At 8.50am on 25th August we stood at 4810m, the summit of Western Europe and leg 6 – to climb Mont Blanc – of the Alpine Coast to Coast complete. After our unsuccessful attempt to a few days ago, we headed back up to give it a second attempt. This time we we’re really ready; the right gear, mentally set, and physically prepared – though Sophie had the beginnings of a cold kicking in. We got it right this time.

Slow progress in the summit queues

Slow progress in the summit queues

Mont Blanc is big. Very big.

The route we took started at the Tete Rousse hut, climbing the Grand Couloir in the pitch of night at 2am to the Gouter Hut. From there we continued up onto the Dome de Gouter and the Vallot Hut, a bivouac hut at 4364m. A brief stop in this squat like shed and it was up and over the Grand and Petit Bosses before the summit ridge of Mont Blanc at 4810m. A total of 1634m climbing over 6 hours.

It is common to hear people say that the normal route up Mont Blanc is just a hike, that, being a non-technical route, anyone with hill walking experience can get up it. We saw a number of beginner groups on the mountain and, though some were with guides and under their supervision and protection, some weren’t and it was very scary. People tripping over crampons, not properly acclimatised, struggling on easy terrain, and people who looked wholly unprepared for the environment they found themselves. Mont Blanc is a huge peak and needs to be properly respected.

However, it is only in this environment that you get to see one of the most beautiful views in the world; the sun rising up over 4000m peaks and finally warming your cold body.

A frosty start

A frosty start

Conditions on Mont Blanc

The weather this summer in Chamonix has been the worst in most people’s memories with many guides we know saying it is the worst they have experienced. This time we were not going to make that mistake again and geared up properly.

The conditions we found on Mont Blanc for the ascent were excellent. The cold temperature meant that the first main hazzard, the Grand Couloir, an objectively dangerous gully you have to cross between 3,200m and 3,800m that is susceptible to scary rock fall, was quiet and frozen in place. This allowed us to make quick progress and, in under two hours, were sitting in the boot room of the Gouter Hut, warming up with some tea, adding extra layers, and having a breather.

A little tea stop at the Gouter Hut

A little tea stop at the Gouter Hut

From there the wind really picked up, we added some more layers and covered as much exposed skin as possible. At just below 4,000m, the temperature was -10 Celsius, adding the wind to that and it would feel a lot colder. The good snow covering and low temperatures meant that progress across the glacier and up and over the Dome de Gouter was quick and easy.

Arriving at the emergency Vallot Hut two hours later made us feel strong and positive for the final summit push.  It was at this point that the sun finally rose giving us a beautiful view while we stopped for another tea break. Times like this are what alpinism is about for Sophie and I, beautiful moments in stunning environments.

The Alpine dawn at 4,364m

The Alpine dawn at 4,364m

Here, at 4,362m, the temperature was lower still – now sitting at about -18 celsius. We were prepared and had an extra down layer to add to our bodies. This made all the difference as we headed up the final slopes as we were stuck in the queues of beginners.

The summit of Mont Blanc, 4810m

The summit of Mont Blanc, 4810m

At 8.50am we made it to 4810m, the summit of Mont Blanc, the highest peak in France, Western Europe, and the Alpine Coast to Coast. It was incredible and, after such a long climb, we were tired but we still had a long way down to go.We didn’t want to stick around too long and get stuck behind the queues again and so made a hasty retreat.

The weather report had predicted good, stable weather all day, deteriorating in the evening. It was wrong. It decided to worsen a little earlier and, an hour after leaving the summit, the clouds came in. We had made it back to the Vallot Hut but needed to find the meandering route back to the Gouter and relative safety.

Descending in a whiteout, parties still going up, wtf?!

Descending in a whiteout, parties still going up, wtf?!

As we set out, we could still just about make out the path though it was disappearing quick. A combination of bright orange urine stains, vague tracks, and some crazy folks still coming up the mountain in the storm allowed us to find our way down with only a little added stress and tension.

It was a clear sign of the power of the mountain and made both Sophie and I worry about all the other groups behind us.

Descending further was long and tiring but the weather eased the lower we went and route finding was much more straight forward. After 11 hours and 43 minutes, we were back at the Tete Rousse and only and hour and a half away from the valley – we were safe, if a little shattered!

Back safe at the Tete Rousse Hut

Back safe at the Tete Rousse Hut

Making it back to the car we were exhausted, relieved, happy, and a dozen other emotions. It has been a long 3 weeks with this climbing being the final of the difficult climbs completed. Both of us had felt great on the climb, mostly because we were warm and comfortable – thanks to the superb gear we were wearing – and able to focus on the beautiful surroundings.

The gear we used to climb Mont Blanc

We have been very fortunate to be supported by some amazing brands on the Alpine Coast to Coast and the two that helped us immeasurably on Mont Blanc were Haglofs and Kora – their combination of extremely well made and fitting clothing kept us both warm, comfortable, and safe throughout the day in a myriad of conditions.

Getting my Mont Blanc layering system right - storms and -18 celsius is coming

Getting my Mont Blanc layering system right – storms and -18 celsius is coming

Approach clothing

With a two hour scrambling approach, I didn’t want to get too hot nor sweaty and so we decided to wear some lighter clothing to get to the hut knowing we didn’t have to carry it on the mountain with us. A Helly Hanson baselayer and the Haglofs Lizard pants are perfect for this; lightweight, stretchy, and breathable, they are ideal for this sort of terrain.

