Mont Blanc via Goutêr Route 2018: the full story of summit attempt

On the way to Mont Blanc summit, August 2018

This is a sum-up of the summit attempt of Mont Blanc in August 2018, through the Normal Route, also known as the Royal route or Goutêr Route, as a guide for a mixed group of 5 beginners and intermediates.

After the preparations (read here), we arrived to Chamonix area where a few major changes have happened because of the climate. We were prepared to go according to the prior plan, and the team were eager, full of anticipation but humble.

We kicked off the trip with an acclimatization outing to Aiguille du Midi. The idea was to stay there as much as we could, at least one hour, to prepare ourselves for the high altitude. Otherwise, we’d surely get a lot of unpleasant symptoms at the Goûter hut and further up.

View from Aiguille du Midi. To far right: the Cosmiques route.
I was expecting the team to get some kind of altitude effects, but it’s never possible to know who gets it, how much, and what exactly. This time, one of the group members got hit with altitude symptoms directly as we arrived at 3,8k meters over sea level. The symptoms were dizziness and blood circulation disturbance, causing numb fingers and lilac lips, and a general unwellness which deteriorated almost to the point of losing consciousness. I was considering getting the person down to the previous station, but slowly and surely they regained their complexion. After they were feeling a bit better, I continued monitored them together with the rest – all were after all feeling the altitude, some more than the others. We started to move around, filled up on fast carbs, and as I grew confident in that all group members were up to it, I invited them for a walkabout. First inside of the station, and then a walk outside.

As we were gearing up for the walk – getting into our harnesses, taking out ice axes, ropes etc – I were approached by a small group of alpinists. They needed help. Their friend was below, unroped, feeling unwell and unable to walk, needing rescue. They offered payment, but of course I refused. A rescue mission is not about payment, it’s about doing your best to help as fast as possible and that’s it. I asked the two group members that have been on Elbrus with me to join me, since they both had received the training and experienced altitude earlier. We headed down to rescue the guy, however it turned out he was already on the way up and there was another person helping him. He made it, and that’s the most important thing. So we walked back, got the rest of the group to gear up, and headed back for a tiny walk, to a lunch stop.

Team member preparing for lunch.
I very much wanted the group to have lunch at 3,8k so they would experience how hard it can be to both eat and hydrate while under influence of the altitude. Most ate with appetite, some could not swallow a bite, but bravely stuck the food into their mouths despite feeling sick. We used the snow to get melted water: we both cooked the water for several minutes for hot drinks and for freeze-dried food, and used cleaning pills in cold water. We could have brought fresh water for the day, but I wanted the group to get a feel of how time-consuming it can be to produce water for 6 persons with just 2 burners, and to get used to the chlorine smell and taste. Chlorine-treated water can be nauseating when already battling the symptoms of altitude, so I wanted everyone to try that out before we’re out and en route.

We stayed for 6 hours, which was longer than I thought everyone would manage. I was happy, the longer acclimatisation – the better. Getting down meant well-deserved rest, as the acclimatisation was absolutely draining for some. We went to a restaurant and got some warm food, but the member feeling the most sickness stayed and slept. It was hard for them to eat, and the digestive system went on strike. Spoiler: that was to continue for 5 days, and the person would not be able to eat much more that apples and carrots… and then do mountaineering. Very tough, and theoretically close to impossible, especially for a person who did not have any fat reserves. Naturally, I was worried.

We stayed at another place that night, as a heavy rain was to hit Chamonix area. I booked a yurt which housed all of us, with plenty of space for gear and luggage. It was a good bet, since most were tired after the acclimatization. Also, it felt unnecessary to get all sleeping gear and tents dripping wet already before starting to hike.

The yurt at Fleur de Neiges. Wall sockets and free coffee included.
As I was unpacking inside the yurt, I heard one of the team members call my name repeatedly. I was surprise at their persistence, and finally wandered out to check what was so urgent. The person stood in the middle of the yard with blood gushing from their head, covering all the face, and dropping down. That’s mildly put not a sight you want to see as the guide for a mountaineering trip, the evening before you go.

