Ascent of Mt. Blanc (4808 m), Chamonix, France

5. august, 2005

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In August 2005 I visited Chamonix with my girlfriend and our goal was climbing Mont Blanc. To get acclimatized we decided to stay at The Cosmique hut (3650m) for a whole week. After hearing our request the hut warden answers in a surprised tone: "What do you plan to do here for a whole week?!" – Its apparent that most climbers spend one night at the hut just before attempting the summit of Mt. Blanc. But there a number of routes and peaks which we plan to spend time training on whilst acclimatizing and waiting for a weather window. On our first two days the weather is perfect and we climb Mt. Blanc du Tacul (4248m) and Aig. du Midi (3842m) [via The Cosmique ridge], the last of which was in perfect condition. The route to the Tacul summit passes Epaule du Mt. Blanc du Tacul which is also the beginning of the route to Mt. Blanc. We thus have the opportunity to study the route to Mt Blanc in clear conditions, which we find very useful later on..... The weather the following two days then changes to snow conditions with bad visibility and strong winds. In this period we train "self-arrest", snow-anchors, GPS navigation etc. and also hope that it stops snowing! When it finally stops snowing we climb Pointe Lachenal (3613m), which is a nice little peak that starts with three pitches of 40° ice followed by a short pitch on rock. The ice was was perfect training for the route that awaited us on Mt. Blanc, on which the route to Mt. Maudit was particularly steep and icy.

Mt Blanc du Tacul, Chamonix, France

The north side of Mt. Blanc du Tacul seen from the Cosmique ridge. The avalanche, which took the life of two Brits the week before we arrived, is clearly visible. We were thus reminded of the seriousness of the route in spite of the rather easy PD grade..

Move the mouse cursor over the picture to see the route to Tacul etc.

The substantial amounts of fallen snow and following wind conditions led to many discussions over dinner in the hut about the conditions on Mt. Maudit's north face: was the risk of avalanche too great? The weather improves and the report looks OK for 5th August 2005 after which it again would change. The 5th was the following day, so we decided this would be the date for our summit attempt. Quite a few climbers reach Mt. Blanc du Tacul on August 4 and report that the conditions en-route are OK but that there is a lot of snow. We therefore decide to get up at 1:00 AM the following morning. Approximately 100 other climbers had the same plan and it is thus a busy breakfast at the hut. We take it easy and set-off at 2:30 AM. It is impossible to overtake people on the path up to Epaule du Mt. Blanc du Tacul, so we need quite a lot of patience. We are both well acclimatized and in good shape, so most of the time it feels as though we are standing still as we wait for the slowest of the walkers to make the pace ……… But we make progress and finally reach Epaule du Mt. Blanc du Tacul. This spot is protected from the wind so most people have stopped to drink and pee ……. So we grab the opportunity to pass.

Elvira climbing the north side of Mt. Blanc du Tacul. There are a lot of people on the single track which makes the progress slow.

We walk over the plateau between Tacul and Maudit where we see 4-5 small groups of head lamps ahead of us – most climbers have stopped at the base of the north face of Maudit, whilst one group of 3-4 people are on their way up the north face. When we reach the first groups at the base we hear the local guides in discussion. The consensus is that the snow is too risky: at this point we are standing on 10-20 cm of wind packed snow which lies on a thicker layer of "sugar-snow". This is a fine recipe for avalanche if the conditions are like this higher up in the critical zone where the slope is at 30° - 50° (and where there is probably even more snow). After a little further debate the local guides decide to ’settle’ and take their clients to Mt. Blanc du Tacul, whilst some other groups continue. Elvira and I are left behind and exchange glances... On one hand I agree with the guides assessment of the conditions at the spot we are standing but on the other hand I feel it is too early to ’give up’! I am also not sure that the conditions would be equal on the actual north face, as the winds there have had a different character than that at the base. Thus it could be either better or worse, so we decide to keep climbing so we could take a closer look. We start by doing a traverse under the north face to get to the right of two large seracs and after this we begin ascending. The snow quickly improves and I feel confident enough to continue. There are two large guided "expeditions" from Switzerland in front of us and they begin to use protection for their clients as the climbing gets steeper. It is really slow progress and I am just concerned about getting out of the avalanche and serac zone as quickly as possible, so we climb past them unprotected. Further on we meet the French guy and three teenagers we had eaten breakfast with the day before. We discuss the conditions and agree that the climb via the north-east ridge of Mt. Maudit would be safer than the normal route over Col du Mt. Maudit, as the latter looks quite avalanche prone. The alternative north-east ridge is more exposed and looks icy, but compared with the normal route we all agree it is the safest alternative. At this point I am in doubt – is Elvira experienced enough to climb this section? We would probably not be able to protect it – so a fall would be deadly for both of us as I wouldn’t be able to arrest a fall with just one axe. Assessments fly through my head and for a brief moment I mentally turn around, but the optimism of the four Frenchmen rubs off – we continue .....

