Climbing Mont Blanc Solo and Unguided

I sat completely alone on the snow-capped summit of Mont Blanc.  The atmosphere was deadly still and my feet were numb from the cold.  As I looked down at Chamonix, still in complete darkness, I felt a welling of emotion deep in my chest.  I had just achieved what so many said I was crazy to even attempt; climbing Mont Blanc solo and unguided at the age of only 18, with no prior experience of Alpine Mountaineering.  For a few short moments, I pressed the cold, leathery palms of my gloves against my eyes until the feeling of emotion had passed. The remnants of a solitary tear glided down my cheek.  I continued to gaze silently towards the horizon.  It wasn’t long before the sun finally started to crest the distant peaks of the Matterhorn and Monte Rosa in the east.  The warming rays of the morning light against my face came as a welcome relief.  It had been a long and eventful night……….

The very first time I stood on the summit of Mont Blanc remains one of the most memorable experiences of my life.  While it’s hard not to be caught up in the moment during a sunrise on the highest mountain in Western Europe, this journey was also a particularly poignant one for me.  Not only was this my first ever time to the Alps but, at that point, I had only ever climbed a handful of UK mountains, all of which were during pleasant summer conditions.  I’d never even used crampons or an ice axe before!  Quite frankly, I knew absolutely nothing about what I was letting myself in for. 

Yet reflecting on my decision to climb Mont Blanc, I can clearly recognise it as a turning point in my journey of self-discovery, which I am still on even today.  It changed my entire perspective on what I felt could be achieved when you set your mind on something and have faith your ability to achieve it.  Before I even decided to climb Mt Blanc, I remember being completely awestruck by the mind-boggling number of climbers who would attempt to climb the mountain each year.  With an estimated 20,000 successful ascents annually, logic told me it was physically possible.  I just needed to convince myself that if I was determined enough, my body would do the rest.

Because of my quite evident lack of experience, I began to fill the gaps in my knowledge through research.  I read several guide books and other online articles about route selection, equipment choices and the basics techniques of Alpine Mountaineering.  Each personal account of success (and sometimes failure) allowed me to consider and adjust my own plans based on the experiences of others.  I also spent a large amount of time studying maps of the route as well as online imagery and photographs.  I found this really helped me to visualise each section of the climb – a process that I still use today.  I repeated the route over and over again in my mind until I feel completely familiar with it.  If nothing else, I at least felt far more mentally prepared to undertake the climb despite my clear lack practical experience.

It’s no secret that in terms of technical ability, Mont Blanc, via its ‘normal’ route, is fairly straightforward.  It has one of the easiest Alpine grades of PD- (Peu Difficile – a little difficult).  However, due to my total lack of experience, together with Mont Blanc’s substantial height and the need to cross the Grand Couloir, certainly made it a serious undertaking.  Not to mention I had planned to do the whole thing on my own.

Dome du Gouter © LoveAdventures

A procession of climbers pick their way through crevasses and Seracs on the Dome du Goûter [Photo 2010]

My climb started as planned.  I hopped on the early bus from Chamonix to Les Houches in time to catch the first cable car to the Bellevue Plateau.  From there the route joins the Tramway du Mont-Blanc, which takes you further up the winding foothills to Nid d’Aigle; considered to be the starting point of the ‘normal’ route up Mont Blanc.

Having followed the rocky trail up the Desert de Pierre Ronde valley for about 3 hours, I reached the edge of the Tête Rouse Glacier where I was finally able to don my shiny new crampons.  After 30 minutes or so of following a well-trodden path across the glacier, I started to approach what I knew to be the most significant risk on my chosen route; the Grand Couloir [or Death Gulley].

Notorious for being the cause of a high proportion of injuries and deaths on Mont Blanc each year, the Grand Couloir has a seemingly never ending supply of rocks that hurtle down its 50m wide face, across which each climber must pass in order to continue their journey up the mountain.  As I reached the crossing point I joined a small queue of climbers on the side of the couloir, tentatively studying the 600m high gulley for signs of movement before making their nerve-racking bids to cross.

Grand Couloir © LoveAdventures

Climbers prepare to cross at the side of the Grand Couloir [Photo 2010]

After a few minutes or so, it was my turn.  Having observed a few teams by this point, the process seemed relatively simple.  Climbers on either side would courteously act as ‘spotters’ and shout a warning should they see any approaching rock-fall.  While the crossing climber would clip into a fixed safety line and make a hasty but sure-footed dash across to the other side.

