Written by Alan Ingram on 15 Aug, 2001
As the highest summit in the Alps, although only second highest in continental Europe to the 5,633 metres Mt. Elbrus in the Caucasus and thereby failing to qualify as one of the Seven Summits (the highest peaks of the seven continents), the 4,807m Mont Blanc…Read More
As the highest summit in the Alps, although only second highest in continental Europe to the 5,633 metres Mt. Elbrus in the Caucasus and thereby failing to qualify as one of the Seven Summits (the highest peaks of the seven continents), the 4,807m Mont Blanc straddling the French-Italian frontier is a natural magnet for international peak baggers and high on "To Do" lists of alpine forays.
Like Scotland's Ben Nevis and the principal peaks of other countries it attracts considerably more attention than lesser but more aesthetically appealing targets. On a good day some 200 climbers can make their way to its top and there is severe over-crowding in huts. However despite the lowly F+
on the alpine grading system of its voie normale its conquest is never a foregone conclusion.
Three abortive attempts preceded my first successful ascent. While several peaks in the Bernese Oberland of Switzerland, including the 3,800m Balmhorn, had been climbed with the 24th Glasgow (Bearsden) Scouts without the aid of crampons - our Swiss guide Hans Hari had cut steps all the way to the top - a similar assault on Mont Blanc from Courmayeur failed to reach the intended hut.
A second attempt never got off the ground - the Aiguille de Midi cable car had broken down.
Next morning we took the rack and pinion train from St. Gervais les Bains on the outskirts of Chamonix to its upper terminus at Nid d’Aigle and climbed the steep, spiralling trail winding up to the hut at Tete Rousse. Beyond a snow slope we headed into thickening mist and followed paint marks leading up a rocky ridge. Becoming increasingly difficult and exposed we eventually realised
we had taken the wrong route when figures were spotted through the mist moving easily on a parallel ridge. A delicate traverse of a boulder and ice filled couloir regained the correct path only a short distance below the higher hut perched on the Aiguille du Gouter.
Others have not been so fortunate. Safely ensconced within the hut on a later trip we were shocked to hear that a pair of climbers on their way up had made the same mistake but one had slipped while attempting to cross the couloir and fallen to his death. The continental practice of painting signs on rocks and trees to mark routes can have unforeseen consequences.
Overnight a blizzard blew enforcing a treacherous and time-consuming retreat on snow-covered footholds to the valley.
On the correct access route a wire hawser affords protection for crossing the couloir although only professionally guided parties tend to take advantage of it - most others disdain to waste time roping up and putting on crampons - on one occasion we helped rescue one such party which had run into difficulties.
Returning the following year with two different companions I repeated the climb to the Refuge du Gouter but not having undertaken any preparatory acclimatisation ascents on lower peaks we all suffered varying degrees of altitude headaches - Bruce turned a delicate shade of purple. Many stay
the night at Tete Rousse to avoid this problem.
Joining the pre-dawn, torch-lit, single-file procession we trudged relentlessly upwards under a grey, inauspicious, threatening sky and along the final narrow arete to stand at last atop the broad summit snowfield - amid heavy cloud - two more attempts were required before enjoying the view of the long ridge, crested by the subsidiary peaks of Mont Maudit and Mont Blanc du Tacul, extending to the Aiguille de Midi far below.
On a subsequent planned traverse of Mont Blanc the Aiguille de Midi cable car was successfully used to gain access to the Refuge du Col du Midi but only to learn that a party of eight had been killed by an avalanche on our proposed route - now out of the question. Moreover a thunder and lightning
storm raged throughout the night squashing any lingering aspirations. By mid- morning however all was serene and tranquil when we emerged to a dazzling-white snowscene.
From the observation platform atop the Aiguille de Midi a spectacular view unfolded across the sparkling Vallee Blanche to the enclosing needles and spires culminating in the great fang of Aiguille du Geant and the huge massif of Mont Blanc soaring immediately overhead.
After one alpine tour we returned to find friends and colleagues highly concerned about our well-being - there had been a major tragedy on Mont Blanc with multiple deaths - one roped party had fallen and brought down others - as with Everest and K2 or other major mountains the probability of disasters increases with the number of people on the same route at the same time. Mont Blanc had not been on our itinerary that year.
