Welcome to Steve & Judy Pardoe's Mont Blanc Page

Minor revision 19. February 2008 (BMC link updated)


Mont Blanc 4807m
(July 1997)

Mont Blanc
seen from the Aiguille du Midi. The Normal Route follows the skyline from right to left
Disclaimer This is a description of the Normal Route, as followed by us in July 1997, with notes on the area and tips for aspiring ascensionists. You should, however, check local conditions for yourself and take your own responsibility in all matters of safety. The BMC publishes a Mont Blanc factsheet on its excellent website.

Guide books for the area are easy to find, but two definitive ones for this ascent are those by Richard Goedeke (The Alpine 4000m Peaks by the Classic Routes, Diadem); and by Les Swindin (Mont Blanc Massif Vol I, Alpine Club). The French IGN 25,000-scale map 3531ET (St Gervais) is the one to have: it is clear and accurate, and although printed on very thin paper, ours has withstood years of outdoor abuse.

At 4,807 metres (15,771 feet), Mont Blanc is the highest mountain in western Europe, and is an irresistible magnet for climbers of widely differing abilities. Its location at the western end of the main Alpine chain means that it catches the prevailing weather, and is prone to sudden and violent storms, even in summer. The mountain's combination of accessibility and unpredictability has, sadly, led to its reputation as one of the most dangerous in the Alps. While it is true that in a typical season up to 100 climbers may be reported as having died on Mont Blanc, the figures quoted often refer to the massif as a whole, and this should also be seen in the context of literally thousands of attempted ascents each season. Nevertheless, Mont Blanc is indeed a killer, and deserves the full respect of the mountaineer, as well as appropriate training, acclimatization and fitness, if a safe and enjoyable tour is to be achieved. We drove over the border into Switzerland for a few days, and stayed at the Orny and Trient (~3,000m) refuges, in order to get some height in, and practise a bit of glacier plodding, before the main ascent.
Although Mont Blanc is most often associated with the tourist town of Chamonix (the town has even managed to add the mountain into its name as Chamonix-Mont-Blanc, as if there were another), more discerning Alpinists may prefer to base themselves in St Gervais, a much quieter and more welcoming village in the valley of the Bon Nant torrent. For more details of this town, see our St Gervais page.
The Normal Route is extremely popular, and if you are planning to use the refuges, especially the almost indispensable one on the Aiguille du Goûter, you should book this a long way ahead [tel:(+33(0)4 50 54 40 93]. During the off-season, you can write to the guardian: after previous disappointments, we reserved our places a year in advance, enclosing a modest deposit by Eurocheque, and this was acknowledged with our chosen dates some months later. The Bureau des Guides in St Gervais can help if language is a problem, and the staff there are extremely cooperative, even if you are not planning to take a Guide.
For more details of how to use the mountain refuges, see our Alpine refuges page.

When we arrived in St Gervais, we were still undecided about hiring a Guide, as we had always climbed without one before. However, the weather had been bad enough to close all the routes on Mont Blanc for the previous week, and we felt that the presence of an experienced professional might make all the difference between a safe and enjoyable ascent, and failure (or worse!).

Our Guide, Gilles Imbert, was ideal for us: he set a rapid but well-judged pace, and gave us all the confidence we needed to enjoy the climbing. He had an apparently laid-back attitude, and a penchant for roll-your-own cigarettes, which seemed at odds with his profession, but he was at all times there for us, and I noticed that he surreptitiously clipped on a belay when there was a significant exposure and he might be distracted. On this experience I would strongly recommend taking a Guide.
Our Guide Gilles Imbert, during the ascentGilles later on, with roll-up in place

Ascent from St Gervais

The Tramway du Mont Blanc, or TMB (not to be confused with the Tour du Mont Blanc, a rugged 200-km pedestrian circuit of the massif) provides an obvious saving of effort in the ascent by the Normal Route. It leaves St Gervais at 800m and takes one to the edge of the Bionnassay glacier at Nid d'Aigle, at 2386m. There is a good path from there towards the Tête Rousse hut at 3167m, though with the heavy snow and ice this season it was enough to justify our donning crampons towards its higher reaches.

The Tête Rousse Refuge [tel:+33(0)4 50 58 24 97] is a relaxed and welcoming haven, with the usual Alpine charm and good food. As is often the case at high altitude, there is no running water, so if you want anything to drink, it will be expensive. The 'outhouse' is reached by a perilous traverse high above the glacier, onto which one's ordures drop with alarming acceleration. If you really need to go in the night, when the snow is frozen, it's advisable to take an ice-axe, and even crampons might not come amiss (seriously!).
Judy outside the refuge
Ascent parties leave the Tête Rousse at 01:00 if they are planning to reach the summit that day: a British rope of three did this while we were there, but it does mean climbing the unfamiliar ground of the arête to the Goûter in darkness. On the other hand, there should be no stonefall in the notorious Grand Couloir at that time of night. We had opted for a more leisurely itinerary, but our Guide had missed the first tram, and did not pick us up from the Tête Rousse until late morning. By the time he had had lunch, the weather was unpleasantly warm, and the Grand Couloir at its most lethal. This barrier to a safe ascent claims many lives, and we saw a couple of near misses for ourselves. A helmet is advisable: the rotten rock of the Payot Arête (no longer a safe route, whatever the guide-books may say) crashes down the couloir at up to 150 km/h, and there is no chance of dodging the missiles: you just have to look, listen and hope.

