My love for the mountains is eternal. And so is my curiosity to read through the climbing diaries of daring mountaineers and publishing their inspiring tales… This is a story about a trip that Michael Afanasyev undertook back in 2005 to climb the Mont Blanc, in his very own words…
I still remember each and every detail of it. I was accompanied by my friend Erik Ravenstijn, who despite being only 22, was already then an experienced climber, having ascended among others the Kilimajaro and the Aconcagua. Before attempting to climb the Mont Blanc, we spent a week in Switzerland, where we practiced our mountaineering skills and acclimatized for the altitude by climbing the Weissmies (read an account of that climb on my blog, Small European Country). From Switzerland we boarded the Mont Blanc Express train to Chamonix, which is an amazingly scenic railway route. And this is where the actual story of the Mont Blanc begins.
DAY 1 – Chamonix
The forecast is not encouraging – thunderstorms for tomorrow and what comes next only God knows. We manage to squeeze our tent into a spot on the campsite where at least 200 tents are already pitched on what supposed to be 80 places. Almost everyone here have already tried ascending the Mont Blanc or are about to, and it looks more than anything like the circus is in town.
DAY 2 – Desert de Pierre Ronde
In the morning, we leave excess luggage at the camping site and go to town to rent gear. At the store, the attendant enquiries in a thick French accent “and whitch mounta’n arrre you goin’g to climb?” “Mont Blanc”, I answer, in the most casual way I can, enjoying the disappearance of the smug expression from his face. “Oh la la! In thise shoos and with thise crrrampons? C’est no possible!”, and he runs off to sharpen the edges of my crampons. Good thing I didn’t add it was my second 4000’er and that the first was only three days ago. He might have gotten a stroke.
Geared up, we take the bus to Les Houches, 1100 m, the Téléphérique to Belleveu, 1800 m, the rail to Nid d’ Aigle, 2400 m, and step right into the epicenter of the circus. Some 25,000 people (twenty five thousand!) attempt to reach the summit of the Mont Blanc every year (and dozens die in accidents), and the slopes are filled with climbers and tourists. Mothers with strollers, grandmothers with plastic bags, people in shorts and slippers mix with fully equipped alpinists (like us).
Hiking up to the base of the Grand Couloir takes us 3 hours of strenuous hike through the so-called Desert de Pierre Ronde. Literally this means “desert of the round rocks”, and its a French idea of a joke. There’s not a single round pebble among the mass of jugged boulders there. We camp near the Tête Rousse hut, at 3187 m, pitching our tent between Scots, Norwegians, Poles and Americans. The view of the Grand Colouir is excellent, and we see people climbing up and down and rocks flying (only down). This is the most dangerous part of the climb, and it is advised to pass it early in the day, before the sun melts the rocks out of the ice and snow. As night falls, the thunderstorm hits, but the darkness, pouring rain and lightnings striking the rock face do not stop people from climbing, even at 2:00 AM at night.
DAY 3 – Grand Colouir
As usual, we rise before dawn. The thunderstorm still rages, so we wait until it clears a bit. Around 9:00 AM we can finally start our ascend. It really is not that difficult (PD+ at most), but… Firstly, there are steel cables which are supposed to make it easier to climb. Unfortunately, their fixing points actually ruin good grips and some of the cables have been there for a long time already, so they almost come off.
Secondly, many ‘climbers’ do not pay any attention to what they’re doing, including groping a cable someone else is already hanging onto, which on an almost vertical rock face is really hair-raising. We pass safely and by 11:00 AM we already set our tent in the snow, above the Aiguille du Gouter hut, 3817 m, burying the pegs as deep as possible and lie down to enjoy the view for the rest of the day.
DAY 4 — The Summit
We rise at 2:30 AM and by 3:00 AM we already join the line of people, lit up by headlamps and sounding like a slave caravan with all that gear clittering. We are plowing our way up the mountain through the immense snow fields at -10 degrees. Nearby the Bivoac Vallot refuge, 4362 m, the first light reveals the hundreds of people lined up to the top like an ant track. Above the refuge the trail becomes a snow ridge, with horrendous gaps on both sides, hundreds of meters deep. The sun rises, lighting up the sea of clouds from below by the most gentle shade of pink for a brief minute, before flooding the sky and the snow by the brightest light.
The last stretch to the top is the steepest, and the wind is at gale force. Being on a snow ridge (a hand-palm wide) at almost 5 km altitude is no joke under these conditions. It is so good we took the time to acclimatize, otherwise these last meters would have been a nightmare. By 6:30 AM we were at the top, the view is better than anything else in the world, but we are absolutely freezing up here. Clicking photos until the fingers start losing their grip on the camera, and we are headed down. About 150 meters below the top and a bit out of the wind we sit together and rest for a few minutes.
Going down is easier than up, but tiredness starts taking its toll. On the way down we hike up the top of the Dome du Gouter, 4304 m. Drowned in snow, its the flattest of mountains but it is classified as a separate peak. By 9:00 AM we are back at the tent. Kick off the shoes, put the kettle on and lie down on the mattress outside the tent in the morning sun – WOW!
DAY 5 — Down, Down, Down
Early start, again — we want to pass the Colouir before the masses. At 3:00 AM we dig out our tent pegs. The wind almost blows us off the mountain along with the tent etc. By now we are working together too good as a team. The tent is already packed but it is still pitch dark, so we have to wait for the first light to go down the Grand Coulouir. Erik has already had enough of this and starts to grumble at whoever came up with the idea of climbing the Mont Blanc. I remind him that it was his idea, and that shuts him up.
Finally, first light, and we fly down the Coulouir in 1.5 hours. Erik releases the tension by screaming out loud at the Mont Blanc. I can understand his relief; it was already his third attempt here, and just this spring he spent a week alone in his tent under the Colouir waiting unsuccessfully for good weather, dodging avalanches. By 10:00 AM we are already back in Chamonix, where the guy in the gear store is hugely relieved to see us back alive and well. We take the Mont Blanc Express back to Switzerland, to Michabel camping, where the tent frame snaps and breaks. A suitable ending to our adventure.
‘Wild’ camping is technically forbidden. But authorities generally ignore the campers as long as they camp out of sight, above the tree line, do not leave trash and do not light fires. The golden rule ‘Leave the place cleaner than it was before you‘ was applied by us throughout the trip.
A word of warning:
The Mont Blanc is a serious climbing undertaking that requires a great deal of fitness, a full set of mountaineering gear and preferably an experienced guide. A fantastic alternative to actually ascending the summit is the Tour du Mont Blanc hiking trail around the mountain. Erik, who has continued climbing since, reaching as high as Mount Everest, would be happy to be your guide on that trail (you can contact him via firstname.lastname@example.org).
A list of GEAR you will most definitely need:
- Thermal base layer
- Fleeces and waterproof outer shell
- Rigid crampon-compatible boots
- Glacier-proof sunglasses
- Headlight (with spare batteries)
- Liner gloves
- High-factor sun cream
- 30 to 50 meters of rope
- Ice axe
- Deadman/snow fluke
- Avalanche beacon
- A snow probe
- A shovel
- Garbage bag — take everything down with you!
About the Contributor: Michael was born in Russia, raised in Israel and for the past 12 years has been living in the Netherlands. He originally went there to study Aerospace Engineering in Delft. As time went by, he met his future wife, got married and now has two children. His local friends now plague him for being the most assimilated foreigner in the country. He has traveled extensively not only in Europe but also to other parts of the world, having been to over 40 countries and on 4 continents.