Climbing Mont Blanc via Grand Couloir
Don't look, just keep going...
First the Col du Tour is climbed to get acclimatized: snow bridges and jumping over glacier rifts. And then the climbing of Mont Blanc, by way of the dangerous Grand Couloir to the Goûter Hut and over a narrow snow ridge along chilling abysses to Les Bosses. When the trail skimps a wide glacier fissure, the motto is: don't look, just keep going...
Travelogue & photos: Jo De Smedt
After we have climbed Piramide Vincent (4,215 m), Balmenhorn (4,176 m) and Gran Paradiso (4,061 m) in Valle d'Aosta (Italy) to get acclimatized, we drive to Chamonix-Mont-Blanc, Haute-Savoie, via the Mont Blanc tunnel. We want to climb Mont Blanc, but first, for more acclimatizing, Col du Tour (3,289 m) awaits us.
Ludwig and Loe leave early from Chamonix for the Albert I Hut at 2,702 m on the Glacier du Tour. Chris, Ora (my Swiss White Shepherd) and I take a moraine path. This is a little harder and on the way there is some light climbing over rocks.
Ora sometimes asks for help when she has to jump very high. She brings up her front legs and I lift her behind.
We have great views of the glacier tongues. Where the glacier breaks, there is a bizarre wood of towers and glacier rifts.
In the Albert I Hut we get our own chalet because of Ora and spend the night in the "ancien refuge." I tell the huttenwirt ("hut landlord") we'll have breakfast at 5 am. That way we can leave at 6 am, without lights, at that hour it's already completely light. And tomorrow's leg will be short.
Col du Tour (3,289 m)
Snow bridges and rock chasms
Fortunately I checked out the path yesterday with Ludwig. It's hard to find and everywhere are stone men. Apparently everyone has marked their own path here.
Finally we arrive at the glacier. There are countless fissures, but it's relatively safe, because the first part of the glacier is snow-free and all rifts are clearly visible.
But there are some precarious snow bridges we have to cross. Twice there are long and wide chasms with very narrow snow bridges we have to cross to continue our route on the other side.
I use a long rope for walking in these situations. If the bridge would collapse, the jolt of the falling person would be weaker and so you would have a better chance to stop them from falling all the way. Fortunately the snow bridges are still frozen in the morning. They are massive ice lumps and I trust their strength.
Over other fissures we have to jump. As long as they are not too wide, that's not so hard... but of course you have to be careful. For Chris this is a perfect exercise to learn mountaineering.
Col du Tour isn't what it used to be, when there still was sufficient snow to allow for an easy passage to the Trient Plateau. Now a steep snow ridge leads to ghastly rocks with rubble. Apparently not many people have hiked here: there are no tracks.
Our group doesn't want to go there. A little to the right is an ice field that leads to a rock with large boulders. I untie myself to go and explore the boulders by myself. After ten minutes I am at the top, but on the other side there is only a very steep ice slope.
Carefully, I descend back to the group, who'd rather go back. So we decide to return to the Albert I Hut.
On the way we have to cross a deep chasm over a very narrow snow bridge. Ora wants to jump over it and slips, into the deep of the glacier fissure. Fortunately she is harnassed and roped in, and right behind me. I immediately pull her up by her harnass. But it was scary, if quickly resolved (10 seconds of stress).
Meanwhile Loe has decided to leave us. He and Ludwig decide to go to Austria. Chris, Ora and I stay another night in the Albert I Hut. >From the glacier we have a great view of the route we'll take on Mont Blanc.
We descend on a "regular" path to Le Tour for a day of rest and to focus on what is to come: climbing Mont Blanc.
The quiet camping site in Montroc-Le Planet, against a beautiful natural backdrop in the valley of Chamonix is perfect for complete recovery. A Sunday outing with dinner in Chamonix gives us a chance to gain back the energy we'll need.
Climbing Mont Blanc
By cable lift and train to Nid d'Aigle (2372 m)
The hunter Jacques Balmat climbed Mont Blanc with Doctor Michel Paccard in 1786. Balmat ponted out its peak to Horace-Bénédict De Saussure, a Swiss nature explorer and surveyor who is considered one of the founding fathers of alpinism (mountaineering). De Saussure offered a prize for the guide who would succeed in taking him to the top. He reached the top in 1787. This proved that hiking in high mountains was dangerous, but that there were no evil spirits at great heights, as legend and superstition had it.
In the afternoon we park our car in Les Houches (993 m), 6 km from Chamonix. Every time we move, the view of the Mont Blanc massive changes.
A cable lift takes us to Bellevue (1,794 m). There we wait for the mountain train, which comes from Le Fayet (584 m) and will take us to Nid d'Aigle (2372 m). The little train station reminds me of Wild West movies.
The train is always packed. Especially the first and last trains of the day always pose a challenge. For the way back it's best to make a reservation or you may have to walk back. But mountaineers don't have to do that. There is always a cerain amount of seats reserved for climbers who return.
