Mont Blanc My Way

31 Aug 1996 - by Elmer Martin

The sun may also rise over Kilimanjaro, but between August 24 and August 31 most recently it rarely rose over Mont Blanc. The summary of my encounter with gloom and doom above Chamonix may allow others to smooth the square edges on the wheel I invented during the organization and implementation of my own solitary expedition to the Mont Blanc Massif in the course of which I observed that both culture and elevation must be considered when climbing in the French Alps.

In January of this year I decided to try to climb both the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc in the last week of August. I considered Alpine Skills International whose headquarters is in Donner Pass, California but it would not give me references from its past trips to Mont Blanc and its scheduled trip did not include Matterhorn. I considered the program offered by the American Alpine Institute but its limited itinerary and my past experiences regarding Institute trips eliminated it. I then considered Frank Kelsey's American Alpine Adventures. Frank is based in Chamonix and advertises in Rock & Ice and Climbing. For $2,500 in advance he was willing to guide me on both Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn. I called guide groups in Chamonix and was told that he was a guide "aspirant". Whatever he is, I decided $2,500 in advance with no assurance that weather would permit climbing was too steep for me. I then turned to a French guide from Chamonix I met while climbing water ice with Yamnuska in Alberta in February. He referred me to a friend of his who is a guide in Chamonix. This is when my cultural adventures began.

The friend, whom I will call Guillaume, was a very friendly fellow and communication with him was facilitated by his fax machine at his home. However, after repeatedly asking him for a reference to a hotel in Chamonix and for a list of trip items, itinerary and equipment, all I was told was don't worry and bring sun glasses. Our relationship ended when I called the local climbing organizations to check up on his credentials. When he found out I called about him, he fired me as a client.

Not at all disappointed at being fired by a guide who couldn't refer me to a hotel and who told me only that I need sunglasses to climb Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn, I called the Compagnie de Guides de Chamonix-Mont Blanc. The Compagnie is the first and reputedly finest guide group in Europe founded under special French law in 1821. One wall of the Musee Alpin in Chamonix is dedicated to the Compagnie. Comprised of about 180 guides, the Compagnie is as much of a fraternity as a guide organization. Whenever one Compagnie guide meets another Compagnie guide in the mountains, it is as if two long lost best friends meet.

The Compagnie was a little more informative. It told me to bring boots and a jacket. No long lists of itinerary and requirements were provided, but also there were no commitments, significant deposits, waivers, contracts or any of the usual incidents of deforestation necessitated by American and Canadian guide organizations. With a merry ho ho good fellow well met greeting the Compagnie assured me I would have a guide for a week the identity of whom I would learn during the big introduction the night of my arrival on Saturday, August 24. The Compagnie charges only for actual climbing at the rate of $246 per day or $680 for a Mont Blanc summit climb.

With this somewhat more amorphous than customary guide commitment, I proceeded to search the web for a hotel assuming that weather would prevent climbing on several days and in any event I would need a base. There were remarkable differences in results between search engines but eventually I retrieved a list of every hotel in Chamonix with its star rating and fax and phone numbers. I faxed a request for a reservation and room rate to the Le Montagnard which seemed an appropriate name for a mountaineer's base hotel. We settled on a room value of 250FF per day ($50) for 7 days and I authorized a charge to my Visa card. The hotel never did charge my card, send a confirmation, or even have me sign in when I arrived, but with the hotel somewhat tentatively out of the way I analyzed the approach. Because of frequent flyer mile award limitations, American Airlines was my preferred carrier so the carrier choice was simple. The bribe to my wife and daughter for allowing me to cavort about the Alps was diversion in Paris while I was in the Alps. Accordingly American flights 48 and 49 coming and going between LAX and Paris Orley was an easy choice.

