Ascent of Mont Blanc on 1993-08-17
|Date:||Tuesday, August 17, 1993|
|Ascent Type:||Successful Summit Attained|
| Elevation:||4810 m / 15781 ft|
Ascent Trip ReportMonday, August 16:
It seemed that the easiest route up Mont Blanc didn't start from Chamonix, but from nearby le Fayet or St. Gervais-les-Bains, where a cog railway called the Mont Blanc Tramway started and took people up to 2372 meters (7782 feet). From there the route passed two huts, the Tete Rousse and the Gouter, before continuing up to the summit. Since I didn't want to arrive at a hut too early, it seemed entirely feasible to ride the train and hike to the Tete Rousse hut this very afternoon--the Gouter was too far, and usually got too crowded, too. So I left the gridlocked center of Chamonix and headed west.
I still needed a place to pull over and get my stuff together for my climb of Mont Blanc, and a dirt roadside parking area just off the busy four-lane highway in Servoz, France fit the bill. I parked next to a small clump of trees, in the shade as much as possible, and sorted through all my junk, got my pack together, tied my ice axe on its back, and changed into my polypro clothes. I then got on the road again, headed for the Mont Blanc Tramway.
I was confused about exactly where the base terminal was, though--I had heard that this train started in St. Gervais-les-Bains, so I started following signs for that town, only to find myself on a steep, narrow road leading steeply uphill. I was perturbed because I thought that the train started in a lower valley (le Fayet), but it didn't hurt for me to get the train higher up. I finally arrived at St. Gervais, a small, crowded French village, and had to turn around and explore side streets before finding the Tramway gare. However, there was utterly no parking anywhere near the station--the small lot was chock full of cars shoehorned beside each other. So I drove back towards the center of the village and went into a small free public parking garage. It, too, was pretty full, but somehow I got lucky and found one space. All the signs told me that I was free to leave my car there for as long as I wanted without charge, so I grabbed my pack, locked the car, and started the ten-minute hike back to the gare.
I bought my ticket to Nid d'Aigle, at 2372m the end of the line, and waited for about 15 minutes before boarding the crowded 2:40 PM train. It was full of the usual noisy tourists, but I got a window seat and watched the forested scenery of the alpine foothills go by. The train made several stops, where hikers would get on or off, before finally pulling into Nid d'Aigle at 3:40 PM.
The highest railroad terminal in France was basically a tourist-trap restaurant, with mobs of people milling around. It was just above the vegetation line, and several trails led off over the rocks and scree to viewpoints of nearby glaciers. I shouldered up my pack and started heading up on the broadest, most well-worn path towards the Tete Rousse Hut, my destination.
There were a lot of people on the trail, but I was hiking up at a pretty good rate, after a while leaving behind most casual tourists and falling in behind an old guy and a younger woman, apparently a guide and his client, that set a good, fast, uphill pace. I even said to them at one point "Vous marche tres bien", which they did. The path climbed a rocky, desolate ridge, with occasional excellent views to my left of Chamonix far below. Before long the trail came up beside a large tongue of ice, and the Tete Rousse Hut was plainly visible across the way. There was a well-worn path in the snow, and no one else seemed to be getting out their ice-gear, so I just carefully walked across the miniature, crevasse free glacier, following the rut in the snow and mindful of the steep and sudden downhill drop of the ice to my right (downhill).
The Tete Rousse Hut was a pleasant, modern structure, precariously perched on a rocky spur. I went inside, and, after a few delays (the crew insisted on finding their English-speaking guy after I first asked for a room in French) managed to get a bunk for the night. I paid them 86 FF (US $14.83), and was given a bunk in a "Mont Blanc" room, meaning I would be awakened at 1 AM, as opposed to another time in another room.
