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Written by
Neil McAdie

The Mont Blanc Massif contains quite possibly the finest range of Alpine climbs anywhere in the world, concentrated in a relatively small area straddling the borders of France, Italy and Switzerland and centred around the mighty Mont Blanc itself, the highest mountain in the European Alps.

This granite and ice playground has been a forcing ground for Alpinism ever since the first ascent of Mont Blanc in 1786 by Dr Paccard and a crystal hunter named Jacques Balmat. They climbed the mountain by what is now known as the normal route from the French side via the Aiguille du Gouter and on up the wonderfully exposed Bosses ridge to the summit at 4,807m. To this day there remains little that beats the dawn panorama from the summit and this normal route is now busy right through the season from early June through to September with hundreds climbing to the spacious domed summit on a good day in summer. To avoid the crowds, and maybe also the arduous approach to the hut, a popular though slightly more difficult alternative is the so-called ‘Three Monts’ approached by riding the cable car to the Aiguille du Midi and then starting early the following morning from the Col du Midi to traverse the summits of Mont Blanc du Tacul and Mont Maudit (both significant 4,000m peaks in their own right) to Mont Blanc and on down the Normal Route.

For seasoned Alpinists with technical climbing skills and an ambition to tackle greater challenges the mighty Italian face of the mountain is home to some of the longest and most exciting Alpine climbs in Europe. The complicated approaches, objective dangers, high level of technical difficulty, altitude issues and almost Himalayan scale of some aspects of the face all combine to make routes here the pinnacle of many climber's careers, and the first ascents were established by some of the most famous and influential mountaineers of the last century.

In 1928 the Englishmen T Graham Brown and Frank Smythe climbed the committing Route Major on the complex Brenva Face, a tremendous achievement for the time and one of the finest middle grade routes in the Alps sadly now largely ignored due to heightened danger from serac and stone fall, a sad reminder of the effects of global temperature rise. In 1944 one of the Mont Blanc range’s most celebrated sons, Gaston Rebuffat, climbing with the great Lionel Terray made the first ascent of the hugely exposed Peuterey Ridge, surely the finest on the mountain. In 1961 Chris Bonnington and Don Whillans closely followed by a strong team lead by the formidable Rene Desmaison climbed the ‘last great problem’, The Central Pillar of Freney, taking high standard rock climbing into a hugely committing high mountain environment which even to this day remains a sought after classic, one of the finest in the range. Finally through the 1980’s one of Mont Blanc’s most prolific new routers Patrick Gabarrou produced modern technical classics such as the Hypercouloir and the Brouillard Superdirect on the remote Brouillard Face of the mountain, as well as the inspired Devine Providence. Whatever you choose on the Italian side of Mont Blanc you are sure to be in for the adventure of a lifetime!

Mont Blanc's Brenva Face. Photo credit: Neil McAdie. Mont Blanc's Brenva Face, circa 1981. Photo credit: Neil McAdie.

Although the traditional climbing season on Mont Blanc is in the summer months this is being extended into autumn and winter for the experienced alpinist hunting for primo ice and mixed conditions, particularly in a world where warmer temperatures make summer ascents of some routes impractical. This season extension is greatly helped by the lightweight gear, warmer boots and lighter, warmer clothing available to today’s Alpinists, no doubt aided by the instant condition reports available online and the impressive fitness levels of leading climbers!

An ascent of Mont Blanc by any route is never to be taken for granted with rapid weather changes possible at any time and the altitude always a risk for the un-acclimatised. For most an ascent is best planned for the second week of an alpine trip when sufficient fitness and acclimatisation has been gained to make the climbing safe and enjoyable. With autumn and winter soon upon us now is the time to start dreaming, to set goals and make plans for next summer, and with Mont Blanc, by whatever the route, you will not be disappointed.

Vallée Blanche in Chamonix. Photo credit: Neil McAdie. Vallée Blanche in Chamonix, circa 1985. Photo credit: Neil McAdie.

Mont Blanc Mountain Memories

Mont Blanc can mean so many different things to different people. Some ski up it, some fly down it, for some it’s a charity climb or a tick on a list of  4000m peaks. For others it’s an awe inspiring view from a cable car, an inaccessible chaos of tumbling glaciers. For Alpinists it is home to some of the finest and most committing climbs in Europe, and for me it was the inspiration that drove my progression up through the classic climbs that celebrate the grandeur of the Italian face of the mountain.

As an 18 year old, fresh out of school and with an even younger climbing partner, we cut our teeth in the hazardous world of Alpine climbing on some of the accessible classics in the Mont Blanc range until after 2 weeks in the mountains we were drawn to Mont Blanc itself. With youthful confidence we shunned the normal route and opted, in all ignorance, for the Brenva Spur. After leaving the Col de la Fourche bivi at midnight we emerged some time after dawn at the top of the route having learnt the hard way about glacial navigation, moving together up bullet hard exposed ice slopes, danger from collapsing seracs and the difficulty of climbing one footed and one armed after having lost a crampon and broken an inadequate axe. We also learnt about silence, commitment and the beauty of an Alpine dawn from 4,500m, and the calling to spend the next 20 years or so dedicated to the mountains was confirmed.

Following this early adventure I returned to Mont Blanc every year through the early 1980’s unable to resist the lure of the harder climbs on the Brenva face, the Grand Pilier d’Angle and the Freney. You need some luck to have stable conditions, the right partner with a shared goal and a couple of weeks of acclimatisation gaining climbs behind you to make these adventures feel fast and safe. The Route Major was an early climb that helped build my confidence and knowledge of the complex approaches to aid future ascents. Further left on the Grand Pilier d’angle the steep looking ice gully classics of the Cecchinel-Nomine and the Boivin-Vallencant provided spicy adventures for the following two summers, pirouetting on front points for thousands of feet after lung busting approaches through serac threatened bowling alleys in the dead of night. This was truly a different world that lifted you out of the mundane and the ordinary; and I loved it.

Neil and Roy in the Col de la Fourche Bivi Hut, circa 1984. Photo credit: Neil McAdie archive. Neil and Roy in the Col de la Fourche Bivi Hut, circa 1984. Photo credit: Neil McAdie archive.

Left: Neil solo climbing at night on the Route Major, on the Breva Face of Mont Blanc. Photo credit: Neil McAdie's archive. Right: Grand Pilier d’Angle, viewed from the Col de la Fourche bivi. Photo credit: Neil McAdie. Left: Neil solo climbing at night on the Route Major, on the Brenva Face of Mont Blanc. Photo credit: Neil McAdie archive. Right: Grand Pilier d’Angle, viewed from the Col de la Fourche Bivi. Photo credit: Neil McAdie.

By 1985 Andy Perkins and I pooled our accumulated experience to tackle the Central Pillar of Freney, a route that tests every aspect of the climber or mountaineer's skill set. All went well with a midnight start and night-time ascent of the 2000ft ice slopes to the freezing pre-dawn Col du Peuterey where we stopped to brew tea. In the semi-dark we traversed to the pillar to find the ledges and some of the cracks heavily snowed up and the route untraveled so far that summer. Forced to climb in the plastic Koflach double boots that were the ‘80’s norm the 15 pitches of sustained granite provided an enhanced challenge but one that our summer of climbing had more than equipped us for.   High on the Chandelle, the final 200m pinnacle at the top of the route, and well above the point at which you would want to reasonably consider any form of retreat down the complex ground below, the weather closed in and reduced our world to a few feet of cloud, wind and hail. Shivering on belay I watched Andy commit to the final pitch, place his hand on the summit, then slip, tumbling over 30m straight past me to disappear through the overhangs below and into the cloud. The feeling of commitment and isolation very suddenly felt very real. Some time passed before he reappeared up the rope, shaken but not stirred, and committed again to the final pitch. Respect!

At 11pm after 23 hours on the go we huddled into a gap between two rocks on the summit of Mont Blanc de Courmayeur and shivered through the night in our substandard student financed 1980’s ‘let's go fast and light’ clothing before continuing over the main summit at dawn to complete the adventure.

I have never returned. Adventures in other areas of the Alps and the Himalaya occupied the following decades but to this day the great routes of Mont Blanc remain vivid in my memory as the best of the best. Maybe, just maybe, one day I will return and commit again.

Andy Perkins on the summit of Mont Blanc after the Central Pillar of Freney. Photo credit: Neil McAdie. Andy Perkins on the summit of Mont Blanc after the Central Pillar of Freney. Photo credit: Neil McAdie.

Stunning morning light picks out two climbers on the Col du Peuterey, Mont Blanc, taken from the Central Pillar of Freney; with the Matterhorn and Monte Rosa in the background. Photo credit: Neil McAdie. Stunning morning light picks out two climbers on the Col du Peuterey, Mont Blanc, taken from the Central Pillar of Freney; with the Matterhorn and Monte Rosa in the background. Photo credit: Neil McAdie.

Top left: Andy Perkins on the steep ice runnel pitches of the Boivin-Vallencant route in early morning light. Top right: Jim Dochery on the central ice-field of the Cecchinel-Nomine route, post crux as the sun loosens a cascade of ice shards from above. Bottom left: And Perkins follows the first of the crux pitches, Central Pillar of Freney. Plastic boots and big packs the norm for the era! Bottom right: Neil McAdie on the unexpectedly cold and steep approach to the Col de la Fourche bivi hut in the early 1980’s before climbing the Route Major. Top left: Andy Perkins on the steep ice runnel pitches of the Boivin-Vallencant route in early morning light. Top right: Jim Dochery on the central ice-field of the Cecchinel-Nomine route, post crux as the sun loosens a cascade of ice shards from above. Bottom left: And Perkins follows the first of the crux pitches, Central Pillar of Freney. Plastic boots and big packs the norm for the era! Bottom right: Neil McAdie on the unexpectedly cold and steep approach to the Col de la Fourche bivi hut in the early 1980’s before climbing the Route Major.

Logistics: In and around Mont Blanc

Most visitors looking to climb Mont Blanc on the French or Italian side will most likely stay in Chamonix. The easiest access to Chamonix is via a transfer from Geneva Airport. There are options for car hire, but the airport transfer covers tolls and most find it simple enough to get about without a car once in the valley.

Accommodation in Chamonix is relatively expensive so for cheaper accommodation it's worthwhile keeping an eye on the Chamonix Facebook group or ChamShare, a Chamonix specific social network. When locals leave on holiday their homes will often be listed as available to sub-let at a reduced rate, which can offer a more affordable and homely alternative. Other cheaper options include staying locally in Les Houches or just outside the valley in neighbouring communes such as Sallanches and Saint Gervais-les-Bains.

The next biggest cost will likely be your lift pass and unless you're willing to do a lot of walking, there's no obious way to save money on this. The good news is that if you are planning a single trip but need to wait for the weather, tickets can be used for three months from the day of purchase. If you pick up your pass upon arrival, you can wait for prime condition before attempting to summit.

Other recommended activities include the classic walk to Lac Blanc, running the vertical kilometre under the Brevent cable car or sampling the plethora of quality climbing in the valley. For those looking for something more relaxed, there's a spa half an hour's drive away in the parc thermal at Saint-Gervais-les-Bains.

Neil McAdie is the Sales Director at Rab and has worked with the company since 2003. He lives in our local climbing area, the Peak District, in the North of England and has over 35 years climbing and mountaineering experience throughout the UK, Europe, the US and the Himalaya.

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