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Monte Bianco

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  • A twist in the tale?? Mont Blanc for wimps…. If you are an obsessive summit “tick-lister”, a sporty walker, or simply just curious and want to get up to the highest point in Western Europe, the big white fella that looms over Chamonix is some draw. This is just a five or six hours drive from the Riviera – what a many splendoured region we live in! Mel and I enjoy the peace of the Mercantour, but were persuaded to join four previous guests and their two mountain guides for a week away, getting to grips with alpinism techniques, allowing the body to adjust to altitude, and yes, targetting the top at an impressive 4810m. It is possible to fly to Geneva from where Chamonix is an hour and a half drive. We prefer to drive up and over the Col de Lombard, and then down through Italy – a stunning trip which gives you plenty of opportunity to stoke up on much-needed carbohydrates in cheapo Italian restaurants. More of this another time! It is marvellous to see four smiling (if apprehensive) faces at Geneva airport, and a cheeky welcome from Pierrot back at the hotel (La Chaumière – www.hotelchaumierechamonix.com). Pierrot, who runs a guide office, Escapade, in Saint Martin Vésubie, is also keen to introduce us to Stéphane, his fellow guide. Too modest himself to boast of his achievements, we are only to find out several days later that he has, among other things, created a new and very dangerous route up Kwangde, in Nepal. http://www.climbing.com/news/hotflashes/northfacekwangde/. Not too intimidating for us female rookies then? We have several days planned for training in the Vallée Blanche, memorable now for the “interesting” descent on via ferrata type iron rungs, and the depressing shrinkage of the glacier in recent years. You do feel rather indulgent being whisked uphill in wheezing trains, or on vertiginous tele-cabins but it is fun for those of us who are used to foot slogging all the way, and such a pleasure to get your crampons on and get out there into the light! A stay in Tête Rousse refuge is planned (great surreal view!), to get up to the l’Aiguille du Goûter refuge mid morning and then have a summit attempt the same day if the weather held. The advantage of this is that you don’t get stones bashing you on the head as you cross the Grand Couloir, and avoid staying in the Goûter whose reputation rather precedes it. Rather typically, after several days of clear clear blue, the outlook is getting more unstable. With cloud picking up by mid morning, this cunning plan is not to be, so we are forced to hole up in the “none too sanitary” Goûter hut. Resting for an early start, we close our eyes, ears and noses to the close surroundings, whilst appreciating the stunning views. As the afternoon draws on we become more and more incredulous at the mass of humanity who keep coming ….and coming……and coming…it is very clear why it is the most profitable hut in France! Even with the “largest earplugs known to man” a sleepless night is clearly on the cards, not helped by 2 burly Russian paragliders who seemed to be oblivious to the fact that most of us do not want to share the joy they were experiencing in calling anyone they had ever known during the night. Hey ho …..it is not too difficult to get up if you haven’t been asleep in the first place. An extraordinary scrummage, a few swear words, and then we set off in the dark like sheep - with head torches! There is fresh snow to knee level and we plod up and up in clear starry conditions, so pleased that we had survived the harsh human-made conditions, and anticipating Mother Nature’s continuing benevolence. No such luck! After a couple of hours we are treated to the “big white room” experience – and a “big white room in a wind tunnel” at that. Unfortunately it means that only Caroline makes it to the top with Pierrot – but we do have the photographic evidence to prove it! Back at the Goûter, we try not to look at the freshly snow and iced up scramble down to the Tête Rousse, which proves to be the nastiest four hours I ever spent! I still don’t even want to think about it. Moving quickly on….we do however still manage to leap aboard the last train down to Chamonix at 16.30. Nothing quite like a cheery “Don’t worry you can walk down if you miss it” to make you step out a bit. Eight stitches, four “Flowerpot men” legs, three thumping heads, two slightly frost bitten toes and countless frothy beers later…….and yes?… we did enjoy it…. Do it again?…..non merci. Best to learn more skills and climb it via another route such as the Cosmique. Pearls of wisdom – despite the TV imagery of rufty-tufty types strolling leisurely up Mont Blanc, you need to be fit, correctly equipped (not like the hapless Italian couple wandering about in jeans, trainers and windcheaters!), and guided, unless you feel competent enough to cope if the weather deteriorates. Our thanks to Pierrot and Stéphane for their good humour in relaxed times, and their full-on professionalism at their work. Go to Chamonix for the fun of it? – certainly – out of season – you get a marvellous eyeful of incomparable mountains, the best range of outdoor gear a shop’oholic could wish for (don’t take your credit cards!), and good food – we particularly liked our last night meal at the Maison Carrier http://www.hameaualbert.fr/en, and of course the hearty fare (and good humour of Maria and Mario) at La Chaumière.
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