Tuesday 13 August 2019

Mont Blanc 2019

"Mountaineering in Europe is so ... civilised"
Once upon a time a Kiwi claimed New Zealand has the best mountain huts in the world. After I recovered from a hysterical attack of uncontrolled laughter, I got back up from the floor, wiped off the dust and asked that mistaken individual whether he had been to Europe. He had not. I explained to him that this what he calls a hut, Europeans call a bivy-box.   

Refuge du Goûter
Now if you've never climbed or hiked in Europe, I'm putting it straight out there: You're missing out. It's one of the better things since sliced bread because it comes with pastry and wine. My profound love for the mountains can be traced back over twenty years ago when I first rocked up at Les Houches to climb Mont Blanc. It was not only the first major peak I ever climbed, it was also a life-changing moment and the beginning of an ongoing passion - Mountaineering. I had no idea that a stupid idea brewed up over too many drinks in a pub on Christmas Eve 1998 will condemn me to this lifestyle. 

But let's step back a little bit. In general Australians who mountaineer tend to hop over the ditch or head straight for the Himalayas before even considering the Western Alps. On the surface that makes sense since the Kiwi Alps and Nepal are simply closer however there are a bunch of things which speak for climbing in Europe:
  • Accessibility
  • Information about routes and conditions 
  • Weather Stability
  • Rescue Services
  • On-mountain accommodation
  • Off-mountain activities
  • ... and of course: Food, Wine, Beer & Cheese. If you believe the Swiss, Germans, Austrians, French and Italians don't have these essentials covered, there's something seriously wrong with you.
Of course none of that crossed my mind back then in 1999 since I was living in Munich and the biggest mountain around was simply Mont Blanc. And this is why Dirk, Peter, Stefan and I decided to tackle this "little hill" without any climbing let alone mountaineering experience. Yeah, what could possibly go wrong? That's a whole story in itself but obviously the four of us are still alive and let me tell you this: It was a steep learning curve with a lot of close calls. However that didn't distract from the beauty of the mountains and the sense that we can and want to do this more often. Eventually we did a technical mountaineering course (TMC) and learned how to do these things without giving our parents a heart-attack.

Now instead of boring you with tales of our climbs last month ... and in the years before ... I'll give you a bunch helpful pointers to get cracking at your personal Mont Blanc and European alpine adventure.

Acclimatisation Hike

Refuge du Fond d'Aussois
You're in the Western French Alps. They are amazing so why not make use of a good hike to get your body used to a bit thinner air. Recently we found a gem you really do not want to miss: The Tour des Glaciers de la Vanoise. It's epic. We did a short circuit over four days with a baby and it was one of the best hikes I've done in my life. In fact I've done the Routeburn in perfect weather and this is simply better - I know this is a big call. The Tour isn't as crowded as the Tour du Mont Blanc, stays higher - always above 2000m - and you can pick a couple of variations which means you can adjust this to your schedule. If you're keen, you also have the option to sneak in a climb of the Dôme de l'Arpont 3599m but you need a bit of gear for this.

The huts are all fully catered which means you're only taking a small pack with some food for the day, change of clothes and sleeping liner. You can get a lunch box for the next day, beer, wine and sometimes a shower. Yeah I know - how civilised!

Now flip through a couple of pics and then I'll tell you a bit more about Chamonix and climbing.

Pointe de l'Échelle reflection

Above Sardières

Ruisseau de Pingon

Beer on tap @ Refuge de l'Arpont

Fun afternoon at the hut

Marmots - the little hearts of the mountains

Not so shy chamois

Blue butterflies

Looking at Monte Pelve

Gentiana aka Enzian

Grandpa Ibex
Do you feel like hopping on a plane yet? Great, let's get a bit more into the logistics:

Where to set up camp

If you want to climb around Mont Blanc, you got a couple of places where you can stay. There are some camp grounds, you can rent a chalet or simply check into one of the hotels or B&Bs. Chamonix, Les Houches, Argentière and Saint Gervais les Bains are all villages you should consider. Obviously Chamonix is the hub of all mountain activities but that shouldn't stop you from looking a bit further. There's also the Italian side of the mountain however that's more for advanced mountaineers unless you're aiming for Grand Paradiso which is one of the easiest 4000m peaks you can climb.

Now back to France our personal favourite is Saint Gervais les Bains which is the village where the Tramway du Mont Blanc starts its climb up the mountain. It has a fucking cute village square which hosts two markets per week and a free car park right next to it. There's a climbing wall hidden under the big bridge (think Burnley but lead-climbing), there are plenty of shops to get your cured meat and cheese kick, heaps of bistros & restaurants and the icing on the cake is the Boutique Hotel La Feline Blanche - again if you don't love Anne's hospitality there's something wrong with you. 

