At first glance, you could be forgiven for assuming that Mont Blanc is easy.
After all, it is one of the most climbed mountains in Europe, with around 30’000 people attempting it every single year – and up to 200 people a day in the peak summer months.
In recent years, the idea of Mont Blanc in a day has become wildly popular with not only elite athletes but also with amateurs. This feat, made famous by elite sky runners like Killian Jornet and the late Ueli Steck has led many to assume that Mont Blanc is an easy climb.
But I’m going to cut to the point and say this:
Anyone who tells you Mont Blanc is easy, is probably saying that to inflate their ego…
Mont Blanc is a high mountain, usually requiring at least two or three days for the average mountaineer. Depending on the route you take, summit day can consist of up to 1800 metres of ascent and more than 3000 metres of descent in the same day. It is heavily glaciated with steep and often dangerous climbing with a high possibility of rockfall. It should not be attempted without a guide unless you are a competent mountaineer with a team of experienced friends who know how to handle themselves in the mountains.
With that said, I want to set the technical aspect aside and delve into what makes Mont Blanc such a physical challenge. I want to help you understand what guiding companies mean when they say things like “intermediate fitness required” or “good fitness and stamina”. These are arbitrary terms that can be interpreted in any way.
It gives the bare minimum of caution whilst still allowing almost anyone to believe they are ready to book the trip – it’s smart marketing.
But the hard truth is that not everyone who attempts Mont Blanc is ready for it.
So in this in-depth post I’m going to share with you some important tips and training strategies that you can start implementing today, which will give you the best possible chance of summiting Mont Blanc – the first time.
I’ve separated the tips into 3 categories – things I feel are the most important aspects of preparing for Mont Blanc.
Category 1: Muscular Strength & Durability
One of the most common reasons that people don’t succeed in the mountains is because of muscular injuries to the hips, knees and ankles that could have been easily avoided with some basic preparation. Sure, dedicating some time to increase your cardiovascular capacity is important before going to the mountains, but I’d argue that it’s more important for amateur climbers to have strong and durable limbs that are more resistant to injury.
Let me unpack that a little bit because it’s a pretty bold statement that not everyone is going to agree with until they think about it clearly.
Let’s brainstorm the consequences of you lacking cardiovascular fitness in the mountains:
- You’ll have to work a lot harder than the other, fitter climbers.
- You have to take many rests to get your breath back in order to push on.
- You’ll probably arrive on the summit a lot later than the others.
- You might not make the summit in time and you’ll be turned around by your guide
- Your cardiovascular system is not able to feed adequate oxygen to your muscles, and you tire out to the point of quitting.
Those consequences aren’t so bad, you weren’t fit enough – lesson learned. You walk down the mountain slowly and go home disappointed.
Now let’s do the same for lacking muscular strength and durability:
- Your muscles will fatigue to the point where you can’t maintain balance, you fall and sustain a minor or even a serious injury.
- Due to instabilities and weaknesses, you roll, sprain, strain or break an ankle.
- Due to instabilities and weakness, you overstress and tear the key muscles that insert into the knee like calves and hamstrings, meaning you can’t walk.
These are just a couple of very common, and very likely scenarios that could land you in a situation where you need helicopter rescue, possibly hospitalisation and time off work. Not to mention upfront rescue costs and the chance that you won’t be covered by your insurance.
My point is this….
No one has ever been helicoptered off the mountain and had to spend weeks off work due to a lack of cardiovascular fitness – and it doesn’t take 6-8 weeks to recover from being a bit puffed out. The same can’t be said for an ankle hip or knee injury.
This goes for all mountains, but I think it’s especially true for Mont Blanc, given just how many climbers are putting on heavy mountaineering boots and crampons for the first time on this mountain.
When you have a combination of weak, untrained muscles, limited experience and unfamiliar terrain, then there is little wonder why there are so many injuries on popular mountains like Mont Blanc.
So in order to prevent a situation like that, the solution is to do some training with a focus on building strength, increasing durability, range of motion and reducing the chance of a debilitating injury.
