I climbed Mt Elbrus, officially Europe's highest peak in the summer of 2009, but never felt convinced that I was in Europe. Russia is a pretty poor country and it left me thinking of Asia as much as Europe. With that in mind, I decided I would also climb Mont Blanc, Western Europe's highest peak. I only had a brief window of time away from work, so it was a pretty short trip. I left for France on Tuesday and arrived in Chamonix on Wednesday afternoon. My guide took me on a short skin up/ski down climb on Thursday and then Friday we began our summit push.
We started from the middle station of the Aiguille du Midi cable car and skinned up to the Grand Mullets hut at about 10,000'.
Grand Mullets hut
Dome du Gouter. Note skin track leading to the ridge where we changed to crampons.
We left the hut on Saturday at 2:30 am in very windy conditions and went up the north ridge of the Dome du Gouter and the Les Bosses Ridge to the summit.
Cramponing up in the dark
We were behind about 40 or so people who left a little earlier and skinned up in strong wind and blowing snow for a couple of hours. By that time all the others had given up and turned back. We then cramponed up for another hour or two (it is hard to keep an accurate track of time in the dark and when you can't see your watch under all the layers of clothes!). It was steep enough that my guide set up two long pitches with a rope and belayed me. I needed to "clean" each pitch on my way up to him. We then switched back to skis and skinned for a long way up and along the ridge until it once again got too steep. We cramponed up to an emergency winter hut and ate a bit of food, drank deeply and leaving everything not absolutely needed we cramponed up the final 1,200' to the summit.
This final section had some seriously steep and exposed ridge lines - by far the most technically challenging climbing I have ever done. Were it not for my guide I wouldn't have continued. The ridge was only a few inches wide and we inched our way along it trying to not think of the 3,000 or more foot drop on each side that was too steep to have much chance of stopping before the bottom.
The final technical section. Big drops all around!
The last few steps to the summit of Western Europe
The weather cleared as we neared the top and we had some great views into France, Switzerland and Italy. The summit was pretty cold and windy so we didn't linger too long.
On the way back down Keith (my guide and the owner of All Mountain Adventures) stayed on one side of the ridge and I used the other side so in case I fell he would have no problem holding me.
Descending the scary ridge. I wore my US flag buff for the local's enjoyment.
Back at the emergency hut we put our skis on and skied some very challenging and variable snow for a long way down the glacier, working our way around crevasses and huge seracs. My legs really started to feel the burn!
Threading the needle.
We were running late for the last cable car down to town. If we missed it we would need to climb down a dirt trail in our ski boots for about 4,000' - not a pretty picture when you aren't tired but we were really tired! Keith put the pedal to the metal, carried my skis on the three brief climbs we needed to do and I just kept moving. We made it to the cable car with ten minutes to spare and I was really happy to have not only reached my goal, but also to not have to walk for several more hours in ski boots carrying my skis. All in all, we were going almost non-stop for a little more than 14 hours.
The area is absolutely magnificent and is a must-do for anyone who loves mountains. I spent Sunday riding back up to the top of the Aiguille du Midi's second cable car and enjoyed the views. Chamonix is a charming old world town and is obviously the epicenter of mountaineering. I encountered no language barriers, pleasant and friendly people, great food, nice (but expensive) shopping and of course some awe-inspiring scenery.