Mont Blanc via the Gouter Refuge

Date walked: 20/09/2017

Ascent: 3800m

Climbing Mont Blanc has been an ambition of mine for a number of years. This was reinforced when I read a Charlie Boscoe article on UKC (https://www.ukclimbing.com/articles/page.php?id=5784), on how it was achievable for a competent winter hill walker. I planned to do it with my partner Charlie, who is also a keen runner and hillwalker. I took the lead in organising the equipment we would need and planned a programme of days which would allow us to acclimatise without having to venture onto glaciers too much - something neither of us had any experience of. We had studied the theory of crevasse rescue but I thought it would be a good idea to hire a guide to go over it with us in person. Hopefully we will never have to use the techniques we were taught.

Image[/url]20170913_162240 by Stuart Dykes, on Flickr[/img]

When we arrived in Chamonix the weather and forecast for the next week or so did not look promising. We had a hut reservation for the following Tuesday. Our Airbnb was meant to have a view of Mont Blanc but we couldn’t see it for the cloud, in fact we could only see below 2,000 metres.

To warm up for the climb we did a bit of trail running and walking which is obviously very popular in Chamonix. We went for a walk up to Montenvers, along the Balcon du Nord to Plan de l'Aiguille. This took us up to 2,200 metres which was an ideal start. On the second day we walked up Mont Buet – 3,096 metres, 19km round trip and I could really feel the effects of the altitude. It was comparable to a Scottish ascent of a Munro, deep snow in places, rocky but no technical skills required. It was good to get our crampons on as were not out much in Scotland over the last winter. It was quite a long walk and despite the recent snow it was very warm on the ascent and descent as the sun was actually out that day (so warm in fact that we had to stop for a refreshing beer at the refuge on the way down). The views from the summit were outstanding and we had a great view of our target for the trip - Mont Blanc.

Image[/url]20170915_134607 by Stuart Dykes, on Flickr[/img]

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The following day we had booked a BMG guide to go over crevasse rescue training with us. We decided to do this from the Aiguille du Midi lift as the guide knew an area that would be suitable and it would also give us an opportunity to do a climb in the afternoon. The weather was perfect at 3,800 metres and walking down from the Aiguille du Midi onto the Vallee Blanche via Midi Arête was incredible. The views were spectacular! We spent the morning building snow and ice belays. Due to the recent snow, the conditions were not ideal as we had to dig quite deep to get solid snow for ice axe belays. We eventually managed and it was good to practise what we had read about in various manuals.

After that we headed back to the lift via the Arête Des Cosmiques, an AD graded route. Definitely one of the finest routes I have ever done and so close to the civilization of the lift. Due to a hot summer and a recent dumping of snow the guide said the route was probably at the top of the grade which made it more challenging for us. I had asked to do an AD route as I wasn’t confident of leading this grade myself. In retrospect I think with a bit more practise and no time pressures it would be within our abilities to do this or a similar graded route ourselves. Some of the situations are fantastic. It has everything: climbing granite walls, squeezing up chimneys, snows slopes and abseiling. You finish off my climbing a shoogly wee ladder onto the lift viewing platform where tourists take photos of you, thinking you are heroes for undertaking such a feat!

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The following day we had planned to climb Mont Blanc du Tacul at 4248 metres to get experience of being over 4,000 metres but unfortunately the recent snowfall had made for poor conditions. There was a high avalanche risk; in fact a large avalanche had happened 2 days previously on the route we had hoped to climb. We didn’t want to take the risk so we had a nice day off drinking Kronenberg and visiting the Alpine Museum.

Tuesday was the beginning of our Mont Blanc attempt. We departed for Les Houches using the free public transport that you are entitled to via your lift pass or Carte d’hote. From Les Houches we were to take a cable car to Bellevue to a height of 1,800 metres. In summer months you would then be able to catch the Tramway Mont Blanc to the Nid d’aigle 2,372 metres. Unfortunately since this had shut only two weeks before, we would have to take the Baraque de Rognes path up to the Gouter Hut where we were staying that night. This meant over 2,000 metres of ascent in deep snow! The Baraque des Rognes was used for access to Mont Blanc prior to the tramway being built and was recently reopened by the St Gervais guides. It would be a nice scenic route but if you could walk up the tramway tracks it would be much quicker and easier. However we were strictly instructed not to do this by the mountain office and by signs at Bellevue. We met one unlucky guide later in the evening that had attempted to walk up the tracks but was told to turn back by workmen adding two hours to his and his client’s day. Not ideal, we certainly didn’t want to take that risk.

