A Ski Mountaineering Ascent of Mont Blanc via the Gouter Route.
This is a story of how I ended up climbing and skiing Mont Blanc via the Goûter route. If you simply want logistics on how to do the route, click here to scroll down and skip my rambling.
My typical partner in crime for weekend adventuring was trapped in California due to a “bridal shower.” Few bridal showers result in a bivouac just shy of Mt. Whitney’s summit, so it’s hard to be too upset when you receive the subsequent missed flight email. Still, it left me in a quagmire Friday morning, my climbing plans for the weekend totally miffed.
Utilizing some of my more productive minutes at work I scouted weather forecasts. My previous weekend plans to ice climb on the Pitztal Glacier had been thwarted by global warming, but the Alps still had a lot of snow for this time of year. Weather in Chamonix looked marginal for Saturday morning but clear Sunday and so a plan was hatched.
I jetted from work Friday afternoon, assembled my pack and car, and started the seven hour drive to Les Houches. Arriving around 3am Saturday morning at the Bellevue téléphérique (cable car), the intended starting point of this escapade, I checked the window for the first lift and learned it was closed for the summer of 2013 for maintenance. A sign directed mountaineers towards the Prarion gondola with mention of first lift at 8am. The dilemma of locating the gondola was overlooked by the 8am information which translated in my head to Bed Time!
Awakened to the smell of fresh bread or rain, I was pretty tired, I located the bakery and then the gondola (1 km down the road) and the adventure began, chocolate croissant in mouth baguette in my hand. My skis were proving to be a conversation starter but my limited French and lack of a firm plan quickly led to smiles and wishes of bonne journée. Everyone was super excited to suggest the North Face (which I really want to do), but not familiar with the descent, the plan was limited to the Goûter route for upward travel – well traversed, and generally speaking, crevasse free. The planned descent was the Goûter route unless I found and teamed up with another skier more familiar with the descent options.
The Prarion gondola drops you off quite a way above the Tramway du Mont-Blanc train making for a painful return and my mis-informed gondola operator said the Tramway was not open to the Nid d’Aigle (It was actually the first day of the season it was open to the Nid d’Aigle, 29 June). I descended to the Bellevue station, looked at the time schedule, shrugged and began the trek upwards. While slowly getting soaked in the wet rain the cog train, packed full of mountaineers, chugged past me. I sought consolation in the fact they would get to go break trail for me. Recommendation: For the Goûter/French route, take the Tramway du Mont-Blanc, board in Saint-Gervais, (link), and buy a round trip ticket to and from the terminus.
The train really gains elevation and I saw it go, and then somewhat descend before I reached the Nid d’Aigle terminus and the beginning of the snowfields: Key, skiers’ excitement. As I gained elevation the rain changed to sleet and then snow and the wind increasingly picked up pace. Somewhere along the way I realized post holing through the almost 20 centimeters of fresh snow was a lot more work than skinning and this whole operation could be a lot less painful. Click Click. …arrive at the Tête Rousse Hut (3167m). The Tête Rousse makes for an excellent and popular lunch stop. In better weather you can look up and see the rest of the day’s route up the Aiguille du Goûter and the Goûter Hut (3817m). Today, though, if you squinted you could see about 10 meters.
Teamed up with Ben, my British French Swiss climbing partner, we reached the grand couloirs. We donned our helmets here because this next section across the couloirs and further up the ridge is notorious for rock fall, a problem greatly ameliorated by 50 centimeters of fresh snow and sub freezing temperatures. We roped up briefly to use the fixed cable across the couloirs. A wise choice given the spin drift avalanche running down the chute like a stream, and the fact the grand couloirs terminates in a cliff about 100 meters below the crossing. Across the couloirs we un-roped and upwards we chugged. The easiest path is marked by red dots and occasionally via ferrata style cables over the more vertical sections.
A little while later, success, you climb up the stairs to the old Goûter Hut. My worry meter rapidly escalated as I found all the doors locked and was getting increasingly cold in my previously soaking wet and now frozen solid wardrobe sans sleeping gear. Having decided I must simply be missing the entrance I casually loitered until another team reached the hut. I then stalked them the 100 yards to the new Goûter mansion, I mean hut, invisible in the blowing snow.
Okay, you need a reservation to stay at the new Goûter hut. It has a maximum capacity of 120 people and is almost always full. The magical 120 is apparently a hard limit – make a reservation or be prepared to hike back down. On the upside, with the new hut, they upgraded the booking system to be all online (link). This hut is the most posh alpine abode I have ever seen. You get a three course meal. You restock on water for five Euros per liter and a half (sparkling or flat – got to love the French) and if you really want to splurge, I recommend grabbing a six Euro 1664 bière. The bed chambers have only two levels, not the typical three or four and you even have a bit of wood separating you from your snoring compatriots and heavy breathers.
The chateau de Goûter rules were a bit of a shock to me. I might have presumptuously assumed I could show up and yield up money for food, warmth, and shelter. The weather saved the day, because the receptionist was sure not everyone would make it. She banded me, they use night club style wrist bands to denote reservation members, with that I was allowed to remain in the hut. I was told to come back after dinner (1800) and we could determine who I was (Je suis Alfonso Garpaccio aujourd’hui). I was somewhat amazed at how clean and orderly the hut was, probably because it turns out I was one of the first people ever in the hut. Dinner was amazing as was my beer and my many new friends and soon I was happily attempting to dry my clothes and fall asleep.
