Scouring the guidebook for routes. Of the 3 straightforward routes, the Gouter route (which is considered the normal route) has you ascend the Grand Couloir; a 1500′ wall of choss that shreds rocks and kills people on a regular basis. The Tres Monts route is touted by one guidebook as having the lowest objective danger… But last week 9 people were killed in an avalanche on the route.
That leaves the North Ridge of the Dôme Goûter; low objective danger and an elegant ridge to almost 14,000′. The only problem is the approach; 1 hour below the Midi (high risk of rockfall), 20 minutes below seracs and a crevasse field called La Jonction, which is so bad the guidebook actually says “call the hut warden about conditions”.
The North Ridge of Mont Blanc ascends the obvious rib in the center.
We called the warden. The warden was at home in Chamonix. (Not a good sign.)
“How is La Jonction?”
“Oh it is not so bad. But you will need to make your own path.”
OK… Not so sure what that means but whatever. We told him we’d be there on Monday morning. “I take a helicopter and meet you there,” the hut warden told us. That should have been a sign.
So up the tram at 7:30am to the Aiguille du Plan. Fresh snow dusted the approach, which meant 2 miles of verglas coated rocks on a wildly exposed (don’t dare slip or you’ll tumble 500′) trail below the Northwest face of the Midi complete with icy stream crossings. At one point we came across a rock shelter with a sign, “Hide here in case of rockfall danger.” Seriously? But rockfall was nonexistent that morning so we kept going and soon rounded a corner and were suddenly on the glacier.
Snow covered flowers lined the trail.
Prudence for the French.
Rudeness for the English.
Looking out at what we have to cross.
We roped up on the edge serenaded by creaks and groans and set off. Within 10 minutes we were under the seracs. Seracs a mile above us but stacked on top of each other for 2000′. And above slope of broken seracs?… A wall of ice 500′ tall leaning out over a cliff. The ice wall calving off in the broken chunks of below. Not a good place to be… And scene of past accidents so we put our heads down and hiked as fast as we could until after 20 long minutes we were in the clear.
A nasty wall of ice.
Sort of. Mellow passage for about 30 minutes then we reached the junction of the Plan and the Grant Mulets glaciers. “La Jonction“; the place where we would need to “make our own path”. But luckily there were tracks. Tracks that lead right into the heart of the icefall.
Tightening the rope we set off. The guys in front hadn’t even bothered to put on crampons so how bad could it be? Turns out the guy in front of us was an old guide famous for solo ascents in the Alps and for bold first ascents in the Himalayas. Following his tracks probably wasn’t a good idea.
After a total sketch traverse around a block of ice (above a 40′ drop into jumbled blocks of ice) that required us to swing our bodies out over the void while hugging a chunk of ice we finally paused in a “safe” zone to strap on the crampons. Travel went a little easier after that… But it was still a solid hour of up and down in a creaking, groaning and popping sea of shattered ice.
Once through we moved out onto a totally mellow snow slope for fast and easy travel up to the Grand Mulets hut.
Yvonne leading up to the Grand Mulets Hut. Home of the World’s Greatest Outhouse!
The Grand Mulets hut is one of the most famous spots in mountaineering history. The first ascent of Mount Blanc in 1786 took this route and for years it was the normal route until climate change took its toll on the glaciers of the Alps. A hut was built here in the early 1800s and for decades the people came in droves.
Vive l’Alpin Club Francais.
The hut sits in a slightly scenic spot.
The view out our bedroom window.
The guide and his partner had already left by the time we got there (he had wandered thought the icefall just to stop by for a cup of coffee) and aside from the hut warden we were the only ones there. Not a bad place to spend the night.
We dropped the packs and put in a boot pack to the ridge to make things easier in the early morning hours. Then a quiet evening on the metal porches above the glacier, dinner at 6:30 and finally bed…
…to wake a few hours later at 1am.
A fast breakfast, frantic packing and by 2:30 we were out the door and making our way along the little catwalk holding onto chains and railings. A short rap to reach the glacier, crampons strapped on, ropes sorted and we were off.
My wife asks why we never go on beach vacations.
Reaching the actual glacier is kind of a pain in July.
Snow slogging at 3am.
Winds from the night before had filled in our tracks so travel wasn’t quite as easy as I had hoped it would be. We meandered a bit but soon found our old path and made good time across the glacier, through the zone exposed to serac fall and began working our way onto the North Ridge proper.
After the initial meandering around crevasses the route gains a broad ridge that you work your way up until reaching the bergschrund. Above the bergschrund the route ascends a beautiful narrow ridge for about 1500′. At one point, between 11,500′-12,500′ the ridge narrows down to a catwalk that’s about 6′ wide. To the right is a jumble of seracs and crevasses, to the left is a 500′ cliff. Work your way above the narrow rib and the slope widens. Trend slightly right and take a long whaleback towards the summit of the Dome, the large sub peak due west of the Mont Blanc summit. For there, make a sharp left turn and head for the summit.
