Michel Gabriel Paccard and Jacques Balmat became the first people to reach the summit of Western Europeâs highest mountain on August 8, 1786. The route the two men followed âascending the Glacier des Bossons until roughly below the current Vallot hut and then traversing to the Rochers Rouges (known as the Ancient Passage) on the final section of the 4,000 m traverseâ is now impassable in summer. Climbing the Glacier des Bossons is no easy task in the 21st century and is only a viable route in winter and spring; in the summer of 2015, even the ascent to the Aiguille du GoÃ»ter had to be closed. The glaciers, constantly cracking and retreating, continue to guard the access to this nearly 5,000 m mountain in the heart of Europe. Is climbing Mont Blanc still a good idea? Is it dangerous? Is there any easy way to avoid the crowds?
We have included a stunning route in addition to the three most popular routes up the mountain; this route connects the 4,300 m with the DÃ´me de GoÃ»ter via the Durier hut. Despite its PD+ grade, this is a thrilling alpine route: challenging, long and truly unforgettable.
If you decide to take any of these routes we highly recommend that, in addition to having the required high-mountain experience along with the right equipment, you hire a certified UIAGM guide. This is a crucial step that makes it easier to get the most out of this experience and takes the intense pressure of having to reserve huts off your shoulders (in many cases, the GoÃ»ter hut can only be reserved through a guide).
Text: David Atela
Photos: David Atela, JonÃ¡s Cruces, Todovertical V+
MONT BLANC, 4,808 M
VIA THE GOÃTER HUT AND RIDGE
- Recommended time of year: All summer. The cables on the ascent to GoÃ»ter are usually buried in autumn and summer and then the route climbs Payot ridge (II, mixed and 45, right-hand side of the Grand Couloir).
- Difficulty: PD- (II-, 35Âº and exposed on the summit ridge). Risk of rock fall on the ascent to GoÃ»ter, especially on warm days. Glacier zone on the Dome du GoÃ»ter. Fresh snow makes the ridge narrow and precarious.
- Access to GoÃ»ter hut (4 hours 30 minutes, 1,470 meters of vertical ascent). Ascent to the summit (3 hours 40 minutes; 1,060 meters of vertical ascent). You can descend directly on the same day or stay overnight at the GoÃ»ter or Tete Rousse huts.
- Pros: Easy access and good location of the GoÃ»ter hut. Low glacier exposure. Easy descent.
- Cons: Crowds. Rock fall on the way to GoÃ»ter. Delicate ridge if there is unstable weather or shallow footholds.
- Accommodation: GoÃ»ter hut (3,815 m, FFCAM, open with meals served from June to September, 120 beds, 20 in winter hut. Tel. 0450544093, reservation required â in most cases you can only reserve with a guide). Tete Rousse hut (+33 4 50 58 24 97)
A snowy col on the western corner of the north face of Mont Blanc, the Aiguille du GoÃ»ter was first summited in 1861 (L. Stephen, F. Tuckett, M. Anderegg, J. Bennen and P. Perren) via a direct route up the ridgeâs dramatic western flank from St. Gervais.
This route made it possible to reach the top of the glaciers without having to traverse its cracked and crevassed lower tongues, on a climb up loose rock that has recently proved dangerous, as the ice that holds the rock in place melts during the warmth of summer (rock fall).
TO THE GOÃTER HUT
The Bellevue cable car from Les Houches or the tram from St. Gervais (similar prices) always connects with the tramway on the last section that takes you to the beginning of the route in Nid d'Aigle (2,372 m; 3 hour 30 minute walk from Bionnassay via the Chalet de l'Are).
A well-established path (ENE) on a wide stone trail leads to the Baraque ForestiÃ¨re des Rognes (a small, unmanned hut) (SE) and then branches to the right to merge into the rocky spur (easy trail over rocks) that descends from the Plateau where the TÃªte Rousse hut (3,165 m. 2 hour; 10 minutes away from the GoÃ»ter route) is located.
The trail then traverses the glacier and leads to the impressive Grand Couloir (support cable, frequent avalanches and rock fall). Move quickly across the Grand Couloir and begin the climb to the GoÃ»ter hut; there are sections with and without cables (3,815 m. 4 hours 30 minutes).
TO THE SUMMIT
Three a.m. is a good time to leave the hut (3,815 m. along the snowy flank of the Aiguille du GoÃ»ter (SSE, wide ridge at first), and then directly cross the wide slope (SE, 25-30Âº, some transverse crevasses) that will take you to the flattened summit of the DÃ´me du GoÃ»ter (4,304 m. 1 hour 30 minutes).
