Mont Blanc FAQ
15,771 feet - 4807 meters
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Mont Blanc arguably has some the best alpine climbing in Europe. I am focusing on the Three Mont-Blanc-route from the French side since it is very popular and the one I climbed several times in 1998. I am asked many questions about climbing especially since I am not a professional climber. So here are the most popular questions with my answers. As always, this information is based on my experience and are my opinions so always consult with a professional before making any serious climbing decisions.

About Mont Blanc Training, Gear & Communication Mont Blanc Basics My Experience

About Mont Blanc :

Q: Where is it
A: It is located in the French Alps on the boarder between Italy and France. It is actually "owned" by both countries under a bilateral agreement and is called Monte Bianco in Italy. Mont Blanc is a huge massif and is the tallest peak on the massif. The nearest airport is Geneva, Switzerland. It is about an hour drive or by train to Chamonix, France.

Q: When is it usually climbed?
A: As with most Northern Hemisphere peaks, Summer is best since every day it gets warmer with less threat of snow. I climbed it in July and August.

Q: How hard is it?
A: There are many routes which can vary from extremely difficult and technical to semi-technical. This means ropes, crampons and ice axe. Due to the crevasse danger, you usually rope up in teams. The ice climbing can be WF4 for short sections. My personal experience was mixed. The first time, I found it very challenging due to an extremely long day - 13 hours. The other times, it became easier with my improved conditioning and experience. I used a Guide from Chamonix on the first climb and soloed the other two.

Q: How does Mont Blanc compare with Denali or Mt. Rainier?
A: It is a serious climb where climbers experience long snow slopes and some steep sections. On most routes you use one of the huts to overnight and start early unlike winter camping conditions on Denali plus pulling a sled for weeks. So while it is similar in conditions to Denali it is not as significant in time or effort. In most respects it is more like Rainier with the multiple routes and the fact that most climbers do a summit climb in two days.

Q: Is an Mont Blanc climb dangerous?
A: Absolutely. In 2012, 9 climbers were killed in an avlanche of Mount Maudit on the popular Tres Mouts Traverse route. There is avalanche, crevasse and serac danger. You should only attempt Mont Blanc if you have the proper experience and logistics for emergency situations. It seems like each year a rouge storm hits the mountain in the summer creating dangerous icy conditions and multiple deaths occur. Over 100 climbers died just in the summer of 2008. The French and Italians have an amazing rescue service that now handles 800 calls a day!

Q: How many people have summited and how many people had died trying?
A: Over 30,000 people attempt Mont Blanc each year and an estimated 200 people a day summit in the summer season making it very crowded. Over 1,400 people have died climbing Mont Blanc.

Training, Gear & Communication:

Q: How did you train for this climb?
A: I did a lot of running for aerobic conditioning and used smaller peaks in the area as training climbs.

Q: Was altitude a problem on this climb?
A: Yes, it is always a challenge on climbs above 15,000'. Altitude can be a problem for anyone above 8,000', much less when you are going above 22,000'. To acclimatize en route, the night in the hut helps a bit but I would strongly suggest taking it slow and spending a few days in Chamonix.

Q: Can you prepare for the altitude?
A: Not really. The common approach is to move slowly up the mountain (1000' a day maximum) spending your days at a higher altitude than where you sleep up until your summit bid. The human body simply does not function well at high altitudes and especially above 8000m (26,300'). As you go higher, the barometric pressure decreases, although the air still contains 21% oxygen, every breath contains less molecules of oxygen.

Everest legend Tom Hornbein explained it to the American Lung Association this way:

The lower oxygen stimulates chemoreceptors that initiate an increase in breathing, resulting in a lowering of the partial pressure of CO2 and hence more alkaline blood pH. The kidneys begin to unload bicarbonate to compensate. Though this adaptation can take many days, up to 80% occurs just in the first 48 to 72 hours. There are many other physiologic changes going on, among them the stimulus of low oxygen to release the hormone, erythropoietin to stimulate more red blood cell production, a physiological and still acceptable form of blood doping that enhances endurance performance at low altitudes. Adaptive changes are not always good for one’s health. Some South American high altitude residents can have what’s called chronic mountain sickness, resulting from too many red blood cells; their blood can be up to 84-85% red blood cells. The increased blood viscosity and sometimes associated pulmonary hypertension can result in right heart failure.

You cannot do much to acclimatize while at a low altitude but there are companies that claim to help the acclimatization process through specially designed tents that simulate the reduced oxygen levels at higher elevations. I have no personal experience with these systems but you can find more details at the Hypoxico website. They cost about $7,000 or can be rented for about $170 a week. Outside Magazine posted an article in 2013 questioning their effectiveness.

Q: What kind of equipment did you use?
Click for a larger view of my Everest gear. A: Mostly I use the same gear I used on Rainier. Lot's of layers. My personal technical equipment included a long handle ice axe, harness, carabineers and crampons. It is always critical to protect my toes, fingers and face since these were most susceptible to frost bite. I use a 3 layer system: base, warmth and wind/cold. See my gear page for a complete discussion and my gear list updated for 2013. I am very pleased with all my gear but had a few standouts that I note on my gear page.

Q: Anything special in your gear for Mont Blanc?
A: Layer your clothing and be prepared for extreme cold and wind. Mont Blanc is famous for fast changing weather. Since you start well before sunrise, it will be very cold. If it is windy or you hit queues at some of the difficult spots, you will be glad to have all your layers plus Down or Gortex. In the afternoon on a fine day, protection from the sun will be required and ventilation from warm clothes needed to prevent overheating.

Q: Did you use Sat Phones?
A: No but cell phones work fine as long as you have line of sight with Chamonix. 999 is the emergency number. For details on my expedition communications, please see this tutorial.

Climbing Mont Blanc

Q: Which route is most popular?
A: The Three Mont-Blanc-route is one of the most popular. This is one of the longest routes on Mont Blanc. It starts at Chamonix with a gondola ride to the Aiguille du Midi, then a short stay at the Col du Midi (Cosmiques hut) before traversing two peaks: Mont-Blanc du Tacul, Mont-Maudit and summit Mont-Blanc Another popular route is the Aiguilles du Gouter over the bosses ridge which some consider it to be the "classic" route. But there are many other routes on this hill that are extremely technical and subject to avalanches.

Q: How long will it take?
A: 2 days for the normal route. You arrive in Chamonix around noon and take the gondola to the Agile du Midi, a stunning rock summit. From here you walk half a mile across a knife edge snow ridge and go down to the hut, Cosmiques. Here you have a nice dinner and sleep in dorm style with one hundred other climbers. The wake-up call is around 2:00AM when you have a nice French breakfast, dress and leave for the summit no later than 3:30. Eight hours later, you summit and take 5 hours to return to the gondola for the ride down. A pleasant 13 hour day!

Q: How much does a standard climb cost with and without a guide?
A: The costs can range from $1000 to $2000 depending on who you use. If you do everything yourself cut the highest cost in half or more or even free. See my Guide page for more details.

Q: Do I need a permit to climb?
A: There are no permits required but as of 2012 there is a lot of talk about a permit system to control the volume of climbers plus ecological and safety concerns. You will need a reservation at the hut. Make this reservation as far in advance as possible since they are extremely crowded in the peak summer months. While it is not legally permitted, many climbers now spend the night in tents outside the huts.

Q: Do I really need a guide for Mont Blanc?
A: It really depends on your experience. I used a guide for my first climb and went alone the other two times. It can be quite crowded so you will probably always be in sight of another party but I never recommend climbing alone like I did. If I had a problem, I would had been in trouble.You must bring a two-way radio and a sat phone in my opinion and have the frequency or number of the local rescue resources already programmed in.

Q: Are there local guides for Mont Blanc?
A: Yes. There are companies in Chamonix, France that can provide local French guides.

Q: How do you get on an expedition to climb Mont Blanc?
Just sign up! There are not a lot of questions since it is considered an overnight climb similar to Rainier in the US.

Q: What is involved if I plan my own climb?
A: Basically everything: permits, travel, hotels, food, gear, routes, communications, emergency contentions - everything. You can save a lot of money this way but as I said before, consider your skills in the event that something goes wrong - are you 100% self sufficient? What are your medical skills? HAPE and HACE are really possibilities on Mont Blanc - do you have the proper medicine and training to deal with it? And a hundred more questions. See my guide page for more. Again, climbing alone or in small teams is never a good idea. Saving a few thousand dollars is not worth your life.

What kind of weather conditions will I experience?

A: In July and August, it is not too cold. But weather on Mont Blanc can develop quickly so you need to carry all your layers. In 1999, a fast moving system dropped the temperatures and brought freezing rain to the route causing several people to die that afternoon. In August of 2008, a serac the size of a four-story building broke off near the summit of Mont Blanc du Tacul killing 8 climbers.

Q: What is the biggest problem most people face?
A: Mont Blanc is not a terribly hard climb so many people underestimate it. You need to be prepared for bad weather. There are a few difficult sections that require close attention to footwork while climbing ice. It is a very long day so fatigue is an issue if you are not prepared physically.

My Experience

Q: Did you summit?
Rainier Summit A: Three times: once in 1995 and twice in 1998. I used Mont Banc as a training climb for my 8000m expeditions.

Q: Did you use a guide ?
A: Yes on my first time but went alone on the other climbs.

Q: Who was the guide and how did you arrange it?
A: It was French guide I found through the guide service in Chamonix France. He was quite good. There was a Frenchman with us and no one spoke English very well so it was quiet throughout the climb. The guide was quite safe and very competent.

Q: Which route did you take?
A: The Three Mont Blanc route which traverses over Mont Blanc du Tacul, Mont Maudit and up to Mont Blanc itself. It starts with a gondola ride to the Aiguille du Midi observation station in our full climbing gear and packs and then a fantastic short climb over a very steep and narrow snow ridge to the Cosmiques Hut. The actual climb took 13 hours the first time and under 10 the other two. The climbing is over long snow slopes with one section that is fixed and requires moderate climbing. I rappelled down this section on the return.

Q: What kind of weather conditions did you experience?
A: Hot and sunny, cold and windy - normal mountain weather. We were fortunate that the overall weather was good and we did not experience and sudden rain or snow squalls.

Q: Would you climb Mont Blanc again?
A: Probably not. While it was fun the first time, it has become very crowded these days and the weather so variable that it has become a dangerous climb.

Bottom Line

Mont Blanc is a beautiful mountain in an awesome valley. The entire environment is amazing and makes you feel special. The French and Italian influence makes is unique for Americans. The climb itself is not technically difficult but does test your endurance. But the views from the summit are well worth it.