First ascended by Jacques Balmat and Michel-Gabriel Paccard on 8th August 1786, the highest mountain in Europe (4807m) still exerts a powerful fascination throughout the world, with thousands of climbers coming to Chamonix every year hopeful of an ascent.
The “voies normales” are technically easy, but nevertheless very enjoyable, with the magnificent scenery and final exposed summit ridge making this perhaps the finest snow route in the Alps. However many attempts are thwarted due to lack of preparation and an incorrect approach.
There are two basic choices from Chamonix, either via the Grands Mulets hut, or via the Gouter hut. Both routes are graded “PD” (a little difficult), and both have their pros and cons. Ascent via the Gouter means crossing the dangerous “Grand Couloir” with its constant stonefall, and above the hut the route is constantly exposed to the wind, which when strong can keep climbers trapped in the hut on otherwise perfect days. The way of the Grand Mulets is traditionally the most reliable route to the summit, and is more sheltered than the Gouter. However the ascent to the Col du Dome can be rather tedious, with long snow slopes broken by crevasses, and exposed to falling seracs.
The ascent is described via the Gouter, with descent via the Grands Mulets, hence information can be reversed as required.
An early start is essential, since the crux of the day is crossing the “Grand Couloir” between the Tete Rousse and Gouter huts. This is continually swept by stonefall, so arriving early, when stonefall is minimal, is preferable. The telepherique takes one from Les Houches to Bellevue where the tramway can be taken to the Nid d’Aigle. Timetables are available in Chamonix. Alternatively the walk from Bellevue to the Nid doesn’t take too long. No time should be lost in following the well marked path past the Tete Rousse hut to the edge of the Grand Couloir. Snow conditions will dictate whether or not crampons are worn, but either way, do not loiter in the couloir! It is only about a rope’s length wide, but you are not safe until you have crossed right over to the far ridge. 2000ft of scrambling above (most parties do not rope up), at around mod/diff standard leads to the refuge. This is the most enjoyable part of the day, but care must be taken with loose rock.
After arriving at the hut (at around 3.00pm, assuming a 9.00am start from Les Houches), rest and drink. Eat what you can and take in the magnificent views, until lights out at 9.30pm.
A word of warning, if upon reaching the Grand Couloir, the meteo has made a mistake, then turning back should be seriously considered. If it is warm and damp, then there is sure to be more stonefall than usual, and after fresh snow the ridge to the hut becomes more like a Nevis ridge in winter, making either ascent or descent an altogether different prospect.
Assuming fine weather, the guardian will wake everyone at 2.00am. If not returning this way, be sure to pay the guardian and collect your card. A move should be made by 3.00am. It is recommended to move roped up from the hut onwards, it will not only be useful for the odd crevasse, but also helps to keep an even pace. A steady, even pace is what is required from now on, with minimal stops.
Two hours should see you round the eastern slopes of the Dome du Gouter, and a pleasant downhill section leads to the Col du Dome, with a short, steep slope to the emergency Vallot refuge. The C.A.F. reasonably request that you do not enter the refuge, it is for EMERGENCY USE ONLY. If good time has been made it will be no later than 6.00am. Have a short rest, eat and drink before the “final assault”. In front lie the “Grandes Bosses” and the “Petites Bosses”, two short, steep sections. The altitude claims many victims around here, so take things steadily - the summit is not far off. The next feature are some rocks on the right, “la tournette”, from here a fine snow arete leads to the summit. The view is magnificent, but don’t forget to eat and drink, there’s still a long way to go.
From the summit there are three descent routes. One is the ascent route previously described, secondly there is the route via the Grands Mulets, or lastly the traverse of Mont Maudit to the Col du Midi. This last route makes an exciting traverse of the mountain, and is slightly harder (peu difficile). It is only for those who feel fit at altitude and who can cope with the extra difficulties. The route remains at over 4000m for most of it’s length, and has several tricky sections, so descent is recommended via the Grands Mulets. This route loses height more quickly, and offers greater shelter from bad weather than either of the other two routes. Follow the ascent back down to the Col du Dome, where instead of climbing back over the Dome, you continue down to “le grand plateau”.
