24 May Climbing the Mont Blanc: what you need to know
At this time of year we receive many requests from people interested in climbing the Mont Blanc, the highest peak in the European Alps.
Some requests are serious ones from guests who have done their research, and we are delighted that they have decided take on this challenge with us. Other requests, and unfortunately the bulk of them, are cause for concern. Let me explain.
Those with previous mountain climbing experience, especially past Swisskisafari guests, have a degree of respect and an appreciation for the Alpine environment. These are the kind of guests we welcome most easily to climb the Mont Blanc as they understand the risks and preparation involved.
Other requests are from a third party and it is often difficult to know if the information is getting through. Crucially, it is important to have your eyes wide open when attempting to summit Mont Blanc, which is why we aim to be realistic with everyone about what it takes.
Our must-know Mont Blanc facts
1. Climbing the Mont Blanc is alpinism not hiking. You need the correct equipment, such as crampons and ice axes, and skill at using these tools.
2. Summiting Mont Blanc is a long trek, taking 6-7 hours to climb and 5 hours to descend, but this should come after a few days preparation.
3. Exertion at altitude requires an above-average level of fitness. Many guides use the benchmark of being fit enough to run a marathon, but we find that often guests who are marathon runners do not make it to the summit. Training to climb the Mont Blanc requires training, which must involve climbing mountains.
4. Altitude is an important factor. The Mont Blanc summit is 4,810 meters high, and altitude sickness can be experienced from 2,500 meters upwards. There is no way to predict if or when you will suffer from this, even if you are exceptionally fit. Time spent at altitude before you summit is 100% necessary. Sleeping at altitude before you climb the Mont Blanc is recommended.
The climbing process
There are two main routes for climbing the Mont Blanc. One is easier than the other, however neither route can be described as easy, and both involve certain risks.
The less-technical route begins with a very dangerous first section, with a traverse across a famous face to reach a refuge. Rock fall here is frequent and other climbers add to this unintentionally. Renowned for its high death toll, this perilous traverse is done one person at a time, often without a rope. Rock fall can injure you or destabilize your footing, so having a very experienced guide here is crucial.
The second approach is steeper and more technical with more exposed sections. Long stretches of the trail cross a steep snow face with unstable seracs overhead. This is particularly dangerous when the face is icy. Generally, if there is too much blue ice here you will need to abandon your summit attempt as it is too dangerous. Your guide will not be able to guarantee that he can hold you and prevent you from losing your footing.
Weather conditions play a huge role in your Mont Blanc experience
· If there is a lot of snow you’ll need to create your own path through it, making your ascent physically much harder. When faced with heavy snow your guide may be the one making the initial track, but the second in line will still need to work hard to make progress.
· Blue ice will make the terrain dangerous and slow down your pace. Each step will need to be taken more delicately as your footing will be less sure. Icy surfaces will add a lot of time to your route.
· Walking amidst high winds will make your trek more difficult and use more energy, not to mention affecting your balance across exposed ridges. Wind can also cause the temperature to drop rapidly to extreme cold, making your progress harder.
· Changeable weather can turn good visibility bad very fast, impacting your speed. Bad visibility combined with wind will affect your summit attempt and may terminate your chances of getting to the top.
· Beware of rock fall. Even the smallest rock traveling at high speed will cause damage if it hits you. If it doesn’t hit you it could still cause you to lose balance and lose your footing.
· There are seracs on some portions of the trek which can fall at any moment and are impossible to predict. Tons of ice comes crashing down when a serac breaks off.
· Traversing steep snow faces are tricky, and often your guide cannot assure you completely in these areas. The safest course of action is for your guide to secure you from a fixed point with a rope from above the face, rather than using a secure point to your side. Across a steep face you can not be secured from above.
Your Mont Blanc guide
Experienced guides will not take your self-assessment verbatim without knowing you already. They will want to assess your abilities themselves in the alpine environment. This is the sign of an experienced guide and the first thing to look for when making your choice. Having seen you in the mountains, a guide will be honest with you about your abilities and will not hesitate to tell you if you are ready, even if the assessment is not what you were hoping to hear. Any decision made is for your safety and the safety of the group.
How long will it take to climb the Mont Blanc?
Ideally your Mont Blanc summit trip should take 5 -7 days depending on your fitness and previous experience in the mountains. It should certainly be no less than 5 days, irrespective of your level.
An experienced guide will ask you to dedicate time to your summit attempt, not just attempt it in two days. This is a sign of an experienced guide, so look for this. Your trip should be planned to include a few days of preparation before the summit, as, put simply, by spending more time on the mountain you are increasing your chances of reaching the top of the Mont Blanc.
For those with a passion for the mountains and who are ready for the next challenge, summiting Mont Blanc can be an exceptional experience. But it is critical to go into this venture well-informed and with your eyes open. The Mont Blanc is a dangerous mountain and doing it without sufficient preparation puts you and your guide at risk. Why do that for something that is meant to bring you pleasure and joyful achievement?
If you think you are ready for the ultimate challenge, climbing the Mont Blanc, give us a call.
Warm regards from the mountains,