This winter I achieved a long-term objective of climbing and skiing down Mont Blanc. It was a great way to reach the highest point in Western Europe. Prior to this I also joined Phil for a couple of other mellow but very enjoyable off-piste adventures.
Col du Tour Noir
A few days of warm weather meant the slopes above St Gervais were looking positively spring-like. The day did not start very well as Phil and I drove through Chamonix in the rain in order to meet another Phil, his wife Katie and Rob at the Grands Montets lift. The weather started to clear up and by the time we reached the top of the Grands Montets (3238m) and started descending there were breaks in the cloud and we could see the mountains on the other side of the Argentière Glacier. The Col du Tour Noir (3535m) is the left-most col in the picture below.
We made fresh tracks in the powder down to the glacier and then skinned up to the Refuge d’Argentière (2771m) for a coffee. From there we climbed up the left hand side of the Améthyste Glacier towards the col. It was surprising how quickly we climbed and we were soon looking directly at the big north faces on the other side of the valley.
The col itself was cold and windy so we were soon getting ready to head back down the way we had come.
The descent was reasonably easy angled powder. It got heavier as we got lower but it was still a pleasure to ski.
It did not take long until we were back in the Grands Montets ski area and joining the (bumpy) red run back down to the Chamonix Valley. It was a shock getting back ‘on-piste’ and having other skiers around doing random things always feels quite dangerous. It was a relief to get to the bottom and have a beer in the afternoon sun.
The tour took about 5 hours including stops and had about 1000m of ascent. We reached the refuge after around an hour. From there to the col was two hours and the ski back down to the valley was one hour.
La Vraie Valleé Blanche
After a day of skiing in near white-out on the Grands Montets and listening to the sound of rain hammering on the car windscreen and apartment skylight for much of the afternoon and night we awoke to a clear day and the promise of some good powder up on the mountain.
The Aiguille du Midi cable car did not open until after 10am so we (Phil, his wife Hester, Rob and I) had a very leisurely start. I never get tired of the view from the top of the Aiguille du Midi and once there we decided to have a coffee to ‘acclimatise’ whilst scoping out the route up Mont Blanc.
The picture below, taken from the Aiguille du Midi cable car, shows the final section of the route, which goes from right to left passing under the rounded sub-peak below and and to the right of the summit (called the Dôme du Goûter). The picture also shows the Cosmiques Arête (mentioned below) which is the nearby rocky ridge.
Once we had walked (in the opposite direction to the above photo) down the ridge to the ‘Valleé Blanche’, we put on our skis and headed away from the classic descent route. We were soon making fresh tracks towards the Gros Rognon.
Our way down went to the left of the Rognon and involved some tricky route-finding through a steep crevassed area to access the La Valleé Blanche Glacier (hence the ‘Vraie’ in the name of this route). It had a tricky turn to drop down a slope around a crevasse but we were rewarded with a several hundred metres of untracked powder to descend.
We re-joined the classic route and then had to descend heavy powder snow that had been chopped up by lots of skiers which was much more tiring and difficult than the steeper terrain higher up. Although the skiing in the rest of the descent was not that exciting, watching the changing vista of mountains and listening to the rumble of rock fall on the steep lateral moraines as we sped down the Mer de Glace was very atmospheric. A great day.
The whole descent (c.2000m) only took a couple of hours.
Although I have climbed many of the peaks in the Mont Blanc range, I had been saving the big white one for something other than the regular route. As it is 4810m high it is important to be acclimatised and with me spending several weeks in St Gervais, this was definitely the year to go for it.
However, the forecast for the target week looked very unstable and I was getting worried that it would not happen. Luckily things improved and it looked like there would be decent weather for two to three days. On the first of these (Tuesday) I climbed the Cosmiques Arête with my friend Kate having spent the previous night (with a throbbing headache) in the Refuge des Cosmiques at 3613m, which helped me to acclimatise (see Cosmiques Arête Revisted).
Phil moved quickly to make the most of the weather window and did a great job putting together a group for a Mont Blanc attempt on Wednesday and Thursday. He had enlisted the help of John McCune, an aspirant British guide and rock-climber extraordinaire. The clients were Rob, a strong couple, Angus and Amy, and myself.
We started by catching the Aiguille du Midi cable car to the mid-station (Plan de l’Aiguille, 2310m). It was a clear, warm day and tried not to get too hot as we traversed underneath the north face of the Aiguille du Midi to get to the Refuge des Grands Mulets (3057m), which was where we would spend the night.
We got a shock when we were buzzed by a wing-suiter (everyone flinched thinking it was the sound of an avalanche starting) and saw some speed-fliers spiralling and looping their way down to Chamonix. See below.
(For anyone interested in a sustained 45-50 degree ski descent, the X-shaped couloir is the Cosmiques Couloir, a local classic.)
Before the final climb to the Grands Mulets we had to cross La Jonction which is where two enormous glaciers meet and smash the ice into a particularly convoluted and crevassed region. This is usually impassable in summer which is why this route up Mont Blanc, which was the one taken by the first ascensionists, is now only usually done in spring. We were lucky and were actually able to ski through La Jonction on a snowbridge about a meter wide.