It was 5 PM, and I was glad my strategy of arriving at the hut late had worked--I had far less idle time to kill that I did at the Monte Rosa Hutte a few days earlier. However, I still had several hours to while away, so I milled around outside the front of the hut with a bunch of other people, investigated the hut's vicinity by clambering around jagged rock pinnacles that provided expansive views, and ate my dinner of cold food in the hut's crowded dining room. I talked to a couple of people here--the woman I had been hiking behind on the way up, who was trying the Aguille de Bionassay with the guide she hired, and a German guy, solo like me, who had already climbed Mont Blanc in the past and wasn't sure of his plans for today. We talked quite a bit, about the 4000 meter peaks and other subjects--his English was very good.
The outhouse for Tete Rousse hut was the most squalid and disgusting sight imaginable--it was perched on a rocky pinnacle above the nearby glacier, and human waste just dropped about twenty feet down onto a huge pile of feces lying on the glacier, staining the white snow brown. What a pathetic mess.
As the evening wore on it got cloudier and cloudier, and by sunset at 8:30 PM the hut was in and on top of clouds, making for a spectacular sunset that many of the hut's occupants watched from outside. I wasn't worried about the clouds, since it always clouded up in the afternoon and evening, and nothing I saw indicated that it wasn't going to be a nice day tomorrow. I also noticed that many people were camping out in front off the hut, some just throwing their sleeping bags down on the rocks, obviously not worried about the camping ban on the route. I guess the mountain got so crowded that a certain level of rules-breaking was tolerated.
After it got dark I hung out in the hut, and at about 9 PM I went into my tiny bunkroom, taller than it was wide, and clambered up onto my second-tier (of three) plywood slat and tried to go to sleep. Unfortunately, though, more guys came a little later and in the hubbub I realized that this hut packed people in like sardines--when the dust settled, I was right up against the two guys on either side of me, and the slightest move I made would disturb them, and vice versa. This place was even more crowded than the Monte Rosa Hutte.
So I didn't get much sleep, instead dozing in between bouts of wondering why these European huts were always so miserable.
Tuesday, August 17:
The hut management came and banged on the door of the cramped little closet-sized bunkroom I was trying to sleep in at 1 AM, and the other climbers in the room and I started fumbling about with our flashlights. I was the first one to get my stuff together and get out, and I ate a breakfast of candy bars in the quiet, dark common room of the Tete Rousse Hut. I then got my pack together, leaving behind my sleeping bag and other stuff in the hut, and was the first climber to set off into the darkness towards Mont Blanc.
I was reasonably sure of the route to take up, having seen climbers yesterday returning from behind the hut, so I followed a path in the snow across a small snowfield, which led to a gully. There were some cables and a well-worn path starting up the gully and, it seemed to me, then going up a steep, rocky spur without crossing the gully. So I started uphill, following the footway and small cairns the best I could in the pitch darkness.
However, the way soon became very indistinct, and I started wondering if I was on the right path. I could see the headlamps of other climbers below me, but after a while it seemed that they were over more, on the other side of the gully. I also started hearing lots of rockfall noises, a most discouraging sound in the dark on a steep mountainside.
The route I was taking soon became very steep, and I had to carefully make my way up the rocky crags of loose rock held together by frozen dirt using handholds and footholds. It soon became apparent that I should have crossed the gully and gone up where I saw all the other headlamps, but by the time I realized it I couldn't go back--downclimbing the steep ridge would have been suicidal. Cursing my stupidity, I had to force my way up over many rocky towers, hoping against hope that the way wouldn't become totally impassable.
There were several spots on this ridge where I got myself into very bad situations, hanging on to crumbling handholds with my mittened hand, my feet struggling for purchase on frozen scree, having no idea in the utter darkness what was beyond the pinnacle I was trying to turn and almost working myself into a panic. Occasionally the going would get easier, and I would see a lonely cairn, a footway, and even footprints, but these would soon disappear and I found myself hanging on for dear life once again on some dark crag.
Somehow, though, the nightmare came to an end--I climbed over the last tower, easily rock-hopped to the base of a dirt slope covered with light snow, and, screaming to the mountain gods "You think that you can mess me up with this? After what I just came up?", easily climbed up to the permanent snow and ice. The jagged rocky terrain ended abruptly at a huge, largely flat, smooth cap of snow stretching off towards the summit.