Descend the opposite slope (ESE, be very careful of reduced visibility if the trail is lost) to the wide Col du DÃ´me (4,255 m. 1 hour 40 minutes) and climb to reach the Vallot bivouac hut and observatory (4,362 m. 2 hours). Continue along the upper part of this snowy slope (SE), which narrows and leads to a snowy ridge where the snow-capped peaks of Les Bosses (ESE, surrounding on the left) can be seen.
A short stop on a ledge (4,490 m. 2 hours 30 minutes) gives you the chance to catch your breath before climbing the Petite Bosse, which marks the beginning of the snowy ridge (ESE, starts slightly steep, then gets steeper, SE and steep on both sides, minimum ledge on the southern side) that will lead to the Tournette Spur (4,675 m. 3 hours 20 minutes). The ridge bears toward the left and becomes less steep until the ground levels out on the wide summit of Mont Blanc (4,808 m. 3 hours 40 minutes).
VIA VAL VENY AND THE GONELLA HUT. THE POPE ROUTE
- Recommended time of year: June and July. At the end of summer there is a delicate route that avoids the open and impassable glacier via the Aiguilles Grises.
- Difficulty: PD (I; 40Âº). Complex glacial terrain in the middle zone of the DÃ´me Glacier. Narrow sections of rock and snow around the PitÃ³n des Italiens and on the ridge (GoÃ»ter route). Long crossing over high snowy ridges (attention to changes in weather and exhaustion).
- Access to the Gonella hut (6 hours; 1,500 meters of vertical ascent). Ascent to the summit (1 hour 30 minutes, 1,830 meters of vertical ascent). Long descent at a dangerous time of day on the glacier (night at the Gonella hut). Climbers frequently descend along the 4,000 m traverse route until the Col du Midi and then the Torino hut (descent by cable car to Courmayeur).
- Pros: Extremely elegant route, technically simple (in the absence of crevasses) and much less busy.
- Cons: Long, tough approach in the beginning over the Miage Glacier. The summit is far from the Gonella refuge. Crevasses on the DÃ´me Glacier. Poorly marked trail until it joins the GoÃ»ter route.
- Accommodation: Gonella hut (3,072 m; CAI Torino, open with meals served from mid-June to August, 42 beds, 25 in winter hut. Tel. 390165885101).
The route up the southwestern flank of Mont Blanc was first completed in 1868 (F. A. Yeats-Brown and J. Grange). In 1872 (T.S. Kennedy, J. Fischer and J.A. Carrel) summited Mont Blanc via the Monte Bianco Glacier, reaching the separation between the DÃ´me Glacier (where the Quintino Sella hut will be built a few years later) and the entire Rocher du Mont Blanc spur that joins the Les Bosses ridge.
In 1890, after spending the night in the Vallot cabin, then under construction, brothers Bonin, L. Graselli, J. Gradin, A. Proment and Achille Ratti, who went on to be named Pope Pius XI 32 years later, decided to descend along what is today called the âNormal Italian Routeâ.
The Val Veny can be reached by car or by bus from Courmayeur to Visaille (1,660 m), where there is an area where you can park your car.
An old trail leads to the opening of the valley of Lake Combal (1,950 m. 1 hour.) We bear right on a flat trail that leads past the lake towards the hidden Lac du Miage and climb up the right moraine of the Miage Glacier. We descend to the bottom of the uncomfortably rocky glacier and continue along the edge of the glacier following the markers and cairns (NNW, then NW, rocks with ice below) towards the head of this Himalayan-like valley. The Aiguilles Grises spur marks the point where the valley starts to become steep, with a flat trail along its base (2,460 m. 4 hours 15 minutes).
We continue along the Bionnassay ridge to the start of the Gonella Route, a well-marked point (2,600 m. 4 hours 50 minutes).
The rocky path transverses to our right (E) to enter the adjacent valley, gaining elevation between the rocky ledges and with the help of cables, over spurs and scree you reach the Gonella hut (3,072 m. 6 hours).
TO THE SUMMIT
Departing the Gonella hut (3,072 m) at midnight is recommended. A steep horizontal path on steep slopes will take us to a shoulder and lateral slope that leads to the DÃ´me du Glacier.
We start by climbing the glacier on the right (N) and then traversing diagonally towards the middle of the glacier along the flattest section. The terrain is more crevassed here, so the exact route taken (right or left) will be determined by the conditions on the glacier. Follow the branch of the glacier between the spurs that descend from DÃ´me de GoÃ»ter and the Aiguilles Grises. An intermediate ledge leads us to a fairly easy access on the left (NW, some transverse crevasses) to a stretch of dirt and snow that appears above the upper peak of the Aiguille Grises. We climb to this part at the most obvious point and at the foot of an upper section that looks passable, topping a small col (Col des Aiguilles Grises, 3,810 m. 2 hours 50 minutes) from which quite a few easy routes lead (NNE, some grade I passages, scree, also snowy sections) until crowning the rocky peak known as PitÃ³n des Italiens (4002 m., 3 hours 20 minutes).
