Chamonix & Mont Blanc
Chamonix is widely recognized as the centre of Alpine climbing; the mountain scenery unsurpassed at least in Europe. Climbing Mont Blanc is certainly the most sort after peak in the area (at least amongst mere mortals – different if you are an experienced Alpine climber!) but there are other wonderful walks/climbs which are achievable either with or without a guide. I have included 3 blogs on walking in Chamonix; my own experience on a visit where the intention was to climb Mont Blanc, Sean’s successful ascent and also his collection of favourite walks which he has collated over years of visits to this special Alpine town.
Aiguille Argentiere in Chamonix
My first visit to the mecca of Alpine climbing. A climb up a 3,900 metre peak up steep slopes, airy ridges and a crevasse ridden glacier.
We planned a 6 day visit to Chamonix in the summer of 2000 with the express intention of climbing Mont Blanc via the Tacul and to include some days acclimatising before. As it turned out we were unable to get up the Blanc as the weather turned but we still enjoyed a 2 day climb up the Aiguille Argentiere – a wonderful, suitably pointy peak at 3,901 above the Glacier d’Argentiere. Following the Argentiere we were able to struggle up the Petite Verte in fairly poor conditions.
There was 4 of us climbing and we hired 2 guides, the blunt Nick Banks and the youthful Graham Mc Mahon – a good choice. This was our first climbing trip of any significance and guiding was essential . Basically Sean & Tricia paired up with Nick Banks and myself and JP ended up with Graham. Whilst in the valley floor we stayed at the Hotel Le Prieure which was fine. However we were not intending to be there for many nights.
When we arrived in Chamonix we spent a couple of days walking the mountain paths above Le Tour and La Brevant – beautiful walking on excellent paths all amidst the most superb scenery in Europe. For anyone just after a walking holiday there is no better place but sadly one that really is very expensive. However we were there to climb and, despite the lovely situation, there was a lot of nervousness about what was about to come (at least there was for me!)
The Aiguille Argentiere
Day 1 To the Refuge d’Argentiere.
Mid-morning we took the cable car up to the Grand Montets – a station I knew well from numerous visits to the area on skiing holidays. The skiing off the side here is as good as anything in the Alps – off piste but usually in tremendous condition. Anyway the 2 guides were clearly assessing our ability with crampons and ice axe and general mountain awareness – I guess we passed but this did not stop them having some fun on the glacier itself as they , attempted, to teach us all how to climb out of a glacier crevasse. Not convinced I would fancy my chances now though.
The route from the station took us down to the glacier, across, and the 100 foot or so climb to the magnificently situated Refuge d’Argentiere. I remember a grand day, hot and rather sweaty weather, stunning views with the route up the Aiguille clearly viewed in front of us. The climb would take us up the glacier of the ‘Normal’ route – a 45 degree slope up the middle of two rocky ridges. To me it was clearly steeper than 45 degrees!
The Refuge is superbly situated, that goes without saying with the views down and on to the Chamonix Valley. Inside the Refuge has been modernised and a pleasant place to stay. The sitting area being warm and comfortable; there is limited food available and drink. This is included in the price and, although I cannot imagine the locals kicking anybody out in to the darkness if there is no reservation, I would certainly suggest pre-booking the refuge. Mind you the nerves were kicking in for us and we sat around playing cards and drinking copious amounts of water. Plenty of water though meant a 2 am visit to the near outside, thoroughly unpleasant French toilets. This was a right ordeal and involving negotiating 20 or so sweaty bodies lined up on the same bunk including a man with the ‘longest’ snore ever known! I slept badly, I can’t imagine anyone slept well but it mattered little as we were to be woken at 4 for a 4.30 start.
Day 2 The climb of the Aiguille Argentiere and return to Chamonix.
We left the hut in darkness about 4.30 (if memory serves me correctly) and picked our way through the rocky lands under the southern ridge of the Aiguille to enter the foot of the gully/glacier which was to be our route up. Yawning crevasses needed negotiating and the 2 threesomes were soon roped up for the climb. The climb took about 4 1/2 hours from when lightness hit at the foot of the gully and we hit the summit about 11 am. The gully we climbed became increasingly steep and increasingly hard work. As the lip of the gully became closer Graham started to zig zag up the slope and we slowed considerably but eventually we made the summit knife edge ridge. A hairy walk along the ridge led to the summit – fabulous. The views were naturally superb, I felt good (none of us suffered from the altitude) and the satisfaction was really high.