Reference: "High Adventure around the World"
With its extensive network of readily-accessible mountain huts the Austrian Tyrol is ideal for first forays into the European Alps. The multitude of 3,000 metre summits provides a wealth of easy routes and good practice and experience for future assaults on the higher and more…Read More
With its extensive network of readily-accessible mountain huts the Austrian Tyrol is ideal for first forays into the European Alps. The multitude of 3,000 metre summits provides a wealth of easy routes and good practice and experience for future assaults on the higher and more difficult routes of the 4,000m peaks of the French, Italian and Swiss Alps.
Many of the so-called "huts" are in fact substantial, three-storied, stone-built buildings and, with their private rooms and extensive menus, are more akin to hotels. For most people the "Bergsteiger essen" - a kind of sausage soup - is a complete meal on its own. An abundance of chair-lifts and cable cars enable day trips above the snow-line while multi-day, high-level, hut-to-hut tours without recourse to descents to the valley floor are popular.
Locations of huts together with their approach routes are given on the local Wanderkarten as are the normal routes to summits. The maps may also specify the different symbols painted on rocks or trees to signpost routes. Professional guides are widely available for hire. Joining the British branch of the OAV (Austrian Alpine Club) secures reduced charges at huts and helps with obtaining the appropriate and advisable insurance cover.
From the picturesque Baroque town of Innsbruck with its mellowed, green domes and red roofs a short drive to the south-west through pleasant meadows and pine forests gains the village of Ranalt ensconced beneath the peaks and glaciers of the Stubai Alps.
A circular tour via the Nurenberger Hut of three summits stretching along the crest of the Italian border is then feasible. Fine views of neighbouring ranges are obtained on the traverse along the broad ridge from the Wilder Freiger leading to the final rocky scramble, protected by hand-rails, to the Wilder Pfaff. A steep descent and re-ascent then achieves the large metal cross surmounting the tip of the sharply pointed cone of the dramatic Zuckerhuttl - a neat vertical line divides its northern, snow-covered half from its completely snow-free, southern half. As with other summits climbers can add their names to the annual logbook kept in the compartment at the base of the cross. The valley floor is regained by a long trudge down the soft, afternoon snow of the Fernerstube Glacier to the Sulzenau Hut.
Further to the west, a winding alpine road leads to the tiny hamlet of Vent at the head of the Venteral Tal. Beyond the chalets with their flower-bedecked balconies, a chairlift provides mechanical uplift part of the way to the Breslauer Hut. Hence a roundabout route via the Mitterkarf Joch gains the summit of the rugged Wildspitze - the principal peak of the Otztaler Alps. It was in this region that Otzi, the more than 5,000 years old Iceman mummy, was discovered close to the border with Italy.
To the east, Mayerhofen is the main valley-base for excursions into the Zillertaler Alpen while to the south of Kitzbuhl, a former site of the winter Olympics, the Gross Venediger is another popular and easily attained objective.
In the dim, pre-dawn light of the morning we packed our tents in the campsite in the quaintly-named Heiligenblut (Holy Blood) to drive up the scenic toll-road to reach the Hotel Franz Joseph Hoher with its extensive terraces affording spectacular views across the Mittel Pasterzenkees Glacier to the imposing ridges and snow-fields of the 3,797 metre - the highest of Austria's peaks.
Dropping down onto the glacier a level walk along the icy, crevassed surface is followed by a steep but straightforward climb on the far side to the Erzhaus Johan hut perched on a broad col. After lunch it is then only a little distance higher before one reaches the top of the Klein Glockner. A narrow but short arete precedes a rocky scramble to the main summit for a magnificent outlook over the surrounding alpine landscape.
The hardest part of the day's outing is the re-ascent of the glacier wall to re-gain the Franz Joseph Hotel - there is nothing worse than encountering a stretch of uphill on the long, downhill return from a major summit.
For aspirant alpinists the Austrian Tyrol offers a fine selection of 3,000 metre peaks well suited for acclimatization and training prior to tackling the challenges of the 4,000 metre summits of the European Alps or indeed the greater ones of the Himalaya - they were after all the home ground of Rheinhold Meissner - the first to climb all 14 of the world's 8,000 metre mountains.
