| Mont Blanc - 3 Monts Traverse
Mont Blanc, 15,782 ft
Group: Marc and me. Nicky and Dayna (Chamonix support team / spouses).
On August 5th we landed in Geneva with plans to climb Mt. Blanc then spend a week on the French Riviera. Many credit the first ascent of Mont Blanc, in 1786, to be the catalyst of modern mountaineering. All recognize it as the tallest mountain in the Alps. And a (perhaps misguided) few still regard it as one of the seven summits. Mont Blanc’s accessibility also makes it unique among notable peaks. An international airport sits an hour away from Chamonix, the home of the first winter Olympics and an epicenter of mountaineering. From near the center of town a cable car runs every ½ hour during the day making the 9,000 vertical foot approach to the L’ Aiguille du Midi station effortless. Set among the world class climbing of the Mont Blanc Range are a series of huts where, this time of year, breakfast is served at the early morning time of your choice before you put on your harness and tie in. Needless to say, we were excited.
Choice of routes was easy. Our friends Brandon (jbchalk) and Caleb (RoanMtnMan) had climbed Mont Blanc a couple years ago via the Three Monts Traverse and spoke highly of the route. We leaned on them for beta quite a bit in planning the trip and their insight was much appreciated. The Trois Monts Traverse gets climbed by many during the summer months but it’s less crowded and regarded as being more scenic, technical, and physically challenging than the other standard routes. Perfect. Our decision was affirmed when Marc’s copy of The Mont Blanc Range, Classic Snow, Ice and Mixed Climbs arrived and the route on Mont Blanc it chose to highlight was the Three Monts Traverse.
Our First Attempt – August 5 & 6, 2011
Upon arriving in Switzerland on that Friday morning we confirmed that the forecast had deteriorated and a significant storm (by summer standards) was forecasted to hit the Mont Blanc range Saturday night through Monday morning. Our planned summit day was Sunday. We drove the hour to Chamonix, learned what we could about the weather, decided to forgo sleeping off the jet lag in the hotel room, and instead caught the last cable car to Aiguille du Midi at 12,400ft (stairs or an elevator take you an additional 200 vertical to observation decks). We stepped off the cable car around 6:30 p.m. with a group of six French climbers and made our way through the tunnel towards the climbers exit.
I was a little nervous about leaving the safety of the Aiguille du Midi as visibility could have been better. It’s also worth mentioning that a slip to the left without arrest takes you much of the 9,000 vertical feet back to town.
The French climbers asked of us if we were headed to the Cosmiques Refuge. We were. They also asked us if we knew where it was. Not exactly, but we had a map and an understanding of the terrain from looking at photos in advance of our trip.
We descended from the Aiguille du Midi to the Col du Midi at 11,500 as the weather cleared a bit and we were able to spot the Cosmiques hut. The hut sleeps 120 and was fairly empty given the weather. Otherwise you’ll want to call ahead and make a reservation (# at the hut is 33450544016).
Coming off an international flight and a long day, we had no problem falling asleep shortly after arriving at the hut. Staying asleep while another group in our room jumped into and out of their top bunks for hours was difficult. I think a few of them were altitude sick. Breakfast was served at 1, 3, or 5. We chose 3 a.m.
Coincidentally, the Italian climber sleeping next to me (literally, as there was no space between the narrow mattresses) woke at the same time and geared up for the same route. It turned out that Luigi and Francisco were the only team we would see the entire day going for the 3 Monts Traverse.
After crossing the Col du Midi we led the way towards the shoulder of the Mont Blanc du Tacul at around 13,300ft with the Italians just behind us. New snow had already fallen so some trail breaking was necessary.
Marc negotiating one of the crevasses on the Tacul face.
As the sun began to rise the weather began to get rather unpleasant. We found a snow block for a tent on the Col Maudit (about 800ft below the Col du Mont Maudit) and discussed things with the Italians. Our points in favor of turning around included the fact that the weather was supposed to get worse, the terrain was about to get more challenging, the trail breaking was getting more onerous, we had a few more hours of climbing to the summit, and we were already down to about 30 wands (bamboo tomato stakes and orange duct tape for route marking – TSA thought they were arrows).
