Mont Blanc by Accident

In past editions of Fishers Update I have attempted to describe the most fulfilling climb I have undertaken during the previous summer. As I write this the summer is only half way through, but I feel sure that the climb I am about to describe will not be beaten.

Peter Little who has been with me on so many of my exceptional climbs as a Mountain Guide said to me that he thinks it is the finest mountaineering experience he has ever had.

As I sit here writing this account I am pushed not to agree with him. This is what happened:

We set off with the very fine but relatively small objective of climbing Les Dômes de Miage. The traverse of the five domes is considered to be one of the finest snow ridges in the Alps and something neither of us had ever done before. We left Les Contamines village prepared for the tough steep four-hour walk to the Conscrits Hut. The Hut is only four years old and is very high tech using all the latest energy saving gadgets from solar heating to special sewage treatment systems. The Hut looks like a cross between a space station and a green house and nothing like a traditional Mountain Hut.

Over dinner Peter and I discussed the days walk and felt it was rather a long way to have trudged only to do one mountain. Especially considering that the weather forecast was getting better and better. We therefore decided that after the traverse of the Dômes de Miage we would continue on and go to the Durier Hut.

The next morning we said good-bye to the Conscrits Hut at 5.00am.

Perfect conditions of hard snow meant we were on top of the Aiguille Berangere (3425 m) in less than two hours. Ahead of us lay the magnificent five domes. We climbed the Dômes each one providing us with magnificent views on either side of the ridge. Six hours later we arrived at the Durier Hut. What an architectural contrast to the previous night. “It looks like a large tin box,” observed Peter as we approached. Closer examination revealed that in fact it is a tin box. Amazingly there is a Hut Guardian who spends all summer living in the Hut, despite the fact there are only twelve cramped beds. He was very welcoming, thrusting beers into our hands and asking us if an omelette would be okay for our late lunch?

Now, the Durier hut is at the foot of the Aiguille Bionnassay, one of the remotest four thousand meter peaks in the Alps. The forecast for the next day was very good and we knew we were never going to have a better chance of climbing this mountain.

The next morning we were awoken at 2.00am. After a somewhat cramped breakfast we were on our way by about 2.45am. What a fantastic climb this was: A full moon helped us find our way up the initial snow slopes, before we tackled a thought provoking rocky ridge which lead again to more steep snow slopes. As dawn broke we moved up to the summit of the Aiguille de Bionnassay (4052m).

The final slopes are steep but they do not prepare you for the arrival at the summit.

Aiguille de Bionnassay
Aiguille de Bionnassay and its knife-edged ridge. CC SA-2.

The summit is part of a long ridge. This ridge redefines the word narrow! It is so thin that you can not put your feet side by side on it. The drop on either side is about 2000 meters. The ridge is 2-kilometres long and, believe it or not, this was the simplest way off the mountain.

Thank God it was not windy because we both needed all our concentration. Peter went first; I paid out more rope than normal so that if he slipped I would have enough time to jump over the opposite side. We said very little for the next hour, although Peter did make the dry remark that at least it was easy to follow the route. At about 8.30am we had crossed the ridge and were on the big plateau that is the Dôme de Gouter.

We now had a choice: We could turn left and descend down to the valley, or we could turn right and go over the top of Mont Blanc (4807m).

I have been to the top of Mont Blanc over 50 times, but have never climbed it all the way from the road. Like 99% of people I had always used a combination of the cable car and mountain railway for the initial stages. At least one pure ascent appealed to me. Peter had climbed Mont Blanc once before but for some reason (he has never given me a satisfactory explanation) contrived to arrive at the top at 11.00 PM and not surprisingly had a disappointing view!

So we each had our own reasons for going to the top and at exactly 10.00am we stood on top of western Europe’s highest mountain, never actually having had much intention of going there. We gave each other a congratulatory hug before Peter started taking photos of the view he did not have last time. We were now quite keen on the aesthetics of the trip, which meant we should continue the traverse as opposed to retracing our steps. So we decided we would return home by the classic traverse of Mont Blanc back to the Aiguille du Midi even though this was to mean an additional six hours concentrated effort.

We left the summit and raced down the easy slope before going around the side of Mont Maudit.

This became hard work as the sun got higher in the sky and we finished all our water. Although it is a traverse it seems to have more than its share of uphill stretches. Two stick in the mind, the first being the climb over the shoulder of Mont Blanc du Tacul and the worse being the 300-meter height gain back to the top of the Aiguille du Midi. By this stage we had already climbed nearly 5000 meters since we left the car and had just about had enough.

The strange thing about Mountaineering is that you soon forget the pain and hard work. What is left is the memory of having just been part of a fantastic mountaineering experience.

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