Reference: "High Adventure around the World"
Winter mountaineering experience in the Scottish Highlands provides an excellent foundation for first forays into the European Alps. Although new horizons with greater challenges are opened, clothing and essential equipment - the mandatory ice-axe and crampons - remain the same. While some major summits, such…Read More
Winter mountaineering experience in the Scottish Highlands provides an excellent foundation for first forays into the European Alps. Although new horizons with greater challenges are opened, clothing and essential equipment - the mandatory ice-axe and crampons - remain the same. While some major summits, such as the Gross Glockner in the Austrian Tyrol and the Monch in the Bernese Oberland, are feasible in a single day, most alpine climbs require at least two days with an initial half-day ascent to a hut at the starting point of one's chosen route. In many cases cable cars or rack-and-pinion railways can be used to avoid such arduous uphill slogs (and the agonies and damage to one's feet and knees of the corresponding descent) carrying a heavy pack of climbing and overnight sleeping gear. Otherwise, ski-sticks are highly recommended to relieve the strains and stresses imposed. Hut to hut tours enable high-level, multi-day, mountain travels without recourse to descents to the valley floor.
In huts serving easy, F (Facile) grade routes, such as the Refuge du Gouter on the normal route to Mont Blanc, overcrowding can be a major problem, especially at weekends, with people sleeping two per bunk, on table-tops and on the floor. Membership of an alpine club such as the OAV (Austrian Alpine Club) or SAC (Swiss Alpine Club) ensures you are not refused entry and reduces the hut charges levied. Insurance cover is also enabled (as with the BMC, the British Mountaineering Club) which can otherwise prove difficult and expensive to obtain - unlike Scotland rescue services in the Alps must be paid for.
Numbers usually drop off dramatically for huts serving only harder, PD (Peu Difficile) routes and above - the ever busy Hornli Hut on the Matterhorn is an exception.
Huts on well-frequented routes have resident wardens and supporting staff to supervise visitors and prepare meals but those on less-frequented routes may be unmanned as I was surprised to discover on the Weisshorn and at the Rottal Hut on the SW ridge of the Jungfrau - we were the only occupiers.
As well as the danger from avalanches the additional hazards involved in alpine mountaineering are glaciers, ice-falls and crevasses. Even on well-frequented climbs someone has to be the unfortunate who breaks through a previously safe snow-bridge and a rope of three is the recommended minimum. Nevertheless guided parties on the popular, easier routes are commonly tailed by "solo" climbers who hitch lifts from roped groups to cross suspect slopes.
The increased altitude also poses a problem and acclimatization is advisable on the many 3,000 metre peaks before tackling the higher 4,000 metre summits. Unlike the Himalaya, fatalities from AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) are rare in the Alps with symptons usually restricted to lethargy, headaches and nausea. Lightning storms are another, literally hair-raising hazard when it is advisable to dispose of all one's iron-mongery.
Collecting the 80 "four-thousanders" of the European Alps is the continental equivalent of Scottish Munro bagging. Although some pose no technical difficulties others such as the Shreckhorn ("Terror Peak ") present a much harder challenge than the Inaccessible Pinnacle - the stumbling block for many would-be Munroists.
From a hut the customary "alpine-start" time in the early hours of the morning is dependant on the vertical distance to reach the target summit and should enable it to be reached before noon with rapid progress possible on firm snow before it softens in the heat of the sun. Scottish mountaineers in the Alps have however gained a reputation for being last out of the huts in the morning and returning in the dark, long after everybody else, by the light of matches. Laggards leaving the Refuge du Gouter can however admire the long line of head torches illuminating the upper slopes of Mont Blanc like rows of street lamps. On a good day some two hundred climbers attain the 4,800 metre summit - second highest in the continent of Europe to the 5,600 metre Mt.Elbrus in the Caucasus.
Locations of huts and their access routes are given on continental climbing maps as are the normal routes to summits. Maps may also specify the different symbols painted on trees or rocks to signpost routes. For the less frequented and more difficult routes a detailed description from a good guide book is helpful but all alpine climbs depend on prevailing snow conditions which vary both from season to season and with time of season - late in the season crevasses are more exposed while each year there is effectively a first ascent. On one tour I was lucky enough to be on the first ascent of the season of the Ortler- much to the chagrin of local climbers who had been waiting for it to come into condition but arrived a day too late.
