On 7 September, 2002, I checked in the Compagnie Des Guides De Chamonix, (Guides Company of Chamonix) in Chamonix, (1,030 meters) France. I paid 785 Euro ($785 U.S. Dollars for all intents and purposes) for the five day course which included a summit bid for Mont Blanc, (White Mountain) on Thursday and Friday (if necessary), weather permitting. I found out I was holding a slot for the “technical” route, versus the “normal” route, which I found a bit intimidating, as I had phoned a reservation thinking it was for the “normal” route. I chose a hotel in Chamonix for the extra altitude (over St Gervais) and proximity to the cable car up to the training and “launch” area.
On 8 September, I went on the Mont Blanc Tram up to 2,372 meters. There, I got off and hiked up to Baraque Forestiere des Rognes (I believe this translates to Forestry Barracks at the place name) at 2,853 meters for some acclimatization time. From there, I observed climbers ascending and descending the “normal” route, via Refuge de l’Aiguille du Gouter (Snack Needle Hut). I could hear rocks falling in the Le Grand Couloir, (the Big Corridor). Looking up, I could see the hut.
On 9 September, I reported to training and we went to La Mer de Glace (Sea of Ice) for glacier training. There we spent a few hours working with crampons and ice axes. For me, it was a great refresher as I had not been on crampons since 1987. We finished training and went back to Chamonix for our free time.
On 10 September, we went up to Aiguille du Midi (South Needle) (3,842 meters) and put to practice some of our new skills, but this time at altitude. We spent several hours ascending and descending various angles of terrain. On this day I was paired up with Steve, from Great Britain, and our guide, Fred, from France. As a side note, we did watch an extreme snow boarder take a long fall on a very steep slope, bouncing, tumbling, and getting some quality air time. A helicopter came up to get him, but he was able to walk away! By the end of the day, I had a moderate headache from the altitude. Late in the afternoon, we were released to have fun in Chamonix.
For safety, I carried a 1:25,000 scale topographic map, #3531 ET, St-Gervais-Les Bains, and prepared MGRS Coordinates for it, as well as a Garmin GPS 76 Map S and a lensatic compass. I stored the coordinates for all of the huts in the area, and major summits, in case we got fogged in or had some other emergency where the guide went down instead of one of us. I ended up not needing the equipment for any emergencies, however, I was able to put a crampon hole through the whole map, protractor, and protective case!
As an interesting side note, the guides carried cell phones for emergencies! I guess the days of radios are long gone.
On 11 September, we had most of the day off to do as we pleased in Chamonix. At 16:00 we reported for the big summit bid and went back up to Aiguille du Midi at 16:00, and headed for Refuge des Cosmiques, (Cosmic Hut) at 3,613 meters. According to the guides, this hut was privately owned and operated, while most, such as Gouter, were owned by the French Alpine Club. This was allegedly the nicest hut in the Alps. There was plenty of room and no one slept on the floor, like at Gouter. It was a big surprise for me to be in such a hut (spartan hotel, no showers, unisex latrine, no television, etc.). They have an entry room to store your boots and some equipment. There you get some slippers to wear around. There are rows of bunks with mattresses, a blanket, and a pillow. The bunks are more like concentration camp bunks as they are one giant unit, (10 mattresses literally next to one another, so you could have a stranger roll up against you while sleeping), as opposed to separate bunks like in the U.S.A. All meals are served to the whole hut (about 40 people when I was there) at the same time, and they are very filling and of traditional French quality. No one could eat all of the food because there was so much. Thus, everyone in the hut eats supper together, like a day camp setting, where bowls of food are passed around the tables. Other than that, everyone goes to sleep in various sleeping rooms, or socializes in the dinning room. The hut and food cost about $41 dollars per night if you go there independently, but you MUST have a reservation for this particular hut (phone 50 54 40 16). I went to bed in anticipation of the big climb, trying not to exert myself too much and get another altitude related headache.
