This is a guest post from a buddy of mine, Kyle, over at Black Crow Travel. Kyle joined me on Mt Elbrus just after this Mont Blanc trip. It’s a great write-up so sit back and let him take you on a journey through the Alps.
Naples to Chamonix
Leaving Naples, and some of the best pizza in my life, I landed in Geneva Switzerland with the intent of taking a bus to Chamonix (The jump off point for Mont Blanc).
The bus proved way easier to navigate than expected; the stand was right outside of the arrivals gate and could be booked at a moments notice (Cheaper if you get it online though).
I used a company called Alpybus, but I’m sure any bus company would be fine. The ride was an easy 2 hours; through mountains,crazy bridges, and lots of wildlife.
I arrived in Chamonix, now lost, looking for my Couch Surfing host (I was running out of money /Shocker!/ so I tried to save some by Couch Surfing). After begging several people to use their phones, and getting rejected multiple times (The french…), some cute french girl let me use hers.
Chamonix was such a cozy little town. The snow-capped surrounding mountains, the local shops, and a small river flowing through made it easy to fall in love; Which I believe is the case with many, there seems to be a lot of locals or returning seasonal enthusiasts.
Unfortunately, the couch surfing profile said “Please bring a sleeping bag, I have a small apartment” which I didn’t read… of course. But my host graciously let me stay anyway and we were off to a festival after.
For some reason, and I’m not complaining, every city I go to has a random festival going on at the same time of my arrival. And I know what people are thinking ‘so what? It’s Europe in the summer… there’s always a festival’. Okay true, but what about my poor wallet/liver?
The night was great. People dancing on the roofs, drinks, signing… However, the following morning was the start of my Ice Climbing course, so I took it ease.
Since I’ve only had limited experience with crampons, ice climbing, and assists up until this point, I decided to take a Climbing course.
My course was set up through the local climbing organization in Chamonix. The guides were all local, all full time, and not part of a ‘company’.
Side note: Mont Blanc has a horrible reputation for taking inexperienced climbers up difficult paths, regardless of weather conditions. The reason being the commercialization of the climb and the view of it being ‘easy’. Be very careful of any guide promising “you’ll make it” or unwilling to call off the climb. Avalanches, random roll-in storms, and rock slides are VERY common. Your life is always more important.
The first day was basic walking in crampons, self assists, general rope and ladder work. The whole day illustrated just how unprepared I was for the climb in general. I left my water at the place I was staying, forgot energy bars, no sunscreen, no mitts, or knowledge of the gear whatsoever.
Relief came from seeing just how much worse some of the others were; No boots, wearing jeans instead of climbing pants, extremely out of shape, or giving up before we even started.
The day wrapped up with most of us needing to buy more gear from in town…. but the basics of Ice climbing were learned.
Day 2 – Our partners were assigned. Since most of the people came with buddies, not many were left alone. All except Christian, the 65 y/o man who was absolutely struggling on day one, and who was now my partner.
Christian turned out to be a really cool guy. Not in shape for the climb, but really nice to talk to which accounts for a lot.
Side note: Climbing is, and will always be, a sport of dreamers. And while I encourage dreaming as much as anyone, it’s somewhat disturbing the lack of self-awareness some climbers have. To climb a mountain; you need to be in excellent physical shape, have excellent mental will-power, have knowledge of the climb and your equipment, and also get lucky. The recipe calls for all four.
Day two didn’t account for anything special. The weather was too bad to climb on the highest level of the Aiguille du Midi, so we climbed the middle level. The day was more of a hike and further learning equipment.
However, I was able to go to the highest level at the end of the day just for the purpose of acclimation. Our guide Peter (what I’ll call him for the sake of his privacy) and Christian already went down as I looked up to the cable car ascending into the void.
On this level (Around 13,000 ft), you could start to feel the first signs of attitude sickness, signs I came to recognize from Kilimanjaro a year before. Before going down, I ran up and down the stairs a bit to help get ready.
Funny side story: On the lift down, I was eating candy that I bought in town when, this random Asian lady (The lift is a major tourist attraction as well) started starring at me and the candy. Completely amazed by it. So I offered her some candy… of course, why not? She ate it and joyfully thanked me for letting her try it.
As I left the lift and started into town, She flagged me down and gave me this:
Day 3 – Our final day of training before going to the actual mountain.
Today the weather was perfect and we were able to climb the Aiguille du Midi on the highest level.
Stepping out from the platform was one of the most magnificent things I’ve ever seen.
It was like watching an imax movie, where everything looked too glorious to be real. I remember stopping so long that I choked up the rope, pulling and annoying the others. This moment may have justified the entire trip.
The day was an easy 8 mile loop of mostly flat altitude training. We descended into the valley, walked around, and then came back up. We saw the avalanche prone areas some guides try to lead their clients up. It was easy to understand how so many people could die on this mountain. This observation was only further solidified the next day when climbing the scree on Mont Blanc.
At the end of the day, Christian and I grabbed drinks then knocked off early to prepared for tomorrow’s climb.
We started the day from the “Normal route”. Originally, we were climbing a different route, but there was an avalanche warning in place for it (Common on Mont Blanc).
The ‘normal route’ started with a splendid train ride up the various cliffs and to the Nid D’ Aigle, the end of the line. The valley below was lush with the colors of summer and stretched on as far as one could see.
The resulting climb was mostly dirt and grass until around the 2,500 meter point, when we finally hit snow. From there we traversed over to the ‘main scree’ which would take us up to the Gouter hut.
The climb and scree in general was a total bitch. Again, I can see why people die on this mountain.
At one point we were crossing a gap between two screes (To those who don’t know, a ‘Scree’ is basically a climb with tons of annoying loose rocks… photo below.). The rocks from higher elevations would FLY down the valley at speeds greater than cars on a highway. This was caused from melting ice, people walking on them higher up, or just random chance.
