Today’s Post follows the route taken by Jacques Balmat and Dr Michel Gabriel Paccard on the first day of their two-day first ascent of Mont Blanc on 7-8 August 1786. The route starts from the commune of Les Bossons about 3Kms down-valley from Chamonix and climbs what is known as the Montagne de la Côte – a prominent ridge that separates the Glacier des Bossons from the Glacier du Taconnaz – up to La Jonction at the top of the ridge.
This ridge can be very clearly seen from the Aiguilles Rouges on the North side of the Chamonix valley (accessible by cable car from Chamonix).
Click any image in this post to see a higher quality enlargement.
It is also a prominent feature seen from Chamonix itself.
It is possible to shorten this walk by taking the Télésiège (chairlift) from near Les Bossons to the Chalet du Glacier des Bossons where you can sip a beer or a glass of wine while admiring the dramatic views over the tongue of the Bossons Glacier. But for the purist the walk from the valley floor although long (4-5hrs for approx 5,100ft ascent) is well worth the effort. The path is not difficult to follow although in places it crosses steep terrain and requires a head for heights.
Caution: Do not attempt this climb in bad weather, and especially not in winter unless you are properly equipped (snowshoes, crampons and ice axe – for self arrest – required) and have experience of walking steep mountain trails under winter conditions. Even in summer carry extra clothing and be prepared to turn back if the weather deteriorates. Always leave information with family, friends or your hotel indicating your itinerary and likely return time.
For the first two hours the path zig-zags incessantly up through forested terrain before emerging onto initially rough grassy hillside and finally stony ground. There are no significant problems for the experienced walker with stamina and a good pair of legs. But do make sure you reserve this wild walk for a perfect day – it’s a long way to go with no view from the top and please read the cautionary note earlier in this article about it. At times the path follows a line to the left of the ridge, at others it switches to the right side giving commanding views of the Taconnaz glacier and the Dome du Gouter.
Shortly before you reach the top of the ridge you will pass two huge boulders and there you will find an important inscription.
This is the concrete evidence that you have followed the path of Balmat and Paccard and that this is the precise spot where they bivouacked on 7 August, on the night before their successful summit climb. As with all climbers I imagine that their thoughts that night were a mixture of anxiety about the difficulties they would face the following day and the excitement that they might finally succeed in conquering this mountain.
Before we view the scene from this remarkable point let’s return to the very first image in this post. On summit day, the two climbers left their camp at the top of the Montange de la Cote and crossed La Jonction (the Junction), a convoluted crevassed area where glaciers merge and separate before forming the Taconnaz and Bossons glaciers that both descend steeply to towards the valley floor. Having negotiated La Jonction they moved up the heavily crevassed slopes beyond climbing more or less straight up through the frame to Le Grand Plateau at which point they chose to climb diagonally up and left following the red line on the image below up a ramp that has become known as the Ancien Passage before tracking back right up easier snow slopes to the summit (snow dome below the word ‘passage’). Enlarge image for a clearer view
The panorama from the top of the Montagne de la Cote is breathtaking in whichever direction you choose to look. Looking down to the tiny speck of Chamonix in the Arve valley over 5,000feet below gives you a real sense of height.
Turn through 180 degrees and look out down the valley past Les Houches in the direction of Geneva
And now to the breath-taking panorama. Sweep your eyes across the extraordinary sight above you. Firstly up valley following the line of the Chamonix Aiguilles to the Aiguille Verte in the far distance. The intermediate lift station of the Aig du Midi lift can be seen sitting on a grassy ridge mid height in the frame and close to the left edge of the frame.
Move your eyes up from that last frame to the imposing bulk of the Aiguille du Midi.
Move your gaze further right and you look straight up, as Balmat and Paccard would have done, through the chaos of La Jonction past those two rocky black fins, on and on up, everything compressed and distorted by the distance to the summit of Mont Blanc seen just left of the further of the two rock fins. How could there possibly be a route through there?
Look further right over the Glacier du Taconnaz with the Aiguille du Gouter above it.
And then in one sweep see the panorama – this next image is a three shot panorama stretching from Mont Blanc du Tacul to the Aiguille du Gouter. This is without doubt one of the most impressive views of the Mont Blanc massif, and all the more dramatic because of the closeness one is to the glaciated terrain.
I was indeed there.
These images were taken with my first digital compact in 2005. Ten years earlier in 1995 I guided my son, then aged 17 to the summit of Mont Blanc, Our route involved taking the cable car to the intermediate lift station (mentioned a few images above) from where we tracked horizontally towards the left edge of La Jonction negotiating heavily crevassed ground before climbing up to Les Grands Mulets Refuge sited on the first of the two Rock Fins – see red pointer marking Refuge in the next image.
The following day we set out at 1am to climb to the summit, following Balmat and Paccard’s route as far as the Grand Plateau where nowadays the route turns right to reach the Col du Dôme and then proceeds up the Bosses Ridge to the summit. We reached the summit at about 9am. Retracing our steps back down the same route through the convoluted maze of Crevasses and back to the Cable Car station took us until about 6pm. What a day! A day neither of us will ever forget and a huge privilege to do it together. And a special thanks to my dear wife for allowing the pair of us to make this climb.
Due to climate change, and the deterioration in the glaciers, the Grands Mulets Route is not often climbed now in summer, although remains climbable in Spring when the crevasses are well covered and snow bridges solid and reliable.
If you missed the Post about the fascinating story behind the first ascent of Mont Blanc, click here to go to it.