A Steep Ski Traverse of the Mont Blanc Range from East to West
By Fred Bernard, with Laurent Bibollet
The Mont Blanc range is not a very big mountain range, but it is steep. It has become a kind of laboratory for skiers, mountaineers and climbers from around the world. Laurent and I consider ourselves somewhere is the middle as we are ski-mountaineers, IFMGA mountain guides and part of the Peakpowder guide team.
The Mont Blanc range sees tons of action because of its fast and easy access, with cable cars reaching higher altitudes in minutes. The idea of doing a steep ski traverse of the Mont Blanc range from its most easterly point to its most westerly point came to me about eight years ago. For some unknown reason, it had never been done; no one had tackled this challenge.
Above: Laurent Bibolet traverses Les Courtes, one leg of the team's traverse of the Mont Blanc range. Photo: Fred Bernard
It is perhaps the temperamental weather patterns that hit the range that are partially responsible for this, or simply the fact that it is not an exotic or trendy destination. Spring seemed to be the best choice for attempting such an adventure, but it has its disadvantages: heavy precipitation, humidity and the complications of linking together certain summits due to snow and ice. Our take was why travel across the world when an interesting and challenging adventure was right here on our doorstep?
April 21st kicked off the start of our adventure from Le Tour (Fred’s village) at the top end of the Chamonix valley. For the next week or so, we would make our way across the mountain range, climbing and riding steep lines, to finish in Le Cugnon/Les Contamines (Laurent’s village) and then head back up valley by bike to finish our loop. The idea was to be flexible, adjusting the program and the choice of ascents and ski/snowboard descents according to the conditions, staying safe and respecting our timing.
We headed off by foot from the village of Le Tour and hiked/skinned up to the Albert 1er mountain hut. At this time of the year, access to the hut is via the snow-covered moraine. Although we aimed to keep our packs lightweight, sleeping in the guarded mountain huts as we went, climbing and ski equipment is never featherweight. From the get-go, we were pumped, ready for action and confident that we would succeed in our adventure.
The Fynn-Biselx couloir in the Aiguilles Dorées was our first objective. With its southwest orientation, we were in no rush to reach it too early in the day, as we knew it would be hardpack. We headed off at a steady and determined pace, crossing two mountain passes and traversing the Saleina glacier to reach the base of the couloir. The boot pack climb on hard snow went smoothly and we reached the summit of this beautiful line, psyched and ready to ride. Was the snow hard? Yes, hard and icy is certainly how we would describe the top part. Our first descent required concentration and precision on every turn. There was no room for error. Our edges were sharp though and gave good grip. Big smiles and a sense of relief covered our faces as we looked back to see our tracks.
Skinning then climbing up and over the Chardonnet pass, we reached the Argentière hut for our second night. We needed to recharge our batteries.
Although we expected the next stage to be demanding, the route taking us to the Aiguille du Midi was definitely a test of our endurance. Climbing the Courtes brought unexpected surprises. We would have preferred riding the line in the fresh powder rather than climbing up the line in fresh powder. Next time!
From the summit of the North North East, we could see that our Couloir Angélique wasn’t looking so angelic after all. The couloir we had planned to ski had gullied and it was filled with hard avalanche balls. Change of plan! With enthusiasm and determination, we mixed climbed on the cornices which allowed us to traverse the Courtes ridge.
Finally, we reached the open faces of the Talèfre bowl after riding the start of the North Face of the Col de la Verte. At the junction of the Leschaux and the Géant glaciers, my wife and some friends came to meet us with a delicious picnic and water to quench our thirst and rehydrate. It was hot and the day was far from over. We still had to skin up the third biggest glacier in the Alps before reaching the Cosmiques hut. It was one big and beautiful day!
