And, of course, the YouTube video, which includes some great footage (if I say so myself):
11 Aug- I got up early and jogged down to the cablecar station to see if someone had turned in my camera. Lo and behold, some kind soul had found it and turned it into Lost and Found! They had taken a few pictures, too.
Our route would be the classic Gouter route.
Gouter route overview
We drove to Les Houches and took the gondola up to where we met a train for a short ride. Due to an underground lake threatening the upper station, the Nid d’Aigle station was closed, so we got off early and started the walk up.
Deviation, adding more distance to an already long day
It was very nice weather, I was in shorts and T-shirt. The boots definitely got hot and sweaty. The hike up to Tete Rousse was uneventful and pleasant. We even saw an ibex with the Aiguille du Midi in the background.
Ibex with Aiguille de Midi in background
We checked in, found our bunks, and switched out of our boots into the provided Crocs. We set our boots in the sun to hopefully dry for a few hours. We eyed the route up to the Gouter hut crossing the Grand Couloir, and were amazed at how close it seemed, even though we knew it was 2,000’ vertical feet. That means it’s steep!
Tete Rousse hut with Grand Couloir in background
Aiguille de Bionnassay from Tete Rousse
The views were very nice, particularly of the Aiguille de Bionnassay.Then we repacked clothes, and tried to rest for an hour or so before dinner. Had an early dinner (3 courses, as usual), then went back to bed for final gear sorting and laid down to try to sleep. A couple arrived later on and seemed to have each gear item in a separate little grocery sack, which made their seemingly endless sorting and packing a very noisy affair.
12 Aug- Up at 0115 for a 0130 breakfast call. Had a few slices of crusty break, a big mug of diluted hot cocoa, and a mini Snickers. Started walking about 0210. Made good time by headlamp, crossing over the Grand Couloir without even noticing where we were. The route was steeper than I was expecting, mostly Class 3 with some Class 4 sections thrown in. There were quite a few sections protected by chains or spikes driven in for holds. By headlamp it was hard to see much, or to know how far ahead or behind the other parties were. We passed a few groups without much trouble. We were glad to have all the crampon-scratches to follow since it made route-finding easier.
We arrived at the Gouter hut (12,522’), and were glad to not be staying there as it seemed quite cramped. We dropped off some unneeded gear (helmet, shell pants, sleeping liner, etc) and had a quick bite and drink of water. We donned crampons and continued up. First it was an easy snowfield, and then got steep; again, quite a bit steeper than I expected. This steep snowfield seemed interminable. Endless. I was definitely feeling the altitude, and the pace. I wasn’t redlined, but was pretty close. I don’t remember taking a break, and was breathing pretty hard.
Vallot hut (14,311') at sunrise
Finally we came up to the Vallot Hut (14,311’) and sunrise. The wind started to pick up, and it began to get cold. Karl and Mark put on their down coats, but I was still warm except for my fingers and toes. Some of the other groups were geared up for the Arctic, and I felt a little underdressed in just a fleece and softshell. But I wasn’t cold.
Cold rest stop with very warmly dressed climbers
From here I started to think that we were indeed going to make it, and the summit ridge was in view. We caught and passed a few parties who had started from the Gouter hut. There were quite few large parties, some moving quite slowly. We were stuck behind a group for about 5 minutes on a steep, narrow stretch where passing would be sketchy. I was secretly glad for the slower pace, as it allowed me to catch my breath. From then on I felt good and didn’t get winded again.
Sometime later Karl abruptly sort of collapsed/laid down in the snow. He was obviously breathing hard, and was slurring his words a bit. We had been going at a pretty quick pace, and I hadn’t noticed him struggling, although through layers of down it would have been hard for me to notice. He was clearly tired, and just needed a few minutes to rest. I offered to take his pack but he wouldn’t let me. I took a ski pole off his pack so he could have something in each hand to steady himself, and we continued up, albeit a little slower.
My fingers were now quite cold. I was holding my fingers in a ball and jamming then under my armpits when I wasn’t holding my ax. My toes were also freezing. They had gone past the point of cold, and were getting into the zone where I couldn’t tell if I was wiggling them anymore or not. It felt like blocks of ice were jammed in my boots. But we were getting close to the top, and I knew we’d warm up on the way down.
Finally we were on the final summit ridge, and I could see the top. All that remained was a short walk along the mellow ridge, and we were at the top. There were a few other people on top, maybe 8, not terribly crowded. We had been fast enough on the ascent to beat most of the groups, even those who had left from the Gouter hut some 2,000’ feet above our starting point. We took some pictures, shook hands, put on sunglasses, and stayed up for a few minutes. It was windy, but not strong enough to push you over. I put on my down jacket, and immediately started to feel better. My toes and hands warmed up quickly. Perhaps I should have put the jacket on sooner.
Mark, pvnisher, and Karl
pvnisher and Karl
Starting back down was a relief, although I was worried about my knee, as I have been fighting illiotibial band syndrome (IT Band) for about a year, and I knew the descent might be rough. We passed by quite a few groups on their way up, and I was more than happy to step aside for a few moments and let them pass.
