Mont Blanc - 45.8326° N, 6.8652° E

How to Climb Mont Blanc: The Tallest Peak in Western Europe


, by Charlie Boscoe

Looking up at the upper part of Mont Blanc from the Aiguille du Goûter. Photo Boscoe Collection.

Mountains have been climbed for so long now that it's almost taken for granted that we humans have an intrinsic desire to climb them, but the history of Mont Blanc tells us otherwise. Until the mountain's first ascent in 1786, nobody had ever really considered wasting their precious energy on climbing a mountain just for the challenge of it, and it was only the cash reward offered by Swiss naturalist Horace-Bénédict de Saussure that tempted first ascensionists Jacques Balmat and Michel Paccard to reach the highest mountain in the Alps. After their legendary ascent, however, a funny thing happened: more people, including those not chasing a cash incentive, climbed the mountain, not for money, not for the fame of being first, but just because they wanted to - and they've been doing it ever since. Mont Blanc was the first mountain people climbed for no reason at all, and, as a result, is seen as the mountain on which mountaineering was "invented".

Chamonix town center with Mont Blanc towering above. Photo Lorena Montoya Shutterstock.

The legend of that magical day in 1786 lives on, and prominent streets in Chamonix's town center bear the names of Paccard, Balmat, and Saussure (who made the third ascent of the mountain in 1787). From any of those streets, it's possible to look up at the mountain that made them famous and trace the line of their first ascent - up to La Jonction, then across the Grands Mulets, and finally up and over the distinctive humps of the Bosses Ridge. Glacial recession has made their route all but impassable in summer, but Mont Blanc does have two popular moderate routes to its summit - the Trois Monts and the Goûter Route.

Goûter Route

The Goûter Route is the more popular of the two, mainly because it offers a shorter summit day and, by general consensus, lower objective risk. The trip begins from the Nid d'Aigle, accessed by train from St Gervais or Les Houches, and starts with an easy uphill hike to the Refuge de Tête Rousse. Some teams choose to stay here in order to reduce the risk of rock fall in the Grand Couloir (more on that later), but selecting this option adds an extra 2 - 3 hours to summit day, so your priorities (and the availability of beds in the notoriously busy Goûter Hut) will determine whether it's a compromise worth making.

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Whether you stayed at the Tête Rousse or not, the next job is to reach and then cross the notorious Grand Couloir. This 50-meter wide couloir is notorious for rock fall and is easily the most dangerous part of the Goûter Route. There is a metal cable across the couloir, but clipping into it with a sling is not recommended - many a climber has clipped in, begun scurrying across, and then been lifted off their feet by their sling suddenly going tight! Either don't clip in at all (if you're feeling confident and want to be as fast as humanly possible), or clip a carabiner onto the wire and loop your rope through it with plenty of slack. Carry the slack and feed it out as necessary - if you do get hit by something, then the wire is only there to stop you from going too far down the mountain, so count on being counterbalanced by your partner at the other end of the rope rather than being snugly attached to the cable!

The Grand Couloir is much less dangerous in the cold nighttime temperatures and gets increasingly risky as the day heats up, so bear this in mind when deciding whether to stay at the Tête Rousse or Goûter Huts. Regardless of whether you crossed it during the day or night, an easy and enjoyable scramble up to the Goûter Hut awaits after you're safely across.

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When you're done with the scramble, the views to the north really open up, and you'll suddenly find yourself looking down on the Chamonix Valley and across the famous peaks above it. Hang a right and begin the long but increasingly beautiful trudge up to the Aiguille du Goûter. There's a small emergency hut (the Vallot Hut) just beyond this (and many mountaineers use it as a spot to warm up a little just before first light), but after that, you're truly in the high and wild alpine world! Head up the narrowing Bosses Ridge and enjoy the ever-improving scenery, but watch your step - the upper section is pretty exposed!

After passing the two distinctive humps which can be seen from Chamonix town centre, you'll find yourself on the final ridge to the summit - and what a ridge it is! Nicely exposed but not difficult, and with the view getting bigger with every step, this is when you know you're going to make it and just have to make it official! 

Just below the summit, with success now assured. This moment feels even better than reaching the top! Photo Boscoe Collection.

The view from the summit is truly exceptional, with those peaks which, just a couple of days before, were towering above you all now far beneath your feet. On a clear day, you'll be able to see all of the Mont Blanc Massif's legendary peaks, as well as the Matterhorn - which looks remarkably close by. The temperature on the summit is invariably pretty low, so unless you get super lucky with conditions, quickly snap some photos and begin the long descent back down the way you came!

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Trois Monts Route

The alternative route to the Goûter is the Trois Monts, which begins at the top of the Aiguille du Midi cable car. From the lift, walk down to the Cosmiques Hut and get ready for an early start! Once underway the next morning, cross the Col du Midi and climb the serac-threatened north face of Mont Blanc du Tacul, cross the Col Maudit, and then cross the equally serac-threatened north face of Mont Maudit. The objective hazard of the Tacul and Maudit north faces puts many people off the Trois Monts route, especially because the risk of serac fall is not negated by nighttime temperatures, unlike the rock fall risk in the Grand Couloir. Deciding which route is correct for you is a personal judgment and warrants further research, but both choices come with their pros and cons, and the risk of each can vary from season to season. 

The rising traverse across Mont Maudit's north face leads you to the technical crux of the Trois Monts route - the 50-ish meter climb up 50-ish degree snow to the mountain's northwest ridge. Climbing this crux requires solid front-pointing skills, but it's not "hard" for competent mountaineers. Once above it, a tough but scenic slog to Mont Blanc's summit awaits. When you finally reach the top, enjoy the view! Either head back down the same way or descend the Goûter Route to complete a traverse of the Alps' highest mountain. 

On the summit, looking down on the Trois Monts route. Photo Boscoe Collection.

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Whether you choose the Goûter Route or Trois Monts, climbing Mont Blanc is a serious, high-altitude undertaking. Experience with altitude and cold weather is essential, as are basic cramponing skills and the ability to judge mountain conditions. In the shorter term, acclimatization is also key - if you try to climb Mont Blanc as your first peak of the season, then the chance of success is low, and the chance of enjoyment even lower! Spend a week or two climbing lower peaks and gain some valuable red blood cells before tackling the big kahuna - we've got an article dedicated to acclimatization, so take a read of that and factor in some time to prepare for a Mont Blanc summit attempt.

It's a tough recipe to get right, but if you manage to find the right partner, weather, and acclimatization routes, climbing Mont Blanc is a fabulous journey to the summit of western Europe and the heart of mountaineering history.

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