Failed attempts on Mont Blanc and Monte Rosa in 1973


Mont Blanc

Mont Blanc - Jardin Féerique.On Bastille Day 1973, the town of Chamonix was decorated with flags and the town was in a festive mood. As I was walking down the main street in the afternoon, a car carrying a family stopped and the driver asked for directions. (This happens to me all the time. I seem to hold a special attraction for lost tourists.) The license plate was Swedish. When they discovered that I was a fellow Swede and saw that I was equipped for mountain climbing, they naturally wanted to know where I was headed. I explained that I was returning to my hotel after a failed attempt to climb Mont Blanc. A blizzard had forced me to turn back that morning. - Now the weather was beautiful, with just a wisp of cloud hanging around the summit of the mountain, so they looked at me in disbelief.

This illustrates how fast conditions can change in the high mountains. The previous day had also been calm and sunny. The snow storm came and went in a few hours during the night and early morning hours.

Chamonix is a major tourist resort in the French Alps. Actually, in 1973 at least some of the inhabitants did not think of themselves as French. I heard some of them explain that the weather in Chamonix could be predicted from what it had been "in France" the previous day. (The region of Savoy was finally annexed by France as late as 1860.) It lies at an altitude of 1050 m above sea level, almost 4 km below the summit of Mont Blanc.

For me, Mont Blanc was an obvious target after my previous exploits in the Zermatt area. It is the highest mountain in the Alps at 4807 m. My interest intensified after I read the book "Mont-Blanc, Jardin Féerique" on its history, written by my household saint Gaston Rébuffat. Highly recommended!

Mont Blanc glacier.Mont Blanc is very accessible from a technical point of view. The mountain is covered by ice and snow. There are several routes, none of them completely safe from objective dangers. Some of them go over glaciers where crevices may lurk under the snow. The easiest route via the Goûter hut involves some easy rock climbing but is exposed to stonefall during a short traverse across a snow gully.

There is no technical difficulty at all during the second day of the ascent - just a long walk up the snow slopes to the summit. The challenge is to overcome the fatigue caused by the lack of oxygen. Of course, bad weather can also cause problems (wind chill, soft snow, poor visibility - on occasion three guides have had three different opinions on the correct route!).

I arrived in Chamonix on July 7th and spent the following week getting acclimatized (although in a postcard home I complained about the the "thick air" at this low altitude). I made daily excursions on foot up the slopes above the valley. The landscape, did not offer as many excursion possibilities to a pedestrian as Zermatt, but the chain of "needles" opposite Le Brévent was spectacular. The glaciers flowed all the way down to the valley.

I went to the Bureau des Guides and was assigned a guide for the ascent. His name was Couttet (I have forgotten his first name). He looked stocky and powerful.

Aiguille de Goûter.

The starting point for the ascent of Mont Blanc is the Goûter hut, just below the summit of the Aiguille de Goûter, the dark pyramid to the right on the skyline.

Mont Blanc train.

Boarding the train. My guide monsieur Couttet in the foreground.

On the first day of the climb, I picked up my guide at his home in Chamonix in the morning and drove us down the valley to St Gervais, where a picturesque little train took us up to about 2300 m. The view from the train was nice, but you had to wonder how stable the railbed was. The train seemed to cling to the side of the mountain. A large group of people emerged from the train at the arrival point, and we all started a leisurely walk up the trail that led to the Tête Rousse hut at about 3200 m. We had a splendid view of the Aiguille de Bionassay which is a nice peak of more than 4000 m in its own right, although it is overshadowed by Mont Blanc.

At the Tête Rousse we had lunch and a siesta before starting the last leg of that day's ascent up to the Goûter hut at about 3800 m where we would spend the night. The route started to the left of a steep snow field - the "grand couloir" - that had to be traversed horizontally. This short passage is exposed to frequent stonefall, especially in the afternoon. It is negotiated by one climber at a time going as fast as possible in order to minimize the exposure. There was a fixed wire to hold on to or link up to. After reaching the right side of the gully, the rest was an easy climb straight up to the Goûter hut.

Ascent from Tête Rousse. Couttet.

View toward the Bionassay during our ascent from the Tête Rousse.

My guide Couttet after we arrived at the Goûter hut.

