It’s been a dream of mine to stand atop Mont Blanc for over 18 years. Over the years I went on to read a number of mountaineering books that mention how the first ascent of Mont Blanc really started ‘the golden age of mountaineering.
Sadly on August 1st 2013 I lost my father. He had had a long battle with Parkinson’s Disease. Something that I learnt from my Dad was that if you want something you just have to make it happen. Too many people talk of dreams without making steps to turn them into reality.
Tackling Mont Blanc is not without its risks. Whilst very experienced Mountaineers deem it as a less technical climb than others (in particular the Alpine North Faces) the area has over a 100 fatalities each year. All of the routes to the summit come with risk – from avalanche, serac (a large tower or block of Glacial ice) collapse, crevasses (cracks in the Glacier to fall into) and rock fall. With the ever present risk of Altitude sickness to manage throughout the journey.
For this trip my mountaineering partner was a good friend, Simon Small, who I train with in Essex. We had to plan equipment meticulously. It’s easy to get carried away with equipment purchases for a big trip, but I kept everything in perspective. I made sure I spent the money on things that were needed; buying important items from the correct brands such as Crampons and outer layers.
I also thought about Nutrition. Given the level of training I do in the UK, and my ideal weight for racing I have to be careful on my diet, we follow the Eat Clean principle and I knew I wanted to take this approach into the Alps with me.
Part of my eating plan was regular Beet It shots. Basically these are 70ml concentrated Beetroot drinks intended for athletes. Additional research led me to understand that vasodilation can help at Altitude where there is less oxygen, so any support to the system in that environment is a positive impact. Additionally they are one of your five a day (on trips fresh fruit / veg is hard to come by on the mountain so the shots help all round nutrition!) I would consume two shots daily through the trip.
The expedition lasted two weeks. Initially a week spent in the Swiss Alps summiting 3-3500m peaks to start acclimatisation. This was a great week, we managed 5 x 3000m+ peaks and had some stunning weather, I particularly enjoyed the Platthorn & also the Becs des Bossons on the final day, it’s a fun scramble.
Frustratingly the week of climbing started with the news that a summit bid on Mont Blanc would be unlikely due to a bad weather front coming in. Although the plan for the first two days remained the same (we needed to start to build up to higher altitude in order to acclimatise anyway) the lack of a clear weather window really meant we would need to change the end of our weeks plan to another lower summit in a different region.
After some waiting around for the weather to change, we headed to Chamonix and gained some height using the Chamonix lift then TMB (rail system) up to the Nid D’Aigle. From here we started a gentle rocky trek amongst Chamois and Ibex (mountain goats) to level with the Tete Rousse Hut.
Once almost level with the Tete Rousse hut things start to get very serious. First you need to cross the Tete Rousse glacier using crampons and ice axe. From there it’s up into the Gouter Couloir (dubbed the corridor of death) in short this is a vertical corridor of around 120m that must be crossed, however there is a large amount of rock fall funnelled into the gulley – both naturally as the snow / ice melts under rocks but also as others are kicked down by other climbers on the ascent. It’s a high risk section with over 30 deaths in the last decade and 100’s more injuries.
As we started to cross the Tete Rousse glacier we had not been moving for ten minutes before we heard cries up ahead and a large boulder the size of a TV came bouncing down the mountain, and narrowly missed a team of two French climbers just 50m ahead of us.
The power of the mountain and the level of risk was suddenly very clear in our minds. Following the Couloir we started to climb the Gouter Ridge. This section was more technical that I thought it would be, it was a tough scramble in crampons mainly over rock but with a lot of ice and snow to manage as well.
The climb from here took around 3 hours and was exhilarating to finish. You arrive at the old Gouter Hut, now closed due to the new building built in 2013 and it’s pretty impressive to turn around and look back at what you have climbed. We arrived late afternoon and stored out kit and sorted bunks in the refuge ready to be on the go from 2am for the summit.
We awoke at 2am and started to assemble our equipment. I took my days rations of Beet IT and had my customary cup of sugary black tea. The previous day’s storm meant there was a lot of fresh snow fall on the mountain, and the high winds mean it could have drifted heavily – so our guide’s advice was to let some other teams start out first to break trail. We were fit and could always take up the lead later, but breaking trail via one kilometre of vertical ascent would be exhausting.
The initial few hours of the morning passed like this with us making good speed up the Dome De Gouter and over taking other teams as they flagged. The wind speed was gradually increasing and as we approached 5am it grew and grew in the darkness as a very heavy storm set-in. suddenly visibility was reduced to only a few metres and the cold harsh winds of the high Alps started to batter us with 40-50mph speeds.
We started to run through a number of navigation exercises to confirm our location and bearings, and in the darkness met with two other teams in the same predicament, one pair with no guide and no clue as to what to do.
Following the storm we made good time up to the old Vallots observatory and from here started to ascend the Bosses ridge. I enjoyed the next few hours as we climbed higher this time in daylight. However the wind was starting to build and a metrological phenomenon that forms on the summit of Mont Blanc called ‘the Donkey’ had started. Basically it’s a cloud that can obscure the summit of the mountain and often has extreme winds blowing inside it.
Ahead we saw several teams returning down the trail. And as each passed they informed us that they had to turn back – the wind speed had reached 100kph (60mph) and was simply too much to take. We decided to press on, the next group informing us they made it within 40m of the summit and could go no further! At this news my stomach sank. To come all this way, to come this far and to fail in our objective just 40m’s away was unthinkable! Summit fever is dangerous as you must manage all risk but to be so tantalisingly close would be unbearable.
For the next hour of the climb the wind blew against us so hard, and all I could do is to pray that the cloud would clear and the wind abate. Just as I thought it would be too much I looked up to see the cloud clear on the top, blown up into the sky…..then as quickly as it started the wind dropped.
We were on the final section of the climb and pushed on, and on towards the summit – and finally there was no more trail ahead of us. As we crested the top the emotion was really too much for me, hugging my friend Simon and just savouring the moment on being on the very top of Europe. Incredible. Magnificent. Beautiful!!
To stand on the top of the Alps, looking all around at mountains that once seemed huge to me appearing so small. To see ski resorts that looked like toy towns far below. It was just the most perfect summit that I could have imagined, and with just the right amount of challenge to make it up there! We were pushed, we were tested – and we persevered.
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