Mont Blanc (ie "White Mountain", in Italian Monte Bianco) is the highest summit of Western Europe, on the border between France and Italy. The mountain is usually accessed from Chamonix in France but can be approached from Courmayeur in Italy: see those pages for amenities and activities around the Mont Blanc massif. This page is specifically about the ascent to the summit.
The rock 1 peak of Mont Blanc is 4792 m high, but this is overlain by a thick cap of snow and ice that grows or shrinks slightly according to climate. The summit was measured at 4808.72 m (15,777 ft) in Sept 2017 - these measurements are repeated every two years, and have altered very little since the first accurate measurement of 1883. Mont Blanc is not the highest mountain in Europe as several peaks in the Russian / Georgian Caucasus are higher, culminating in Elbrus at 5642 m.
Traditional mountaineering was a practical business of hunting and farming, and of leading travellers over the passes by the safest route. The 18th C saw a desire to climb the highest peaks primarily for scientific enquiry: what minerals might lie up there, what flora and fauna, and what of the atmosphere and weather? Could humans even survive so high? In 1760 the scientist Horace Bénédict de Saussure put up a prize for the first ascent to the summit of Mont Blanc. In those days the mountain lay in Savoy, an independent country that also included Nice, Aosta, Piedmont and Sardinia. Not until 1860 was the territory definitively incorporated into France and Italy, with Mont Blanc marking the border.
De Saussure himself made several attempts, but the first successful ascent of Mont Blanc was on 8 Aug 1786 by Jean-Jacques Balmat and Dr Michel-Gabriel Paccard, by the Grands Mulets route. Over the following century all the great Alpine summits were conquered, culminating in the Matterhorn ascent of 1865, and new challenges were sought in the Americas and Himalayas. Mountaineering evolved from exploration and enquiry into a sport, and mountains were climbed in an Olympic or Corinthian spirit of "because it's there". Meanwhile leisure travel and organised winter sports grew, and railways and cable-cars were built. Mont Blanc had become a tourist resort.
Geneva Airport (GVA IATA) is usually the most convenient for all three, with excellent direct flight connections, and transfer by bus, rental car or by rail. Turin Caselle (TRN IATA) is also close, and many winter sports package operators fly that way. Geneva to Courmayeur and Turin to Chamonix valley is via the Mont Blanc tunnel.
One reason for preferring the French side is that you ride part-way up Mont Blanc: from Chamonix by cable car to Aiguille du Midi at 3810 m, the start of the 3 Monts ascent, or from St Gervais by rack railway (the "Tramway") to Nid d'Aigle at 2380 m, the start of the Voie Royale ascent. See Chamonix for hours and tariffs.
Do - or don't?
First consider whether you should even be thinking of going up. Starting with the good news: the youngest person to climb it was aged ten. The fastest ascent was clocked at just under five hours. People have been climbing Mont Blanc for over 230 years, variously clutching onto their tricorn hats, deer-stalkers or golfing caps. It must be almost half a million that have reached the summit, some clad in weird charity-stunt get-ups, and nowadays 20,000 ascend each year. Most come back safe.
But some don't. There are 100 deaths in the Mont Blanc massif each year, though this figure includes skiing, hiking and rock-climbing fatalities not related to the summit attempt. But during the main season of July & August, on an average day the mountain rescue service has to pluck a dozen people off the main ascent routes. A few of these are under-prepared fools, who face fines, rescue expenses, or worse sanctions if they've recklessly endangered others. But most of them are honest triers who've simply been defeated by a formidable mountain.
All routes are strenuous and at high altitude, with long hours of trekking usually over three days, ie two nights on the mountain. You don't need to be superhuman, but you do need to be fit at the outset. If you have a long-term medical condition eg asthma, it must be mild and stable enough to remain controlled under these challenges. All routes cross ice fields where you need to be competent with crampons and ice picks.
The mountain authorities post a list of essential gear that you must carry, and you may be fined and turned back if you're deficient. And you need a guide unless you're familiar with the ascent. The trail itself will be obvious, with dozens of other climbers above and below - until all of a sudden the visibility shuts down. The guide doesn't just shuttle up and down on a tram-line, he / she has a better idea of what lies ahead (in terrain and weather), how each individual in the group is faring, and what options are available. A good approach for novices is to go with a specialist alpine trekking company. They'll start with an easy day or two at medium altitude, then make the cut on who can go all the way up.
