As the highest summit in the Alps, although less high in continental Europe than the 5633 metres Mt. Elbrus in the Caucasus and thereby failing to qualify as one of the Seven Summits ( the highest peaks of the seven continents ), the 4807m Mont Blanc straddling the French-Italian frontier is a natural magnet for international peak baggers and high on "To Do" lists of alpine forays.
Like Ben Nevis in Scotland and the principal peaks of other countries it attracts considerably more attention than lesser but more aesthetically appealing targets. On a good day some 200 climbers can make their way to its top and there is severe over-crowding in huts. However despite the lowly F+ rating on the alpine grading system of its voie normale its conquest is never a foregone conclusion.
Three abortive attempts preceded my first successful ascent. While several peaks in the Bernese Oberland of Switzerland, including the 3800m Balmhorn, had been climbed with the 24th Glasgow ( Bearsden ) Scouts without the aid of crampons - our Swiss guide Hans Hari had cut steps all the way to the top - a similar assault on Mont Blanc from Courmayeur failed to reach the intended hut. A second attempt never got off the ground - the Aiguille du Midi cable car had broken down.
Next morning we took the rack and pinion train from St. Gervais les Bains on the outskirts of Chamonix to its upper terminus at Nid d’Aigle and climbed the steep, spiralling trail winding up to the hut at Tete Rousse. Beyond a snow slope we headed into thickening mist and followed paint marks leading up a rocky ridge. Becoming increasingly difficult and exposed we eventually realised we had taken the wrong route when figures were spotted through the mist moving easily on a parallel ridge. A delicate traverse of a boulder and ice filled couloir ( The Grand Couloir ) regained the correct path only a short distance below the higher hut perched on the Aiguille du Gouter.
Others have not been so fortunate. Safely ensconced within the hut on a later trip we were shocked to hear that a pair of climbers on their way up had made the same mistake but one had slipped while attempting to cross the couloir and fallen to his death. The continental practice of painting signs on rocks and trees to mark routes can have unforeseen consequences.
Overnight a blizzard blew enforcing a treacherous and time-consuming retreat on snow-covered footholds to the valley.
On the correct access route a wire hawser affords protection for crossing the couloir although only professionally guided parties tend to take advantage of it - most others disdain to waste time roping up and putting on crampons - on one occasion we helped rescue one such party that had run into difficulties.
Returning the following year with two different companions I repeated the climb to the Refuge du Gouter but not having undertaken any preparatory acclimatisation ascents on lower peaks we all suffered varying degrees of altitude headaches - Bruce turned a delicate shade of purple. Many stay the night at Tete Rousse to avoid this problem.
Joining the pre-dawn, torch-lit, single-file procession we trudged relentlessly upwards under a grey, inauspicious, threatening sky and along the final narrow arete to stand at last atop the broad summit snowfield - amid heavy cloud - two more attempts were required before enjoying the view of the long ridge, crested by the subsidiary peaks of Mont Maudit and Mont Blanc du Tacul, extending to the Aiguille du Midi far below.
On a subsequent planned traverse of Mont Blanc the Aiguille du Midi cable car was successfully used to gain access to the Refuge du Col du Midi but only to learn that a party of eight had been killed by an avalanche on our proposed route - now out of the question. Moreover a thunder and lightning storm raged throughout the night quashing any lingering aspirations. By mid- morning however all was serene and tranquil when we emerged to a dazzling-white snowscene.
From the observation platform atop the Aiguille du Midi a spectacular view unfolded across the sparkling Vallee Blanche to the enclosing needles and spires culminating in the great fang of Aiguille du Geant and the huge massif of Mont Blanc soaring immediately overhead.
After one alpine tour we returned to find friends and colleagues highly concerned about our well-being - there had been a major tragedy on Mont Blanc with multiple deaths - one roped party had fallen and brought down others - as with Everest and K2 or other major mountains the probability of disasters increases with the number of people on the same route at the same time. Mont Blanc had not been on our itinerary that year.
( The Commentator, The ( Glasgow ) HERALD, Saturday 3rd June 2000 )
Location map of deaths on the Mont Blanc Massif
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