This trip report won't just deal with climbing. The trip started way before we set foot on the mountain. Best case scenario, this TR helps other flatlander yankees who want to slog up Mont Blanc.
When my buddy Brian moved to Geneva, we started kicking around the idea of "hiking an Alp" at some point. We settled on Mont Blanc for probably the same reasons a slew of other people do. I dunno, it's Mont Blanc. I knew we could take on the Gouter Route without hiring a guide. This was convenient, because I couldn't afford a guide after paying my way to Europe.
We had a three-man team. Me and Brian are old college friends. We had recently hiked Katahdin together. He had no technical climbing experience, just decent fitness and a good dose of stubbornness. Turns out that's all you need on this route. I found Darren through summitpost.org. He was exactly what I was looking for: a third guy who had at least as much experience as me (he had more) to balance the team and take some pressure off me. Most importantly, Darren was serious about the climb, and never once did I fear he would flake out. We wouldn't meet in person til Chamonix, but logistical emails began months in advance.
Gear, food, planes, trains, cable cars, huts vs. tents, acclimatization, etc. Yeah, there are logistics to work out. The huts vs. tents thing was interesting. I'd heard bad things about the Gouter Refuge in particular, and I was leaning towards bringing a tent and camping out. I like the purity of the tent, and I hate crowds. The other two guys were leaning more towards huts, though, and I didn't care enough to really fight it. I just looked at it as less stuff to carry up the mountain. Through Darren's persistent phone calls, we secured a night at the Tete Rousse and a night at the Gouter Refuge.
So we were pretty much locked into a four-day window for climbing this thing. That means you just hope for good weather and get in shape. I busted my big toe pretty bad about a month before the climb. After two weeks, I could walk normally again, so I hiked Camels Hump where I rolled my ankle. It swelled up like a purple balloon. Yeah, so my last month of "training" wasn't all that. I felt good, though.
My flight out of Burlington, VT was delayed because of rain in Newark. I missed my connecting flight from Newark to Geneva, and was told to go to customer service. After waiting in line for half an hour, I got to be interrupted repeatedly by a Continental "customer service" rep who said that if I ran to a certain gate, I might be able to get to Geneva via Frankfurt and arrive only six hours late. She also assured me that my checked bag (all my gear) would not make it to Europe for at least a couple days after I had arrived. When I tried asking her to do whatever she could to get my bag on the plane, she interrupted me. I wanted to go Larry David on her ass, but I didn't have time. I ran to the gate, where they let me on the flight to Frankfurt and told me my bag would probably
make it as well, since they could send a message to the bag room to throw it on the plane.
Why do I rehash these airport annoyances? Because I remember looking at them as part of the climb. I knew that if I lost my head and wasted a bunch of energy on this nonsense, I wouldn't have anything left in a couple days. Transcontinental jet lag would be enough, thank you. So I flew to Frankfurt without knowing if my gear would make it. It really would have effed up our itinerary had it not, but it did. Geneva had its own tram/train debacle, complete with frantic running with a 45 lb. pack. Eventually, Brian and I were en route to the birthplace of alpinism.
Train to Chamonix
By the time I laid down in a hostel in Chamonix, I had been on the go for 32 hours with maybe one hour of sleep on the plane. But I was in Chamonix, and so was my gear, and man was it a cool feeling.
To Tete Rousse
We were supposed to have met Darren at the hostel the afternoon before, but travel delays ruined that plan. In the morning, we all figured out who was who, and the team of three was together in person. Darren was a wiry little Australian guy whose positive attitude and energetic demeanor I liked instantly. I drank some coffee out of a glass bowl and ate some bread that I was sure would be followed by breakfast but no, the bread was the breakfast, and then we three went into town so Brian could rent some gear. What gear I couldn't lend Brian, he managed to rent at Snell Sports in about ten minutes with no hassle. Boots, crampons, ax, helmet, harness. Chamonix is awesome.
From the hostel window, my first view of MB
All geared up and psyched, we hopped a bus to the charming little town of Les Houches. From Les Houches, we took the telepherique (suspended cable car) to Bellevue. Now, ordinarily, one would take the Tramway du Mont Blanc from Bellevue (or even Saint-Gervais) to Nid d'Aigle, the last tram stop at 2372 meters, and hike from there. However, why would any transportation work smoothly for me? Due to track repairs or something, the tram wasn't running to Nid d'Aigle (Eagle's Nest), so our hike began instead at Bellevue, 1800 meters. So OK, about 600 extra meters of hiking. No big deal. Soon, we were at the bottom of the Glacier de Bionnassay.