I asked the person to sit down on a bench – in my experience, people are sometimes prone to faint at the sight of their own blood, and I wanted to minimize the fall. Another team member could luckily assist. I quickly assessed the damage, got the damaged part in the highest position, stopped blood flow and proceeded to remove the blood from the face, as it made the whole thing look much worse than it was. The person walked into a protruding nail or a screw that sat on the piping in the ceiling by the toilets. I disinfected the cut and concluded that it needed no further mending, neither sewing nor further dressing. We were good.

What a start! An altitude sickness almost causing fainting, and a blood-covered face! What was waiting ahead?

We continued according to plan. The next day, we headed to Nid d’Aigle, to walk to Tête Rousse from there. There is a mountain tram going to Nid d’Aigle, and it’s easiest and cheapest to get it from Bellevue, just a few minutes with lift from Les Houches (a nice cozy village). Otherwise, it’s possible to drive to La Fayet and take the tram all the way, losing a few hours. I knew that heavy rainfalls would catch up with us in the afternoon and wanted the group to make it to the camping by Tête Rousse before that, so we’d at least have a chance to keep the gear dry.

The Tramway stops here. Nid d'Aigle, 2372 meters
We walked only with short stops to adjust the gear or have some water and a snack. A longer food break was had at the unmanned refuge halfway to Tête Rousse. The path was dry and there was a good amount of different people there, both alpinists and hikers. At one place, we were crossing a stoney patch - and suddenly a mountain goat appeared from nowhere, giving us a welcome into its home and territory!

We made it to the camping just as the rain-heavy clouds rolled in and covered the tents (there were many, a couple of dozen of them). It took us 4 hours in total, including the breaks. We found 3 flat spaces next to each other and put up tents. And then the heavy rain came.

As the rain clouds roll in over the campsite, the alpinists are hurrying up to finish the meals and crawl back into their tents.
The campsite is a bit stony but it's possible to find a spot or two. There are few French alpinists here; mostly people from Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, and South America, where the traditions of alpinism are a bit more puristic. The French (and all the rest who come here with a French guide) stay at the refuge. The refuge offers everything from hot pizza and pasta to quiche, salads, beer and champagne. It’s possible to buy bottled water and fill up thermos with hot water in all such refuges, for a price of 5-7 euro. They informed that the breakfast is served at set times in the night and the morning. We asked if we needed to book it, but the guy just told us to show up. We decided to turn up and get our thermoses filled, so we could get hot drinks and make freeze-dried food for breakfast. After all, there was no running water. It was possible to walk towards the couloir and get some snow or melted water there, but it did not give the impression of untouched clean glacier… at all. And we could save time cooking the water, too. So we hoped for the refuge's water supplies.

The Tête Rousse hut. The area in front is forbidden to camp on, as it is too close to the heli landing.
As we showed up for the breakfast to get the water and get going before dawn, nobody was there and the counter was closed. We waited and waited, then knocked, then even called the number at the counter. A newly-woken woman came after a while, and said that it’s closed. She seemed to be part of the staff, but did not want to help us. As I confronted her and asked for water, mentioning that we were assured by the previous staff that we could come and get the water during breakfast there, she just answered with “no breakfast” and went away. A French level of service indeed, and my questions about cooking the water myself and what not were of course also ignored.

So, we did with what we had. Then, I walked and got some melted water, which we cleaned with tablets. I was regretting I even got the idea to try and use the cabin’s service. Better to continue being self-sufficient as planned. Maybe it takes just a tiny more bit of time and energy, but the feeling of freedom and self-reliance compensates for that. Together with less disappointment, too. Because of the waiting, we left at 07:15 in the morning, an hour later than I hoped.

