Mont Blanc – Roof of Western Europe

Foreword

This trip was only my second ‘proper’ expedition, and it was certainly one to remember. With four out of five of the team being either marines or ex-marines (the latter including Plain Sailor’s founder, AJ), it was the usual case of hoping that our cocksure, bootneck attitude would be enough to get us up the mountain. “No cuff too tough”, as they say.

If only expeditions were that simple in reality!

-Si

 

Day 1

The adventure started in a town called Chamonix in the French Alps, which is situated in a verdant valley at approximately 800m altitude and surrounded on all sides by ice-capped behemoths. The first thing that caught our eye was the Bossons Glacier, snaking its way down from the lofty peaks. I had visited the Alps before and seen numerous glaciers, but the sheer scale of this one surpassed them all. The low terminus hinted at the incredible volume of ice sitting atop the Mont Blanc Massif, millions of tonnes of it, as helpless to the unceasing power of gravity as we were. Yet we were here to do battle with gravity. Like so many who had come here before us, we were using Chamonix as a base from which to launch our assault on Europe’s highest mountain*. I decided not to pay for the services of a local mountain guide, partly to save a considerable amount of money, but mostly because I consider mountaineering to involve a personal aspect. A guide would act as a buffer between us and the challenge, diminishing the achievement and stealing something from the experience. However, this meant that statistically our chances of success were drastically reduced; down to about 25% according to some sources.


The team comprised of myself, Chris Moore, Justin Hunt, AJ Hickman, and Ray Antoine. To say that the team lacked experience in the high alpine environment would be a huge understatement. Chris was dependable and he had climbed a winter route on Ben Nevis with me in the past where he had impressed me with his fitness. He was also a competent skier and snowboarder so had some foundation knowledge. Justin had been on my Arctic Norway expedition over Easter, and had learnt the basics of mountaineering quickly. He had also done mountain training packages alongside me in the marines, and always stuck out as one of the strongest members of the troop. On the other hand, AJ and Ray had never been mountaineering before, so they were jumping in at the deep end. They were both former marines, and what they lacked in knowledge they made up for in determination and eagerness to learn. I knew I could trust them to be safe on the mountain. In the weeks leading up to the expedition, I had stressed that would be no official leader, and that it was entirely a group effort. However, it was becoming clear that at times I would need to assume that role in order to make certain decisions, because I was the one who had planned the route and had the most experience.

On the 2nd of August 2015, we left the comfort of our campsite and boarded the cable car which took us from Chamonix to the Aiguille du Midi station at 3777m above sea level. The upper station is popular with tourists due to the incredible panoramic views of Mont Blanc and the easy accessibility, however because of the sudden height gain, many of those who stay up for a few too many selfies end up succumbing to headaches and nausea. The team and I were afflicted with both of these ailments before we even stepped off the cable car – the symptoms of a hangover born from drinking heavily the previous night. In hindsight this was bad preparation for a major ascent. The weather was on our side though; I noted it was 30 degrees Celsius and sunny in the valley. At the upper station it was obviously much cooler, but still felt very pleasant so we took our time and snapped a few photos. Our attire betrayed our true intentions on the mountain, and eventually we stepped over an inauspicious safety barrier (labelled ‘experienced alpinists only’), and into the ice tunnel.

snapchat

I couldn’t resist taking a Snapchat photo from the upper station.

ice tunnel

Justin in the ice tunnel.

There were plenty of other alpinists about, so my tactic from this point on was to watch them and copy their actions. I saw people roping up so we put on our harnesses and did the same. Obviously crampons and ice axes would be required, so I told my guys to get them out of their packs. I’m not going to name any names but one member of the team then proceeded to put his set on his boots backwards. This was not encouraging because the only way to our camp (the Col Midi icefield) was down the notoriously exposed Aiguille Du Midi ridgeline, and our only protection against certain death from a 1000m fall was sure-footedness and diligence. Therefore, it was with considerable quantities of adrenaline flowing through my veins that I led the team out of the ice tunnel and onto the ridge. Almost immediately AJ stumbled and almost dragged the whole team off the north face of the mountain. I tried my best to appear unperturbed, and after a quick lesson on correct crampon technique, we pushed on and successfully made it down onto the relative safety of the glacier. This was where the ‘Troix Monts’ route began, but we were not setting off until early the next morning.

midi ridge

The Aiguille du Midi ridge-line, as seen from the upper station. The alpinists provide a sense of scale.

I think it was about 3pm or 4pm by the time we set up our camp. The sun was still high in the sky, so the UV rays were being reflected from all angles, making the glacier feel like a furnace. We had already opted not to use tents because otherwise we would be forced to take a second expensive ride up the cable car to collect them (we were not planning to return via the same route), so as such we laid out our roll mats and sleeping bags and prepared for a night in the open. Our spot was rather isolated and we jokingly mused that perhaps we were sleeping over a giant crevasse, yet the evening was so lovely that we were lulled into a false sense of security – the mountains on that particular day seemed to be rather benevolent and very accommodating. The illusion was shattered when we witnessed a series of loose-snow avalanches tumbling down the huge face of Mont Blanc du Tacul, coming dangerously close to some climbers. The climbers we saw were clearly finishing off a long day and returning from Mont Blanc, doing the same route in reverse that we would be doing the following morning.


