Climbing Mont-Blanc successfully: one man’s story
Conquering the highest point in Europe – 4807 metres – is any amateur mountain climber’s dream, and of course involves the French side. Here is a personal account and a lesson in how to prepare yourself for such an exploit.
The crunching of crampons spiking the crisp snow...
The line of climbers all roped together, now numbed by the cold wind, had set off before daybreak; our headlamps are like a string of fairy lights on the summital ridge.
The Giant of the Alps, also known as the "roof of Europe", is at last in reach, after two days of climbing and a rigorous preparation, both for fitness and technique. Panting slightly, already pretty tired, but knowing that I need to keep some strength for the long descent, I listen carefully to my mountain guide’s advice.
At the summit, a vast glacial dome, many of us share the emotion, in all sorts of different languages! Each year, thousands of climbing enthusiasts come from all over the world to ascend Mont-Blanc. It is therefore advisable to schedule your ascent to avoid the most popular summer weekends, which are very crowded.
In fine weather the route is usually well marked, but the risks that are specific to high altitude and to this summit in particular still prompt most hardy mountain lovers to request the aid of a qualified high mountain guide. The companies of guides (Chamonix and Saint-Gervais) and also several specialised agencies (Azimut, Allibert Trekking, etc.) offer all kinds of formula: from simple help for the climb (on condition that you are sufficiently fit) to the whole trip including a preparation phase and the ascent itself.
The course system allows you to prepare yourself physically for the exercise while revising your technique: an easy climb along the ridges of Miage with a night in the Refuge des Conscrits, for example, makes you feel a little safer. My mountain guide checks my technique, reminds me of a few essential recommendations and improves my rope handling. As for the crampon technique on a glacier and my endurance level, I am sufficiently practised already, and fit enough: indispensable for this kind of adventure!
After a comfortable transition night in a charming hotel in the valley, off we all set on the so-called "normal" climb up Mont-Blanc, the most frequented route. An ascent in the Mont-Blanc Tramway, a delightful funicular that leaves from Saint-Gervais, is a prelude to the approach walk on a well-made trail up to the Refuge de la Tête Rousse (3187 m altitude).
There are a lot of people up there, even tonight: a night in a dormitory does not make sleeping particularly easy, but such is the fate of the voluntary mountaineer! At breakfast, very, very early, I don’t feel all that hungry: we have to be quick, get our gear right (harness, rope, crampons, well-packed rucksack) and climb fairly steadily up to the refuge of the aiguille du Goûter (3765 m): we could have stopped here for the night (instead of Tête Rousse) but it was also quite crowded!
The hours of climbing pass slowly. The climb is very long. I follow in the guide’s tracks, treading carefully. A few steep, slippery passages require particular attention. As I gain experience, I don’t mind the heights too much. But I do feel slightly nauseous, and my fingers are a little swollen: typical effects of high altitude.
At last we reach the arête des Bosses, balanced on the border with Italy: the Valley of Chamonix on one side, the Valley of Aoste on the other. Luck is on our side: the sun is warming the polar atmosphere (at 4807 m, it’s always a bit cold) and magnificent scenery opens out before us. Moments of pure magic...
But now we have to get back safe and sound. We are returning by the same route, which has the disadvantage of passing the slower climbers in the difficult passages. This choice encourages us to stop for a second night at altitude at the refuge du Goûter, after a long and exhausting day. The next day, the descent to the Nid d'aigle (the upper level stop on the funicular) will be more relaxed as it will be full of the memory of a successful challenge: the conquest of Mont-Blanc!
Points to remember when preparing to ascend the "Roof of Europe":
Know your limits
The ascent of Mont-Blanc remains a benchmark and a relatively easy challenge, but requires a certain level of fitness and technical ability. It is pointless to "cheat", it’s just a waste of time and money: you would have to abandon the ascent with the weight of your frustration on your shoulders.
- Compagnie des guides de montagne de Chamonix (Chamonix mountain guide company): http://www.chamonix-guides.com/
This organisation, founded in 1821, enjoys a solid reputation and has nearly 200 qualified guides. Their experience of the Mont-Blanc massif is of course second to none.
- Compagnie des guides de Saint-Gervais (St Gervais mountain guide company): http://www.guides-mont-blanc.com/
Theme holiday offers "objective 4807 m" by mountain guide agencies
- Azimut (mountain climbing holidays)
- Allibert, guides and trekking
- Syndicat national des guides de montagne (National union of mountain guides)
The trade federation offers a contact directory of mountain guides; many of them now have their own website.
Some ideas of prices for a guide’s services
- Mont-Blanc, normal route in 2 days: €710/person, approx.
- Hire of a guide for one day: €300/person, approx.
(for a mountain climb in a French massif)
Calculate 1 guide for every 2 or 3 participants (called a "rope" of climbers)
Some "preparation and ascent" holidays
5- or 6-day course, with night in a 3* hotel and nights in a refuge: €870 to €1045/person
Ascent of Mont-Blanc, normal route 3-day course = €595/person
Different versions of the ascent of Mont-Blanc
- The normal route takes the western slope, leaving from Saint-Gervais. It is the most popular because less technically difficult and includes 2 modern refuges run by the “Club Alpin Français”, the French mountaineering club (Tête Rousse and Goûter). Return by the same route.
- The Mont-Blanc historical route dates back to 1786 (the first ascent by Balmat and Paccard, one from Chamonix and the other from Geneva). It is on the northern face, leaving from Chamonix, with glaciers that are complicated to cross and only one refuge (les Grands Mulets).
- Crossing Mont-Blanc is a demanding but superb route: climbing up the normal route and descending via the north-east side and the fore-summits of Mont Maudit and Mont Blanc du Tacul; which involves returning to Chamonix (with a stop at the refuge des Cosmiques).
- The ascent of the "three Mont-Blanc" (Tacul, Mont Maudit, Mont-Blanc) starts at Chamonix, with a "shortened" approach via the Aiguille du Midi cable car and a night in the refuge des Cosmiques.
- The Haute-Route du Mont-Blanc offers ascents around the legendary summit, as a tribute. The routes are less often used and less well known, but the scenery is astonishing and magnificent (Dôme de Miage, Bionnassay, etc.)
- The Mont-Blanc tour is a purely "rambling" version, walking for a week on registered hiking trails and in the Italian and Swiss valleys at the foot of the massif: via Courmayeur and Champeix. This "wandering hike" costs around €525/person from trekking agencies (with nights in a refuge or small hotel).
- Compagnie du Mont-Blanc, manages the cable cars and funiculars (Aiguille du Midi and Mont-Blanc Tramway): http://www.compagniedumontblanc.fr/
- Saint-Gervais Tourist Office: www.saint-gervais.com
- Chamonix Tourist Office: www.chamonix.com
Author: Philippe Bardiau