Ascent: Aiguille du Midi mid-station -> Grand Mulets hut -> North Ridge of Dome du Gouter -> Bosses Ridge -> Summit
Descent: Summit – > North Face -> Bossons Glacier -> Chamonix
In early-April my Dad, my cousin, and I were fortunate enough to spend two spectacular days on Western Europe’s highest peak, Mont Blanc. Both days came at the beginning an eleven day ski trip we took to France/Switzerland. Though we headed to Chamonix with no particular agenda in mind, I think we were all hoping weather and conditions would align for us to spend a few days high on Europe’s “White Mountain”. Well align they did, and on the morning of the third day of our trip we found ourselves being pulled upwards through the clouds via cable car towards the mid-station of the Aiguille du Midi. Our destination: the Grand Mulets hut (10,009 feet) at the west end of the Bossons Glacier. Joining our trio was a guide from Kailash Mountain Adventures, Nicolas Magnin, with whom I would end up summiting and skiing Blanc the following day.
From the Aiguille du Midi mid-station (7,602 feet) we began the long route to the Grand Mulets hut. Though this portion of the ascent only requires 2,500 feet of elevation gain, it is a long route and portions of the ski traverse are challenging. Dad (Tj) and Chris did great throughout the entire day and by the time we reached the hut, they had honed their side-hilling technique quite well.
Mont Blanc lies on the border between France and Italy and is the tallest mountain in Western Europe. It sits in the Graian Alps between the Ferret/Veny valleys on the Italian side and the Montjoie/Arve valleys on the French side. Although a sub-summit of Mont Blanc, “Mont Blanc de Courmayeur”, officially lies in Italian territory, the main summit of the peak is in France. Mont Blanc is home to an extensive mountain hut system which is more often than not used to serve climbing routes on all sides of the mountain. The two most popular summer routes, Trois Monts and Gouter, utilize the Cosmiques and Gouter huts for a one night stay prior to summit day. From what I could glean the Grand Mulets route is the 3rd or 4th most popular route up the peak and definitely the favorite of climbers looking to ski from the summit in the spring. Grand Mulets was also the route used by the first ascent party in 1786.
A few words on our decision to hire a guide. Compared to Colorado, the mountains of Chamonix are large, imposing, and complex. Almost every major ski route in the area requires some degree of glacier travel, and rock fall, serac fall, and avalanches are very common dangers throughout the year. In Colorado having at least one group member with prior knowledge of a route is a good idea. In Chamonix, I would go so far as to say it is nearly essential. For us, the decision to hire a guide was an easy one as neither Tj nor Chris had traveled on a glacier before and we didn’t want to rely on my own limited experience to get our group safely to Grand Mulets (that and I needed a partner for summit day). Referred to us by a mutual friend, we met Nicolas Magnin (or “Nico” as he prefers) the previous day and instantly struck up a friendship. His knowledge of Blanc was immediately apparent, and he had skied the North Face of the peak once previously.
After roughly two hours we reached the east end of the Bossons Glacier. As we were roping up for the crossing we had a front row seat to a large avalanche that ran several thousand feet above us (we think due to a natural serac fall). At first it seemed like we were in the avalanche’s cross hairs but to our relief it ended up settling well above our position. Spectacular to see up close and personal to say the least.
The Bossons Glacier is one of the more prominent of Mont Blanc’s many glaciers and is very obvious from the town of Chamonix. It runs several thousand feet down from the mountain’s snowy north face all the way to town. Two Air India plane crashes occurred somewhere on the glacier in the 50’s and 60’s, resulting in hundreds of deaths (one of Mont Blanc’s many historical tragedies). Apparently the glacier still spits out remnants of old plane wreckage from time to time, including valuable jewelry.
Once past Bossons we grunted through upwards of twenty long switchbacks, gaining around 800 feet of elevation before arriving at our destination for the evening. The Grand Mulets hut sits roughly 150 feet off the ground on top of a steep and formidable rock pinnacle at the west end of the glacier. Its unique position ensures it remains safe from avalanches and serac fall. Upon first glance it was not obvious to us how exactly we were going to climb up into the hut, but Nico pointed out the route to us and were soon on our way. We clipped into the fixed line and climbed the final hundred vertical to the hut’s entrance via a fun ascending class 3 traverse.
Once inside we had several hours to ourselves so we spent a lot of it on the outside decks admiring the spectacular location we were in. The Aiguille du Midi dominated the view to the east, with Mont Blanc and Dome du Gouter towering 6,000 feet above. Chamonix was also visible, and it was particularly neat at night to look down at the twinkling town lights 6,000 feet below. Before dark we were treated to one of the better sunsets I’ve seen in the mountains. It’s no surprise it was granted by the Alps.
I said goodnight to Chris and Tj (who were planning on sleeping in and doing some skiing elsewhere on Blanc in the morning) and then attempted to get some sleep in preparation for a 2am start. I think I was either nervous or uncomfortable in the bunk room, or maybe both, because I can’t remember getting a wink of sleep. After a long struggle to get some z’s I finally gave up and headed down into the mess area to go over my gear one last time. 1:30am rolled around and Nico and I were out the door 30 minutes later. We made quick work of the down climb from the hut, clicked into our skis, and started skinning upwards into the night. With a 6,000 foot ascent ahead of us, it felt good to get a large chunk of vertical out of the way early. We switchbacked up the north side of Dome du Gouter for what seemed like an eternity before finally arriving at our stopping point at the base of the Dome’s North Ridge.
