IntroductionIt’s called the Normal Route, the Goutér route on Mt. Blanc. By the Americans (not all of us, just most of us), this is pronounced “goite-er” (think the illness) which must drive the French up the wall (“Goo-teh” is more like it). As far as routes go in Chamonix, this one gets zero respect among the local alpinists, but don’t worry about the weak reputation. The reason thousands of people summit Mt. Blanc this way is that the route is awesome. Yeah, theres some chossy loose rock, yeah you need to run across a rockfall deathtrap, but it’s a great route for the aspiring mountaineer.
My team was an eclectic mix with widely varying skills and experience. We had an organizer, a pack mule, an older (sorry LJ) experienced alpinist, and me, somewhere in the middle. Three of us met on SummitPost about two weeks before the climb, and the fourth we ran into at a café, because that is how it is done in Chamonix. This was our first climb together. For three of us it would be the tallest peak we had ever climbed.
PreparationI arrived in Chamonix to dark clouds and rain. For days. I’m fairly new to the sport and have had phenomenal luck with weather, so this was new to me, sitting in a tavern nursing a few too many beers and waiting for either the weather to clear or that French girl to be just a little more impressed by our dirty pick up lines. It was the weather that broke first…
Knowing the Goutér’s reputation as a “walk”, we decided to make the trip a bit more of a challenge and start hiking from the valley, as opposed to taking the cable car and train up Eagle’s Nest, which is how most folks start. This brings the total vertical gain to a fairly respectable 12,500 feet.
Trusting the weather report for clear skies on Tuesday and Wednesday, we began our climb on Monday afternoon from Les Houches, roughly 1000m. We hiked for about four hours, in weather ranging from torrential downpour to light misting. This trip was all about blessings in disguise. The cool rain and lack of sunshine made for excellent hiking conditions (once you accepted that you were going to be a squeaky drenched rat) given our fully loaded packs.
Gear DigressionSpeaking of packs and gear, it’s worth it to mention that our team had wildly different ideas of what “equipped” means. Graham, bless him, went heavy. A synthetic -20 sleeping bag that packed down to the size of an enormous watermelon, a heavy down parka, a midweight synthetic puffy, hardshell, softshell, and god knows what else. I imagined spare down stuffed into every available cavity of his rucksack. Note that the minimum temperature experienced was about 25 degrees. One guy went too light, and had too much cotton (i.e., he wore any cotton). The third guy and I were pretty much aligned.
I went with Patagonia R1 synthetic tee and the Houdini ultralight shell. I find this setup works perfectly to about 25-30 degrees, with a warm hat. I have three pairs of gloves, usually starting in the lightest pair until they are too cold and wet, then slide those in my jacket to warm up and switch to a liner/shell midweight glove. For rests I have thick synthetic gloves (which I’m replacing with mits eventually). Also for rest breaks, I have the Patagonia down sweater stuffed into a windproof Arcteryx hardshell, snug as a bug. These sit together pretty snugly, so I can take them on and off as a pair, and wear the setup over my light shell while resting. Above 4400m or so I threw on a paperweight fleece, as the wind was picking up on the ridge. I probably would have been ok to stack the hardshell on top and ditch the fleece, but then I’d have to either take off the shell to put on the down at a rest or layer the down over the shell (which is a lot less warm in winds). I also could have just sucked it up until sunrise. But in the end, given the tradeoffs, my systems worked out well and having the “extra” fleece layer for myself became important later on.
Other gear I brought was a light bivy (no poles), a 45dg UL sleeping bag, ¾ .5inch sleeping pad; wool long johns, soft shell pants (wore these from the base up), and fleece pants for sleeping or as a pillow (which is the only gear I brought that I regretted, didn’t need em). For snow I have a Raven Pro and Sabertooths (which are stupid heavy for this climb) and Sportiva Trangos. I was racked for glacier crossing, 2 double dyneema slings, 2 prusiks (long and short), a cordalette, light pulley, belay device and 4-5 locking beaners. Some accessories: a homemade first aid kit, one BD tekking pole, SPOT locator, knife, two lighters, matches, guy line/shoelace cord. The team had two ropes, a 8.5 and 9.4.
The Climb - Things Going WellOk, back to the route. From the 1000m trailhead, we climbed to Eagle’s Nest, at 2372m, for the first night of camping. This is a brilliant idea. Why? Two reasons: first, it’s a beautiful hike. Second, HOARDS of climbers go up on the train, and the first train arrives at 7 or 8, so if you can camp at Eagle’s Nest and start climbing early, you can get the route to yourself, for a while at least.
We got an early start on Tuesday, and hiked the remaining 800m or so to Tete Rousse, the first of two major huts on the route. Here we ran into our first obstacle, a Frenchman in an orange jacket telling us that we could not camp at the Goutér hut. This was pretty annoying. We hadn’t read this anywhere (in fact we recalled reading the opposite), and had seen pictures of tents at Goutér, so we grumpily established camp on the rocks at Tete Rousse.
Again, blessing in disguise. We had a lot of time at camp, as we arrived at Tete Rousse no later than 12. We spent the rest of the day eating and hydrating, and trimming weight from our pack. One thing we bailed on was the second rope, deciding that the extra weight would slow us down more climbing than the logistics of a four man team, plus we would all summit together. The team was joking around and upbeat, but I was looking up at the huge crowds scrambling up to Goutér, having eaten just about all our food, with a very long day ahead of us, two party members not ideally equipped, I didn’t think we would make it.
We woke at 11:30PM, and were out of camp by 12:10PM and began the long scramble to Goutér. This is roughly 800m of climbing that we finished in about little over two hours. The route isn’t too tough to follow during the day, but at night we lost it a few times and had a few trickier rock sections off-route. Keep on the cables (but don’t use them, cheater). It’s not technical, but it is long, especially on the way down since you can’t avoid the crowds. Leaving as early as we did there was little rockfall danger in the Grand Couloir, and we moved across quickly without any issues. For all the talk about loose rock, our team did not dislodge a single rock on our ascent or descent.
Rock face complete, we hike up 20 meters above Goutér Hut, and of course see two huge rows of tents (CURSE YOU ORANGE JACKET ALPINIST), as well as a string of about 70 headlamps of the climbers who were able to start early from the high camp. We boiled some water and roped up here. With four people on the rope and super low crevasse risk, we should have roped in tight, the ridges were the real concern and stopping a fall before momentum builds up would be key, but we didn’t think about that and roped up at about 25 ft intervals.
The next 600m or so are uneventful, though you get some breathtaking views of Mt. Maudit, Midi, and the rest of the Alps. After that you start hitting the Bosses and a few sections of slightly steeper snow. Bosses ridge is the most exposed section of the climb, about 40-50dgs on both sides, and the snow in August was windblown on one side and baked on the other, frozen overnight. A fall would be very hard to arrest. Our initial plan (with teams of two) was to use the ridge and counter balance a fall by jumping to the opposite side. On a four man team, this is a little more complicated, especially if your weakest climber is “protected” in the middle of the rope, as they could go down and drag a second to one side of the ridge. We didn’t worry too much on the way up, on the way down things were different.
The second problem with our tie ins being so spread out is that we didn’t talk much on the way up. It was hard to assess how people are doing in the group, as long as we got a thumbs up every 30 minutes or so we just kept going. It was like that the last few hundred meters as we pushed to the summit, 4800m. My lifetime high point.
The Climb - Things Going Less WellWhen we get to the top, it was clear that one of our climbers was in bad shape. Blue lips, bleary eyed, minimally responsive. We realized we had a serious situation that could deteriorate very quickly and cut short any summit celebration. We gave him my down/hardshell combo jacket and made him drink a couple of sips of water while we worked out the rope strategy. This was complicated.
We clearly didn’t want him in the middle of the rope, his chances of falling were too high, and if he brought a second over to the same side of the ridge that would probably wipe us all. I should have mentioned the consequences on both sides were big if you didn’t arrest after 20m or so, cliffs, gnarly crevasses, ugliness. We decided we wanted him at the front of the rope, downhill, so a fall would hit the team with the least force and we would be able to see it immediately and arrest before it got bad. Had we been a little smarter we also would have shortened the rope, but we didn’t.
Quickly we realized that with the sick guy in the front we wouldn’t move at all. He was too out of it to move quickly and getting down asap was pretty high on our list of objectives. We decided to have one of us unclip from the rope, and solo in front of him so he would have footsteps to follow. That still gave two people to arrest his fall, and the risk for the solo climber was within their comfort zone.
Ok, the solo climber was me and it wasn’t really in my “comfort zone”. It was what I thought was safest for the whole group, myself included. If we didn’t get down fast, it was going to get worse. We made difficult progress down the ridge, passing was nerve-racking, but no way around it. Waiting behind slow groups in single file. Wind whipping along the ridge. We kept moving. The sick guy was able to follow my steps with a little encouragement. Then we got into a rhythm. Then we got off the ridge.
We made it the rest of the way to the emergency hut, and made some warm food (ok, so the guy who brought 80lbs of stuff did have the extra food which came in damn handy right there and to his credit he didn’t complain once about the weight, and kept up no problem). With every foot of descent after that things improved, until he was looking beat but not bad, then just tired like the rest of us.
The EndWe managed the rest of the descent to the train, where you should ask for standing room only alpinist tickets, which they sell even if the train is fully booked (this REALLY pisses off tourists that were just told the train is full and they have to walk 2 hours down the mountain. Bravo to France for this respect to mountaineering and a long days climb).
In total it was about 12,500ft of climbing, and four strangers, now friends, made it to the summit and back, safe and sound.
The experience brought up a number of questions for me regarding self rescue. Balancing the ability of a healthy leader to make downward progress vs. the likelihood of an unseen fall creating big forces on the rope vs. roping up at all was something I had read about but never lived through. It is hard to do. It is hard to agree on a plan in the moment, especially without a clear leader.
On my next climb, I will think about navigating the crux with one man down, and about how the strategy should change depending on who is hurting, or how bad they are hurt. This doesn’t create a locked down plan to execute, but helps you reason through and balance your options. Every situation requires reasoning and judgment, an understanding of the route, risks, weather, the experience of each climber, the degree of injury, and a hundred other factors. But it is worth it to take a moment and think about these things from the safety of camp. Lesson learned.