I took a rest on the steep edge of the snow, put on my crampons, and first trudged over to my right to just above the Gouter Hut, where the path that I should have taken came up. Not stopping at the hut, since it was down just below the crest I was on, I found the main broad track in the snow and started hiking easily up in the predawn darkness.
The rest of the way up to the summit of Mont Blanc was very easy--a hike on a well-worn snow path along a mostly wide snow ridge, with no crevasses to speak of along the whole route. It was a long way, the air was thin, and near the top the ridge did get pretty narrow, but after the horrors of the rocks of the Tete Rousse the going was very easy. Even though I had been the first one out of the Tete Rousse hut, I had fallen behind people with my detour up the wrong ridge, and was also behind the people who had spent the night at the Gouter Hut, but as the dawn broke and I trudged up the snow I encountered more people and started passing several groups. The weather was absolutely perfect, with not a cloud in the sky, and as the long shadows of the peaks receded as the sun rose, I casually gazed out over large chunks of Europe as I climbed higher.
I crossed over the Dome de Gouter and two bumps on the ridge called the Bosses, after the Dome the route up from Chamonix joining the path--that route had more vertical and more crevasses. The only problems I was having was the increasingly thin air once I was above 4500 meters, a creeping coldness in my toes that was enough to make me stop and put on another pair of socks under my soggy leather hiking boots, and, when the ridge was narrow, passing other climbers, both coming the other way and going my way. I rested at the squalid little Vallot refuge at 4362 meters, another hut with a disgusting pile of crap out back, and plugged up from there along the narrow snowy crest, the path in the snow occasionally a three-foot deep canyon on the very crest of the ridge. On this last stretch I was definitely feeling the altitude, but I was fit enough to soldier on without slowing down much.
At last, maybe even sooner than I thought, the path in the snow flattened out on a long, snowy ridge crest, and there were about a hundred people stopped all along it, sitting and resting. This was the summit of Mont Blanc, 4807 meters (15,771 feet) above sea level, the highest peak in the Alps and all of Europe (not counting the Caucasus). I was disappointed that there was no highest point clearly projecting above the summit ridge--since the ridge was long and generally level, all one hundred people had equal claim to being on the actual summit. I picked a spot where the was a gap in the resting parties, took off my pack, and started resting myself. It was 8:30 AM.
The views were expansive, of course--I could even make out the Matterhorn in the midst of the Pennine Alps off to the east, and central France faded into the haze on the western horizon a hundred miles away. I took some pictures, and got a Spanish guy near me to take my picture after taking one of him. After eating some food, I started thinking about Mont Blanc de Couramayer, perhaps the highest point in Italy.
The summit of Mont Blanc is entirely in France, but the border with Italy is only a few hundred yards away in three directions, so the highest point in Italy is somewhere just below Mont Blanc. Near as I could tell, it was either Mont Blanc de Courmayeur, a sub-peak to the southeast, or an unnamed point on the narrow snow ridge to the west I had just climbed up, both at about 4750 meters. Since Mont Blanc de Courmayeur actually had a name affixed to it, many people assumed that it was the apex of Italy, so I decided to go over and climb it.
I went along the long summit crest of Mont Blanc to the far end, past the last resting climbers, and dropped down on untracked snow towards the minor col separating Mont Blanc from its clearly visible sub-peak, an ugly mass of rock and snow. I was a bit scared to loose the comforting familiarity of a well-beaten path in the snow, but I was careful, the area was reasonably flat (if I fell I wouldn't slide far), and there were no obvious crevasses at all. Also, I was in plain view of the hordes on Mont Blanc.
After trudging to the base of Mont Blanc de Courmayeur I looked around for the best way up it. The very top had a spectacular hanging cornice projecting out over a huge cliff, and the direct route went over some steep rock and ice, so it seemed that the best way was around the steep parts, going around to my right by contouring on a steep but manageable snow slope, just under the low cliffs. However, I wasn't happy about the situation--the snow was deep and possibly hid crevasses, I was now all alone, there were no tracks to follow, and it seemed that I had to go all the way around to find an easy way up. I finally decided to give up, because I simply didn't like thrashing about the way I was.