After a good night’s sleep and lazy morning at the Cosmiques hut, we headed down the Glacier Rond. The Rond needed to soften up a little so we had a good excuse for taking it easy and heading out later in the day. We enjoyed riding this line, immersed in the scenery of the Aiguilles Rouges, the Mont Blanc and Dôme du Goûter. After riding the line and a short skin, we reached the Grands Mulets mountain hut. Its position is historical, as it is on the classic route and was used by the first mountaineers that climbed the Mont Blanc. It’s always quite moving to think of the first mountaineers and their spirit of adventure.
When climbing Mont Blanc, temperatures are never warm and temperate. Crisp morning temperatures and strong winds did not make the ascent an easy task. Skiing down the Arête des Bosses (Bumps Ridge) we reached the Dôme du Goûter and Aiguille du Goûter. The high-altitude snow was compact and windblown. Then, once we started down the couloir on the east face of the Goûter, there were good spring conditions to the valley. From the summit to the green pastures of Bionnassay, 3400 meters of vertical, not bad for one run!
But the day was still not finished. We had another three hours before reaching the next hut. Surrounded by mountain goats grazing and crocuses in full bloom, we finally arrived at the Chalets de Miage hut and received a warm welcome from its guardians. They had prepared a delicious feast with a wild mushroom cheese fondue and freshly baked raspberry pie. With our appetites satiated, we crawled under our duvets and settled in for the night.
We awoke to the pitter-patter sound of raindrops falling on the roof of the hut, which meant our plan to climb was comprised. Instead, we continued our traverse at a lower altitude, hiking on trails and snowy paths and skinning the last bit of the stage to reach the Tré-la-Tête hut. To our surprise, we covered 1000 meters of positive vertical and a considerable distance! Soaking wet, we were pleased to find the old stone building. Inside, the hut was toasty warm and we quickly hung up our gear to dry next to the pot belly stove.
At this point there was only one more summit to climb: the Mont Tondu! We left the easiest part for last. From the hut, the Mauvais Pas—the “Bad Step”—speaks for itself. We made a delicate passage before reaching the Tré-la-Tête glacier. After a short skin up the glacier, we cut off towards our final objective and started the climb to the summit that is so familiar to us.
Somehow that famous phrase, “It’s not over until it’s over,” rang true. At about 30 meters from the summit, we felt a difference in the texture of the snow. Before we knew it, a windslab slid causing a little avalanche and we found ourselves diving like dolphins! No serious damage, but enough of a reminder. The warning, the fatigue and us letting down our guard, so close to the end, were all telling signs. It was time to finish this adventure, to leave the high altitudes and snowy peaks and find the lush green vegetation of the valley.
We descended to Le Cugnon-Les Contamines, pleased to take off our boots and feel the sunshine warm our toes. Relaxing on Laurent’s patio, we admired the view of the Mont Blanc range. No bells or whistles, just a mellow moment to digest the emotions and the special friendship we shared “up there.” Memories forever engraved in our minds.
The following morning, we overcame the last hurdle of our traverse. We saddled our bikes, ready to ride from Les Contamines to the starting point of our trip, Le Tour. Only seven days had passed but already the valley started to transform itself. It was spring! We felt like little kids, stoked to realize that we succeeded.
By using our bikes to finish the loop, we kept in line with the spirit of limiting our environmental impact. We left tracks, and only tracks, on this adventure. We are proud and happy to have completed this exciting traverse. It certainly was an athletic and technical challenge for both of us. But most importantly, it gave us an opportunity to meet, to share and to create lasting bonds with each other, with the hut guardians, with other climbers, mountaineers and skiers, with our friends and our loved ones.
Fred Bernard is a French IFMGA mountain guide, skier, photographer, husband and dad. Born in Chartreuse (French Alps), he lives for the mountains and skiing steep lines around the world. For the past 25 years, his specialty has been steep skiing at high altitudes. He’s passionate about life and loves dark chocolate, speed and skiing on the edge. With the Mont Blanc range in his backyard, he’s always in shape and ready for the next big adventure—the advantage of living in the Chamonix valley.