On Top of Western Europe

On the morning of August 23, 2013, Shelley and I stood on top of Western Europe.  Mt Blanc, 15,781 feet.

summit photo

The day started for us at 6:00 am waking up in our hotel and getting breakfast.  Jon Bracey, our guide, picked us up at 7:30 am and we drove to a train station and took a cog wheel train (The Mont Blanc Tramway) up to about 7,800 feet.  The ride takes about 1:20.  From there we hiked up to the Refuge du Gouter which sits at about 12,500 feet.  We started out from where the train dropped us off at 9:40 am and arrived at the hut around 4 hours later.  This part of the climb, for us, was the most difficult.  There is a section of the climb just above the Tete Rousse hut that puts The Cleaver on Mt Rainier to shame.  This is the Grand Couloir.  I haven’t processed my GPS data yet, but our guide, Jon Bracey, said this wall is about 500 meters tall.  It took us nearly 2 1/2 hours to climb up it.  There is a section of this climb that has an extreme rock fall danger associated with it.  So extreme you actually run across the this section after looking up and listening to see if anything is falling.  Shelley likes to refer to this section as, “The Run of Death.”  Since we were roped up, we walked really fast.  It seems that many times other climbers will stay at one end of this section or the other to help aid climbers who are making the run by watching out for falling rock.  Since we got to this area pretty early in the day, we had no issues.

After making it across I turned back and took a photo of this area.  When there is more snow in the couloir, that cable can be used to clip into so you can run without too much concern about falling.  You can see a group of climbers on the other side in red.  The actual trail is just below that snow.  It took us only about 15 seconds to get across.

run of death

At the very top, you can see a rectangular structure, that’s the old Gouter hut.  Here’s a picture of the wall that I found on the internet.  Even this photo doesn’t show the bottom of the wall.  It was huge.

grand couloir

The Grand Couloir tops out right under the old Gouter hut that closed in 2012.  A new one just opened this season about 200 meter to the south.  Here you see us traversing along the ridge to the new hut.

arriving at the hut

This new hut is very nice inside.  Great wood work, nice wood floors, the lighting is great, the bunks are great, the food is great……the toilets……well, that’s another issue.  Unlike the Refuge Victor Emmanuel II hut on Gran Paradiso, this hut has no running water source.  It’s too high.  So all the water this hut uses must come from the snow or be flown in by helicopter.  It does have a very large solar power system as well.  By my count, off the emergency evacuation maps, it appears to sleep about 150 people, not counting the guardians.  The guardians are the people who live and maintain the hut during the season.  Usually consisting of three families or groups, they feed everyone, clean and maintain the hut.  The guardians melt snow to use in cooking and their cleaning, but there is no water source for climbers except to buy it at the hut.

The following is based off my observations so I hope it’s accurate.  The Gouter hut has four floors.  The ground floor is the entrance and gear room.  I presume the guardians live on this floor as well, but I never really saw where their living accommodations were.  The second floor has the dining room and bar.  The third and fourth floors are the dorms for the climbers.  The hut uses a recycling, composting human waste system.  Urine is collected from the urinals to be used to flush the toilets.  The toilets are then, in turn, flushed into a composting system.  I’m not sure where or what happens at the end of this system.  It really is quite a smart way to do it…….except for the smell.  But, you can only smell all this outside the hut or on the ground floor.  The dorms are actually quite pleasant as is the dinning room.

The biggest issue with the toilets are their functionality, or lack there of.  On our night of arrival, they worked just fine.  But on summit morning they stopped flushing.  The urinals have no issues as they don’t flush.  But the toilets, for some reason stopped working.  When you’re going to spend 7 hours (ascending and descending) climbing you better go before leaving.  I went to every restroom in the hut looking for a functioning toilet.  Everyone was out of order.  Trust me when I say this, 120-ish climbers aren’t leaving without going to the bathroom.  Including yours truly.  One could say I voiced my displeasure with this system by adding to the problem.  The smell was pretty bad that morning.  My only guess is the builder never tested the system at maximum capacity.  At maximum capacity, it failed.  Terribly.