Warm and happy

Warm and happy

Our Baselayer

This is the closest layer to your skin and hugely important – these pieces of clothing need to keep you warm when you are cold and wick the sweat away fast when you’re hot – no mean feat. We have recently joined Kora as product development athletes, helping them with feedback for their new yak wool baselayers. The tops and bottoms did not disappoint on Mont Blanc. Keeping us dry when we were working hard and warm when the temperature plummeted, they were the perfect foundation for our day. I also wear merino wool boxers from Icebreaker.

Our Midlayer

Having multiple layers is much more efficient than just one thick layer and one of my favourites is the Haglofs Triton II technical fleece. The different materials used throughout help movement, breathability, and warmth. The hood with balaclava face protection was just the extra feature I needed to keep the biting wind out of my face on the summit ridge.

Nothing beats a good down layer

Nothing beats a good down layer

A Down Layer

I’m not sure if I mentioned how cold it was? Well, -18 celsius on the summit. Arctic. I carried an extra, lightweight down jacket for the last section – the Essen II – which added that extra level of insulation and warmth when it was coldest. Light enough to fit under your shell jacket, it also packs down very small and I almost always have this in my pack as a back up.

Our Shell Layer

Strong winds and arctic temperatures meant I took no risks with my shell layer and went for the Roc over trousers and Roc Jacket from Haglofs. Made of Goretex Pro Shell and utterly bomb proof, they were superb keeping all of the bad weather on the outside and me very happy on the inside. The cut and fit mean that they were never in the way and felt great on all sorts of ground from steep scrambling to long snow slopes.

Warm hands and GPS

Warm hands and GPS

On our hands

After my scary touch with frost nip on Dufourspitze, I decided to take no chances with my gloves this time and went out and bought a new par especially. I opted for Black Diamond Guide gloves, with a comfort rating of -12 celsius and extreme down to -29 celsius. They worked incredibly and didn’t have any problems with my hands at all. We also have a Suunto Ambit 2S which has been great at tracking our progress as well as helping us en route with altimeter, a crucial bit of knowledge for navigation and progress assessment.

On our feet

I’m a big fan of sock liners under my thick mountaineering socks as, since adopting them, I have not had one blister, also keeping your feet a little warmer, both made by Bridgedale. Added to that Scarps Phantom Guides and my feet felt great the whole day. Both of us used our Grivel G12 crampons throughout the route.

Getting my head in gear

Getting my head in gear

On our heads

A thin buff for lower down and thicker beanie for up high kept out brains warm with us needing a helmet for the section on the Grand Couloir to protect against rock fall. I also wear my trusty Oakley sunglasses, though not cat4 strength lenses, with the weather predicted and time up high, these worked fantastically.

Glacier gear

Mont Blanc is a glaciated mountain with crevasses and so adequate care and attention is vital however you don’t want to be carrying too much gear to the highest point in Western Europe. We made some great compromises that left us safe but not carrying unnecessary weight. Each wearing a harness with crevasse rescue gear, we carried a short, 30m lightweight rope and ice axe each.

Some of our glacier safety gear

Some of our glacier safety gear

Backpack

With not too much gear, I managed to squeeze everything into the Halgofs Roc 30l pack and Sophie the Roc Speed 25l pack. Lightweight but tough, they are minimal without compromising on necessary features.

Food and Water

Both of us carried 1l of water in a Nalgene bottle – do not use a Camel Pack, they freeze, no matter what insulation you use or tricks you know. We saw countless people unable to drink because of this. We also carried a 500ml thermos of sweet tea, if I were to do it again, I’d probably want a slightly larger one with the added weight being massively outweighed by the benefits of hot sweet nectar.

We carried bars with us; a combination of energy bars, cereal bars, and, of course, chocolate covered Oreos. This worked fine but we were glad we had carried proper food up to the Tete Rousse for when we got back down.

Cameras

Between our Nikon D5300, iPhones, and a GoPro we had this covered. Every time we pack our cameras we ask each other if we need to take this many and every time we’re glad we do. This gives us the opportunity to capture spur of the moment events, proper photos, and video easily and well worth the weight.

After climbing Mont Blanc

Getting back down, we were both shattered. We got to the car 15 hours after we started that morning but it was an incredible day out that was varied, interesting, and challenging. I think it is amazing that people are going out and exploring the high mountains for themselves but please, if you are new to the Alps, hire a guide as they can be very dangerous when (not if) the weather changes.

We have now completed leg 6 of the Alpine Coast to Coast with just a little further to go. It feels like a real turning point, coming down back to Chamonix, with the end in sight.

How to Climb Mont Blanc - getting it right

How to Climb Mont Blanc – getting it right

 

by Charley Radcliffe

3 Responses to “How to climb Mont Blanc – getting it right”

  1. Eric Winstone

    Hi guys, following my tour du Mont Blanc this summer and trek up to gouter I desperately want to climb to the summit. Is it possible to be my guide or do you know a trusty reasonably priced one. Good luck on the final push to Nice and some beer and sunbathing.

    Reply

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