With my helmet on and walking axe poised, I waited a moment until I was happy there was no sign of any movement from above.  With my heart in mouth, I began to make my crossing.  As I neared the half way point of the couloir, I heard the distant crack of an approaching rock followed by a loud cry of “l’Attention!“.  With a quick glance, I clocked the approaching stone-fall and huddled down as low as my body could get into the recess of the path and simply waited.  Within a matter of seconds, I could hear several terrifying ricochets getting close to where I was crouched and the crossing began to be peppered by debris hurtling down the gulley at an unbelievable speed.  Suddenly, a small fragment of rock I guess no bigger than a golf ball, struck me on the back of my hand.  Despite its modest size, the pain was excruciating and I winced as I clutched my hand tight against my chest, simply praying for the rock-fall to pass. Although it felt like an age, I the whole thing was over within just a few seconds.  I waited for the call of “all clear” from the climber on the opposite side of the gulley and darted the final 20 or so meters to the other side.

My hand was throbbing.  As I carefully took off my glove to inspect the damage I was relieved to see that I was relatively unscathed.  Thankfully, I had nothing more to show than a tender area across two of my fingers and a large dent to my pride.

After a few minutes of recovery and allowing some time for my heart rate to return to normal, I carried on the climb up the side of the couloir. It’s worthy of note that during the next section of the climb, the warming midday temperatures and melting snow dislodged several sizeable rocks that were sent smashing back down the Couloir, with some even the size of car tires!  With every ricochet against the side of the couloir, boulders would fracture into multiple lethal projectiles, each one managing to dislodge further debris in the direction of other climbers crossing the Couloir below.  To this day I still consider myself very lucky that I wasn’t caught by a more substantial rock-fall.

Aiguille du Gouter © LoveAdventures

Climbers scramble 600m up the Aiguille du Goûter to reach the Goûter Refuge [Photo 2010]

After 2 hours of scrambling up the side of the Aiguille du Goûter, I eventually reached my bed for the night; the [old] Goûter Refuge (3800m).  Fortunately, the old Refuge has now been replaced by a far more modern building [opened in 2013] just a few hundred yards further along the ridge.  The old Goûter Refuge was a tired and crowded place, with groups of climbers and guides all competing for space to hang up their gear, eat and sleep.

Being on my own it was far easier for me to find a small corner at a table, where I sat and reflected on the day’s events with a mug of tea before chatting to a few other climbers who were intrigued to hear I was making the ascent alone. After a while, the crowds seemed to disperse.  So I checked in at the counter and was allocated a small bed space in a cramped 30-man bunk room.  By this stage, my head was starting to pound from the altitude and dehydration.  I took some tablets and went to bed, only waking 2 hours later for dinner before retreating back to the relative comfort of my hut bedding for the night. I figured I would need as much rest as I could get, although nothing could have prepared me for what I was about to encounter the following morning………

Gouter Hut © LoveAdventures

Old Goûter Hut Mont Blanc [2010]

It was 2 am and I had been walking for a little over an hour up the relentless snowy incline of the Dome du Goûter, high on Mont Blanc’s North West flank.  Since leaving the Hut only one thought had dominated my mind; in my haste to get ahead of the other climbers and be the first to summit that morning, I had forgotten one very important thing – to tend to nature’s morning call!

The prospect of having to bear all to icy 25 mph gusts and minus 10-degree wind chill on an exposed Alpine slope, in the pitch black and wearing a harness, climbing gear and salopettes, is a logistical nightmare.  Nevertheless, I couldn’t bear much more of the building discomfort and accepted my fate. I knew out of courtesy I should at least attempt the act a suitable distance away from the route.

Traversing 50m or so across the slope, I scooped out an appropriately sized hollow in the snow and proceeded to loosen my harness.  Thankfully, I had the foresight to purchase mountaineering salopettes that featured a strategically positioned ‘seat zip’ [I guessed for this very reason], which made the rest of the process relatively painless.

However, it was during the short walk back to re-join the route that I had the most alarming wake-up call to my inadequacy on this mountain.  Without warning, my right leg sank up to my thigh in what seemed like a patch of very soft snow.  As I clambered to pull my leg out, the light from my head torch revealed one of the most truly terrifying sights to face any Alpinist.