After pushing on a few hundred vertical feet towards the Col du Mont Maudit we decided to call it a day. The Italians took over the trail breaking and pushed on. They’re pictured in the center of the photo here, grouped together, just a couple hundred feet above where we turned around. If they made the summit that day they certainly earned it.
Looking back up at a party we crossed paths with on the way down. I think they were trying to reach Mont Blanc du Tacul before the storm socked things in.
Marc headed towards the Cosmiques Hut and the Aiguille du Midi.
This has got to be one of the more scenic trailheads in the world – the start of the climb at the Aiguille du Midi.
Back in Chamonix, where you can walk around in mountaineering boots with a double scoop of pistachio and nutella gelato while looking for spare parts for your crampons and no one gives it a second thought.
Intermission on the French Riviera
We moved some reservations around and left town as the rain hit Chamonix and snow pounded the mountains above. On the way to the French Riviera we stopped in Genoa, Italy to break up the drive and enjoy some pizza. Genoa (Genova in Italian) is also home of the largest port in Italy.
Stopped in Monaco for the lunch the next day where we saw many ridiculous yachts,
checked out Prince Albert II’s crib,
and stopped by the casino in Monte Carlo, albeit very briefly.
Then on to Cannes, where we hit the beach and relaxed on the pier.
Had a nice dinner at Le Voilier and were entertained by all the exotic cars. As Marc said best, they must have been giving away Ferraris and Bentleys somewhere nearby because we saw dozens.
My favorite was the Lamborghini SV with a Dubai license plate parked in the middle of the road.
Tuesday we explored the town of Antibes, France and the adjacent beach.
Spent a few nights at a unique villa in Mougins (thanks for the hookup Nicky!) complete with a private rooftop with distant views of Nice, Cannes, and the Med.
Wednesday was another breach day in St. Tropez.
Fought the beach traffic into the town of St. Tropez and caught a nice sunset.
Went parasailing with Dayna in Nice on Thursday. Marc and Nicky grabbed a shot of us from their spot on the beach.
A short walk up Castle Hill at the edge of Nice yielded a great view of town.
Gelato was enjoyed at least once a day.
On Friday we left the coast and headed north through Torino, Italy back to Chamonix. Had dinner with the girls and gathered our climbing gear in preparation of round two.
Our Second Attempt – August 12 & 13, 2011
The Téléphérique de l'Aiguille du Midi is broken into two sections from Chamonix to the Aiguille du Midi. The second portion, pictured here, climbs 4,800 vertical feet without any support pillar. We caught the second to last one at 5:30 p.m.
Somewhat surprisingly, visibility that evening was worse than the weekend prior. Had we not been to the Cosmiques Hut previously it would have proved quite difficult to find. Shortly after this picture was taken we crossed paths with a few parties on the knife edge who looked utterly exhausted. One member of the rope team inquired of the time, and when I told him it was a few minutes after six he looked entirely defeated. The last cable car had left minutes ago so I assume these tired climbers were in for a long night on the floor of the Aiguille du Midi.
With the favorable weather forecast the hut was at capacity. Parties without reservations were being turned away to retreat to the Aiguille du Midi and join the other climbers on the floor. I ended up with a bed assignment in the middle of the bottom bunk of this 24 person room. Also note the standard issues sandals. Since we were some of the last to the hut Marc ended up with a pair that didn’t match in size or color.
Actually slept pretty well until PGHM landed a rescue helicopter outside the window a little before midnight. We had heard the heli buzzing around throughout the day and I read somewhere that it’s not uncommon for them to have a dozen rescue missions on a busy summer weekend. Marc happened to be using the restroom and watched them rescue the climber suffering from HAPE.
Going downstairs at 1am to find a few dozen climbers in line for the cereal, orange juice, and bread was quite the contrast to the previous weekend. The gear room was jammed so many folks finished getting geared up outside.
Left the Cosmiques Hut at 1:30am with enough moonlight that until we hit the Mont Blanc du Tacul shadow no headlamp was necessary. We passed the only group to take off in front of us and began the first part of the climb. Being in front is important as the route is subject to a fair bit of objective serac fall hazard and with didn’t want to get caught behind slow moving parties or stuck in a queue at a crevasse crossing.
Took a break near the shoulder of Mont Blanc du Tacul and watched the headlamps close the gap.