Image[/url]20170918_122809 by Stuart Dykes, on Flickr[/img]

Our walk began by going around Mont Lachat to the col. From here we turned onto the Baraque des Rognes which is signposted red meaning that it is delicate, technical and that you may require mountaineering equipment. For the most part the route was fine but long and with little visibility it got a bit boring. The boredom ended when we reached the fixed cables and ladders which added a bit of interest to walk. Nothing too difficult but they were useful to hold onto at certain sections as a trip or fall would be serious. We eventually reached Baraque des Rognes 2,768m and from there it was a steep pull up a rocky rib to the Tete Rousse glacier. We made the short detour to the Tete Rousse hut where we were greeted by the hut guardian - a Golden Retriever rolling in the snow, a very welcoming sight. We took this opportunity to have a wee rest and get the rope out and set up. In hindsight we probably didn’t need it but it gave us some more ‘moving together’ practise.

From the hut it is a short walk up to the Grand Couloir, where most of the deaths and accidents on this route occur. There is a fixed cable here which you can usually clip your rope into to save you falling into the abyss. The main danger is being hit by rocks which at certain times of day can tumble down at an alarming rate. Thankfully it was too cold and the snow too deep for any rock fall. The cable was also useless and the walkers ahead of us had crossed the couloir about 10 metres further up away from the cable. It was pleasing to cross in such a leisurely manner after reading about all the dangers! When safely across it is roughly 500 metres to old the disused Gouter Hut. There are occasional fixed cables to help with the scramble but it is quite straightforward, similar sort of standard to Curved Ridge in Glencoe perhaps. I think in some places the snow benefited us whilst in others it was a nuisance but it was enjoyable nonetheless. One party passed us on the ridge, a Romanian guide and his Canadian client who were decent guys and they flew up ahead of us. The altitude was definitely beginning to affect my speed here.

Upon reaching the old hut we were met by a total whiteout! We couldn’t see anything which was of course alarming. Obviously we knew we were close to safety but there are also dangers in the area. A steep pull up a snow slope alongside a fixed rope brought us to a snowy arête with vague footprints but we still couldn’t see the hut. The footprints eventually disappeared due to the wind and the snow and we found ourselves on a snowy arête not knowing what was on either side. I had to turn my GPS on to ensure we were heading in the correct direction. Eventually as we walked forward the hut came into view which was a welcome relief as were very cold and tired! The hut is decent and the dinner was quite tasty: soup and cheese followed by pork and lentils and a chocolate brownie for desert (bottles of water were on sale for 7euros for 1.5 litres so I would recommend bringing plenty of cash with you for this). Breakfast would be at 3am which would allow us a 4am start on the summit.

Image[/url]20170919_105947 by Stuart Dykes, on Flickr[/img]

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As expected we did not sleep well and everyone at breakfast said the same. It is funny that nobody slept well but there were lots of people snoring! The hut was only half full so about 50 of us were downstairs in the changing rooms getting ready for ascent. Some people had already made their way up from the Tete Rousse hut and were in the Gouter getting a heat. Stepping out into the early morning darkness was daunting; we could see the lights of Chamonix twinkling in the valley, so close but so far away. We were careful not to be the first out the out as we didn’t want to break the trail ;-) I thought that would be better left to more experienced climbers and guides.

