The last weekend of July is satistically the most favorable weather-wise to climb Mont Blanc and it is the one we chose. We arrived in Chamonix Wednesday July 28 planning to start the two-day climb on Saturday. Although clouds and rain prevented us from seeing the mountain the first couple days in Chamonix, it improved by Friday and all the indicators were for a favorable weekend. Friday was used for a short acclimatization climb to Petite Verte at 12,500' via the cable car that drops you off at 10,800'. Although modest, this roped up climb on glacier was a good chance to breathe some thin air and check out our equipment.
Saturday July 31st we left our campground in the valley to catch the first Tramway du Mont Blanc. The last station at 7780' is the starting point for the Mont Blanc normal route. In 1904, the original goal of this rack engine railway was to reach the summit, we are glad they did not make it! Because of the length of the train ride, we did not start hiking until 9am. We headed up the switch back rocky trail along with about 50 other climbers, mostly guided groups. We did not have a guide. The weather was warm and clear and we got our first glimpse of the summit. Following the trail up a south east ridge we reached the Tete Rousse hut (10,400') and the first snow just in time for a lunch break. The break had to be short because there were risks of rock falls further on our route and we had to move before the snow became too soft.
We roped up and traversed the glacier above the hut to reach the base of the steep ridge leading to our base camp, the refuge du Gouter. Before climbing the ridge we traversed the couloir du Gouter, one of the dangerous parts of the climb because it is fairly exposed on the down side and constantly bombarded by rocks from the top. Helmets are mandatory at this spot. The climb up the ridge is a 2500 foot grind on a loosely defined trails of large boulders. One needs the hands to negotiate some passages and cables have been installed in certain sections to provide handholds. We arrived at our hut (12,525') about 4pm as clouds were coming up from the valley. Reporters from a national channel were shooting a subject for the evening news and some of us actually made it to TV that day. The refuge was packed with a multilingual crowd and we were glad we had reservations. As it turns out, camping is illegal but tolerated near the hut and there were about 20 tents. We finally got a spot for the hut-served diner and quickly went to our bunk beds. Ear plugs were a good idea. Lying there, we were all more or less affected by the elevation, dinner was not bad, it just would not go through!
We got up at midnight, forced a breakfast through and headed south east, roped up along the ridge. It was snowing lightly but the visibility was good enough we could the trail indentation in the snow and the general contour around us. The cold air and the excitement instantly dissipated our mild altitude sickness. When we reached a saddle at 13,900, the cold was intense and water was freezing inside the packs but the snow had stopped. After the Vallot hut, we followed the ridge West on the famous "arrete des bosses" (bumps' ridge). This ridge starts wide and becomes narrower as you go up. For the last 1.5 hour of the climb, the ridge is about 3 feet wide with steep drop offs on both sides. Crossing the groups coming down from the summit can be a little harried in some sections. One thing about the Alps is that people rope up 2 by 2. On the steep ridge, the idea is that should one of the climbers fall on one side of the ridge, the other would jump on the other side of the ridge to balance him or her. Being one of the leaders I kept wondering what side I would jump on since I had no way to tell what was happening behind me!
We were treated with a beautiful sunrise on the way and made it all together to the top (15,769') about 8am. The sky was mostly clear and the wind was surprisingly low. One of the guides at the summit had brought Champagne for his clients and was sharing, fearing his clients would not make it down alive if they had more than a sip. We traded it for chocolate but the result was disappointing, Champagne is not much but bubbles at 16,000'! After 20 min on the summit, we headed down choosing our footing carefully and crossing many groups still going up. The air warmed up and the snow was soft enough to glissade down just above the hut. The rocky ridge under the hut was harder to go down than it was going up. After a long descent we were back at the train station around 5pm. It had been a long rewarding day and we were just glad the statistics did not let us down on this climb.