Glacier de Bionnassay
Gear note: We were all wearing sneakers at this point, with mountain boots in our packs. I had Scarpa Invernos weighing me down every step of the approach to Tete Rousse. Nobody in Europe uses Invernos. I was literally the only jackass on the mountain with such clunky plastic boots. If you do this route, do yourself a favor: Wear boots that are appropriate for both the dry, rugged approach AND the snowy summit day. If you own Invernos or whatever, leave them at home, rent Scarpa Mont Blancs in Chamonix, and wear them the whole time. Carrying huge plastic boots in your pack sucks.
OK. Anyway, above Nid d'Aigle, plants grow scarce and annoying little boulders are everywhere. It is so dry, and there are so many damn rocks. More on this later. The alpine ibexes are cute, though.
Oh good, more loose boulders and stuff.
We passed by a simplistic refuge (a good, cost-free alternative to the Tete Rousse), then did switchbacks up this ugly spur until we got to the Glacier de Tete Rousse. The rock in this area is rotten as all hell. In fact, a recent massive rockfall had prompted the powers that be to cordon off a big section of the upper glacier with the kind of neon orange plastic fencing one would normally see on a construction site. The orange plastic means don't walk there, don't camp there, don't be there. Rocks will hit you, and it won't be cool. So just below the orange, we walked across the glacier to the Tete Rousse hut. I had never been on a glacier before, and it was pretty creepy doing it in just bare sneakers. However, this is a tiny little glacier, no crevasses, and totally safe. Except for the possible death rocks.
Tete Rousse Glacier stream from which we boiled water
So there we were at the Tete Rousse hut. It was lovely to take my pack off and vow to never again carry my plastic boots on my back. It only took a couple days to break that vow. Anyway, so the Tete Rousse hut has lockers where you pop in one euro coin (bring at least one euro coin!) as collateral and you can securely stow some gear. This came in handy, as we left our sneakers and some other odds and ends under lock and key while we moved higher up the mountain.
I'm all happy to be beneath the Aiguille de Gouter, and Brian's like, "This mountaineering stuff is silly."
Water note: I brought my JetBoil, which was a great decision. I highly recommend bringing a stove, unless you are rich and don't mind paying a ton of euros for bottled water at the huts. Being American, I lost money just by showing up in Europe with dollars. Plus, I'm a poor-ass grad student, plus I like actually doing, like, outdoorsy stuff like using a camp stove. Darren was way into the stove, and put me to shame with the amount of water he boiled at Tete Rousse. We got it from rivulets on the glacier, just a few minutes' walk from the hut.
Food note: I'm an idiot. For whatever reason, I left my freeze dried dinners in Geneva, saying, "The huts feed us anyway, so..." Yeah, the huts feed you, but it'll cost ya about 30 bucks for dinner, more if you want dinner and breakfast (which, remember, is bread). Now, when I ate dinner at Tete Rousse, it was a great experience. I hadn't eaten hot, cooked food since before I left Vermont, and like I said I was on very little sleep. We ate cheese, then lentil soup, then beef stew, then dessert. It was delicious, and the strangers at our table were courteous and enjoyable companions, even if I couldn't understand what they were saying. Still, I would save my euros and carry the negligible additional weight of the freeze dried dinners if I had it to do again. But whatever, I was on vacation, man.
Before turning in for the night, I was treated to a remarkable sunset.
Twilight at Tete Rousse
Looking back towards Geneva, the Jura filtered golden sunlight.
Sunset behind the Jura
A beautiful glow touched the NW ridge of the Aiguille de Bionnassay.
So, sleeping in the hut. It sucked. I don't know how many times I reminded myself to bring earplugs, and then I forgot them. But it wouldn't have mattered. Because the worst thing about sleeping in these huts is the humidity. A bunch of breathing, snoring, sweaty dudes and wool blankets, no ventilation. Three times Darren got up and cracked the window, and three times someone closed it. I guess some mountaineers would rather sleep in a dude-sauna than feel a bit of crisp mountain air. I slept for maybe two hours. Whatever. Just, yeah, worth noting. Bring a tent.
