Mont Blanc also known as the White mountain is one of the most popular mountains in Europe. I would say that every mountaineer has the ambition to climb it. We, as well, have been contemplating the idea since we started hiking to higher and higher altitudes.
After couple of busy seasons in High Tatras and a successful ascent of Grossglockner, we finally resolved to try Mt.Blanc in July 2018. We assembled 4 brave souls for this long overdue adventure. The most popular route via Gouter was booked out in the middle of the season, so out of the remaining possibilities we chose to ascent from the other side of the mountain via Cosmique.
The reservation was made and the game was afoot.
After a whole day of driving through Austria and Switzerland, we finally stopped in Camping Les Arolles with beautiful view of Mont Blanc in all its glory.
We knew what was ahead of us – how high we were going to be (hopefully). After a good night rest we organized our equipment and headed to Chamonix. The town was nice, full of stores with mountaineering must-haves, restaurants, souvenir shops with magnets and postcards.
The most important, however, is the cable car to Aguille de Midi. This cable car has elevation of 2800+ m which is enough to make it the longest in Europe. It takes only 20 minutes and you find yourself on a 360 view over French, Italian, Swiss Alps including Mont Blanc.
We started to feel a little bit sick right after stepping out of the cable car in altitude 3842 above sea level. That was already higher than my personal record of 3232 on the Italian Marmolada. Getting from 1000 meters above sea level to 3842 in 20 minutes had exactly the effect on our bodies as you would expect, but still the reality was worse than I personally presumed. After 30 minutes on the viewpoint terrace I felt weak and sort of slowed down, sluggish.
The sun was high and bright which did not help our medical condition, just as did not help seeing a young fit woman pass out. In this altitude your head can go spinning no matter how experienced you are.
After a little tour of the cable car station, we stepped out of the station through a tunnel into a snowy land.
The route to our second stop, chalet Cosmique, takes about one hour. The path leads over a snow field, we walked slow, the path was narrow and we had to walk in line behind a big group of people. „the horde“ was led by a rope team of three women, and our pace reflects that.
We walked slow. Nevertheless, even this one hour hike on the glacier in quite a relaxed pace was enough to drain me of energy, and after reaching the chalet it was a quick dinner (consisting of a sausage and bread) and bed for me.
We stayed in a room with 18 other people so the chance that no one would be snoring was quite low. At five o’clock , I was lying in bed and it became very clear that tomorrow would be the biggest challenge of my fitness level.
But it was not. I woke up around 11 o’clock at night feeling queasy. I ran to the toilet without hesitation. The first time. Still feeling determined to ascend, I did not feel like going back to bed. I sat by the window and watched the sunset. Everyone else still sleeping. When I looked out of the window I saw the most beautiful sunset. Just say for yourself.
What a great feeling, awakening, pure allure. After a moment I decided to go back to bed feeling even more tired than before. I had to get out of bed twice more and it started to seem that my friends would go up without me. Unfortunately, or rather fortunately 🙂 when we all woke up in the morning, none of us was in the state to attempt the peak of Mont Blanc. We agreed to sleep through the day in the empty chalet, since everyone else was out climbing to the peak. Apparently, we overestimated ourselves a little. After our experience we recommend proper acclimatization before going forward from the cable car station. After contemplating for a while whether it was really the altitude that was the problem or not, we eventually decided to put the blame to lack of ventilation in the room where we were sleeping, since there was not a single window thus not enough oxygen for approx. 20 people.
Well, never mind. Around 9 o’clock the next day we went back to the cable car station and down to Chamonix. Once in the village everybody started feeling much better. We decided to take two days to recuperate and then try again.
The second attempt
This time we did not take any risks. The cable car to Aguile de Midi has a mid-stop at about a half of the way. Here we got out and walked around for about one hour. The body got a little air and a small pause to better acclimatize. Already at this mid stop the views are remarkable. So, after the break we went the rest of the way up with the cable car. We did not want to risk a crowded room in the chalet again and decided to camp outside of it in tents.
Was it a good idea? We have never camped on the snow, so at least a new experience was guaranteed.
The night was not so cold, the inflatable sleeping mats did their job well enough. At 1 a.m. The alarms started going off. We ate our emergency biscuits with jam as a breakfast ( the best thing we had on us that could be eaten at 1 am on snow:) )
We got dressed, put on all the equipment, tied the rope, and started up the mountain. Dauntless and in the dark, with all the other campers and people from the chalet.
