Mont Blanc arguably
has some the best alpine climbing in Europe. I am focusing on the
Three Mont-Blanc-route from the French side since it is very popular and
the one I climbed several times in 1998.
I am asked many questions about climbing especially since I am not a professional climber.
So here are the most popular questions with my answers. As always, this
information is based on my experience and are my opinions so always consult
with a professional before making any serious climbing decisions.
Q: Where is it
It is located in the French Alps on the boarder
between Italy and France. It is actually "owned" by both countries
under a bilateral agreement and is called Monte Bianco
in Italy. Mont Blanc is a huge massif and is the tallest peak
on the massif. The nearest airport is Geneva, Switzerland.
It is about an hour drive or by train to Chamonix, France.
Q: When is it usually climbed?
As with most Northern Hemisphere peaks, Summer
is best since every day it gets warmer with less threat of snow.
I climbed it in July and August.
Q: How hard is it?
There are many routes which can vary from
extremely difficult and technical to semi-technical. This
means ropes, crampons and ice axe. Due to the crevasse
danger, you usually rope up in teams. The ice climbing
can be WF4 for short sections. My personal experience was
mixed. The first time, I found it very challenging due
to an extremely long day - 13 hours. The other times, it
became easier with my improved conditioning and experience.
I used a Guide from Chamonix on the first climb and soloed
the other two.
Q: How does Mont Blanc compare with Denali or Mt. Rainier?
It is a serious climb where climbers
experience long snow slopes and some steep sections. On most routes
you use one of the huts to overnight and start early unlike winter
camping conditions on Denali plus pulling a sled for weeks. So
while it is similar in conditions to Denali it is not as significant
in time or effort. In most respects it is more like Rainier with
the multiple routes and the fact that most climbers do a summit
climb in two days.
Q: Is an Mont Blanc climb dangerous?
Absolutely. In 2012, 9 climbers were killed in an
avlanche of Mount Maudit on the popular Tres Mouts Traverse route.
There is avalanche, crevasse and serac danger. You should only attempt
Mont Blanc if you have the proper experience and logistics for emergency
situations. It seems like each year a rouge storm hits the mountain
in the summer creating dangerous icy conditions and multiple deaths
occur. Over 100 climbers died just in the summer of 2008. The French
and Italians have an amazing rescue service that now handles 800
calls a day!
Q: How many people have summited and how many people had died
Over 30,000 people attempt Mont Blanc each year and
an estimated 200 people a day summit in the summer season making it very
crowded. Over 1,400 people have died climbing Mont Blanc.
did you train for this climb?
A: I did a lot of running for aerobic conditioning and
used smaller peaks in the area as training climbs.
Q: Was altitude a problem on this climb?
A: Yes, it is always a challenge on climbs above 15,000'.
Altitude can be a problem for anyone above 8,000', much less when you
are going above 22,000'. To acclimatize en route, the night in the hut
helps a bit but I would strongly suggest taking it slow and spending
a few days in Chamonix.
Q: Can you prepare for the altitude?
A: Not really. The common approach is to move slowly up the mountain
(1000' a day maximum) spending your days at a higher altitude than where
you sleep up until your summit bid. The human body simply does not function
well at high altitudes and especially above 8000m (26,300'). As you go
higher, the barometric pressure decreases, although the air still contains
21% oxygen, every breath contains less molecules of oxygen.
Everest legend Tom Hornbein explained it to the American
Lung Association this way:
The lower oxygen stimulates chemoreceptors that initiate
an increase in breathing, resulting in a lowering of the partial pressure of
CO2 and hence more alkaline blood pH. The kidneys begin to unload bicarbonate
to compensate. Though this adaptation can take many days, up to 80% occurs
just in the first 48 to 72 hours. There are many other physiologic changes
going on, among them the stimulus of low oxygen to release the hormone, erythropoietin
to stimulate more red blood cell production, a physiological and still acceptable
form of blood doping that enhances endurance performance at low altitudes.
Adaptive changes are not always good for one’s health. Some South American
high altitude residents can have what’s called chronic mountain sickness, resulting
from too many red blood cells; their blood can be up to 84-85% red blood cells.
The increased blood viscosity and sometimes associated pulmonary hypertension
can result in right heart failure.
You cannot do much to acclimatize while at a low altitude but there are companies
that claim to help the acclimatization process through specially designed tents
that simulate the reduced oxygen levels at higher elevations. I have no personal
experience with these systems but you can find more details at the Hypoxico website.
They cost about $7,000 or can be rented for about $170 a week. Outside Magazine
posted an article in
2013 questioning their effectiveness.
Q: What kind of equipment did you use?
A: Mostly I use the same gear
I used on Rainier. Lot's of layers. My personal technical equipment included
a long handle ice axe, harness, carabineers and crampons. It is always
critical to protect my toes, fingers and face since these were most susceptible
to frost bite. I use a 3 layer system: base, warmth and wind/cold. See
my gear page for a complete discussion
and my gear list updated for 2013. I am very pleased with all my gear but
had a few standouts that I note on my gear page.
Q: Anything special in your gear for Mont Blanc?
A: Layer your clothing and be prepared for extreme
cold and wind. Mont Blanc is famous for fast changing weather.
Since you start well before sunrise, it will be very cold. If
it is windy or you hit queues at some of the difficult spots,
you will be glad to have all your layers plus Down or Gortex.
