Mont Blanc: The Inconvenient Truth…

Mont Blanc du Tacul

To climb Mont Blanc remains one of the great accessible challenges in the Chamonix Mont Blanc Massif for climbers and alpinists. Standing on the highest summit (4810m) around and looking across the Italian plains, along the alpine arc and below to the smaller chains of Les Aravis and Chablais is a seminal experience.

But we are faced with a mountain under pressure from visitors and continually degrading conditions due to climate change. Year after year Mont Blanc is becoming a riskier proposition.

In recent years, I have climbed (and guided) Mont Blanc on a handful of occasions choosing to make attempts early and late in the season to avoid the heat waves, and crowds of the high season. More recently, at the high of the season I have decided to avoid it altogether.

We all have to decide the level of risk we are prepared to tolerate, and this approach has always seemed logical for some guides in an attempt to reduce the cumulative risk of making multiple ascents.

The reality is that limits in hut space and availability due to crowding puts significant pressure on guides and independent climbers to attempt the mountain on schedules that wouldn’t be their first choice. The result is an incremental mission creep towards narrower margins of safety, and judgements on the ground taken on smaller and smaller criteria.

The Inconvenient Truth

A new project initiated and led by the Petzl Foundation, arguably places my own previous strategy in doubt. These independently led projects have centred around the Goûter Couloir some times simply referred to as “The Death Couloir”. No sensationalism is required here though, with this intimidating location and its immediate surroundings being responsible for an average of 3.7 fatalities per year and countless injuries.

Regardless of your experience to climb Mont Blanc by the normal route (voie normal), you will need to pass the couloir, either in ascent, descent or both.

The Petzl Foundation asked the simple but logic question: How can we reduce accidents in the Goûter Couloir?

Presenting such a significant objective danger due to rock fall, the Petzl Foundation postulate that the Goûter Couloir tarnishes the image of mountaineering. That assertion is certainly an inconvenient truth, but one that would be worthwhile stepping back and scrutinising away from the commercial pressures of the tourism industry and individuals livelihoods.

The full links to the reports, are available below and worth reading in full.

Petzl Foundation Reports – Mont Blanc

Petzl Foundation – Mont Blanc: how can we reduce accidents in the Goûter couloir?

Petzl Foundation – Goûter Couloir on the normal route, Mont Blanc

The latest reports make some stark observations:

“Despite its limitations (see Conclusion), this study provides valuable information for those planning to ascend Mont Blanc:

– The number of rock destabilisation events recorded over the course of the study is an indicator of extreme gravitational activity.

– In 2019, a rock destabilisation event was recorded every 37 minutes on average and every 24 minutes on average during a peak of activity between 7 pm and 8 pm.

The highest frequency of rock destabilisation events was recorded between 6pm and 8 pm. It increased an average of three hours after temperatures became positive at the top of the couloir.

– Rock destabilisation events grew more frequent and larger in size when the couloir became exposed to the sun.

– The time of day when rock destabilisation was least frequent was between 9 am and 10 am.

– The couloir was as dangerous at 3 pm as it was at 10 pm.

– Rock destabilisation was more frequent at the beginning of the season, partly as a result of snowmelt. However, these events were relatively small in size, but still hazardous for mountaineers.

– The frequency of rock destabilisation events was lower in the second half of the summer season, but the longest events (“boulder showers”) and those involving the highest volumes of material also occurred during this period.

– The liquid water present in rock fractures seems to be the primary factor governing the risk of rock destabilisation. The more liquid water is present in the cracks in the rock (melt water/precipitation), the greater the frequency of rock destabilisation events. Mountaineers need to be particularly cautious during periods of snowmelt or after rain/storms.

– The presence of snow in the couloir is not necessarily a guarantee of safety, since snowmelt promotes rock destabilisation.

– A cold period marked by frequent freeze-thaw cycles is conducive to the occurrence of rock destabilisation. Only a cold period without thawing (which is rare in the summer) can reduce the frequency of destabilisation events.”

Climbing Mont Blanc

The conclusions from this report adds evidence to the widely held view that crossing early in the day before the couloir is fully in the sun, is in relative terms “safer”.

This includes ascent and descent, so hut reservations that facilitate these timings are essential. Starting early from the Tete Rousse Hut, and staying at the Goûter Hut in descent is one option. There are inevitably financial barriers to this, and the issues of securing bookings of huts that are in significant demand.

Finally if starting from the Tete Rousse Hut, some guides choose to start at first light. So at least they can see the conditions in the couloir and will get visual confirmation of any rock fall activity. Choosing to cross in the dark, although common, degrades you ability to make observations.

There are alternatives, and with fifty major 4000 metre peaks in the alps there is a whole collection of challenging objectives on these classic peaks alone. Although any alpine route will be subject to objective dangers and can never be risk free, there are plenty of summits that can be climbed without the same exposure to rock fall on Mont Blanc.

Les Droites with Chris Bedford

Chris Bedford, Les Droites

[Originally published in July 2016 this post describes and ascent of Les Droites, Chris Bedford’s last 4000m summit in the Alps].

In mid July, unsettled weather cleared through the alps leaving fresh snow and colder conditions behind. It was an ideal opportunity to grab an ascent of Les Droites with Chris Bedford.

Chris had been waiting for an opportunity to try Les Droites again after an attempt a couple of years ago. To leave it at that would be a gross understatement, as Chris had climbed all of the other major 4000m summits in the Alps, many with his wife Liz. Just one remained – Les Droites.

A quick text exchange followed: “Do you want to do Les Droites? I think it could be good.” The immediate reply of “Yes, deffo!” sealing our plan for the next couple of days.

With this single objective in mind we made the approach to the Refuge Courvercle and had an early night in preparation for our start at midnight. Here lies the difficultly in timing an ascent of Les Droites. It’s imperative to leave early to ensure that the south facing slopes are still sufficiently frozen in descent. Why not go earlier you ask? Well start too early and the glacial approach and initial slopes won’t have sufficiently refrozen from the heat of the day.

Acutely aware of this delicate balance we started out from the hut shortly after midnight to find that the glacier was only moderately consolidated. We traversed carefully through the crevasses trying to pick out the line which we had observed the night before. Making good progress the starting couloir was in sight, only to remain on the horizon as we slowed to a crawl in knee deep unfrozen snow on the glacier.

The likelihood of a successful ascent was rapidly slipping away with the minutes, and I wasn’t looking forward to explaining to Chris that our attempt might be over. Neil Johnson, had experienced tricky conditions accessing the Jardin Ridge the day before and had urged us to simply “keep the faith’.

Keep the faith we did, and the glacier was soon behind us, albeit with some wallowing in deep snow. The approach couloir was good neve however, allowing fast upwards progress onto the broken mixed ground below the East Summit. There was much scope for variation here and we moved together following our nose through the small mixed steps and ‘corde-tendue’ climbing towards the summit.

We moved together up the final steep snow slopes before pulling onto the crest at the top, Chris leading us up onto the top of his final 4000er.

Thanks Chris for a fantastic experience being a very small part of a long term project.

Both Chris and Liz have now ticked all the major 4000m peaks of the Alps, and although I may stand corrected, may be the first husband and wife to do so?..