Nick and Graham hurried us off the summit, they were concerned about the state of the gully in the increasing heat. Heat brings avalanches and they were keen to have us on the glacier before the afternoon dangers kicked in. However none of us slipped and we made it down – the steep section was slow but soon we were racing down the final slopes. Crossing the glacier was possibly the most hairy part of the trip and we were soon back on the clock – not because of avalanche danger but to make the last cable car from the mid station. This we did comfortably and were soon back in the bar in Chamonix.
Day 4 Fun on the Petites Vertes
After a day in the town the weather was clearly changing and the ‘advice’ from Nick and Graham was not to bother with Mont Blanc, we were unlikely to get beyond the hut. They suggested however a day on the Petites Vertes a few hundred metres above the Grandes Montets cable car station. The ridge up to the Petites Vertes is narrow, step in places and a place to practice and play. My abiding memory is of Tricia suspended upside down on one steep section of the climb, completely unable to extricate herself – she would still be there now without Nick’s help. Sadly the cloud was down and there was light snow falling so the spectacular view up the Vertes itself was not to be enjoyed.
So after the Aiguille Argentiere the trip did peter out somewhat and left us without having climbed Mont Blanc but still having enjoyed a great few days. Climbing the Blanc is not everything.
Sean & Tricia completed Mont Blanc a few years later – their story is here. JP and myself have not….yet!
I was 20 back then, and working as the Veilleur de Nuit in the Hotel Le Prieure.
And sitting in the back restaurant at the end of my night shift, watching fascinated as the first rays of sunlight caught the summit each morning around 6am, I’d always told myself that one day I would climb it.
And in 2001 I did.
But first, back to late summer 2000 (see above).
Plans had been made, guides booked, the Aiguille d’Argentiere summitted, and all was set for the next day. Only then came the rain. And when it rains in Chamonix, it snows in the mountains. And man, did it do both !
Come the pre-arranged meeting time with our guides, and we really didn’t have to ask.! Navigating the snow arête on the altimeter, avalanche danger, little chance of success … or a fun next day on the Petit Dru ? A no-brainer.
Which just goes to show that sometimes it’s just not meant to be. But the mountain will always be there the next time.
And so it was in 2001.
Things had a pretty inauspicious start.
Chamonix Experience found us a guide. In fact they found us a fabulous guide, John Entwhistle from NZ. But more of that later.
On his advice we planned an acclimatisation day on the Mont Blanc du Tacul, followed a day or so later by the main objective of the Mont Blanc: into the mountains on the first morning, overnight in a hut, then the climb the following morning.
Things started off great. First cable up the Aiguille du Midi in the morning. Can’t help but looking at some of the other – very obviously experienced – climbers and feeling slightly inadequate. Sure no-one will realise.
We crampon up and rope up in the ice cave, then venture out down the snow arête onto the Vallee Blanche. I say venture, because it’s narrow. Very narrow. And with a 5000ft drop on the left, it’s at best “airy.” At least that’s how it felt.
A 20 minute shuffle, and a good few deep breaths later, we’re down and on the relative security of the Vallee Blanche itself. From there it’s across to the right for 30 minutes to the foot of the Mont Blanc du Tacul: the objective for the day.
It’s relatively easy going: a clear well cramponed path in the snow, a few crevasses to step across, but generally easy going. It’s hot. Very hot, with the bright sunshine and the glare from the snow, but all is well.
We make the summit in fairly good time. We sit and admire the view: north down to Chamonix 14,000ft below in the valley, and south up to the Mont Maudit and the Mont Blanc itself, still 2000ft above. But that is for another day.
Then we start down. I feel fine on the summit, but 10 minutes later I know something doesn’t quite feel right. It’ll be ok so I continue, sure it’ll pass. But it doesn’t, and 20 minutes later I have the mother of all headaches. I feel sick. Very sick.
I do the right thing and tell John. I know what’s the matter and so does he. Altitude sickness. My head is pounding and we still have a long way to go. We make it to the Vallee Blanche. John feeds me aspirins, but they come straight back up.
No option but to continue onwards. And it’s amazing what your body can do when it needs to. It waits until we ascend the snow arête and reach the top station of the Aiguille du Midi before again being violently sick.
