Thursday, September 11, 2014
Mont Blanc, France
2014 September: Climb Mont Blanc, France - 3-day trip
At 4810 meters, Mont Blanc is the highest mountain in the Alps in Europe. Climbing Mont Blanc has always been at the top of my to-do list. But for one reason or another, it is postponed to now. However if I had known there is such a fantastic walk along the ridge to the summit (see photo #24 and #25, I would have climbed it much earlier !
The trip was organized by World Expedition.
According to World Expedition's schedule, this is how it was planned:
Day 1 - from Nid D'aigle tram station to Tête Rousse Refuge
Day 2 - from Tête Rousse Refuge to Goûter Refuge
Day 3 - from Goûter Refuge to summit, then descend all the way back to hotel
If the mountain guides stick to this schedule, then the climb should be quite straight forward, not too difficult.
However in the fine prints, it was stated that due to weather condition, in day 2, the mountain guides may go from Tête Rousse Refuge all the way to the summit.
This happened in in my trip. The mountain guides said day 2's weather was good. So we went from Tête Rousse Refuge all the way to the summit, an ascent of 1643 meters. Now, that was tough. The guides turned out to be correct, because on day 3, the wind was too strong. No one was able to summit. So we were lucky to scale up the summit on day 2 !
But I can tell you, you need to be fit to ascend 1643 meters in one day in high altitude + heavy mountaineering boots + crampons !!!
Day 1 - Mont Blanc ascent
09:30 Meet at Mercure Chamonix Centre Hotel (5 climbers + 3 mountain guides)
09:40 Car leaves for rental shop to pick up hired gears for the other climbers (I have my own gears), then to Les Trabets which is near Les Houches
11:50 at Les Trabets cable car station
12:22 Cable car departs
12:30 at Bellevue cable car station; then walk to tram station
12:33 at Bellevue tram station (of Tramway du Mont-Blanc)
13:05 Tram departs
13:20 at Nid D'aigle tram station, 2380 meters
13:21 Start walking to Tête Rousse Refuge
14:15 Resume walking
15:32 at Tête Rousse Refuge, 3167 meters
Day 2 - Mont Blanc ascent/descent
05:00 Breakfast at Tête Rousse Refuge
05:40 Walk to Goûter Refuge
07:45 at Goûter Refuge, 3817 meters
08:46 Walk to Mont Blanc summit
12:23 at Mont Blanc summit, 4810 meters
12:35 Descend Mont Blanc summit
14:20 at Goûter Refuge
Day 3 - Mont Blanc descent
07:00 Breakfast at Goûter Refuge
07:33 Walk to Nid D'aigle tram station
09:02 Wait near Tête Rousse Refuge for Louis and his guide who went to Tête Rouse to retrieve his umbrella
09:19 Resume walking to Nid D'aigle tram station
10:14 at Nid D'aigle tram station (of Tramway du Mont-Blanc)
10:51 Tram departs
11:10 at Bellevue tram station; then walk to cable car station
11:14 at Bellevue cable car station
11:16 Cable car departs
11:28 at Les Trabets (which is near Les Houches)
11:31 Car leaves for Mercure Chamonix Centre Hotel
11:42 at hotel
1) First thing is to buy a new pair of mountaineering boots and crampons:
- The boots are La Sportiva Men's Nepal EVO GTX.
- Crampons are 12-point Black Diamond Serac.
Altogether, they weigh 2.5 kg (1.25 kg per foot) !!! I spent countless hours walking with the boots to get used to their weight.
Then it is off to a quaint little town called Chamonix in France. This is where the Mont Blanc climb starts.
2) In the Chamonix town centre there is a bronze monument of Horace-Benedict de Saussure (right) and Jaques Balmat (left). In 1760 Saussure offered a reward to the first man to reach the summit of Mont Blanc, at the time unscaled. In 1786, two Chamonix men, Dr Michel Paccard and Jacques Balmat, attained the summit. And in 1787 Saussure himself successfully made the third ascent. In the monument, Balmat is pointing directly to ... have a guess ...
3) ... This is what Balmat is pointing to, Mont Blanc, the snow capped mountain at the centre of the photo ... and I can't wait to climb it !!!