Since a few years there's a small refuge in Nid d'Aigle. We spend the night there to be able to leave early next morning for a trek that will take us 1,500 meters higher. There aren't many visitors, only a couple with a guide and a young man who is by himself. At this altitude we are already well acclimatized.
Refuge de l'Aiguille du Goûter (3,817 m)
Greeted by mountain goats
The path ascends quickly from our Nid d'Aigle hut. There are lots of people walking. Most tourists will go to the Bionnassay Glacier or to the Tête Rousse hut. They arrive from the train. We walk on a stony path, littered with loose rocks and rubble. A little farther we are greeted by a herd of mountain goats. Sometimes they fight for leadership of the herd.
At the old hut Refuge des Rognes we have to turn right. Here we have a great view of the valley. The path remains rough. A donkey would have been helpful.
Near the glacier on Tête Rousse are some tents. We cross the glacier and walk on moraines. We have a beautiful view of the Tête Rousse Hut with the north-west wall of Aiguille de Bionnassay (4,052 m) which I climbed in 1978 above it.
Then, secured to a cable, we climb over a ridge to the dangerous Grand Couloir. The Refuge de l'Aiguille du Goûter is already visible. We watch for any kind of movement in the couloir, even small pebbles which could make larger rocks move. Then we cross the almost 100 meters of the couloir as fast as we can. There is no other way to get to the refuge.
On the other side several cables have turned the ridge into a klettersteig (via ferrata). Sometimes it's just climbing, then again cables, almost all the way up to the hut. When we climb, I usually clamber 2 meters ahead and then pull Ora up. She always wants to climb by herself, but still can use some support.
Chris keeps up very well. This is her first climb of difficulty level I-II. We climb leisurely, the first 900 meters at 300 m/h, including rest, the last 600 meters we take much more time.
On our way on the ridge we are witnesses of the dangers of the couloir. All of a sudden we hear rumbling which gets louder and louder. At first we see a few small stones roll down, then large boulders of at least a cubic meter.
All of the couloir, 100 meters wide and 600 meters high, fills up with dust. Luckily no one was hurt while crossing the couloir.
We arrive around 5:30 pm at the Goûter Hut after a 1,500 meters climb. We get two beds in the "Annexe", a building separate from the Refuge de l'Aiguille du Goûter. It has a corridor with on both sides two bunks on top of each other with each twenty beds. We have to sleep on the second floor, so I ask for two lower beds because of Ora. Fortunately the huttenwirtin is able to arrange it. Ora sleeps at the end of the bed on the side of the corridor. I put our two backpacks behind her, so she won't be disturbed. She is quiet all night, so no one suspects there is a dog.
Still, many people are restless at night. I look at my watch every 15 minutes. There is rumbling all night long. Around midnight I go to the bathroom. I see someone already getting into his harnass.
Someone else is packing his backpack. Still another snores loudly. No wonder everyone stays awake...
At the top of Mont Blanc (4,810.9 m)
Over a snow ridge along chilling abysses
Around 2 am everyone is busy and we also get dressed. Breakfast is served at 2:30 am. We take our time and eat only at 3 am. Most people have left by then.
The sky is clear with many stars, a sign that the weather will be good. Not that we doubted that, we are in the middle of "le grand beau," a period of stable weather in a high pressure area. Just what we need to climb Mont Blanc.
We leave at 4.30 am. It's still pitch dark. Down in the valley we only see a few lights. To follow the trail in the snow we need headlights.
We climb 15 to 20 meters from the hut to reach the snow ridge. The ridge is horizontal and even goes a bit down. We count over twenty tents, close together on more or less level places. Some tents are pitched in holes dug in the snow. That way, they stand level and are also protected from the wind.
Then we ascend on the left slope of Dôme du Goûter. Ahead of us we see a procession of lights, 200 people on their way to the top! They come from the Goûter hut, from the tents and some from the Tête Rousse hut. In the distance we already see the Vallot hut and the trail to the top.
The sun rises over the mountains. Suddenly it's completely light. Time to remove our headlights and don our glacier glasses. We climb the first steep slope to the Vallot hut. The trail is great and the crampons give us the support we need. For the occasion, Ora got four new shoes and she's doing fine. She has enough support on this trail. She doesn't need my help at all.
Past the Vallot hut I see a few steep slopes to Les Bosses, or the "camel humps". The snow is frozen solid, but it's not black ice, so we have enough grip. We advance slowly but steadily. We remind ourselves of the German saying: "Langsam undn sicher, aber sicher langsam" ("slow but sure, but surely slow").
The slopes are steep, but when they get too steep, our predecessors have already kicked steps in the snow. Things are getting better now. The trail skirts a deep, wide glacier fissure. Don't look, just keep going...
