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Considering a high level of fitness, but limited mountaineering skills (some indoor climbing, a few via ferratas and high altitude hikes), what hikes would you recommend as training (and perhaps some acclimatization) for the ascent of Mont Blanc? Ideally they would be in easy/affordable reach from London (via Geneva, Venice, Zurich) and would provide similar technical challenges but perhaps at a lower altitude. The last high altitude hike was painful between 3500 and 5000 meters. After that the diamox kicked in :)

The question was aimed at suitable routes that will provide the training to build the necessary experience. The area where I lack the experience is the use of crampons/glacier hikes. The tour would be guided.


Edit: the comments have proven that this question was misworded, so let me try again. What short trips would you recommend for the novice/improving mountaineer in order to build up the necessary skills to tackle more challenging peaks? The focus is on safely acquiring the technique, rather than physical training. Shorter (1-3 days) treks would be preferred, and so would the travel accessibility. Thank you

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    "Limited mountaineering skills" And you want to tackle the mountain that has claimed more lives than any other in the world? – ShemSeger Aug 19 '15 at 15:03
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    TBF @ShemSeger one reason that this is true is because it's also one of the most climbed mountains in the world! What experience do you have Dan? We're going to need some more info to help, I'd imagine. – user2766 Aug 19 '15 at 15:14
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    @Liam, Yes, and I'd venture to guess that the majority of those deaths were people with limited mountaineering skills. – ShemSeger Aug 19 '15 at 16:50
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    Although I haven't been there myself, ascending Mont Blanc is technically not the most difficult mountain, as it's mostly a long, high, cold, and perhaps boring hike over ever-unchanging snow-covered slopes. Until you try to go down through the maze that the glaciers falling down on the Chamonix side are, that is. – gerrit Aug 20 '15 at 10:05
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    The negative tone of a lot of the comments surprises me. The OP admits he's inexperienced, so of course the questions he asks are going to demonstrate his lack of experience. He's asking for help, not blame and shame. – Ben Crowell Aug 20 '15 at 16:40
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I'm still a little unclear what your asking but here goes.

This tally's reasonably well with my own experience. I've spent a lot of time in the mountains of the UK (Mainly Snowdonia in North Wales where I live). My long term ambition is to move into more alpinism type route in France, Germany, etc. (much like yourself)

As such I'm going to answer your question slightly indirectly and tell you what I've been doing to get up to where I wish to go (and this will hopefully help you too)

I've been rock climbing for a number of years. This has helped me develop a number of skills that you will likely need for alpine days, specifically:

  • Rope skills
  • Making belays
  • Moving on rock
  • Placing secure anchors

I knew though that these skills likely weren't enough for what I wanted to do. So my next step has been to get some winter training (the Alps are obviously covered in snow and ice so this is very important).

I actually looked into doing a winter skills course in Scotland but found these prohibitively expensive. So I decided to teach myself (this isn't for everyone, I'm a bit of a nerd on these types of subjects and I like to think I'm aware of my own limitiaions).

so I bought the following items:

  • Ice Axe (walking style not climbing style)
  • B2 rated boots
  • C2 rated crampons
  • Ski goggles

I already own a full set of winter and waterproof clothing. I then spent the winter in Wales (when it snowed) walking paths I knew well and gaining experience. I practised self arrest and various other winter specific techniques that I could only do with snow.

We then spent a week in Scotland walking in the cairngorms (ticking off munroes). I'm now pretty confident up to winter Grade II.

I don't feel (TBH even after all of this practice, etc.) that I have enough skills to tackle the Alps quite yet (I also can't afford it right now as I'm trying to save to buy a house). I have not done any crevasse rescue or work on glaciers (because there aren't any in Scotland).

I would suggest that Mont Blanc (via the ordinary route I think it's called, the most common one) is typically everyone's first Alpine mountain and you will struggle to find any other peak as accessible (with a guide). So I can't really suggest another European hill to do as training. There are numerous less busy alternatives though, Mont Blanc can get very busy.

Obviously none of these mountainous areas are anywhere near London, I'm lucky I live in north Wales. But I would suggest spending as much time as you can in winter in Scotland, etc. this will help you hone you winter skills which you will need for a summer accent of Mont Blanc.

Good luck!!

