The Mont Blanc massif stands head and shoulders above the rest of the Alps, not just in height but in sheer magnificence. Despite appearances, this savage but beautiful mountain wilderness is also remarkably accessible, says Robin Ashcroft
The Midi téléphérique lifts you from ‘chic’ Chamonix into one of the most savage but beautiful mountain wildernesses on the planet: the Mont Blanc massif. I once overheard a member of the Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix explain “nowhere are such mountains so readily reached. They have no competitors outside the Karakorum, yet you can be among them in no time at all”. Twenty minutes, to be precise.
Many will be satisfied with the view from the top station’s restaurant but, for the more intrepid, a first, more intimate encounter with the stunning world of the mountains will be at the start of a ski descent of the Vallée Blanche. This huge glacier system flows off the ‘eternal snows’ of the Mont Blanc massif and is often described as the world’s longest blue run.
That perspective may change, however, as you emerge from the station’s ice tunnel on to the notorious snow arête that leads to the glacier proper. The skiing isn’t that technical, but you are entering the world of the mountaineer. As with any glacier, there are crevasses, so you shouldn’t feel bashful about joining a party led by a guide.
Take a guide to explore the Mont Blanc massif
Your most likely route will take you between the Gros Rognon and Pointe Lachenal, before a sweeping curve leads on to the Glacier du Géant. The dazzling snow and the red granite of the peaks that encircle the Vallée Blanche, set against the blue sky at high altitude, is one of the most profound vistas you will ever see. Below the Petit Rognon, you enter the Séracs du Géant – the most heavily crevassed part of your descent – and it’s hereabouts that the knowledge of your guide comes into play.
It’s skied by thousands every year and there’s a veritable highway through the risks, but you will need to ski between a few significant drops. A competent skier will be fine but, if you decide to do it independently, make sure you have the gear and ability to effect a crevasse rescue.
Exiting the seracs, the Vallée Blanche gives way to the Mer de Glace. This massive glacial trench has carved its way beneath some of the most famous peaks of the Alps, including the giant pyramid of Les Drus, the needles of the Chamonix Aiguilles and the mighty Aiguille Verte. Although your legs will disagree, all too quickly the day comes to an end below the mountain railway and hotel at Montenvers.
Mont Blanc massif mountain experiences to grab the soul
A drink in the hotel bar is a perfectly acceptable way to celebrate a first encounter with the High Alps of the Mont Blanc massic. If the experience has grabbed your soul, then things needn’t end at the bar. The Vallée Blanche is a superb place to move away from piste-skiing to ski-mountaineering, with lots of itineraries open to you if equipped with ski-touring gear. An alpine guide will help you find your feet.
The peaks of La Grand Course – Les Drus, Aigulle Verte and Grandes Jorasses – are all up there with the Eiger and the Matterhorn, and the stomping ground of Bonatti, Terray, Messner and Bonington. There are, however, other peaks more suitable for mere mortals – les voie normale. The Petite Aiguille Verte (3,512m), the little brother of the Aiguille Verte, is the peak a guide traditionally tries out a new client upon.
The Petite Aiguille Verte is a straightforward summit, offering going on rock, snow and ice (mixed climbing – when you will need crampons) in the lower grades. It is a good test for rope technique on accommodating, if exposed, ground. A further advantage is its easy access from the Grand Montet téléphérique, although a catastrophic fire at the middle station in 2018 caused the lift to be closed and it is not expected to reopen until 2024.
Considerations when choosing your Mont Blanc routes
There are three established routes. The first is the NNE Ridge with its delightful, if exposed, snow arête, the Demi Lune. Alternatively, there is a direct approach up the North Face; and finally the NW Ridge. The last is the traditional introductory route. This is longer but with fewer risks to be assessed, and combines an approach up snow slopes, a short pitch of ice-climbing to a small plateau and then a scramble along a rock ridge.
Overall, it’s graded Assez Difficile (fairly difficult) but is within the remit of somebody used to Britain’s scrambling ridges, such as the Snowdon Horseshoe. Unlike the day on the Petite Aiguille Verte, a typical alpine itinerary is a two-day affair with a walk to an alpine hut. This is followed by a night in said hut; a pre-dawn, or ‘alpine’, start; and a glacier approach to a col. Finally, then, rock or mixed ground to the summit.
An ideal introduction is the Aguille du Tour South (3,524m/Peu Difficile, or ‘somewhat difficult’). The Aiguille du Tour is located between the Glacier du Tour and the Trient plateau at the northern end of the Mont Blanc massif. All the peaks here are in the 3,000m range, tend to more stable weather and are less intimidating than the 4,000m peaks in the central massif.