Here are some pictures of the Gouter hut as we first arrived.  Starting with the entrance as we walked up to the front door.

hut entrance

Here’s the dining area and bar.  The bar isn’t like a “bar” downtown.  It’s where the reception desk is at to check in and where you can order wine, beer, water and food.  Except for water for our climb and alcohol (beer and wine) our meals were covered as part of our climbing cost.  A 1.5 liter bottle of water costs Euro 5.00.  So bring your cash.  Of note, check out the floor.  The wood work throughout the building is quite nice.  At breakfast, when everyone is still waking up, they use up lighting in the walls to tone it down while you’re eating.  Breakfast is at 2:00 am.  Jon told us this hut cost Euro 8M and three years to construct since the construction season is very short at 12,500 feet.

dining room

Here’s Shelley in the gear room just inside the entrance, which is the door to her left.  Boots, crampons, axes and poles must stay in the gear room.  The hut provides sandals to wear inside.  It helps keep the noise down and the dirt out.  You can leave other things down here too, if you like.  The room is surprisingly small for the number of people that stay here.  In the morning, when we left for the summit, it was a crazy mad house.  They give everyone a wrist band upon arriving to keep those who don’t have reservations out of the dining room.  Climbers will come into the hut without reservations and sleep on the floor in the gear room.  You can’t get to the dorms, toilets or dining area without the wristband.  There are two toilets outside.

19 gear room

We had dinner around 6:00 pm consisting of soup and cheese, spaghetti noodles and pork then dessert.  It was really good.  Having been acclimatized from Gran Paradiso we were both feeling really good and hungry.  Then it was off to bed for a 1:45 am wake up the next morning.  Breakfast was at 2:00 am and then we met at the gear room to head up the mountain.  By 2:40 am we were roped up and walking.  The temperature was pretty mild and there was hardly any wind.  Throughout the climb the wind was pretty mild with areas where it was a bit gusty, but neither of us needed our big parkas during the climb.  Shelley put in some hand warmers near the top but that was it.

The climb was steep in places but overall pretty mild.  Chamonix was below us all lit up.  I couldn’t get a picture of that, however.  It was too dark for my camera.  We made pretty good time, I feel.  Jon figured on 4 – 6 hours to the summit and we topped out at 6:23 am, just under 4 hours.  It was much easier to climb on the snow than the rock was the previous day.  The sun was just coming up as we reached the top.  Below is the summit shadow with the summit ridge to the right and the trail we followed.  You couldn’t ask for a better summit day.

05 mountain shadow

Cops on Top is an organization that climbs mountains in recognition of fallen officers.  I learned about them in 2011 just before going to Denali.  Follow that link to read more about them.  I carry a streamer I had made to replicate the one that flies on our department flag in recognition of Mark Stall who was killed on duty in 1997.  I carried it the first time to the summit of Denali, the highest point in North America and now it’s been to the top of Western Europe, the top of the European continent and the highest point in Washington.  Some friends also carried to the highest point in Idaho.  Honor.  Remember.  Never forget.

04 mark stall banner

We got to spend about 40 minutes on top, had something to eat and started getting cold just standing there.  So a little after 7:00 am we started down.  We had some spectacular views during the descent.  Including this one of the Aiguille du Midi.

08 agui de midi

And this one looking down on Chamonix as the clouds move in.

10 clouds over chamonix

We got back to the Gouter hut around 9:30 am.  Took a short break then headed back down the Grand Couloir.  It took us a good 90 minutes to get down the Grand Couloir.  It was getting later in the morning as we arrived at the bottom of the Grand Couloir and we could see the rock fall going down the couloir as we descended next to it.  I counted three rock falls, Shelley counted five.  I could have missed a couple.  We also had a climber high above us lose his ice axe off his pack and it came crashing down the rocks about 7 feet away from us.  All in all, it was a pretty uneventful descent.

Shelley’s quad strength made it a bit tough on her.  She was great, a machine, going up to the summit but it was a bit rough on her knee coming down the Grand Couloir.  She was trying to protect her knee but it held up well.  She toughed it out and once off the steep rocks, we motored down to the train station without issue.  Our total decent time, from the summit at 15,781 feet to the train station at appx 7,800 feet took just about over 7 hours.

We made it back into Chamonix, took showers, then headed out to celebrate with beer (Rich), champagne (Shelley) and a really good Indian dinner.

I think it took Shelley exactly 15 seconds to fall asleep in the hotel.  It took me 45 seconds.

It was a great climb.  It was a great experience to climb in the Alps.  We are seeing a different version of climbing over here compared to North America.  We have seen some different techniques and I’ve learned a few things about climbing.  Maybe I’ll write a blog post on this as it’s its own different topic.

We have a couple days off now in Chamonix and we are sitting in a micro-brewery waiting for our dinner for tonight.  It’s pouring down rain and a thunderstorm is moving through the valley.  But better it be today instead of while we descend the Grand Couloir.


One Response to “On Top of Western Europe”

  1. Manu G. Says:

    Congrats for your climbs!

    Nice report as usual ! Your pictures are really nice !
    I really liked your report about the Refuge du Goûter, I’ve seen a documentary about it and it was really interesting, the whole building is a zero energy building.
    I’m surprised about the washroom cause they seemed to use a submarine system really efficient…
    You mentioned other climbing techniques, I’d be really keen to read about it.

    Enjoy your vacation and Europe,



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