Attempting the summit of Mont Blanc

Published by vcarbune , 31 July 2013, 01h05.

Region: World » France » Massif du Mont Blanc
Date of the hike:26 July 2013
Mountaineering grading: PD-
Climbing grading: II (UIAA Grading System)
Geo-Tags: F 
Time: 3 days
Height gain: 2028 m 6652 ft.
Height loss: 2028 m 6652 ft.
Access to start point:Tramway du Mont Blanc to Nid D'Aigle
Accommodation:Tete Rousse and Gouter huts

TL;DR We managed to properly follow our initial plan for the first two days, but throughout the third day, which was the day we dedicated to reach the summit from the Gouter hut, high winds of about 120km/h were announced and the few groups still present at the Gouter hut descended directly towards Chamonix or turned back after a stretched attempt to reach the summit.

From left to right: Victor, Stef, Octavian and Stefan. Grigore was resting at Gouter. In the back, Mont Blanc is in the clouds. Credits go to Stefan for the picture.

For those of you with some spare time and interested in reading more about our ascent attempt, I decided to write a few paragraphs, as Octavian complained about the fact that people write mostly about the succesful attempts, neglecting to mention their failed ones. This was by far an experience that I won't forget for a while, considering the ascent itself, but also all the previous months spent hiking, running or climbing, almost always keeping in mind that we need to be prepared for anything that might be encountered on the route to Mont Blanc, from basic physical fitness to crevasse rescue techniques.
We left Zurich on Friday, the 26th of July, at around 5AM in the morning, five people barely fitting in Stef's car with 3 backpacks in the regular trunk and 2 others in the trunk on top of the car.
The team spirit was pretty good, despite the fact that we had been discussing in a slightly conflictual atmosphere the whole week before about the weather on Sunday or the minimum level of techniques that each of us needs to know.
We reached Saint-Gervais-les-Bains around 10AM and we headed immediately towards the Mont Blanc Tramway, which was going to take us to the starting point of the ascent at Nid D'Aigle (2372m). However, we didn't really expect to find that there are no places left to the next tramway and we had to wait another hour and a half.

After a 75-minute ride, standing in the TMB along with some other climbers, many tourists and some children sitting on our backpacks, we reached our destination and started the ascent towards the Tete Rousse hut (3167m) where we planned to spend the first night for proper acclimatization. It is a straight-forward hike of about 800m, which passes by the Baraque Forestiere des Rognes (2768m), where we also regathered.
I also wanted to take a look inside the baraque, since I read about it in Adrian's amusing and detailed posts about his Mont Blanc ascent back in 2008. The place looked quite decent and comfortable and clean enough to stay there, but since we didn't know exactly what to expect of it now, we booked our stays in the two huts on the route
It's funny how everybody complains a lot about not being able to book places in the Tete Rousse and Gouter huts. I keep thinking that most people don't even try, because one month before our ascent, together with Octavian and Stef we kept our fingers close to the mouse and keyboard when the booking penned and grabbed each day 15 out of the 37 places available (the rest until 120 being reserved exclusively for mountain guides with their groups). So if all else fails, at least we know we're good with mouse handling :-)
Back to our ascent, we continued the hike towards Tete Rousse quickly, as we wanted to spend as much time as possible at higher altitude, since we were aware that we might need to force our ascent a bit towards the peak on Saturday, given all the announcements about the bad weather on Sunday.
We reached Tete Rousse in about an hour after leaving the baraque forestier, entered the hut and had a quick lunch. Grigore and Octavian boiled some dried pastas with Salmon that they had brought all along from Romania; I just grabbed some of the nuts and dried fruits that I usually have with me.
As soon as we felt that sleep might catch us, we decided to go one hundred meters up from the hut and inspect the Grand Couloir, which is the most feared part of the Gouter route due to the continuous rockfall that happens there. We could see it from the Tete Rousse hut and the climbers waiting on the left side for the rocks to stop falling and to pass to begin the climbing towards the Gouter hut in safe conditions.
In 10 or 15 minutes we were already there and no rocks were falling. We decided to stay around and get a feeling of the general conditions and the best way to cross without incidents. Stef didn't manage to stay with us, as he was feeling a bit like in some rock climbing paradise and started bouldering on the way up on the left side of the grand culoir higher up.
The first climber I met there surprised me. He was sitting on the rocks after he had just crossed the couloir and his glasses had fallen on the main trail. He kindly asked me to throw the glasses back to him, and since I wasn't tired, I just climbed next to him to see how he's feeling.
I found out that he had just come back from the peak, having started climbing at 4AM from the Tete Rousse hut, all the way up and down in the same day (it was now around 6:30PM). I asked him how the snow was up there so late in the day, and his answer was something along these lines "I didn't care about it! The peak was like a check (of an item on a list) for me! You know, something I ticked off - I was there!" Then I also found out that it was his first day with crampons and that he had had some issues avoiding them getting stuck in the lower part of his pants. To be honest, I was a bit terrified of thinking about someone walking for the first time in crampons on the sharp bosses ridge towards the peak. He did it, but the question is: was it really worth the risk? I didn't identify a guide next to him, so I don't know whether he had this attitude completely on his own or not.
During the time that we spent there after this discussion, the Grand Couloir was very quiet, one or two groups crossed it, but we didn't observe any major rockfalls. After we debated about our plans for the next day, we decided that it's time to go back to the hut and rest until 4AM when we planned to start.
On the way back to Tete Rousse, Stefan and Octavian stayed with Grigore to exercise the self arrest position with the ice axe, on a steep part covered with snow and fewer rocks. I headed directly towards the hut, as I was starting to feel a bit tired and wanted to get as much sleep as possible. However, as soon as I got there, Stef came running from the Grand Couloir and told me to grab the harness and the ropes because someone had fallen more than 150m while attempting to cross it. I took all the rescue equipment I had, extra ropes, pulleys, prussik loops and headed back with StefanC to the Couloir.
When I saw the victim down, I realized how lucky he was: several more meters and he wouldn't have been able to avoid a probably deadly free-fall. Some other person from his group was also there, while the other two were a bit too scared by what happened and remained on the other side of the couloir.
We were basically prepared for handling such hazardous situations, so StefanC quickly took both 35m ropes (11mm) that we had and tied them with a Fisherman's knot so that we had one 70m rope to reach the guy that fell. One end was tied on Stef, another one was anchored around a fixed rock and somewhere near the anchor two butterflies knots were prepared in case we needed extra anchors for pulling the person out using pulleys. Stef went down quickly, but careful not to disrupt rocks downwards.
In the meantime, I took the belay device in order to make sure that the rope would not untie while the Polish climber made his way up and that in case of any fall he would simply remain suspended on the rope. Stef reached him safely, took his backpack and tied the rope to his harness. Stefan, who was next to me, put his ice axe between two solid rocks, making sure in this way that the rope we used to secure the victim didn't get cut by the sharp rocks all around us and we managed to get him out safely, with Stef carrying his backpack and climbing unsecured behind him.