All my alpine climbing tours have however been confined to the summer months - winter mountaineering in the Alps with its extreme conditions is not for me - a single night spent in a snow hole on the Jungfrau one July was more than sufficiently cold to endure.
Written by Josh S on 05 Jan, 2005
"It’s called the grandest TRAVERSE in the Alps," our fearless leader Graham deadpanned. I hesitated. I could tell that what he meant was, "It’s called the grandest TRAVERSE in the Alps, you idiot!"
Ah yes, in fact, the fabled Haute Route across the Alps from Chamonix…Read More
"It’s called the grandest TRAVERSE in the Alps," our fearless leader Graham deadpanned. I hesitated. I could tell that what he meant was, "It’s called the grandest TRAVERSE in the Alps, you idiot!"
Ah yes, in fact, the fabled Haute Route across the Alps from Chamonix to Zermatt is indeed a traverse, which did not bode well for a rookie split-snowboarder like myself. However, I was resolved not to allow my equipment disadvantages relative to my skier friends hold me back. I took Graham’s lighthearted warning (not without a hint of seriousness) with a shrug and a hopeful glance at Lisa, our other guide (and Aussie ski team veteran), hoping that she would dismiss my apprehension. No such luck.
Fortunately, I found that, besides one killer (and I do mean killer) day, which involved a long arduous traverse around Lake Dix, the hours spent climbing far outnumbered the hours spent traversing. And let me tell you, climbing on the fat skis, which my board converted into, was infinitely preferable to endless mental debate about whether to ski without good edges, board and pole, hike, or more often, waddle. Oh, and how could I forget? There were some epic descents thrown in there as well. In fact, memories of these descents remain, completely out of proportion to their relative time weighting in the scheme of things. Picture-perfect powder shots, crevasse-ridden glaciers, and picturesque alpine valleys, mostly on moderate terrain, made all of us feel like stars in the latest Warren Miller ski porn flick. Thus, the Haute Route, while a mountain adventure par excellence, is best suited for people who just love to ski (or ride), pure and simple.
The Haute Route (high route) was first completed before the turn of the century by some adventurous Swiss alpinists, and it soon became known as a trip of the grandest proportions: the highest mountains, the most beautiful valleys, and the best ski descents. These days it can be done either in the spring on skis (or a split snowboard) or in the summer in hiking boots, along with crampons and an ice axe. In modern times, the difficulty of the trip has been considerably lessened by the presence of mountain huts along the route, complete with caretakers, hot (and often delicious) food, and of course (it is Europe, after all), wine. There’s just something grand about working your ass off everyday in the company of your pals and amidst spectacular peaks and glaciers, only to arrive at a warm (albeit often stinky) mountain refuge and gorge yourself on rosti (fried potatoes, eggs, ham, and cheese) while passing around the house merlot.
The days ranged from 4 to10 hours, depending on the weather, conditions, distances between the huts, and of course, elevation gain and loss. However, the one constant was the incredible beauty around us, so much grander in scale than the American West in terms of sheer steepness and vertical rise. Since all of us were relatively fit (an important consideration for this trip, especially if you are considering being a "snow surfer,"as the French call snowboarders), the main challenge was negotiating the terrain in a safe manner. In this respect, the expertise of our guides proved essential, as Graham and Lisa put their mountaineering experience to good use when we encountered difficulties in route-finding or found ourselves in avalanche terrain. The Haute Route (both the cassic route and its variations) can be done independently, but only if the group or individual is intimately familiar with the route and terrain from prior experience.
As often happens in the mountains, fast friends were made and familiarity (and close sleeping quarters) bred solidarity (along with a little dose of contempt). Our group of eight bandied about the huts like we owned the joints, being alternatively raucous and contemplative (read: involved in a competitive game of euchre) as it suited us. During the days we pushed each other when we needed to be pushed via a combination of enthusiasm and peer pressure, and during the evenings we shared good-natured laughs at each other’s expense. The trip brought out the best in us.
