Though we think of mountains (and climbing routes) as eternal, they are actually always in flux. Over the last 20 years the conditions on Mont Blanc have deteriorated considerably due to two specific reasons:
- Global warming means that often the snow and ice that glues everything in place disappears, resulting in significant rock fall danger which frequently makes the route of ascent unjustifiably dangerous. Freak weather can cause massive avalanches and there is an increased risk of serac collapse (falling ice cliffs).
- The sheer number of people wanting to climb Mont Blanc merely because they think it is the highest point in Europe (it’s not–Mount Erebrus is; Mont Blanc is the highest peak in Western Europe). This volume of people causes problems of increased stone fall. Plus, congestion with climbers becoming entangled with each other, and generally from idiots who just should not be there.
Nevertheless it is possible for any fit, determined person to climb Mont Blanc with little previous alpine experience providing they undergo adequate training and are accompanied by a High Mountain Guide. In addition they need to have good, safe conditions. Not least, they need to be mentally prepared for what often is the hardest thing they will do in their lives. So often people say “I didn’t think it would be that hard.” Well it is. It is not Disneyland.
Anyone contemplating Mont Blanc should read the official advice from the French goverment.
The majority of guiding operations which cater for Mont Blanc gloss over these specific facts in an attempt to entice clients to sign up for something that is often way beyond what they expected or wanted.
If you sign up to a packaged Mont Blanc ascent this is what you could be getting into, which is deeply unpleasant. Even worse, you could go home having to explain to all your friends why you didn’t climb Mont Blanc.
If having read and fully understood the above, you do not want to be part of a “sausage machine style ascent”, then read on. There is an alternative:
Engage a guide who will tailor-make the program to your individual needs, provide you with training, and prepare you mentally so that you are confident to tackle the climb; and in addition give you skills which will underpin any mountaineering challenges you want to attempt in the future.
Furthermore, if after the training period you are not likely to make it, he will tell you and help you choose another significant objective. So, either way you should go home having achieved a major alpine climb.
Below is a suggested plan of action that offers the best possible chance of climbing Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in western Europe. The most suitable time to make an attempt is from the middle of June until the beginning of October.
The plan is designed not only to eventually get you to the top of Mont Blanc but to teach you as many mountaineering skills as possible. This is not a just “follow me” programme.
- Day 1: we take the Montenvers train to the Mer de Glace, a dry glacier where we will begin to learn everything there is to know about ice axes, crampons, ice screws, rope management, steep ice climbing, rescue and route finding. It gives you the chance to evaluate the latest gear and will give you much better idea of what you need.
- Day 2: ridge traverse and an introduction to roped alpine climbing. One of the issues with standard courses is that too much emphasis is often placed solely on acclimatization. Their programmes are often plodding across monotonous glaciers being dragged along by a bored, badly paid guide, staying in crowded huts with everybody doing the same thing. This does not prepare people adequately for the considerable amount of scrambling and exposure that is found on Mont Blanc.
- Day 3: ascend to a mountain hut. We will choose a mountain hut off the beaten track; it might not even be in the Mont Blanc massif but over in Switzerland or Italy.
- Day 4: up early before first light and away in the dark normally around 3:30 am (depending on the time of the year). We will climb a significant alpine peak or high mountain col where the views will be stunning. After which, we will descend all the way to the valley attempting to be there by early afternoon so that you can get a good rest prior to the exertions of the final two days. The key thing is to find a balance between gaining the skills and acclimatization whilst not getting too tired.
- Day 5: the most popular route and the one that offers the best chance of success is the ascent via the Gouter Hut. This is because the hut is very high and therefore gives you a shorter distance to climb on the summit day. Again mental preparation is important because, for example, sometimes the train does not run, which can add an extra two hours to what is already a tough day. Be prepared for a brutal 6 hours of solid uphill.
- Day 6: breakfast is at two o’clock in the morning. In good conditions we will be on the top of Mont Blanc in 5 hours. From there it is always back down to the valley. This will be long and tough. You will be thankful that you did all the training on the steep scrambling earlier in the week.