On 12 September, we got up at 02:00 ready to eat breakfast and start the big walk, but were sent back to bed, listening to the hard gusts of winds. It was also snowing outside. It looked like we would have to try again on the 13th. We got up again at 05:00 and went back to bed due to the weather, which was still very unfavorable. At 10:00, we departed the hut and went for a “walk about” for about 3 hours, including a walk on a cornice ridge directly northeast of Aiguille du Midi. Back in Chamonix, at the end of the day, the guides stated the Mont Blanc effort would be cancelled but we could do something else on the 13th. The reason for canceling the climb on Friday was that due to the fresh snow, there was a potential hazard with avalanches, and due to the fresh snow, there were no tracks to follow. That meant we could sink up to waist deep, which would be ridiculously difficult for us in crampons. Basically, after a snow, they need a cold day/night to pack down the snow so it can be traversed via crampons, as well as reduce the avalanche hazards. Then, everyone on the mountain looks for some “guinea pigs” to break trail and tempt the avalanches. Since we were clients, we would not be the squealing guinea pigs. That job was best left to other guides route finding for their peers, or tourists who were too cheap to hire a professional guide.
On 13 September, we departed the Aiguille du Midi at 10:00. We walked for 3 hours to the rocky summit of Mont Blanc du Tacul (4,248 meters or 13,937 feet). Overall, it was a great walk, demanding in places, with weather being great for the majority of the time. There were a few places where the trail was less than 12 inches wide, with a serious 75 degree drop for “a long way,” but overall the walk was primarily a grind trying to ascend 700 vertical meters of glacier and snow walls in crampons. Until I got to within 600 horizontal meters of the summit, I was most comfortable in a long sleeved shirt! Once the winds got serious up there, however, I had to resort to the Goretex jacket. When I got to the summit, I looked over longingly at Mont Blanc, 3.4 horizontal kilometers and 559 vertical meters away, but with Mont Maudit (Miserable Mountain) in between, it was nothing to sneer at. We could see a few climbers descending Mont Maudit, but saw no signs of life on Mont Blanc. My whole purpose for being here was to ascend Mont Blanc. Short of that, I hoped to reach the summit of Mont Maudit in order to establish a new altitude record for myself. Instead, I got none of that, but did get a third continent above 4,000 meters, and some quality time in the Alps. The view up there was magnificent, but we only stayed for 30 minutes for lunch, as it was quite cold and gusts of wind kept things less than picnic perfect. We made the trip back in 1:45.
In summary, the guides clearly prefer the Cosmiques route over the Gouter route. It is a longer (3 hours longer) and more technical walk, but just for one day. In addition, the living conditions at Cosmiques are vastly superior to the Gouter living conditions. Also, the Gouter route is more dangerous with the falling rocks at the Grand Couloir. Finally, it takes a full day (5 hours) to get to Gouter, but only 30 minutes to get to the Cosmiques hut, from which to launch the summit bid. Thus, if I did this walk weekly, I think I would agree with them. However, only intending to do it once, I think the Gouter route may be best (easier for a peak bagger). I am in no way, shape, or form criticizing the guides. Fred and Alberto, the two I was with the majority of the time, were great. They never rushed us, they never belittled us, and were always there to be helpful, and worked through the language barrier to be friendly. They were really great people. I gave Fred a 20 Euro tip at the end, as a token of my appreciation for his professionalism. His maturity and professionalism were well beyond his 25 years of age.
If I had to do it over again, I think I would hire a guide and go solo with the guide, unless I went with a very good and trusted friend who had the same ambitions as me for the particular climb. I think I would elect to take the Gouter route over to the Cosmiques, or vice versa. Possibly the most fun would be to do the big traverse, by starting on the Gouter side and finishing on the Cosmiques side. The guides really know the area and will not risk their reputation on risking your safety. A full week of acclimatization would be prudent, coming from 450 meters elevation.
As a final note of interest, the guides preferred to use trekking or ski poles over their ice axes except for the most extreme of situations. In the snow, they provided MUCH more support while walking than an ice ax. Furthermore, they all carried cell phones instead of radios for emergencies.
I hope this trip report helps anyone else considering taking the basic course, doing the Tacul trip, or the Mont Blanc trip. Bon Chance (Good Luck)!