Mt Blanc – overlooking the roof of Europe
It was a cloudless day as I ascended smoothly inside a carriage on the Aiguille du Midi Cable car. The name translates as ‘Needle of the Noon’. Quite literally, when the sun passes over the Summit, it is past mid-day (when viewed from Chamonix). The cable car, or, Téléphérique de l’Aiguille du Midi holds the record as the highest vertical ascent cable car in the world, whisking passengers from 1,035 m to 3,842 m in a matter of minutes. (3,395 to 12,604 feet). I had spent my previous week on some mountains in Switzerland, around the 4000m (13,000 feet) level and felt sufficiently acclimatized to proceed with the climb without the need for an acclimatization period in France. Other mountaineers may choose to climb a different route that allows for a more gradual gain in altitude, or to rise on the cable-car the day before and spend the day in the warmth of the café, getting used to the thin air.
Altitude is not normally an issue for the picture-takers and view-seekers who comprise the bulk of tourists travelling to the Aiguille du Midi, but for the Mountaineer who needs to work at a high exertion output at such altitudes (4000m), now has around 40% less oxygen but still a very high energy output requirement. I was satisfied when arriving at the top, that I felt no adverse effects and so I was happy to continue with the climb. The location of the hut for the night only required a small physical effort for the first day, with the opportunity for sleep at altitude that helps acclimatize again anyway.
Téléphérique de l’Aiguille du Midi holds the record as the highest vertical ascent cable car in the world, whisking passengers from 1,035 m to 3,842 m in a matter of minutes.
Exiting the cable car, we walked through a small tunnel of rock, and then ice, to reach the launching point for the expedition. In our group, there were 3. A more experienced guide (who conversely was an Everest – North Ridge veteran) to lead the way through the pre-dawn hours tomorrow. That made myself, and then a French Climber whom this was my first time climbing with. We strapped on our Crampons and harnesses, and then short-roped together for safety on descent.
For the onlooker watching from the cable car, the first portion of descent from the Aiguille du Midi to the glacier looks like a walk through hell itself. From a linear view, seen as a near hairline ridge with a vertical drop back down to Chamonix itself, I can see their concern. But stepping out on the ridge and beginning the descent, I was ecstatic with the exhilarating start this route offered, and concentrated on my foot placement ensuring the crampons ‘bit’ with every down-step taken. The fun began when the people coming up the ridge met with the people coming down. A small version of Balancing Russian Roulette takes place. For those considering the route but concerned about this section.. It’s really not that bad, think of it as slightly elevated walk in the park.
Increasing our rope length as we transited onto the glacier on the lower slopes, we kept a steady pace for an easy hours trek to the Refuge Cosmique. The refuge is a great staging point for the Three Monts traverse route, situated at 3,613 meters, serving warm food and comfortable bedding. If you are a ‘purist’ alpinist there is always the option to tent/bivvy on the glacier below the hut, and as long as your tent is gone by sunrise there are no issues.
A hearty meal prepared me for bed, and before long, the alarm rang. It was 01:00. The early rise was/is essential to get the most out of the ‘Alpine start’. Colder temperatures that come with the darkness of night, freezes the surface of the snow-pack and forms a hard layer of ice. Dreaded by skiers and snowboarders alike, the ice layer is a mountaineer’s best friend. Crampons bite readily into the ice and save much needed energy by staying on the surface of the snow pack instead of wadding through waist high snow. It also ensures safer passages across glacial terrain by firming up snow bridges covering deep crevasse scars, a potentially deadly nemesis.
Wolfing down the warm breakfast, my French-man and I were the first through the thick insulating doors between the hut and the outer mountain. Crampons on, we all roped up and set of around 01:30am. In great position and all with positive attitudes, we begin our ascent.
The route starts by climbing up the North-west face of Mont Blanc du Tacul. There is no right or wrong path, it changes all of the time and the route must be taken with a mind of crevasses and Seracs. But it is almost impossible to avoid exposure to serac fall; so quick climbing is essential to reduce risk. We climbed through to Epaule du Mont Blanc du Tacul around 4100 meters.
it is almost impossible to avoid exposure to serac fall; so quick climbing is essential to reduce risk.
We continued south through to Col Maudit, 4035 meters. Then, we began up the North face of Mont Maudit. The face is rather steep, and crosses over a crevasse before a steep (50-60°) ascent gets the ice-axe arm warmed up. For extra safety one can belay down from the top, but the snow was a good condition during our ascent and we continued unsecured.
Once we rose over the ridge on the Col du Mont Maudit, we were hit by a strong icy wind blowing from the South. The temperature was cold, -15°C (5 Fahrenheit). We came to the Col de la Brenva at 4303 meters, and began climbing Mur de la Côte to reach Plateau de Petits Rochers Rouges.
From the Plateau, the summit of Mont Blanc looks deceptively close, and the final 1 hour 30 minutes to the summit were surprisingly tough. The wind was bitingly cold, and small ice particles were driven like sand into my face with the strength of the gusts. By the time we reached the summit at 4808 meters just after sunrise, I was satisfyingly worn out from the altitude and my thighs were burning. Both good signs of a solid effort!
There were around 10 other people on the summit, which is a flat ridge about 30 meters in length. These climbers had come up via the ‘easier’ Gouter route. We were the first to ascend via the Three Monts route for the day. Mountaineering is not a race, but a good benchmark to pitch your fitness against others when all attempting the same route! Needless to say the views were stunning, looking out across the roof of Western Europe. Mountains, ice, and pure beauty in every direction. It surely must be seen to be experienced!
We decided to descend via the Gouter route, as the wind would have made for a miserable descent via the Three Monts route we had ascended by. The Gouter route is the ‘classic’ route up Mt Blanc, and hence there were many people of varying abilities still ascending slowly up the route during our descent. The descent was long and tiring, but without problems.
We crossed the Grand Couloir (a.k.a Death Valley) without incident, and then descended (some parts sliding down in the slow with the ice-axe as a brake, great fun!) to the Nid d’Aigle tramway station.
A huge day, but immensely rewarding and highly recommended.
Stats: 11 hours 6 minutes total time. +1571 meters ascent, -2391 meters descent (all on foot). 4808 highest point. 02/07/13