Once acclimatised to the Mont Blanc conditions
Now you’ve spent time at altitude, you should be getting acclimatised (keeping well hydrated will help), so you can use the chairlift from Le Tour to Col de Balme. An enchanting, and mostly level, path takes you south, past Lac de Charamillon, to skirt the snout of the Glacier du Trient. A steepening rise up the glacier’s lateral moraine leads to the Albert Premier Hut.
Before settling in for a beer, supper and an early night, take some time to scout the path through the boulder fields to the glacier. Also, identify the first waypoint of the day – Signal Reilly – for the all-important pre-dawn start. Then sort your gear, packing no more than you actually need. As this is France, dinner is a relatively formal affair – on Club Alpin Français crockery – but it’s worth stepping out to see the sunset.
It seldom disappoints in the mountains of the Mont Blanc massif. The hut guardian’s rouse will come soon enough, and after breakfast, it’s the ritual of gearing up and heading out with head torches on. The first hour or so is the worst part of the day, as your world shrinks to the beam of your torch, but it’s essential to climb safely before the mid-morning sun hits the snow and rockfall kicks in.
Sights on the summit
You should gain the glacier, where you rope up, and then skirt between Signal Reilly and Gendarme a la Table while it’s still dark. The sun, however, is on its way, and as it appears, the prospect is transformed. Your eyes will undoubtedly be drawn to the Grande Fourche and the Aiguille du Chardonnet as the sun rises. With clear skies and a bit of warmth, morale invariably picks up after the pre-dawn dread.
Heading up the upper reaches of the Tour Glacier, you cross over to the Trient plateau at the Col du Tour, where another vista unfolds across the plateau towards the serried ridge of the Aiguilles Dorées. Your way now cuts back below the Aiguille Purtscheller to the base of the Aigullie du Tour South. There’ll most likely be a trench of a footpath through the snow to gain a rising traverse over broken rock and on to the ridge route proper.
It’s scrambling rather than climbing, but there’s a considerable drop and you should be roped ‘alpine style’. The view from the summit is stupendous, particularly out to the main Mont Blanc massif. And it’s a shame not to get close to the heart of the massif, and the Aiguille de Toule (3,534m/Peu Difficile) is a peak to do that without stretching you too far.
Early starts are richly rewarded in the Mont Blanc massif
The Torino Hut is well placed for this ascent and is easily reached via the Midi and then Helbronner téléphériques. It’s another early start, with a traverse across the upper Géant Glacier and across to the Col des Flambeaux. As dawn breaks, the alpenglow over Mont Blanc du Tacul will raise spirits and the northern ridge of the Aiguille de Toule – which is your line of ascent – comes into view when you clear the col.
You’ll need to skirt the base of the ridge to gain the bowl, from where broad snow slopes provide access to its well-rounded ridge. In comparison with the two previous ascents of the Mont Blanc massif, this is very much on snow but should not be underestimated. Again, you do need to be roped to prevent a slip or a stumble becoming something much worse.
From this modest summit, the full magnificence of the Mont Blanc massif is readily apparent – it won’t just be altitude that takes your breath away. If all went to plan, it’ll still be well before 8.30am. While a lunchtime beer back in Chamonix should now be your objective, you can also take just a moment to start to understand why alpinism draws people to these savage but beautiful places.
Mountaineering has its risks. That said, the routes outlined here are well within the remit of a reasonably fit person with experience in the British mountains. If you’re confident on ground such as Helvellyn’s Striding Edge or classic Scottish ridges, you should be fine. Likewise, much of the modern clothing and equipment used on our peaks is more than adequate. However, you must have, and know how to use, an ice axe, crampons, a rope, a harness and a crevasse rescue kit. And there’s no excuse for not wearing a helmet. The main skill that most British mountaineers don’t master before their first trip to the Alps is ‘moving together’ alpine style on a ‘rope’ of two or more. It provides security and a mobile belay on straightforward but exposed and crevassed terrain.
Major pitfalls and how to avoid them
Avalanches invariably happen between known angles of slope – understand what those are.
Crevasses only appear in certain zones – understand where they form.
Be back at the hut before 9.30am, before the sun gets on the snow and sets off rockfall (the greatest risk).
Take time to acclimatise to altitude – help yourself by drinking lots of fluid.
Less is more – take what you need, but no more than you need.
Don’t feel bashful about hiring a guide (at least when you start off).
Make use of the huts, but also have a comfortable valley base – a gîte – where you can rest up in comfort when the weather turns (as it often does).
There are lots of good and informative textbooks out there but to fire up your soul, read Gaston Rébuffat’s The Mont Blanc Massif: The Hundred Best Routes.
Enjoyed this feature?
The Field loves a good adventure! Read our feature on the most exclusive clubs on Earth. Heard of skijoring? Learn more reading this captivating article.