The route from Paris to Chamonix was more involved. Returning to the Web I retrieved a lot of information on access to Chamonix. Much more information in any event than my friend Guillaume who apparently climbs wearing only sun glasses was able to tell me. Hopefully his ability to find mountain tops is better than his ability to find either Chamonix or a hotel in Chamonix. After several hundred dollars worth of phone calls, I settled on the high speed TGV from Paris' Gare Lyon to Geneva, Switzerland's CFF station. I booked the TGV through Rail Europe, and booked the rail connection from Geneva to Chamonix in Paris where I discovered that Rail Europe marks up the tickets 100% over what they cost in France. The TGV took 3.5 hours to go 400 miles to Geneva and the local French trains got me the next 49 miles to Chamonix in another 2.5 hours with three train changes not counting the change in Geneva which I discovered during the 20 minutes I had for the transfer that the train from Geneva to Chamonix left from a station on the side of town opposite from the side of town in which my arrival station was located.

Arriving finally at Chamonix a taxi drove me to Le Montagnard which turned out to be far enough out of town that only a mountaineer could love it. Nevertheless, I had a quite pleasant room with private bath and a balcony overlooking the longest glacier in Europe and one of the most intimidating views, whenever the clouds allowed, I had ever experienced. There was no heat in the room at all which made drying wet clothes difficult, but except for drying, no heat was necessary. There were both hot water and electric heat sources in the room but both had been disabled for the summer as I discovered when my references to "heat" were finally heard as something other than "eat".

Seven o'clock p.m. on Saturday, August 24 was the appointed time for introduction to my guide at which time I punctually presented myself and met Pascal Dufour, a pleasant Frenchman of obvious physical propriety for a guide. He had perfected his English as a skiing instructor at Aspen years ago. Again there were no papers to sign, no inspection of equipment, only a hearty "see you at 7:00 tomorrow morning for a conditioning climb".

At 7:00 Sunday morning, the 25th, Pascal appeared and informed me as to the obviously inclement conditions prevailing in the mountains above Chamonix. He drove us through the Mont Blanc tunnel which terminates in Chamonix to Courmayeur, Italy, a distance of 5 miles. We took the tram from Courmayeur, at 4,600 feet up to Pnte Helbrouner at 11,355 feet and walked across the glacier at the top of the Mont Blanc Massif under a clear sky 5 miles away from the Massif on the French side which was completely obscured by clouds.

The conditioning climb on Aguille de Toule turned out to be an exam for a climb of the Matterhorn as well as of Mont Blanc. Half way up two crags connected by a ridge I commented that the climb looked more like a Matterhorn climb than a Mont Blanc climb. Pascal obliquely commented that Matterhorn climbing was similar to what we were doing. This climb was not anything with which any serious Sierra Club peak bagger would have a problem. Rated at about 5.2 with mixed rock and ice it was mild crampon and hand climbing except that the exposure on one side was 9,000 feet down without a bounce on the way and on the other side was about 3 trillion cubic meters of ice full of crevasses about a thousand feet below. The difficulty wasn't great but the sphincter factor was about 8.5 on a 10 scale. Typical of European guides, Pascal belayed me on a rope which generally he held coiled in his hand keeping me on a three foot tether. Going across crevasses or ledges three feet apart on a rope never made much sense to me but that's what European guides casually and traditionally do.

On Monday the 26th we took the tram to the top of Aguille du Midi above Chamonix, Europe's highest tram stop at 12,601 feet in the heart of the Mont Blanc Massif. From there we walked through an ice tunnel onto a knife edged ridge of ice with the usual and customary exposure into a complete whiteout in driving snow. The sphincter factor at this point made even my goggles loose. Forty minutes later we were at the Refuge des Cosmiques at 11,854 feet which is managed by the Compagnie. This is a four star hut. Completed in 1989, it sports flush toilets, thermostatically controlled heat, spacious quarters and typically fantastic French food. A group of Americans and British from London were using it as their climbing headquarters for acclimatization and climbing and basically treating it as their vacation hotel. On a clear day it has a southern view of the Grand Jorasses, Mont Blanc du Tacul, and almost all of the rest of entire Mont Blanc Massif.

