Trip Report
Mont Blanc and TDF Trip Report
Thursday July 23, 2009 6:18am
With my time in Italia is getting shorter and shorter and the list of things to do getting longer and longer, I wanted to nail down some dates to climb the 3 Monts route on Mont Blanc. After a little pre-trip research, setting the date for the third weekend in July would allow a short side trip to see the 16th stage of the Tour de France as it traversed from Switzerland through Italy and back into France on the 21st.

The final plan was to meet with two climbing buddies (John and Mike) from the states who happened to be in Europe at the same time and climb the Cosmiques arete on Saturday, the 3 Monts on Sunday and then get on a rock route on Monday at the Pyramid du Tacul. Then John and I would watch the tour on Tuesday before heading back to work on Wednesday.

Leaving work in full sun and clear skies on Friday and driving toward increasingly ominous skies and eventually stormy Chamonix did not bode well for the original plan. Nevertheless, we got up and rolling on Saturday morning with the idea to head up for the Cosmiques arete. The Aguille du Midi station was under 60cm of fresh snow so the first run up was delayed an hour while they cleared the bulk of it. In town, it was still raining. 60cm of fresh snow over top of a crusty headwall to start the 3 Monts route did not sound like the best idea due to heavy avalanche danger but we thought we would go up and have a look.

Exiting the cable car we made several false starts onto the ridge in howling winds and blowing spindrift before we decided to head inside and wait it out a few hours to see if the weather improved. It did, but very marginally and we again put on our crampons and headed down the first ridge leading to the plateau du tacul. Here is what we found:

This is not exactly the ideal for the mixed rock and snow on the Cosmiques (John and Mike at the base of the first ridge):

Deciding that the original plan was not going to happen based on the new snow and the continued high winds forecasted, we switched plans to the Gouter route and headed down to change out gear and head to Les Houches to spend the night before heading up on the cable car to the cog railway and eventually to the start of the approach.

Sundary turned out to be a pretty nice, albeit windy, day. The cog railway is a beautiful ride up a valley on the western flanc of Mt Blanc. At the station we met some really nice Italians who had the same plans as us and had been foiled a few times in the past on the route. Here we are awaiting the coming train:

Mike and I walking up to the fresh snowline at about 2000m during the approach which climbs 4600 ft to the Gouter hut.

Chilling out (literally) en route to the headwall guarding the Tete Rous hut.

John climbing toward the Tete Rous hut

After you pass the Tete Rous hut, there is a long ridge climb to the Gouter Hut which is fitted with via ferrata cabling that was in the lee of the wind (luckily) but which also was constantly a bowling alley of falling ice chunks and small spindrift slides from the fresh, wind scoured snow.

After about 4.5 hours, we were at the hut - amazing views of the Western alps and north into the foothills towards Grenoble (lots of spectacular paragliding sites were calling!)

Re-stocking the H20 supplies in the hut.

John enjoying his first alpine hut 4 course meal.

There is such a great vibe in the huts - everyone is super friendly and trying to piece together conversations in whatever common language you have is great.

The sunset was great - super clear thanks partly to the winds. The wind was forecast for 60-70kms on the summit the next morning but with the clear skies, it seemed that it might be manageable - particularly given the less technical nature of the climbing on the Gouter route.

We woke up for the 2am breakfast of coffee, bread and jam, and more coffee. There were many climbers who had arrived late at night scattered all over the main room of the hut - some of whom were not so happy to be rousted out of their spots so that people could eat. There was a great old French guide who took it as his job to get everyone up and out of the room. After eating quickly, we went out into the wind and put on crampons to start up the route at about 2:40am.

The wind was pretty relentless - John was doing a great job on the routefinding. Normally, it is pretty straightforward this time of year but the track was gone due to the new snow and 3-4 days of strong wind. The wind was pretty consistent around 50kmh and most decided not to climb. You basically had to pull your hood over the windward side of your face and use one eye to look ahead - a bit diorienting in the darkness and swirling snow. There was a group ahead of us and probably 10 or so other parties behind us. By about 4:45 we made it to the Vallot emergency hut at 4300m or so and decided it would be a good idea to take a break from the wind and wait for some sun since we were well ahead of the advertised times for the route. The other group ahead of us had done the same and were now taking a nap with the same idea of waiting for some sun. John was working on warming his hands up and we just relaxed for about 40mins before we saw the first amazing rays of the sun creeping over the Aguille du Midi.

We left the bivouac around 5:45 and had some great views of the upper portion of the route. With about 500m to go, it seemed pretty possible to summit as long as we were willing to suffer a bit om the wind and snow.