A steel cable is provided, and if it is at a convenient height (according to snow cover and the season) it makes sense to clip onto it with a long sling, a bight in the rope, of whatever will reach. Then, go like the devil!
Grand Couloir
The crossing point is visible in the centre of the picture
Crossing the Grand Couloir
using the fixed cable
The Arête on the far side leads almost directly to the Goûter refuge at 3817m, the metal walls of which gleam tantalizingly in the afternoon sun. We had seen photographs showing bare rock all the way, but on our ascent the rocks were heavily iced, with deep snow between them, and the combination of steepness, traffic and the exposure of this 600m pitch made it quite exciting. Having a Guide made it really enjoyable, as we could concentrate on the challenge of the mixed-ground climbing, and not worry about finding the best route. It also gave us a certain authority, and the confidence to make our own way during the inevitably awkward passing manoeuvres.
Once the Goûter hut is reached, there is a scramble for beds and a place to eat, as it is perennially overcrowded. Again, the Guide can help here, and the mention of Gilles's name at the cafeteria counter meant we could charge everything to a single account.
After an adequate meal and as much liquid as we could stomach (never mind afford), the evening was spent chatting in the very special atmosphere that all Alpinists appreciate. The polyglot conversations, a mixture of fear for the morrow and bravura over past achievements, and the sudden but transient friendships one strikes up are most endearing. The thought is there that this could easily be our last evening, and there is always a nagging doubt about tomorrow's weather, the route, one's condition... the sunset is particularly poignant, as some of us might not live to see another. There were a couple of dozen climbers on the balcony catching the last of the sun's warmth as it fell slowly into the clouds, the glistening flank of the Aiguille de Bionnassay over to the south, and the looming mass of Mont Blanc behind us.
Judy on the Goûter balcony
Aiguille de Bionnassay in the background
Sleep in the hopelessly over-crowded dormitory was almost impossible, and it was a relief to get up at about 01:30 and prepare for breakfast, booked the night before. We had also requested a small flask of very strong coffee, and a litre of hot water made up into Isostar. This lemon powder looks like an extravagance in the sports shop, but it is magic when the chips are down. We had an insulating sleeve which kept our bottle warm for a few hours. Don't bother taking cold drinks: even if they don't freeze, they will be pretty unappetizing.

Summit Day
We left the Goûter rather late, after the chaos of breakfast, and having stashed a box full of overnight gear to be collected on our descent. The hut entrance, where we had left our boots and hardware, was a melée of climbers all standing on each other, and we were not out in the snow until 02:50. This season, the route started excitingly by a steep climb up to the level of the hut roof (which had a metre of fresh snow on it!), at its North end, but soon levelled out. There was then a chance to adjust crampons and head torches, and assess how well we were dressed for the weather. The Guide checked everything, and eventually we moved off at 03:05, crampons ringing and snow squeaking in the bitter cold, and our breath freezing into our clothes. Head torches are essential for the first three or four hours, unless you are blessed with a full moon and clear sky.

Vallot Bivouac
as dawn broke
Aiguille du Midi and Aiguille Verte
After a pull up onto the Aiguille du Goûter at 3863m, the route skirts the Dôme du Goûter (typically to the East) and drops slightly to the Col du Dôme, across which is the infamous Vallot Bivouac, an emergency-only shelter allegedly so disgusting that you would only want to enter in a real crisis. We didn't look inside, but it was graphically described by a fellow climber ; if you are curious, you can find out for yourself!
It was almost light by now, and we stowed our head torches, took a couple of photos and had a quick swig of Isostar. This is the last significant area of level snow before the summit, so it's a popular halt, but as it's barely the half way mark, we were keen to get on. The weather could now be seen to be threatening, and Gilles was not at all confident that we would be in time to beat the storm.

Bosses Arête
looking back towards the Dôme du Goûter

The ascent of the two Bosses and the final Arête on the frontier crest can be quite a slog in the thin air, but the sensational exposure and breathtaking views make up for anything, and this was some of the most exhilarating climbing I can remember. You are really on a knife-edge, with France a mile below you on the left, and Italy a mile or more down on the right. For the last few hundred metres, I felt I was wearing a manic grin as the excitement and relief of the success of our ascent became more assured with every step. We reached the top at 07:40, after almost exactly four hours of climbing from the Goûter hut, plus about 30 minutes of stops. This is well inside the guide-book time, to the surprise of our Guide, so we were quite pleased, too.
The summit is just a point on the crest, but there is a small, reasonably level area beyond it where it is de rigueur to photograph one another and look happy. One Frenchman bearing a remarkable resemblance to Gerard Depardieu was being spectacularly sick right on the top, but I was just glad to be there.
Judy & Steve on the Summit of Mont Blanc
07:45 on 10. July 1997
As Whymper remarked of panoramic views, the view is disappointing, as one is so far above everything else and there is no foreground interest. We could see a long way south towards the Gran Paradiso which we had climbed in 1995, and to the East to the Grandes Jorasses and Switzerland, but the North was already in cloud. The tell-tale donkey's cap was forming on the Italian Mont Blanc de Courmayeur, and our Guide was anxious to get going.
View to the South-East
towards Mont Blanc de Courmayeur and Italy
View to the North-East
towards Mont Maudit, Mont Blanc du Tacul, and the Aiguille Verte

Descent

Gilles set a cracking pace, guiding from behind, but letting me judge how to pass parties still ascending. This can be very awkward on the Bosses ridge, where the path is just two boots wide, but with a bit of foresight and tolerance we had no trouble. We again stopped briefly at the Vallot, and then raced down towards the Goûter, almost running as the gradient eased at the Col du Dôme.
Bosses Arête from Col du Dôme
(photographed during descent)

We leapt across a couple of small crevasses which had not been seen on our ascent route, but you'd have to be careless or very unlucky to fall into them. There was rather more time available for photography during the descent, and of course the sun was up, so we took some photographs of the Bosses ridge behind us, and Mont Maudit off to the North-East.

Vallot Bivouac

Steve, looking rather smug (on the way down), and Mont Maudit

With Gilles racing down the snow at such a speed, we were at the Goûter refuge within just two hours of leaving the summit. The last few metres, descending from the level of the hut roof to the door, were remarkably exposed, but after drinking a quick bowl of soup and collecting our stash of overnight gear, the even more intimidating descent of the arête to the Tête Rousse began.

This is rather frightening, as you look down over 600m of ice and rock below you, the refuge a speck in the depths. After the initial trauma, it was actually quite exhilarating, and the confidence inspired by our Guide's cheerful cries of "Stand up, Steve, trust your crampons!" meant that after a while I almost enjoyed it. Passing ascending parties on this ground is tricky, but the fixed ropes and stanchions that the authorities are gradually updating make a big difference.

Looking down the Arête
from the Goûter Refuge to the Tête Rousse

We got down to the Tête Rousse without incident, and shared a delicious omelette and a beer with our Guide before "paying him off" (actually, agreeing to pay the balance of his fee at the Bureau by credit card the following day). He kindly offered to guide us down the glacier, if we wanted to come with him, but we had had enough for one day, and in any case wanted to prolong the experience. Gilles glissed off down the glacier to catch the 13:30 tram, while we grabbed a couple of bunks and enjoyed a jolly good rest.
After a dinner which unfortunately featured polenta, we slept well for once, and in the morning, after seeking the hut Gardienne's advice, set off down the Bionnassay Glacier towards the tramway at Nid d'Aigle, some 780 metres below. We were the only people on it at that time of day, and the emptiness and grandeur of the deep cwm were awe-inspiring. The occasional crash of an avalanche as the morning sun warmed the massive flanks Aiguille de Bionnassay reminded us that the high mountains are always a risky environment. However, in good conditions (only!) the glacier route is a much more attractive descent than the normal one, considerably quicker, and arguably safer, as a young Frenchman had been helicoptered off the arête the afternoon before, apparently very seriously injured. It was such a tragedy, as we had only been laughing and joking about the success of our ascents with him over lunch, an hour or so before he fell. If anyone has information about the accident (which would have been on 10. July 1997) do please e-mail us to let us know the outcome.
An hour or so later we were on the Tramway to St Gervais, our hotel and a relaxing bath, soaking away a serious personal hygiene problem. We returned the rented gear, and paid for our Guide, leaving a modest "pourboire" of some Ricard and tobacco. At dinner, a bottle of Taittinger seemed the right thing; after all, we were more than usually glad to be alive.
We'd really appreciate hearing from anyone who was on the mountain those few days, do get in touch.


External Links
Some links kindly sent to us by Johannes Kanonier in Austria:

Club Alpin Français and their Refuges
Chamonix home page (with daily updated weather forecast, very slow to download the webcam image)
Tuan's mountain pages well worth a look with lots of further links...

Photos and text Copyright © Steve & Judy Pardoe


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Cheshire,   England
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