On Tuesday morning the 27th at 2:00 we traversed the Col du Midi in the light of our headlamps in a light snowfall and started up the east shoulder of Mont Blanc du Tacul. This is a 2,000 foot 60 degree ice fall topping out at 13,900 feet which feeds Glacier des Bossons which falls all the way to the valley floor at 3,000 feet. Our destination was Mont Blanc on the Grand Traverse which is an eight hour traverse of Mont Blanc du Tacul and Mont Maudit to Mont Blanc. We got to the top of the Tacul shoulder at 13,900 feet along with another Compagnie guide with two clients who were on the same route. The wind and cold were severe. I took off my glove shell on one hand for less than a minute and my hand froze, even though I had a knit glove on, requiring a painful recovery as it regained feeling. At the top of the shoulder it was apparent that a storm was moving in and the wind ruled out any attempt at continuation. The guides aborted the attempt and turned back to Chamonix.

On Wednesday the 28th it stormed. I spent the day watching such classics as "Alerte a Malibu" (Baywatch) and American westerns I remember seeing 25 years ago dubbed in French and drinking wine at Cafe L'Impossible. At that point the guide ruled out any attempt on Matterhorn because the hut at the route beginning was under a foot of snow and he wouldn't risk a climb of Matterhorn in icy conditions. Having seen a Swiss TV video I bought on a typical climb of Matterhorn and after looking down 9,000 feet into Italy off a series of typical Matterhorn moves on Sunday, I agreed with the guide's assessment.

On Thursday the 29th in general humid gloom we took the les Houches-Bellevue Telepherique up from Les Houches near Chamonix to La Chalette from which we took the Mont Blanc Railway to 7,780 feet. Originally the railway was intended to go all the way to the top of Mont Blanc. This objective for the railway was abandoned because of "objective difficulties". These I was soon to discover included the last 2,500 feet of elevation to the Refuge de Gouter which rises in less than 2,000 feet of horizontal distance with the last 1,000 feet of altitude virtually straight up supported by fixed steel cables and steel handholds. The guide books indicate that helmets are mandatory, but few were wearing them on this day because everything was frozen solid. Nevertheless there was loose rock and ice and on two occasions my helmet saved my head not from falling rocks or ice but from hitting my head on overhangs as I went up.

The Refuge de Gouter at 12,564 feet is an infinite departure from the Cosmique hut. Because the summit can be done in 6 hours round trip from Gouter this is where 150 bodies cram into sleeping bunks built for 120 bodies. This was like being in a pack of angry chimps speaking at least a dozen languages from Japanese to French. I had a Japanese guy sleeping on one of my arms and a German girl sleeping on my other arm - not next to - on. The rooms were so filled that the windows were left wide open because the bodies were generating enough heat to warm the rooms above 80 degrees with the windows open even though it was 20 degrees below zero with a wind in the open windows. However, the wind was not much of a factor in the rooms because there was a 30 foot ice wall against the window side of the building which had been cut back 3 feet from the building.

As I noted, the Cosmique toilets are indoor flush toilets. At Gouter, there are no toilets and what is there is a long walk away on an icy steel walkway and steps. After negotiating the walkway and steps, you enter a dark stinky room with a lot of wood ceiling to floor doors for cubicles and generally no locks. It's a good idea to take your headlamp with you because you really need to see where you are putting your feet when you step inside one of the cubicles. There are no toilets. There are two tracks about three feet long and six inches wide and a hole in a thin metal sheet between the railings. The thin metal sheet and the tracks separate you from a three thousand foot drop into the glacier below. The hole is strategically placed to assure maximum exposure to the 20 degree below zero winds. You will want to be careful with your aim because other people weren't. The large pile which missed the hole should be avoided particularly when first entering the cubicle in the dark. Apparently someone periodically thaws the pile and shoves it through the hole - a very long period apparently. Bring your own toilet paper - no bidet here either. It gets worse. If you miss and slip neither you nor what you went there to get rid of may be seen for 45 years which is the average time for the glacier movement below to produce at the terminal moraine what falls in at that point. After carefully locating the tracks you have a choice of facing away from the door or facing toward the door. Facing toward the door is preferably because it will be opened by someone who doesn't speak your language. In addition to bringing your headlamp so you can avoid the pile, the headlamp will allow the intruders to see you thereby avoiding crowding in the cubicle. Facing the door also allows the use of sign language. Prior to travelling to Gouter you should be fully familiar with the sign language for "Shut the damned door. This hole is occupied."

