Mont Blanc with little time for acclimatization

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Trip Report
Haute-Savoie/Aosta (Mont Blanc), France/Italy, Europe
Date Climbed/Hiked:
Jul 6, 1998
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Created On: Nov 15, 2004
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My very good friend Arturo and I met in Chamonix for a limited 4-day stay. We had both been training for a couple of months before the trip, so our endurance condition was quite good. Our plan was to get some additional training prior to climbing Mt Blanc, our first “high” summit. Jean Louis, our local Chamonix guide, had warned us that our schedule was probably too tight because it did not include enough time for proper acclimatization but we would try anyway. He proposed a time-tested method of rapid acclimatization for “weekend climbers” like us: minimizing stays at high altitude combined with sleeping at night in the lower valleys.

On the morning after our arrival in Chamonix we started our first hike to the Refuge des Conscrits [alt.2730m] under rainy and very unsettled weather. Jean Louis had reassured us, however, that dry conditions were forecasted for the next few days. We arrived at the refuge after 6 hours’ hike while it was snowing. Jean Louis was correct in his prediction because by 5:15 the next morning the weather had cleared. That was the time when we got started on our ascent to the Dômes de Miage [alt.3673m]. It took us about 6 hours of hiking in steep snow to reach the summit and high traverse (Les Trois Sommets). The view from the summit snow ridge to the green pastures in the valleys far below us was unforgettable and we certainly felt the effects of the rapid ascent to high altitude. Thereafter, we descended all the way to St. Gervais [alt. 584m] for a very much needed overnight rest.

We rested comfortably in our pension prior to a late afternoon tram ride on the next day to the Aiguille du Midi [alt.3842m]. We descended on the narrow, very exposed snow ridge from the tram station to the Refuge des Cosmiques [alt.3613m] which was very comfortable and not very crowded. We tried to sleep for a few hours right after an early dinner at 18:00 even though sunset occurred only after 22:00. Shortly after midnight our guide woke us up so that we were on our way at 1:30 in a clear, brisk night before other climbers got started on their ascent. We arrived 3 hours later at the summit ridge of the Mt Blanc du Tacul without the delays known to occur frequently at the huge crevasse crossings halfway up the climb. Likewise, there were no delays at the wide bergschrund crossings on the very steep final snow pitch below the top ridge of the Mont Maudit.

We really started to feel the effects of our short acclimatization after our arrival at 7:30 at the summit ridge of Mt Maudit [about 4400m alt]. It was very cold and windy and it took us another 3 hours to climb the moderate last pitches leading to the summit of Mont Blanc. Jean Louis kept us going by frequently giving us warm fluids and high-calorie concentrates; however, he was also correct in that an extra day of acclimatization might have made all the difference for us! We stood on the summit of the highest mountain of the Alps about 9 hours after starting our climb, feeling completely depleted of energy. Nevertheless, the realization of what we had achieved brought tears to my eyes. The views of the towering Alpine peaks and distant valleys were absolutely spectacular and worthy of all the efforts undertaken to get to that high point.

We opted to take the Goûter route for our descent rather than retracing our steps. Thus, we were able to experience both routes and avoided the well-known overcrowding at the Refuge du Goûter. The descent from the summit was very long and tiring due to the heat from the strong sunlight reflected on the snow. Arturo decided to remain for an overnight stay at the Refuge du Goûter because he was completely exhausted after more than 12 hours of high altitude mountaineering. I had to continue on the scrambling descent to the Tête Rousse (at our exhausting pace with Jean Louis) and all the way to the train station Nid d’Aigle [alt.2400m] because I did not have the option of recovering at the refuge. I had to travel to Geneva the next morning to take a scheduled overseas flight. Fortunately, we arrived at the station in time right before the departure at 16:35 of the last scheduled train that went all the way to St.Gervais. If we had missed that last train, our only other alternative would have been to hike down for several more hours.

Arturo was not as lucky because an overnight storm arrived while he was in the refuge. The storm made the descent on the next day very hazardous for him. Fortunately, Jean Louis had arranged for another guide to meet him at the refuge in the morning. Nevertheless, they were both forced to hike all the way to the valley due to the new snow cover which slowed substantially their descent and thus, they missed the last train to St.Gervais. To summarize our experience, we achieved our summit objectives despite our very tight schedule but we might have enjoyed our triumph more if we had included a few days extra time for proper acclimatization!


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