Retreat from the Matterhorn,
Redemption on Mont Blanc
Voie Royale Route
15,782 feet, 4,810.45 meters
July 25, 2012
Mont Blanc – the great White Mountain
(note climbers approaching the emergency shelter)
“This is the way the climb ends
Not with a bang but a Whymper.”
With apologies to T.S. Eliot
Goodbye Matterhorn, Hello Mont Blanc
Edward Whymper got it done, but we did not. We were victims of the weather and route conditions, with nothing to do but hang around Zermatt, do a little climbing and the Gornerschucht, a combination of canyoning and via ferrata just uphill from the town of Zermatt. The Gornerschucht is a great little route built by the local guides for use by guided parties only – built in a spectacular water-polished soapstone canyon. The route was a type of Disneyland for climbers and geologists, including Tarzan swings, zip lines, and some spectacular soft-rock geology – but it was not the Matterhorn.
Miles assists Alton in the Gornerschucht Tarzan swing, with Liz and Mark supervising
Post- Gornerschucht lunch spot
We did spend one day before we departed climbing the lower portions of the Matterhorn on the Hornli Ridge Route, and really enjoyed the experience. There was no one on the mountain – clearly everyone was waiting for the trail to come into condition – a few days after we were long gone.
Looking down the Hornli Ridge Route on the Matterhorn
Alton on the lower parts of the Matterhorn
Off to Chamonix and Mont Blanc
With the Matterhorn out-of-reach, I was clearly focused on the next (and final) objective – Mont Blanc. I rode over to Chamonix with one of our Matterhorn guides, Miles Smart, who gave a focused and interesting running explanation of the climbing and skiing opportunities along the way during the 1.5 hour trip. Chamonix is a larger and slightly downscale version of Zermatt, with Mont Blanc hanging over the town like a great white specter. Chamonix was host to the first winter Olympics in 1924 and has a long history of extreme mountain sports including climbing, skiing, para-gliding, mountain biking, and most recently flying via winged suits – a uniquely high speed and dangerous proposition.
Chamonix and Mont Blanc at dusk
Heading up the Hill
I had made arrangements to climb with Matt Farmer (aka simply Farmer), one of the guides from the Zermatt portion of the expedition. Farmer is a fellow geologist, a resident of Chamonix, and is engaged to a recent Dartmouth graduate – we had a lot to talk about. The prospective climb up Mont Blanc involved the better part of three days, with two nights on the Mountain in Refuges (huts), and started, as most climbs here do, with a combination of cog railway and aerial tramway lifts to get up on the Hill.
Chamois on the way to Refuge de Tete Rousse
Mont Blanc (La Dame Blanche or white lady) is the highest mountain in Western Europe, the 11th most prominent in the world, and may be the tallest in Europe – depending on your view of the Kuma–Manych Depression in Russia. In any event, the Mont Blanc massif is a big pile of very hard granite, with a variety of meta-sediments on its flanks. The mountain was first climbed in 1786, and is owned jointly by Italy and France. It is climbed by at least 20,000 people per year, and gives rise to a large number of deaths due to exposure, falls and avalanches – the most recent being the tragic avalanche on July 12th that claimed the lives of at least 9 climbers.
We spent the first night at the pleasant Refuge de Tete Rousse (the red head hut at 3,187 m), followed by a reasonable start at 4:00 am, and the push up the Gouter to the Gouter Refuge (3,817 m). The climb between the two huts is pretty much a scramble (equal in elevation gain to climbing the Grand Teton), accentuated by the sheer terror crossing the Gran Couloir, as an errant group (significantly off route) above us released a small torrent of debris from above.
The Gran Couloir – prone to debris falls – a sporting crossing in the dark
The Gouter Refuge is an absolute pit, and is being replaced by a space age looking structure. This has been a multi-year, multi-million dollar project, and is eagerly awaited by guests and crew members alike. In addition to a vastly expanded use of solar power, the new Refuge will have environmentally friendly composting toilets, replacing the old and malodorous “long drop into the Couloir” toilets that have been used for decades at the old hut.
The new & old Refuges du Gouter
Climbers exiting the old Refuge du Gouter & headed up Mont Blanc
The climb up from the Gouter Refuge was sunny, lovely, but a very long slog. Farmer did a great job keeping the show moving forward, and we were on the summit more or less on schedule, and back to the Gouter Refuge in time for a late lunch omelet, enjoyed amid the cacophony and tumult that is Gouter in the afternoon.
The long slog up Mont Blanc from Dome du Gouter
The Refuge du Gouter is the evil twin of the charming huts around Zermatt. It is overcrowded, chaotic, charmless and expensive. Adding to the misery, a thunderstorm blew in just before dinner, and the place filled up with dozens of people violating all of the rules, including two brazen scofflaws who proceeded to fire up their cook stove to make their dinner on the wooden floor – absolute mayhem.
Sleeping on the tables at the Refuge du Gouter
The beds were tiny, the crowd irascible, and I was very glad that I was headed down and not up with the 2:00 am crowd as it headed out into the fog and up the Hill. By the time that I got up at 6:00 am, many of the early climbers were back – having abandoned the climb in the fog. We were out the door, and headed back down to the valley by 7:00, and arrived in time for a much needed lunch back in Chamonix.
On balance this was a great trip, and I got to know some terrific new people. Not getting a chance to climb the Matterhorn was a disappointment, but the climbing around Zermatt was like nothing that I had done before – a real treat. The guides were great – both on and off the mountain – and I’m already planning a reprise. In the words of “Old Arnold” “I’ll be back”.
Shown below are some photos that didn’t make earlier publication, that I thought were worth a look.
Bill and Mark on Breithorn
Wes & Miles on Breithorn
Farmer & Wes on Mont Blanc
Alton & Craig on the via ferrata in Zermatt
Wes at the World’s highest opium den – the emergency shelter on Mont Blanc
A climbers grave in Zermatt
Adios from Mont Blanc