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By Jonathan White
NdE: Although I disagree with some opinions formulated in this report, I though it gave an interesting perspective.
I was in Chamonix last summer for a month with a group of friends, and 5 of us did Mt Blanc via the Gouter route. The route itself is technically staightforward enough, but you do have to be very careful of the people there, they are by far the biggest danger. We took the 'phrique up from Les Houche one evening, and spent the first night at the Forresters Hut, below the Tete Rousse. The Forresters' is an old shack, in a fairly poor state (lay across the floorboards, rather than along them, it's safer), no facilities, but it's free, so we weren't complaining. It's also got a fantastic view at the rear down to the Chamonix/Les Houche valley.
The second day was fairly short - up to the Gouter hut. Crossing the Grand Couloir (the bowling alley) wasn't a problem at 7 am, because there was hardly anyone around, and all the choss that falls down it was still frozen in place. Crossing was a little more interesting than it might have been, as the centre of the couloir had avalanched 3 days before, which left a bit of a scramble down and up in the middle of it. A group of four had been crossing it at the time, and were unfortunately killed (so a Royal Marine on his way down told us) - so the advice is to clip a cows tail onto the cable, however straightforward it looks. There seemed to be two techniques for crossing: use long slings (at least 8 foot) to keep in contact with the ground; or very short slings so as to hang from the cable and drag yourself accross in a sort of Tyrolean traverse. I opted for the former.
The scramble up to the Gouter hut was easy enough (probably easier than Tryfan's North ridge), and has fixed handrails in places, which makes up for the fact that none of the rock is attached to the mountain.
We arrived at the Aiguille de Gouter at about 11am, and dug out a snow shelf to bivvy on. Being British and students, we were too tight to spend money on huts, so spent our whole time either using snow shelves, snow holes, or when possible, kipping under large boulders (nice ones near the Argentiere hut, and at Couvercle, but not much use for Mt Blanc). Apart from cost (about 25 quid per night, but it varies from hut to hut), we were also told (by friends that had used huts), that because people keep arriving until after dark, and others start leaving at midnight, you don't get much sleep. If you do still want to use huts, don't bother with booking in advance. Some French friends of mine seemed to think that you needed to book weeks/months in advance, but people at the campsite didn't have any problems getting hut places at a day or two's notice. I think booking was done at the Maison des Guides, in the centre of Cham.
The one occasion that I did decide that I would be quite happy to pay 50 quid and have no sleep at all to stay in a hut, was co-incidentally on the Aiguille de Gouter. This was mainly because we were slap bang in the middle of an electric storm, with axes and other kit buzzing, and even the head of one of my mates buzzing (he was a little concerned at this stage). We have heard since that if your head is buzzing, you have a 70% chance of being struck, although I don't know the source of the stats.
I'd heavily reccommend bivvying though, as in normal conditions, the time spent laying around in the evening sun is one of the best parts of Alpinism. You also get to 'personalise' your bivvy site. I built a wall around the bottom of the shelf, to stop us sliding off during the night, and then added to it by building castellations all the way around the shelf, using my lunch box, cooking pan, and cup as moulds for the snow. Very pretty it looked too, and a talking point with the other people who were around at the time (yes, if you were on the Aiguille de Gouter on the 2nd/3rd of August last summer, it was me!). I also built a 4 foot high tower on one corner of the shelf, using the same moulds, but we had to knock it down during the storm as it also started buzzing.
It's worth noting that the use of tents (other than on camp sites) is illegal in France, and the police fly around in their helicopter and confiscate them - a decent bivvy bag is a worthwhile investment. I 'bought' one off a mate for a pint (about 4 quid in Cham) and it was useless. That said, you only need one when it rains, and it only rained twice in four weeks, so it wasn't too much of a problem.
Start from the Aig. de Gouter early, we left at 3 am and it was too late, 2am would have been better. There were probably about 200 people on the route that morning, and we got stuck in traffic (some people up there were seriously unfit). Overtaking isn't that easy, particularly higher up, as running, in full kit, at 4000m, can get a little exhausting. We resigned ourselves to plod, which towards the top comprised of a 30 second rest every _3 or 4_ steps. Painfully slow, but if guides will take anyone and everyone up there, regardless of ability, it's what happens.
The exceedingly bad manners of the French (sweeping statement) is the biggest danger to watch out for. Their impatience became legendary: they will push past you, get tangled up in your rope, stand on it (in crampons), and generally be the greatest hazard you can risk encountering. On the Bosses ridge, which was in places 6 or 7 inches wide, I got pushed from behind (by someone who we assumed to be a guide), who told me in some very abusive Frenglish, to go faster, and later, to get out of the way. I tried to explain that I too wished to go considerably faster, but as there was a solid line of 50 odd people in front of me, I was prevented from doing so. He continued swearing, and on reaching a slightly wider point, pushed past, dragging his rope of 4 or 5 with him.
This was not an isolated incident by any stretch of the imagination, most of them involved guides, who until then, we'd had quite some respect for. Meeting groups coming the other way down the ridge was perhaps the most hairy part of the lot. Not fun, and not something which I wish to repeat. If I am to die in the mountains, I would prefer it to be by an 'act of god', or through my own mistakes/bad luck. I would seriously resent dying because I'd been pushed off a route by someone with homicidal impatience.
The group who appeared from the Vallot hut as we passed it, being dragged up by huskies attached to their harnesses, were also a major hazard. We were zig-zagging up the slope, but the huskies went straight up. Unfortunately, as they crossed our rope, they got it tangled with their leads, so we had to stop and sort that out.
The summit was memorable. The views were stunning (at about 7am), but what really sticks in my mind is the view that met me as I topped out: some bloke vommiting right on the highest point. One of my mates has a photo.
Being then quite late (7.30am onwards) it had quietened down a lot, so the descent wasn't half as bad (once the Bosses ridge was passed, anyway), although the snow did soften pretty quickly. We made it all the way down that day, with enough time to stop for a brew on the Aig de Gouter as all our drinking water had frozen during the ascent (about -15/-20 degrees C on Mt Blanc).
Crossing the Grand Couloir on the way down at 2 pm was a different story entirely from the way up. Rocks and boulders hurtling down, and people climbing over each other and arguing in the centre of the couloir. How more people aren't killed amazes me.
My conclusions were that Mt Blanc (and from what I've heard, other tourist mountains like the Matterhorn, etc.) are mountains to have done, rather than to do. My intention is to try to only climb mountains that I haven't heard of in advance in future. Pointe Isabelle was amazing - we only saw 2 other people on the whole of the 2nd day - that's what mountaineering _should_ be about.
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