To Gouter Refuge
But who needs sleep, anyway? Seriously, when you're about to do something as fun and carefree as crossing the Grand Couloir, you don't need rest. For the first time, I used my Invernos on dry ground as we crossed the annoying talus field to the face of the Aiguille de Gouter. The Grand Couloir was completely free of snow, as was almost the entire face. I remember explaining the GC to Brian when we were kicking this Mont Blanc idea around, saying, "They call it the Bowling Alley...and, yeah, we're the pins."
So, if you don't know, the idea on this section is to approach the face, cross the Grand Couloir without getting hit by a death block, then scramble up the rock rib to climber's right of the couloir. This rib is equipped with fixed metal cables for your convenience, and leads directly to the Gouter Refuge. We hit the GC early in the morning, and it was quiet. No rockfall. I didn't hesitate, I didn't think, I just calmly and briskly hiked across. On the other side, I went some goofy way up the initial scrambling part and wound up doing some easy 5th class moves in my clunky boots. I recommend using the cables, although you can do fun variations like this just for the hell of it. I paused to admire the Aiguille de Bionnassay.
Sorry, I have a crush on this mountain
If I looked happy, it was because I didn't get killed by rockfall.
That wasn't so bad
Now it was time to scramble. This rock rib is the most interesting climbing on the Gouter Route. There are blazes indicating the correct direction, but there are sort of a million little variations along the way. Many times, I encountered short-roped clients being ushered down the rib by their guides. Some of the guides were chastising the clients for moving too slow. On some level, I'm sure this kind of prodding is necessary. However, it just seemed annoying, and I was so glad to be going sans guide, free to set my own pace and do my own thing. That's not a knock on the guides--most of them seemed like really cool people, and I wish I had their skills. I'm just glad I didn't need one.
Courtesy note: Before going on this trip, I had heard things about people being rude on the overcrowded Gouter Route. However, my experience was different. Yes, I did have to step aside and wait patiently for guided parties to pass on their way down the face. But it didn't bother me, and they always made eye contact and said, "Merci." This was true all the way up and down the mountain. Courtesy far outweighed rudeness. The route is really crowded. You have to know that going in. You have to be willing to make your share of the compromise for the safety and enjoyment of everyone.
So the rock on this scrambling part is rotten. The face is falling apart. I think the Alps are falling apart. A couple times, I touched big rocks that moved. Had I weighted these rocks, they would have fallen, causing more rocks to fall. There were many people below me. Bad things are bound to happen on this crumbly rock rib. I'm sure bad things already have happened. Test your handholds. If you step off the marked route to rest or let descending parties pass, don't just go leaning on any rock. Seriously. Rotten.
So anyway, blah blah blah, scrambling, rotten rock, exposure, no-fall zones, fixed cables, and then boom, we were at the Gouter Refuge, which smelled like fish. But what a view. You know, they're building a new Gouter Refuge--we just climbed the mountain a year too early to enjoy it. Whatever, they'll both fall off the cliff eventually.
New Gouter Refuge, under construction
The weather was gorgeous when we got to the refuge, and I put my baselayer, boot liners, gloves, and some socks in the sun to dry. Like I said, there were no nifty lockers at this hut, so you just throw your stuff in a bin and hope nobody messes with it. They didn't. Why would they? I'm sure it happens, though. After soaking in some sun on the porch, it was time to take Brian out for some cramponing practice.
So, Brian had literally never worn crampons before climbing Mont Blanc. That should tell you something about the technical requirements of the Gouter Route. There are none. You have to be fit, stubborn, and not afraid of no-fall zones. You must be able to scramble. That's about it. Brian's inexperience should also tell you something about the faith I had in him. I've hiked with him before, I know him well, and I just knew he could do it. I told him, "Walking with crampons is just walking with awesome metal claws on your feet." It came naturally. We walked up the first little bit of the route to the summit while I regurgitated everything I've ever been taught about cramponing and piolet grips.
