Climbing Mont Blanc has always been a dream for all mountain lovers. At 4808 meters, Mont Blanc is the highest mountain in Italy.
The first ascent dates as far back as August 8, 1786: two young boys from Chamonix (Balmat and Piccard) reached the summit after picking up the gauntlet (and climbing prize) from scientist De Saussure. It took Balmat and Piccard about 14 hours to reach the summit, and they stayed on top about half an hour.
Certainly the climb is definitely easier now than over 200 years ago, but it is still a major challenge.
There are basically two ways to reach the summit of Mont Blanc: the Italian way and the French way. The Italian route is longer and slightly more difficult than the French one: the start is from Val Veny (near Courmayeur) and support is provided by the Gonella refuge. The French normal route starts from les Houches, not far from Chamonix: on the French side there are two supports, namely the Tete Rousse and the Gouter.
I booked the ascent about a month before the chosen date: I already knew the guide, as I had climbed the Capanna Margherita with him on Monte Rosa. We had originally planned to go up from Gonella and down from Gouter: however, Gonella is very small and was fully booked. So, here I am recounting the ascent of Mont Blanc from the French side.
The ascent of Mont Blanc from the French side started from Les Houches, which is located near Chamonix. From Les Houches you take a cable car to Bellevue, which is a location on the famous Tour de Mont Blanc. In Bellevue there is a little cafeteria where you can have breakfast or lunch before embarking on the walk. From Bellevue you have to take a little train to Nide d’Aigle: while the cable car runs every five minutes, the little train has set times (the convenient ones are at 10:20 a.m. and 11:25 a.m.).
The small train is very scenic, and reaches Nide d’Aigle in about twenty minutes covering an elevation gain of about 500 meters. Once we arrive at Nide d’Aigle, the climb to Mont Blanc actually begins.
To go from Nide d’Aigle to Tete Rousse you have to cover about 750 meters of elevation gain: the trail is always well marked, never difficult (only the last 150 meters of ascent are slightly steeper) and you can admire the valley and the beautiful Aiguille du Midi. It took me an hour and a half to go from the 2380 meters of Nide d’Aigle to the 3100 meters of Tete Rousse: actually, you don’t exactly go through the hut, but you go through a small cottage where the night reservation at the Gouter hut is checked. However, the Tete Rousse refuge is clearly visible on the left, about a five-minute walk away.
From the small cottage where the reservation is verified, it is clearly visible how the climb continues. In fact, from the 3100 meters of Tete Rousse it is possible to see the Gouter Canal and, at the top of it, the two Gouter shelters, the old and the new (built in 2013). It is also possible to see the objectively most complicated part of the whole climb, namely the crossing of the colouir du Gouter. Unfortunately, in fact, this canal is called the ‘canal of death’ because of the approximately 150 deaths in the past twenty years.
But what exactly does this trait consist of? You have to cross the gully, which often discharges stones-these can come down at great speed and hit climbers. The crossing lasts a very short time, about two minutes-I admit it is 120 seconds of panic, where you don’t have to look up but rather where you put your boots.
The channel crossing is located at about 3300 meters above sea level. After this moment of panic, the moment of high tension continues: in fact, to get to the Refuge du Gouter one must literally climb for about 70 minutes. The passages are considered not very difficult: honestly, some parts of the first and second grades I found a bit complicated.
We arrived at the Refuge du Gouter, located at an altitude of 3840 meters. It took us four hours to cover the 1450 meters of altitude between Nide d’Aigle and Refuge du Gouter. The Refuge du Gouter is gigantic and can accommodate about 130 people: you still need to book well in advance! Half board at the Refuge costs 110 euros, and honestly, the dinner is far from being of sufficient quality.
Before we saw the sunset, we asked for breakfast to be served at 2 a.m.
We went to bed around 9:30 p.m., right after watching a truly spectacular sunset!
Sleeping at 3840 meters is not pleasant, even less so when you have an alarm clock set for 1:30 a.m.! After having breakfast we packed our backpack, crampons and rope and at 2:45 we left the hut.
After about half an hour of walking, the guide said: we are not walking in fog, but in clouds! Hearing these words as we walked in the cold of the night was not the most pleasant, although they enticed me to walk quickly: the first part, leading up to Vallot bivouac (located at 4350 meters, usable only for emergencies) is not difficult and is never exposed. After about 50 meters of descent you have to pass the Grande and Petite Bosse: some sections are steep and exposed (I could not check the exposure because of the weather!).