The North Ridge of Dome du Gouter entails three 60m pitches of 45 to 55 degree water ice. Most parties elect not to take this route in favor of the much easier skin directly up the glacial valley to the Dome’s summit. The trade off is the valley route, while easier, is subject to a substantial amount of serac exposure. An absolutely massive ridge of seracs and ice cornices looms directly above a large portion of the route, and when a chunk of the ridge decides to break off, the entire valley typically gets swept out. The alternate and more technical ridge route to the top of the Dome completely avoids these dangers, so each party has to decide for themselves if the technical ice challenge is worth avoiding the objective serac danger. Nico and I had a long talk about it and decided on the ridge route, which in retrospect was the best decision for us.
With nothing but two headlamps, a few stars, and the sparkling lights of Chamonix 8,000 feet below in my field of vision, I leaned on an ice screw and watched as Nico swung his axes into the night. Before long all I really focused on was the rope running through my hands and the ice chips whizzing down past me and then it was suddenly my turn to climb. I’m not an ice climber per say (though I do have a little experience with it) so while I wasn’t completely in my comfort zone I’d like to think I did alright. Stopping and pulling the screws out of the ice without dropping them was the hardest part. 200 feet and three rope lengths later and we hit soft snow again as the angle of repose decreased back to a comfortable 35 degrees. Another few hundred feet of booting and we found ourselves near the top of Dome du Gouter with first light on the horizon. Nico whipped out a thermos with some hot tea while we got our skis and skins back in order. I couldn’t help but just sit and admire the sunrise over the Alps for a few moments.
With the rope stowed and bulk of the Bosses Ridge dead ahead, it was back to skinning. A long, flat skin led to a wide ridge and then a steep embankment a few hundred feet tall. At the top of this embankment we came to the Vallot hut at elevation 14,311 feet. From there the skis went back on our packs and we strapped crampons on for the final 1,400 foot climb to the summit.
We worked our way slowly up the narrow and oftentimes icy ridge line, putting one foot in front of the other for what seemed like another infinitely long stretch of time. One reality of large mountains is that their summits do not come nearly as quickly as what I’m used to in Colorado. This seems like an obvious point but when you’re nearing the top of a big peak like Blanc it’s a very pertinent one. Though I did what I could to get in shape, I didn’t arrive in France as acclimated as I could have been and I was definitely starting to feel it above 15,000 feet. Nico was also feeling the effects of the altitude, so our paces seemed to match up well. With a bluebird day, an early start, and nothing more than a comforting breeze at our heels, we had no reason to rush anyways. Up and over another false summit, then another, and we finally arrived at the base of what Nico confirmed was the true summit ridge.
We cramponed up the final section of snowy arete and stepped onto the summit of Mont Blanc sometime around 9am. As fortune would have it, we were the first of three or four groups to summit that day so we had the place all to ourselves. The views were incredible. Thanks to the clear day we could see much of the Italian Alps to the southeast as well as the Matterhorn and Swiss Alps to the northeast.
Here’s a little summit video I took with the GoPro while Nico took care of some business behind the snow bank:
We hung out for quite some time before gearing up for the ski and discussing our strategy. The North Face of Mont Blanc is not an incredibly technical ski route per say (max steepness is 40 degrees or so), but it is exposed in places and the threat of crevasses is always very real. Nico and I skied off the top down what is really more the North Ridge before cutting skier’s left down the North Face proper. The top 800 feet or so were icy and wind-swept, but after we cut down on the face proper, the snow conditions transitioned into recycled powder.
We skied light, cold powder down this beautiful shaded pitch for what must have been at least 2,500 feet before we finally came to the base of the North Face proper. From there we dodged a few very prominent crevasses and then continued down the glacial valley below the Bosses Ridge.
After several hundred more feet of pow turns we came to a flat section and took a short break. The next phase of the descent required us to ski underneath the seracs I mentioned earlier. On the ascent we would have been exposed to the seracs for upwards of an hour, whereas on the descent with skis we were able to blaze through the danger zone in less than 60 seconds. Better odds on the descent for sure.
Once below the danger zone we came upon even more powder to play in. Eventually powder gave way to corn as we skied past the hut and down below 10,000 feet.
Rather than backtracking to the mid-station where we started and downloading we decided it would be more fun to continue skiing. With another 6,000 feet of continuous snow below us, why not? We roped up and skied through the Bossons Glacier to its far east end, then stowed the rope and skied down along its eastern edge. The turns were primarily softened corn and slush at this stage.
At one point we skied up to a spot that looked impassable, so rather than climb back up we decided a small rappel was in order. Once below the rappel we had a thousand or so feet to go before we hit treeline.
Eventually we picked our way down through the moraines at the base of the glacier, after which the snow continued down through the trees to an access road, which was also snow covered. To our amazement we were able to ski down the road all the way to a parking lot on the edge of town around 3,400 feet, for a grand total of 12,400 feet of continuous skiing. I was happy just to ski Mont Blanc, but I never imagined we would have hit conditions perfectly enough to be able to ski from the summit to the town. It was definitely the longest continuous ski run of my life.
Nico’s mother-in-law picked us up, which was pretty generous of her given just how terrible we must have smelled. After stopping by Nico’s office he dropped me off at our condo in town, and then it was straight to the hammock where I immediately passed out. Tj and Chris arrived a few hours later after an adventure of their own skiing the Valle Blanch, a classic Chamonix ski route accessible from the Aiguille du Midi. Dinner and wine in town tasted particularly sweet. Mont Blanc was a ski descent I won’t soon forget.