Mike is a pretty strong rock climber but has limited alpine experience and the wind was starting to get to him. About 100m above the hut we had a VERY quick assessment of the situation and he wanted to go down. With no danger of crevasses, he unroped from John and I and heading back to wait in the Vallot Bivuoac. John and I pressed forwad to the base of the final 300m ridge leading to the summit. There was an amazing view of the shadow of the summit with the cloud trail off the top. All around the ridge huge cloud tendrils were spilling over from the West but luckily it was just strong and steady - very little gusting.

There is a short section where you traverse inside of a large bulge on the ridge - this offered an amazing lee from the wind where it went down to about 10-20kms!!!

In this next photo, very close to the summit, you can see where the cloud is condensing as the winds came in from the West (left in the photo) and pushed up and over the ridge we were climbing on. At this point we were alternating between periods of full sun and full whiteout depending on where the cloud was forming and dissipating.

Just before the summit, the clouds started to form all over and then the whole mtn was engulfed for a long period. This was taken as our last clear sun shot while we watched the cloud just push toward us at 60kms!

John on the summit with the cloud really coming on now.

We very quickly got covered in rime ice from all the moisture but were stocked to be on top.

Mid summer on Mt Blanc

We quickly headed back down and were soon just above the Vallot hut again and below the clouds

We re-grouped with Mike and then also found the Italians we met the previous day warming up. They were debating leaving for the top and we chatted about it. In the mean time, a Russian party was fiercely debating what their plan was to be (I think - I know no Russian). One guy clearly wanted to go to the top and the group leader did not. At one point, the head dude was literally screaming at him and then it was decided that the guy who wanted to go to the top with the Italians! I bid them "In boca Luppo" (in the mouth of whales) which means good luck and they set off and we headed down. The summit was still enveloped in a cloud at that point.

We made it back to the hut, had some much needed food and water and started to head down the via ferrata ridge in beautiful conditions.

The route was swarming with people on thier way up which was a bit unnerving when you are trying to move quickly and unroped. Lots of unbashful reached around and through the roped up parties.

Most of the fresh snow was now melted below the Tete Rous hut now and the Ibex were out and about.

The descent is actually really long. From the top, it is 8000ft of descending down to the train stop. We made it to the station just a few minutes before the depature of a train (saving up to an hour of waiting around) and were stoked to not only have made the summit but also to be in nice weather!

At the bottom, we packed and sorted gear and then Mike bid us fairwell since he had to get back to work in Germany. John and I met up with a friend in Cham for a bit and then headed off through the tunnel and back into Italia. John was pretty impressed with all the castles in the Aosta valley

We stopped for a pizza and to get some beta on the Tour de France route in Pre St Didier and decided we would watch the climb to the petit St Bernard pass which is the transition from Italy back into France. After pitching a tent for the night part of the way up the hill, we awoke to a pretty bleak sky and decided to go to Courmayeur for some breakfast. The clouds broke and it was perfect weathe to just hang out, drink some beers and watch the festivities of the tour.

There were a bunch of great local parades in La Thiule - particularly the dancers with all of the bells on.

While watching some bike races might be a bit boring, this was pretty amazing. The atmosphere was fantastic - everyone partying, team cars riding by throwing out all sorts of schwag and perfect weather.

Lance came by with most of his team in the second group of riders. He had one team mate in the first group of about ten but he put on an attack just after passing us and Lance cought up to the leaders. Watching these guys ride uphill at that pace during a 1000m climb is AMAZING.

All in all... it was a great trip. Of course, every new place you see, you tick one more thing off the list of what you want to do but then discover something new an add two more! La dulce vita!

  Trip Report Views: 1,429
About the Author
ThomasKeefer is a trad climber from Between Tuscano and Liguria, Italia.

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Mountain climber
Colorado & Nepal
  Jul 23, 2009 - 09:04am PT
Great photos which made this so much fun to read since I did the Gouter route in October of 1971 and had a very similar experience with the weather, although we had less snow. I was amazed looking at your photos at how much things looked the same still, including the iron cross on the way to the hut. All the huts looked the same both inside and out too. I can't remember the via ferrata though, so maybe that's new? We made the summit just at sunrise and it was the coldest wind I've ever experienced in the mountains. The water in my pack froze and I remember my nose running and then freezing in a horizontal icicle that I had to periodically break off, yet we were sipping wine in a sidewalk cafe in Geneva by mid afternoon.
Rick A

Boulder, Colorado
  Jul 23, 2009 - 09:35am PT
Great photos and trip. Thanks.
I was in Chamonix in 1978, when the TDF came through, quite a spectacle.

Minor correction: "in boca al lupo" means "in the mouth of the wolf". My grandmother used to say it and it means good luck, like "break a leg".

Jan, great that you bagged that peak so long ago. I am sure it must have had fewer people on it.


  Jul 23, 2009 - 10:52am PT

Thanks for postin' up!



