|Johnie Briggs eyeing off the summit from the Dome de Gouter|
The normal way to climb Mont Blanc via the Gouter route sets out a far more sensible itinerary. Take a train up to the Eagle's Nest, skipping the first 1500 vertical metres of trails through the steep foothills. Hike a few hours up to the Tete-Rousse glacier, and scramble up to Gouter Hut for a night's rest and acclimatisation. Summit day, back to the hut for a hot cooked dinner. Day three, walk a few hours down to the train for a quick descent to the valley.
|Anna Wells slogging above Gouter Hut|
But this is France. One night in the plush Gouter mansion cashes in at 84 euros. We could not stomach the expense, but more than this was our desire to climb light, fast, and when possible, all in a single day. My partners for the mission, Anna Wells from Inverness, and Johnie Briggs from Yorkshire, shared the same mentality and were psyched on the objective. MBIAD.
We set off from the Church at Les Houches (a short ways down valley from Chamonix) a stroke after midnight. We packed a minimal yet conservative amount of equipment - we didn't know exactly how cold the upper mountain would be, nor how gaping the glacier would be in the late season. Warm gloves, waterproof and down jackets, helmet, aluminium crampons, 20-metres of thin rope for the glacier, 120-cm dyneema sling and one locking carabiner as a harness. Food for twelve hours. Everything fit into my 9-litre running pack.
Our light sacs rested easily on our shoulders, and compared to the loads on a normal technical alpine climb, they felt weightless. We floated up the initial thousand metres by headlight. Above the bushline, the night's chill froze dew on the boulders and we skated across the slate boulders.
From the bare and cracked Tete-Rousse Glacier, we could see the rock scrambling route up to the Gouter hut traced out by a myriad of headlamps. Now it started to become exciting. Unhindered by excess gear, we started picking off teams up the occasionally steep rock face, one by one. As expected for Mont Blanc's most popular route, the buttress was lined with steel cables, every hand hold polished and no loose rock to be found - if a rock even wobbled, we were probably off route.
|The vista back to the Chamonix Valley|
Crowds of French mountaineers licked at our heels emerging from the Refuge hut as we started to ascend to the snowfield to Dome de Gouter in the dawning light. We were struggling with the altitude, and our pace slowed to a halt. This invisible force dragged us to the ground, Anna collapsed onto the snow in a haze. I soon joined her. Johnie remained stoic but he too was not immune. The well-rested and acclimated French teams cramponned slickly past our ragged crew, we felt weak like peasants. The surge of caffeine into my system fought off the dreariness of a sleepless night and we rose to our feet to finish the job.
The challenge of a 3800-metre elevation gain into the thin French air now made itself known. The final snow crest, L'arête de Bosses, felt like a Himalayan struggle. I could never stop for too long to rest, the chill seeped through my thin approach shoes numbing my toes. I forced my core to overheat to pump warm blood to the extremities.
|The Bosses Ridge|
But the final narrow and exposed ridgeline was spectacular, and it was an emotional arrival onto the roof of Europe. Despite the route itself being very easy technically, our shared experience of the altitude struggle and holding to a pure & lightweight style floor made the whole climb fully memorable. We arrived back in Chamonix just as Autumn's first storm swept the valley with rain and snow, and the Turkish Kebab shop opened for dinner.
|Full of stoke on the summit|