Mont Blanc Guides Blog

Acute Mountain Sickness on Mont Blanc

I am not a doctor, but I do have a lot of experience of how people (to date nearly three thousand) react to altitude on Mont Blanc. Mont Blanc Guides’ courses are all six days long, include four nights in high alpine huts and an acclimatisation / training peak of over four thousand metres. Isn’t this overkill just to climb to 4810m?

Well for some people yes it is, but for most of us no it really isn’t. There is a story on our FAQ page about a group of soldiers who set off to climb Mont Blanc from Tete Rousse (3200m) without acclimatising; as it happened there were exactly 70 of them, all between 18 and 30 and all pretty fit looking. 25-30 got no further than the Gouter hut at 3800m and a mate of mine spotted another 20 or so at the Vallot bivouac hut  at 4300m; exactly 16 made it (I know this because I counted them as they came back past me) and of these 12 looked fine and 4 were green.

Scale this up and you get 23% of people who can go straight up Mont Blanc without acclimatising, assuming of course they’re fit enough already. How do you know if you’re one of the 23%? You don’t, unless you’ve already gone straight up to a similar altitude working hard and felt OK. Personally I am well and truly in the other 77%, and rather towards the sick end at that.


How Does Acute Mountain Sickness Make You Feel?


Absolutely terrible, like the first time you got drunk at a teenage house party and ended up with your head down the loo with the coolness of the china pan as your only comfort (true story). Or really bad food poisoning accompanied by such a sudden and total loss of energy that standing up is difficult and walking up hill nearly impossible. Imagine you’re feeling like that half way up a mountain and hours from rest, and you’re starting to get the picture.

What many people don’t realise is that AMS is rarely a gradual worsening of symptoms, such that it would be easy for a guide to turn someone around before things got too bad; rather, someone who minutes before was trucking along quite nicely suddenly transforms into a shambling vomiting wretch,  barely coherent and almost incapable of further effort. Clearly this is a situation we must do everything we can to avoid.



How Do Guides Deal With a Client With AMS?


If despite our preparation and screening efforts someone gets properly sick on Mont Blanc, very often our first recourse is to radio for a helicopter. In the vast majority of cases people get no worse than the stumbling / vomiting stage, but there is a very small percentage of people who can develop cerebral or pulmonary oedemas at alpine altitudes, so we prefer not to take any chances. The rate of recovery is astounding, usually the person is pretty much completely recovered as the helicopter touches down in the valley.

Sometimes it’s not so easy, if the clouds come in helicopters can’t fly and teams have to get down to the hut (usually the Gouter) under their own steam. This is then usually followed by a fun 90 minutes in the “Gamow” pressure bag which though effective is not a particularly enjoyable experience, particularly for the guide who has to pump it up every two minutes.



So What’s the Bottom Line?

We have very few cases of altitude problems on Mont Blanc. The vast majority of people have no problems acclimatising sufficiently during our 6 day program, and the rare cases of someone being hyper sensitive to altitude usually occur on our training peak Gran Paradiso, where they are easier to deal with as the mountain is easier to descend. Less than 5% of our clients, who were otherwise fit enough, have to turn back due to altitude problems.

HOWEVER, whether you book with us, someone else, or even if you try Mont Blanc independently, I would urge you to take at least 6 days over it with at least 2 nights sleeping over 2500m beforehand and preferably climbing much higher than that in between. It’s time consuming and more expensive to do that, but start shaving days off and you could be setting yourself up for a pretty hideous experience.

John Taylor
John has been climbing in the Mont Blanc region for over 25 years and became an IFMGA Mountain Guide in 2002. He has been the owner / Head Guide at Mont Blanc Guides Ltd. since 2004.