Leaving for the couloir at dawn.
We passed the dreaded couloir with no trouble, and started climbing the ridge. Here, we were expecting a bit of walking, a bit of scrambling, and Via Ferrata. However, the little walking that existed was very steep, and the scrambling was more technical than the group was expecting. It’s always hard to know exactly how difficult something is, before you actually do it. During the time we were there, the sun was already peeking out so we needed to keep to the center of the rock ridge, and not use the path to the right, close to the couloir below Goutêr cabin, because of falling rocks. I saw a few tumble down, close to the ridge but still not too bad. There were quite a lot of loose rocks on the way, and all alpinists above you posed a danger. I managed to stop 2 large rocks from falling, they were just at my waist level and started to loosen while I was scrambling past. Both weighed about 20-30 kg each, and if they fell then nothing would stop them continuing down to where other people were advancing. I managed to stop them and lift over to a safe place. But there was no guarantee that somebody else would not let similar rocks slide down instead.

The scrambling was strenuous with the huge backpacks, and we needed to take many breaks. The group started worrying about going down, it always seems so hard when climbing upwards, especially with the clumsy bags. Here, the French style was definitely easier: a small daypack does not change your gravity centre, does not get in the way, and the going is very easy. We were all at about 25 kg or more, and the backpacks were a bit bulky.

Gear adjustment stop.
The last steep bit of via ferrata leads to the old Goutêr refuge. It’s small, closed off completely, and seems hard to use for any kind of bivvying – I checked. The part below the cabin could theoretically be used to sleep under, but it has obviously been very frequently used as a toilet. Yes, we have seen an older alpinist sleep under the toilet near Tête Rousse, but despite the stench that was like a 5-star hotel compared to what’s here.

The snow starts just above the old Goutêr, and here rope and crampons should be used. There are stanchions with rope in between among the path that runs on the slopes. The stanchions have hooks for the rope, so groups will be fixed. Most probably, this was made because alpinists do not bother to unpack their crampons (or maybe even axes?) until they reach the refuge, which is extremely dangerous if someone slips and falls towards the steep rocks.

It took us a total of 5,5 hours to reach Goutêr. The going would be considerably easier without tents and sleeping gear etc. The group was a bit tired, and anxious about going down the same way which was rather steep. I did some research about getting down through another route, but concluded that it would be safest to stick to the plan. I knew that the backpacks would shrink after we’d eaten the food for the 3 days. Also, most backpacks can be repacked to minimize the size. I knew I could relocate some stuff into my own backpack, if it would be needed – I was comfortable climbing with my 110 liter bag.

Outside of the Goutêr hut. Steel wire to protect from accidental falls. Gear hanging to dry.
The refuge’s first floor is a room designated for gear. It’s not allowed to bring boots, axes, and crampons into the dining hall or the sleeping quarters. There are crocs to borrow to change to (conveniently kept in a container in the middle of the room, so it’s very clear how many people are actually inside, derived from the amount of shoes left). Some people leave their helmets, harnesses, and other gear. But that’s done on your own risk. Just a few days ago, somebody’s mountaineering boots were stolen and the person had to be rescued by heli to be able to come down. One in our group left the harness downstairs and got a belay brake stolen. I guess it could have been worse.

That night, most were feeling affected by the altitude, to different levels. Some could not sleep, some woke up with a headache, and the team member with stomach problems could still not hold food (or get anything substantious down). But if we would not have done the acclimatization at 3,800 meters then the situation would be much more serious. We saw a lot of alpinists with AMS symptoms. People throwing up in agony, swollen faces that look half-conscious, a guy (US marine) begging me for painkillers… SNAFU of the high mountains.

The new Goutêr hut, which place for 120 alpinists sleeping.
We had another day before the summit attempt, and were to go on another acclimatisation hike, and then rest before the attempt would start in the middle of the night. We headed off on the main path. I hoped to get the group to Dôme de Goutêr, 4304 meters, which would both be a nice place to spend some time on acclimatising, and also a motivating factor – for half of the group, that would be the first peak above 4000! 

Views from the route: Aiguille du Midi, where we were just a few days ago, is already below us with its 3842 meters.
As we started walking, one of the group members, who up to this time did not experience any dramatic symptoms, suddenly worsened, having a killer headache. We went on, and the person found the strength to continue despite the pain. It took about three hours to get to the destination, and I was very happy to see that everyone managed. After acclimatising for 2,5 hours up there, it was much more probable that we’d make it to the summit of Mont Blanc without serious altitude symptoms.

