Climb of Mont Blanc

The ascent started in a small town right beside Chamonix called Les Houches (1100m). It was the 19th of August 2008. Together 5 students from Leipzig, Cologne and Konstanz were about to climb the top of the Alps: Mont Blanc.

We decided to start from that point because we wanted to avoid the masses of climbers at least for the first day. By doing so we had “one day off” waiting for the whole bunch of climbers we should meet at the Nid d´Aigle (2372m) where the cog railway from St. Gervais ends. Because of the heavy backpacks with about 23-24kg per Person and the altitude difference we planned to get to the topic and back in about 8 days. Of course it can be done much faster but the pleasure of the climbing and the sorrounding landscape for us was the most important part of the whole trip.

Besides the time in our backpack we were more then well-equipped. Thanks to our sponsors who equipped us with high quality material. It was their support that made the trip a succesful tour:

Icebreaker provided high quality underwear
Puma with highy quality Headlamps as well as knives
Sunway with excellent and mountainproved Trekkingpants
Allos with rich package of delicious bars
Led Lenser with first-class headlamps
X-Socks with comfortable trekkingsocks for a good price

At the first day we walked up to an old observatory at 2100m, right above the timberline. It was an impressive change of the vegetation during that day. While we started walking through deep forest the day ended with a sorrounding that was characterised by small bushes. Not long after we arrived at the observatory it began to rain so we decided not to sleep in the tent but to use the shelter of the empty and abandoned building. After a chilly but dry night the most annoying part of the ascent was about to follow. It went along the tracks of the cog railway until we arrived at the terminal stop Nid d’Aigle (2386m) where more and more people were spit out. Most of them only stay for one day to enjoy the beautiful view or to walk up to the glacier Bionassay that can be arrived within a couple of minutes. The rest goes further.

Passing the “Grand Couloir”
After the terminal stop the terrain was getting rougher with every step we took. While we ascended the ground moraine up to the botttom of the rigde Arete Payot at 3000m we left the clouds behind and for the first time we had a view up the snow covered Aguille de Bionassay with about 4052m. An impressive sorrounding. Having the best weather for the rest of the day we ascended the last altitude difference without problems and set up the tent on the glacier in close proximity of the Refuge de Tete Rousse (3167m).
Having a beautiful view right from this “basecamp” above the clouds we enjoyed the rest of the day until the coldness that rose with the sunset made us go into the tent. 3 persons in a 2 person tent was a cramped though warm first night on top of pure ice and finally led into the following day when we had to climb the wall up to the Refuge de Gouter (3817m). If you want to start your race to the top from the Refuge de Tete Rousse, done by a lot of climbers, you will need do get up at about 2 o’clock in the morning. Good for us because when we got up at 8 o’clock most of the people have already been gone and we could start this partly narrow section without beeing too crowded. At the very beginning we had to pass the most dangerous part of the whole climb which is to cross the “Grand Couloir”, a channel that is heavily exposed to the danger of falling rocks causing a lot of accidents.
After the crossing the danger of falling rocks is not that permanent any more though there is still the risk of getting hit by falling stones loosened by peoply going up or down. Naturally the danger rises during the day with the rising sun and the resultant melting of snow. A further probably stronger factor are the climbers who have already been climbing for a long period of time, show a lack of concentration and loosen rocks without knowing or they just don’t think straight and don’t have a clue about the risk they are for all the othe climbers. Having sometimes the size of a head the rocks are rushing down in every height with every speed.
Realizing this we crossed the channel as fast as we could and climbed up the way to the Refuge de Gouter (3817m).

We actually wanted to set up the tent once again but after having built a wall of snow against the wind for about 3 hours one of the poles decided to take the way down the glacier back to Chamonix. The suprising look over the shoulder only showed a small track in the snow that clarified the farewell of the pole. Abjected and frustrated we fortunately still had the alternative of sleeping in the hut.

The cube out of metal
The day after was enwraped in clowds and hail enforced the thought of a day off to absolve the last part of the climb with new energy. The following day wasn’t supposed to be sunny as well so we decided to take one more day off. It turned out differently than expected. The day exposed itself in glooming white and blue and the sun was already high above the snowy mountainrainge when we quick packed our stuff and left our sleeping place right behind us. The rest of the climb is not that difficult but still with danger. Having to walk on a glacier there are crevasses and the altitude is not to underestimate. If that is summed up by bad weather (bad weather means no visibility at all, temperature fare from 0°C and high velocity of wind) it can be quite dangerous because it is almost impossible to get on the right track and even the thickest track can be covered with snow in a wink.
Thanks to a good acclimatisation and once again the best weather conditions it was easy to find through the Dome face up to the Dome de Gouter (4304m) arriving at the Refuge de Vallot (4365m) early at noon. This is a simple emergency accomodation, that is good to be described as a “cube out of metal”.
It was a quite negative suprise how the inside of the cube looks more like a trash can but in the end we made ourselves comfortable and a soup and waited until the dark rose and the race to the top of Mont Blanc should go into the final round. But the night was far from beeing recreative. It was cold (the thermometer in the hut showed about -5°C in the morning) and extremely loud because of a heavy storm that raged during the night. With every new blast we thought the hut is going to be kicked down the mountain which is a quite uncomfortable situation if you don’t want anything else but to sleep. If this is toped by accidentally touching the buttom of the microfon which is directly connected to the mountain rescue service in Chamonix the pulse accelerates up to 200 lying in the sleeping bag. Fortunately they guys had other things to do so our “emergency call” wasn’t answered.

The roof of the Alps
It was about half past 5 when the first climbers came into our sleeping place having crampons under their feets, making noise and looking like mummed people from mars. As quick as we could we jumped into our clothes and a wink later stepped into the cold to start the final climb along the Bosse ridge. The peak already seems quite near but first you need to get over the two “Bosses”, two giant humps of firn, at some points up to a declination of 40°. While we were climbing up the narrow path the sun was rising at the same time and together we gained altitude, slowly but definitely. Before the last ridge leads eventually to the topic a short part with about 45° is to be climbed but after having passed that one we finally managed what we came for at 7:30 in the morning. The sun was shining as bright as it could, the blue sky was already getting dark above us and the view was the best we have ever seen. It was the 24th of August 2008; we stood on the topic of the Mont Blanc, with 4807m the roof of the Alps. The day the final ceremony of the Olympic Games in Peking was held we unfold the Tibetan flag and enforced the motto “Friends of Tibet, we set a sign!”.
The following decline down to 1800m should stay in our bones fort he hole next week but we nevertheless were happy having made that amazing tour and once again to drink running water and to relax in the warm sun.

At the 25th of August 2008 we arrived healthy and uninjured where we started the whole tour and took the first shower after a couple of days in the indoor swimming pool in Chamonix. To celebrate the successfull climb we ate a cheese fondue and were more than glad that we came back like this. Because about 5 hours before we arrived at the top 8 people died on the way to a foresummit, called Mont Blanc du Tacul. A sérac broke off and released a big avalanche.

You realize once again what it means to do mountaineering: beeing exposed to a constant danger, where even years of experience cannot protect against the power and unpredictability of nature. 

The authors of this article:
Felix Polzer, Student of Sport Science, Cologne
Benjamin Eichert, Student of Geographie, Leipzig