Top 5 Winter Routes In The Mt Blanc Massif
Climbing in the Alps in summer is great; warm sun, dry granite, beautiful views, and a light rucksack all equal plenty of “type 1” fun. If that all sounds far too easy however, there is always the “type 2” option of winter alpinism. Much of the day will undoubtedly be spent wishing you were somewhere else, and you’ll almost certainly get home with sore, cold feet, but being high in beautiful mountains with only the sound of your crampons kicking into crunchy ice is worth a bit of suffering.
Winter alpine climbing provides a level of satisfaction that goes beyond the normal post-climb buzz, because of the sheer hostility of the environment, and the range of skills you’ll need to move through and survive in it. Depending on your route choice, you’ll likely need to ski (carrying a heavy rucksack), cross bergschrunds and crevasses, abseil, keep yourself warm, fed and hydrated all day and, of course, climb the route. As ever in the mountains, route choice is also vital, but if you pick the right climb, winter alpinism can almost feel like type 1 fun. Almost.
Here’s a few suggestions, ranging from the friendly end of winter alpinism, right through to a monster line on Chamonix’s biggest and baddest face:
With a very short approach from the Grands Montets top lift station, this route can be reached on foot but it’s better done on skis because that way you can ski back to the valley floor instead of hiking back up to the cable car at the end of the day.
Regardless of how it’s approached, it features a nice snow slope to get warmed up on, a short mixed section and then a second snow slope and finally 2 brilliant ice pitches. There is also a third snow slope, about 250 metres long, above the ice pitches, but plenty of climbers choose to skip that out and abseil down from the end of the technical climbing.
The climbing is never “hard” but you’ll need to be confident climbing 4 ice, and able to look after yourself in some pretty chilly temperatures!
Late to Say I’m Sorry
Not so long ago this was a seemingly forgotten and likely unrepeated route, until spring 2010 when Jon Griffith and Will Sim climbed it and then wrote about it on Jon’s very popular blog. Since then, it has become a classic and sees plenty of ascents – such is the power of the internet!
The route begins by climbing roughly half of the Couturier couloir on the Aiguille Verte, and then branches off from this to reach a steep wall in the middle of the Grande Rocheuse north face. There are then a series of incredibly aesthetic ice pitches and also a tough corner, which can be aided, but goes free at about grade 7. Most people go for a “mainly free” approach of only pulling on gear when they absolutely have to and trying to free climb the rest.
Once above the crux pitches you can choose between summiting the Grand Rocheuse and/or the Aiguille Verte, or just abseiling back down the line. Either option will require the ability to make abseil v-threads in ice, and downclimb mile after mile of moderate snow/ice in the lower section of the Couturier couloir – it’s a calf burner!
Although rarely in condition, this is a cracking little route if you manage to find it “in”. It starts just to the left of the Eperon des Cosmiques (a popular rock climbing face in summer) and takes in three excellent mixed pitches. In good conditions it isn’t too tricky, but in poor conditions it can be desperate!
Best of all, the route faces south so you stand a chance of staying warm.
A tough route to find in condition, Pinochio is a sought-after Chamonix classic. It sits on Mont Blanc du Tacul’s huge east face and is easily approached on skis from the Aiguille du Midi cable car.
The climbing on the route is technical and tricky throughout but (if conditions are right) things never get too desperate. Climbers operating on M6 terrain should be fine provided there is plenty of ice in the right places. If there isn’t, be prepared for a real battle.
The best descent from the route is to abseil back down it and then ski down the Vallée Blanche, the world’s most famous off-piste ski run. Just another day in Chamonix.
1200 metres of ice straight up Chamonix’s meanest face with a long approach and an even longer descent, this is a climb reserved for the alpine elite. Done in winter, it is even tougher because getting to and from the climb will be so much harder, and because the days are short and the temperatures low. That said, for those with the requisite skills and experience, a winter ascent of the Grandes Jorasses North Face is about as big an adventure as you can have in Chamonix.
The route takes an incredibly aesthetic line just to the right of the Walker Spur and there were several strong teams vying to make the first ascent before Nick Colton and Alex Macintyre topped out in August 1976. Ice climbing kit has developed hugely since then, allowing Ueli Steck to climb the route in 2 hours 21 minutes in December 2008. Most teams (particularly those climbing in winter) are rightly chuffed just to get to the top before dark. If you ever find yourself on the summit of the Grandes Jorasses having climbed this route, award yourself a pat on the back regardless of how long it took you.
So there we have it: winter alpinism in all its glory, encapsulated in five routes. Now get involved, and always bear in mind the Mark Twight quote: “it doesn’t have to be fun to be fun”!
Charlie Boscoe is the IFSC live stream commentator, an avid climber, skier and adventurer. He has spent years living and working in Chamonix, climbing hundreds of routes in the massif.
His new Rockfax guidebook for Chamonix is available to buy here.