The highest mountain of the Alps had been on my mind for years and now it was time to give it a shot.
Living in Sweden makes the planning important as flights, trains and buses needs to be arranged. I had only a long weekend available for my trip, from a Friday until Tuesday. A rather short and limited timeframe considering I live at sea level in Stockholm and require some kind of acclimatization.
I had in vain tried to get a reservation at the refuge du Goûter but without success. I wasn't even able to get through on telephone. Therefore I made a reservation at the refuge de Tête Rousse at the bottom of the famous grand couloir. At the refuge de Tête Rousse you can even make reservations on-line!
On Thursday morning I took the morning flight from Stockholm to Zürich. After a pleasant train ride to Geneva I found a reasonably cheap taxi ride to Les Houches, the base for my Mont Blanc climb. When I told the taxi driver my intentions to climb Mont Bland by myself he made a grin and said that Mont Blanc had two dead yesterday due to snow blizzards, and told me to be very careful up there…
This was my first trip in the French alps and I was stunned by the beautiful landscape that flew by my window. Soon I saw the big Mont Blanc massive. I had studied the mountain massive on webcams almost every day the past three months and was thus familiar with the snow coverage and it's looks. It felt good to be there. Finally!
I arrived in Les Houches in he evening at around 18.00 h. As I did not have any accommodation booked I went to the tourist office. There a Swedish guy turned up behind the counter who smiled and gave me some good recommendations of where to spend the next two nights. I revealed my plans regarding Mont Blanc, so Frank, which was his name, made a call to the refuge du Goûter.
It was my lucky day because surprisingly they had one seat left at the hut. Having a reservation at the refuge du Goûter was a great advantage for me. Like this I did not have to scramble up the grand couloir in the middle of the night.
Day 1: checking out the Grand Couloir
Early morning on Saturday I took the cable up to Bellevue up at 1.800 m. From there I walked through the valley just below the Glacier de Bionnassay up to Le Nid d’Aigle at 2.372 m and from there on towards the foot of the Aiguille du Goûter and the famous Grand Couloir with it’s notorious and well documented rock fall.
I put on my crampons, I rigged my harness with my self-arrest sling attached to my ice axe and then stepped into the couloir. Standing at the famous traverse I saw small rocks came shooting by sporadically. One by one people rushed over the ice field. A fixed roped hung across the icefields in which one could clip a safety karabiner in a string to catch a possible slide. However my crampons gave me a good grip and the snow was not too soft so I jetted over the couloir as fast as I could, focused to keep a steady line over the deep track made by the people before me.
On the other side, in protection of potential rock fall, I took a short break and studied techniques of other climbers who followed me over the exposed section of the route. After this key passage, the couloir is rather
easy to follow and becomes wider further up. Some II-parts to scramble through in surprisingly good rock.
Up at 3.700 m I decided to turn around. My acclimatization tour was enough for today.
I climbed back the same way, crossing the couloir in reverse and slided down the now rather wet snowfields towards the Tête Rousse hut. In the cable down from Bellevue to Les Houches I felt a slight headache, else I was feeling very good.
Down in the village I purchased some snacks and water for my upcoming trip and in the evening I had a very good pasta meal in one of the restaurants across the tourist office. On the publication board at the tourist office they had posted the latest weather report for the Mont Blanc area and I carefully studied the sentences concerning Monday with great eager. My French is not too good and all was not clear to me but I did understand that the weather was suppose to be reasonably well, although a short snow blizzard could possibly hit the area sometime during Sunday. That worried me because this could spoil my entire plan. I only had one shot for a possible summit attack. The sky looked very unpredictable so I didn’t really know what exactly to expect.
Day 2: Climb to the Goûter hut
Early Sunday morning a group of climbers gathered around the Bellevue cable station and the nearby bakery to have a final cup of coffee and croissants before they entered the first cable for the day.
It was not hard to guess the intentions of the fellow mountaineers in the fully packed cable car. Heavy backpacks,
helmets and ice axes revealed what they had in mind.
Normally there is a small train called Tram way du Mont Blanc, which takes off from the Bellevue platform up at 1.800 m towards the Nid d’Aigle at 2.372 m. The train tracks had recently been hit by rock fall so the train service was temporarily suspended. Only one option: to walk. Alpine style.