The first hours illuminated only by headlamps and stars were pretty cold, but the adrenalin in our blood and the vision of adventure were stronger.
To be honest, I do not really remember this part of the hike, did not even recognize it on our return. One of the more interesting parts was a ladder over a big ice crevasse.
Small traffic jam occurred here but that was nothing unexpected. Mont Blanc is a popular mountain.
Along a quite narrow path in the snow we reached the steepest part of the hike. There is a fixed rope that everyone uses to get up this section.
At certain sections you need to use the ice axe and clip into fixed points. When we got to a small plateau I felt happy as if I were already on the top. The sun was coming up and we got a glimpse of the peak. I estimated 4 more hours of walking. We walked on along a well-trodden path in the snow, up to the last section that resembled a skiing slope.
So we walked and walked, getting higher and we were getting pretty tired and it felt as if there was less oxygen with every step. I tried to take at least 20 steps before stopping and catching a breath. At least for couple of minutes. But the higher we got the more difficult it was and the last half hour went 5 steps-break-5 steps break. As if that was not enough, the mountain gave me another challenge in a form of frozen tube of my hydro pack. So, I had to brace the rest of the ascent without water.
I felt sick, tired, my legs hurt, I had a headache, I was thirsty and I felt my nose was sunburned. I looked down and saw my three friends tied to me on a rope, I read the same desperation in their faces. But we did not come here to give up couple meters below the peak. We had to go on.
In this height one simply loses concept of time. It felt like the peak was still as far as half an hour before. Couple of half hours like this pass and we finally see the peak relatively close and our fellow hikers on it. It was not far at that point. We finally reached the peak exhausted.
It has happened only couple times in my life that I have felt this happy. I had to quickly wipe away the tears of joy in my eyes so the guys wouldn’t see. Amazing feeling on the top was definitely worth it. Even now a year later when I am writing this I can vividly remember it and relive the feelings on the top. It was a powerful experience. After moments of buoyant celebration and defreezing my water tube under my jacket, couple of obligatory pictures, and applying sunscreen on my nose, there was nothing left to do but start the descent. After all, getting to the top is just a half of the hike. On the descent my headache got even worse. The altitude was still pretty high.
Fortunately, the ascent went mostly up, so the decent is considerably less physically demanding than the ascent.
Step by step, left-right left-right only for seven hours and we found ourselves back by the tents. On the way down we made a little break to make some drone shots for our video. On such occasion I sat on a rock so comfortably that I fell asleep for a while. Maybe I was a tad tired. Who is to say.
Descending in the afternoon can be quite dangerous due to stronger sun that can loosen some rock, the snow gets softer and your legs can fall through more easily or even some ice floes can start falling. We were lucky and none of it happened to us, but you can never be too careful.
Mont Blanc’s reputation of being a dangerous mountain with high mortality rate stems from the fact that around 20 000 people try to climb it every year. Most of the people are inexperienced or new to mountaineering. To climb the mountain you should know how to swing the ice axe, climb a ladder with a heavy bag, walk along a narrow path with crevasses on both sides but most importantly how to not step on anyone’ s toes with crampons on , or on your own toes for that matter. This can be a problem for experienced mountaineers when it comes to 17 hour trek.
So if you haven’t done couple of winter climbs and have some basic experience with climbing on walls/rocks you should consider hiring a mountain guide. The money you will pay to the guide may save your life and it is definitely worth the experiences you will get on the mountain. Still if you decide to go with a mountain guide, consider your fitness level – the climb is 17 hours + you are still going higher, so the problem with altitude can come into play again. It is after all considered the highest mountain in Europe.
So, we climbed down the steep section and down the ladder and reached the tents. Exhausted but very content. We decided to sleep one more night in the tents. We did not have the energy to walk one more hour uphill to the cable cat. It was a wise call. We slept well and the last section the next morning was almost relaxing.
It is done. The hike took us 17 hours including breaks. Ascent to Mont Blanc via the Trois monts route (route of three peaks) was full of self-sacrifice, danger and much toil. Falling rocks , seracs, huge crevasses, 50 degree steep ice couloir, 70 degree slopes next to 20 cm wide paths, cold winds on the ridge, fortunately we braced it all. Our constant companions were vomiting, stomach sickness, aversion to food, hunger, lack of water, frozen hydropack, thirst, headaches, heat stroke, sunburned nose and neck, lack of sleep, fear for friends, cold; but I forgot all of it the moment we got to the top and shed a tear of joy 🙂 .
Thanks to everyone who cheered for us and of course to you White mountain, I will never forget.