Ascent of Mont Blanc
- The most popular route, taking three days, is the Voie Royale - indeed it's become known as the Voie Normale. First take the Mont Blanc Tramway - the rack railway - from Saint-Gervais-les-Bains. This climbs via Bellevue (1794 m) to Nid d'Aigle at 2380 m. If you're staying in Chamonix you can also ride the cable car from Les Houches to Bellevue and join the railway there. Extra-tough folk start their climb down in the valley and reckon an extra day, but for most people the climb starts in Nid d'Aigle - there's a refuge here. The ascent is mostly along a ridge above the Bionnassay glacier. You ascend Col des Rognes, Tête Rousse (3167 m) and up the Goûter Corridor, a tricky scramble notorious for rock-falls. If the weather is good and the group is climbing well, the first overnight stay is at Refuge de Goûter at 3863 m; otherwise lay over at Tête Rousse refuge. Next day the route leads to Dôme du Goûter at 4304 m and past the Vallot emergency shelter at 4362 m. You now ascend the windy Les Bosses ridge, the top comes into view, and at last you're atop Mont Blanc. Here, with your shins at 4809 m and your very cold nose at 4810 m, you're briefly the highest person standing in Europe, as it's unlikely that anyone is atop Mount Elbrus just then. Your task is only half-done - never underestimate the perils of descent, when you're fatigued, dozy and "switched-off" - so you need a night at Goûter or Tête Rousse on the way down. Day 3 brings you back to the valley.
- La Voie des 3 Monts or La Traversée is the route that looks like an afternoon stroll when viewed from Aiguille du Midi. It isn't - the clue's in the name "3 Monts", which add up to 5 once you've lumped there and back, and you need two nights on the mountain. The standard plan is to ride the cable car up from Chamonix to the top station of Aiguille du Midi (3777 m) in the afternoon and hike for an hour to the Refuge des Cosmiques (3613 m) for the night. This gets you acclimatised to the altitude. Next day start very early, for an up-and-down progress along the ridge to Mont Blanc du Tacul (4248 m) and Mont Maudit (4465 m) - it's hard enough that you only traverse their shoulders rather than their summits. Then comes the last stagger up to Mont Blanc summit; then back to the Refuge. Coming up on the first lift of the morning from Chamonix and striking out for the summit isn't practical, you're not acclimatised and it's just too far. Likewise coming down, it's not wise to be hurrying and taking chances to make the last cable car down at 5-6 pm, lay over at the Refuge for a second night.
- Grands Mulets was the original route pioneered by Balmat & Paccard. Nowadays it's primarily a ski trail: you climb Mont Blanc by another route then launch off on skis down the north face, to descend this way. It's less often climbed, as much of it is glacier with many crevasses and overhanging seracs - teetering pinnacles of ice, often bigger than houses, just waiting for a group of climbers to plod beneath. Reckon three days, with the first day ascending to Refuge des Grands Mulets at 3051 m. This is usually done by taking the cable car from Chamonix to the midway station of Plan de l'Aiguille. Take the trail across Glacier des Pélerins to an abandoned cable car station, then up the left side of Glacier des Bossons. Cross this to find the trail to the Refuge. On the second day, start early and head onto the north ridge of Dôme de Goûter and up the "little steps" to the "little plateau", then the "big steps" to the "big plateau" of Dôme du Goûter at 4304 m. Here you join Voie Royale for the last slog past Vallot shelter onto Les Bosses ridge to the summit. It's a 7 hour climb from Grands Mulets, so you'll need another overnight stay however you descend.
- La route des Aiguilles Grises is the usual ascent from Italy, reckon three days. Much of it is glacier, very crevassed in late season. From Courmayeur a road and bus service runs up Van Veny as far as La Visaille at 1653 m. On the first day, climb the trail up Miage glacier past its junction with Dôme glacier and on to the south spur of Aiguilles Grises: thence to the Rifugio Gonella at 3071 m. The next day, ascend via Col des Aiguilles Grises onto Dôme du Goûter at 4304 m. Here you join Voie Royale past Vallot shelter onto Les Bosses ridge to the summit. You'll need another overnight stay to get down.
- Miage-Bionnassay is a four day high altitude route. Start from the small ski resort of Contamines-Montjoie in the valley south of St Gervais, and on the first day hike up to Refuge des Conscrits at 2602 m. Next day cross Dômes de Miages to spend the night at Refuge de Plan Glacier (2730 m). Built into the steep hillside, this may be completely buried by snow in winter; it can be reached in a single day from the top of Les Houches cable car. Day Three continues over l'Aiguille de Bionnassay and Dôme du Goûter, joining Voie Royale over Les Bosses ridge to the summit of Mont Blanc. Allow a fourth day to descend.