North face of Mont Maudit, Chamonix, France

The north side of Mt. Maudit. Due to the snow conditions we decided to climb Mt. Maudit via the north-east ridge (red line) rather than climbing the normal route over Col du Mt. Maudit (green line).

Move the mouse cursor over the picture to see the two routes (the picture was taken in nice weather a couple of days before our ascent).

The ice on the ridge is a strange mix of ice and snow and not trustworthy – every second axe placement seems quite unsafe whilst every other placement sinks right in leaving little trust. Foot work is crucial and I make careful steps for Elvira in the spots the French haven’t already done so. We make good progress and I am impressed with Elvira’s calm concentration. Its apparent for her that training is finished and the quote "this is what you have been trained for" from an American b-war movie shoots through my head. The situation culminates when we reach the ice-wall under Maudit's peak. The slope is 50° and I repeat the main point of the previous days training on Pointe Lachenal: "stand firmly on both front-points supporting yourself with your free hand whilst you swing the axe into the ice – then move both legs up one at a time and then repeat the process – always move one point at a time whilst holding your balance with the other three".

Elvira on the north-east ridge of Mt. Maudit in the sunrise.

Luckily she is so concentrated on her climbing that she doesn’t see the overhanging seracs just below us .....  We have left most of the other climbers now as they have turned around at the base of the north face – they give up on climbing the north-east ridge.

Elvira on the north face of Mt. Maudit. A group of climbers on the north-east ridge is seen below (they turned around shortly after).

We are now on Mt. Maudit – or more precisely a short and easy rock pitch from the summit. But we have other things on our mind than reaching this summit as we are met with a white-out...... We are fascinated by the differences between the conditions on the two sides of this peak – it was windy on the north face but the south-west face is a totally different ball game [we hear later that day that the wind speed at 4000m was +60 km/hr] and blizzard snow bites into the bare skin on our faces. Turning around at this point is not an option as the ice on the north face wasn’t solid enough for an anchor or for holding an ice screw for an abseil and I don’t believe that Elvira has the technical experience required to down-climb it. So the only choice was to proceed through the storm to the summit of Mt. Blanc and then descend the less technical Goûter route on the opposite side of the mountain.

The four French climbers in storm and white-out conditions between Mt. Maudit and Mt. Blanc.

The French guy leading the teenagers is in the same situation and we agree that turning around would be too risky. We continue climbing close behind his group which is lucky as he has already climbed Mt Blanc ten times and this spares us for using our GPS navigator in the storm and also saves time as we need to be cautious of falling off the face or into a crevasse...... There are three eastern European climbers behind us, so even though we are climbing as three separate rope teams everyone is keeping an eye out, which is comforting in these conditions. We need to descend the south-west face of Mt. Maudit which is icy and almost as steep as the northern face. We descend backwards and quickly come to a small rock section where we continue our descent on as it is easier than the ice. But this gets us very close to the edge of the drop towards the east, but luckily we can’t see down because of the white-out, so Elvira stays calm :-) After we have safely descended the south-west face the climbing gets much easier, but we are now fully exposed to the wind whilst descending toward Col de la Brenva (4303 m). Luckily the wind isn’t cold so we don’t have any problems keeping warm, but when we begin the ascent of Mt. Blanc I can slowly sense signs of fatigue on Elvira. Considering the exposure, altitude and mental stress this isn’t surprising, but I realize we haven’t been drinking and that energy is low. I take the rope and other contents of Elvira's pack and we begin to take routine breaks so we can drink and eat GU (sports gel). The GU is a real booster and we both feel energized.