Breakfast was served at 0200 and so when the whole hut finally cleared out I managed a few hours of sleep before my delayed 0500 start. Ben, as planned the previous night, started before me with plans to meet up and snap some summit photos together. Winds were forecasted to be 70km an hour at the Goûter hut and stronger up top, the forecast did not disappoint.
Skins definitely sped the passage to the top of the Dome du Goûter. Thoroughly frozen through and snow blasted, I arrived at the Vallot hut (4,362m). Here I found myself in a serious debate; the crux of the issue being, whether to abandon this frozen adventure and ski down to warmth and freedom or to continue. This tumultuous inner struggle was ultimately settled by the courage and determination which can only provided by a bag of Haribou gummies, which besides their primary purpose, courage and determination, also doubled as breakfast. Given the winds were strong enough that standing upright was a challenge, I decided to leave the skis behind for the Boss’ ridge and continued my upwards progress. (Note to skiers: Boss’ ridge is plausibly skiable in Spring/Winter. It would be narrow and a no fall zone, with fairly large cornices to the North and a narrow band of snow between you and the cliffs to the South. The snow will likely be very firm and icy. It would be extremely dangerous to others to attempt to ski it in mountaineering season when others are hiking up and down this narrow passage.)
I caught up with Ben on the summit ridge. We enjoyed the views from the top of Europe (4,807m), snapped some photos, and decided to seek out less cold and inhospitable locals, which left only one direction to choose from, down.
The snow being firm but not icy on ridge, I boot skied down to the Vallot hut. Click Click. Let the fun begin. The descent of the Dome du Goûter in the fresh, though somewhat windblown powder, was pretty hard to beat for 30 June, or really any time of year, and some 30 minutes later I was back at the Goûter hut debating whether I should skin back up and do it again. Reason won out, as a seven-hour drive before work Monday awaited, and the trip continued downward.
The descent from the Goûter to the Tête Rousse was a traffic jam. It is apparently even worse in high season – people going up meeting people going down, one security cable, exposure, altitude exhaustion, loose rock, lots of nerves on end. I was hoping to bypass this traffic jam of discontent by skiing the Grand couloir, but these plans ceased when clicking into my skis a slab 30 meters wide took off below me and denuded the couloirs of the 40 cm or so of snow from the previous day. As I watched this avalanche spectacularly shoot off the couloirs terminus I decided I would not look good taking the same ride, and so back to the traffic jam. Ridge surpassed. Click Click. Let the spring skiing begin! A quick stop at the Tête Rousse to leave Ben’s borrowed ice tool, and I soon reached the Tramway du Mont Blanc. I admit, I splurged on the 1300 train du retour, justified as a knee saving expenditure, and soon found myself back at the car around 1500 to start the journey home, my 2012/2013 ski season of one run dubbed in my mind a total success.
Route Beta Story Book
Logistics for the Goûter Route
Day One – In season start in Saint-Gervais and catch the Tramway du Mont-Blanc to the Nid d’Aigle (2,372m/7,782′) (the first train is around 0700). If the tramway is not going all the way to the Nid d’Aigle, start in Les Houches and take the Bellevue téléphérique (cable car) (1,790m/5,872′) and hike up the tracks of the Tramway du Mont-Blanc. Either way, head up to the Tête Rousse Hut (3,167m/10,390′) (allow about 2 hours from Bellevue to Nid d’Aigle with a broken trail and another 2 hours from Nid d’Aigle to the Tête Rousse). I recommend taking lunch here, restocking on water, enjoying the balcony, and then recommencing upward travel. Plan for between 2 to 4 hours to get from the Tête Rousse to the Goûter Hut (3,817m/12,522′). This leg is where the route narrows causing potential traffic jams and most people start to feel the altitude. Check into your reservation (make reservation here), and sit down to enjoy the well deserved meal and hopefully a few hours of shut eye.
Day Two – Wake up at 0200 and follow the typically well trod path up to the summit of the Dome du Goûter (2 to 3 hours). From the Dome du Goûter , traverse to the Vallot Hut (4,362m/14,311’) and the start of Boss’ ridge. Catch your breath and continue up to the summit (probably another 2 to 3 hours) (4,807m/15,770′). Success! About face and make the descent in time to catch the last train down (around 1600). On foot the descent from the summit to the Nid d’Aigle should take between 6 to 8 hours allowing for a quick lunch at the Tête Rousse. The descent of the Aiguille du Goûter (the crux of the route) will be the slowest and most time consuming part of this journey. Safety first.
Gear (per person)
- Cash (200 euros, welcome to Europe)
- Ice Axe (illegal to be without past the Tete Rousse hut)
- Crampons (potentially optional depending on comfort level and conditions)
- Rope (1 per team, I use a 30m 8.1mm rope for teams of from 2 to 4)
- 2 ice screws, 16-17cm (ideally you can anchor yourself if you fall in the glacier)
- 2 or 3 HMS lockers
- 1 or 2 Tiblocs (or equivalent depending on your planned system)
- Prusik Cord
- 2 Liters of water to get between huts
- Snackage to get between meals
- Alpine winter clothes (second set of gloves, shirt, underwear, and socks for the second day when you soak through your first set)
A few options: Mont Blanc Climbing Guidebooks
Aosta Valley, Italy and Haute-Savoie, France