Sleep & Eat
For valley food and accommodation, see entries for the towns. Up the mountain, the safest accommodation is in the Refuges. These are high-altitude hostels, well-built, with heating, staffing, dorm beds and catering – which saves you lugging a mass of food and bedding. They don't have piped water, and only take cash payment. Advance booking is strongly advised, and compulsory for Goûter – this does mean you must commit to climbing a set distance per day. You'll meet many other climbers, with valuable info on the state of the routes above and below. Out of season, the refuges may be unstaffed and uncatered but default to acting as shelters, described below.
- 1 Refuge Nid d'Aigle is at 2380 m at the top of the Mont Blanc Tramway, at the start of the Voie Royale route. It has 20 places and is open June–Sept. Adult €25, meals available. Camping is also permitted in this area.
- 2 Refuge de la Tête Rousse is at 3167 m on the Voie Royale route. It has 74 places and is open June–Sept. Adult 48€, meals available. Camping is also permitted here, but not higher up the mountain.
- 3 Refuge de Goûter is at 3863 m on the Voie Royale route. It's open May–Sept and must be booked in advance online. Adult €65 plus €50 for dinner and breakfast. No camping allowed this high.
- 4 Refuge de Grands Mulets is at 3051 m on the Grands Mulets route, perched on a rock pinnacle above Bossons glacier. It has 68 beds and is only open April–July as it's primarily for skiers coming down the north face of the mountain. Adult €26, dinner & breakfast available.
- 5 Refuge des Cosmiques is at 3613 m near the top of Aiguille de Midi cable car, at the start of the 3 Monts route. It's open year-round, with 148 beds in summer and ten in winter, reserve by phone for half-board or B&B. Camping is permitted here.
- 6 Refuge des Conscrits is above Les Contamines at 2602 m on the Miage-Bionnassay route. It has 90 beds and is open March–Sept. Adult €31 bed only, €50 B&B and €65 half-board.
- 7 Refuge de Plan Glacier is at 2730 m on the Miage-Bionnassay route. It has 25 beds and is open March–Sept.
- 8 Rifugio Francesco Gonella is at 3071 m above the Miage glacier in Val Veny at the head of Valle d'Aosta. It's on the Route des Aiguilles Grises, the usual Italian ascent of Mont Blanc. It's open year-round, with 24 beds in summer and eight in winter. Beware that Google Map also shows another "Rifugio Gonella" right down in the valley.
The mountain shelters (or huts, cabins or bivvy shacks) are simply places where you can get indoors overnight and save your life. They're unheated and have no facilities. They're only for emergency use (eg if the weather closes in) and you should never plan on using them – if they were your Plan A, what was your Plan B? And what happens when another group arrives with a real emergency? Highest of them is the Vallot shelter (which therefore shouldn't be called a "refuge") at 4362 m on the Voie Royale near the summit. This sleeps 12, but in a sudden storm it's like a dolmuş that keeps packing them in. It's too high if the emergency is altitude sickness, you need to get down at least to Goûter.
- Get a mountain guide unless you already know the place.
- Bring enough navigational and mountaineering equipment, including for ice. Never plan on using your mobile phone to navigate.
- Check the weather forecast, but be prepared for rough weather even if it is not forecast.
- Plan your climb, and climb your plan.
- Take enough clothing to keep you warm and dry, it's very cold up there, and the wind chill makes it Arctic.
- Have an emergency plan in place.
- Tell somebody in the valley what route you are taking, and when you expect to return.
- Don't be a movie hero: turn back if the weather or your own condition says you should.
- Learn to recognise the symptoms of hypothermia, such as tiredness and the urge to strip off clothing, and know what to do while you figure out how to get the person to safety.
- If you think somebody in your group has made a bad decision, object.
- Have a first aid kit to stop minor problems growing big.
- It's more dangerous on the way down, when everyone is fatigued, dozy, and "switched off" having achieved the summit. Stay focused, you're not safe until you can kick off your boots in the chalet in town.
- If you need a city to recuperate, where you can look up at mountains without the weary business of climbing them, head for Geneva or Turin.
- If you want more mountains, all seven highest peaks of each continent are before you. That's Elbrus at 5642 m in Russia for Europe, Kilimanjaro at 5895 m in Tanzania for Africa, Denali (formerly McKinlay) at 6190 m in Alaska for North America, Aconcagua at 6960 m in Argentina for South America, Kosciuszko at 2228 m in the Snowy Mountains of New South Wales for Australia, Everest at 8848 m on the Nepal / Tibet border for Asia, and Vinson at 4892 m for Antarctica.
- Or head for the lowest point on the earth's surface, 394 m below mean sea level, on the shores of the Dead Sea, shared by Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Jordan.