Mont Blanc. The very mention of its name sends shivers up the spine and conjures images of heroic expeditions that shaped the history of mountain climbing. This is the one and only King of the Alps.
For centuries aspiring adventurers have gathered at the foot of Mont Blanc and stood in awe of nature’s handiwork. Is it any wonder that Chamonix, the adventure capital of Europe, is the birthplace of mountaineering? Two centuries later not much has changed—we are still enchanted by Mont Blanc and set our hearts on conquering their snowy peaks.
Following in the footsteps of the pioneering Balmat and Paccard, I’ve had the pleasure of summiting Mont Blanc over 50 times and I have no intention of stopping there. My time on the mountains has taught me that every climb is special, and nowhere is that more true than on the King of the Alps.
Pros and Cons of Rock Climbing Mont Blanc
Every guide has their story about what brought them to the mountains. For me, I’m fascinated by history. The first attempt to climb Mont Blanc was in 1760 from the Italian side. Being part Sicilian, I can’t help but feel proud of that. Then came the historic 1786 expedition, when doctor Michel Paccard and Jacques Balmat recorded the first ascent. Keep in mind, this was just 10 years after the Declaration of Independence was written! Prior to that, the closest climbers would get to the peak was hiking through the surrounding shepherd trails.
For centuries mountaineers have gathered in the Chamonix Valley, the start and end point for hiking Tour du Mont Blanc, one of the most famous routes in the world. But its favorable location also makes it the world hub of mountain guiding and learning alpine skills. I have to admit, it’s a special feeling to follow in the footsteps of my predecessors and to introduce Mont Blanc to new generations of adventurers.
Getting ready for the Goûter Route
This route sets the standard for first-time climbers of Mont Blanc and sees thousands of ascents per year. It’s the path I typically take my clients on. On the way to the top of Western Europe, we pass through the infamous Grand Couloir, navigate the ridge of the Aiguille du Goûter, and absorb the panoramic views from the Dôme du Goûter.
Sure, it’s considered one of the easier ways up and doesn’t require as much technical knowledge as climbing Cotopaxi or climbing Matterhorn, but don’t be lulled into thinking it’s a walk in the park. You will be exposed to objective hazards including rockfall and there is always the risk of altitude sickness. As always, a good base of fitness and acclimatization is key. Though if you’d like to take it easier, hiking in Chamonix is always a safe bet guaranteeing stellar views.
DAYS 1-3: The Joy of Acclimatization
When planning this trip with my clients through Alpine Guides International, I always recommend a three-day warmup period with another three days devoted to climbing Mont Blanc. The first part usually consists of separate one-day trips or a single three-day trip. During this time we sleep high in mountain huts, experience different types of glacier travel and practice our alpine skills. It’s a great way to learn the ropes, get properly acclimated and take in some terrific climbing. Let me introduce you to some of my favorite spots to visit before taking on Mont Blanc.
Stops along the Montenvers train
After meeting up in Chamonix and making sure we’re good to go, we move on up to the Montenvers Railway. Built over a hundred years ago, this charming funicular climbs a steep track to a vantage point above the Mer de Glace, the largest glacier in France, and stunning views of Les Grandes Jorasses and the Les Drus. Due to being situated above the zone of ablation, even during the summer, it’s got beautiful ice walls for vertical climbing.
Another stop on the Montenvers railway is the Vallée Blanche, a great place for glacier walking. This is an undemanding but super fun way for a family to spend quality crampon time together. The area is surrounded by fabulous granite on Mont Blanc du Tacul and the Aiguille du Midi, famous for its top-of-the-line solid rock climbing on the Cosmiques Arete.
The King and the Tooth
Then we have the Roi du Siam, a large granite monolith that comes out of the south face of the Petit Capucin. It’s got nine brilliant pitches for intermediate to advanced climbers. In the northern part of the Massif of Mont Blanc, the striking Dent du Géant and the beautiful Aiguille de Rochefort make for a great combined day of snow and ice climbing. The Dent is fixed with thick ship ropes that are a popular method of reaching the top. The combination of height and stormy weather can make the Dent into a real lightning rod, so I recommend climbing early and quickly.
What many people don’t realize is that time is often the biggest hazard in the mountains. Rope management and changing clothing layers can take longer than expected in these conditions, which add up over the course of a day. Even if the weather doesn’t allow us to climb the Géant, we can get people moving around Alpine mountain ridges to get used to their boots and crampons.
Dare I say, better climbs than Mont Blanc?
One of my favorite warmup climbs is the Aiguille Entreves right on the border between Italy and France, with the gorgeous Aiguille Noire de Peuterey in the background. A day on Entreves is all about learning to move together and understanding how the rope works when guides are using different techniques—transitioning from long lining on the glacier to short roping on the ridges or where it’s steeper. Don’t think of this as an uneventful drill. Sometimes people are so focused on the Blanc that these stunning preparatory climbs catch them completely by surprise, sometimes impressing them more than the star of the show itself.