We didn't get to practice self-arrest. You can criticize me for bringing my buddy up Mont Blanc without him ever practicing self-arrest, and you'd be right. I verbally taught it to him and showed him the hand and body positioning, but I know that's not the same. I will just point out that I was the one roped to him, and I wasn't worried. However, like I said, criticism would be fair here, and I would not deny it. There are many places on summit day where a fall would be bad news, especially on the Bosses Ridge and final summit ridge. Make sure everyone you're roped to knows to yell "FALLING!" if they start falling, and be prepared to team-arrest.
Anyway, yeah, so we stomped around in crampons and marveled at the ridiculously awesome scenery now available to us, including the evil-fortress-looking Aiguille du Midi. I cursed myself for leaving my camera in the hut, then just enjoyed the beauty firsthand. I have never been anywhere like Mont Blanc in the sun, teaching my best friend how to walk with metal claws on his feet. Here and there, a [180 euro/minute] chopper flight (cost quoted from an older guide who sounded like he knew what was up) would bring things to or take things away from the hut.
Why stuff is expensive at the Gouter Refuge
We went back to the hut where Darren was melting snow and relaxing on the sunny metal porch. I melted more snow, ate a hectic hut dinner with the sun in my eyes, then laid down to (in theory) sleep. Not happening. After dinner, I had developed a pounding headache, and the Gouter Refuge dorm did nothing to help it. I cursed myself for forgetting headache pills. I cursed the condensation that built up in the dorm and the people who kept closing the window every time a sane man would crack it open. I cursed the dozens of dudes like sardines on bunks, farting and snoring humidity into my itchy wool blanket. My skin was wet. My brain hurt. I went outside to get some fresh air and use the weird toilet. It was cold and windy. The moon was huge. My head pounded.
Back in the dorm, I tried counting my breath. I tried counting sheep. No dice. No sleep. Rustling and gearing up started at about 2 am. I mixed Emergen-C into my water and downed it, ate an organic Pop Tart-type thing. Darren, bless his Aussie heart, gave me two headache pills. We let some people clear out and then got to gearing up ourselves. I took my whole plastic bin outside and put my boots, gaiters, etc. on in the cold of 3800 meters in the wee hours. So refreshing. So much less hectic than the infernal gear room in the Gouter Refuge.
I was worried that my headache was altitude-induced, that my summit bid would be a no-go. However, the pills and the fresh, cool air worked wonders and I was just fine. By 3:30 am, we were on our way to the top. It was windy and cold. The altitude makes it feel colder than it is.
To the Summit
The first bit where Brian had practiced cramponing is relatively flat. It goes up behind the Gouter Refuge and past the tent area where people totally set up tents and leave them there and nobody cares or bothers them, in case you were wondering. After that first bit, there's this long, somewhat steep slope up to the Dome de Gouter. I led our rope team of three up this slope. In fact, I led the whole thing. Brian wasn't leading, because he had no experience. And Darren wasn't leading because he was too fast. I was adamant about going at my own pace, one that I knew I could sustain all the way up and, in theory, all the way back down to Chamonix in the same day. Darren, our strongest member, went last. Brian, our least experienced member, was in the center.
So anyway, I led us up this seemingly neverending snow slope in the dark of morning, with the wind just blasting my face in. I was on absolutely no sleep, and the cumulative effort of the past three days was adding up. The slope was boring. So boring. The night was beautiful. So clear. As Brian said, the chains of headlamps on the slope above were like glow-worms. The mountainside shone in the moonlight. The stars were diamonds. I knew it was all beautiful, but I didn't feel anything. I just trudged up the damn slope with the wind in my face. At some point I put my ax away and used my trekking poles, and that made more sense.
Finally, we got up and over the Dome, and the path descended a bit. When I say path, I mean track of many, many footsteps. There was no routefinding required on this thing. I'm not saying that new snow and whiteout couldn't make routefinding a nightmare on the Gouter Route, because it can and has and will again. I'm saying that we had nice conditions, and finding the path to the summit was about as hard as finding the path through airport security.
Anyway, things descended just a bit and it was still dark and cold. We started ascending again towards the Vallot Hut. I took a sip of water from my hydration bladder and felt a horrid pain in my insides. The water in the tube was so cold it burned my esophagus and almost made me vomit. I'm a Vermonter, a hiker in sub-zero temps, and a veteran of -35 F, and I gotta say it was cold on Mont Blanc. Headlamp glow-worms inched up the Bosses Ridge.