We continue to the right along a ridge that soon offers a view towards the north and two steep, narrow uphill sections (ENE), to crown a first snowy ridge that twists slightly to the left and then a steep glacier and broader peak (NE, two sections) to the DÃ´me de GoÃ»ter (4304 m. 4 hours 20 minutes).
We join the GoÃ»ter Route to summit Mont Blanc (4,808 m. 6 hours 30 minutes).
VIA THE 4,000 M TRAVERSE. THE COSMIQUES ROUTE
- Recommended time of year: June and summer. The flanks of Mt. Blanc de Tacul and Mont Maudit are heavy with snow in spring and have too many crevasses at the end of the season.
- Difficulty: PD (40Âº up to 55Âº). Frequent avalanches on Mt. Blanc de Tacul at the beginning of the season. Large crevasses at the base of this mountain and on the route to the Col du Mont Maudit (short sections up to 55Âº, sometimes impassable).
- Access to the Cosmiques hut (25 minutes; 80 meters of vertical ascent). Ascent to the summit (7 hours 20 minutes; 1,700 meters of vertical ascent). Descent along the same route or along the GoÃ»ter route.
- Pros: Good location and short distance from the summit from the Cosmiques hut. Elegant and elevated glacier route that crowns three 4,000-m peaks. Slightly difficult section.
- Cons: Traffic at key glacier crossings (crevasses, bergschrund) with changing complexity. Long traverses over confusing areas with no visibility and extremely exposed to inclement weather. Sections of forced ascent on the return route. When using the cable car to reach the Aiguille du Midi (it is impossible otherwise), the feeling of a complete ascent is lost.
- Accommodation: Cosmiques hut (3,613 m. Private, open with meals from February to September, 148 beds. Tel. 33450544016). Authorized bivouac on the Col du Midi.
We take both sections of the Aiguille du Midi cable car (3,750 m) from Chamonix and exit through the tunnel leading to the upper end of the Glacier du Geant (snowy, somewhat exposed, cables) and then descend towards the right (S, then SSW) on an easy slope that reaches the snowy plateau of the Col du Midi. Weâll find the Cosmiques hut to the right before reaching the col (3,613 m. 25 minutes).
TO THE SUMMIT
We depart around 1:30 a.m. to return via the glacier along the same route we took to the hut and then bear right until we reach the frozen ledge of the Col du Midi (3,530 m. 10 minutes). We climb the wide slope of the glacier that appears to the right of the spur, climbing above it (SSW) in order to avoid the bergschrund, depending on the conditions (in August the wall is 55Âº, sometimes has an artificial bridge and can become impassable).
The route ascends the long slope (N, 30-35Âº, avalanches with unstable snow, large crevasses sometimes appear) in search of the shoulder towards the right around the summit of Mont Blanc de Tacul. We continue towards the left along an easy route (SE) towards the eastern summit of the mountain (4,428 m. 2 hours 45 minutes) before descending back to the middle of the summit face and bearing left down a slight slope (S, 25-30Âº, can be confusing in reduced visibility) into the Col Maudit (4,035 m. 3 hours 15 minutes).
Now we climb diagonally to the right (WSW) to line up with the flank of the glacier on the northern side of Mont Maudit. Weâll gain elevation over the center of the basin (SSW, 35Âº) and then traverse to the right (WSW) over the less pronounced area that provides access to the Col du Mont Maudit. The final traverse to the right, as well as the bergschrund and the wall that protects its access, are usually steep (45Âº, rappel mounted pitches), although generally with good footholds.
From the small col of Mont Maudit (4,345 m. 4 hours 50 minutes) we reach the top of Mont Maudit (4,465 m. 5 hours 15 minutes).
We return along a section of the same route and then have a bit of steep traversing to reach the Col de la Brenva (4,300 m. 5 hours 45 minutes'). A steep climb to the right (SW) leads to the snowy spur known as Mur de la Cote (generally sticking out 35-40Âº and extremely complicated when there is bergschrund).
From there, the only thing left to tackle is the rather endless snowy slope to the summit of Mont Blanc (4,808 m. 7 hours 20 minutes).
VIA THE AIGUILLE DE BIONNASSAY
- Recommended time of year: The rocky sections of the normal Bionnassay route should be free of snow, but conditions along the crest of the snowy summit wonât necessarily be free of ice. The Miage Glacier can have some hidden crevasses towards the end of summer.
- Difficulty: PD+ (III+; snowy ridge, 40Âº sections). Scree and a confusing path on the ascent to the Durier hut. The ânormalâ Bionnassay route is famous for being difficult and long, and after traversing the Bionnassay climbers must continue along a steep snowy ridge to the Col de Bionnassay.
