Reaching Heaven in the Swiss Alps
Difficulties : On the Aiguille du Gouter Route (PD), on the rock rib pitches of II, otherwise only snow plodding. On the Bosses Ridge (400), neat crampon work is required while at the same time one fights dizziness and headaches and gasps for air.
The Grands Mulets Route (PD-) is twice as long but involves only normal glacier work with many crevasses and a constantly changing line. The route from the Gonella Hut (PD+) also utilizes a long, disrupted glacier (an alternative non-glacier variation over the Aiguilles Grises is PO with mixed climbing to II). In all these cases the easy grades disguise the overall seriousness of an ascent of such a high mountain which must never be taken lightly.
Effort : From the rack railway to the Tete Rousse Hut 800mH (23 hours), from there to the Gouter Hut 700mH (23 hours), and to the summit a further 1050mH (45 hours). From the tiliphirique station Plan de l'Aiguille to the Grands Mulets Hut 800mH (3 hours), from there 1776mH (67 hours) to the summit. From Lac Combal in the Val Veni 1050mH (4 hours) to the Gonella Hut, from there 1736mH (78 hours) to the summit.
Dangers : The Gouter Hut climb is menaced by stone-fall (especially if one crosses the big couloir above the Tete Rousse Hut in order to ascend the technically easier rock rib south of that) and the route is more exposed to the wind; as compensation there are few crevasses. The Grands Mulets route is occasionally exciting on account of crevasses, especially if one of the helpfully placed ladders is missing. The route-finding presents no difficulties in good weather but quickly becomes desperate in a snowstorm. The Italian route has a likewise disrupted glacier. It is well to note that the often-swift weather changes on Mont Blanc can transform the peaceful, sunny ordinary routes full of people into a hostile maelstrom within a short time. The Vallot Hut is merely a survival box for emergencies and is a miserable, neglected thing. Nevertheless, it is as well to make a scrupulous note of its position as it could be a lifesaver in poor weather. People have frozen to death because they were unable to find it in a snowstorm.
Apart from the objective dangers, it is essential, nevertheless, to be sure that one's fitness and acclimatization are sufficient for the task and, if in serious doubt, to turn back at the right time. Thus, with luck, the helicopter pilots won't have to take off yet again.
Highlights : If all goes to plan, then the hours on the roof of the Alps are an unforgettable experience in various respects. As a precaution against disappointment in good weather, prepare yourself for a frightful crowd, with awkward passing maneuvers on the narrow Bosses Ridge, and with many inconsiderate people. If you plan this as an expectation beforehand, the reality may just be bearable.
View : All the surrounding summits are dwarfed by Mont Blanc's height. To the south are Gran Paradiso and the Haut Dauphine. There is a distant view to the Pennine peaks in the east. In all directions are dominating views, as Edward Whymper described when commenting on the disappointment of purely panoramic views."That seen from Mont Blanc itself is notoriously unsatisfactory . . . There is nothing to look up to; all is below; there is no one point for the eye to rest upon. The man who is there is somewhat in the position of one who has attained all that he desires he has nothing to aspire to; his position must needs be unsatisfactory." Whymper was right. If one only climbs Mont Blanc for the view then there will be a sense of anticlimax, for the view is like that from an aircraft.
Maps : IGN carte touristique 1:25,000, one ChamonixMont Blanc and two St Gervais les Bains.
Travel : By rail or car to Chamonix (1030m, 40km from Martigny, 86km from Geneva, 59km from Aosta; a tourist resort and alpinists' Mecca); from there 8km to Les Houches (1000m).
Guidebook : Mont Blanc Range, Vol 1 (The Alpine Club, 1990).
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication