The alarm went off at a quarter before midnight. We got up and went down for breakfast. The plan was to depart as fast as possible to avoid getting stuck between the other rope teams on the Glacier du Dome and high up on the ridge. Well, we were pretty quick, but it's hard to compete with people who leave without having breakfast at all... Benjamin, one of the Germans who had attempted the route on the previous day, joined us. While his friends preferred to descend down to their car, he still wanted to summit. We didn't know him but but since he is with the Bavarian Mountain Rescue we trusted his skills. We were also glad to have three people on a rope instead of only two. And indeed, it would turn out that the three of us made a great rope team.
Within a few minutes we had scrambled down to the Glacier du Dome where we roped up. It was dark and cold. The snow conditions where perfect. There where two rope teams in front of us and a few more close behind. We made good progress up the glacier. I led to set the pace and Benjamin made sure that we where on the right track and didn't follow any of the dead ends that he and his friends had spurred the previous night. At some point the two parties in front of us followed one of the dead ends and now we were leading the line of head lights climbing up the glacier. Even though there were about 30 people on the glacier, the field quickly widened considerably and the crowds weren't really a problem. Just before entering the upper section of the Glacier du Dome, where one has to negotiate two ice falls, I fell up to my hips into a hidden crevasse, but was pulled out quickly.
On the ridge toward the Dome du Gouter
At 4.30am we arrived at the Col des Aiguille Grises (3810 m). To the north we could see the lights of the city of Les Houches, but that was pretty much all that we could see as it was still dark and dawn wasn't expected before 6am. It was very cold up there as the wind was blowing fiercely over the ridge. We put on some extra closing, drank some water, and ate a bite. By that time a few more parties had caught up with us on the ridge. I felt that we were actually a bit early to continue, since we wouldn't see much of the surrounding scenery. But with the cold and the wind, waiting was not an option. Soon we took off and followed a few parties that were already on their way north on the ridge. The snow conditions were still pretty good. There was some fresh snow and we just had to follow the spur. There also were a few rocky parts that could easily be scrambled over.
After arriving at the Piton des Italien (4002 m), the ridge splits in two: by taking the left turn one gets to the Aiguille de Bionnassay (4052 m). To get to Mont Blanc we took a right turn. Here the conditions deteriorated considerably. Because of the elevation and the exposure of the ridge, most of the snow had been blown away and we were quickly confronted with bare ice. At the same time the ridge got narrower and narrower and it was no longer possible to walk on top. Instead we sat on it like on a horse's back: The left leg dangling into France, high above the ice falls of the Glacier de Bionnassay. And the right leg hanging into Italy, high above the Glacier du Dome. A fall to either side would have resulted in a quick elevation loss of a few hundred meters... Luckily, it still was dark and we couldn't actually see the exposure. But we had studied the map and we knew...
Well, sliding with your butt on an icy ridge at 4000 m at night is not very comfortable. And it's slow. Quickly tensions arose, since faster rope teams wanted to pass slower ones and arguments were exchanged back and forth.
Accident on the Ridge
Suddenly we noticed something strange: I saw a light falling down the left side of the ridge in front of us and sliding toward the Glacier de Bionnassay. Since it was dark it was impossible to see if it was just a head lamp that somebody had dropped or if it was a person. Since dropping a lamp that is attached to your head seems pretty difficult, the second possibility seemed more likely. Even more so because Claus-Dieter, who was climbing in front, had seen two lights falling down. There was no screaming, just a strange sliding sound... The likely explanation was that a rope team of two had fallen down, but we couldn't see anything except the lights that were still moving far below on the glacier. At this point none of the people could do anything. It was freezing could, we were shivering. Our main objective was to get over this difficult part to easier ground without another accident.
We quickly discussed whether it was smarter to unrope and solo that exposed section. However, in light of what had just happened, we decided to stay roped up and use ice screws as running belays. Soon the ridge got so narrow that we had to step over to the northern side. From there on it was pure ice climbing using the front points of our crampons and the ice axe to traverse a slope that was probably more than 60 degrees steep. We had 6 ice screws and Claus-Dieter, who was leading this part, did an excellent job in placing them. Progress was faster now, but still slow. Most other teams were placing ice screws as well, except for a few that didn't and passed us, although we made sure that they would pass below us...
After passing the Dome de Gouter we finally reached the Col du Dome at around 6.30am, just when the sun was rising. Here, on easy terrain, we discussed what just had happened. We also met one of the rope teams who had been right behind us on the ridge, a guide with two clients, and discussed the incident with them. They also saw lights falling down and the guide nonchalantly remarked that if somebody had fallen down, they would be dead anyway. But he had a radio and promised to inform Mountain Rescue. An hour later, high up on the Bosses Ridge, we would see a helicopter flying over toward the Glacier de Bionnassay, probably checking out the situation. Later that day, in the Refuge de Cosmiques, when we tried to get information, nobody knew anything. We didn't find out about what had happened until after a few days later when Benjamin called the Refuge Gonella and was told that, indeed, a guide and his client had fallen down, leaving the guide dead and the client seriously injured.