From left to right: Octavian, Victor, Stef, Grigore and on the right, Stefan
After that, we headed toward our beds in the Tete Rousse hut and tried getting some rest before waking up at 4:30AM. The other guys slept quite well, but I didn't manage the same. This seems to be the time when I have altitude problems - I just can't fall asleep easily during the first night over 3000m, probably because I constantly have a high heart beat rate and while I'm at ground level I'm usually below the normal rate; other than that I didn't feel at all any headaches or other typical problems that the other guys encountered. 
Unfortunately this had a bit of an impact on the first part of Saturday, 29th of July, when I had a really bad pace while climbing Grand Couloir towards the Gouter refuge. While I waited for the others outside with Stefan, we heard a terrifying rockfall coming from the couloir (it sounded almost like this one), but fortunately nobody seemed to be injured and by the time we reached it, the couloir was again as calm as possible and we crossed it safely. We were lucky and the Grand Couloir seemed to have no issues with us attempting our ascent that day.
I was always behind the others the whole part of the climb until the Gouter refuge. I can't find a reason reason for that, because I wasn't feeling sick or anything like that (maybe just the fact that I didn't eat a lot in the morning or maybe I was dehydrated, I don't know). Either way, step by step, I managed to reach the Gouter hut around 30 minutes later than the others, but then we all took the time to get back in good shape and start the attempt to the Vallot Refuge. Unfortunately, Grigore had some more serious altitude sickness and decided to remain in the hut for the rest of the day after walking a bit on the trail towards Dome du Gouter.
Even though we had the peak in our minds, we all knew that due to the strong winds in the afternoon and the late hour (it was already 9:30AM when we started preparing our equipment) we didn't want to risk an ascent more than the Vallot refuge, at 4400m. Stefan and Stef took their full backpacks with them, thinking of staying overnight at the refuge and attempt the peak in the next early morning, while I and Octavian minimized our equipment to what we certainly needed and all four of us started walking towards the refuge.
It certainly proved to be a good idea to carry only the minimum, because our bodies were already a bit exhausted by the steep climb from Tete Rousse and on the last steps towards the refuge Stef was feeling that his knees were not in pretty good shape. So we tied ourselves to one rope and I carried another extra rope in case only I and Octavian would turn back from Vallot. The walk was done in overwhelming silence, as the winds of probably more than 60-70 km/h were making it impossible for us to hear each other.

We stopped twice for some hydration breaks, and even though I was feeling excellent, I was very tempted to turn back before the Dome du Gouter (4304m), because the melted snow and the strong winds were already giving me a strong feeling of opposing the climb further than Vallot. Either way, Octavian had started to be annoyed by my attitude and he told me that we'll would go down together a bit later and good thing I listened to him, because otherwise I would have missed seeing the peak!
After taking the picture you saw at the beginning, we went towards Vallot and descended all the way back to the Gouter hut. Stef and Stefan decided that it wouldn't be a wise thing to get caught in the 120km/h winds the next morning while attempting the peak, so they came back with us from 4400m. Mont Blanc showed itself for a couple of  minutes, and in our hearts lingered the idea of coming back some other day and enjoying the sun and the views from 4810m.

On the way back we admired Aiguille de Bionassay and the rest of the glaciers 
Not many things happened the rest of the day, we went back and slept, thinking about the descent on Sunday. The toilets broke, which quickly degenerated into a horrible smell near the hut.
On Sunday, the 30th of July, as the winds were more than 120km/h, we barely managed to cross the ridge between the new and old Gouter refuge without being blown away. You just couldn't stand. Some groups attempted the peak, but quickly turned back and began the descent. The Gouter hut officially discouraged anyone to ascend more than the Tete Rousse hut for the following days, as a serious storm was going to happen on Monday, with lots of snow (more than 35cm).

Crossing the grant couloir on the way back was extremely windy, but calm, as you can see in the video below with Stefan crossing it. We were again lucky, as when we reached the hut we saw someone unfortunately standing almost in the middle of couloir while some rocks fell. I hope the person didn't get very badly injured.
Stefan tried remaining a few more days in Chamonix, following the Tour du Mont Blanc, but his tent got flooded quickly on Monday morning so he ended up back in Zurich earlier than he had wished.

Hike partners: vcarbune

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