Interestingly I've just finished reading an article in the perils of alpine routes on Mont Blanc, prob worth a read http://www.ukclimbing.com/articles/page.php?id=7563

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    I'd question two of your statements: for everathing I know, there's no requirement by law to have a guide to climb Mont Blanc, but basically everyone can try it (might be one reason why there are so many people dying – there are too many unexperienced people). And secondly, I can't imagine any definition of "alpine" under which it would be advised to Mont Blanc as their first such ascent. There are many alpine mountains that are easier to reach and less crowded. – Benedikt Bauer Aug 20 '15 at 18:14
  • I do say there are many less busy alternatives – user2766 Aug 21 '15 at 6:08
  • Thank you LIam, this makes perfect sense and it gives me the relevant information I needed. – Dan Aug 21 '15 at 12:15
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    @BenediktBauer There is no such restriction for any mountain in the Alps that you are only allowed to climb it with the help of a guide. I am very happy this is the case and I hope it will always be like that. Everyone has to decide for himself if he is capable to do it alone. I'd like to do those famous mountains like Mont Blanc, Matterhorn, Eiger and the kind too, but without the guides. Still it's no problem for me to wait till I feel I have the experience and skills to do it safely. I know there are restrictions like that in South America and I guess in Asia too. – Wills Aug 26 '15 at 7:08
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    Good advice to train in the UK. I think you can learn a lot in the mountains/hills of Scotland (or also Wales ^^). You don't have glaciers there but you could still train crevasse rescue. We for example trained it with a group in the city of Munich. You just need a steep hill and something like a tree to build an anchor. Rest is rope skills and commandos. – Wills Aug 26 '15 at 7:13
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I'll give this a shot, but I'm from the US, and although I've done a little bit of mountaineering in the Alps, I've never done Mont Blanc. Others may be able to give better answers.

First, you need to buy an ice ax, crampons, and crampon-compatible boots. This is going to be expensive, and it is possible to rent gear in Chamonix, but IMO it's just not practical to work your way up to the level of skill needed for Mont Blanc without owning gear and using it quite a bit. Finding usable, well-fitting crampon-compatible boots can be a hard process. Don't satisfy yourself with boots that give you blisters. For Mont Blanc in summer, I think you probably want leather/synthetic boots (not double plastic boots) such as La Sportiva Evos, which will set you back about 300 pounds. The shape and design of that particular boot happens to work well for my foot, but you need to figure out what works for you.

Next, get professional instruction in snow travel and self-arrest, or get instruction through a mountaineering club or from an experienced friend who's willing to devote a full day to it. From googling, it looks like there are courses available in Scotland.

Although you're going guided, there are certain physical skills for snow travel that you need to practice and get in your muscle memory. For example, I've often seen people descending on low-angle snow at an extremely slow pace because they lack confidence and the physical skill. They do things like sitting down and inch-worming their way down the slope, or they laboriously use the ice ax in cane position when they could just be plunge-stepping or boot glissading. So you need to practice these skills. Again, I would guess that you could do stuff in Scotland that would work. These don't need to be big peaks, just anywhere that there's snow and steep slopes. To get really comfortable, you will probably need to spend 10-20 days on snow, experiencing different conditions, higher angles, ice, etc. If I were you, I'd join a mountaineering club in the UK and start going on trips with them, starting with easy stuff.

I suspect that most people going guided on this type of climb have zero crevasse self-rescue skills. This may be OK if the route you have in mind on Mont Blanc is wanded and the risk of falling in a crevasse is very small. However, I feel that anyone going into this kind of situation should have self-rescue skills. I know a professional guide who fell into a crevasse while on a two-man rope team with a client. The client didn't respond competently, and the result was serious injuries and a helicopter rescue. Although Scotland apparently has not had any glaciers for hundreds of years, you can get self-rescue training there; rather than practicing in a real crevasse, they would probably use a cliff or something. If you want to train in an area that has real glaciers, big crevasses, and icefalls, I would imagine that you could get that in Norway or Iceland, but I don't really know.

  • Interesting point with the self-rescue skills. If the client isn't aware what to do in crevasse emergencies the guide shouldn't go with him as a two-man-team. At least this is my opinion. Luckily the client in your story was able to hold the fall at all, otherwise both are dead quite easily. On the other hand, if the rope-team is bigger and you are on a crowded route like the normal route on Mont Blanc, it is not really necessary to know the techniques in self-rescue. You are not alone there, even if the guide of your group falls. Either he self-rescues, or other guides will help... – Wills Aug 26 '15 at 7:26
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For my answer I make the following two assumptions:
You either have someone who can show you the techniques involved, you have access to some courses to teach it or you are a very serious self-taught person. In any case I will suggest tours to gain experience on your own after you learned the techniques (at least theoretically).

I am based in Switzerland near Zurich and do not know the Chamonix or Venice area, so I will talk about a location close to Zurich.

