On July 17th-18th 1861, Alpine Club members, Francis Fox Tuckett and Leslie Stephen, and their guides, made the first complete ascent of the Gouter Ridge on Mont Blanc. To celebrate the 150th anniversary, and to highlight current problems on this route, an AC party will be attempting to repeat the full expedition in a few days time.
Organized by AC member and Chamonix Valley resident, Gus Morton, and accompanied by journalist Susan Greenwood, who hopes to cover the event with a multi-page article in The Observer magazine, climbers plan to forego the modern shortcuts provided by téléphérique or railway and leave the roadhead at Bionnassay (1,410m) around 9:00am on the 17th.
From here they will make the long walk via the Col de Voza, Bellevue, Col de Mt Lachat and Col des Rognes to the Tête Rousse Hut (3,167m), close to which they will camp or bivouac.
Leaving at 1:00 next morning, they should be across the notorious 'Grand Couloir' and at the Gouter Hut (3,817m) by 4:00am, and then on the summit a few hours later. This will allow a descent from the Gouter Hut before the afternoon, when many parties will be toiling up to the refuge.
Then all that will remain is to pack up the bivouac gear left by the Tete Rousse, and make the long slog down to the roadhead (1,110m) at Les Houches.
Whilst Mont Blanc was first climbed in 1786, directly from Chamonix by the Grand Plateau and Rochers Rouges, it wasn't until 1855 that an ascent was made from St Gervais, crossing the Dôme de Gouter then descending to the Grand Plateau.
The upper North West or Gouter Ridge - the Bosses Arête - remained untouched until 1859, when it was climbed by Charles Hudson's party from Chamonix by way of the Grand Plateau.
It was left to the 1861 party - Melchior Anderegg, Johann Josef Bennen, Peter Perren, Tuckett and Stephen - to make the full ascent via the Tête Rousse, Aiguille de Gouter and Bosses Arête. The three took only nine hours to climb from St Gervais to the Aiguille de Gouter, and another four to reach the summit.
In 1912 the building of a tramway to the Nid d'Aigle at 2,372m guaranteed that this route, sometimes known as the Voie Royale, would become the most popular to the summit.
Today the Gouter Ridge comes in for much criticism, partly due to chronic overcrowding both on the route and at the hut. Much rubbish is also being discarded, particularly at the Vallot Hut.
The present hut (dating from 1962; the original was erected here in 1858) is currently being replaced by a futuristic-looking edifice, reported to be costing six million Euros. Steel clad, with four floors and room for 120, the refuge should be operating by the summer of 2012.
Critically, changes in conditions mean that the Grand Couloir had became far more dangerous and is subject to more stonefall. Between 2001 and 2010 there were 31 recorded fatalities between the Tête Rousse and Gouter Hut, though apparently most of these were caused by slips, rather than climbers hit by falling debris.
Petzl is currently carrying out a feasibility study on the construction of a bridge across, or even a tunnel through, the couloir. Guides can stop clients falling but can only minimize the objective dangers, and many now prefer the route from the Cosmiques Hut via Mt Maudit, with a return by the Grands Mulets.