Ah yes ... the cat is actually a dog and his name is Bob ... but he fulfils the colour-requirement. 

Maison de la Montagne

The House of Dreams
This is special. Chamonix has little cute building called the House of the Mountains. It's basically the office of the local guide association ... however ... it's also a place of the volunteer organisation La Chamoniard to get the latest information about routes and conditions ... for free. Yes! This is a service supported by the local council to keep climbers safe. Are you listening New Zealand?!?!? You can just walk in there and have a lovely chat about your trip intentions with a professional guide or a Gendarme of the PGHM*. They are very forthcoming and provide you with a lot of insight, can advise alternative tours or simply point out some key issues. In the end these guys would also come to your rescue so they want you to be safe. Of course if you decide your objective would be best to achieve with a local guide, you can find one right here.
Also if you don't have a plan yet, the Office de Haute Montagne is filled with folders of topos, maps and 1:10000 model of the Mont Blanc Massive. Here you can dream up an adventure in no time - there are plenty to choose from and all of them are right at your finger tips. 

*Peloton de Gendarmerie de Haute Montagne - French High Altitude Police Rescue Squad. They are absolute professionals. If you get in trouble by not following their advice, you're not getting any sympathy.


The iconic gate at Aiguille du Midi 
You might have gotten the vibe so far: We are not purists. It doesn't need to be the raw wilderness with hideous approaches and self-imposed privations which are borderline to type III fun. While you can walk up the hill - Les Houches to the top of Mont Blanc bears more elevation change than Everest Base Camp to the summit - you can just take various ski lifts, trams or cable cars. In fact the peaks are so accessible that you can do a 4000m peak in a day. Most tours are just a two day trip which means within a week you can easily squeeze in three climbs e.g.
  • Aiguille du Tour 3540m
    Take the gondola and chair-lift in the afternoon and walk leisurely 2h to Albert 1er Hut. Early morning, summit and back down. Booking the hut is essential.
  • Mont Blanc du Tacul 4248m
    This is an easy day-trip from the Aiguille du Midi. Take the earliest cable car you can hop on (reserve one online or rock up at stupid o'clock), out through the iconic gate and off you go. You might need a second ice axe for the ice-fall.
  • Mont Blanc 4810m
    Take the first tram up to Nid d'Aigle, hike up to Refuge du Goûter and get your gear sorted. Very early morning, summit and back down. Again booking the hut is essential. You need one otherwise they will stop you at the Tête Rousse Glacier. The booking opens somewhere around April for the season and normally the hut is booked out within hours however, if you're flexible you can get in on a cancellation as well.
These three peaks would also be my recommendation for medium-level first time visitors. You can also do Mont Blanc du Tacul as a cool-down climb after Mont Blanc and if the ice-fall looks at you with its angry face, turn left and have a beer at the Refuge des Cosmiques instead. 

Bad Weather Alternatives

Unfortunately you can be washed or blown off the mountain and there are options beside going to the climbing gym or disappearing into the void of French cheese, wine and small-good shops. 
  • Les Thermes de Saint-Gervais is worth a trip but keep in mind boardies aren't allowed in French pools >> budgie-smugglers it is.
  • Check out the Musee Alpin de Chamonix or Musée Montagnard, Les Houches. The first one is about alpinism in general and the latter showcases mountain lifestyles of past times.
  • Obviously being a gear-slut, shopping is a great way to pass time and empty your bank account. You won't have any problems finding shops in Chamonix. Think Bogong Equipment on steroids plus all the big brands shops. In case you got wheels also check out Au Vieux Campeur in Sallanches or Decathlon in Passy. Pro-tip: maxing out you baggage allowance on your way to Europe is a mistake
    ... but maybe you should just wash your clothes, stay in the chalet and save some money.
This should give you a starting point and an idea where to begin your European mountaineering adventure. Now it's just about to find a spot in your calendar during the French climbing season, block it and book some flights.

Now if you're still wondering how our 1999 Mont Blanc adventure turned out, you're in luck. I recently recovered a trip report from the depth of the internet and translated it:

How not to start your Mountaineering Career

Yep. I'm also glad that I'm still around ...

Cheers and good luck 🍻

This 2019 trip was the first overseas adventure of the Alpenverein Melbourne. If you're an mountaineer or alpine adventurer, this club might be the right thing for you. Check it out at www.alpenverein.melbourne

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