There was a final climb to a point just below the refuge where we left our skis and followed some cables up to the hut itself.
The refuge was perched on a rognon above the two enormous glaciers and we spend some time outside taking in the view.
We could see from the tracks in the snow that about 40-50 people had skied to the top of Mont Blanc since the weather had cleared a couple of days previously.
The refuge also had one of the most scenically positioned toilets that I have ever seen, with a (very) long-drop to the rocks below.
However, being outside the refuge it was not easy to get to the toilet and the view inside it was much less pleasant; I have a photo but for reasons of good taste have not posted it!
There were only 11 skiers in the hut, ourselves and two other parties. The consensus was that as bad weather was forecast to come in on the following day (Thursday) we should start early. That meant getting up at midnight! As we settled down for our 3 to 4 hours of sleep someone quipped that at least it was so short a time that no-one should need to go to the bathroom in the night. Predictably I spent most of the time sleeping fitfully and fighting the urge to go and have a pee.
When the alarm went off I flung my kit on and dashed to the bathroom… the copious amounts of lentils that were in our evening meal I think had given me an upset stomach, so I fumbled in the dark of the loo, trying to decide which urge (number one or number two) I should relieve first. Not a pleasant choice. Actually several of us spent the rest of the day with our tummies making strange noises… this was particularly concerning as rapid relief was not possible as we were dressed in several layers and wearing climbing harnesses!
At 1am we left the hut began the long climb to the Abri Vallot, the highest shelter on the mountain (4362m). It was peaceful skinning uphill in the dark with our world being little pools of light from our head-torches. Although it was cloudy there was a full moon so we could see the surrounding mountains clearly. We quickened our pace as we passed under some dangerous seracs (ice-cliffs) on the Dôme du Goûter. Bits of these fall off every few weeks. We all seemed to be fit and going well.
The final section to the Abri Vallot involved a series of kick-turns on a 30 degree icy slope above a bergschrund. It was a bit dicey as a bungled turn would have led to a slide into the bergschrund which was essentially a crevasse below where the slope steepened. Luckily there were no mishaps.
We reached the Abri Vallot after four hours and didn’t get going again until 45 minutes later. It is surprising how long we spent there as all we did was sort out kit (take skins and ski crampons off and put on boot crampons) and spend 15 to 20 minutes in the shelter having a bit to eat. It is not the place where one would choose to remain any longer than necessary as it consists of a metal shell filled with discarded wrappers and tissue paper and the remains of aluminium survival blankets.
We were all starting to feel affects of the altitude and there wasn’t much chat going on.
From the Abri Vallot there was about 500m of vertical ascent up the ridge to the summit. How bad could that be? Much tougher than I imagined. There was a decent boot pack up the ridge but the steps were quite far apart so it was strenuous on the steep sections especially carrying skis (the other parties, one ahead and the other behind us, had left their skis at the Abri Vallot). I was also under the mistaken impression that Mont Blanc was just a snow plod, but the ridge was quite steep and airy in places.
The sight of the sunrise was a welcome distraction (see the featured image for this post).
We are all tired and I was glad when we go to the top about two hours later at around 8am.
The weather had been generally good but there had been a couple of flurries of snow. Just as we reached the top, the cloud started to close in so did we not linger as we were concerned about skiing down before we lost visibility.
The reward for humping the skis up was a ski descent of the north face. This is in the shade behind us in the picture below. The Abri Vallot is on the rocky spur in the right of the picture.
This was a fantastic line to take though I did not enjoy the skiing much. Initially the snow was windblown into large meringue-like lumps. Even when it became more powdery my legs were too tired to do more than link a couple turns although everyone else seemed to be enjoying it; my weaknesses as a skier were very obvious. A couple of sections where it was inadvisable to stop because of the danger from seracs made my legs really burn; it was a challenge to balance the need to ski fast with the risk falling over, or worse losing a ski, which would have led to more time in the danger zone.
However, as we started to get closer to the hut the lower altitude helped and I started to enjoy the turns. We stopped for a welcome and delicious breakfast of omelette in the hut before completing the rest of descent to the valley floor. Most of this was icy, followed by breakable crust, followed by heavy powder so the skiing challenges continued. I only felt like I was skiing properly for the last 200m of melted spring snow. We took our skis off by the abandoned cable-car station at la Para.
From there we followed a path down through the forest to the Mont Blanc Tunnel road which we reached 30 minutes later. We were all immensely satisfied with what had been a fantastic two days in the mountains and grateful to Phil (Phil Ashby Mountain Guide) for a well organised and guided trip.
Day 1 took about 4 hours an involved about 800m of ascent. Day 2 took 11 hours 20 minutes (including all our stops) and entailed 1800m of ascent and 3500m of descent. It took about an hour to ski down to the hut and another hour for the section from there to la Para.
John also made a short video of our ascent/descent which is here: John’s Video.
Thank you to Angus and Steph for some of the photos I have used in this post.