Only use this descent if tracks are visible coming up, the route is difficult to find in descent if obliterated by snow. Keep up momentum here, every step downhill reduces the effects of altitude, and as time advances, the glacier below will become warmer, and therefore potentially more dangerous. The route normally passes avalanche debris, a good reminder of the need for urgency. Eventually the Grands Mulets is reached and all that remains now is crossing the Boissons Glacier, which is best done before it gets too warm. There is a slight risk of stonefall below the Aiguille du Midi at the edge of the glacier, so don’t loiter. Beyond the glacier, occasional streams help rehydrate you, and soon the telepherique lies immediately ahead. If reasonable time has been made it should be around 1.00pm. Now all that stands between the celebration “bieres” and a rest in the sun is the short trip down into the valley.
Huts / Food
The huts on the massif are very popular, so it is essential to book places, usually well in advance. See the refuge database on the Club Alpin Francais website for booking contact information. Although the huts are usually very crowded, there is the benefit of not having to carry a sleeping bag. The huts of the CAF offer an excellent meals service, for those not on a budget. An alternative idea is to save weight by not taking stoves/pots and buying hot water to use with dehydrated instant foods. It is useful to remember that what you eat at the hut is not that critical, since your body will still be running off the food previously eaten in the valley. Bearing this in mind, have a big slow burning carbohydrate meal (pasta etc.) in the valley, and take up plenty of fast burning carbohydrates, (i.e. chocolate) for the ascent.
Training / Acclimatisation
One summit of over 3200m, and another of over 3800m is sufficient for most people.
Two days of “beau temps” and low wind speeds at altitude are required, a weather forecast can be found at meteo boards inside and outside the Guides’ office in Chamonix.
Very crowded in July and August, but these months generally have the best weather in the mountains.
Although technically easy, parties should be well equipped with ice axe, crampons, suitable boots, harness, rope, helmets, sunglasses, sunscreen. It is cold, -15°c without wind-chill is normal, but avoid taking excessive amounts of warm clothing, concentrate on windproofs with a duvet, hat and gloves.
Mont Blanc 4808m: 5 Routes to the Summit - Damilano/JME Editions
Mont Blanc Massif, Vol. 1 - Griffin/Alpine Club
The Mont Blanc Range - Laroche & Lelong/Baton Wicks
Snow, Ice and Mixed, Vol.2 - Damilano/JME Editions
The 4000m Peaks of the Alps - Moran/Alpine Club
St-Gervais-les-Bains, Massif du Mt Blanc (3531ET) - IGN 1:25,000
Mont Blanc, Grand Combin (5003) – Swisstopo 1:50,000
Pays du Mont Blanc (A1) – Rando Editions / IGN 1:50,000
Mont-Blanc (02) – Libris 1:60,000
www.chamonix.com - Chamonix valley official website
www.chamonix.net - Information on everything in the valley
www.ohm-chamonix.com - Chamonix Walking & Mountaineering Office
Office de Tourisme de Chamonix
85 Place du Triangle de L'Amitie
74400 Chamonix Mont-Blanc
Tel: +33 (0)4 50 53 00 24
Fax: +33 (0)4 50 53 58 90
Office de Haute Montagne de Chamonix (guides office)
Maison de la Montagne - 190, Place de l'Eglise
74400 Chamonix Mont-Blanc
Tel: +33 (0)4 50 53 22 08
Fax: +33 (0)4 50 53 27 74
Club Alpin Francais
24 Avenue Laumiere
Tel: +33 (0)1 53 72 87 03
Fax: +33 (0)1 42 03 55 62
If required the BMC would recommend the services of a qualified British Mountain Guide, some of whom are based in Chamonix - see www.bmg.org.uk. Alternatively acquire a french guide from the Maison des Guides in Chamonix.