Mt Blanc/Mt Bianco (15,781ft) – Highest point in France and Italy
Eric and Matthew Gilbertson
August 6, 2014
On July 31 I handed in the final copy of my PhD thesis, finishing up years of work in mechanical engineering research at MIT. The next morning Matthew and I were on a plane to Europe to celebrate by climbing a bunch of mountains. Our goal was to hit as many country highpoints as possible in a two-week road trip, and our weather window for Mt Blanc happened just a few days after we landed.
We cruised in to Saint Gervais-les-Bains, France on the afternoon of August 5, having tagged the Monaco highpoint that morning. The weather looked good for the next few days, and we hoped it would hold for us to reach the summit of Mt Blanc.
We found one of the few remaining parking spots outside the mountain railway station in town, and purchased tickets for the last car of the day up to the Nid d’Aigle stop where the hiking trail to Mt Blanc begins. The mountain railway is a small set of railway cars that moves slowly up and down the mountain from town servicing trailheads in the summer and ski runs in the winter. It is also very popular for sight-seeing tourists to get high up into the mountains for some scenic views.
Matthew and I quickly packed up our backpacks with glacier gear and supplies for a few days. Our plan was to give ourselves three or four days for Mt Blanc to ensure we acclimated correctly and had a good enough weather window to summit. We would hike up and camp as high as we could this evening, do an acclimation hike the next day, then summit the final day, with enough supplies to wait another day for better weather if needed. As it turned out, we wouldn’t quite exactly follow this plan.
The railcar pulled up to the station and we loaded in with a bunch of other people. We were the only ones with big packs, so probably the only ones on our way to Mt Blanc. The train weaved up through the trees, past some rustic looking cabins, eventually popping out above treeline on a ridge overlooking Chamonix below. The car stopped at the top of some ski runs, and a handful of people got out, probably to start a short hike. Higher up we stopped two more times, until we were above all the ski lifts and traversing the side of steep rocky slopes. After passing through a small primitive tunnel we reached the final stop, at the Nid d’Aigle.
Matthew, I, and the few other remaining passengers got off here. Two mountain bikers looked like they were prepared for an epic late-afternoon descent, and a few other people started hiking on a traversing trail to the Nid d’Aigle hut for the night. Matthew and I saddled up or big packs and started heading up towards Mt Blanc.
We followed a well-maintained path through the grassy meadows and up into talus fields. The grass soon ended and we crossed a few snow fields, before scrambling up a ridge to the base of the Tete Rousse Glacier. The glacier was small, with no visible crevasses, and a well-worn boot path traversed the short section to the Tete Rousse Hut. We continued in our sneakers past the hut to the small tent city in the talus field beyond. There were about 20 tents pitched here, which wasn’t too surprising given this was the peak climbing season, and this is the highest place you are definitively
allowed to camp on the route. (Some sources say you’re allowed to camp higher on the route as long as you pitch your tent after dark and take it down before dawn, but it’s unclear what enforcement is like on this crowded mountain.)
We found a nice semi-flat patch of snow away from the other tents and pitched our small 2-man Nemo tent there. It was dusk by now, and we had made it as high as we’d hoped today, camping at an elevation of 10,500ft. Our previous two days climbing the highpoints of San Marino, Vatican City, and Monaco had done little to help with acclimation for a 15,700ft mountain, so we had to be careful to acclimate properly.
Our plan was to camp at 10,500ft that night, then the next day do an acclimation hike to the Gouter Hut at 12,500ft and return to sleep at 10,500ft. Then the next day we would either rest at 10,500ft or summit. This seemed to reasonably follow the climb-high-sleep-low mountaineers’ mentality for acclimation.
That night we were roused several times around midnight and 3am by parties presumably starting summit bids from camp. We woke up at the leisurely hour of 8am and were off hiking by 9am. With no plans to summit, we had no real need to get started super early.
We hiked up to the head of the Tete Rousse Glacier and came to our first obstacle, the Grand Couloir crossing. This is probably the most dangerous part of the route – a traverse of a steep rock and snow gully that is very often shedding sizeable chunks of debris from high above. The best strategy is to cross quickly when the sun isn’t hitting the couloir. Sunshine tends to melt away snow and ice that holds rocks in place, letting them come tumbling down the mountain.
There is a big metal cable strung across the couloir to clip a rope into, and it is set at a reasonable height when the couloir is filled with deep snow, but by this time in August the snow was mostly gone and the cable was too high up to be useful. We unroped from our glacier setup and quickly crossed one at a time, safely reaching the other side.
From the other side of the couloir the route ascends a steep rocky ridge leading right to the Gouter hut on the edge of the Bossons Glacier. We scrambled up the rocks until we encountered some steeper sections where via ferrata cables were installed. In a few sections we clipped ourselves in as we traversed some exposed areas. A few parties were descending the route, and it was a bit difficult passing in the tight areas. At one point a man descending bent over as he was passing by me and nearly impaled me in the face with the ice ax on the back of his pack!