The sun was just beginning to pink the horizon when we awkwardly climbed through the awkward Vallot Hut entrance for a break. That place is like a bomb shelter. There's trash everywhere. But it saves lives. A couple of people were sleeping inside, hidden in big down bags, and I just imagined them as ghouls of some sort. I forced half a Snickers and drank some water. I kept shivering, and it was annoying. I didn't feel like I should be shivering, but it was hard to stop. I threw on Darren's puffy coat, but still I shivered. Weird. It was time to move again.
When we emerged from the Vallot, sunrise proper was upon us. With the sun was the promise of warmth. The unveiling of scenery. With movement, my shivering subsided and my confidence swelled. Mont Blanc cast an enormous triangular shadow on the world below. It was something I have long wanted to take a picture of, one of these huge mountain shadows at sunrise, but I just didn't feel like bothering with my camera. I put one trekking pole away and took out my ice ax. We trudged on.
The first Bosse is a pretty cool bit of climbing, if you want to call it that. It is the steepest thing on summit day, and I actually had fun going up it. Before sunrise, things hadn't been all that fun. I remember thinking, on that long plod up the Dome, "What the hell am I doing? I could be in a warm bed with my girlfriend right now. Why am I doing this?" Now, beginning the Bosses Ridge, I remembered why--because climbing up mountains is awesome.
Somewhere after the first Bosse, we hit the windiest part of the climb. I still didn't have my sunglasses on, because the sun was so low and dim and blocked by the mountains. The strong, steady wind gusted suddenly faster, and my eyeballs were stung by ice crystals. A descending party wanted to get by. The ridge was so narrow. I stepped aside and looked forward, and again ice hit my eyes. It was painful. I knelt down and yelled to Brian, "I'm getting hit in the eyes with ice, hold on a sec!" Darren didn't know what I was doing. He just saw me kneeling and acting funny. I tried to look up again, and again got iced in the eyes. It was an intense moment. The descending party passed, I fished out my glasses, and all was well. So yeah, have your glasses at the ready. I usually keep them hanging on my sternum strap, but I didn't want to risk losing them in the dark on this climb, so I had kept them in my pack. In retrospect, a neck strap would be good.
Anyway, we continued up the Bosses Ridge. I was concerned that the wind would just get worse after the eye-ice-incident, but it went back to its normal steady strength. That one section was just more exposed to gusts than the rest of the ridge. In terms of wind, Mont Blanc was nowhere near what I experienced on Quandary Peak this Spring when I summitted in a whiteout. It's always good to have experienced worse. Up we went, over a couple more bumps, being careful not to trip. Soon, the summit was an inevitability.
And there we were, just like however many thousands before us, at the summit of Mont Blanc. Good thing, too, because I was so done with walking slowly uphill.
Above a blanket of clouds
Since I moved to Vermont a few years ago and started hiking in earnest, I have wanted to stand on a truly high peak and look down at the clouds. Pictures and words do no justice to these sorts of things. You know that.
RIP Shane, thanks for the continued inspiration--you fought a lot harder than we did to get up this hill
The summit wasn't TOO super crowded. I've seen worse on Mt Mansfield.
Other people on top of the thing
I was gonna leave this hero shot out of the TR, but whatever. Had to do it.
Whatever, I was happy
Darren was a great teammate. So helpful, so positive, so easy to get along with. A highlight for me was getting to explain Outback Steakhouse to Darren, an Aussie who had never heard of it. My only regret is that I didn't have YouTube for the occasion. Commercials would have made it into a full-on audiovisual presentation about America's bizarre, ill-informed impression of Australia.
Darren on the summit
And here I am with my best buddy, Brian. How about this guy, putting on crampons for the first time and climbing Mont Blanc? On the hike out, he said, "I don't even like mountaineering. That's what I learned this week." I think he has a future as an ice ax model.
And so then it was time to descend. Taking all these pictures was making our hands cold. The view from the top was ridiculous. I can't describe it.
Best. Unplanned. Bivy. Ever.