Around 5am we reached the bergschrund, where our old tracks ended, to find nice crisp snow and excellent climbing conditions. We quickly fell into our rhythm; pulling the rope out to about 100′ and pitching it out in 300′ pitches with 2 pickets and an ice axe belay.
We were on the catwalk section when the sun rose. When you’re climbing in the high mountains in the crisp cold predawn hours you’re always cold. Physically your body might be plenty warm, you might even be sweating, but psychologically the darkness is a biting cold. Unable to see beyond the glow of the headlamp your body focuses on what is known: the sounds of crampons biting into snow and the satisfying thunk of an axe sunk securely into snow. But also known is the coldness of toes and fingers and the wind working her way between layer to sink her sharp teeth into your core temperature. The final moments before the sun actually rises seem to be the worse. Wind seems to increase, the temperature seems to plummet and your toes feel like numb blocks.
6:05 am. Sunrise!
When the sun finally peeks from behind the horizon you forget about your fingers and toes. Climbing becomes a more than just concentrating on the route, your crampons and axe. One step, one ice axe plunge and then looking east as the sun begins his journey into the sky. Mountains, ridges and valleys that were blurred indistinct grey just moments before become complex contours of snow, ice and rock. Fingers seem to warm instantly, toes no longer resemble ice blocks. The route, so menacing in the colorless grays of early morning, takes shape and you trace your ascent path as far as the eyes can see.
The dawn brought us vision and a path to the top of the north ridge, but with the dawn came the winds. Constant 30mph winds that unfairly took away the precious warmth that the sun had given us. Fingers and toes oh so briefly warmed by the rising sun, once again became cold and stiff. Exposed skin began to stiffen and crack forcing us to stop and apply layers of cream to our nose and cover our cheeks with ski goggles.
By now we were past the steep catwalk so walking became easier. We reeled in the rope to about 40′, packed away the snow protection gear, and I let Yvonne take the lead.
The route became a snow trudge. With the exposure gone we were left with a broad windswept ridge that we staggered up leaning into the winds that continued to increase the higher we got. It was around this time that the summit began to collect wisps of clouds – the first signs of a building lenticular.
20 minutes later we finally reached the 13,800′ col between the North Ridge of the Dôme Goûter and the Bosses Ridge. It had taken us 5 hours to get there and the summit was less than 2,000′ and a half-mile above us.
The wind was howling. Absolutely howling and as we stood at the col the summit transformed from a peak covered by wispy clouds into a dome enveloped by a thick dense lenticular. Summit lust kept us going forward. 2,000′ is nothing after you’ve climbed almost 4,000′. We were on the normal route now and line upon line of climbers were retreating down the summit ridge. The sight of 30 plus climbers heading down and not a single climber going up gave us pause…and the wind and the clouds, and the altitude, and a plunging core temperature stopped our upward progress after a just few moments.
The summit pyramid begins to cloud over.
High winds on the Bosses Ridge.
A couple days later we learned that three days prior to the time we stood at the base of the ridge four climbers had gone for the summit in questionable conditions. A storm rolled in and only two climbers made it back down. The ones who made it back down had battled their way down in ferocious winds. The other two wandered about at 14,500′ until eventually succumbing to the elements and collapsing. A rescue party found their bodies the next day.
One always hears stories like that when climbing and one always dismisses the scenario. Oh, those climbers obviously don’t know how to read a compass. Those climbers don’t know how to build a shelter. They didn’t carry the right gear. They weren’t strong enough, they weren’t fast enough. But deep down we all know that it’s bad decision making that brings it on. Pushing onto the summit in questionable conditions seems like such a bad decision until you’re at the base of the summit ridge with only an hour or so to go.
The lenticular looked bad. Like climb inside me and you die bad. We both weighed the risk knowing full well that continuing upward would mean frostnip if everything went just right and frostbite if the weather continued to go downhill. But despite our summit-lust calm heads prevailed and we turned around reluctantly and began working our way down the normal route with this rest of the climbers in retreat feeling beaten and weak.
Climbers on the Gouter Ridge.
The new Gouter Hut.
Aiguille du Bionnassay.
Yvonne on the Gouter Ridge.
The Normal / Goûter route was well travelled and route finding was a matter of just following the trail. So we just turned off everyone and went into auto pilot mode and quickly made our way over and down the Goûter Dome and then down Gouter ridge to the hut where about 100 climbers had congregated – some waiting to go up, some returning for climbing, some just up for the day. A mad house of chaos… Not somewhere that I’d like to sleep.
We ate a quick bite then continued on…out the door and into the Grand Couloir.