Mont Blanc Crevasse © LoveAdventures

A climber crossing a deep glacial crevasse en route to the Summit of Mont Blanc [Photo 2010]

As I peered back into the hole my leg had made, my head torch began to illuminate an icy wall that plunging 50 feet or so beneath me, deep into the depths of the glacier.  At that moment it felt like my heart simply stopped beating and I experienced the most gut-wrenching feeling in my stomach.  I was stood directly above the fragile and precariously frozen ceiling of a hidden glacial crevasse!

Almost instinctively I sank my body to the ground and my heart re-engaged with an almighty thump of adrenaline.  Laying flat on my front to try and distribute my weight, I slowly edged my way back towards the direction of the path. Only once back in the relative safety of the route did I fully appreciate the seriousness of that predicament.  Having been attempting the climb solo, and given that I had just traversed some distance from the main route, had I fallen into the crevasse, it’s likely that I would not have made it back out.

The rest of the climb was thankfully far less eventful.  Although the final push to the summit, up the iconic whale back-esqué ridge, seemed to take forever.  But eventually, despite the odds, I was cresting the summit of the highest mountain in Western Europe, just as I had intended.

Mont Blanc Summit Ridge © LoveAdventures

Mont Blanc’s ‘whale-back’ summit ridge [Photo 2010]

It’s hard to describe the overwhelming feelings I felt in the knowledge I had made it; they were certainly mixed emotions, to say the least.  Never had I felt more exhilarated than when I arrived, completely alone, on that frozen Alpine summit.

Yet in the realisation that, in fact, the summit was only the half way point, and that I would soon have to turn back and descend all the way down to Chamonix, literally brought tears to my eyes. Having used every ounce of energy to get to the top, I was utterly exhausted.  Coupled with the near-delirious effects of altitude, I gazed back down at Chamonix and wished that somehow I could be instantly transported back to my chalet some 4000m below.

I sat peacefully on the summit for a while, taking in the tranquillity and silence of the crisp morning atmosphere.  After a few minutes, the sun began to crest the horizon and looked to almost set fire to the distant jagged peaks of the Matterhorn and Monte Rosa in the East.  The dawn colours at that altitude were unlike anything I had ever seen before, with the skyline ablaze with a spectrum of fiery yellows and deep oranges against the crisp navy blues of the receding night sky.  It is an image that will remain with me for the rest of my life and, I guess, one of the very reasons why people choose to do this.

View from Mont Blanc summit © LoveAdventures

Looking down at Chamonix from the summit of Mont Blanc [Photo 2010]

I was eventually joined on the summit by two crazy bearded Russians, who I had seen approaching from the opposite side of the mountain.  Hell-bent on trying to speak in Russian, despite my obvious lack of ability to understand what they were saying, we eventually shook hands and gave one another nods of mutual admiration for our efforts.   After working out that they intended on taking the same route back down the mountain as me, we roped up, took a few final triumphant photos of each other and turned to make the long journey back down to Chamonix.

I found the route back down far from enjoyable.  It’s surprising just how much the darkness of an early-morning Alpine start disguises just how far I had travelled throughout the night, and the distant speck that was the Goûter Hut never seemed to get any closer for what felt like several hours.

I finally made it back to Chamonix by the late afternoon, where I unapologetically scoffed the biggest pizza I could find, along with a very welcome bottle of French beer, before collapsing out of the shower and into bed for some much needed sleep.

In hindsight, and now with a number of successful Alpine ascents under my belt [including several trips back to the summit of Mont Blanc], I know that this first endeavour involved a fair amount of naivety and recklessness on my part.  However, at the time, I believed I had mitigated many of the risks by being physically fit, researching all aspect of the climb thoroughly and, most importantly, by having the determination and belief in my ability to succeed.  While I’m in no way advocating that novice hillwalkers should try and climb such a foreboding peak without proper experience.  What’s important is setting your sights on your own ‘Mont Blanc’ and to follow your dreams despite what others might think.

After all, you’ll never know what you are capable of until you try.