I made the very same hike as I had done the day before. Only this time I knew what to expect around the next corner and where I had the steep and strenuous sections. Obviously my backpack was considerably heavier this time I spurted through the Grand couloir than the first time before.
I reached the spot where I turned around before and checked the weather movements from 3.700 m. A thick cloud base was emerging up in the south over Italy, but the sun kept shining and the wind was not too strong.
Further up in the last part of the Grand couloir it became steeper again. The hut, refuge du Goûter, was clearly
visible and felt within easy reach. However, the last couple of hundred meters again required some II scrambling over fixed steel ropes. I clipped in a safety karabiner now and then to feel extra safe. I passed some guided Danish climbers along the ride and together we watched a huge icefall opposite of the valley along the steep slopes of the Aiguille de Bionnassay, 4.052 m. Big chunks of ice tumbled down in a tremendous and violent thunder followed by an enormous big white cloud of snow dust.
The refuge du Goûter is a spectacular aluminium building attached on the ride of Aiguille de Goûter. Everything was covered by ice crystals and no water was available. As everyday during peak season the hut was packed and the stories I’ve read about people sleeping under and on the restaurant tables all became clear and obvious to me.
Fortunately I had my assigned place to sleep. After a good meal which included some hot soup, French cheese and meat, I watched the sunset out on the ice cold balcony. The sunlight painted the glacier on Aiguille de Bionnassay in a wonderful pink colour. Below the clouds became more and more intense and I was uncertain how this was suppose to develop during the night.
Packed as sardines I tried to get to sleep in the lower rows of the sleeping room. The aisles were full of gear and climbing stuff. I set my alarm on 01.30 h. I prepared for a very chaotic morning and a very long day. I prayed for good weather, to wake up and to step out in the ice cold night with a black sky above me showing uncountable glimmering stars. Those moments I think are breathtaking and are moments which makes life worth living.
After a rather bad nights sleep I woke up before 01.30 h. I could hear the wind outside and from the sound I heard I did not feel too comfortable. No one else were moving. Some people were snoring heavily as my watch showed 02:00 h, the time which would be the wake up call for the summit attempt.
With great disappointment I understood what happend. The snow blizzard came and the winds were too strong so it was decided to abort any climbing. The call was off and it was only to face the fact and try to get back to sleep.
I heard alarms go off around me and I could hear people sigh and whispering to each other. I was already beginning to calculate my chances of staying another night and what were the steps I had to make to arrange that. Well, there was not really much to do but to await the morning, try to get hold of the next weather report and to take a decision what to do. After five long hours people were getting ready for breakfast and climbed down from their beds. With some hot coffee, bread and cereals I watched all the disappointed faces of my fellow climbers. The Danish group sat in one corner and sighed. Some Italians discussed the situation lively. On my way out to the frozen toilet I was surprised by the blue sky and the sun. It looked like a beautiful winter day back home. The metal fence was full of ice and snow crystals and numerous ice taps where hanging down from the roof. The neighbouring Aiguille de Bionnassay was glimmering in the morning light.
To my surprise I saw the Italians putting on their boots and some other people were also getting ready as it looked like. I asked the Italians if they were going to give it a try and yes, they were determined to give it a shot.
Alone with Mont Blanc
I looked at my watch.09.00 h. By far too late to attempt a summit push on Mont Blanc according to my plans and my way of thinking. I was suppose to have been on the summit at 09.00 h. Not leaving the hut at that hour.
On the other hand; the weather seemed stable, at least three four parties were departing and I was feeling good, had all my gear gathered, my bottles filled up and eager to explore what was above and beyond the hut.
The refuge de Goûter was standing right on the ridge and ironically I hadn’t been above that ridge when I came.
With a few steep steps I climbed the ice wall on the “backyard” of the hut to suddenly stand on the ridge itself.
