Often referred to as the classic route up Mont Blanc it’s quite exciting to jump on the Bellevue cablecar and then transfer to the Tramway du Mont Blanc. With the help of these two modes of transport you eventually pop out at 2372m. This tram is the highest rack railway in France and from its stop at Nid d’Aigle you can already see the Gouter hut perched on the cliff edge. It took us four and a half hours to climb the 1445m to the hut and we could see it the entire time. From the tram station it is steadily up all the way, first on relatively easy ground before gradually getting steeper.
Near the Tete Rousse hut it’s necessary to put on helmets and rope together to cross the Grand Couloir. We crossed the most risky section at a slow jog, roped together, such is the hazard from serious rockfall. Once passed the immediate danger we remained roped together with helmets on for the remaining 550m ascent to the hut. This section was really fun to scramble up, aside from the moment that a group above sent some pretty big stones rumbling down the mountainside. Thankfully their path didn’t cross any climbers although they came close enough to us to be a little worrying.
At the top of the scramble you arrive at the old Gouter hut. From here crampons are necessary to cross the last short section to the new Gouter hut, 3817m. For us the weather was clear and crisp, and setting eyes on the space age Gouter hut was a very welcome sight. The drop down to the valley either side is immense and breathtakingly beautiful.
After some lunch we headed up the ridge above the hut for some crevasse rescue training. Another comedy moment ensued as Gianni suggested I walk off the side whilst attached to the rope so he could demonstrate rescuing me. The slope was sheer and I would have fallen a couple thousand meters had I not been attached to a rope. This is the sort of thing every mountaineer should try, a lesson in trusting your equipment! This is also the point I learnt that my lightweight alpine harness is not that comfortably to hang around in for any length of time, ouch! Various techniques were practiced and repeated, but I must confess to finding the surrounding views somewhat distracting.
That evening I had very little sleep in the Gouter Hut. A combination of nerves, excitement and slightly irritating night lights meant that I maybe got 2 to 3 hours at best. By 2:30am we were sat having breakfast and just after 3 we hit the ridge for the long slog to the summit. Gianni had insisted on inspecting our bags the night before and we were told under no uncertain terms to leave everything behind in the hut that wasn’t essential. We would return to collect these items on the descent. Despite having a lightweight backpack I found the first 30 minutes after breakfast very difficult. Gianni seemed to take off at top speed and we passed quite a few groups. Each surge to pass a group seemed to take so much extra energy. My legs had turned to lead, my chest was tight and each uphill step was a struggle. Thoughts tend to stir at this point, as you trudge on suffering in the dark. Your mind will try to play tricks on you, giving you reasons not to continue. It’s fighting those thoughts and feelings and continuing to suffer that is usually the key to success. Also in the back of my mind the commitment factor reared its ugly head again . If I opted to turn back Tara would be forced to also and there was no way I was letting that happen. So, I plodded on, taking deep breaths and just concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other. The gradient was pretty relentless and Gianni kept promising that we had reached the ‘last’ steep section. A common guiding trick, just lie about what is still to come!
Gianni had told us that it might take 4 or 5 hours to reach the summit, so when after just three hours he said we were nearly there I suddenly realised that I could make it. The first shafts of light broke the skyline and soon the struggle to climb was forgotten as we made our way slowly up the summit ridge. We were just in time to see the sun rise above the horizon, with a cloud inversion shimmering, almost like a liquid, in the valley below. We stayed on the summit for around 30 minutes, totally unheard of in normal, cold weather conditions. We were very lucky. We were on top of Europe, and for each of those 30 minutes the light changed and danced and lit up the whole of the Alps at our feet.
When we turned to descend the ridge I was taken aback. There was our route up, unknown to us in the dark, stretched out before us. No wonder it felt so tough, look how steep it is! Then there are those views, I couldn’t stop smiling. It took all my will power to concentrate on my crampon placement and not just stare at those views. Concentration was indeed required, its generally good etiquette to step aside for those going up so we had to pick our way down slowly and surely. Its funny how things look so different on the way down and in daylight. We came across a reasonable uphill section, I remember this feeling flat on the way up, not downhill! This was the Dome de Gouter peak and Gianni reasoned that we should add on a short section in order to climb two 4000m peaks in the same day. It was a very short detour so we couldn’t really argue with the logic, even on tired legs! Getting back to the Gouter hut was a very welcome rest. After an hour of recuperation, food and caffine we geared up once more to walk down to the Tete Rousse hut. This meant scrambling back down the loose rocky section, once again on the rope. Slow and steady on tired legs. We repeated our dash back across the Grand Couloir and finally reached the Tete Rousse, 3167m, and all that by lunchtime. We had been on our feet for 9 hours that day, climbed 992m and descended 1642m.
As we sat enjoying the afternoon sun at the Tete Rousse we could hear and see regular rockfall on the Grand Couloir. I can’t quite imagine doing this section in the dark if you had been late down from the mountain, or starting from the Tete Rousse hut in the early morning. All that was left was for us to toast our achievement and walk back to the tram the following morning. Mont Blanc the dream, had become a reality!
More photos here – https://www.flickr.com/gp/133913289@N03/3q4531