In the afternoon on a fine day, protection from the sun will
be required and ventilation from warm clothes needed to prevent
Q: Did you use Sat Phones?
A: No but cell phones work fine as long as you have line
of sight with Chamonix.
999 is the emergency number. For details on my expedition communications, please see this tutorial.
Q: Which route is most popular?
A: The Three Mont-Blanc-route is one of the most popular. This
is one of the longest routes on Mont Blanc. It starts at
Chamonix with a gondola ride to the Aiguille du Midi, then a short
stay at the Col du Midi (Cosmiques hut) before traversing two peaks:
Mont-Blanc du Tacul, Mont-Maudit and summit Mont-Blanc Another popular
route is the Aiguilles du Gouter over the bosses ridge which some
consider it to be the "classic" route.
But there are many other routes on this hill that are extremely
technical and subject to avalanches.
Q: How long will it take?
A: 2 days for the normal route. You arrive in Chamonix
around noon and take the gondola to the Agile du Midi, a stunning rock
summit. From here you walk half a mile across a knife edge snow ridge
and go down to the hut, Cosmiques. Here you have a nice dinner and sleep
in dorm style with one hundred other climbers. The wake-up call is around
2:00AM when you have a nice French breakfast, dress and leave for the
summit no later than 3:30. Eight hours later, you summit and take 5
hours to return to the gondola for the ride down. A pleasant 13 hour
Q: How much does a standard climb cost with and without
A: The costs can range from $1000 to $2000 depending
on who you use. If you do everything yourself cut the highest cost
in half or more or even free. See my Guide page
for more details.
Q: Do I need a permit to climb?
A: There are no permits required but as of
2012 there is a lot of talk about a permit system to control
the volume of climbers plus ecological and safety concerns.
You will need a reservation at the hut. Make this reservation as far
in advance as possible since they are extremely crowded in the peak
summer months. While it is not legally permitted, many climbers now
spend the night in tents outside the huts.
Q: Do I really need a guide for Mont Blanc?
A: It really depends on your experience. I
used a guide for my first climb and went alone the other
two times. It can be quite crowded so you will probably always
be in sight of another party but I never recommend climbing
alone like I did. If I had a problem, I would had been in
must bring a two-way radio and a sat phone in my opinion and have the frequency
or number of the local rescue resources already programmed in.
Q: Are there local guides for Mont Blanc?
A: Yes. There are companies
in Chamonix, France that can provide local French guides.
Q: How do you get on an expedition to climb Mont Blanc?
A: Just sign up! There are not a lot of questions since it is considered
an overnight climb similar to Rainier in the US.
Q: What is involved if I plan my own climb?
A: Basically everything: permits, travel, hotels, food, gear,
routes, communications, emergency contentions - everything. You can
save a lot of money this way but as I said before, consider your skills in
the event that something goes wrong - are you 100% self sufficient? What are
your medical skills? HAPE and HACE are really possibilities on Mont Blanc -
do you have the proper medicine and training to deal with it? And a hundred
more questions. See my guide
page for more. Again, climbing alone or in small teams is never a good
idea. Saving a few thousand dollars is not worth your life.
Q: What kind of weather conditions will I experience?
A: In July and August, it is not too cold. But weather
on Mont Blanc can develop quickly so you need to carry all your
layers. In 1999, a fast moving system dropped the temperatures
and brought freezing rain to the route causing several people to
die that afternoon. In August of 2008, a serac the size of a four-story
building broke off near the summit of Mont Blanc du Tacul killing
Q: What is the biggest problem most people face?
A: Mont Blanc is not a terribly hard climb so many people
underestimate it. You need to be prepared for bad weather.
There are a few difficult sections that require close attention
to footwork while climbing ice. It is a very long day so fatigue
is an issue if you are not prepared physically.
Q: Did you summit?
times: once in 1995 and twice in 1998. I used Mont Banc as a training
climb for my 8000m expeditions.
Q: Did you use a guide ?
A: Yes on my first time but went alone on the other climbs.
Q: Who was the guide and how did you arrange it?
A: It was French guide I found through the guide service
in Chamonix France. He was quite good. There was a Frenchman with us and
no one spoke English very well so it was quiet throughout the climb. The
guide was quite safe and very competent.
Q: Which route did you take?
A: The Three Mont Blanc route which traverses over Mont
Blanc du Tacul, Mont Maudit and up to Mont Blanc itself. It
starts with a gondola ride to the Aiguille du Midi observation station
in our full climbing gear and packs and then a fantastic short climb over
a very steep and narrow snow ridge to the Cosmiques Hut. The actual climb
took 13 hours the first time and under 10 the other two. The climbing is
over long snow slopes with one section that is fixed and requires moderate
climbing. I rappelled down this section on the return.
Q: What kind of weather conditions did you experience?
A: Hot and sunny, cold and windy - normal mountain weather.
We were fortunate that the overall weather was good and we did not experience
and sudden rain or snow squalls.
Q: Would you climb Mont Blanc again?
A: Probably not. While it was fun the first time, it has
become very crowded these days and the weather so variable that it has
become a dangerous climb.
Mont Blanc is a beautiful mountain in an awesome valley. The entire environment
is amazing and makes you feel special. The French and Italian influence
makes is unique for Americans. The climb itself is not technically difficult
but does test your endurance. But the views from the summit are well worth