The dome-shaped summit of Dôme de Goutêr
Walking down is a bit harder on the knees, we took our time and arrived to the refuge when the clouds already had rolled in. 

Heading back, racing with the clouds.
Most were very tired. It's hard to understand what impact the altitude may have on the general condition, the only way is to try out. I try my best to prepare the beginners for the symptoms, but it always comes as a surprise. It gets easier to deal with the AMS symptoms after having experienced them a couple of times, but you are never immune. It can hit anyone, experienced or beginner, elite athlete or normal person, at any time.

Team member temporarily knocked out by altitude symptoms
We had a meal and went to sleep. We’d try to wake up before 2 am, when most of the guests would get up for the attempt every night, thus causing toilet queues and a lot of commotion. The plan was to start walking at 2 or 2:30, water cooking took a lot of time - because of the low temperatures at night, everything freezes stiff, so chopping off blocks of ice to melt at that hour is a bit hard.

Having a snack while boiling the water in the middle of the cold alpine night.
We were roped and ready to go at 2:30 am. Some groups also starting to walk. The team member with the stomach problems were just having a hot drink as a breakfast. Or trying to… and having the politeness and the presence of mind to excuse themselves right before they started drinking the wrong way. Throwing up in the morning just before summit attempt is not good news, especially after not being able to eat for 4 days straight. Well, they regained their posture, and just a minute or two later we could start walking.

It was cold and dark, stars were shining, and so were our headlamps. We walked non-stop for a bit more than an hour before we took the first pause. Then, another 20 minutes before we could take a break. Then another non-stop hour. Now, the dawn was glowing, and we could finally see the contours of the majestic mountains around us. 

My domestic partner, part of the group, with the alpine sunrise as a backdrop.
From here, the pauses became more frequent. The path was steeper, the going was harder. The members that were earlier experiencing altitude problems were feeling better – now it was the turn of the next one, who was hit by the lighter air and was feeling exhausted. I walked beside the person for a while, reminding about the breathing and walking technique.

Day is just breaking, but we have been moving for over 3 hours already.
As we were passing the Bosses ridge, and going further, it was still cold. The steep slopes on one or both sides were continuing for hundreds of meters, and it felt good to have practiced self-arrest with the whole group. At times, the path was very steep; extremely dangerous without proper gear, crampons, rope, axe. I was expecting the paths to be full of people, however there were less alpinists there than I expected. Seems that end of August is a better time than, for instance, July. We still met a few – both larger groups of roped alpinists, and individuals that were there with their guide, who often pulled them up by the rope. Some passed us on the way up. We passed some groups that were resting. Some aborted the attempt and headed down, for different reasons.

Forward, upward!
Guide and the group
The going was at a steady pace, with breaks when needed, and the views now were amazing. Everyone agreed that it was not possible to convey this through photos or description, one has to experience it to know what beauty awaits up there.

Sun is rising in the Alps.

Fragment of the ice and snow on Mont Blanc.
During the day, the sun will shine and there will be easy going with just one layer of clothing. But during the night and the early morning, it's quite chilly. One of the group members was using all layers plus the down jacket. We were lucky the wind was very calm, so there was not too much chill factor.

My backpack after walking for 4 hours.
Finally, we were at the last part before the summit. Here, all the focus is on the target – the heart is already there, the body just needs to keep up...

We noted the top of Mont Blanc at 07:40 that morning, about 5 hours after leaving Goutêr. 

I congratulated everyone by shaking their hands, something I learned the very first time I was here

There were smiles, hugs, and selfies! Myself, I was extremely proud to see the team members that were battling altitude symptoms reach the top despite everything. Especially the person who could not eat for 5 days - that was a fantastic example of physical and mental strength and resilience. 

The group at the summit of Mont Blanc, 4810 meters.

