Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Mont Blanc Climb - August 3-8 - Wempen Group

Northwest Mountain School guide, Nick Pope, and myself recently travelled to Chamonix, France and joined Eric Wempen, Rex Wempen, and Jim Gouwar for a climb of Mont Blanc, the highest peak in Western Europe at 4810 M - 15,781 Ft. We started the trip at the Albert 1er Hotel in Chamonix on Day 1 and set out for a three day trip to the Albert 1er Hut (no relation to the hotel) and the Trient Hut, where we would acclimate and train for our eventual successful ascent of Mont Blanc.

After driving to Le Tour, we took a cable car to Charamillon and then the ski lift to just below the Col du Balme. From here the hike to the Albert 1er hut (2207 M) takes about 2 hours and provides some amazing views of the Glacier du Tour. We started in clouds, but still had glimpses of the surrounding peaks and the glacier.

Like most huts in the Alps, the Albert 1er was located in an impossible place and entirely supplied by helicopter. Its location right next to the Glacier du Tour makes it a good spot to train in the use of crampons, ice axe, and the climbing rope.

After a quick bite to eat at the hut we hiked down to the glacier, put our our crampons and harnesses and spent the afternoon learning to use ice axe and crampons, and reviewing both glacier travel and short-rope technique. Eric and Jim had previous experience from climbs on Mt. Rainier and Rex had climbed in the military, but we wanted to make sure we were all on the same page for the type of climbing we would be doing in the Chamonix area. The day ended in rain at which point we retreated to the hut for dinner.

We woke up before dawn, had the usual hut breakfast of coffee, tea, bread & jam, and set off to the Glacier du Tour, which we climbed for several hours up to the Col Blanc between the Tete Blanche (3429 M) and the Petite Fourche (3520 M). We opted to climb the Petite Fourche which involved some steep snow climbing and a short rock scramble to the summit.

Towering in the background is the Aiguille du Chardonnet, which we pass by on the first day of our annual Haute Route Ski Traverse. At this point I was guiding Rex 1:1 and Nick was guiding Jim and Eric 2:1. This style of travel would be essential for an efficient climb of Mt. Blanc and is more common in the Alps, where the routes tend to be more technical, than on peaks such as Mt. Rainier.

By carrying coils and using a Kiwi coil (pictured here) we can change the rope interval as we encounter various obstacles and thus move quickly through terrain that is constantly changing from snow to rock to rock climbing, walking, etc. This was my first time to the top of the Petite Fourche; it is always nice to add a new summit.

Once back down to the Col Blanc we did a quick 30 meter lower over the bergschrund and then hiked down to Trient Glacier, which would lead us to the Trient Hut. We used ice screws for an anchor, and then Nick rappelled of a fixed anchor off to the side once everyone was down below the bergschrund.

We cruised across the Trient Plateau, wishing we had skis, and looking forward to a well deserved beer and plate of Rosti, a concoction of potatoes, ham, and eggs, that fuels skiers and climbers each afternoon in the alps; at least for as long as your heart holds out. The Trient Hut is in Switzerland, and is located at 3170 meters, thus a good elevation for acclimating for the upcoming climb of Mont Blanc. The Trient Hut is where we usually spend the first night on the Haute Route.

Again up before dawn, we recrossed the Trient Plateau and climbed up to the base of the Aiguille du Tour. After crossing from the snow to rock, we ditched our ice axes, crampons, and backpacks and climbed the rock up to the summit.

The group on the summit of the Aiguille du Tour with the summit of Mt. Blanc over our shoulders on the right side of the photo. We were a bit nervous about using all this great weather to acclimate, but it needed to be done and the weather forecast looked good.

We descended via the Col Superior du Tour (steep, but fun) and then hammered out the hike back to the hut and then down to the Charamillon cable car, which we took to Le Tour. We were back in town early enough to take care of chores related to the upcoming climb. Today the weather was clear and beautiful, and we were able to see everything we missed on the cloudy hike in.

The view of the Chamonix Valley and Mt. Blanc from above Le Tour.

On day 4 we set off once again, this time for the town of Les Houches, located down valley from Chamonix. Interesting to note that the group is slowly getting a bit more rough around the edges. Everyone is well rested, but a bit more ripe than on Day 1.

We took the Bellevue Cable Car up to the top and then jumped on the Tramway Du Mont Blanc (TMB) train to finish the lift up to Nid D'Aigle, starting point for the hike to the Tete Rousse Hut. The beauty of climbing in the Alps is that you can often cut an all-day (or longer) approach to the high huts with trams and trains, and save energy for climbing, or fit more climbs into a shorter time span.

The hike to the hut took a bit over two hours, was hot, and steep at times. The steep sections are secured with pieces of cable that you can hold on to as you are traveling on a trail that seems impossibly chiseled into the cliffs below the hut. We saw plenty of of wildlife and arrived well rested for the BIG day ahead.

The Tete Rousse Hut is located at 3167 M and is a good spot to stay if climbing the Gouter Route and not planning to make it all the way back down to Chamonix the same day. We spent two nights here. Behind the hut are the spectacular climbs located on the North side of the Aiguille du Bionnassay, something we hope to come back for.