On the way down we paused for a few pictures, including looking over to the Aiguille du Midi, which looked a lot like an evil fortress from this angle.
Evil Fortress aka Aiguille du Midi
We made it back to the Gouter hut in one push, and picked up the supplies we had left there, took off our crampons, and put on helmets for the descent down to the Tete Rousse.
new Gouter hut (under construction at time of climb)
Coming down this section in the light was much better than ascending in the dark, although it was more exposed than I had thought! Going down was fairly straightforward descending the Class 3 and Class 4 rock. We saw numerous parties coming up to stay the night, and stopped to chat briefly with some of them.
As we approached the Grand Couloir it became quite apparent that there was a lot of rockfall. There would be periods of calm, and then some rather large, television-sized rocks would come hurtling down alongside a slew of smaller stones. The danger zone itself is only about 20-30 yards long, with protected zones on either side. It is tempting to run across, but then you risk tripping and falling, which could result in a slide, as well as you being in the Couloir for longer as you get up! So we walked briskly across, eyes turned uphill, constantly looking and listening for the telltale crack and bang of rocks. We passed through without incident, and were soon back on the edge of the ice near the Tete Rousse hut.
Since we were in a bit of a rush to descend the entire route at once and catch the train and cable car back to civilization, Mark left us to go gather our few belongings at the hut that we had left. Karl and I continued on over the slippery but low-angled ice, and found a nice spot to take off our long underwear and gaiters, as the day was warming up considerably with the lower elevation. By the time we got changed Mark had already retrieved our gear and caught back up to us, he is considerably faster than either of us!
All that remained now was 3,000 more vertical feet of easy trail walking. It would have been easy, except that Karl and I are not accustomed to ascending 6,000’ and descending 9,000’ in a single day. My feet were hot and aching, but the worst was the pain in my knees. Particularly my left knee, which was the supposedly uninjured one. I think I had been trying so hard to not put pressure on my right knee that I ended up overcompensating and putting too much strain on the left. Karl and I were both limping quite noticeably by the time the train station came into view, and were very much looking forward to sitting down.
We made it back to the train station with plenty of time to spare, and enjoyed a cold soda. Taking my boots off and sitting down was one of the best feelings, made all the better knowing that we had made it to the top of Mont Blanc and back down safely.
Mont Blanc beer with namesake peak in background
13 Aug – Originally this day was to be either a backup weather day, or to let us break the descent up and not do such a long summit day (6000’ ascent and 9000’ descent is a long day). With fine weather and Mont Blanc under our belts, we were now faced with a decision of what to do with our last day. Climbing the Cosmiques Arete was an option, but would involve quite a bit of downhill walking, something that our knees were really not up to. So we decided to climb the Aiguille de l’Index, a small but very pointy peak on the other side of the River Arve.
Aiguille de l'Index
It overlooks the entire Mont Blanc massif, and the views were amazing.
The hardest pitch is about 5.7 and comes right at the beginning. From there it is easier 5.4- 5.6 climbing and some steep scrambling. We saw some other parties attempting some of the more challenging routes, and crossed over a group of climbers from some unknown country. They spoke no English, French, or Spanish (the languages our party was armed with), and we spoke none of whatever it was they were speaking, so having our ropes cross over their belay station was a bit of a pantomiming exercise for everyone.
We made it to the summit without incident, and then did a short scrambly traverse to the rappel. It is a full 90’ (30m) drop down a very sharp edge. We all rappelled down without incident, and then there was some more scrambling and finally trail walking to get to the bottom.
Each and every step downhill was very painful, reminding me of the strenuous previous day. We were happy to make it back to the hotel and spent some time walking around Chamonix, although we did our best to avoid any stairs.
14 Aug – We slept in as late as possible but eventually had to get up in order to catch breakfast and finish packing before the shuttle picked us up to drive back to Geneva. We were the only passengers in the van, and I think I fell asleep for a bit of the ride. We checked in, boarded, and had an uneventful flight back to Manchester. There was a bit of a time-crunch at the train station in Leeds which involved us hoisting our bags and running from Platform 16 to Platform 1 in order to catch the train back north, but we made it.
The final push of the whole trip was the walk from the train station back to Karl’s flat. It is only a little over a mile, but carrying all our luggage and gear up and down some of those hills (very small in comparison to what we had just done!) was taxing and I was very glad to make it back to his place and hop into the car for the ride to my house.
The Alps were beautiful, particularly the view from the Cosmiques hut and the Col du Midi. I was impressed with how steep and jagged (toothy?) everything is, and how much elevation change you get in such a short period of time. From Chamonix at 3,500’ you can see right up to the Aiguille du Midi at 12,000’, and indeed even the summit of Mont Blanc at nearly 16,000’. I haven’t been anywhere else with that type of dramatic change.
I am very much looking forward to going back, and the next time I will probably book a few nights at the Cosmiques hut and climb a bunch of things around there, it is the most amazing place I’ve ever been.
Next up: 4 days climbing in Switzerland!
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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