The advice was, “I’ll tell you when to cross but keep looking up… If you see a rock, dodge it”…. Thanks man! I’m good now!
So I clipped on (Unhooked from our team rope and hooked onto a fixed line), took a deep breathe, and ran full speed across the divide. It was early enough in the day that most of the rocks were still frozen, but I’m told that crossing in the afternoon becomes an extreme hazard. This statement was reinforced by the memorial plaques following the crossing, dedicated to the people who didn’t “just dodge” the falling rocks.
After crossing, we had another 4 hours of knee crushing scree climbing left. The climb seemed infinite, to which I associate the endless stairs from Mario 64… You see the top, but never reach it. We were further delayed by Christian’s struggling and by our extreme caution when climbing the rocks. A loose rock up here, could mean a dead person down there… So we took our time.
Lifetimes later, we arrived at one of the coolest places on Earth. The Gouter hut was something you find on Instagram, not in real life.
The hut was sleeping on clouds and served surprisingly great food. Though the joys were overshadowed by the struggles I knew I’d face tomorrow: Summit day.
We were to wake up at 2am for a quick breakfast, and then it would be around 3 hours up and 2 back down. I didn’t get much sleep, and arrived at breakfast early. Anticipation is bad for nerves and for sleep.
At breakfast, I learned that Christian backed out of his summit bid. A storm came in last minute (shocker) and Peter advised him of the now elevated difficulty in the bid. Christian decided to back out to give me a better shot at making it, since he knew he’d slow me down. He even lent me his Ski poles to help.
I couldn’t get over hearing this. For a climber; to give up a summit bid is never easy. Heartbreaking even. But to give up your bid, that you fought for… all so that other could have a better chance of making it… Man… talk about motivation. No chance was I letting some little storm stop me now.
We rocketed out at 3am, ahead of everyone else. The storm, however, saw to our spry enthusiasm by punishing us gust after gust. Peter and I pushed forward, without breaking, till we reached the mid-way shelter. I didn’t take any photos of this shelter, as the weather didn’t allow for it. We hobbled into the little bomb shack for a quick break.
Cold started to seep into my now sweat soaked boats as winds battered the tiny metal cottage. Various luxuries found in the Gouter hut were not present in this small survival refuge. The thin metal door was haphazardly held shut by a bungee cord and bashed over and over again as the wind wailed on it.
There were two others in the hut with us, still sleeping from the night before. Not sure how they where so unfortunate to ended up in this shack, but we didn’t have time to ask. Cold was trickling back into our bones, and it was time again to move.
We left the shack in complete darkness as the winds continued to howl around us. Our bodies warmed back up as we contended the ice-covered bluffs for what seemed like hours and hours.
- The only sound I heard, apart from the screeching squalls, was Peter’s voice singing with the winds, “Alle Kyle! We have to hurry!” “Alle Alle!’
- The only breaks we took were mandatory. To let our lungs catch up to our bodies.
- The only thing on my mind was Christian and not letting him down.
At 5:36am, we summited Mont Blanc.
Unfortunately, the weather did not allow for very nice photos:
But the storm broke on our way down and we were able to take better photos:
It was amazing, with the sun now up, seeing others attempt what we just climbed. Talk about self-empowerment, if you’re ever doubting yourself… go climb a mountain.
The time back only took us around an hour.
We made it back to the Gouter hut so fast that breakfast was still being served.
I’ll never forget walking into the mess hall to see Christian’s disappointed face as he looked at his watch. He thought we turned around and gave up.
After eating a 2nd breakfast, that wasn’t included in our stay, we headed back down the horrific scree from yesterday.
The view was incredible. And I regret not taking the time to enjoy it more; but that 2nd breakfast I so greedily scarfed down, didn’t sit so well and I was now suffering.
There’s a lesson here somewhere
Racing down to stop at an out house was not a pleasant experience…But here’s some photos of the descent and looking back up.
Around 14:00, we were back at the tram. The total climbing day was around 12 hours. From the tram we headed back to town, 2 hours more… and then right to sleep (I’m a liar, I didn’t go to sleep.. ).
The next day I was back on the bus to Geneva, heading to Russia to Climb Mt. Elbrus.
While everything worked out for me, people do die on Mont Blanc. Many people take the mountain for granted; because it’s popular, because is not that high (15k ft), because they climb in the Himalayas, or whatever reason… But Mont Blanc is a dangerous climb: The falling debris, crowds, inexperienced climbers, and tour guides shoveling people up without any concerns for the weather or mountain conditions.
Some people in our group who climbed the Himalayas didn’t make it, one guy broke his ankle pretty badly. In our ‘group’ (I did the bid with just my guide Peter, but on the first day we were all one big group) of 15, 8 made it.
Stories of people dying happen all the time.
It’s up to you to decide who to climb with. Though I would Highly recommend the local Chamonix climbing organization, since they’re not affiliated with any big name company and don’t particularly care if you “Make it” as long as you live.
As far as enjoyment; I LOVED the Aiguille du Midi climb, but the ‘normal route’s scree was terrible. Not to mention I didn’t feel safe at all (with the rocks flying at me). Next time I would go a different route, or stick to a snowier mountain.
As far as difficulty; this was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life. Exponentially harder than Kilimanjaro (20k ft) or Elbrus (19k ft). The Slopes were far steeper, the weather was worse, the acclimation period is much shorter, and falling debris was the rule, not the exception (there’s debris on Kilimanjaro, but it’s rare).
The total number of fatalities is between 6,000-8,000* and is ranked as one of the worlds deadliest climbs. The climb is to be taken seriously or not done at all.