(by Allister Gerrard, June 2005)
An ascent of the Alps’ highest mountain, via the Goûter route.
In late June 2005, John and I had just climbed Gran Paradiso and Ciaforon from the Rifugio Vittorio Emanuele II hut in the Italian Alps and were reasonably well acclimatised and so we headed back to Chamonix. There were reports of a storm for the next few days. We had two choices, sit in a hut for a couple of days hoping for the storm to clear for a window to make an assault on Mont Blanc, or go climbing in the valley. John and I were happy with what we had done the three days previous. If the weather cleared we would have kicked ourselves at the lost opportunity, so we decided to head for the hut on Mont Blanc and take our chances. We decided to use an Alpine guide, to help with route finding and technical aspects should conditions turn for the worse. That said, if I were doing it again, I would go without a guide, having since gained suitable experience and confidence. Using a guide is a personal choice for each individual really at the time in question. An I.M.C. friend, the legend that is Shay O Hanlon, once told me of his experience of summiting Mont Blanc. He had spent a day looking at the route from the terrace of Harry Connolly’s house in the valley and worrying about how he and his friends would pick their way through the seracs on the slopes of Mont Blanc de Tacul in the dark. It turned out to be just a matter of falling out of the Midi hut at some ridiculous hour in the morning, getting into the ‘groove’, the deep track in the snow made by climbers on previous days and following this to the top with just a short scramble up a short icy gully! In fine weather, it is literally that, generally a snow plod. However, be prepared and know your winter climbing skills if going without a guide: ice axe arrest, crevasse rescue, etc. Climbers die of hypothermia, loss of direction in the mist and driving snow, delirium, frostbite. The annual death toll in the Alps comes to almost three figures (The total number of deaths from avalanches in the Alps in 2008 was at 100 by late August, the worst since 1970). That said, when the weather and snow are stable it is a fabulous day out. We were fit on our arrival in Chamonix for Mont Blanc, after a few days acclimatising in Italy. Prior to leaving the homeland I generally trained by combining climbing, hill-running (couple of I.M.R.A. races included), and hill-walking; for example we had completed the ‘Lug Walk’ the weekend before.
We were attempting Mont Blanc via the Goûter route. The Goûter route is graded (PD), rock to II, otherwise only snow plodding, to 40 degrees on the Bosses ridge. That morning we drove to the Les Houcles cable-car station up to the Bellevue station (1790m). Followed by a short walk to catch a train from St. Gervais les Bains to Le Nid d’Aigle (2386m). From here we set off at a fast walking pace to the Tête Rousse hut (3167m), south on a path for 200m, then left (east) in zigzags under a rocky step up into a hollow scree. We hoped to get to the hut before the storm arrived. The walk up to the Tête Rousse hut (3167m) took approx. 2 hours, 795m in height gain; we had one quick stop early on to put on rain gear. At the top of the stony track, we roped up to cross a small snowfield, with some steep ground off to our right until we reached the hut. If one is going to the Aiguille du Goûter hut, there is no need to divert to the Tête Rousse hut. We arrived nice and early, before lunch, and were refused entry into the hut, which we found strange, as it was virtually empty. We quickly realised why: the staff were clearing everything out of the old hut to the new. We were the first guests to stay in the ‘new Tête Rousse’ hut that night, which was just as well, as the old one looked fairly rough compared to the new one; plus the new one had toilets inside. There was a lot of excitement amongst the staff at their new hut, everything brand new etc. The 20-30 guests that night, we were all invited by the staff to join them in the opening celebrations, champagne, olives and finger food, before dinner, I kinda like this Alpine stuff. The hut was well below capacity that night, probably due to the poor forecast, everyone scarpered down the mountain. We got into the sleeping bags at 9pm, clouds covering the windows outside; the views were now gone, storms surely to come. 10pm I was still awake. Midnight, I was awake again with someone else getting up. 1.30am I got my call to get up; hmm… 1-2 hours sleep, not a lot. I thought of telling the others that I would stay put and wait at the hut for the day, I felt wrecked. Breakfast at 2am, at 2.15am we were all set to leave the hut, pitch black outside. The rest of the parties in the hut had all just left the hut ahead of us; my feeling at the time was to head out in hot pursuit, re-invigorated after my porridge oats. Julie-Ann suggested maybe waiting 2-3 hours to see what the weather would do, maybe even going back to bed. John and I looked at one another; we were itching to go behind the rest of the posse. After a few minutes we decided to put on boots & crampons, head torch etc., and headed out into the night. As we crossed the snowfield outside the hut, we could see the spread of torches ahead of us, heading up the steep ground towards the Goûter hut.
The next bit involved having to cross the notorious Grand Couloir, nicknamed the ‘bowling alley’, which comes steeply down from the mountain above full of loose rock. Rocks can be heard thundering down through the coulouir, an area subject to causalities. It is approx. 50-100m in width, with some ice underfoot and quite steep. It was probably best to be crossing at night when you could not see much above or below. I was mad keen to just go for it and get it over with. We stayed on one side for a few minutes listening to the rock fall etc., and then went for it. Julie-Ann stopped for a few seconds in the middle, no doubt route-finding; it felt like hours. From there on we carefully and slowly had to cross some ice to the other side and got across safely. The climb up to the Goûter hut was on a rib running left (north) of the big couloirs. We climbed this rib straight up to the north summit of Aiguille du Goûter. At 3817m it is a 650m height gain from the Tête Rousse hut; it took us just over two hours and we arrived there at 4.45am. At the Goûter hut the views were breathtaking. Although still dark, there was a glimmer of light from the top of a rising sun edging its way up to the horizon & above the clouds at 5am; we too were above the thick clouds at this point. It is advisable to book the Goûter hut well in advance as it is often booked out. We took a 15-20 minute break at the Goûter hut to have a bite and adjust our layers of clothes to the cold, windy conditions. To my surprise I was feeling ok, as I had felt pretty crap when I got up, after a busy few days in the mountains acclimatising before that. The glimmer of sunrise, the fresh air and surge of adrenalin of the journey ahead gave me a new lease of life.
