Well what a week that has been. Five days of quality climbing, weather and conditions with a couple of my strongest ever Mont Blanc potentials.
The weather and conditions have been perfect this week in Chamonix. Stable weather and plenty of snow which has been getting a good overnight freeze each day. Lee and Niall were on good form, are both super fit and although it was lee’s first trip to the alps he had some good Scottish winter mountaineering experience behind him. Niall I had climbed and skied with before – I knew he was keen for an adventure!
With all those factors combined I did some thinking and came up with a plan for the week. I knew they would be fine on the Gouter route on Mont Blanc, but perhaps we could do something a bit more unusual. The “normal” route on the Italian side was reported to be in good condition. It goes up quite a complex and crevassed glacier and then a narrow snow ridge which can get icy. A well filled in glacier with a good track, followed by a good arete sounded too good to miss. And as a bonus I hadn’t done the route myself, an adventure all round!
First we had three days to get acclimatized and make sure we were ready for Mont Blanc towards the end of the week. After some good faff on the first morning we headed up for two days at the Torino refuge in Italy. That afternoon we climbed the excellent rocky spire of the Vierge and the snow ridge of the Petit Flambeaux. Day two had us crunching round on crisp snow towards the Entreves which I hadn’t completed either. We traversed this excellent rocky ridge and then up and over the Toule to get in a bit of extra snow practice.
It was time for a good sleep in Chamonix, and a shortish route for the third day so as to rest the legs a little. We climbed the north face of the Petit Aiguille Verte above the Grand Montet ski area which was in great condition, and came down the normal route. We were all set for the Blanc…..
Climbing the mountain from Italy certainly presents some obvious challenges when compared with the Gouter route. Firstly, there are no lifts. So you need to walk from the valley up to the hut on the first day, an ascent of around 1400m with much of it on rubble covered glacier without a track. It is however a stunning valley, with wildlife lower down then dramatic glaciers and mountains higher up. The scramble up to the hut at the end was a nice contrast as well, which we roped up for. Five hours after leaving the car we were relaxing in the superb Gonella refuge at 3070m.
The hut was pretty quiet, with about ten independent climbers and a big group of around twenty Italian military climbers. Compared with the Gouter route it was deserted! Everyone was settled down for an early night, as we all had a very early start. The climb from the Italian side is south facing, and if you had intentions of returning the same way you do need an early start to get back down the glacier before the sun softens the snow too much.
And so it was breakfast time at midnight. Niall, Lee and I were going to traverse the mountain coming down past the Gouter refuge (where we had a reservation if we wanted it). Going early was fine by us though, as we could then descend all the way to Les Houches if we wanted to.
We were up and out the door before anyone else, giving us a good clear path up the glacier. It was full on straight away, with steep snow slopes from the refuge to the glacier followed by crevasses and steep slopes on the route itself. We were going pretty quickly, and avoided any stops on the heavily crevassed glacier and so did a couple of hours solid up to the ridge at the head of the valley. A drink stop and some rope adjustments were made and then we made our way up and along the ridge leading to the Piton des Italians.
It was obviously still pitch dark, but you could see the exposure on each side of the ridge which was extremely narrow at times. The number one method of keeping ourselves safe was not falling off in the first place! We were careful and took our time on these narrow sections and before long were below the final snow slopes of the Dome du Gouter. It was cold here as the wind was coming across the ridge and as we now had a flat spot we stopped and put on the warm gear, duvet jackets and thick gloves.
Twenty minutes later we joined the main track coming from the French side along with the groups from the Gouter refuge. We had been very quick and were amongst the first few teams. It was now just before dawn, and for me (and most people) it’s a bit of a low point on a big ascent. It’s the coldest part of the night and your body is telling you to go back to bed! Especially hard on this section of the climb, as it’s basically flat and easy. No technicalities or exposure to keep the mind alert.
Not long after we passed the Vallot shelter you could see the sun was on it’s way, and the sun rise was as spectacular as ever when you get to watch it up there. The shadow of Mont Blanc was brilliant, and we stopped briefly to take photos and admire the view.
We were around 4500m now, and the altitude was making itself felt. Both Lee and Niall were moving well, but Lee was feeling very nauseous and was suffering a bit. We slowed the pace down a little and took some very short stops along the way to catch our breath. We had also gained a lot of height from our hut compared with the teams from the Gouter, and so we didn’t exactly worry about that.
Just under six hours after setting off we stepped off the steeper ridge and Lee came through and led us across the final section to the summit. Such a brilliant effort from the boys and hugely satisfying to look down into Italy and trace our route from the valley and up the glaciers and ridges to where we were stood now.
The boys were predictably quick heading down, with only sore feet from the hard snow causing some wincing. By eight thirty we had arrived at the Gouter refuge, but we were keen to carry on down. A coke and some cake restored some energy which was required for the scramble down the ridge and across the Grand Couloir before the sun got on the face and the stones started tumbling.
We could then relax and walk down to the train and the lift that would take us to Les Houches and the car. We were all fairly fatigued after the early start and I for one was looking forward to a full nights sleep! I gave some route bragging instruction as we walked, which the boys practiced on various groups we passed. All essential knowledge!
So the question; would I climb Mont Blanc via the Gonella route again? Well yes, its a great adventure in a remote and quiet part of the Mont Blanc range. But I would certainly want it to be in good condition and therefore probably an early season ascent. Go do it!