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Climb Mont Blanc FAQ's

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Rob Jarvis

Wednesday 23 November 2011 5:07:55 pm

Please add your own questions, answers or comments on climbing Mont Blanc to this forum post:

How fit do you need to be to climb Mont Blanc?

You need to be fit and fit in the right places! The summit day involves around 12 hours of almost constant exertion at high altitude. Whilst this is a generally tiring day there are also specific demands placed on your cardio-vascular system and leg muscles. This is best trained for by going hill / mountain walking or mountaineering. Working out in a gym is a lot better than nothing but is not a replacement for the real thing. The physical challenges of climbing Mont Blanc are often widely under estimated resulting in a lot of folk ‘running out of steam’ and having to turn around on the mountain. It is not uncommon for even very fit people like marathon runners to describe the summit day as the hardest thing they have ever done. Don’t be put off if you think you are ‘more of a tortoise than a hare!’. It is never necessary to go very fast on the mountain, more just to be able to keep moving for about an hour and a half at a time (before having a very brief drink / snack stop). It is hard to get a feel for the way the high altitude will effect you without actually trying it but be aware that it is extremely important to not get exhausted on the climb and completely run out of steam on the descent. So, in addition to a high level of general fitness, stamina and determination are also required to climb the mountain with some style and a decent safety margin.

How hard is the climbing on Mont Blanc? Do I need some mountaineering experience?

Via the 'normal route' the ascent is made on a rough rocky path, up to the Tete Rousse Hut and, in normal conditions, this should be a fairly straightforward walk. The next section leading to the Gouter Hut, often climbed in the dark, is steeper and involves some rocky or mixed (snow and ice on the rocks) scrambling sections. This is never hard ‘climbing’ but it is necessary to use your hands for the steeper sections and crampons are often worn, giving a fine mountaineering feel. This is the most technically challenging section of the route as, above the Gouter Hut the way ahead lies entirely on snow. The terrain up to the Vallot Reguge is mainly quite easy glacier walking whereas the impressive final sections of the ‘Bosses Ridge’ has some steeper snow slopes. These are sometimes icy and call for steady crampon work. The final narrow section of summit ridge is a little exposed but there is normally a good track and this provides a superb and fitting climax to reaching the summit.

Climbing Mont Blanc from the Aiguille du Midi / Cosmiques Hut involves a longer and steeper ascent on snow and ice. There is one sustained steep snow or icy slope of about 60m to reach the shoulder on Mont Maudit and overall this is a more challenging route. The Italian route on Mont Blanc from the new Gonella Hut is generally not as steep as this ‘3 Monts Route’ but is very long and passes through some big glacier country giving a serious overall feel to the route. There are many other routes up the mountain but they are all technically harder than the main three mentioned here and all require a lot more mountaineering skill to climb.

Whilst, on the normal routes the technical difficulties are not great it is very strongly recommended that you have a good level of experience climbing in crampons and travelling roped together on a crevassed glacier as well as the more general mountaineering skills of looking after yourself and navigating. If you don't have this experience but hire a Mountain Guide to run a full Mont Blanc course (usually at least 6 days) you can usually develop sufficient skill at the start of the course to go on and climb the mountain with the Guide.

Do I need to hire a Mountain Guide to climb Mont Blanc?

No, there is no requirement to hire a Guide and, happily, in the mountains we are all free to climb as we please. However if you do not already have the mountaineering skills described above, and want to maintain a reasonable margin of safety then yes, you would be strongly advised to hire a fully qualified IFMGA Mountain Guide. Not only will they offer you a training and acclimatisation programme and look after you on the mountain they will also arrange other aspects of the ascent like planning the schedule, booking the huts and often making difficult decisions about whether or not it is safe to continue in the prevailing weather.

Is climbing Mont Blanc dangerous?

Yes, but so is driving along the busy motorway to get there.... By hiring a Mountain Guide and receiving the benefits of their wisdom, accumulated from climbing many mountains before, a lot of these hazards are strongly reduced. By spending some time mountaineering training and acclimatising at the start of a Mont Blanc week you are increasing your own margin of safety. There are however some hazards that are beyond the control of the Guide. The crossing of the Grand Couloir on the Gouter Route and passages beneath seracs (ice cliffs) on the 3 Monts Rout present objective hazards that can only be minimised with awareness and swift travel. Even then they cannot be eliminated and folk should be fully aware of these inherent objective hazards when deciding to climb Mont Blanc.

What is the best time of year to climb Mont Blanc?

The classic season to climb the mountain on foot is during the summer months of June – September. Ski ascents are usually made from late March to May. The most amenable weather is usually during the ‘high summer season’ although the mountain and huts can get very busy in late July and August. Autumn often provides cool but fine stable weather and, with the closure of the huts meaning a greater degree of self reliance, an ascent at this time of year can provide a fine ‘expedition feel’. A tougher ascent but often with good conditions and a quiet mountain. Not many people climb Mont Blanc in winter due to the Arctic like cold, serious weather and deep snow giving very tough trail breaking and an increased avalanche risk.

How cold is it on the summit?

Even in high summer the temperature is usually below freezing point and often around -5C to -10C. On a calm sunny day this temperature can feel pleasant and a short break can even be taken on the summit to admire the views and enjoy a sandwich. However with cloud and wind chill this can feel seriously cold and any skin exposed to the wind will need to be covered to avoid frost nip. Ascents outside the main summer season take on a much more serious feel as the mountains climate is more akin to Arctic or Himalayan conditions than classic summer alpine. Temperatures as low as -40C have been recorded in winter.

How bad can the weather be before we have to turn around on summit day?

Strong winds, above around 50km/hr, can make the upper mountain a dangerous place due to the cold, getting blown around and the loss of a helicopter rescue option. Poor visibility in thick cloud means crevasses and steep snow slopes can not be negotiated efficiently. Fresh snow can present an avalanche risk and rain will elevate the stone fall risk in the Grand Couloir. Alpine electrical storms present a very real danger to the mountaineer. Any one of these weather factors are likely to result in being forced to retreat, or not leaving the hut at all, on summit day. Poor weather can be dealt with to a greater extent lower on the mountain, approaching the huts and for the training phase but good weather is required to climb Mont Blanc!

What if I get too tired to continue but my friend wants to carry on climbing?

Stay together and descend. The entire upper mountain is glaciated, which means that there are crevasses and the party should stay roped together because of this. You also need to look after each other as people suffering from tiredness may slow down and are especially vulnerable to Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) induced by the high altitude environment. The only proper cure for this is descent.

What if I have or see an accident and need to call for help?

If you or someone else on the mountain has a serious injury or is suffering from altitude sickness you should call for a mountain rescue. Before doing this take as good immediate care of the injured person as possible and establish the following information. Your location (description and map co-ordinates, for additional accuracy examine the smart phone applications that may be able to give you these if you don’t have a GPS) & altitude. The casualty’s name, age & sex; the nature of their injuries / illness, level of consciousness. Current weather, wind speed and direction at your location.

In the Chamonix Valley a mountain rescue service is provided by the Peloton de Gendarmerie de Haute Montagne, (PGHM) an extremely professional branch of the French military. If you are near a hut, contacting the hut staff or using the emergency telephone in the Vallot Hut may be the easiest way of raising the alarm. There is also a generally good mobile phone reception on the mountain and if you need help you should call one of the following numbers to try and arrange a rescue. Put these numbers in to your mobile phone now:

Chamonix PGHM: +33(0)

European emergency number is 112

Aosta Valley Mountain Rescue: +39 0165 230 253

Italy Valle d'Aoste Emergency number is 118

There is no guarantee that a rescue helicopter will be able to come straight away, or even at all in poor weather. This may mean that no one is coming to rescue you and therefore you need to be prepared by having some basic survival equipment, as a minimum, a ‘group shelter’, spare warm clothing and basic first aid kit.

Do I need any specialist mountaineering equipment in addition to my hill walking gear?

Yes. You will need good quality alpine mountaineering boots suitable for taking crampons and warm enough for climbing in snow in temperatures well below freezing. You will also need, crampons, a harness, ice axe, helmet and rope. To state the obvious, you also need to know how to use it all!

What are the chances of getting Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS)?

It depends how much time you have for the ascent. When people try and rush to the summit on the first few days of their trip, their chances of getting AMS are unacceptably high. People who spend 2 weeks over the whole trip usually have a very good chance of acclimatising well, summiting safely and even enjoying the tough summit day. Climbers on 6 day trips usually acclimatise sufficiently to safely attempt the summit towards the end of the week but everyone is a little different when it comes to high altitude acclimatisation and the important thing is to listen to your body and act accordingly.