On July 2, 2008 Jenny and I summited Mont Blanc (4810m) with our friends Matt and Jamie Coleman. (Click here to see all of the pictures from the climb.) The climb was filled with spectacular views, sustained glacier climbs inclined at around forty degrees, but only a few crevasses. We did what is known as the Traverse Route (up the Three Monts Route and down the standard Gouter Route). This route begins by taking cable cars from the Chamonix valley (1050m) to the summit of the Aiguille du Midi (3800m) which towers over the valley. The cable car ride alone is enough to give you vertigo as it climbs at almost a ninety degree angle for the final few hundred meters. From the Aiguille du Midi you get a great view of the first part of the Traverse Route which begins by descending on a steep snow covered slope to the Col du Midi (3600m) then up a short ways to the Refuge de Cosmiques.
On Tuesday July 1 we emerged from a snow tunnel at the Aiguille du Midi onto a small platform of snow surrounded by steep drops of at least a thousand meters. This little platform is the place where climbers rope-up (or un-rope if returning), attach crampons, and begin their climb (or at this point a descent). The four of us got ready and began the descent. My heart pounded a little faster due to the altitude and the inescapable thought that this was a serious and dangerous journey we were undertaking. As I looked in the faces of the climbers returning from that days summit bid I couldn’t help but see how tired and worn they looked. I wondered if I would look the same way the next day as we passed others heading to conquer the mountain.
We carefully descended slushy snow which had melted and loosened due to the heat of the day. The sun was shining brightly that afternoon. This is the time of day to be off the mountain since as the snow loosens avalanches are more probable, rocks are dislodged and fall, and the snow bridges covering crevasses become less stable. To avoid these conditions we would aim to leave for the summit the next morning at 2am.
We reached the Cosmiques hut around 3pm and got situated – gear was readied for the morning and our bunk beds were assigned. We played spades and speed scrabble while we waited for dinner. Jamie is a professional speed scrabbler – calling “go” once every three seconds. Over a tasty and filling dinner we discussed our plan and details for the next days climb. We had originally reserved two nights at the hut so we would have some flexibility in case of bad weather. After talking to the hut warden about the weather we decided that we would not wait until more acclimated but rather try to summit on Wednesday. Thursday’s weather was predicted to be bad and Wednesday’s weather was supposed to be very nice until late afternoon. Also based on the warden’s suggestion we decided to do the traverse route. Originally we planned on going both up and down the Three Monts route but the descent is somewhat dangerous since the route is steep and can be icy (which is easier to ascend than descend). After dinner we made last minute preparations and then headed to bed at around 8pm – setting our alarms for 12:15am.
Around 12:25am Jenny woke up without an alarm (lucky since neither of our alarms had gone off). The whole bunk then also woke up and began getting ready. Breakfast was at 1am so we threw our climbing gear on and headed down to eat. It’s hard to eat breakfast that early but we needed the calories so we shoved down bread, jam, and giant bowls of coffee and hot chocolate. We headed out of the hut, roped up, and began the climb. The sky was full of stars as there was no moon out. In the pitch black all we could see was what our head lamps in front of us illuminated, the stream of small dancing lights from the headlamps ahead of us, and the lights of Chamonix 2600 meters below us. In the dark we climbed Mont Blanc du Tacul – the first of the three monts. At night the climbs never seem very serious since you tend to forget about the cliffs around you and just continue to put one foot in front of the other. The route zigzags up around crevasses and exits the steep face a little ways below the summit of Mont Blanc du Tacul at around 4050m. There were a few short sections with slopes around 45 degrees but most was sustained a bit less than that. The snow was in great condition and we could easily follow the path of the climbers in front of us. After about 2 hours we reached the Col Maudit.
Despite being almost 3000 meters higher than we had been in Chamonix everyone’s stamina and energy levels were high. As the sky began to brighten the surrounding peaks revealed themselves and it was easy to continue climbing while taking in the amazing views. As we began climbing Mont Maudit, the second ascent of the route, the slope steepened. We were then able to begin taking some pictures. On the rope I was up front, Jenny was behind me, then Jamie, and Matt at the end. Ten meters of rope separated each of us. This was sufficient space so that if someone were to fall in a crevasse the others could self arrest (stop a fall by digging an ice ax into the snow). To exit the face of Mont Maudit onto the Col du Mont Maudit there is a snow bridge which crosses a bergschrund (the large crevasse at the top of a glacier) and then about fifty feet of very steep ice. Here we had to wait for a bit as other climbers one-by-one ascended the ice. Traditional mountaineering ice axes are not meant for steep ice so these sections can be dangerous. If the conditions had been worse we probably would have used ice screws and a belay but since many others had gone before us there were decent foot holds. I climbed first and then set up a boot ax belay from the top (a simple form of belay just using the belayers boot and ice ax). The others easily made it up to the Col du Mont Maudit.