If you don’t feel like going on multiple one-day warmup trips out of the Chamonix Valley, then you can spend three days climbing the Gran Paradiso, on the Italian side, and in the amazing valley below. When climbing here, I love staying at the gorgeous huts in Rifugio Chabod. Their food is absolutely delicious. The glacier climb from the Chabod to the Grand Paradiso summit is a good 1,100 meters, which is more in line with what you’ll see on summit day on Mont Blanc. Speaking of which, it’s time to move on to the big league.
DAYS 4-6: Climbing Mont Blanc and Safely Back Again
We’ve spent three days bagging smaller peaks and getting the hang of mountaineering techniques. After getting our systems dialed it’s time we head down to the valley to rest and prepare to tackle Mont Blanc.
A note on the huts—luxury and leisure, but with a catch
Sometimes folks show up expecting the mountain huts to be primitive, bare-bones shelters. But this is the Alps after all, and they’re basically high-altitude hotels.
With comfort comes popularity, and the Mont Blanc huts fill up fast. You often take what you can get. I like to think of the huts like chocolate chip cookies though—they all taste good no matter the recipe. It’s important to note that the hut you reserve will dictate your itinerary.
Starting on the Goûter route
When people think of climbing Mont Blanc the normal way, they generally mean the Goûter Route. This two-to-three-day trek is the shortest, most reliable way to get to the summit and carries a low risk of avalanche. We start by riding the Bellevue cable cars—one of Anne, Marie, or Jeanne, named after the owner’s daughters. The cog railway winds past meadows, pastures, and mountain lakes up to the Nid d’Aigle, the final stop.
This is where we reach the moraine, a drift of rock debris carved out by glacier travel. There’s a small refuge near the station where we sometimes grab a bite before the hike, which takes about three hours. Ascending the trail we get an amazing view of the Val d’Arve below, the Aiguilles lining up towards the horizon, and if we’re lucky, a sighting of Alpine ibex, a fascinatingly nimble creature capable of climbing near vertical walls.
The Grand Couloir, our first big test
To illustrate what the ascent looks like, I’ll be using Tête Rousse as the starting point. At the back of the hut, we can see the famous Grand Couloir, a snowy corridor located between two rock ribs extending upwards to the Goûter Hut. Early on in the season, it’s usually frozen, but when the snowmelt starts, rocks begin to fall.
Leaving the hut at 3,167 meters, we head on to the Tête Rousse glacier and cross a stone rib that brings us into the corridor. You need to be careful here because the 100-meter walk across the Couloir has a serious risk of rockfall. Note that when the Couloir is perceived to be particularly unsafe, the mayor of Saint-Gervais will close off the route.
Upon crossing the Grand Couloir, we reach a safe shoulder and make the only stop in the 680-meter walk from Tête Rousse to the top of the ridge. This is the time to drink water and change layers. As we proceed, we have to be careful not to knock down loose rock onto the parties below. This is where the techniques we learned during our three days of warmup come into play. We switch to short roping because a long dangling rope can get stuck between rocks, dislodging and sending them flying. Another reason for short roping is it minimizes the load on your partners in the event that you stumble and fall on the scramble.
Reaching the new Goûter Hut
At the top of the ridge, suspended over a 600-meter cliff stands the new Goûter hut that opened in 2013. It’s a gorgeous, sheathed timber frame with a sleek futuristic design to it, owing in part to the solar panels adorning its exterior. It sleeps considerably more people than its previous iteration, which would constantly be surrounded by tents that needed to be navigated around. My favorite thing about this new hut is its crampon-friendly room. After our hike we just waltz in, not having to worry about removing all our equipment and sit down for a hot meal.
Moving on to Dôme du Goûter
Up to this point, we’ve been going through a very anaerobic section of the route, but from here on it’ll be an aerobic pace. The winds start to pick up around dawn, so we put on layers before heading out from the Goûter Hut. Depending on when we start our ascent, we might see the beautiful sunrise spilling over the mountain, which dyes the clouds orange and red.
Our next stop is the Dôme du Goûter, which stands at around 4,300 meters. To get there, it’s a long glacier walk up a crevasse-filled ridge that has us switching back to long roping. The friction between the rope and the snow, as well as the gained counterbalance, provides a safety measure in case someone falls into a crevasse.
The Dôme du Goûter, a shoulder of Mont Blanc located two kilometers from the peak, is the perfect spot for watching the sunrise. The panorama creates a hormone cocktail that’ll make you dizzy with wonder.
A change of clothes in Vallot Hut before the final push
Our next goal is to reach the Vallot Hut, which is essentially an emergency shelter on the way to the summit, and a useful spot to change layers and use the restroom. If you’ve made it here, the summit’s within arm’s reach. The balcony outside looks down towards the Grand Mulets and Mount Maudit in the distance. Next up is an exposed ridge that poses another risk to inexperienced or unguided climbers. We switch back to short roping here because we don’t want to run the risk of getting caught up in it and losing our balance.
