Most people with little mountaineering experience, who dream of climbing Mont Blanc, hire a guide. Ascents follow roughly the same template; a three-day, two-night expedition using mountain huts. The goal is to acclimatise, and once you have acclimatised it is important not to lose it; spend no more than a night in the valley before heading to one of the Mont Blanc huts; the Tete Rousse, Gouter or Cosmiques. This has been standard practice for a generation, and works well for most people.
Yet mountaineers have begun to question if there is not another way.
This premise starts with the view that rest and a good night’s sleep are as important as acclimatising, when a ‘Big Picture’ view is taken. For example, someone new to mountaineering who has just ‘endured’ two nights in mountain huts with poor sleep and big physical days, needs a proper rest before going onto a challenge which is often the most physically demanding thing they have ever done.
Put simply, the view that once you have acclimatised, you need to stay high in order not to lose acclimatisation, is no longer sacrosanct. As the accomplished alpinist and guide Steve House notes, super-rich Everest wannabes are acclimatising on Everest and then chartering helicopters down to Kathmandu for some R&R before flying back for the summit attempt. They are generally in better shape than people who stay at base camp.
Of course there will always be some people who cannot acclimatise, no matter what protocol they follow.
While this type of ‘mountaineering’ can be debated, the point is that quality rest at low altitude can be more beneficial. Of course there will always be some people who cannot acclimatise, no matter what protocol they follow. While it may be impractical for people with limited holiday time who are on a climbing course to adopt such a strategy, it is an interesting option for people who live and work close to Mt Blanc. They can go on a three day climbing and acclimatisation trip then go home, rest, get on with their normal lives and return next week for the summit attempt. This is precisely what Catherine Lewis and I did, and it worked like a dream.
For the first part of our trip, we met in the remote Zinal valley and headed to the Cabane de Moiry. an ideal acclimatisation hut because it is high at 2,800 metres. Next day we climbed the Pointes de Mourti 3,564m, perfect practice for the climb up to the Gouter Hut on Mont Blanc. Then on the third day, we climbed the north ridge of the Pigne de la Lé (3,396m), a rocky scramble which took two hours. We descended and made our way back to the hut, collected the stuff we had left and descended to the car park completing a wonderful three-day trip.
A key part of the strategy is flexibility. Without it, you might as well find yourself another pastime.
You need flexibility so that you can have the optimum weather and conditions, but equally so you can get a booking in the key Mont Blanc Huts. Instead of phoning the hut and asking for a specific night, our strategy was to ask “Have you any nights free in the next week?” This clearly took the guardian by surprise, because instead of saying “No we’re full”, he said he would check and call me back! Which he did, offering us the two beds we needed. Furthermore, I got a reservation in the Tete Rousse which meant we could spread the ascent over three days and dramatically reduce the effort needed on the first day.
Catherine drove up from Geneva, and we met in Les Houches at 10am. Because it was mid-September it was quiet, and it also made a difference that the Nid d’Aigle train had shut the previous day. We set off walking to the Tete Rousse Hut on a beautiful autumn day, and three hours later we were settled into our first beer. I have spent more nights in the Tete Rousse than I care to remember, yet there was something different about this night. It was late in the season, it was cold and clear, and therefore conditions were perfect. Perhaps because of this there was a relaxed atmosphere. Moreover there was a unique set of mountain guides in the hut that night. Stuart McAleese was just down from climbing Mont Blanc for the umpteenth time this season, and was able to give us key information - it had been very cold. Next there was Blaise Agresti, the charismatic ex-head of the PGHM Mountain Rescue; in my line of work a very important person. His client was a journalist for the newspaper La Monde, who was writing an article about Mt Blanc. Next there was Thierry Renault, indisputably one of the best climbers France has ever produced. He has always been a brilliant guide, and once again here he was demonstrating this by having the patience of a saint to help an old guy reach the summit of Mt Blanc. Finally there was Sandy Allen, a mountaineering icon and fellow British guide, who was awarded the Piolet d'Or for his audacious ascent of Nanga Parbat.
The plan was to leave the Tete Rousse and climb the 1,700 vertical metres to the summit of Mont Blanc the next day. The dilemma was whether to have breakfast at 3.30am or 5.00am. The issue was that there was a spot of indifferent weather forecast for the middle of the day. An early start would potentially avoid this; the flip side was starting too early could mean that we would summit in the dark OR it was just too cold to summit. The information from fellow guides descending back to the hut was that it was very cold. I chose the later breakfast and we left the Tete Rousse at 5.45am, climbing in parallel with Blaise and his journalist client.
Less than an hour and half later we arrived at the old Gouter Hut, where we stopped to strap on crampons.
Next it was a plod up to the Dome de Gouter. There was a good track and, because of our later start, we could see where we were going and enjoy the experience. We were motoring. We stopped at the summit of the Dome de Gouter to drink some tea and munch some snacks. Our next stop was at the Vallot Hut, 4,300m where we put on jackets because the wind was building. The whole nature of the climb changes here. We joined a narrow steep ridge, the famous Bosses Ridge ,which was buffeted by the wind. Catherine started to have some doubts so I gave my standard Mr Motivator response, “I have never failed above the Vallot Hut, and I'm not going to fail now.” The next time Catherine looked anxious, we stopped to employ the ‘Wim Hof’ breathing technique (something that is potentially a game changer in high-altitude climbing).
Then, finally, when people are running on empty and the summit is within touch, something that never fails; a handful of Gummy Bears. Miracle food.
A few more steps, and the summit was exclusively ours. It was 11.45am; a respectable and impressive six hours for the ascent. An emotional hug, the summit to ourselves a few photos then an easy couple of hours back to the Gouter Hut and several celebratory beers.