August 2003 was a pretty bad month for alpine climbing in the Mont Blanc Massif. Lots of rock falling in the "classic" routes of most peaks. Up to August 22, 9 people have died trying to cross the infamous "Bowling Alley" of Le Grand Couloir in the Dome du Goûter route (the last one the afternoon before our summit attempt). Guides wouldn't go up due to "the worst conditions ever" according to Cie de Guides de Chamonix and OHM. Beacuse of the increased risk conditions and to discourage climbers of going up, CAF closed the Goûter Hut since mid August (no guard or food/water, front door was left open as well as two dormitories).
Nevertheless, having checked the couloir conditions a day before my friend Jim and I gave it a try very early in the morning of Wednesday 20 (took first tramway to Nid d' Aigle) and by 11AM we were crossing the remains of the Tete Rousse Glacier towards the edge of the couloir. It's a 15 second, 40-meter traverse dash in a 20-25º incline. Doesn't sound as much of a deal but trust me, they are the scariest 15 seconds of your life. Once we've crossed, it tooks us 1.5 hours to scramble (max. II) to the Goûter Hut at 3800m. The hut was full of eastern europeans: russians, czecs, polish, serbians.
Thursday 21 was spent in the hut as the weather was really bad for a summit attempt (wind, snow, fog, the works). But the russians felt it was good enough for them to give it a try. Bottom line: a round trip from the hut to the summit that usually takes 7-8 hours took them 15 hours, as once they reached the summit and went back down they got lost in heavy fog at Col du Dome (a very popular plateau to get lost on foggy days).
Conditions on Friday 22 morning were completely the opposite from what we experienced the day before: completely cloudless, windless and a very bright moonlight. We departed at 3:50 AM from the hut (no need to get up earlier as the mountain was almost empty) and from that moment on we started to appreciate the benefits of those scary 15 seconds of couloir crossing. For those brief hours of that day, the mountain was ours! Just a couple of lights above us and another couple behind us. We arrived to the Dome de Goûter in a couple of hours and sunrise greeted us as we were crossing the Col du Dome Plateau. It was cold once the sun came up as the wind started blowing strongly (-10º C). Left behind Vallot, the Bosses and by 8:20 AM we were first for the day at the summit! A great experience! By the time the last group arrived about half hour later we were ONLY A DOZEN PEOPLE IN THE SUMMIT! A unique and probably unrepeatable moment! Beautiful views of the Alps in every direction. We stayed for a full hour taking pictures and enjoying our uncrowded summit. On our way down we did a half hour stop at Vallot to drink/eat, and by noon we were back at the hut.
By 2:00 PM we were heading down the couloir ridge and, an hour later, taking our chances in the Bowling Alley for the last time. But this time it was different: it was 3:00 PM (hotter) and the sun had already touched the south facing couloir, instead of 11:00 AM (colder and untouched by the sun yet) when we crossed the first time, and the rock fall sounded like a continous symphony of bullets whispering around us. I had to wait for a while before I could cross as the rock fall seemed to be never ending. VERY, VERY SCARY!
Very probable I would never try this particular route again, as I doubt I could ever experience it again in such great conditions (uncrowded Goûter hut, no risky passing on the thin Bosses ridge, dozen people in the summit).
- Try to leave in the first tramway to Nid d' Aigle, so you arrive at Tete Rousse as early as possible and increase your chances of safely crossing the couloir.
- If you are expecting (almost) continous rock fall in the couloir, a pair of approach/trail running shoes are faster than a pair of mountaineering boots. Think about this.
- Leave for the summit ONLY in perfect weather conditions and plan a retreat if things get ugly. And trust me, weather changes for good or bad pretty fast in the Alps.
- Bring good quality warm gloves and don't tighten your boots/crampons excesively as you can get frosbite, even in a perfect sunny (and cold) day.
- If you can take a small canister stove (eg. MSR PocektRocket) to melt snow (don't boil, as it consumes too much gas), a bandana (to filter) and some water purification tablets (Micropur, Aquamira) to kill virus, bacteria and crypto, please DO SO! Bottled water prices in the huts are somewhat like unarmed robbery!