Researching the walk before we left it would seem that there is often a great track all the way to the top, trod by hundreds of other people. Instead we had a tough slog through deep snow, with only 30 or so people ahead of us. I loved seeing the head torches in front of us, heading up the Dome Du Gouter and then directly above that we had the stars twinkling in the sky, an amazing sight. The walk up the Dome du Gouter seemed to go on for an eternity with little progress. It was a fairly simple slog up but eventually we made it to the Col des Domes. From here a short steep snow slope leads to the Vallot emergency shelter. It was absolutely freezing so we went in to try and warm up and wait for the sun to come up. Alarmingly once inside we saw an unconscious girl suffering badly from altitude sickness and hypothermia. She was in a hyperbaric altitude and guides were trying to get her awake. Thankfully a helicopter came to pick her up within a very short time. It was so that cold even seasoned guides had their boots off in the hut, trying to rub some life into them! I have never been that cold in my life and I really regretted not investing in a pair of B3 boots. We had a few snacks and then set off for the final stretch to the summit.

Once outside the sun had started to rise and we could see the next part of the route and the summit. It looked very close but the ridge ahead looked a bit tricky. The next part of the route is called the Bosses ridge and it has two distinct humps. The first hump was incredibly steep and exposed. A slip here would have been disastrous as it would be very hard to arrest a fall. We were both mentally prepared in case of a slip and the plan was for the other person to jump to the opposite side of the ridge and hope that the rope dug into the snow! Going up the first hump was not enjoyable, as I couldn’t get any decent purchase in the snow and there was no protection available. It was very precarious especially with the 50km winds. I actually said to Charlie that I didn’t fancy this section at all but thankfully she convinced me to go on! We eventually passed the two humps and had a wee rest before we had to cross the bergschrund. This looked more daunting than it actually was. After this it was a nice exposed ridge walk to the summit.

Image[/url]20170920_101831 by Stuart Dykes, on Flickr[/img]

The views were incredible but we had limited ability to take them in as we were concentrating on allowing returning parties to get past us - there really wasn’t much room! The summit was a welcome relief and it felt amazing to actually be there. The highest mountain in Western Europe! The panoramic was sensational and we could see so far, Chamonix looked within touching distance! It was so cold however that we didn’t get many photographs as my fingers hurt trying to use my phone. I got a couple and a guide with another rope took our photo too and I returned the favour. We were only on the summit for maybe ten minutes as it was far too cold to hang about without movement to keep us warm. The only part of the descent I was particularly worried about was the Bosses ridge!

It was nice to retrace our steps in the daylight and see the route up the Dome du Gouter behind us. The Gouter route is recognised as being largely crevasse free but there are certainly a few visible ones up the Dome and I was actually pretty glad not to have seen them on the way up. We were aiming to get the last cable car down to Les Houches that left Bellevue at 5:30pm. After leaving the summit at half nine I thought this was doable and normally it would be. However due to the altitude I was feeling very tired and was having to stop rest every ten minutes or so until we made it back to the Gouter Hut. I felt fine after that but those wee rests resulted in us missing the cable car and having to descend a further 1,000 metres down to the valley, adding around two and a half hours to the day. We had only missed it by about ten minutes and it meant that essentially we descended from 4,800 metres to 1,000 metres entirely on foot! This was brutal going as we were thirsty, hungry and tired with our big boots and heavy packs so it nearly put a dampener on our day but we tried hard to keep the spirits up. It was soon forgotten though and when we reached Lew Houches at 8pm we found the local supermarket and procured some crisps and much needed water with the small change we had left over from the (understandably) pricey Gouter hut!

Image[/url]20170920_044517 by Stuart Dykes, on Flickr[/img]

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All in all this was a brilliant trip; we learned exciting new mountaineering skills to add to our repertoire and summited Mont Blanc! It has given me ideas and encouragement for future trips and I can’t wait to go back to the Alps. The article from Charlie Boscoe was correct, fit hillwalkers can summit Mont Blanc under their own steam. I would suggest to anyone making an attempt to: practise their basic rope work, practise crevasse rescue and work on crampon technique. Other than that it is a fairly non-technical climb. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone that isn’t a fan of exposure though! I could not have done it without Charlie though, she lead the way with acclimatisation and was a great encouragement to me so pick your climbing partner(s) wisely. All in all an amazing trip!

Image[/url]20170914_193752 by Stuart Dykes, on Flickr[/img]

Image[/url]20170917_131701 by Stuart Dykes, on Flickr[/img]

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Comments: 14


Activity: Scrambler
Mountain: Climbing Mont Blanc has b
Place: Glencoe
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