A walkers route to 10000 feet on Mont Blanc
This is a walk part way up the Gouter route on Mont Blanc and is about as far up the mountain as the walker can safely venture. In addition - at 3167m or 10391 feet - it's the highest point reached by any non technical walking trail from the Chamonix Valley.
One warm July morning in 2003 I'd got off the bus in Les Houches by the Bellvue cable car station. From here I was whisked swiftly out of the valley, the telepherique quickly climbing the steep wooded slope to Bellvue. It seemed immediately open and airy up here, having left the confines of the valley and the scent of sun warmed grass was in the breeze as I made the short walk to catch the train known as the Tramway du Mont Blanc. This mountain railway ascends from Saint Gervais to Nid d'Aigle. Bellvue's about three quarters of the way up.
Like in Switzerland, the mountain transport around Chamonix is excellent and enables you to reach places in a day that would have been 2 day trips or major missions walking all the way from the valley. The obvious downside is that you can get too many people in once peaceful areas but that being said, the Alpine trains and cableways are infinitely preferable to having roads and car parks up here with all the extra noise and pollution that would bring.
The train made its way leisurely along its route, traversing the mountainside and gradually climbing to the terminus at Nid d'Aigle. There was a deep valley below us to the right, while on the left steep slopes began to rise, the landscape becoming harsher and more rugged the further we progressed. Finally, after a short tunnel, the end of the line was reached. Nid d'Aigle is a high alpine pasture at something over 2300m bordering the Bionnassay Glacier which cascades in spectacular fashion down from the snow covered Aiguille de Bionnassay at the valley's head. A path led over and down to the glacier which was where most of the people leaving the train seemed to be heading. My way however led up the steep rocky slope behind the station and the path signposted 'Tete Rousse'. The route started as it would continue - rough, steep and stony. A relentless ascent of the mountainside beginning with a zigzag track marked with cairns and following a shallow gully higher up.
I'd been up here the summer before in deep snow, it looked somehow more forbidding now, a desert of grey rock. After nearly an hour, the gradient finally eased and on reaching the ridge, the view opened out into the Chamonix valley on the far side. The previous year, Id turned left here just past a small building below the ridge and scrambled up a few metres to find one of the best viewpoints in the area. Just behind the building, the 9000 foot high ridge drops off steeply overlooking the tramway's route, Les Houches and the length of the Arve valley towards Lake Geneva.
The trail to Tete Rousse however went to the right, following the wide ridge before once again beginning to zig zag steeply upwards towards the jagged crest above. From here it was hard to see any easy way up there but as I climbed higher it became apparent that the path managed to find a way around or between the rocky obstacles. One or two spots had fixed rope handrails notably on the north side of the ridge where a wide ledge was crossed 7000 feet above the Chamonix valley. The summit of the Brevent opposite was far below and the Aiguille du Midi appeared in front, surprisingly close through a hole in the cloud. The gadient now eased again as the altitude became noticeable while the view back out to the west was rapidly becoming obscured as clouds rolled up the valley.
The hut itself appeared at the last minute across a small flattish glacier. I opted to follow the ridge up to its top where it levelled before making a steep ascent to the Aiguille du Gouter, now hidden in cloud. Not having rope or crampons with me , I thought it unwise to cross the ice though it looked easy and I couldn't see any crevasses. The weather rapidly went downhill as I ate my lunch perched on some non too comfortable rocks on the ridge.
The sound of distant thunder was the cue for a quick descent as I felt that an exposed ridge top over 10000 feet up was not an ideal spot from which to watch the lightning! I like storms but the phrase 'too close for comfort' sprang to mind! A little way down I was distracted by a group of large brown goats milling around on the rocks. I can never remember which is which - Chamois or Ibex - I'm sure these were Ibex being larger. I was surprised they were so far up - other than thin patches of moss on some rocks there was no food up here. At least there were grassy areas lower down.
The rain began just before I reached the station, thunder echoing around the valley's upper walls. There isn't much shelter here and as there was now a queue to get on the train I'd have to wait for the next. Not relishing the thought of waiting, I set off and walked down to Bellvue, the rain easing as I reached the telepherique station.
Pete Buckley July 2003