At one point the guide asked me, ‘How many meters are we at according to your Garmin?’ ‘4790’ ‘That’s twenty meters wrong, we’re at the top, congratulations!’ At that moment I was really satisfied: we were the only ones on the summit of Mont Blanc! It took us only two and a half hours to reach the 4810 meters of Mont Blanc: in fact, it was 5:20 in the morning. Unfortunately, however, I could not appreciate the view because of the weather, which was always bad. We tried to wait about ten minutes, but the clouds would not budge: the cold and frozen beard advised us to start descending.
We then had to descend the 1,000 meters of elevation gain we had just conquered : as mentioned before, the descent seemed quite easy to me also because of the clouds, which hid the most exposed sections.
We arrived at Refuge du Gouter at about 7:30 a.m.: the descent took about two hours.
At Refuge du Gouter we first warmed up (my beard was totally frozen!) and had a second breakfast.
At the hut, I saw the times of the little train that connects Nide d’Aigle to Bellevue: 11:45 am, 12:25 pm, 1:35 pm, 2:45 pm. The guide was aiming to take 11:45, but had not done the calculations with my technical inabilities and tiredness. The technical difficulties were seen on the way down to Tete Rousse: some stretches really challenged me and I admit I sweated like few times in my life! It took us an hour and forty minutes to get to Tete Rousse from Gouter: the descent was really tiring and crossing the Couloir du Gouter again was unpleasant.
I thus arrived at the torn Tete Rousse. I tried to save the last of my energy for the last 750 meters of the descent, which turned out to be easy, but with shattered legs was still tiring. Some ibex kept me company on the final part of the descent, and the Nide d’Aigle station was almost a mystical sight!
We arrived at the station at 12:10, so in time for the 12:25 train: from Tete Rousse to Nide d’Aigle took me an hour and a half, the same time as on the outward journey (this figure says it all about tiredness!).
After taking the cable car from Bellevue the ascent to Mont Blanc could be called officially over! As I often say: tiredness and satisfaction went hand in hand!
- I did this climb with Gabriele, a guide from Gressoney: the cost is about 1100 euros.
- To the cost of the guide must be added the cost of the hut, chairlift, little train: that’s about 300 euros to calculate.
- Technical difficulty: the whole section from Tete Rousse to Gouter is quite complicated, as it involves first- and second-degree passages. For those with good technical skills it is nothing complicated, those like me who are more impeded go into difficulty. Rope from Tete Rousse to the summit (and back).
- Physical difficulties: you have to calculate the problems caused by the altitude (4810 meters is not small, sleeping at 3840 meters is problematic) and you have to be trained. The Chamonix guides use minimum tables: if you don’t stay within the times the climb ends (e.g. Refuge du Gouter – Vallot Bivouac in two hours maximum, I took 75 minutes). It is advisable to do some more glacier walking before embarking on this mission.
- Length 19 km, total elevation gain 2450 meters.
- The French normal route is easier than the Italian normal route, which is longer and slightly more technically difficult: often those who climb from the Italian side (Gonella) descend from the French side because it is shorter.
- The good season for climbing is generally from June 15 to September 15. Many choose to climb Mont Blanc in three days/two nights: this involves sleeping the first night at Tete Rousse and the second at Gouter.
- I used crampons to cross the Couloir du Gouter and from the Refuge du Gouter to the summit.
- It is necessary to check cable car and train schedules
that lead from Les Houches to Nide d’Aigle.
- To whom do I recommend this experience? To those who have breath to spare, to those who are familiar with the mountains, to those who are willing to invest money on themselves and on an athletic endeavor. I still recommend doing a few other peaks first, such as the beautiful Margherita Hut on Monte Rosa!
- Is Mont Blanc part of the seven summits? There is a great debate about this: for some people yes, for others the European peak is Elbrus. Therefore, I cannot say with certainty that I have conquered the second of the seven summits 🙂 The first of the seven summits I reached was the Kilimanjaro!
- What to carry in your backpack to climb Mont Blanc? My guide called me a ‘minimalist’: I brought a backpack of about 30 liters with long sleeve merino jersey, technical shirt for the first day, sweatshirt, windbreaker, ski gloves, ski hat, neck warmer (two, one for the neck and one used under the hat), sunglasses, trekking poles. The guide brought me crampons, harness and helmet.