On the way back down the snow slopes, it was warm enough and I was happy enough to bother with my camera. Here are my teammates right around the Dome de Gouter on the way down:
Glad we don't have to climb that again
So this is what it looks like in the sunlight:
Some interesting ice formations I didn't see on the way up:
The elegant ridge connecting Aiguille de Bionnassay to Mont Blanc:
I have a crush on Aiguille de Bionnassay
And a look at the super-boring slope up to the Dome that had sucked so bad at 4 am:
Note the tiny people
So it took us five hours to get to the summit, including a half hour break. Pretty standard, I guess. Certainly not fast, but not ridiculously slow. Now, the plan was to descend to Gouter Refuge, unrope and regroup, descend the rock rib to Tete Rousse, hike all the way down past Nid d'Aigle, get to Bellevue before the telepherique stopped running at 5:30 pm, take the lift to Les Houches, take the bus from Les Houches back to Chamonix, check into the hostel and be drinking victory beer by nightfall.
Well, that didn't happen for all of us. At the top of the rock rib is where we split up. Darren, still feeling fresh and able to move quickly, took off down the face. We agreed that we would just meet him back in Chamonix. If we didn't make the last lift at 5:30 pm, we would just have to hike the additional couple thousand feet to Les Houches to catch a bus. Yes, all very simple in theory.
The fact was, my legs didn't want to descend the rock rib very quickly. Neither did Brian's. We were tired. I hate being tired and having a deadline. So rather than rush down the steep scrambling sections, I did what I always do and went at a safe, sustainable pace. Darren did the same--it's just that his safe, sustainable pace was a good deal quicker than ours at that point.
So by the time Brian and I limped into Tete Rousse, it was obvious that we weren't making the last lift from Bellevue to Les Houches. Neither one of us wanted to even try to stay at Tete Rousse again, so we kept hiking. Across the Tete Rousse Glacier, down the ugly switchbacks, down this now-hideous valley of loose boulders. I kept getting thirsty. The Invernos were in my pack again, sneakers on my feet. Vow broken. We finally got to Nid d'Aigle with tired legs and parched throats. Now, Nid d'Aigle is at 2372 meters. We started the day at 3800 meters, climbed to 4810, then descended over 2438 meters. That's a descent of about 8,000 feet. So, yeah, sore quads. We threw our packs down at Nid d'Aigle and started thinking. Brian noticed a guy sleeping in the supposedly temporarily abandoned tram station. I took note.
Nid d'Aigle, a cool place to be exhausted
I busted out the oh-so-clutch JetBoil and boiled up several liters of glacial stream water, mulling over our options. Twilight would be upon us soon, and I didn't really see the point of hiking all the way past Bellevue down to Les Houches. We doubted the buses from Les Houches would still be running to Cham. Even if we got to Cham, what would be the point? It may even be too late to check into the hostel. I boiled water and stared at the north wall of the NW ridge of Bionnassay. Do people climb this thing?
Do people climb this thing?
The glacier cracked and moaned. Seracs fell. Alpine ibexes grazed as the sky grew purple. We made one sort of half-hearted start down the trail towards town, then made the right choice. Why hike in the dark towards closed-down towns? We had water, food, shelter. We walked back up to Nid d'Aigle and went inside. It was a vestibule-type room. Floor. Walls. OK, we would sleep here. Suddenly, a headlamp appeared on the other side of the door. The door opened, and a smiling French couple beckoned us farther into the station. They pointed to a room full of bunks and blankets. Then they pointed to a bathroom with running water. What? For real? I would have been content curling up in my bivy sack on the ground next to the ibexes, but this was downright heavenly.
Back to Town and Closing Notes
Next morning, we did something really easy. We followed the tram tracks from Nid d'Aigle to the next tram stop down, which WAS functioning. I took in some scenery while we waited for the tram.
Ah, foliage and buildings
Suddenly, a sound like thunder pierced the air. It was a 13,000 cubic meter rockfall coming off the Dru. We just happened to see it.
You can see the dust cloud rising--it would spread
What then? The tram came, we got off at Bellevue, took the lift down to Les Houches, then the bus back to Cham. Once in Chamonix, we were able to look up and admire the thing we'd just climbed.
We were up there?
We went to a pizza place in our dirty clothes with our big packs with sharp things attached to them, and were welcomed with smiles to sit among the clean, well-dressed folks. We each devoured an entire pizza and reveled in the soap in the bathroom. I love Chamonix.
Au revoir. I'll be back.