South-east face of Mont Maudit, Chamonix, France

The south-west face of Mt. Maudit. Move the mouse cursor over the picture to see the normal route via Col du Mt. Maudit (green route) and our route via the summit of Mt. Maudit (red route). The rock section we down-climbed below the summit of Mt. Maudit to get down the ridge is also visible.

We are getting closer to the summit of Mt. Blanc and its motivating counting the last altitude meters: 300 meters left, 200, 100 and in addition the tracks are now very clear. Suddenly, out of the clouds two English guys approach us and report that we are only 10 minutes from the summit, which is great news! They also report that the summit is not a place for ‘hanging-out’ and that the winds are even more crazy up there. We are puzzled over their choice to descend through the storm on a longer and more technical route – but its their decision. Finally, the weather changes and the group of Frenchmen stand in front of us in the most beautiful light hue – we are out of the white-out.

The four Frenchmen climbing into the clear weather just below the summit of Mt. Blanc.

Just like magic, the weather clears totally and we have the most superb views of the Mt. Blanc massif. The view looking back at Maudit is amazing and the bad weather is fully isolated on the Col between the two peaks! The wildest micro-climate I have ever experienced, but that’s mountains.

Elvira, covered in ice, as she climbs above the bad weather between Mt. Maudit and Mt. Blanc.

Its even more windy on the summit-plateau and this catches the rope between us. I often stop thinking the rope pull was because Elvira couldn’t keep up only to realize that it was just the wind. We kiss the Tibetan flags of prayer that are entwined around a pole near the summit and then we take the last steps to the summit on which the French group is waiting.

Elvira kissing Tibetan prayer flags on the summit of Mt. Blanc. The summit of Mt. Maudit is seen above her right hand holding the pole and the bad weather between Mt. Maudit and Mt. Blanc is also clearly visible. The high wind forces the east European climber below to bend over!

We exchange handshakes, take a few photos of each other and then continue down the Goûter ridge. We had reached the summit at 10 AM after 7.5 hours, which in light of the conditions was satisfying.

Hans and Elvira on the summit of Mt. Blanc.

The views on the other side of Mt. Blanc are perfect, so we only have to concentrate on keeping our balance on the narrow ridge in the wind. We remind each other that most accidents occur on the descent and stay concentrated despite our growing fatigue. It is easy finding the route down and now we were safe it was cool looking back at the bad weather and think "great we have an alternate descent route". We descend with relative ease and arrive at The Goûter hut at 1 PM. We obviously have no booking and luckily Elvira has a visa card on her. The hut is full to the rim but luckily we get a bed and we are able to spend one night. This is quite a relief as we can then cross a couloir below, which is notorious for rock falls late in the day, early next morning. We call the warden at the Cosmique hut and explain the situation. He is relieved not only that we are safe but also because we had quite a large bill for one weeks full-pension.

The narrow ridge on the route to the Refuge de l'Aig. du Gouter. The Vallot emergency shelter is seen on the rocks on the right.

The next day we scramble down the rocks so we can catch the train back to the cable car and we are both pleased that we have climbed Mt. Blanc from its most beautiful side. A shame for the climbers who only see the mountain from the Goûter face (which is most common)! We don’t have any cash and are unable to pay for the train, but are allowed to travel anyway – not all Frenchmen are arrogant! We then take the cable-car and hitch a ride back to Chamonix. Whilst Elvira finds our hotel I take the trip back to Aig. du Midi – down the ridge and glacier to the Cosmique hut to pick up our stuff and pay our bill. On my way back over the glacier and up the ridge to the cable-car lift on Midi I see a large rope group of elderly Japanese on their way to the ridge and I thus move as quickly as possible hoping to get in front of them before the ridge, which I do not manage. They freak out on the way up the ridge and some of them even lie down!!!! It’s the end of the day and I’m tired but this sight angers me – why do these amateurs with no sense for mountains come here to danger other climbers? I am forced to pass them solo on the north face of Midi and pray to God that one of them doesn’t decide to suddenly move and thus force me into a deadly fall. Luckily they keep lying down gasping for air and I am able to pass them quickly on my way to my first shower in a week. Nothing can beat that!

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Last update: 20-5-2007

© Hans Bräuner-Osborne