At 2:00 Friday morning the 30th everybody started the stampede to the breakfast line to get the completely inadequate breakfast of tea and bread. Bring your own oatmeal or don't get much for breakfast in mountain huts in France. There were two near fist fights over sitting places.

By three we were slogging up the ice under a full moon in a clear sky and a 10 mph wind. The humidity even in these cold temperatures seems to prevent any evaporation. The water I customarily need in the Cascades or the Sierras is far more than I needed in the Alps. The cold in the Alps is a wet cold which seems to cut through whatever you have on. I had on insulated La Sportiva K3's with Dachstein Himalayan wool socks and neoprene socks on Charlet Moser Super 12's with snow plates. My feet were about just right but within an hour I had put on everything I had and was wet, cold and with an intolerable back ache probably attributable to the chill I got from the climb the day before. I had on REI expedition underwear, North Face Windbloc fleece anorak, light-weight Mont Bell Gortex jacket with hood, a moonstone Gortex Bib, an L.L. Bean Primaloft jacket and hood rated for -20F and an REI Windbloc hat - and I was wet and cold with an enormous backache. The ones who were prepared had double plastic boots and heavy Gortex such as the North Face mountain jacket and bib in which I have never been cold.

I tried to stop to take a couple of aspirins for my back at which point Pascal started a dance to keep warm. He was dressed for a continuous six hours of motion only. There is something disconcerting about being tied on a short rope to a guy doing a dervish dance at 14,000 feet. About two hours after we started, at about 14,175 feet according to my Avocet, without the ability to stop even long enough to take an aspirin, I aborted the climb and we returned to the Gouter hut, much to Pascal's relief. On Rainier the RMI guides may drag you to the top, but don't expect that from an Alpine guide. Just whisper turn around and you'll be on the way down.

After a two hour rest during which my body heat returned, we fell down the ridge to the train within three hours.

Back in Chamonix Friday afternoon I changed my TGV reservation for Sunday to Saturday and on Saturday morning at 6:00 a.m. I pulled my gear into town to the station. The 49 mile ride to Geneva took 4 hours with three train changes. There were no taxis at the hole in the wall train station in Geneva so I heaved a 10,000 ci duffel bag on foot across Geneva to the TGV station following a British couple who said they knew where they were going and it turned out they did know.

On Sunday I climbed "Mont Marte" with my wife and daughter and Sacre-Coeur and the south tower of Notre Dame and successfully summited them.

The taxi fare to Orly from the Champs Elysee is only $30 but I opted to use an unused subway ticket to the Denfert Rochereau Metro stop and catch the Orly Bus express from there for $6 arriving at the same time as my wife and daughter whose airport transfers were included in their hotel package. The taxi fare is only $30 but the Metro and bus are more fun.

All in all a very interesting adventure. The French people were much more friendly than my encounter with them in 1965 after which I waited 31 years to encounter them again. Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn are still on my wish list, and next time the sphincter factor will be a lot less and my clothes a lot more. Two Germans disappeared on Thursday. I have great pictures of the French search helicopter passing over me about a hundred feet away. As of Friday night they were still missing and presumed dead. They, like many others, did not use a professional guide. Anyone who wanders into territory like this for the first time without a professional guide has bigger ovaries than I do and a small brain.

The Alps should not be taken for granted. Mont Blanc should be treated with the same respect with which McKinley should be treated, particularly on the Grand Traverse route we attempted on Tuesday morning which requires ascents of three peaks near or above 15,000 feet with Mont Blanc at 15,700, three glaciers and total round trip time of at least 14 hours from and to the Cosmique hut. If you aren't going to stay at the Cosmique hut on the way back add at least an hour more to get to the tram which is about 750 feet higher and was a very tiring slog even at the end of our excursion to Mont Blanc du Tacul on only one-third of the whole Grand Traverse route.

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