanc to Nid d'Aigle
From Bellevue, taking the Tramway du Mont Blanc to Nid d’Aigle
As we hike up from Nid d'Aigle the heavy rain turns to snow
As we hike up from Nid d’Aigle the heavy rain turns to snow

We reached the Tête Rousse refuge in sopping wet clothes and where others newly arrived would promptly drape their waterproofs over ours due to lack of space, negating the very purpose of hanging our clothes to dry. In observation, everyone looked rather unkempt considering we were so close to town really. But some I gather had been at the hut waiting out the weather for some time. Some ran out of time and had to head home, saving a summit attempt for another time.

Those who were not in the bunks trying to sleep, crowded into the warm dining room to wait for dinner at 6:30pm. Dinners were usually soup with a local raw cheese, rice and a meat stew, and some sort of dessert.

More than you ever wanted to know about the cheese-rind microbial ecosystem can be read in Michael Pollan’s book Cooked. He discusses in minute detail the fungus, bacteria and yeast species involved in the process of aging cheese, particularly French cheese and specifically, gray-rinded cheese from the alps such as our ubiquitous Tomme de Savoie (49 swiss francs per kg at fine purveyors, which means it is likely to be had a good deal cheaper locally… a reason for its presence at nearly every meal). Luckily I did not finish reading Pollan’s book until after the trip… All that discussion about fermentation wouldn’t have been easy on my tummy which was already gassy, as it were.

We would overnight at Ref. Tete Rousse
Charming. printed napkins and custom dinnerware!! Photo worthy.
Morning. About early rising, it means that we rarely get to see the sunset (who wants to crawl out of warm bedding and navigate an illogical complex maze of doors at the hut, to peer out the window?)
Morning. About early rising, it means that we rarely get to see the sunset (who wants to crawl out of warm bedding and navigate an illogical complex maze of doors at the hut, to peer out the window?)
Watching a team cross the Grand Couloir
Watching a team cross the Grand Couloir, the site of 27 deaths and 191 accidents since 2004, according to the Petzl Foundation. The primary danger is rockfall.
 a solid hour-plus of scrambling
Route from Tete Rousse to Gouter. After the Grand Couloir, a solid hour-plus of scrambling. (this photo was taken on the way down, much better weather!)
Gaylord-David-Pat starting the scramble; Julien-Mari-Arran getting ready to cross the Couloir
Gaylord-David-Pat starting the scramble; Julien-Mari-Arran getting ready to cross the Couloir
Looking down at Tete Rousse from midway up to Gouter, valley below
Looking down at Tete Rousse from midway up to Gouter, valley below
Ref. Gouter (photo taken on the way down), built in 2014. The original refuge is still there as an emergency building. The huts are solar powered and all heat comes from the warmth of human bodies... While we were there it was at capacity, 120, and very hot at night.
Ref. Gouter (photo taken on the way down), built in 2014. The original refuge is still there as an emergency building. The huts are solar powered and all heat comes from the warmth of human bodies… While we were there it was at capacity, 120, and very hot at night.

The sleeping quarters at Goûter were neat. Mais c’est chouette ça! people exclaimed. The bunks were little comfy individual compartments, assigned to guests and arranged in groups of 12 per “bedroom”, which was essentially one big room divided into tall cubicles for bedrooms. From the top bunk I could sit up and see over to the other cubicles; every once in a while I’d catch someone’s eye and we’d smile at each other complicitly, someone who also happened to pop his of her head up and survey the room at the same time. Also funny, that in a room of adults (grown men mostly), how an fart or snore/snort can bring forth so many muffled giggles.

Due to poor weather, we did not attempt summit until 2:30am the next day. Cyril told us he would be pushing us hard to stay on schedule and that we would not get many breaks. We had a good pace despite my very low point about 2 hours in, whereat I harbored some real doubts about being able to do this thing, and dragged my feet. But somehow we passed all the teams who had started earlier than us, and ended up breaking trail up to the summit. Which I think was Cyril’s secret aim all along. Our other teams were up soon after. We didn’t spend much time on the top; Sam and I just wanted to get the descent over with. I think Cyril was happy with our pace; he finally allowed us some time to relax and take photos on the way down.

was a veritable zoo with people getting ready to go and take advantage of the break in weather
At 2am the Refuge was a veritable zoo with people getting ready to go and take advantage of the break in weather. Here we are at the entrance where the outhouses happen to be located. Nauseating aromas drove me and Sam to get moving out of there
Headed up to the final ridge at daybreak, one team in front of us at this point
Headed up to the final ridge at daybreak, one team in front of us at this point
The shadow of Mont Blanc over the clouds,
The shadow of Mont Blanc over the clouds, sun rising directly behind us
Leading the descent, passing on left.
Leading the descent, passing on left.

So, we made it! Only a minor injury, dislocated pinkie finger on my right hand. (yes, I have had it checked by Dr., soft tissues are/ will be fine)

Gaylord and the ibex; I really enjoyed the descent and Gaylord and I had a good pace.
Gaylord and the ibex; I really enjoyed the descent and Gaylord and I had a good efficient pace on the last bit, rife with day hikers enjoying the sun. Back in the valley it was foggy yet again.
Chamonix-Centre. We arrived back in town at around 5pm after a celebratory drink in Les Houches!
Chamonix-Centre. We arrived back in town at around 5pm after a celebratory drink in Les Houches!

To end with some FAQ:

High season for all mountaineering in the western Alps is mid-July through August, mainly due to the stable weather that time of the year. Day time temperatures can vary between 30C (86F) in the valleys to -20C (-4F) on clear mornings, when we start our day from a high level hut. The Mont Blanc is very exposed to extreme weather and high winds with corresponding wind chill factors. That means, it can be REALLY cold.

Mont Blanc is a very strenuous mountaineering trip in high altitude (4800m = 15750 ft) that requires enough stamina for a 14 hr day on your feet on the summit day with few breaks. There are around 200 mountaineering routes on Mont Blanc. On the normal route from Gouter ridge the main difficulty involves steep rock scrambling (at times on crampons). The last two hours of the climb require front pointing on crampons and finally a very exposed traverse along the icy/ snowy summit ridge.

The answer is that it is never “safe” to climb Mont Blanc or any technical peak for that matter. Both classic Mont Blanc routes imply objective dangers such as potential ice & rock fall, avalanches and crevasses. The Gouter route is notorious for rock fall hazard during the ascent to the Gouter Hut on day 1, namely traversing the ‘grand couloir’ at the beginning of the technical difficulties, especially during periods of extensive warmth and/or snow melt in mid-summer from mid July – end of August and especially so in the afternoon. On average there are about 4 – 8 fatalities / year on both “normal routes” on Mont Blanc combined. (From On Top Mountaineering)

We are often asked whether it really is necessary to undertake a whole weeks course and summit – and our answer is always the same – yes if you are serious about giving yourself the maximum chance of success as altitude effects and sickness should not be underestimated. (From Climbingmontblanc.co.uk)

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