Thursday, June 01, 2023

How to climb Mt Blanc safely with Climate change.

Mark Alan Clarke Will 11.30hrs 29th May 2023


For the last few summers it has been far too dangerous to climb Mt Blanc in the height of the summer because all the snow and ice that bonds the mountain in place has melted resulting  in increasing rock fall - sometimes apocalyptic in size.  This has regularly lead to the route having an "arrĂȘtĂ©-municipal" slapped on it.  [French for closed.]

2022 -Last season was a case in point: - the Perma-frost melted too, making the rock-fall  even less predictable. As with all high altitude  mountaineering if its not freezing its not safe.  That is why we start early and try to finsih early , but with the freezing level being reguarly above 5000meters this was impossible.

A few years back, in an attempt to adapt to climate change, it was decided to open the key Tete Rousse and Gouter Huts much earlier in the season, when hopefully it would still be cold and there would still be enough snow to glue everything together and that the Gouter Couloir would still have lots of snow in it.

The theory was good and a few years back in 2019 I fully embarced this idea.  I booked the Gouter for the day it opened.  This was a mistake because I hadn't fully thought it through. It was going to be me breaking trail. It took  9 hours merely to get to the Tete Rousse Hut. [2-3 hours normally] Although we still eventually climbed Mt Blanc.

The Plan

Alan Irvine and I decided we would attempt Mt Blanc back in September 2022.  He was keen to ask his friend Clark Cambell along too.  In order to be as safe as possible and to maximise our chances of success we asked Will Harris, another Guide to join us.

The next challange - possibly the biggest challange, was getting our reservations in the Huts.  The day, the hour , the minute the  bookings opened  we were there .  That was in October 2022 for a reservation at the end of May 2023.

With the booking and deposit paid , it was just a question of hoping the date we had booked would coincide with a favourable weather forecast -a big  gamble...  the trip was a long time in the planning.  

On our first day together, the four of us drove through the Mt Blanc tunnel, and made our way to the Toriono Hut where we dumped our overnight stuff before heading out and climbing the traverse of the Aiguille du Marbree.

Climbers on traverse of Marbree

We spent the night in the Torino Hut inorder to bank some acclimatisation.  The next morning we had breakfast at 6.00hrs and were away for 6.45hrs.

We climbed the Aiguille Entreves which was in perfect conditions and because we had had an early start, we had the entire climb to ourselves.

Will & Clarke on traverse L'Entreves.

It was good to have twenty four hours above 3500 meters  which greatly aids acclimatisation. Yet it is equally important to get some decent rest, so we returned to Chamonix for a night in the valley.


We were now ready to go .  What's more we the weather forecast was cooperative.  We left Chamonix at 8.00hrs and drove around to the beautiful village of Bionassay.  From there we followed the 4x4 track up to Bellevue where we dumped the Land Rover.  [There is no cable car or train working at this time of year. Without your own 4x4 the taxi ride is about 300euros.]

It wasn't long before we hit the snow.  Despite walking up  railway track it was nescessary to rope-up and use an ice axe because the route was banked out with steep snow and a slip would he been terminal.

At the Nid Aigle where the railway line finishes, we had a rest and figured out where the path through the snow went. Thankfully we were not first and there was a track in the snow.  It was however much steeper than without the snow and a lot of care was needed. The journey was spiced up by an aftrernoon hail storm too.  

A goat

afternoon hail storm.

Yet we arrived at the Tete Rousse Hut in great shape and in good time despite the extra challange of dealing with the transport logistics.

Sentry box .  No booking no way.

The next day was to be  our summit day.  We awoke at 3.00hrs and were away by 3.45hrs.  The conditions were perfect .  There was a track in, it was cold and the sky was clear.  We picked our way up to the Gouter Couloir by the light of our head torches.  Crossing the couloiur was without incident and we then navigated our way up the ridge which was entirely on snow with only a few rocks poking through.  It was far steeper than normal but it went fine.  

Crossing Gouter Couloir.

We briefly stopped at the Gouter Hut after about 2.30 hours of climbing.  We left all our superferlous kit and headed of up the Dome de Gouter.  This stretch is alway monotenous, but at this time of year we could at least climb it in daylight.

Bionassay with its knife edge ridge.

The route skirts around the top of the Dome du Gouter before heading gently down again before steepening up to arrive at the Vallot emrgency refuge 4300 meters.

From hear its about 2 hours to the summit.  No matter how many times you climb Mt Blanc this section is always hard work.  Plus conditions have changed. No longer is it just a tough but uniform ridge.  No . A large crevasse has formed creating a steep wall.  Last year as the summer heated up this wall became steeper and icier by the week. The result was it was difficult and serious- making it difficult and dangerous to guide with more than one client.  Hence all the more reason to elect to tackle it on a ratio of 1;1.

almost at the summit.

As it transpired this section went well, but you never really know until you are there.    After  which it was just a hard slog to the summit aided with pocket full of "Gummy Bears", notoriuos for making kids go bonkers but less well known as the "best" energy shot known to human kind.

Clarke and Will were  a head of us and they waited for us on the summit.  Hand shakes, hugs and probably some tears behind the sun glasses was the result of many years of trieing.  As a guide there is no better job in the world when you can help deliver momments like this.

The realisation its done.


The return was by excatly the same route albeit a lot faster.  We had a good long pause at the Vallot Refuge then continued down to the Gouter Hut where we orderd a splendid omelette washed down with Artisanal Mont Blanc beer [what else?]

Our time in the Gouter Hut was not with out incident;  Firstly there was the guy who turned up with very severe category 2 frostbite.  I was surprised because it had not been particarly cold, but having the wrong boots that are not dry, too tight and not built for high altitude were probably key factors.  He was flown out by the PGHM fourtunately to Sallanches Hopsital which is considered the world center for frostbite treatment.

Next was dinner followed immediatly by bed.  All was fine until someone a woke me with a particularly loud obnoxious alarm.  Or so I thought.  It turned out to be the fire alarm.  Never a good sound, but at 3816 meters in a building with no opening windows and being constructed with far too much wood was of concern.  However very soon afterwards there was a shout  from the hut guardian saying everything was under control.  I drifted back to sleep, but was interested to learn the incident had reached the national  news outlets.

Feeling somewhat groggy we fell out of our bunks at around 5.00hrs, skipped breakfast and started our descent to the Tete Rousse Hut where we stopped for breakfast.  In the snowy conditions we had, we should have been able to make a fast descent by "bum-sliding."  Yet the reality was entirely different.  The top of the snow was too icy which would have meant bum-sliding to a certain accident or worse.  But the snow had a crust on it which wouldn't support our weight and so every step meant sinking in up to our knees or often waist. So just when you thought it was all over , in fact it was not.

Anyway eventually we made it back to the railway line and then  the Land Rover, tired but happy.

Clearing the track which will now open on 17th June.

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