But coming down in the cable car is amazing. My head clears completely, and by the time we arrive back in Chamonix barely 20 minutes I’m absolutely fine.
John is very practical and matter of fact. It might not happen again when we do the Mont Blanc, but if it does we turn around straight away. No questions. No messing. People do die on this mountain. And pride or no pride it’s not worth being one of them.
Anyway, 2 days later and we’re again on the first cable up the Aiguille du Midi. Bit more kit this time. And, if honest, a bit wary of how my head will react.
We spend the day practicing crampon technique and stressing our bodies at the altitude. The last 30 minutes back across the Vallee Blanche and up to the Cosmique Hut is tiring, but the fabulous food and company of the other climbers make that soon a distant memory.
9 o’clock and it’s time for a few hours sleep/rest.
1am and the dormitory bell sounds: the signal to get up, get dressed, and get some breakfast.
Boots on. Crampons on. Head-torch on. Then it’s time to venture into the night to start the climb. It’s 2am. And an amazing full moon.
A 20 minute easy traverse to the foot of the Mont Blanc du Tacul, and then the real climbing starts. Again it’s easy going, albeit the dark and seeing by head-torch does take some getting used to.
We reach the shoulder of the Tacul in 90 minutes or so and branch right, descending to the foot of Mont Maudit. Down in the valley below you can see the lights of Chamonix twinkling: it makes you realise how high you are.
Crossing a couple of bigger crevasses, we begin the upward traversing track up the Mont Maudit, reaching the fixed rope in pretty good time. We’ve probably been going 3-4 hours at this point.
John clips us into the fixed rope, flies effortlessly up it, and watches as we ascend rather less gracefully. At the top we’re effectively two thirds of the way there. For the first time I remember thinking “we’re going to do this.”
We take a well earned rest a little further on looking at the remainder of the route, taking us round and then up the North Face of the Mont Blanc itself. All we have to do is keep putting one foot in front of the other.
We do just that. It’s tiring is that last hour or so once you get onto the main face of the Mont Blanc. We pass the huge rock visible from Chamonix itself, and the summit seems within touching distance.
Legs feel heavy, but we’re definitely making it. What felt like several hundred switchbacks later – though in reality it was probably only 10 – and we’re ascending the final few metres.
Suddenly we’re there. It’s 8:05 on 27th September 2001. We made it in just over 6 hours. Not bad for a pair of novices !
And it’s as beautiful as I’d always imagined it would be. You can see for miles. Italy in one direction. Across to Switzerland and the Matterhorn in the distance. And all round the bend of the earth. Absolutely stunning and absolutely unforgettable.
Handshakes all round, but handshakes tempered with John’s “remember we’re only half way there” before we forget that there’s still the descent to come.
We stay 20 minutes gazing all around and taking more photos than a Japanese tourist.
Then it’s time to start back down.
We retrace or our steps, round to the fixed rope on the Mont Maudit, down and up to the shoulder of the Tacul, then down its North Face, across the Vallee Blanche, and finally up to the snow arête to the safety of the Aiguille du Midi itself.
20 minutes later we’re down in Chamonix sitting having a celebratory drink. Job done.
All-in-all 6 hours up, 20 minutes on the summit, and 5 hours back down. And you know what, whenever anyone asks I still refer to it as a “a great day out. “
So in summary, it may not be the prettiest mountain in the world or the most technically demanding, but standing on the summit that September morning I really couldn’t have cared less. And you won’t either.
Go see for yourself.
On The Trip
Tricia Austin (who, it’s only fair to point out, had/has Crohn’s Disease, so it shows you what can be achieved)
John Entwhistle (Our Guide – see below)
This report would be wholly incomplete without a quick mention for our guide. We booked John through The Chamonix Experience (www.chamonixexperience.com) based in Argentiere, and he was fantastic. Primarily because he got us up there, and back down, but also because he encouraged us when we needed encouraging, cajoled us when we needed cajoling, and barked at us when we needed barking at.
Finally, while not hugely technical, the arête down to the Vallee Blanche is very narrow and exposed (at least for relative novices like we were), and the weather can change so quickly, so hiring a UIAGM guide is essential in my opinion. It could just save your life. It will definitely make the day more likely to be (a) fun, and (b) a successful one. The normal convention is one guide to two clients maximum.
Copy and Photos to come