Past the Vallot hut the snow ridge to Les Bosses gets a lot narrower. From a distance it looks scary to have to climb on a steep but mainly narrow snow ridge. In some places the ridge is less than half a meter wide, with chilling abysses on both sides. You can't afford to slip there.
Meanwhile Chris has gotten used to everything and she courageously plods on, higher and higher... Stamina is the only thing that counts now. Ascend at a steady pace. Don't think of anything else.
The weather is great. It's even hot in the snow. The sun makes us glow at this height. Or is it the exertion? A weak wind tries to cool us a little, but it doesn't help much.
We see a Russion ascend, without backpack, with a Russion guide. He has to stop frequently and then sinks to his knees with his head on the snowy surface. Then he walks another 10 meters and the whole scenario is reapeated. I guess the altitude bothers him.
We pass the Russians and continue on in the same steady way. Suddenly, only 50 meters from the top, Chris is exhausted. She can't go on. Oops, what to do? We can't give up now. But she is persevering. Ten meters higher there is a small plateau. We rest and eat a little. She feels pressure on her stomach. Still a bit sick of the altitude. She pees and that helps a little. We eat more and after a while she feels better. We start on the last leg to the top.
After 20 minutes we have reached our goal. It's 11:40 am. We hug in joy. We congratulate each other and take pictures. We talk with others who arrive at the top. The Russian who put his head in the snow arrives as well. On all fours, so to speak, he crawls the last meters to the top.
Around 12:30 pm we begin our descent. Chris goes first now and she descends fast as lightning. Apparently she is already used to steep slopes and the frozen snow and is mastering the technique very well.
Again we pass the Russians. They only stayed on the top for a short while. But also during the descent we frequently see the Russian kneel with his head in the snow.
Dôme du Goûter (4,304 m)
A large, flat snow dome
On the way I propose that we also climb the Dôme de Goûter. It will be Chris' fifth 4,000 meters climb in these two weeks. It's going to be tough: ascending again and the exhaustion of a full day over 4,000 meters. So we adapt our pace under the burning sun. Excruciatingly slow, but persevering, we make it to the top.
The Dôme is a large, flat snow dome, which usually gets traversed in climbing Mont Blanc. We takes a long break and eat something. Four other groups are also climbing to the top.
Afterwards we descend. We are surprised to see several groups leaving for Mont Blanc, even though it's already 3 pm.
Eventually we arrive at the Goûter hut around 4:30 pm. After I talk to the huttenwirtin, we can stay a second night in the hut.
Tonight it's much quieter in the dormitory. Probably because a large group of Spaniards is sleeping there, who want to leave together at the same (early) hour. We sleep from 9 pm to 7 am and when everyone else begins to move around at 2 am, we slumber right through it.
A big traffic jam to the Tête Rousse Hut
We get up fit to enjoy a quiet and cozy, but sober breakfast. A few rock-hard pieces of bread, crackers and gingerbread with a little bit of jam accentuate our hardship, but also our success yesterday in climbing Mont Blanc.
And then it's time for our descent. A climb is not successful until you are safely back at ground level. Chris goes first, I follow her with Ora. The 600 meters between the Goûter hut and the Tête Rousse hut is one big traffic jam: everyone is waiting for everyone else. It's as if the whole world is descending here. There are countless bottle necks. The path isn't much more than a trail of footsteps that indicate where the last person walked in the rubble.
If you make a mistake, you find out quickly. You begin to slip with the rubble into the deep. It's better to watch for a trail. A stone that has been moved can give the impression that there's a trail. "No, Chris, a little more to the right, stay on the ridge itself. On the rocks you have better grip!"
And then there are young guys who want to go faster and pass others. If there's no room, I have to point out to them the danger and tell them to wait a few seconds until we have cleared a bottle neck.
Three to four meters of rock climbing alternates with three to four meters steep and loose rubble. Large parts are secured with cables. To be on the safe side, Chris and I are roped in with a 4.5 meters long rope, so I can support her when needed. Chris also has a "personnel," an individual security rope to attach to the cables for extra safety. I follow with Ora.
I frequently have to tell Ora "Wait!" to keep her from jumping down to quickly.
When I am steady, I say "Yes!" and she jumps while I hold the rope attached to her harness, so her joints won't be overburdened when she lands. It also happens that she has to stay on the rocks above me. When I say "Yes!" she jumps into my arms.
Sometimes I catch her while standing on a small rock between me and the rock wall and she has to wait there until I have descended another meter.
We cross the dangerous Grand Couloir separately. The large cloud of dust we saw on the way up is still fresh in our memories. We don't want to end up in one of those, because they are deadly. So we look first and then cross as fast as we can, while the other person keeps an eye on the couloir.
On the other side another 15 meters of climbing and then we are on a regular path on a low mountain range. After a short break we descend as fast as we can and just catch the last train at 4:50 pm. It takes us to the cable lift, which descends from Bellevue to Les Houches. Mission accomplished.