Couttet contemplating the next day's itinerary.
Couttet and Zenker.

A study in contrasting hairstyles. Couttet and Zenker outside the Réfuge de Goûter. Aiguille de Midi is in the background.

Sunset at Réfuge de Goûter.
At sunset, a storm was brewing in the northwest.

The evening was spent exchanging impressions with other tourists, many of whom were female, in contrast to my experience from Switzerland. It was interesting to listen to the anecdotes told by the guides, who mingled freely with the amateurs, unlike their Swiss colleagues, who preferred to stay together in a separate room. This was in 1973. I do not know what it is like today.

The hut was crowded, and it became more so in the late afternoon, when additional climbers arrived from the valley and a few from above, probably after having traversed Mont Blanc from the Italian side. After sunset, we went to "bed", which in this case was about 50 cm of space on a mattress amid snoring climbers. A Spanish climber was suffering from mountain sickness and vomited into a towel.

Normally, we should have been awakened around 2 a. m., but the guides informed us that a storm was in progress and our departure would be delayed. I did not mind getting a little extra sleep, but I was worried that the climb might have to be called off. This indeed turned out to be the case. We started our descent at around 8 a. m. when the weather was still foggy. The previous day, the rocks had been mostly dry, but now there was a cover of snow, with icy patches underneath, so I was only too glad to put on the crampons before starting the descent.

Descending from the Goûter hut on Mont Blanc.
Just below the Goûter hut, there were fixed wires to facilitate the descent.

During the descent, I went first with my guide protecting me from above. If I had been alone, I might have had difficulties finding the route, for the snow had hidden the track and the painted marks along the route, but with my guide giving directions from above, there was no problem. Lower down, visibility improved and the weather gradually cleared up. We made some shortcuts by gliding down snow slopes on our shoes rather than using the zig-zagging track we had walked in the other direction. The rest of the descent into the valley was uneventful.

As I recall, I was not too disappointed with our bad luck. Just as with rocket launches, you can never be sure that conditions will be right on any given day, and the climb up to the Goûter hut had been a pleasant and worthwhile excursion in its own right. Besides, there was still Bastille Day to celebrate!

Monte Rosa

The following day, which was a Sunday, was rainy. I decided to drive to Zermatt rather than sit around waiting for a second chance at Mont Blanc, and I was glad that I had taken the advice not to stay in the Goûter hut to wait out the bad weather, which would have been a possibility. The rain accompanied me in the Rhône valley. Once in Zermatt, I got a room at the Hotel Garni Biner and contacted my guide from the three previous years Werner Perren. We agreed on Monte Rosa as our objective. Monte Rosa is the second highest mountain in the Alps at 4638 m. The border between Italy and Switzerland passes its summit.

A few days later, Werner and I took the train up to the Rotenboden station on the Gornergrat, and from there walked on a trail on the moraine down to the Monte Rosa glacier. There were plenty of small streams of melt water running on the surface of the ice itself. On the far side of the glacier, there was a fairly short ascent to the Monte Rosa hut at about 2800 m.

A thunderstorm approaching from Pollux and Breithorn.
At dawn, a thunderstorm approached from Pollux and Breithorn.

Before daybreak the next morning we started our ascent in earnest, at first in rocky terrain, then on snow slopes. The weather was unsettled and windy. After a while we saw dark clouds envelop the Matterhorn, and soon they reached the Breithorn. There was also thunder and lightning, something that can be quite impressive in the Alps, where the sound echoes from the mountain walls.

As the weather deteriorated, Werner suggested that we should turn back. He pointed out that the wind was picking up, and that we would have to deal with strong wind gusts at higher altitude. Of course, I was disappointed, but I had to accept his judgment. While on Mont Blanc the technically easiest part comes at the end, on Monte Rosa the approach consists of an easy walk on snow slopes, while the ascent at higher altitude involves some real climbing.

During our retreat we encountered some climbers still on their way up. After a chat with my guide they also decided to turn back.

Werner Perren on Monte Rosa 1973.
Stefan Zenker and Werner Perren on the Monte Rosa 1973.

This was the end of my alpine aspirations in 1973, I thought. But I got yet another opportunity in September of that same year, see next section.

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  Last edited or checked June 23, 2006.

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