Scared Silly

Trad climber
  Jul 23, 2009 - 11:41am PT
Nice little TR. Those damn crosses in the mtns still give me the creeps.

I know the feeling of living France and realizing you are running out of time before going "home". I ended up soloing the the Triple Cols Route. Unlike most, I returned back to the Midi Station rather descending the Gouter. It made for a long day but I had great weather.

Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer

Trad climber
  Jul 23, 2009 - 12:13pm PT
This was very cool. Thanks for sharing - awesome pictures and words.

Trad climber
Lake Tahoe
  Jul 23, 2009 - 12:30pm PT
Beautiful, Thomas! So nostalgic. Climbed it back in the summer of 93. Remember those two huts! and the last push to the top over that ridge. For me, it too was a mix of whiteout and blue skies.

If anyone knows... what's the name of the glacier field I descended after forking off in the vicinity of the "emergency" hut somewhere... which took me straight down to Charmonix. (Now that I think about it I suppose in this day I could just Google it...)

But this descent through the glacier was before my technical rock climbing days, I descended it unroped... this probably was pretty stupid... but weather was awesome and was back in Charmonix early afternoon reenergized and amazed at the micro-climate changes I had just descended through, experienced. Nothing quite like it in the High Sierras.

One of my greatest experiences ever.

Edit: Maybe it's Gouter (???)

Trad climber
Lee, NH
  Jul 23, 2009 - 12:34pm PT
Good photos, fun story of perseverance against the wind (and watching the Tour de France).

I can't remember the via ferrata though, so maybe that's new?

I climbed the route in '68 and there was definitely no ferrata back then.

My partner and I were too poor to afford the railway (or any food except the pillowcase full
of oatmeal that we carried) so we walked all the way from Chamonix, 3 days to the summit.
From the TÍte Rousse to the Gouter hut took a day in itself -- we had no guidebook and no
clue where the route went, and ended up doing 8 pitches of mixed climbing on a rib farther
left on the face.

Obviously that's a n00b story, but your photos brought it all back.


Mountain climber
Colorado & Nepal
  Jul 23, 2009 - 01:05pm PT

That's a great story! We didn't take the train either but drove to the highest point and walked from there. I can't remember the name of those places anymore though.


You might be able to recognize your route by looking at the panorama of Mt. Blanc at the bottom of this page.

From this map, the route you describe looks quite formidable?!

Trad climber
Newark, DE
  Jul 23, 2009 - 01:08pm PT
Really nice report. Especially since I just watched the Tour stage that passed thorugh there.

Never made it any further than the Auguille dM, so it was nice to see the pics of what lies beyond.

Tim S
Fat Dad

Trad climber
Los Angeles, CA
  Jul 23, 2009 - 01:29pm PT
Thanks much for sharing and taking me away momentarily from the stack of paper on my desk. Never made it to Chamonix...

That one shot of the clogged via ferrata makes me glad the practice never caught on over here.

Trad climber
Lee, NH
  Jul 23, 2009 - 01:55pm PT
Here's our view from TÍte Rousse to the Gouter Hut (barely visible on the summit) in 1968.

My partner and I watched rocks falling down the couloirs, and decided that the left-hand rib
looked most safe. So we spent all day climbing that, while crowds of people hiked much faster
up the normal way to our right.


Trad climber
Living Outside the Statist Quo
  Jul 23, 2009 - 02:56pm PT
Great work and way to take advantage of time and place. Thanks for sharing!


Trad climber
Nothing creative to say
  Jul 23, 2009 - 05:09pm PT
this is daunting...

even if friendly it feels claustrophobic

Boulder climber
Institute of Better Bouldering-DirtbagDad Division
  Jul 23, 2009 - 06:56pm PT
A very nice combo report! Tanti auguri on the climb and what a great follow-on with the TdF stage.


Trad climber
San Diego
Author's Reply  Jul 24, 2009 - 02:07am PT
Yeah.. the crowds can be the crux. I think that it can easibly double your descent time depending on what time you decide to head down.
The tour is an amazing thing to watch! It is unfathomable how they can climb the way that they do!

Mountain climber
Colorado & Nepal
  Jul 24, 2009 - 07:10am PT
One of the reasons so many people died on Mt Blanc in the past is that the mountain contains enough magnetized iron to make compass readings inaccurate. If you got caught in a whiteout, you could not rely on a compass to get you down, and many people just walked off cliffs.

  Jul 24, 2009 - 11:14am PT
I'm starting my day with a smile on my face after reading your TR.
Thanks. I'd love to be up on that mountain.

Trad climber
  Jul 24, 2009 - 12:46pm PT
Now, THAT'S a Trip Report. Stellar.

Social climber
  Jul 24, 2009 - 02:12pm PT
Sweet dude! Thanks for posting!
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