Altitude Training: Chamonix-Mont Blanc

Mont Blanc from the Aiguille du Midi; Mont Blanc du Tacul on left

Altitude training in Chamonix-Mont Blanc, French Alpes: fun, scary, and beautiful. The morning after landing we headed up our first peak: La Prarion (1969m; 6,458 feet), 1000m above Chamonix. Mont Blanc (4810m) dwarfs it, but La Prarion stands alone with 360-degree views—worth a hike. We reached the shoulder on dry trails, in sunshine. A group of British soldiers (“on vacation from Afghanistan”) passed us, moving fast. Polite, well spoken, and calmly organized: looked like Special Forces. Just above us, they stopped joking and went into military mode: “last man on; last man through”. We soon saw why: snowfields covered the trail, sloping down to a vertical cliff. No place to slip. The summit looked east to Mont Blanc, north to the Aiguilles Vertes (“Green Needles”), and west to the Aiguilles Rouges. Hikers snapped photos; they’d come up a dry trail to the east. We took that route down, enjoying it more knowing what was behind us.
A few days later we were off to see a glacier. I was giddy—had only seen them in photos. Reaching the “glacier view point” on the map, at the tongue of the Glacier des Bossons, we looked up and saw…. nothing. My map was old, and the glacier’s now half a mile above. If you want to see a glacier, do it soon.

On a flat section of the Grand Balcon Sud, Mont Blanc in the background

Next up was the “Grand Balcon Sud”. “Balcon” can mean different things, but here it means hillside trail with a view: across a narrow valley toward the Mont Blanc Massif. In July and August, télécabines zip you up to the Balcon, for a scenic two-hour hike and photo op. In June we walked up, the views worth the effort: the rock towers of Les Drus; Mont Blanc and surrounding peaks; the pyramid of Mont Bionnassay.
In late June there’s a race from Chamonix to the top of one of those télécabines: 3.8km long, 1km vertical ascent (the Chamonix Vertical Kilometer, “VKM”): ( I was leaving France before the race, but it sounded fun, and there was a vertical kilometer just outside our apartment: Aiguillette des Posettes (2201m, 7219 feet), looming 1000m above our terrace. We’d been up the Aiguillette twice: first turning back in a snowstorm, and a week later reaching the summit in summer sun.
I started early. At 2000m the sun rose above the hills. By 08:00 I was on the summit in soft morning light, with cowbells ringing up from the valley below. There’s something sublime about a summit at daybreak; there’s also something solitary, reminding you to return to family and friends. Freezing air and brisk wind were another reminder to hurry down. 1000m in 75 minutes felt respectable, until I saw the VKM results: 1st place, 35 minutes. Time to start training.
I wanted to hike the Vallée Blanche, a glacial valley next to Mont Blanc (3500m above sea level), but our schedule and the weather didn’t click until our last day. It was the cherry on the cake: outrageously beautiful; occasionally terrifying. The téléphérique zipped us up to Aiguille du Midi (3800m): the téléphérique is like an elevator packed with 70 climbers and gear, with a view. We hired a guide—mainly to keep us from falling off a cliff or into a crevasse. From the Aiguille we descended 300 meters down a ridge to the Vallée Blanche: slip to the right, you’d fall 200m; to the left, 700m. I nearly puked. Some hiked it un-roped.

Dent de Géant from Aiguille de Toule

On the glacier we headed south. A white desert, with rock spires bursting upward from the snow. I wanted to climb Mont Blanc du Tacul (4200m), but lacked experience with crampons, so we went to Plan B: Aiguille de Toule, a small rock spire on the far end of the valley. That was fortunate: one of my crampons released on the approach. On Tacul, hundreds of meters up high-angled snow, it would have been a problem. After an hour of hiking—in a world of snow, crevasses and peaks—we reached de Toule.
Rising only 150m (500 feet) above the Vallée, de Toule is really a hill. But the snow and ice ascent was steep—up to 70 degrees. I remembered advice from a climbing mentor: “don’t look down, and don’t jump”. I had to focus on each step, using my axe for belay. On top we took photos: Mont Blanc towering to the south, Mont Rose in the distance to the east, the spire of Dent de Géant to the north. The descent was mixed snow and rock. I led the way down, and even enjoyed it. We took the télécabine across the Vallée back to Aiguille du Midi. My head was swirling: relieved, overwhelmed by beauty, determined never to do it again, and wanting badly to get back up there. Next year.