- Access to the Durier hut (7 hours; 2,300 meters of vertical ascent). Ascent to the summit (8 hours, 1,770 meters of vertical ascent). Descent along the GoÃ»ter route.
- Pros: Well-formed, elegant rock ridge, good snow conditions and with a perfect base camp at the Durier hut. You can descend from the DÃ´me de GoÃ»ter without having to continue on to the Mont Blanc if youâre running behind schedule.
- Cons: Long route over rough terrain to the Durier hut. The SSW Bionnassay spur requires that climbers be experienced in alpine adventures, as there are two technical rock-climbing sections. There are mixed (II) and snowy (40Âº) sections high up until the summit. Bionnassayâs impressive snowy ridge, moderately difficult in good conditions, becomes more challenging with fresh ice, snow and inclement weather (extreme exposure).
- Accommodation: Durier hut (3,355 m. CAF Saint Gervais, open year-round with a part-time guardian from mid-June to mid-September; 14 beds; Tel. 0689532510; bunk beds with mats and blankets; there is usually water in the afternoon in summer in a pool at the start of the descent towards Les Contamines).
TO THE DURIER HUT
Three kilometers before reaching the town of Les Contamines Montjoie, a narrow asphalt road branches off to the left, heading toward the village of Gruvaz (1,130 m). A path leads immediately to the narrow course of the Torrent du Miage, where passage along the left side is possible. We shouldnât follow the paths of the gorge, but rather climb up (S, right, then left) to Le Chosal (1,205 m, 15 minutes), a safe distance from the torrent.
There we cross a section of path that continues to ascend (S) sharply through the forest to the edge of Maison Neuve, and then (left, ENE) again along the banks of the Torrent du Miage through the extensive meadows that are home to the Chalet de Miage (1,560 m. 1 hour 10 minutes; accessible by taxi from Saint-Gervais). We leave the Col de Tricot hiking trail and continue through the meadows (right, SE, several watercourses) looking for the head of the valley until we find a faint marked path among the scree (E). We then climb to the left, dodging a spur (ENE) that has detached from the Pointe de Chapelland on the Tricot ridge. Already well above the valley we find a lateral path and traverse to the right (ESE) until reaching, at the foot of a rocky ledge, the Plan Glacier hut (2,730 m. 4 hours; Private, 20 beds, meals and part-time guardian from mid-June to mid-September).
The path continues (SE) down a slight incline along the base of the rock and towards the head of the Miage valley, across a lateral spur (markers, grade I passages, some cables), and then a snowfield (E) followed by a new spur (SE, beat-up cables, pitches and then descent from the middle of the crest to find slopes leading down to the glacier, S). After the cables, we must walk along (grade II passages, slick sections, useful rope) on a typical glacier field, which we cross (SE, 2,800 m. 4 hours 55 minutes) to the foot of the spur that protects access to the Col de Miage.
TO THE SUMMIT
The route continues on a rock above the Durier refuge (3,355 m) along a ledge that leads to a slope towards the Italian side that can be easily climbed between scree and firm rock (NE, faint path). Then we climb the snowy slope that ends in a horizontal snowy ridge (N, avoid the cornices, 3,600 m. 50 minutes). A mixed section forces us to search for the best approach (I +) and culminates at the ridge, after which we turn left along the snowy crest that reaches an easy col at the foot of the mountainâs biggest ledge (3,780 m. 1 hour 45 minutes).
The path is now above us, a trail to the right leading to the foot of a prominent dihedral/chimney that we have to abseil down. We climb between dihedral and slabs (III +, IV) to the crevasse with a belay with parabolts.
The last section of the ridge offers a number of mixed spurs that can be traversed slightly to the right (II, somewhat exposed) to reach a snowy crest where we ascend to the left (40Âº, quite exposed) to the mogote summit of the Aiguille de Bionnassay (4,052 m. 3 hours 30 minutes).
We descend now to the right of the ridge (NE, then ENE, below the summit) on a fairly easy ridge that begins to narrow and forces us to round a typical cornice. We can then advance again on the Italian side, on an increasingly easy slope that reaches the spectacular Col de Bionnassay (3,888 m. 4 hours 25 minutes).
We now climb higher to avoid several cornices and continue along the edge of the snowy ridge (E, soon ESE), climbing up rocky ground that offers relatively comfortable footholds somewhat to the right of the edge (scree) to the summit the PitÃ³n des Italiens (4,002 m, 4 hours 50 minutes).
Here we join the Val Veny and Gonella hut routes, which summit the DÃ´me de GoÃ»ter (4,304 m. 5 hours 50 minutes, possible descent to the GoÃ»ter hut) and, on the GoÃ»ter route, we can summit Mont Blanc 4,808 m. 8 hours).