There a couple of tents stood and a narrow track passed by and followed the slopes towards Dôme de Goûter, the bonus-4’000-er to pass when doing the normal route. In front of me there were two climbing parties, roped up and already on their way to the highest mountain of the Alps. The warm sunrays hit me and it seemed that a beautiful day was unfolding before me. The tracks were deep and distinct and I could see clear marks from the crampons made by the parties in front of me. The cold snow made a cracking sound. My watch showed 09.00 h. Soon I was passing the the parties ahead of me. Going by yourself you usually go much faster. The wind was not too bad. The slopes along the west side of Dôme de Goûter felt rather steep but offered no problems. Up on top the “Dôme” was flat and stretched out. Suddenly the huge well known silhouette of Mont Blanc turn up against me entirely untouched covered with a thin layer of fresh powder snow. A magnificent view.
I’ve studied hundreds of pictures of the Goûter route showing the Bosse-ridge full of climbers like a string of ants
working their way up the slopes. Now the Bosse-ridge was totally empty and deserted and the tracks were untouched with only a thin layer of white powder. Excited I walked down to the col and up to the left I found the Refuge de Vallot reflecting the sunlight up at 4.362 m. Outside the hut I took a short break and realized I had problems with my freezing camel back. Next time I’ll bring my nalgene bottle, I thought.
Across the valley I had a nice views over Mont Blanc de Tacul and Mount Maudit. The sky was still clear when I started to make my way up through the ridge which looked liked whipped cream. Up on the Grand Bosse at 4.513 m the wind became stronger and I had to place my steps carefully on the rather narrow ridge. Without a rope taking a slide here would not have been a pleasant experience. The snow was still hard enough to offer good belay with my ice axe and soon I hade the summit in view. The fresh powder snow was lifted by the wind and tossed back into my face. At around 12.15 h I entered the summit platform on the top of Europe together with three sturdy Bulgarian climbers who had followed me up the Bosse-ridge.
On the top I took in the breathtaking views, over to Mont Blanc de Courmayeur, down over Italy, over to the Monte Rosa massive and Matterhorn. Deep down in the valley I recognized the wild Aiguille de Midi and the city of Chamonix. By now the wind had increased and there was not a good idea for a longer halt up on the summit.
After some photos and resetting of my altitude meter I set off for the descent, realizing that this will probably be the longest descent I ever made.
The long descent
Safely back at the Vallot hut it became very hot on the glacier. By this time I met many roped parties on their way up the Bosse-ridge. I was glad that I was on my way down. After the nights short snow blizzard, the grand couloir was covered by snow and ice and the first steep section with the fixes ropes demanded my full attention. There was not a good idea to remove my crampons. Slowly but nice and easy I made my way down the rocks.
Half way in the couloir I bumped into two British climbers. While talking to them I turned my head back up towards the Goûter hut just in time to see a huge block of rock up in the air perhaps fifty meters above me, outside the normal couloir. We all took protection under some rocks and kept our fingers crossed that the jumping rock would choose another direction than ours. Left was only a cloud of dust and a crack much further down on our right side.
In the late afternoon the snowfields around the Refuge Tête Rousse were wet and muddy. There I bumped into to Swedish climbers, one of them I actually recognized from back home. A small world I thought…
As the train was not operating from Nid d’Aigle to Bellevue I realized that my chances to catch the last cable down to Les Houches was zero, so I prepared for a descent all the way down to the village. I followed the train tracks of the Tram way du Mont Blanc through some tunnels and further down I passed some alpine meadows. Finally I entered the forest above the village which seemed endless. Just before dark at around 21.00 h I entered my hotel after descending some 3.800 m. Do I need to tell that my knees were rather sour? Very satisfied I ordered my pasta carbonara and enjoyed my summit beer in the restaurant outside the tourist office later that evening.
Midday on the following day I took a free shuttle to Chamonix where I arranged my transport back to Geneva where I took the train up to Zürich to board my plane back home. My weekend Mont Blanc tour was ended and
I realized how lucky I’ve been timing the weather almost perfectly during the summer of 2007, a summer which offered very unreliable weather in the Alps. Many times I thought how different my Mont Blanc experience would have been if I had woken up with a sky full of stars and how it would have turned out if I could have left the Goûter hut at 02.00h. I believe my experience turned out even greater the way it did despite my unorthodox late start.