It’s time for another mountain!
Mont Blanc has been on my to-do list since I got caught the mountaineering bug, and when my climbing buddy Pat pinged me to do it this summer I jumped at the chance.
Pat then promptly blew out his ACL skiing, and since I had already committed I decided to do the climb without his gimpy self. Not as fun as having a friend along, but there are lots of mountains to climb and not much lifetime to do them in!
George Mallory was the first person to have climbed Mount Everest. He is famously quoted as having replied to the question, “Why did you want to climb Mount Everest?” with the retort “Because it’s there”, which has been called “the most famous three words in mountaineering”. I wholeheartedly concur with Mallory – “because it’s there!”
Mont Blanc (white mountain) is the highest mountain in the Alps, and the second-highest mountain in Europe after Mount Elbrus in Russia (also on the short list). At 15,774 feet (4,808 meters for the metric inclined), it is snow and ice-capped year round with several massive glaciers.
I will be climbing with a French guide named Stephane Comte. It looks like Stephanie, but it’s more like Steven – I checked, and he is definitely a manly man. Stephane is an IFMGA certified guide and his job isn’t to get me to the top, his job is to make sure we stay as safe as possible whether we make the summit or not.
How Long Does It Take?
This will be a 3-day climb, which is on the short side for this altitude level. OnTop has the itinerary on their website HERE.
Since we are spending a week in Chamonix, I am spending a few hours every morning before the climb at the top of peak called the Auguille du Midi at 12,605 feet. This will help with acclimatization to minimize my chances of getting altitude sickness. I took the first photo on this page this morning (Friday) morning from here!
At sea level, there is 20.9% oxygen in the air we breathe. At the summit of Mont Blanc there will be 11.9% oxygen, or just over half the normal amount.
Climbing to this altitude with no time to acclimatize can cause all kinds of acute mountain sickness (AMS), such as fluid on the brain (HACE) and fluid in the lungs (HAPE). Not good. By spending time at altitude prior to climbing, your body produces more red blood cells which helps carry oxygen from your lungs to your muscles and reduces the chance of getting sick.
Blood oxygen saturation (SpO2) is measured by a little device called a pulse oximeter that shoots light into your skin and can tell the difference between oxygenated blood and non-oxygenated. Having too little oxygen in your blood can kill you, so it’s important to keep an eye on it. When we climbed Mount Kilimanjaro (19,341ft – 10.1% oxygen), our guide/medic checked our SpO2 at every meal and before bedtime. My watch constantly measures mine, but it’s better to trust a real medical device !
Most of the climb is pretty straightforward – be in the best shape of your life, have good mountain and glacier experience, and be acclimated to high altitude. The only bit that’s sketchy is a very small part called the “Grand Couloir”.
The Couloir is notorious for a high amount of rockfall down a long gully that kills lots of climbers who are climbing during the day. Snow melts during the day and slips between cracks in the rock, then freezes and expands overnight. As the water freezes, it expands and dislodges rocks from the mountain. When the sun warms things up enough the next day to melt the water again, these rocks obey gravity’s call and away they go.
A nonprofit foundation created by climbing gear manufacturer Petzl even has done a study on reducing danger in the Coulior.
We are going to make that risk as small as possible by starting our hike through the “danger zone” at 1am – when everything is frozen solid. No melting ice = no falling rocks, and no falling rocks makes me happy. It’s certainly not fun walking across a 12″ wide path at first light, but that’s better than getting blown off the mountain by a rolling Volkswagen!
I swiped this itinerary from OnTop’s website, and added a little extra commentary.
Day 1 – Sunday July 5th
Meet in Les Houches or Chamonix late morning. Gondola to Bellevue and short train ride to Nid D’Aigle (2,362 m / 7,750 ft). Three hours of hiking on an easy trail are followed by a short traverse across a little glaciated plateau to arrive at the Tete Rousse Hut (3,167 m / 10,400 ft) for lodging. The afternoon is spent organizing gear and relaxing before the early wake up call.
Day 2 – Monday July 6th
We leave the hut around 4 a.m. with helmets on our heads and crampons strapped to our boots, roped up for the technical crux: the ascent to the Gouter Hut. A short bit of glacier travel is followed by the traverse of the Grand Couloir, the most notorious and objectively dangerous part of the ascent (45 min).
This is 10pm Sunday for all the family on Eastern Standard Time, and you should be able to see our headlamps on THIS WEBCAM as we cross the Grand Couloir in the dawn light.
From there it will take about two hours of scrambling along a steep, rocky spur, sometimes with support from fixed cables, to reach the Gouter Hut (3,800 m / 12,500 ft) for a short break and to leave whatever little extra overnight gear we brought. Normally you don’t need overnight gear to stay in the mountain huts, but due to Covid we have to bring a sleeping bag liner and slippers to wear inside the hut. We continue with the ascent following the string of lights of the 120 climbers who slept at the Gouter Hut this night and who are usually a good 1.5 hrs ahead of us.
The climb follows the steep glacier with little difficulties all the way to the only shelter on the way – the Vallot Hut (4,300 m / 14,100 ft). It can be used for a quick stop to find shelter from the wind, although we try not to stop there as the hut is often overcrowded and uninviting. The route now follows the Arete des Bosses (Bumpy Ridge) and becomes steep and in places very narrow and exposed with amazing views all the way down the valley to Chamonix.
The narrow track along the ridge at this point has to be shared with many descending parties which can create additional hazard and crowding. Finally, for the last five minutes, the ridge widens and we arrive at the relatively flat and spacious summit at 4,808 m / 15,770 ft). The normal ascent time from the Gouter Hut usually takes five hours (1,000 vertical meters / 3,300 ft). We retrace our steps back to the Gouter Hut where we usually arrive totally exhausted in the early afternoon after being on our feet for 12 – 14 hours non-stop, at high altitude. The day requires a massive physical and psychological effort, and the 1,650 m / 5,400 ft) ascent and 1,000 m / 3,300 ft) descent only works if you are exceptionally fit, well acclimatized, and not easily intimidated by hazard or exposure!
Day 3 – Tuesday July 7th
Ideally we sleep through the 2 a.m. wake up call (for that day’s summiteers) and enjoy a later breakfast before making the descent to the Tete Rousse Hut with the first light. We retrace our steps and usually breathe a big sigh of relief once we arrive at the Tete Rousse Hut, where we leave the technical difficulties and rockfall hazard behind us. Arrival at the Nid D’Aigle train station is usually around mid-day, arrival in Chamonix around 2 pm.
Should we not have summitted on Day Two, we still have the option to leave at 3 a.m. from the Gouter Hut to try and reach the Mont Blanc summit. This demands a good pace as we still need to get past the most exposed rockfall zone on the descent below the Gouter Hut before the sun hits the slope, increasing rockfall hazard dramatically! Our goal is to be back at the Tête Rousse Hut before mid-day, which means arriving in Chamonix around 5 p.m. This is also a huge day, requiring 500 m /1,640 ft. of elevation gain at high altitude and 2,000 m / 6,560 ft of descent.