Attempt-1, 17th/18th July 01. The Gouter Route.
This is the highest summit in the Alps and rises from the Chamonix Valley in dramatic relief. It is massive and complex and has more than one hundred routes to get up top. The 'normal' route, the Gouter Route, is a fair bit of hard work but not technical. The subjective dangers on this route far outweigh it's objective technical difficulty.
It was raining in Zurich where Ron Karpel and I met, having arrived there on different flights on the 15th of July 01 and things looked unsettled even on the 16th at Chamonix at the lower elevations but nonetheless, Ron and I hiked upto and beyond the Aiguillete Du Argentierre on the hills accross from Mt Blanc in the chilly rain in an effort to acclimate.
The cable car from Les Houches drops you into Bellveue from where you take the tramway to Nid D'Aigle at 2372m. It is possible to avoid this cable car leg by directly taking the tram from Le Fayet which simplifies the whole proccess and might result in time and cost savings as well.
Barely acclimated and still jetlagged, at 9.40am, under reasonable weather conditions, Ron and I started hiking on the graded trail from Nid d'Aigle along with several day hikers, peak baggers and just picnic-ers. The trail was snow free initially but we got into snow within half an hour. The highlight of the climb upto this time was the spotting of several ibex sunning themselves on the rock, impervious to the hiking hordes.
The trail passes by a small refuge (hut) and then climbs a steep ridge via a series of switchbacks to deposit you onto a small glacier that is on some sort of a plain and on the right end of which is the refuge, the Tete Rousse, at 3167m. We stayed left of this hut and made straight for the Grand Cuoloir via a beaten path on the snow over a steep hill. This cuoloir is narrow and maybe two hundred feet accross only but can get quite dangerous in bad conditions due to either falling rock or avalanches. It also has a cable accross it. It is unlikely that this cable is used as a hand rail as it will pull you off. If there is a need to, then one clips one's rope on to it (or a really long sling). The idea being that if you get bowled over in the cuolouir, you can atleast dangle form this clip. This time, the weather was good and there was nothing coming down and there was a beaten track so walking accross was trivial. Then begins a very steep climb, more or less staying on a rib of broken up rock to the next hut, the Refuge Du Gouter at 3817m over class-2 and class-3 terrain. Climbing this with a heavy pack and plastic boots and crampons, for there is snow also, can be very testing and full concentration is needed. There are parts where cables have been put for added security and several people choose to clip in with slings. Ron and I negotiated all this in good time and in a total of six and half hours of having left the tramway, were at the Gouter Hut where we had reservations. This is more like a rustic dorm style hotel. Lots of people and from all over the world. Breakfast is included with the room and dinner is extra. Water is not free either. By this time the weather outside had gone bad and at the 2am wakeup time, it was blowing hard. The wind was blowing snow all around and not even the guides were venturing out. Along with everybody else, Ron and I also punted on the summit attempt and waited till 10am for the storm to die down, but this not being the case, decided to descend anyway. This has to be the worst descent that I have done. As it is, the route down from Gouter to Tete Rousse is steep and it was further complicated by bad weather, snow and near whiteout conditions. We roped up and were clipping into the cables. It was very hard to find the route down and maintain balance. Several times, we belayed each other. To make matters worse, there were many parties descending at the same time and not everybody was considerate, jostling and pushing other people out of the way, in their own anxiety to get down. The cuoloir crossing was also quite hairy. The beaten path of the previous day was gone. The fresh snow had made the steep slope slick (try saying that three times, fast). Ron led the way, clipping in the rope between us to the cable. In his footsteps, I and then several others, followed. Only after getting to the Tete Rousse did we relax a little. Conditions and visibility improved as we descended down further and we staggered into the tram station only to discover that they had cancelled the next scheduled tram due to the bad weather! So, we hiked down from there till the cable car at Bellveue, an additional hour and half. That ended our first unsuccessful attempt of Mont Blanc. We were just relieved to be back down safely, in all this bad weather.
Attempt-2, 22/23rd July 01, Gouter Route.
Flush from our success on the Aiguille Du Midi the day before and news of continued good weather, Ron and I made one more attempt on Mt Blanc. This time however we did not have a reservation at the Gouter Hut, so we decided to camp. This meant heavier packs due to the added weight of the sleeping bags, tent, stove, fuel, food etc. But, feeling more acclimated and stronger, we set out by the same route as a few days ago. On the route to Gouter, after the Tete Rousse, I heard a loud sound, like thunder and sure enough, a large avalanche was rumbling down on the glacier to the right of us. Luckily, it was away from the route. As we climbed up further, I noticed another avalanche, smaller than the first, take off on the Grand Cuoloir. This was the same cuoloir that we had earlier traversed. I yelled 'AVALANCHE' along with several other parties who undoubtably yelled 'Avalanche' too, in their own languages, hoping that there was no body on the cuoloir traverse below. We made it to the top of the Gouter Hut in 6 hrs and on the flat ridge above the hut, set up camp. It was like a zoo up there. There were atleast 40 people setting up their camps. The happy banter reminded me more of a fairground than an alpine peak. We cooked dinner and melted water for the summit bid and it was 10pm by the time we went to sleep. We woke up at 1pm, hastily cooked breakfast and were walking by 2.15am. It was chilly but not unbearable and almost no wind and a clear sky. Perfect! We were roped and silently crunched our way on the snow. Several headlamp lights could already be seen bobbing in the distance. We slogged up the Dome Du Gouter. The climbing seemed endless and we did one bump after the other, hardly pausing longer than five minutes to eat and drink. By 5am, the sun came up lighting the sky with a soft glow and we were blessed with a fantastic vista of the Alps. The route became a narrow ridge walk requiring concentration but it was never too bad as we went up and up and then suddenly Ron turned around and shook my hand. We were at the top! Top of all that we could survey from the rooftop of Western Europe. It was somewhat disappointing. It was 7.30 am then. The guide book says 5 hrs. We had taken 5.15. These Alpine guide books are unsparing. But then it got really cold and so after a few photographs, we took off at 7.50am and dragging somewhat due to lack of sleep, got back to camp at 11am. We broke camp and headed back down at noon and after the usual hairy descent from the Gouter (this time the beaten path to traverse the Grand Cuoloir had been washed away by the avalanche of the previous day), were at the Tete Rousse area for a break. Again, bad weather overtook us and it started to get cloudy and rain and hail fell.
Amazing, just 2.5 good weather days in 9. But this time, we were going down and on an easier section and we still made it to the tram by 4.30pm, a really long day but one that ended in a very happy note as going upto 15769 ft was the highest that either of us had ever been. In such perfect conditions, it would have been better, on hindsight, to make this a three day climb than a two day climb. We could have pushed out the start from 2am to maybe a 5am. An additional, artificial sense of urgency gets introduced into some of these climbs simply because of the need to make it back to the last cable car or train which do not run beyond 6pm.
Thanks to our friends, Bob Suzuki, Bruce Bousfield and Rick and Dee Booth for the information and advice that they provided to us before we set out on this trip based on their experiences in these mountains. Also, thanks are due to Peter Maxwell for all the advice, information and encouragement and who insisted that we check in with him after we got down from Mont Blanc to ensure that we were safe since he knew that we were attempting this peak in less than ideal conditions.
This climb would not have happened without the organisation and planning and the skill in leading on rock and snow of my climbing partner, Ron Karpel, who cast his long shadow on this trip. I was glad to be along for the ride.