Then there was nothing left to do but go back to Geneva and unwind. Jump off a bridge into the Rhone, play pub quiz, eat freeze dried stroganoff that should have come up the mountain. That kind of thing. Oh, and drink the cheapest beer possible. I said to Brian, "I want to drink the Labatt of France and/or Switzerland."
Make every Franc count
THINGS I WISHED I'D BROUGHT:
-hand sanitizer--I don't know how I didn't get pinkeye at the Gouter Refuge
-boots that are appropriate for the whole approach and climb
-freeze dried dinners
THINGS THAT WERE CLUTCH:
-Rab Shadow Fleece Hoodie--Because of the under-helmet hood on this thing, I never once put a hat on my head the whole trip. Think about that. Climbed Mont Blanc, never once wore a hat.
-30 meter x 8 mm dynamic dry rope--For a team of, I'd say up to four, this light little glacier line is all you need for this route. Negligible pack space/weight.
-custom ultralight eyeglass/sunglasses case--By this, I mean a small plastic water bottle with the top cut off, making a cylinder with one open end. Glasses go in a felt bag, bag goes in the tube, tube goes in the pack, glasses don't break. Do it. It weighs like an ounce.
-Did I mention the JetBoil?
Acclimatization notes: It was good to have gone to Colorado and snowshoed up a 14er before going on this trip. That was back in May, so it's not like any of the acclimatization was still with me for MB. Still, it was just nice to have some idea of how my body would react to exercise above 4000 meters. For me, the schedule of [sea level-->night in Chamonix (3000 some feet)-->night at Tete Rousse (3167 meters)-->night at Gouter (3800 meters)-->summit and back] worked out just fine. Worked fine for the other guys, too. So I think this is a reasonable acclimatization plan for an average person. Staying calm, not wasting energy, and drinking plenty of water helped, too.
Route notes: I failed to mention that, as we were descending the rock rib to Tete Rousse, rockfall was going off in the Grand Couloir. I didn't like it. We were going to cross soon, and stuff was flying down it. It quieted down by the time we got there, and we just calmly walked across like we had to--but it was creepy. I've walked through that thing twice, and I never will again. I'm not saying I don't recommend the Gouter Route, because I had a great experience. I'm just saying, the Grand Couloir is a pretty random and uncontrollable objective hazard to expose yourself to for what amounts to a snow slog to something like glory. Think about it. Anyway, the route itself is technically easy. The "easy" scrambling section after crossing the GC was harder and more exposed than Helon Taylor/Knife Edge on Katahdin and Huntington Ravine Trail on Mt Washington. Still no big deal if you're comfortable with exposure--just don't underestimate it. There are many places on the scramble and the summit push where you just cannot fall.
I've referred to this climb as a slog, called parts of it "annoying", "boring" and "ugly". I'm not denigrating this great mountain. I'm just being real, man. Overall, the thing was great fun, and a real character-builder. I don't really have to say this, but Mont Blanc is amazing. Huge. It just LOOMS over Chamonix. It looks like it could eat you and the whole town. It is beautiful. Hey, I chose to do the trade route, because that's what we were comfortable with. I have no complaints, and I would even recommend it.
It turns out Darren had "power walked" from Tete Rousse and just barely made the last lift down to Les Houches. Good for him, man! He had more legs left after the climb than I did. He was probably sipping beer in Chamonix while we were reveling in our magical unplanned stay at the tram station. I'm happy with the way the day unfolded, though. True, missing the lift and not getting back to Chamonix was the one logistical breakdown in our whole plan. But that was one of the things I liked about it. On a climb like this, a super-popular route, you're sort of on a track the whole time. You follow the footsteps, you sleep at (or just outside) the huts. It's all laid out. It was cool to improvise a bit.
After a lot of planning and a lot of money, it was great to pull off an ascent of Mont Blanc. On the hike through boulderville on the way out, Brian said to me, "This would suck a lot more if we didn't summit." I tend to agree. Had we failed, I would have found some way to spin it for myself as a positive experience. All the same, victory was sweet. I mean, really, we just got fortunate with the weather. Bottom line. As Scott Weiland sang with his lower jaw jutting forward, "So much depends on the weather."
This was my first trip outside the USA. To think that I left my country for the first time on a Tuesday and stood atop Mont Blanc on a Saturday is kind of crazy, but that's what happened.