Reluctantly, I retraced my steps in the snow, saving face by telling myself that, even if I had scaled the 20 meters or so up to the top, the huge cornice at the summit was unsafe, and that Mont Blanc de Courmayeur might not really be Italy's high point anyway. So I easily made it back to the low point on the saddle and then thoroughly winded myself reclimbing Mont Blanc. At over 15,500 feet, and given my fatigue after what was already a huge effort, the minor climb was a backbreaker--I had to stop and rest often. Back on the long, crowded summit crest, I rested, took more pictures, and started back down.
Shortly after leaving the top, on a narrow section of ridge along the well-worn path, I stopped, since I thought that this point might be the highest in Italy. I compared my altimeter readings with those I had taken over at Mont Blanc de Courmayeur, but I couldn't really tell anything. I got a passing climber to take my "highest in Italy" picture anyway before continuing the easy plunge-stepping down the path.
My downward journey on the snow went easily and quickly. There were still hordes of people all along the route, and some were going faster than me, but I still cruised easily down past the Vallot refuge, over the Bosses, up and over the Dome de Gouter, and finally to the Refuge de Gouter, where the gentle snow ridge abruptly ended at steep crumbling rock cliffs. I stopped near the Vallot refuge to talk to the German guy I had been talking to at the hut last night (I at first didn't recognize him), and found the brief uphill at the Dome du Gouter a pain, but otherwise my trip was uneventful--there was still not a cloud in the sky, and views of three countries were expansive.
At the Gouter Hut I rested a bit, looking for but not finding a Sri Chinmoy plaque like I had seen at other Alpine high points. Here I took off my crampons while sitting outside and ate my lunch amid the general hubbub. To descend the rocks I saw the obvious path leading steeply down, the one whose lower end I had missed in the morning to disastrous effect. It was just as steep as the route I had found, but there were lots of cables strung along the whole way that made scaling the cliffs much easier, and the best route was well marked and clearer. It was still tortuous going, by far the hardest stretch of any Mont Blanc ascent or descent, but, hanging on to the well-bolted-down steel cables for dear life, not too bad. Perhaps the biggest hassle was all the people on the route, requiring waits at various cable sections. A couple times I even went around slow groups by foregoing the cable on easier stretches.
Descending from the Gouter Hut one can't help but notice the loud noise of falling rocks in the couloir to one's right, in between the minor ridge with the cables and the one I had ascended in the morning. Every few minutes a series of loud cracking sounds would announce the falling of another large rock, loosed by the melting snow and ice above. As I neared the Tete Rousse Hut I confirmed what I had thought--the route had to cross this gully. I hadn't wanted to cross it in the morning, which was a reason why I went up the wrong way, but in order to use the nice cables it had to be crossed.
So after using the last cable to get myself to the edge of the snow-covered gully, I quickly strode across, keeping my eyes peeled uphill, and made it safely across in about half a minute. Still, I don't like being like a pin in a bowling alley one bit. Once across the gully there was some easy scrambling back to the Tete Rousse Hut, where I retrieved my sleeping bag and other junk left behind from last night and took a long rest. Out front I chatted with a Belgian guy for fifteen minutes or so--he had spent the night at the higher Gouter Hut, and was surprised that I had made it up starting at the low Tete Rousse Hut.
I finally set off from the hut, crossed the miniature glacier to the main trail down, and easily hiked down the barren, rocky path, teeming with day hikers and tourists, to the Mont Blanc Tramway. The scene here was a zoo, with gobs of tourists milling around. I bought my ticket for a train arriving in about forty-five minutes, hung out, mostly on a grassy knoll, and didn't buy any food, since it was very expensive. The 4:25 PM train arrived, and the unruly mob waiting in the paddocks swarmed aboard while I waited a bit--I finally got on the jam-packed car and resigned myself to standing for the hour-long trip down to St. Gervais-les-Bains. I told myself it was better than walking down the 5157 vertical feet.
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