From the Dome du Gouter to the Summit of Mont Blanc
At the Col du Dome the Italian route joins up with the normal route from the Refuge de'l Aiguille du Gouter. As the sun rose, we could see dozens of climbers lined up like little black dots on the famous Bosses Ridge. At some point I counted 80 people, all in all there must have been a few hundred people summiting via the normal route on that beautiful day (midweek, by the way). At 7.30am we passed the Refuge Bivouac Vallot (4362 m). This small hut is for emergencies and without service. Its interior apparently is in miserable conditions and I chose not to stick my nose into that hut...
We ascended the Bosses Ridge slowly, since we still had to gain over 400 m of elevation. The scenery was awesome: With the sun so low, the contrast between the warm colors of the lit snow and the shady areas was beautiful. And the ridge is impressive indeed. Conditions where great and there was a well established boot track in the snow. The ridge gets fairly narrow but is just wide enough to safely negotiate oncoming traffic. We took our time, a few breaks, and lots of pictures!
We reached the summit of Mont Blanc at 9.30am and spent a good one hour up there on the large, flat and snowy summit. All the three of us felt good. It had paid out to spend an extra day at the Refuge Gonella and to properly acclimatize. We shared the experience on top of Mont Blanc with a few dozen fellow climbers. People chatted, ate, took pictures, and enjoyed the 360 degree views. Since Mont Blanc is so high, all the other mountains in the area -- many of them 4000 m peaks as well -- seem small from up there. Chamonix lies 4000 meters below. One can see far into France, Italy, and Switzerland and has a good overview over the alps: The Monte Rosa group with the Matterhorn, Grand Paradiso, the Jungfrau Region, and hundred of peaks that we were unable to identify.
Descend to the Refuge des Cosmiques
As there are many different routes to climb Mont Blanc, there are many possibilities for descent. For example, one can descend the Italian Route back to the Refuge Gonella. There is also the popular route via the Refuge de l'Aiguille du Gouter. Another route heads for the Refuge les Grands Mulets... We had chosen to descend via the Trois Mont Route to the Aiguille du Midi, a spire that towers high above Chamonix at the northern edge of the Mont Blanc group. From there one can descend north down to Chamonix via a cable car or one can take 2 cable cars south over the Mont Blanc group back to Courmayeur. There is also a hut near the Aiguille du Midi, the Refuge des Cosmiques. The route is very scenic and passes two more peaks: Mont Maudit (4465 m) and Mont Blanc du Tacul (4187 m). If one has energy left one can do short side trips and scramble up these peaks from the traverse.
We took off around 10.30am and descended north toward the Mur de la Cote, passing the Petits Rochers Rouges, a small rock outcropping, on the way. There were some icy patches on the step sections of the Mur de la Cote, but otherwise conditions were good with an obvious spur. We took a break at the Col de la Brenva (4300 m). Later this evening, in the Refuge des Cosmiques, we would learn that some time later this day, despite warnings, a men ventured too far out and fell through the cornice into the Couloir Güssfeld which connects to the Glacier de la Brenva.
Ahead of us was Mont Maudit which we traversed going slightly uphill onto the Col du Mont Maudit (4345 m). Here, one can scramble up the peak, an round trip of half an hour or so. Claus-Dieter was all for it but Benjamin and I were already pretty tired and taking into account that we still had to climb over 600 m down on a large and crevassed glacier in the full sun, we didn't want to stretch our luck and skipped the peak. The first part of the descent from the Col du Mont Maudit to the Col Maudit (4035 m) consists of a steep and narrow snow gully. There were a few fixed ropes and people rappelled or prusiked down. The chute was packed with a group of climbers ascending. At the top a few other parties were waiting to descend. We watched the traffic jam for a while but quickly lost patience and teamed up with two German climbers to set up a rappel next to the chute. Within a few minutes everybody had gotten down and we continued the descend. It was early afternoon by now and the sun was burning down on us relentlessly. It was hot, the snow got slushy, and we had to plunge step most of the way down.
There was yet another slope to ascend that leads to the top of a broad snow shoulder (4050 m) which connects right toward Mont Blanc du Tacul. On top of the shoulder we took another break and were pretty tired by that time. Here we also could see how far we still had to go: the wide Col du Midi was still 500 m below! Exhausted, we plunge stepped down the glacier. There were a number of huge crevasses to avoid, a few slushy snow bridges to cross, and I felt that with the recent snow falls there was some avalanche danger too. Finally, we arrived at the Col du Midi (3532 m), which is mainly uncrevassed and crossed by dozens of spurs in all directions. There were also a few tents pitched there. While we were crossing the Col, a helicopter appeared from the Glacier de Bossons and landed close by. A mountain rescue guy with a search dog appeared and asked us and the rope team behind us if we had seen an avalanche on the glacier that we had just descended. While we were talking, the helicopter checked out the glacier, and returned to pick up the rescue guy. Later we would hear that indeed a small avalanche had gone down burying a person.
The final descent to the Refuge des Cosmiques was brutal and we were glad when we finally arrived in the hut at 4.45pm after more than 16 hours of climbing and over 3000 m of accumulated elevation gain. We had called the hut on the day before in order to get a reservation but were told that it was booked. Well, we figured it would be difficult to turn us away after the gondolas had shut down for the day and tried to get a spot anyway. And we were lucky. The host was a bit angry, but at the end we got to stay overnight. We were wondering about this reservation thing, because there was quite a number of free spots in the hut and it was definitely not full.. Tired, we ate and went to bed.