From the hut you get a view of the 700 meter rock face that we climbed the next morning. Although not super difficult from a technical standpoint the face has substantial rockfall hazard and is steep enough that you need to take great care while climbing up and down. The Gouter Hut sits on the top edge of the cliff at 3863 M and is an alternate place to spend the night. We opted to stay lower, but this would add 2 hours to our ascent in the morning. We spent the day sitting in the sun rehydrating, eating cheese, and contemplating the climb. From here the route looks impossibly steep and exposed, but once on the route it seems reasonable and you can move quickly with the aid of cables in most of the difficult spots. Like most popular routes, the chief hazard is other climbers, who knock things down and need to be passed or worked around on the climb.

Up at 1 am we climbed the rock below the Gouter Hut in just under two hours and arrived just as people were leaving the Gouter Hut. Jim and Eric climbed with me and Nick and Rex climbed together. Olivia and I had climbed the Matterhorn a week earlier, which made the whole thing seem more moderate.

We continued to make good time and climbed up and over the Dome du Gouter and reached the Vallot Bivouac Hut at 4362 M. When I first came to Mt. Blanc in 1990 I skied from just above here after coming up the Grand Mullets Hut. The Grand Mullet Route joins the Gouter Route just below here and is not climbed frequently these days due to difficult crevasse issues and some very substantial objective hazard from falling ice. I used the Grand Mullet route for my first half dozen climbs of Mt. Blanc and in many ways prefer it over the Gouter Route, but it has simply become to hazardous to use mid-summer.

The exposed hike along the summit ridge of Mt. Blanc. The first two climbers are Nick and Rex. People coming over from the Cosmiques Hut generally descend this ridge and as a result everyone needs to stay close together so that folks can pass each other on the narrow ridge. Everything to the left here is in Italy, everything to the right is in France. The ridge takes a good 1.5 hours to climb from the Vallot Hut.

We finally all made it to the top, enjoyed the view, and headed back down. Our climb up took about 7 hours, which was good. It took some positioning to get a summit shot without a bunch of climbers in the background because there were a lot of folks up there on this perfect day.

I threw in this one last shot of the route up the Dome du Gouter from just above the Gouter Hut. It takes about 2, 1 hour stretches to climb this from the hut to the Vallot Hut.

Thanks to Jim, Eric, and Rex for a great trip and to Nick for joining us and providing some horsepower at every leg of the trip. Great job!

Some links that might be useful for those contemplating a climb of Mont Blanc.

High End Chamonix Hotel: Hameau Albert
Mid Priced Chamonix Hotels: Hotel L'Arve and Hotel Gustavia
Bargain Chamonix Accomodations: Gite La Tapia

Chamonix Hotel Descriptions: The Hameau Albert, also called the Albert 1er, is one of the nicest hotels in Chamonix and everything is top notched, and priced accordingly. They have one of the best restaurants in town, provide a vehicle for getting to and from trams, and all the services one would expect from a 4 star hotel. The L'Arve and the Gustavia are much less expensive, but still not exactly cheap. Both have free wi-fi, and are great bases for climbing and ski trips to Chamonix. The Gustavia is located right across from the main Chamonix Train station and is often a good place to start your trip as you can stumble into your hotel and sleep off jetlag if just coming from the US. The Gite La Tapia is a 15 minute walk from the train station and is more of a hostel scene. We have stayed at all and found that each satisfied our needs very well.

Guided Mont Blanc Climbs: To inquire about guided climbs of Mont Blanc, contact the Northwest Mountain School. We offer trips up the 3 summits route (Mont Blanc du Tacul, Mont Maudit, and Mont Blanc), the Gouter Route, and possibly other routes such as the traverse over the Aiguille du Bionnassay for those with more experience. The Gouter route can be done as a first big mountain climb if you have time to train before the climb. We can also organize custom trips to a variety of other climbs in the Chamonix area led by IFMGA - UIAGM qualified guides.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Guided Mount Stuart West Ridge

Recently a couple Wenatchee locals and myself, Joel Kauffman, met at a pre-disclosed location at 0300 on a warm July morning for a Guided Climb of the West Ridge Mount Stuart (9,415'), the second highest non-volcano in Washington State. The trip was organized by the Northwest Mountain School.

The route finding on the West Ridge offered just enough of a challenge to keep my attention. Pitch after short pitch melted into the exposure below us. The terrain was broken with short steps of mid-5th class climbing.

Melting snow from a couple key snowfields was the only viable water source for the duration of the climb (read: jetboil).

We reached the T. O. P. at 21:00 and proceeded to the bivy sites below the false summit.

We descended the Cascadian Coulior and hiked over Long's Pass. The Ingalls Lake trailhead is farther away than it may seem.
We enjoyed ourselves immensely and even had a chance to stop and smell the flowers!

The climb from car-to-car including the bivy (8 solid hours of REM) took us 38 hours.

For more details on Guided Climbs of Mt. Stuart, contact the Northwest Mountain School at 509-548-5823 or by e-mail at We offer guided ascents of Mt. Stuart's West Ridge, Upper North Ridge, Complete North Ridge, Stuart Glacier Couloir, and other climbs in the Mount Stuart Range for climbers of all abilities.