In the morning, 5 climbers + 3 mountain guides meet at Mecure hotel at Chamonix. There should be 6 of us climbers. One guy dropped out due to injury during an acclimatisation climb yesterday, hence only 5 are here today.
4) (Click on the below map to enlarge it.)
Three days are scheduled for the climb:
- Day 1 is a 8km drive from Chamonix to Les Houches (left edge of the map).
- Then take cable car to Bellevue 1794 meters (centre of the map).
- Then take a cogwheel tram to Nid D'aigle (French for Eagle's nest), 2380 meters. In the map, it is where the red line ends.
- Then hike up to Tête Rousse Refuge 3167 meters (not shown on the map).
- Day 2 was meant to climb to Goûter Refuge, 3817 meters.
- Day 3 was meant to summit Mont Blanc, 4810 meters ...
... but on day 2, we didn't stick to this schedule, more on this later.
5) We catch an aerial cable car at this station at Les Trabets which is near Les Houches.
6) We get off the cable car here at Bellevue 1794 meters ...
7) ... then walk a short distance to a tram station - the smallest station I've ever experienced ... but quite a picturesque setting.
8) Hop on to this cogwheel tram. (A cog railway is a steep mountain railway having 3 rails, the middle rail is fitted with a rack that engages a pinion on the locomotive to provide traction.)
9) The tram takes us to Nid D'aigle (French for eagle's nest), 2380 meters. The hole in the hill on the right side of the pic is the tunnel for the tram.
From here we are on our own legs.
10) We are hiking up to Tête Rousse Refuge. Here, it is more than 2400 meters above sea level, well above the tree line, hence the lunar landscape look. The guy on the left is taking a photo ...
11) ... of an Alpine Ibex which is a wild goat that lives in rough terrain in the mountains of the European Alps. This one is a female. (Male has much larger curved horns.)
12) The mountain guides set a cracking pace ... Tête Rousse Refuge is now in sight.
13) We reach Tête Rousse Refuge, 3167 meters, just when it is about to rain ... that explains why the guides were in such a hurry - they sensed something that we didn't ! We'll stay here for the night.
For the record, it is 2 hrs 11 mins (including 26 minutes of lunch) to ascend 787 meters, quite a good effort.
14) Dinner time at Tête Rousse Refuge - Of the 5 of us, 3 were advised by the mountain guides not to continue with the summit attempt as it will be too tough for them. That leaves just Louis (right edge of the photo) and me to continue for the next 2 days.
(Clockwise around the table from the left: Neil, Mark, me, Quyen and Louis)
Of the 3 mountain guides, Nicholas becomes my guide, Gaylon is Louis' guide, and Pierre takes the other 3 down the mountain via a different route.
15) For Louis and I, the plan was to climb from Tête Rousse Refuge to Goûter Refuge. As can be seen from the photo, it is an almost vertical climb all the way to Goûter!!! If you are afraid of height, Mont Blanc is not for you. The guy who dropped out due to injury during the acclimatisation climb was afraid of height too. Just as well as he'll not be able to make it through this stretch.
(By the way, there are 2 Goûter Refuges. In the photo, the solid line points to an old hut. The dotted line points to a new hut.)
16) It is almost a vertical climb for most of the way to Goûter Refuge. Fortunately there are steel cables to help you.
17) Climbers are all wearing crampons even though there is no ice nor snow. Crampons grip onto the rocks better. Helmet is also required as it is easy to bump your head against the rocks.
18) Not only are my legs tired, my arms are also tired from the constant climbing on all fours.
19) Finally, Goûter Refuge is in sight, 3817 meters. The guy in the photo is Nicholas, my mountain guide. For the record, from Tête Rousse to Goûter is 2 hrs 10 mins, an ascent of 650 meters.
The planned schedule is to stay at Goûter Refuge for the night and go after the summit tomorrow. But as today is a perfect blue sky day, so after an hour's rest at Goûter, the mountain guides push us onto the summit. I am quite tired at this stage, so I curse them for making life difficult for me. However it turns out to be the right decision because the next day, the wind is so strong no one is able to summit. So we are lucky to have such far sighted guides :-)
20) The little dots that are like ants are mostly people returning from the Mont Blanc summit. They had left Goûter around 5:30am and had reached the summit already.