I guess we were only asking for a crowded climb by coming in peak season, so couldn’t complain about all the other people there. Before long we crested the ridge to reach the Gouter Hut and stopped on a bench outside to take a break. The hut looked pretty impressive – a big triple-level metallic cylinder perched precariously between the edge of the glacier and a rocky cliff. We’d read that inside you could pay for a place to sleep, meals, water, and even rental glacier gear! Coming from North America this seems absurd to have such a facility high up on the mountain. It seems like it should really be a wilderness up there, where you carry in everything you need and carry everything back out again. But I guess the mentality is different in Europe.
We didn’t need any of that luxury, so just stayed outside and enjoyed the view. It was noon now and looked like it would remain sunny the rest of the day. Several groups were descending to the hut now after successful summit bids.
This was supposed to be as high as we climbed today, since it was merely an acclimation day, but it was awfully tempting to continue up the mountain.
“I really don’t want to have to do that sketchy traverse of the Grand Couloir and that steep rock ridge three more times,” Matthew lamented, looking up at the summit, clearly visible from our rest spot.
“Yeah. I’m actually feeling pretty strong now, and we have plenty of daylight left. Why don’t we just push on for the summit now and be done with it?” I replied.
“I’m feeling pretty good too,” Matthew said. “Let’s do it!”
Usually it’s a good idea to stay off glaciers in the heat of the day when snow bridges get weaker, but the route up Mt Blanc actually generally follows ridges which are mostly crevasse free. Also, with so much traffic on the mountain, there’s no trouble following the exact same route everyone else follows safely.
We suited back into our glacier gear and continued up the mountain, following the huge line of boot tracks. Easy snow slopes soon led us to the summit of the Dome du Gouter, a small local maximum along the way, before we descended back down to the col on the other side. There were a few other parties descending the route, but we had it mostly to ourselves. Everyone else must have started super early and were already off the mountain, but we didn’t really encounter a single crevasse near the route, so there wasn’t really much danger.
We took a short break in the Vallot Hut to eat some food, and met a few climbers sleeping inside and a few others who had just summited. Officially the hut is for emergency use only, but everyone stops in there to get out of the wind for a brief break.
After the Vallot Hut we started the steep section of the climb, but it wasn’t too bad. We followed a snow ridge up the northwest side of Mt Blanc following a well-worn boot track. At times the ridge became a bit exposed on the sides, but our footing was secure enough in the boot tracks that we were never worried.
Within an hour we crested the final hump and found ourselves on the summit. We had the top completely to ourselves, at around 3pm. The massif around us was spectacular. It was like a chunk of the Himalayas had been plopped right into the heart of Western
Europe. Big steep rocky mountains stood out to the north, and a deep valley leading down to Chamonix spread out to the west. We were officially on the summit of both Italy and France now, one of only a handful of two-for-one country highpoints in the world.
Somehow the altitude hadn’t yet caught up with us and we were still feeling OK. We had literally been acclimated to sea level 24 hours ago, and now were up at 15,781ft. But we knew the good feeling couldn’t last, and we had to get down soon. After 15 minutes on top Matthew led the way down.
We retraced our same route back down the ridge, taking a brief rest break at the Vallot Hut. We then hiked back up and over the Dome du Gouter and descended to the Gouter Hut. We were amazingly still feeling strong altitude-wise, and stopped for a much-needed rest. I went inside to use the bathroom, and encountered a bar-like atmosphere with tons of climbers milling around in the restaurant inside. It definitely was not a wilderness experience there!
Back outside we kept resting, but the longer we stayed the worse we started feeling. We both almost wanted to just stay right there and go to sleep, but from our experience on other mountains this was a bad sign. We knew that if we stayed there we would only feel worse over time because we hadn’t really properly acclimated. The only real way to feel better was to descend.
Finally we packed up and headed back to the rocky ridge. We carefully descended, clipping into the via ferrata cables in the sketchy sections and soon making it back to the Grand Couloir. By now the clouds were rolling in and the sun starting to set, so it was actually reasonably safe again to cross the couloir. We quickly crossed one at a time, then roped up on the other side back on the Tete Rousse Glacier.
Before long we were safely back to our camp in the tent city, and crawled inside to go to sleep. Sunset was amazing looking across the valley to the distant mountains in the west. Back at 10,500ft our feelings of crappiness had gone away, and we enjoyed a nice 11 hours of sleep.
In the morning we got up without alarms, packed up, and hiked back down to the Nid d’Aigle train station. We had earned ourselves an extra day over our original plans, and started plans for our next mountain, Dufourspitz, the Switzerland highpoint, which we would head to that afternoon.