Mont Blanc Summit Solo LoveAdventures David Love.jpg Summit photo [and only photo] of my original 2005 solo ascent


Mont Blanc Top Tips

  • Route Selection.  While the Goûter route is considered the ‘normal’ path to the summit, it’s invariably busy throughout the summer climbing season and also not without its objective dangers.  A classic alternative is the Trois Monts which approaches the summit from the opposite direction.  While very spectacular, the Trois Monts route has a longer and slightly more technical summit day compared to that of the Goûter, as you will need to negotiate two areas of potential ice fall on Mont Blanc du Tacul and Mont Maudit as well as a short 45-degree snow/ice slope before reaching more open ground.  Although both routes are technically graded PD (Peu Difficile – somewhat difficult), this should not detract from their inherent dangers.  There is an excellent article on UKClimbing.com covering these two routes specifically.

  • The Grand Couloir.  The best time to cross the couloir is at its coldest; somewhere typically between 2 am and 10 am.  However, these timing are usually only achievable if staying in the Tête Rouse hut the night before, meaning a longer summit day than if staying 2 hours higher up on the Goûter hut.  If coming directly from Nid d’Aigle with the aim of staying at the Goûter, then it’s likely you will be crossing the Couloir between 10 am and midday.  If so, you should take extra care at the crossing point by observing the frequency of rockfalls; clipping into the fixed safety line; employ the use of ‘spotters’ (preferably on either side); make a swift but sure-footed crossing; continuously assess the path for sheltered spots in case you do need to react; and, of course, wear your helmet.  Unbelievably, I have seen people crossing without one!

  • Food and Water.  All food and water available on the mountain is airlifted in by helicopter.  As such, prices are astronomical; with a can of soft drink or small water in the region of €5.  Although I haven’t stayed in the new Goûter hut yet, I have heard several reports that the hut Guardians have monopolised on this further by shutting off running water through their taps.  It is therefore advisable to take at least 3 litres of water with you to begin with and, if possible, melt snow in the afternoon when you reach the Goûter hut.  One of the biggest mistakes on my first ascent of Mont Blanc was that I didn’t take the time to eat and drink adequately during the summit day.  Coupled with missing breakfast [provided by the hut] in order to leave early, meant that when I did eventually reach the summit I was exhausted and felt that I had expent virtually all of my energy – not what you need just before a long and potentially dangerous descent.


  • Acclimatise.  I have used a number of different methods now to acclimatise before each of my ascents of Mont Blanc including a slower ascent of the Goûter route by staying in both the Tête Rouse hut and Goûter hut on the same trip.  But my preferred option is to take an early cable car up to the Aiguille du Midi [3800m] and spend the whole day practising Alpine skills with climbing partners on the Col du Midi [3600m] with lunch in the Cosmiques hut.  From here you can either stay on over night in the hut or camp down on the Col before attempting the Trois Monts route the following morning, or head back down to Chamonix at the end of the day before heading up the Goûter route the next day.

  • Book a Guide.  I would love to believe that I made the summit of Mont Blanc purely on my own merits. However, I’m sure luck had a good part to play in it also.  Had any one of a number of unpredictable situations occurred, such as sudden bad weather, a fall into a crevasse, succumbing to altitude sickness, or had I become disorientated or lost in the night, then the outcome could have been very different given my complete lack of experience back then.  If it’s your first time up the mountain then the only safe way to mitigate some of these risks is to book an experienced local guide.  If you already have a good grounding in Scottish Winter or Alpine mountaineering, then Mont Blanc is a very achievable peak for most.

  • Take a Climbing Partner.  Despite making my first ascent solo, all of my subsequent climbs have been with friends [such as the photo below in 2010]. It’s a much more enjoyable experience to be able to share the achievement with someone else.  In addition, some of the risk inherent to glacial travel [such as nearly falling through a crevasse!] can be greatly reduced by the presence of a partner.  You will also look out for each other and ensure you are both having adequate stops for rest and taking on enough food and water throughout the day.

Mont Blanc Summit © LoveAdventures


Further Resources

  • General Info.  Chamonix.net is particularly useful for lift and cable car time tables, as well as general Mont Blanc related news.
  • Weather.  Mountain-Forecast.com is my go to site for mountain weather.   Particularly useful as it providing accurate forecasts at 1000m intervals of your selected peak.
  • Map.  Carte’s IGN 3531ET St-Gervais-Les-Bains Massif Du Mont Blanc (1;25,000).
  • Guidebook.  Get ‘Mont Blanc 4810m – 5 Routes to the Summit‘ for a very detailed explanation of the most common routes to the roof of Western Europe.


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