As I carefully put one foot in front of the other I realize that all my concerns are going overboard and this is well within my comfort zone. I take in the scenery on this beautiful morning in late September and feel a calming serenity rising inside me.
I am descending the east ridge of the Aiguille du Midi. A friend who stayed with me in Chamonix for a while has left again a few days ago, and today is my first outing just by myself. We had wanted to climb Mt Blanc while he was here, but in the end he decided he wasn't fit enough for it and so Mt Blanc du Tacul, his first 4,000m peak, was our "big" climb instead. In fact, aside from an easy and short scramble up to a walkable ridge in the Colorado Rockies, it has been my first real 4,000m peak in the Alps as well.
I figure it's a good pick again for today since I know what to expect. On all my outings I only keep going as long as all influencing factors allow me to do so though, I don't have a problem turning around if that's the more sensible choice. Today this point comes quite early: Some snowfall last night has rendered the NW flank - the start of the climb - somewhat avalanche prone. A fellow solo climber arrives at the spot and we exchange a few words about the risk. He quickly decides against it and heads off towards Pnte Lachenal. I contemplate if the risk is acceptable for a moment longer but end up deciding against it as well and also take off towards Pnte Lachenal. On the fairly short ascent to the west-most of the peaks I notice that my physical condition is not very good today, I feel tired and weak. This must be due to the short sleep last night, I'm thinking, realizing that climbing Mt Blanc du Tacul would not have been a good idea in this condition anyway.
As I traverse the wide and stable looking ice bridge over the bergschrund I get my brief shock moment of the day when I hear a short and quite loud cracking sound. I do a few quick steps before I look back, wondering where exactly that came from. On the small summit I meet the fellow solo climber again, enjoying the view. I ask him if he has seen a block of ice or rock fall down but he didn't see or hear anything. We take a few pictures of each other and exchange email addresses before separately heading back towards Midi a few minutes later.
I enjoy being able to move exactly as I want to, in my own pace, without any "strings" attached, with minimal gear, no harness, no hardware making noises with each step, not having to be aware of climbing partners, not having to discuss plans, being able to stop and enjoy the moment whenever I feel like it. Like a Lynx, I'm thinking. Heading in a distinct direction but never in a straight line, going to obvious landmarks along the way and taking random stops, looking into the distance.
One of my initial motivations for climbing up here today was to start acclimatizing for Mt Blanc. I had acquired enough knowledge of the Three Monts Route to believe I could probably do it by myself. Now that I didn't do a real climb today I knew I had to come back to climb Mt Blanc du Tacul for proper acclimatization. The weather forecast stated a stationary high for over a week with just a small disturbance crossing over in the next days. This is fairly good weather for late September and I start to think, if I don't try it now, it won't happen anymore this year.
A few days later I am up here again for Mt Blanc du Tacul. Again I enjoy the descent of the Midi east ridge with that extra pinch of self-confidence. There's a cover of puffy clouds above Chamonix cradled by the mountains. Up here it's sunny and calm. As I make good progress to the base to the NW flank I am glad that I feel much better today than last time. There are parties taking two different routes up the flank. I decide to stay as close to the one I did two weeks ago up the direct start. Conditions seem to have changed a bit since then and so has the route. There's a more technical, short section straight up the maybe 50 degree slope with well kicked steps, almost like a stairway.
Not much later I am standing on the Mt Blanc du Tacul west summit after the short scramble up it, enjoying a magnificent view above a sea of puffy clouds over Italy. A couple of paragliders seem to have managed to land on Mt Blanc summit and were just taking off again. I try to cross over to the east summit along the short ridge, but turn around after just a few meters as I don't want to cross a crevasse with only delicate snow bridges over it. So I rest a bit before climbing down again. I had been a bit concerned about descending the summit scramble solo, but - again - end up actually enjoying it.
For the descent of the NW flank I choose the other one of the two routes to avoid having to down-climb the stairway. Along this route I see a large area of the slope with a distinct break line around it, a large patch that has obviously slid down as an avalanche. I speed up and get to the top of a short down-climbing section. I am waiting for two people to finish down-climbing before going myself. It requires concentration, there's blank ice but some mediocre steps, and some careful moves later I am back on snow.
Back in the valley I plan in one resting day before trying to head for Mt Blanc. I prepare my gear and food for two days the day before and manage to go to bed early.
Well rested I get up in the morning, happy about the good weather. I catch the second lift up the Midi which is pleasantly empty, and take off at the start of the east ridge at 9:45am.
The climb up to the Mt Blanc du Tacul shoulder is almost routine now that I am doing it for the third time, but I'm happy that I'm much faster than two days ago, even though I remind myself not to start off too fast, well aware of the 1,400m climb ahead. On top of the stairway section two Italians with smiles on their faces step aside to let me to pass. A few moments later I run into the solo fellow from last week, this time roped up with a partner. They are just coming back from Mt Blanc summit. We chat briefly, I ask about conditions which are supposedly good, and I continue on.
I take my first short break on the Tacul shoulder at around 11:45am and set foot on new terrain, descending to and crossing the Col Maudit with a sandwich in my hand to save time. The climb up the Mt Maudit N flank is more interesting than expected. The small snow bridge over the bergschrund must have collapsed a while ago. I place my pick high in the snow above and pull on it when doing one big high step over the crevasse, skipping the first rather sketchy looking step which would have sent me into the abyss below if it broke. The next meters require some kicking new steps in the not too firm snow. I concentrate while being aware of the crevasse just below.
After clearing that section I make good progress and am surprised that I am at the base of the crux section just below the Col du Mt Maudit at 12:50pm, just an hour since the Tacul shoulder. I feel dropping energy levels and take a 15 minute break before starting up the 50 degree slope. This crux part is divided by some rocks sticking out around two thirds up, and there are two fixed lines below the rocks and one above. I brought a bit of gear in case I wanted to throw a prusik on the ropes, but decide not to use them. Some good steps make the lower section rather easy to climb. I pass the rock section to the right, staying on snow. From there on the snow gets thinner, only loosely connecting to the ice underneath, requiring more delicate footwork. Once again, it's still within comfort level and I enjoy it.
Focusing on my climbing I am surprised when I'm already at the top after around ten minutes since the base of the crux, and I make the last step into welcome sunlight! I can now look at the rest of the route all the way to the summit for the first time. I enjoy the moment, take plenty pictures, and eat and drink a bit more. Being on top of the crux section I am now committed to traversing Mt Blanc by descending via the normal route as I don't want to down-climb where I just came from. The traverse sounded more appealing to me to begin with and this idea has been in my mind long before I started the climb.
I continue on with the slight descent to the Col de la Brenva at around 1:30pm. Since the Tacul shoulder I have not seen any other person on this route which I am quite happy about. The two final slopes - the shorter Mur de la Cote and the long summit slope - don't hold any surprises and are simply exhausting. For most of it I need two full breaths for each step. It feels like I'm slower than I thought I would be. When the angle finally eases a bit I feel tricked when I realize there's another slope behind, only to realize that it is much shorter than it looked like. And so soon enough I see a small flag sticking out of the snow.
I reach the summit at around 3:30pm after just over 5 hours from the base of the Mt Blanc du Tacul NW flank. It's incredibly calm up here. The sun is nicely warming, and there are only very few small clouds spread randomly below me. And as if that wasn't lucky enough, I am the only one on the summit! Having read about and heard of those crowds of people heading for summit every day in the season, I feel even luckier.
The small "Free Tibet" flag is just dangling there, moving only slightly with a breeze every few seconds. I take more pictures and rest for a few more minutes, then take off towards the Bosses ridge.
On the descent via the normal route I am taking my time. It's just 3:45pm and my only objective is to get to the Gouter hut before sunset at around 7:15pm. The walk over the Bosses ridge is a lot of fun, especially with such a view. Though lack of concentration even for a second could be fatal up here I feel safe, the snow is firm and walking is easy. Somewhere around Les Bosses, the two moguls on the ridge, I run into another solo climber headed for summit. He's the first person I see since almost five hours ago. We talk briefly and set times when I should start getting worried should he not return to the Gouter hut for the night, and continue on. I take a peek into the Vallot emergency refuge which basically just looks like a big tin box from the inside.
I can feel that I have a headache on the short ascent after the Col du Dome. My feet start hurting from all the walking, but other than that I am feeling fine. I arrive at the Gouter hut before 6:30pm, just in time to get settled before enjoying a magnificent sunset. Some of the dozen people staying here tonight keep running in and out with their cameras to cover the sunset in all its colors, including me.
The solo climber arrives back at the hut before sunset. We team up for the descent the next morning, which this time of the year is a 2,800m descent all the way to the valley as the train and lifts are not running anymore. The Grande Couloir is fortunately very quiet when we cross it, and with the sun coming around a bit later, it is another beautiful day to spend outside.
Even though my Mt Blanc ascent was rather non-eventful compared to what you read in some other reports, I thought I'd share it anyway to show that getting up there does not have to be a big struggle with sufficient preparations, an honest eye on your physical condition, and the rationality to not push through against all odds. I can not emphasize enough though that all factors played along as nicely as they could have, most notably the consistently stable weather which also helped towards the great snow conditions. I was lucky having been able to wait for this window of perfect weather in an area that, in late September, might just as well see the first major snow storm of the season.