On top of EU again!
Now, we needed to focus on the way down. It took some time, about 3 hours, since we were walking slowly and surely, as the descent was hard on the legs. We took a few pauses, the sun was warming and the spirits were high. We were down and back to the refuge at 12 midday.

As we passed Refuge Vallot and descended past Dome de Goutêr, we got to witness another rescue operation, this time with helicopter.

Due to the condition of the couloir (and the condition of the group members), it was very unwise to continue down at this hour. We stayed, had a meal, and rested to wake up early and head off soon after the sunrise. Also this time the water cooking process took a long time, but finally we were on the way. The steep slopes by the hut did not feel steep at all any more, not after the summit ridges!
We did some repacking the evening before, and got rid of everything that was not needed or used. Huge amounts of snacks that nobody wanted to have was left to the other alpinists. Some stuff was thrown away or donated to the refuge. Suddenly, the backpacks were not at all bulky or heavy. And the way down did not seem very steep anymore. It always gets better after you try!

Morning sun caresses the snow as we leave Goutêr hut for the valley early in the morning.
We were reaching the couloir on time, the sun had still not reached there and the temperatures stayed low. No movement of the stones, the couloir was still sleeping. We were recommended to take the upper path, which we did since nobody was crossing below. We had been very focused on coming there on time, not taking unnecessary breaks, and on crossing the actual couloir in a careful and controlled, but fast way. So as we were done with the dangerous part, we took a break to rehydrate. We watched the couloir as another group was crossing over on the way down – two persons and a guide. These three were running, which looked absolutely neckbreaking dangerous, as we knew how narrow and unstable the path was, sometimes almost crumbling under the feet. As they came closer, we could see them clearer, and it turned out there were two Asian alpinists and a guide. The alpinists were exhausted, with unfocused eyes, sweat all over, gear in need on adjustment, faces expressing fatigue and pain. The guide was still driving them to hurry, half-run, forward, which is dangerous with tired legs on such a stony and steep path. They were pushing through, not even looking where their feet went, and caused a lot of rocks to fall. We warned them several times, but the alpinists seemed out of contact, and the guide was angry and rude. They passed right above us, and the stones nearly hit one in our group, who screamed and told them to stop, yet they continued on. That was not only disrespectful, that was risking other people’s lives.

Photo taken after crossing the couloir. Finally, only easy hiking left. The bright-colored dots in the middle of the photo are the tents in the Tête Rousse camp.
I cannot verify whether the guide mentioned above was accredited in France and belonged to the local organisation or not, but that was an incredibly unprofessional and dangerous behavior. With such guides, I understand why so many people get seriously hurt in the couloir. The problem is often that the local guides work for profit, not for getting the customers to enjoy a successful summit. They hurry up, scream at the customers, force them to abort the attempt if anything is not to the guide’s liking, and hurry down because even with an aborted mission they keep the payment and can get a new customer right away in the valley, earning the double those days. I’ve seen that in other blogs, this one being the most detailed.

We reached Tête Rousse and continued on. The walk down was a bit hard on some knees but nothing seemed steep anymore after the summit. We stopped for a meal near the unmanned the hut halfway, and came down just in time to catch the Tramway. It took us 5,5 hours from Goutêr to Nid d’Aigle. Another hour later, we were in Chamonix. The team voted to stay in a hotel rather than camp, and I made a booking that provided us with an apart-hotel that had a hot pool! Aiguille Verte was shining new, very comfortable, and had a very nice caretaker - a place I'd recommend to anyone.

Down in the valley and done with mountaineering for this time - time to stretch!
We rounded off the evening with some good fondue in a place in central Chamonix. While we were having the food, the rain came and gave us the chance to feel how wonderful it is to have real food served hot, and a dry place to sit, instead of crunching freeze-dried mixes while being wet. We have used the ice and snow to make the water, and each time got to witness how dirty it was, so the local beers “brewed with glacier water” will never be appetizing again. Later, we went on a pub crawl through Chamonix, as a nice round-off to the adventure. The legs might have been tired, but the spirits were high. A successful summit and definitely a good preparation for the group for the future, higher peaks.

Lena Padukova, Mont Blanc 2018