The Grand Couloir. 1500′ of loose rocks stacked on top of each other with about 100 climbers either working their way up or down, all of them kicking loose rocks down on climbers below. Plus the mountain is continuously shedding rocks. You work your way down about 800′ of 4th class on fixed cables (crampons scratching over rock) on a ridge that borders the actual couloir, then out onto an exposed 3rd class trail. Rocks bounce down every few minutes. After a while, traverse skiers left out into a gully that you skirt on the right shoulder (more rocks) then back on the ridge for more steep 4th class.
The Grand Couloir from below.
The Grand Couloir from above.
On the Grand Couloir.
Finally exit the ridge and work your way out into a trail that crosses the actual couloir. There is actually a fixed cable across the couloir that you can clip into, the idea being that if a rock takes you out your body will dangle on the cable so it’s easier for rescuers to reach you. Stand at the edge of the couloir and look up. Count the time between rockfall… Calculate how long it will take to get across… Then go for it.
Walk fast… Don’t run. When you hear the rocks coming for you, run. Get to the other side, look back, breathe deeply, them walk down easy slopes to safety.
We made it down and across without any real incidents. At one point we heard rockfall and I turned to see a fist sized rock bouncing down towards us. I put up my had and deflected it, the rock skittering off my hand and continuing downhill. Across the couloir and down to the remnants of the Tete Rousse glacier below.
Back on safe ground we inhaled deeply, shed layers, removed climbing equipment and continued down. A wrong turn added a few extra hours onto an already long day but finally we were back at a tram and then down to the valley floor and on a bus heading back to the flat.
I didn’t like our climb on Mont Blanc. It’s no doubt a beautiful peak that draws your eye and imagination and desire. Anything that towers above all else stirs many a climbers desires and certainly I wanted to climb it. But the objective risks on every route were way beyond what I was comfortable with. There was a time when I didn’t mind climbing through active serac fall zones and jumbled crevasse fields. Or perhaps better put – there was a time I was willing to take such risks to climb a route. However on Mont Blanc I felt the objective hazards outweighed the enjoyment I got from our route. Certainly the North Ridge was a beautiful route… And likewise I was bummed not to have a shot a summit ridge, but would I do the route again? Would I do any of the routes on Mont Blanc?
Of the three straightforward routes up the mountain, the North Ridge is supposedly the route with the least objective hazard… But it’s a route that is time and season sensitive too. I would return to attempt the North Ridge of the Dôme Goûter in late May or June when one could ski through the crevasse field at la Jonction. One would still have to cross the active serac bands below the Midi and de Tacul, but exposure is 20-30 minutes at most. Plus with skis one could descend the standard Grand Mulets route and pass through the active serac band at 3800m in minutes.
A satellite view of La Jonction. Yes, it really is that bad. Click here to check it out on Google Maps.
Of the other routes, the Normal / Goûter route should be stricken from every climbers list. The Grand Couloir ranks as one of the worse zones for objective hazards that I have ever willingly put myself in. There are just far too many people on this route making the Grand Couloir way too high a risk. Accidents and deaths from both rockfall and slips are common on this route. This portion of the route is so bad there is actually talk about putting a tunnel under the worse portion of the route.
Now weigh that risk against the fact that you’ll be going for the summit with 100+ people. I won’t argue that the Goûter and Bosses Ridge are beautiful spectacular alpine ridges… But in my mind the nice upper sections and the ease of the route (thus boosting your potential summit success) doesn’t outweigh the cons of the Grand Couloir and the crowds.
Which leaves the Tres Monts Blanc route. This is a spectacular alpine route up and over two beautiful peaks with good climbing along the way. Unfortunately the route also ascends through two active serac bands and avalanche slopes. This is the route where 9 people died a few days prior to our attempt and the same route that killed 8 people in 2008. One can see why so many died: the wind had howled 60kph all day prior, but when dozens of climbers woke up to clear skies and low wind, the general consensus was, “it’s worth the risk” and they decided to go for it.
The dead included world renown climber and guide Roger Payne – former president of the Association of British Mountain Guides… So it’s not like the climbers were unaware of conditions and risk. European attitude towards risk is very different from what Americans are used to. When people die in the mountains Europeans shrug and say, “but that’s the mountains“, kind of like the way Americans shrug when it rains on vacation. Shortly after the avalanche, the New York Times ran an article where Jean-Louis Verdier, a senior Chamonix official, dismissed discussion about safety in the mountains by saying, “You would have to make it like the roads, with yellow lines painted everywhere and gendarmes hiding behind the rocks. The mountains have to remain a place of freedom.“
But reflection is easy back at the kitchen table with coffee cup in hand when you’re miles away from the mountain. It’s easy sitting in Anchorage to claim that my adverse reaction to objective hazards acts as a filter that keeps me climbing. When you’re walking around in the French Alps and Mont Blanc towers above everything even when you’re miles away, then you start making excuses and pondering the statistics. After all 20,000+ people climb Mont Blanc every year and only a handful of them get deleted by objective dangers. Maybe those serac bands aren’t so bad after all.