The key abilities to do Mont Blanc guided are rope handling, glacier and steep snow techniques. So that is what I propose:
The area in Glarus around the mountain "Toedi" is perfectly suited for all levels of such trainings. It is located at 2.5h by train or 1.5h by car from Zurich airport (overwiew / detailed map). Your base would be the hut "Claridenhuette" (red marker below the glacier) which is accessible either walking from "Tierfehd" (red marker) or from "Urnerboden" (red marker) via the cable car to "Fisetengrat" and from there to the hut. From there the possibilies are endless. For the very beginning there is a flat glacier nearby, where walking on crampons with a rope on a glacier, walking on sloped snow, crevasse rescue ... can be trained. To apply these newly learned skills you can do a tour on eg "Clariden" which is basically a long walk on the glacier with a moderately steep (max 40deg) incline at its end. Many more tours to be made. When you have gained more experience, the tour to the "Toedi" is very similar to the Mount Blanc save the altitude. There are also huge crevassed areas, steep slopes and long distances. But this tour is already quite advanced.
Anyway you can easily get to the hut using the maps I showed you and then you will see the possibilities yourself or can ask the personel, they will gladly point you to suited areas for training. Of course there are also various guided courses available there, but they are expensive.

For additional training the region of Zermatt (4h by train from Geneva) offers great tours in moderate difficulty.

  • Thank you, this is excellent. I will try Toedi, it seems perfect for what I need. – Dan Aug 21 '15 at 12:15
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    @Dan Cool, give me a heads up when you actually go this way. Just as a side note: The Toedi itself is (as Mont Blanc) not that hard technically, but good route finding and danger assessment skills are needed (which is usually what you do not need if you take a guide)! – imsodin Aug 21 '15 at 12:49
  • Good idea to build your way up first with easier alpine tours like described. Still, 40 deg slope is quite a lot. You shouldn't start with such steep slopes, especially going downhill will frighten some beginners. – Wills Aug 26 '15 at 7:39
  • Well maybe I wasn't too clear on that: I do not suggest to do that on you second day on crampons. The mountain in particular in directly next to the "training" glacier and about 600m in height above the glacier and the slope is well visible from the glacier. If you fall in the steepest section there is no consequence as there is only snow below, no rocks. This is something completely different from e.g. an exposed slope on a ridge. So yes, I think such a 40deg slope is suited for the "experience beginner". – imsodin Aug 26 '15 at 20:49
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I was personally in a similar situation. Having done a basic mountaineering and crevasse rescue course in Tatra mountains in Poland (in winter conditions), some via ferratas and outdoor rock-climbing course I was trying to get to some glacier hikes with friends having similar experience level.

What we did is first tackle some three-thousanders that do not require glacier crossing, example of which is Schrankogel in Öztal, Austria (easy to reach from Innsbruck). Afterwards, we moved towards easy mountains where crossing glacier is necessary. I can recommend Wildspitze (3768 m, Öztal, Austria) for a first try - the snow section is relatively short and ascent from the Breslauer Hut not too strenuous, which allows one to proceed slowly and practice some basic techniques.

What I found a great experience is actually tenting on the glacier during longer tour. I can recommend a little frequented ascent to Weisskugel from Vent (again in Öztal) through the 7 km-long Hintereis-Ferner. This technically undemanding glacier is great to get used to being on ice for hours straight and the views at sunset are amazing.

After those tours as well as acclimatisation on Argentière Glacier (close to Chamonix) we were able to climb Mount Blanc from Aiguille du Midi taking the 3 Mouts Traversee route (http://www.summitpost.org/mont-blanc-3-mounts-traversee/202778), sleeping in tents at Col de la Brenva, ascending Mount Blanc peak in the morning and descending through Dôme du Goûter Normal Route. However, you should judge your and your partners abilities and consider having some experience on four-thousanders before tackling Mount Blanc, as acute mountain sickness might kick in :)

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    You should watch out because tenting isn't allowed necessarily. – Wills Aug 26 '15 at 7:44
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    As far as know tenting is officially prohibited all over the Alps. However, it is widely accepted to tent on a glacier/snow (not on any vegetation!) overnight as long as: 1. You pack your tent early in the morning, 2. you are not too close to any hut, 3. you don't leave any trash behind, 4. you are not in nature reserve or national park. – Klara Aug 26 '15 at 8:13
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    It is personal experience supported by opinion of some German mountain guides from Deutscher Alpenverein (DAV), on rather informal note. I specifically asked about tenting on Mitterkarjoch (on a way to Wildspitze, we wanted to test new equipment before trip to Kaukazus) and what they said was "technically it is not allowed, but don't worry, just be reasonable. We always do that." – Klara Aug 26 '15 at 11:02
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    @Wills I've been recently looking for information about bivouacking in German Alps and I found the following DAV document (in German only): alpenverein.de/chameleon/public/16779/… It states that sleeping for one night without a tent (under stars or in igloo) is generally allowed outside from nature protection areas, while tenting is generally forbidden. Camping (with a tent) is allowed over the forest line only in parts of Switzerland. – Klara Jan 20 '16 at 16:08
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    @Klara Yes I read something similar a while ago because I am interested in that topic too. You can search on an Austrian Forum on that, e.g. read following topic. – Wills Jan 20 '16 at 16:36

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