So what can you do?
- Download my free Mountain Proof Ankles program – it’s a 3 week cycle that you can use for strengthening and mobilising your ankles before any trip – not only will it go a long way to preventing injury, it will also ease the adjustment period of learning to walk in crampons.
- Get as much boot and crampon practise as possible – this could be done in your home country beforehand if you have your own gear, or if not, I suggest spending 1 or 2 days up in the Alps on friendlier terrain immediately before a Mont Blanc attempt. Doing this will really help you dial in your crampon technique for the big ascent.
I’m not suggesting you abandon the pursuit of increasing your cardiovascular fitness altogether, it should still be an important aspect of your preparation.
That’s what we’re going to get into next.
Category 2: Endurance
Both muscular and cardiovascular endurance are essential for Mont Blanc due to the sheer amount of time required to ascend and descend the mountain on summit day. In my case, we departed our refugio at 1am, we arrived on the summit around 10am and we weren’t finished our day until around 5pm that afternoon when we reached the Mont Blanc Tramway on the French side. It is not uncommon for Mont Blanc to require a 16 or 18 or 20 hour day, and if you’re unaccustomed to this amount of sustained effort – then it may not be a very enjoyable day for you.
So what can you do to prepare for endurance?
- Test yourself with some long days in the mountains leading up to your trip. Try and build up gradually to achieving at least a 12 hour day hiking with a backpack of 10-14kgs. Even if you don’t have big mountains nearby, you can get a lot of height gain by training on stairs or by doing laps of the longest hill you can find. It’s also good to do some steady-state aerobic cardio, either running, cycling or pack weighted walking.
- Train your muscular endurance – particularly in your legs, core and back. Common exercises like squats and lunges performed in high volume will help boost your muscular endurance. But if you have the luxury of time, say 12 weeks or more, I suggest doing a 4-6 week strength training phase before transitioning into endurance. Focus on getting as much muscular activation as possible, and training in the deepest range of motion you can.
Category 3: Altitude
Without a doubt one of the greatest challenges of Mont Blanc is its altitude. And for a mountain that is commonly climbed in less than 4 days, it’s hardly surprising that many climbers suffer from the effects of Acute Mountain Sickness on this mountain. In my case, living close to mountains around 3-4000m, I was able to take a trip the weekend before Mont Blanc and spend a few nights up high to pre acclimatise. To further increase our chances of acclimatising, we spent 3 days in the Tour de Glacier area of the Alps immediately beforehand. This gave us the best possible chance of avoiding altitude sickness, which resulted in all four of our team summiting successfully without a hint of altitude sickness between us. Not everyone has that as an option, so in lieu of that, I can recommend the following:
What can you do to prepare for altitude?
- Plan a few extra days in your itinerary to climb the lesser peaks of the Alps in the days immediately beforehand. I go into more depth on this in my YouTube video 9 tips for Mont Blanc.
- Learn how altitude works, understand the symptoms, the basics of the science of how and why it affects you. Knowledge is your best weapon.
What not to do…
Don’t be fooled by altitude fitness rooms boasting about how you can pre-acclimatise. Even if you trained 1 hour every day in an altitude room it won’t be enough to make any measurable difference in your physiology.
Experience, knowledge and time are your best weapon against altitude.
So despite Mont Blanc being a mountain of relatively low technical difficulty and one that is accessible to the beginner mountaineer, it is clear that it is not an easy physical challenge.
This would be a perfect time for me to say, that as a personal trainer who designed the Mont Blanc Training Program that it was a total breeze after doing the training. But that it not the case – whilst I did feel very strong, and very capable, Mont Blanc was still a good physical challenge!
Regardless of your skills, experience and fitness level, Mont Blanc is always going to be a formidable peak that demands both respect and serious preparation. I am so glad that I dedicated the 12 weeks beforehand to train specifically for Mont Blanc – mostly because it resulted in a successful outcome for me but also because I know that the more effort it takes to achieve something, the more you’ll appreciate it when you finally reach that goal.