We had to lose a little vert as we descended towards the Col Maudit (13,240ft) where we took shelter the week prior. We crossed the low spot and climbed the winding path through the seracs to reach the fixed lines below the Col du Mont Maudit at 14,000ft. We used ascenders on the first 100ft but snow and a little ice covered the ropes for the second half. It was fairly steep towards the top, probably in the 50 to 55 degree range. Here is a shot of Marc on the first section.
From the Aiguille du Midi the summit of Mont Blanc looks deceptively close to the Col du Mont Maudit. In reality, you have to lose a couple hundred vertical feet before making a rather long traverse and climb about 1,600ft to the summit. I thought we handled the altitude fairly well and this section still took over 2 hours.
The wind was intense and caused us to put on every layer we had. At one point I had on my head a balaclava, hat, hooded fleece, hooded down jacket, hooded shell, and goggles. Sunrise was a very well received event. Pictured here are a couple climbers behind us crossing the Col de la Brenva.
I think we hit the summit around 8am. That’s a guess because I didn’t consider removing my glove to look at my watch. Marc taking a short break:
On the top of the Alps at 15,782ft.
Unfortunately we weren’t able to spend very long as the top, knowing we were more than an hour away from reaching a reprieve from the wind.
A shot looking back on our way down at the climbers behind us crossing the Col de la Brenva and regaining some vert. It would also appear at this point that the well laid path might be much closer to the edge of that massive cornice than it should. Woops.
A shot by Marc looking back at me and the Mont Blanc summit from the Col du Mont Maudit.
The Col du Mont Maudit also marks the top of the fixed line. The lines being somewhere beneath the snow.
Marc looking down at Aiguille du Midi, Chamonix, and the top of the accessible portion of the fixed lines.
The slope angle in this area was somewhere around 60 degrees so I set up an anchor with my axe and belayed Marc to the horn pictured below. I then followed, very slowly since my belayer was initially about 80 feet below me. Most of my mountaineering trips are ski mountaineering trips, so downclimbing snow that steep is something that really had my undivided attention.
I downclimbed past Marc on belay over to the horn where we were planning to tie our two 30 meter ropes together and rap. We had brought an extra 30 meter just in case we needed it to get down this section.
I’m still trying to figure out the French. When it comes to eating, they have an inordinate amount of patience (no complaints here). But when it comes to lines, be that the line at the gelato stand, the fixed line on the mountain, or another team’s rappel lines, they have no patience whatsoever. We had people climbing over, under, and around our rope. Ultimately we decided it was quicker to clip the fixed line and down we went.
Marc taking a short break with the jagged east ridge of Mont Blanc du Tacul in the distance. At this point we also had a direct view of Chamonix and I was able raise Dayna on the radio about 11,000 vertical feet lower as she enjoyed breakfast.
Away from the seracs and presumably the crevasses we relaxed for a bit in the sun near the same spot where we took shelter from the storm the weekend prior.
Marc got this shot looking back up at the steep section on Mont Maudit with the fixed lines. On the way down we belayed the top section from the col to the rock outcropping in the center. The route then descends between the searcs in the bottom of this photo.
Another picture showing a few parties descending our route on Maudit.
From left to right: Chamonix, Aiguille du Midi, and Marc.
More of the Mont Blanc range and the gondolas to Italy.
Crossing the Col du Midi and enjoying a nice view of Cosmiques and the many parties descending from the Aiguille du Midi. This is also the approximate site where the 7 mile long Mont Blanc Tunnel connects Italy and France, approximately 7,000ft below the glacier.
Dayna met us at the Aiguille du Midi and got a shot of me taking in the view before finishing the climb.
Marc on the final steps.
The chocolate pastries and bottled water Dayna brought up from Chamonix were enjoyed very shortly after this picture was taken.
The 3 of us grabbed the next cable car back to Chamonix where we met Nicky and relaxed for a bit while we planned the rest of the afternoon. Needless to say it included at least one scoop of nutella and one scoop of pistachio gelato.
Later that afternoon we drove to Geneva, Switzerland where we caught what was touted as the largest fireworks show in Europe, from our outside table at the pub. The grand finale was ridiculous.
Dayna and I got up shortly after sunrise the next morning and were rewarded with a nice walk along the shore of Lake Geneva.
We then made haste to the airport. After all, it was Sunday and we had to work the next day.
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