From Paris, we woke up bright and early to start our journey to Chamonix. Thankfully, we had our trusty tour guide Liz to help us ride the rails and get on the proper trains and buses to Chamonix. With only one easy corrected misstep (we got on the wrong train once), we made to Chamonix after several hours.
You should have seen us on our last train that led us into the valley. The peaks of the Alps were towering above us as we entered the lush, green tunnel the ended in Chamonix. It was truly jaw dropping to see the high jagged peaks. My stomach started to get butterflies knowing that we were soon going to be trying to climb one of them...
We had a couple of days in Chamonix to settle in and get ourselves geared up for our climb. We had burgers the size of pizzas, many a Weiss bier, and our new favorite tartiflette, basically potatoes and bacon smothered in a ton of stringy cheese!
Our first airbnb in Chamonix was a dream, small but perfectly and simply decorated with only the necessities yet so luxurious. We had an awesome view of Mont Blanc. Our host Natalie was married to a man who was the descendent of the first man to climb Mont Blanc!
Spoiler alert: our summit attempt at Mont Blanc was doomed from the start. European mountaineering seems much different from American mountaineering. First, there is a structure in place it seems that if you are not a guide, you climb with a guide. Guides in Europe are all "pinned", meaning they have passed training and exam to be a mountain guide, similar to in the US, but different. And the guides have all the info. So if you are not a guide, you are expected to climb with a guide. So that's why we couldn't find much beta about the climb online! People don't post beta, or climbing info, online like they do in the US because everyone goes with a guide. So we were going in a bit blind without all the proper info. Anyway, we made an attempt at it regardless so see what it was like and what we would learn! Glad we did!
We started our climb late (unbeknownst to us). We took a bus from Chamonix to another little town down the valley called Les Houches. From there, we bought our ticket for a cable car that took us up the mountain to a train stop. Yup. A train up in the mountains. We will learn throughout our adventures in Europe that this is not uncommon!
Then we took the train up to the highest point that any mechanical mode of locomotion would take us. From there, we started our ascent on foot.
Our destination that day was Tete Rousse. In European mountaineering, there's no such thing as tents and sleeping bags. Instead, they have these swanky alpine huts (*read cush chalets!). These huts have bathrooms, catered dinner and breakfast, beer!, and beds. You just bring your mountaineering gear basically!
The climb to Tete Rousse was not exactly a walk in the park. It started out a steep rocky trail. It ended with the last hour or so being quite steep third class terrain. In sections, they had secured metal cables into the rock where the terrain was exposed so you could use it as a handline and prevent a disastrous fall.
Once you get up the last steep pitch of third class scrambling, you walk across a glacier to Tete Rousse. We were done walking for the day!
The hut was unbelievable! We kicked off our boots and dropped our technical gear. We grabbed an appropriate-sized pair of Crocs from the bin (dirty boots not allowed in the hut!) and settled our stuff onto our bunks. Then came the event that was dinner! The boys had some beer while we enjoyed our first course of cheese and olives. Next came soup- a salty broth consomme. The main course was stewed beef, veggies, and sweet polenta cornbread. It was heavenly! For dessert, we had our choice of brownies or fruit with sweet cream. To follow it all up, we were served a hot pot of tea while we enjoyed a hard days work and full bellies.
The plan was to wake at 2am, put on boots and crampons, and start ascending. The trickiest part of the climb is called the Grand Couloir. The Grand Couloir is basically a nearly constant rock fall. Its best to hit it early in the day before the sun warms up the ice and snow holding the rock in place. Once its warmed up, you just take your best guess at a good window between rock falls and traverse across this 30-foot section. Not hard to long, but potentially dangerous. From there, we were to keep climbing for another 8 hours to the summit. Then descend. And here's where we ran into trouble. There is another hut about an hour and a half's climb up from Tete Rousse called Tete Gouter. Most people descend from the summit to Gouter, spend the night there, then wake up early in the morning, continue to descend and cross the Grand Couloir for a second time while its still cold and before the rocks start cascading. Our problem was that there was no room for us at Tete Gouter.
We made the very tough decision not to continue our climb because we would have been forced to cross the Grand Couloir in the early afternoon (at the earliest). Given what we'd seen in that Couloir, the risk was not worth the rewards of summiting. Sometimes, you just have to turn around.
We learned so much from our attempt at Mont Blanc. We learned about the mountaineering guiding and hut culture. We learned about the route and the physicality and risks involved. We learned about the hut reservation system and traveling by cables and trains. Even though we did not summit Mont Blanc, we still achieved our objective of recon for the French Alps Mountaineering course. Now we knew what to expect and how to develop a course that would be appropriately physically challenging and taking on appropriate risk.
Despite our inability to summit, celebration was still in order! And when you celebrate in Chamonix, you get rachlette!! What's rachlette? Glad you asked; its going to blow your mind.
Rachlette is a big wedge of cheese secured in a melting contraption. The heating units on either side melt the cheese. You load up your personal skillet with potatoes, bread, meats, and veggies, pop it under the weg, and let the cheese cascade onto your goodies. Astounding. Life is good.