21) Mont Blanc is in sight. These people have already summitted and are having a well earned rest.
22) Me !
23) The highest point in this photo is not the summit. The summit is further to the left, under the sun.
24) Mont Blanc is the peak on the left. We will walk on the ridge all the way to there.
25) Mont Blanc summit is just behind the tip. It is worth paying a million dollars just to walk on a ridge like this, don't you think so ?
26) Made it !!! 4810 meters. It took us 3 hrs 37 mins from Goûter to reach here, an ascent of 993 meters. It is unusual that the summit is not marked by a cairn or post, so you just have to trust me that this is the top of the Alps.
27) At the summit - Nicholas my mountain guide is at the centre. Louis is on the right.
All together, today's ascent is 1643 meters from Tête Rousse Refuge to here in 6 hrs 43 mins which includes 1 hr rest at Goûter Refuge. As a comparison, my Queensland's Mt Bartle Frere climb was 5 hrs non-stop for an ascent of 1600 meters. I am now 4 years older, at high altitude, in heavy boots and crampons, so today's effort is pretty good. ( Photos and an account of the Queensland Mt Bartle Frere climb can be found in http://mntviews.blogspot.com.au/2010/08/bartle-frere-queensland-australia.html )
There is a light breeze, otherwise not too cold. I wear a merino wool short sleeve t-shirt, then 3 thermal long sleeve underwears, that's all. Plus a gortex jacket to stop the wind. At the lower part of the body, just a pair of thermal long johns inside a pair of hiking trousers.
The guides say most of the time it is very windy and cold here. Usually they'll stop for 2 seconds to take a photo, then descend straight away. We are so lucky with such a perfect day that we linger around for quarter of an hour, soaking up the atmosphere, enjoying the view, and most of all elated at our success in conquering the Alps.
28) View from the summit.
29) From the summit looking towards where we came from. We'll descend this way too.
31) Descending - Don't you just love to walk on a ridge like this !!!!!
32) On the way back to Goûter Refuge, we have to ascend this little peak called Aiguille du Goûter. Aiguille is French for needle.
33) Goûter Refuge - It looks like a 5-star hotel, but it is not comfortable to sleep inside ... about 20 bunk beds per small room. We'll stay here for the night, but there is no way you can get a good sleep with so many people in a room. We are meant to be up at 7am the next day for breakfast. But there are people up at 4am so as to be ready for their breakfast at 5am so they can start the climb to the Mont Blanc summit at 5:30am. Not to worry, I'm in a good mood - I've already climbed Mont Blanc !!!
An easy day ... we descend from Goûter Refuge all the way back to the hotel.
34) On our way down to Tête Rousse Refuge, we need to pass this Grand Couloir. Couloir is French for corridor, and this stretch is also referred to as the “corridor of death” ... because rocks falling from further up the slope regularly killed people crossing here. You can see a steel cable running through the middle of the pic ... well, my guide hooks up a pulley on the cable, ties us in a rope through the pulley, and walks us though the corridor as fast he can. I'm alive now to write this blog ... phew !!! We went through here yesterday too. But it was around 6am in the morning. The ice locked in the rocks and hence the chance of being knocked off by a falling rock is smaller. But right now it is 9am, a bit more dangerous as some of the ice starts to melt.
After the climb, what better place to relax than to spend a week in beautiful Switzerland !
First stop is at CERN in Geneva. CERN is where the world's largest particle accelerator is. Its LHC, Large Hadron Collider, runs for 27 km, 16.5 miles, in a circular tunnel 100 metres beneath the Swiss/French border in Geneva. There is a guided tour where physicists show you some of CERN's facilities, and show you how the Higgs boson was discovered in CERN not too long ago. (The Higgs boson is also referred to as the God's particle as it is theorized to be the elementary particle that gives rise to all other particles, like electrons for example.)
35) On the opposite side of the road to CERN's main complex, is this dome structure called "Globe of Science and Innovation". It was donated 10 years ago by the Swiss government for CERN's 50th anniversary in 2004. It doesn't look too flash outside, but ...
36) ... but inside the dome is a futuristic set up of displays ...
37) ... and movie shows on sub-atomic particles to galaxies and the universe. If you like this type of highbrow stuff, CERN is the place to visit.