We roped up together, headed south, then south-southeast along the broad snow ridge and from there the long snow plod up towards the Dôme du Goûter. Mont Blanc summit is a long way out of sight before this point. Above the Goûter hut the route is more exposed to wind; as compensation there are fewer crevasses. However, there were a few minor crevasse lines en-route and some steep slopes. Initially the pace was fine, however, I found myself working harder on keeping a steady pace and breathing as the altitude increased. Not long into the snow plod, we past a lone climber lying on the snow with his guide standing over him, looking exhausted and beat, a causulty of the altitude no doubt. As we slowly marched up the steep snow slopes, we stopped every so often for a few seconds for a quick rest before plugging on again; monotonous, boring, concentrating on your breathing, steps, enjoying the views, and so on. Finally we reached the Dôme du Goûter (4304m). Off this summit we made a descent for a while, giving us a welcome break, to the Col du Dôme (4258m). Continuing in the same direction, up a steepening slope, we passed the Vallot shelter which stands on a rock on the left (4262m). The Vallot shelter is only for emergencies; worth noting its position, as it could be a lifesaver in poor weather. People have frozen to death when unable to find it in a storm. The sun was beginning to reach over the clouds now.
Aiguille du Midi
It was a beautiful sight, the mountain peaks, ridges, clouds below; we could see the Aiguille du Midi (the cable car station from Chamonix at 3842m) below us in the distance as we climbed the narrowing and steepening ridge from the Vallot hut. There was no storm or any sign of one approaching; maybe we were going to be lucky and seek up and touch the summit before any storm raged. The walk from the emergency hut to two snowy ridge bumps (Grande Bosse 4513m & Petite Bosse 4547m), the Bosses Ridge, was a slog, a slow steady plod upwards. Stopping every so often to catch a breath. We did have one sit down stop for a quick rest en-route and to take in the sights and enjoy the view. We started to edge across the Bosses Ridge. John behind me had to stop to adjust his boots before edging onto the ridge itself. Meanwhile I was waiting standing on the ridge itself, although quite relaxed standing there, glad of the rest; however, I felt very aware of my position suddenly, with one eye gazing down the thousands of feet below off the almost vertical fall away below the ridge itself.
Allister heading for the summit of Mont Blanc, behind
Soon enough we were at the last level ridge before heading east to the last top (4740m) before the summit ridge itself and we stopped for a quick rest, before our last push up the last 300m to the summit itself. The last few steps onto the summit; the breathing was very heavy and laboured at this stage. There were many breaks in the clouds now, we were very lucky, it was clear sunny day and we had reached the summit of Mont Blanc. The views were awesome. There was a gentle breeze, some gusts even, very bearable and reasonable given the poor forecast we had the previous day. On the summit I could feel a slight headache and a little nausea but not too bad generally. We stayed approx twenty minutes on the summit, taking a few photos, admiring the views, chatting. I could see down to the town of Chamonix below in the valley, lots of dots of houses etc.; I imagine myself only the few days before, my first night there in the village, having a beer with John looking up to the summit of Mont Blanc, asking how the hell could anyone climb that? It was a great feeling to be looking down all right, however, only half way there; we had to get down and couldn’t stay there all day for a picnic and a game of 5-a-side, the summit is small enough. We could see people making their way up the Aiguille du Midi side of the mountain. It was 1641m in height gain from the Tête Rousse hut. 10am on the summit (9am Irish time), approx. 7.5 hours after leaving the Tête Rousse hut. I thought of my family, friends, work and IMC colleagues, imagining where they were and what they would be doing at 9am on that Friday morning back in Ireland. It was a great sense of freedom, exhilaration and achievement on the summit on such a glorious day.
Allister and John on the summit
Allister and Julie-Ann on the summit
The descent to the Goûter hut was pleasant walking in the snow with the sun shining on us now and clear skies around, mostly downhill all the way. We reached the Goûter hut three hours later at approx. 13:00. The hut, normally packed to the seams, was practically empty due to the forecast for bad weather. I was feeling quite exhausted at this point and hungry. We rested at the hut for about half an hour, had some lunch and water (I drank approx. 2.5 litres on the climb). I didn’t want to move after that, the legs felt like lead. A bit of light encouragement from my colleagues – ‘shift your bloody ass’ – got me up; a few minutes later we were scrambling downward from the Goûter hut towards our beds for the night at the Tête Rousse hut below. Ironically we were staying at the Tête Rousse hut because we thought the Goûter hut would have been full, but it was only half full. Moving as quickly as possible we shortly reached the point at which to cross the Grand Couloir again. We observed large rocks hurling down the couloir, bouncing and splitting as they shot past. With the advantage of having the light of day we started to cross the couloir unroped. As we crossed, I lost my footing on some ice and loose stones and took a slip; I used my ice axe to arrest my slip. John looked concerned waiting behind me that I had decided at this point to have a lie down. I quickly lifted myself up and we crossed to the other side unharmed. An hour and half later after leaving the Goûter hut and twelve hours since leaving the Tête Rousse hut, we arrived back. I had a great sleep that night and felt fully rejuvenated the next day. Later that day we reached the valley floor of Chamonix and we frequented a number of pubs that night, for a good session. In one pub we met a group from Cork who had camped on Mont Blanc for two to three nights; they had descended the day we were going up due to the poor forecast and unfortunately did not summit. We felt lucky and privileged to have summited Mont Blanc and to have climbed three Alpine peaks in five days.