Defeating the final Bosse
The last checkpoint before the summit is the deceivingly named Petite Bosse, a large snowy bulge standing at just over 4,500 meters. The last 300 meters will take us along the classic summit ridge, the same one Balmat, Paccard and so many others have trod.
As we finally reach the peak, we are greeted with a stunning view—a vast alpine landscape set aglow by the sun rising behind the Monte Rosa Massif. Italy spreads off to our right and France to the left. Even though I’ve set foot on that summit over 50 times, it still hasn’t lost one bit of its charm. I especially love seeing the look of pure joy on people’s faces as they experience it for the very first time. That too never gets old.
Excitement and fatigue make for a potent mix
There’s a great quote by Ed Viesturs that goes: “Getting to the summit is optional, getting down is mandatory.” Reaching the top is just the first part of our adventure. Understandably, people get excited by the summit, sometimes too much even, but even at this point preserving energy is vital. You don’t want to be the one who has to be carried back to the hut. When we’re together on the mountain, we have a duty to you and to your family, so help us help you by being prepared.
Back to where it all began
Everyone will tell you the same—going down is always harder. We return past the Bosse and back to the Dôme. Many people are surprised by how hot they can get in this stretch, under all the layers. Upon reaching the Goûter Hut, we can finally rest and get some grub. At this point, the sun’s high in the sky, giving the landscape a seemingly fresh coat of paint.
After such a long climb, people sometimes get disoriented. When we finally reach the Grand Couloir above Tête Rousse, I get questions like, “Why are we going down here? That’s not where we came from!” Oh, but it is. It’s just the lighting has changed. After descending the corridor, we spend the night in the hut and prepare a victorious return to Chamonix. Congratulations, you’ve earned one of the finest feathers you could don in your cap.
When the emotions finally sink in after a good night’s rest, the first thing that usually comes to everyone’s mind is “What’s next?” That’s the magnetic pull of the Alps and the fantastic climbing options in Chamonix—maybe you’ll go back to the Alps for some rock climbing in the Dolomites. Many of my beginner clients go on to become avid mountaineers, bagging peaks all around the world—for example, your future challenge might just be climbing Mount Shasta. I hope those of you reading this will also get to experience the unmistakable rush only a big mountain can give!
Other Key Details I Recommend for First-Time Mont Blanc Climbers
The importance of insurance
Dolores LaChappele said: “When you dance with the mountain, the mountain always leads,” and I couldn’t agree more. Mountaineering is a perilous, unpredictable sport and I always recommend my clients get mountain insurance before a trip. In most countries becoming a member of an Alpine club is a good way to do that. But bear in mind that, if any accident were to happen during the ascent, the amazing folks from the PGHM—the gendarmerie’s mountain rescue platoon—are up to the task. Their training, response time, and professionalism is unparalleled.
Why hiring a guide will improve your trip?
Mont Blanc can be dangerous, with 10 to 20 fatalities every year. The reason is not the difficulty, but its easy access. Attempting the climb without proper equipment, training or experience is a dangerous endeavor, which is why hiring a guide is strongly recommended. Another thing to note: when you’re contacting a guide for your trip, try developing a relationship with them. Be honest with your experience and expectations over the phone, have a chat over coffee when you meet up. Those little things go a long way to make the whole experience pleasant for everyone.
How to train for Mont Blanc?
If you are a beginner climber, a suitable training ground like the non-technical Cotopaxi would do wonders in helping you hone your fitness while Maroon Bells is a great place to practice alpine climbing skills. You also want to prepare for climbing Mont Blanc by practicing moving in crampons. They are essential gear here.
What clothing and mountaineering gear do I need?
The weather conditions will change depending on the stage of the climb. One second you’re freezing on the Grand Couloir and the next you’re sweating from the heat on the Petite Bosse. This means you’ll have to pack plenty of layers. Helmets, goggles, crampons, and a sturdy ice axe go without saying.
Is Mont Blanc dangerous to climb?
Although it’s not a technical climb, Mont Blanc brings its fair share of danger. Altitude sickness, exhaustion, rockfall, crevasses, and extreme weather are just some of the challenges waiting for you on the King of the Alps.
Can you climb Mont Blanc without experience?
Among the available paths to the summit, the Goûter Route is the easiest and most popular. It’s regularly climbed by beginners as their first foray into mountaineering. While summiting the iconic Matterhorn on the border of Italy and Switzerland is reserved only for highly advanced alpine climbers, that’s not the case with Mont Blanc, just like with trekking Kilimanjaro. Generally, a high level of fitness, proper equipment, and a mountain guide to handle acclimatization and the vagaries of weather should be enough to take you to the top of Mont Blanc.
Still have questions about preparing for the King of the Alps? Learn more about climbing Mont Blanc with Mark in our Epic Adventure Webinar: