Words and Photos: Minna Riihimaki
The Mont Blanc du Tacul stands up as an imposing and snowy, trapezoidal shaped mountain when looking south from Aiguille de Midi summit station. The whiteness of snow is interrupted in the heart of the mountain by a rocky triangle that offers a variety of mixed climbing routes that can be continued all the way to the summit, culminating at 4248 meters. It is the 24th highest mountain in the Alps and climbed by thousands of people in a year as it is located on one of the normal routes to reach the Mont Blanc.
The first official ascension of Tacul was done by an English expedition in August 1855 while seeking to find a way to the highest peak of Europe but it is probable that some mountain guides from Courmayer (Italy) had reached the summit already in 1854 on their attempts to Mont Blanc.
Most of the alpinists climb the normal route on the North face of Tacul (in yellow) but I personally prefer the triangle as it is more sheltered from serac ice falls and presents a lower risk of avalanche.
The easiest and fastest route up is the most far left located Contamine-Négri route (in red), between the hanging ice field and the rocky triangle. The route offers a very nice mixed couloir climb, starting at the altitude of 3530 meters with 400 meters of steeper terrain before reaching the snowfields that lead to the summit.
The proximity of the intimidating ice creatures makes the climber feel very small and fragile, but with a careful route planning and staying close to the rocks, the ascension is safe, and protection and belays can be placed if needed. This route was first climbed by André Contamine together with Maurice Négri, Pierre Labrunie, and J. Martin in August 1962.
My favorite period for Tacul is late spring in May and June when snow is still abundant and there are few options to consider for the way down. Coming down the mountain is actually often the main point and focus of the ascension; I am always willing to put an effort for the uphill if I know that the downhill has fun potential! The snowy shoulder of Tacul, just underneath the rocky summit, is a start for several ski descents, offers a nice platform for taking off with a wing (in green), and leads to the normal route that can be easily and quickly descended by foot (in yellow). Sounds like a perfect multi-activity mountain to me!
Crossing over to the foot of the Contamine-Négri route from the Aiguille de Midi lift takes about 30-40 minutes on foot or 10-15 minutes on skis, and the climbing itself about 2 hours to the shoulder. After that, the choices are open… This June 2021, the snow conditions have been good after a cold and wet month of May. The North-East part of Tacul (left of the triangle) is a big snow face with a gigantic snow cornice at the top and an overhanging serac as a bottom line. But absolutely everything in between that is perfectly skiable when snow conditions are stable (in blue).
This line was first skied in September 1977 by Jean-Marc Boivin and Yves Détry. Nowadays with climate change and global warming, steep skiing on the Alps is rather possible in May and June, late summer and September leaving these faces left with black ice and rocks appearing on the surface.
Entering the face is comfortable on the skier’s right, east side of the mountain, leading straight to the face and underneath the whipped cream snow cornice. It is steep but the regular surface allows you to find the nice rhythm of jump turns. I ski with Philippe, my companion and best mountain partner, alternating turns and both enjoying the feeling of freedom, the immensity of this mountain range, and the view.
The overhanging ice serac at the bottom presents a real danger and should never be crossed underneath or close by. A big icefall occurred 2 days after we skied the face, causing an avalanche with big debris at the foot of the route. When skiing, the safest way to exit is by abseiling through the rocks, the same way as when climbing up.
The Chamonix valley is a spectacular arena for paragliding with numerous lift access take-offs. The views are breathtaking wherever and whenever in the air. It is even better than a heli ride, with no engine noise, the wind refreshing the face, and being in charge of the flight. With the technology, the gear is getting lighter and more compact; a wing and a harness can be as light as 1 kg today and easily placed at the bottom of a backpack. This means that hike, ski or climb & fly are becoming very popular. Flying is also a safe and fast way to descent, avoiding rockfalls and avalanches, but it is very weather-dependent and demanding. There are also other restrictions, paragliding, and any kind of flying with a wing is forbidden around the Mont Blanc in July and August in order to keep the aerial space free in case of a helicopter rescue.
One more reason for a quick June ascent of Tacul from the first bin at Aiguille de Midi, climbing up the triangle, taking off with North or West wind, flying for 40 minutes over the almightiest glacier formations and be back at the home for a 10 o’clock coffee…
At times it is nice to be light and fast, buckle up a tour on foot. My good friend Ross Hewitt wanted to go for a high-altitude acclimating route without carrying too much as he is recovering from severe neck pain. Once more I found myself enjoying the climb on Contamine-Négri. We had to break the trail in ankle-deep snow all the way but at the same time, it was stable, easy, and straightforward.
The weather was burning hot in the sun but all a sudden we got hit by a strong wintery wind when exiting the climb the 4000 meters, before crossing towards the summit. We roped up again for safety as the snow had been loading, covering up crevasses under more or less thick snow bridges. After a quick break and adjusting layers to match the negative temperatures, walking down the normal route on the North face turned out to be fun as we could run straight down in deep snow, making it probably the fastest descent on foot I have done. The risk of serac falls on this normal route is probable, less time spent on it is better.
One mountain, one chosen route to go up, and many options for descending. Being light with reliable and efficient gear is often a key.
I use Lofoten Gore-tex Pro pants and jacket when skiing and in winter conditions as an outer protective shell and Falketind Alpha120 as a warm layer all year round. For summer alpine and for flying, my favorite pants are the Svalbard heavy-duty and flex1 pants. For carrying, I pack the gear in Falketind 35 L light but a robust backpack.
Norrona gear is as versatile and polyvalent as the ways I like to go, access, and enjoy the mountains!