Our group employed the excellent services of guides Graham and Lisa through Chamonix Experience (www.chamex.com), part of the family of companies owned by mountaineering legend and Himalayan climber-businessman Russell Brice. Their organizational capabilities made the trip infinitely easier and more enjoyable than it might otherwise have been (for example, changing hut reservations while we were waiting out a whiteout) or arranging transportation from Zermatt to Chamonix. We're planning to return next year to do the Italian Haute Route!
Written by formershrink on 22 Feb, 2007
During my junior year of college, I decided to spend a semester in France skiing and studying French language. I saw that a Swedish program named INSTED ran a language school in the famous ski resort town of Chamonix, and I enrolled for a semester.…Read More
During my junior year of college, I decided to spend a semester in France skiing and studying French language. I saw that a Swedish program named INSTED ran a language school in the famous ski resort town of Chamonix, and I enrolled for a semester. Here is my review.My experiences have been mixed. Chamonix is fantastic; it's a great place to ski and live. INSTED, however, turned out to be a shoestring/storefront operation. Although it claims to be associated with a French university, its headquarters are in Sweden and it is run out of a small storefront in Chamonix. On its website, INSTED promises that classes are tailored to the student's ability level and limited to 20 students. During the time I was there, the classes were frequently larger. I liked my professor and the other students, many of whom were Swedish, but the class was too slow for my level. I took high school French and am by no means fluent, but the class was aimed much more at beginners. All the students were divided into two groups and mine was supposed to be more advanced. So the educational part was not so good for me.INSTED also provides accommodations, apartments for the semester. I chose a shared apartment with a private bedroom. When I got to my apartment, though, I found a shared bedroom with someone already in it. It has turned out fine to share the bedroom but my parents paid over 1000 euros extra for something I didn't get. When they asked INSTED for a refund, INSTED refused. So I don't know about trusting the program with your money.I'd definitely recommend spending a semester skiing the Alps, and I'd definitely recommend Chamonix. INSTED, however, didn't keep its promises. Close
Written by davidx on 07 Nov, 2002
Was it a sensible thing to do? We live in Northern England and we drove to Dover, crossed to Calais, went right across France in a day and spent two very active days there, and then drove back to Burgundy by a ciscuitous route taking…Read More
Was it a sensible thing to do? We live in Northern England and we drove to Dover, crossed to Calais, went right across France in a day and spent two very active days there, and then drove back to Burgundy by a ciscuitous route taking in La Clusas and Annecy before returning to Calais for another early crossing and the return home.
By and large I think it was probably a bit silly. The weather as we arrived in Sixt looked as if it would remove the main point of the exercise and of course it was pure luck that it was so much better the next day. Even then it had clouded up by the time we reached the top level and there was no law that the sun would come out. Moreover, we had planned on the basis of shared driving but John was not well as we went to Sixt and I ended up doing the lion's share. I guess there was too much which could have gone wrong.
On the other hand we did what we had planned. The trip over the top was superb, and Sixt was better than we could have dared to hope. Whereas going there to stay increased an already long distance, I know the peaceful aspect of it made a huge difference and I think staying in the bustle of Chamonix would have been too much.
There were other fine aspects of the trip. We successfully picked a route back which gave the three train enthusiasts in the group their first view of the TGV, and the meal we had cheaply in a very ordinary tavern in Burgundt was among the best I have eaten in France - and incredibly cheap.
I suppose the fact that we kept our brief breaks to Scotland afterwards is testimony to the fact that it was only the one-off expensive trip over the Alps that justified the journey so far for such a short time. On the other hand, am I sorry we did it or was I ever sorry we were doing it? NO WAY!
Written by rhiannon1968 on 12 Jan, 2002
Oh, there are so many ways to get to Chamonix... but my very favourite one is by train from Switzerland - and more specifically from the station of Martigny - which is only about 40 minutes away from Geneva's international airport. It's not the fastest…Read More
Oh, there are so many ways to get to Chamonix... but my very favourite one is by train from Switzerland - and more specifically from the station of Martigny - which is only about 40 minutes away from Geneva's international airport. It's not the fastest way to get there - the whole trip Martigny-Chamonix takes about 2 hours... but it's breathtaking. The train is a narrow-gauge train and travels very slowly, climbing up steeply, and giving u plenty of time to admire both the landscape and the rural architecture... it's called the "train du Mont Blanc" and it crosses nearly the entire mont blanc range. So yes, the real adventure starts even before you get there. Close