As the sun rose the views were spectacular. All around us were the jagged peaks of the mighty Alps. We traversed across the Col de la Brenva to the base of the last climb we would have for the day. Now at around 4300m we were within 500 vertical meters of the summit. We ascended a section of steep snow called the Mur de la Cote. From here on to the summit there were many short switchbacks. This made for slow going since at each switchback everyone has to stop, switch hands for the ice ax and ski pole (you always want your ice ax on the uphill side of you), and also switch the rope to the downhill side. With a few dozen of these switchbacks left this became tedious and time consuming. We climbed past the Petit Rochers Rouges and then the Petit Mulets (little outcroppings of rock on the final summit slope). At this point the altitude began to have an impact. We were at around 15,000 feet – about 12,000 feet higher than we had been just 24 hours earlier. Every step took more energy but the end was in sight.
The slope gradually flattened and we reached the summit of Mont Blanc – 4810 meters – the highest point in the Alps! We took pictures, absorbed as much of the 360 degree surrounding scenery as possible, and then decided to begin the descent. The traverse route begins by descending a well trodden path down the Bosses ridge. Since many people had summited earlier in the day on the Gouter route it was easy to see which way to go. The weather was beautiful with only a few clouds in the sky around us. The forecast was for afternoon thunder storms so we tried to move quickly. When we reached the Dome du Gouter we decided it was safe to unrope so we could descend faster. At about 1:30pm, after over 3 hours of descent, we reached the Gouter hut at about 3800 meters.
We were all getting hungry and tired and began to have some lunch. I looked in the guide book to see how long the descent would be from the hut down to a train, which we would take to a ski lift, then down the ski lift to the valley. According to the guide book we still had about 3 to 4 hours ahead of us. Matt realized that the train probably stops running sometime in the afternoon. It must have been the affects of altitude that caused us not to think through this part of the journey. We had to make that train to get down to the valley that night. None of us wanted to spend another night on the mountain and we had reservations at our hotel in Chamonix. Matt found a train schedule which indicated the last train would be at 4:35pm. It was now about 2pm and we had to decide if we could make the descent which was supposed to take at least three hours in two. This would mean quick down-climbing on the first section of the descent and running on the rest. We all had our mountaineering boots on which are not very conducive to running – mine especially since they were old clunky plastic boots. Matt found out there was a hut near the train station so if we missed the train we could spend the night there. We decided to go for it. We began a sketchy descent from the Gouter Hut on a steep slope of snow, rock, and ice which constantly crumbled under your feet. We had to move quickly but also didn’t want to fall or get hurt. Some sections had to be down-climbed and on others we had to take careful steps so that rocks wouldn’t get knocked onto those below us. In about an hour we had descended around 600 meters and reached the Glacier de Tete Rouse leaving us about another hour to descend another 1000 meters to the train station at Nid d’Aigle.
Matt and Jamie took off running as fast as they could in their boots. I lagged a bit behind since I was carrying a heavy pack and wearing those dang plastic boots. Jenny was nice enough to not ditch me. We moved as quickly as possible across steep rocky trails and sometimes snow. The snow patches were good because we could move more quickly across them. We caught up and passed some others who were also trying to make the last train. The time ticked towards 4:35 and the train station was no where in sight. We continued descending. I was hungry but there was no time to stop for a snack; thirsty but no time to stop for a drink; had to pee… As the watch showed 4:15 it seemed there was no way we would make it. But we kept running and soon saw the hut near the train station. Filled with hope we kept going and made it to a large road. We knew we were close but didn’t know if the train would still be there. We rounded a corner and about 100 meters away was the train getting ready to pull away! Jamie and Matt were standing outside the train. Jamie yelled “Three minutes!” We kept running but knew we had made it! Matt and Jamie had arrived there a few minutes before us and already purchased tickets. We met the train, Matt, and Jamie and jumped aboard.
Adrenaline filled but exhausted we had made it! We had done the Mont Blanc traverse! From the Chamonix (1030m); up the Aiguille du Midi (3800m); down to the Cosmiques hut (3610m); up to Mont Blanc (4810m); down to the Nid d’Aigle (2370m). And we were now on our way back to the valley. On the train ride down we laughed about being so unbelievably close to missing the train. We joked that not only had we summited Mont Blanc that day but we had also run a 5K!
Rained filled the next day which gave us time to rest and recuperate. We were very thankful that our summit bid had been on a day with perfect weather. Had we tried to go the next day we certainly would not have made the summit.
The Mont Blanc Traverse was communion with friends. Held together by a rope we absorbed the beauty surrounding us. Back in the valley we broke bread, drank wine, and toasted life.