Mont Blanc du Tacul (not to be confused with Mont Blanc) would be the first hurdle for us; the 600m ascent would be followed by a short descent into the Col Maudit. Mont Maudit (which translates from French as ‘the cursed mountain’) was the second hurdle, a formidably steep climb up a dangerous face, and it was the final pitch that I was particularly concerned about – a 50m section of almost-sheer ice where mistakes cannot be afforded. After overcoming that challenge you would descend again and find yourself in the expanse of the Col de la Brenva, a relatively benign environment with ‘le corridor’ acting as an escape route onto ‘le Grand Plateau’ below if required. From that point, the only challenge remaining is the 500m climb up the NE flank of Mont Blanc itself, not too steep, but it is unquestionably an area where the constant battle with fatigue is either won or lost. Those who prevail will stand triumphantly on the summit and then ponder how the hell they will summon the energy to get back down.

The route sounds simple in theory but the scale is immense; it can take a relatively fit team of competent mountaineers more than eight hours to make the trek from the Col du Midi to the summit of Mont Blanc, and whilst we were fit, we were not acclimatised, and certainly not competent. On top of this, our choice to not utilise the convenient Cosmiques hut due to budgetary constraints meant that we would have to take the contents of our makeshift camp with us. Sleeping bags, butane gas bottles, jet boils were just a few of the unnecessary items that would have to be carried on our backs, and as I was just starting to learn – every kilogram of weight makes a huge difference at altitude. Reaching the summit is also only half the battle. I planned to descend down the less-technical ‘Gouter route’, but it would have been a tremendous distance to cover in one afternoon and fraught with objective danger. It’s fair to say that I wasn’t exactly brimming with confidence when I climbed into my sleeping bag that evening, but the star constellations were so clear and beautiful that they provided a great distraction from the challenge that lay ahead. Lying in that bivouac on a glacier at 3600m was a surreal and unforgettable experience.

bivvy

Our bivouac on the Col Midi.

*Mount Elbrus (5642m) in the Russian Causcasus also claims this title, but there is some dispute as to whether or not it sits on the European continent.

 

Day 2

My phone alarm woke us at 1am, but I don’t think any of us had really been properly asleep. There was a thin covering of frost on my bivvy bag, but the night was still and calm, so it was with no great difficulty that we completed our morning routine. The moonlight reflected off the snowfields around us with such intensity that it gave the illusion of dawn, and the majesty of the cosmos arched overhead made the northern flank of Mont Blanc du Tacul look less imposing than it had the day previously. Already we could see light from the head-torches of the first teams on the route, winding their way up the mountain through the myriad of seracs and crevasses. It was a sight that exacerbated both my excitement and my impatience, so before long we were all roped up, had all our kit on our backs, and joined the path across the Col du Midi glacier that had been nicely trampled by the hordes emerging from the Cosmiques hut nearby. Thus began our summit attempt, at approximately 1:30am.

I was relieved that the route was so obvious and the visibility so good. There was minimal risk of going the wrong way and getting into difficulties, especially with so many people on the mountain. Our crampons were gripping well in the freshly frozen crust on the snow, but as soon as we reached the first serious incline we had to work really hard to gain height. My head was still pounding and I was breathing much more heavily than normal in the thin air. I was probably coping the best though, because the pace was not as fast as I would have liked. AJ and Ray were struggling with old injuries, and although they bravely endured the pain for over an hour, they were not stupid and they could tell that it would be unwise for them to continue. I felt awful for them, but their decision to turn around and head back to base camp was undoubtedly the right one. They took the 15m rope and gave some parting encouragement, and Justin, Chris and I carried on zig-zagging up the hill with the 50m rope, more determined than ever to succeed.

Before long we came to our first major unavoidable crevasse, which had been bridged with a ladder at some point earlier in the season. The far lip was much higher than the one we were stood on, due to the steep incline of the glacier. This, combined with the fact that the ladder no longer actually reached the far side and was now suspended in space by a dubious looking rope, served to complicate matters. We had to wait for a ridiculously long time for the Chinese team ahead to complete the crossing, and even when they got across successfully they chose, for some incomprehensible reason, to stand right in the way on the far side while they sorted out their appalling admin. Naturally, I grew cold and impatient, so got very close to partaking in a shouting match with their guide. Eventually they moved and we were able to crack on with things. Thankfully everyone in our party then crossed the crevasse without incident. The scramble onto the eroded far lip certainly got the adrenalin flowing, because it’s hard to focus on good axe and crampon placements when an immeasurably deep and dark cavern lurks beneath you.

tacul climb

Justin on the Mont Blanc du Tacul ascent. Lights from Chamonix can be seen below, and the Aiguille du Midi station can be seen in the top right of the photo.

We eventually reached the top of Mont Blanc du Tacul, but we did not visit the actual summit due to time constraints, and instead pressed on in pursuit of our main objective. The views had been nothing short of mindblowing the whole night, but being at 4200m allowed us to see even more of the range under the silver moonlight. I snapped a photo of Chris, and noticed a faint golden glow on the Eastern horizon. It can’t have been much later than 4am, but dawn was approaching, and we still had a lot of work to do. A few teams that had been ahead of us all morning passed us during our descent into the Col Maudit, they weren’t happy with the conditions and were heading back to the Cosmiques hut. I could understand their caution; it was only a couple of seasons previously that an avalanche on Mont Maudit killed an entire team. Not everyone turned around though, so we tentatively pushed on. It was about this point that Chris suddenly lost all his energy. This was so out of character for him, and other symptoms he displayed (such as confusion and nausea), suggested that he was afflicted with Acute Mountain Sickness due to the extreme altitude.

By that point the sun had broached the horizon, and although its warming rays did not yet reach the valleys beneath us, they were casting a dim red glow on the northern snowfield of Mont Maudit. Red for danger. It would not take long for the sun to gather strength, and despite the freezing temperature, the thawing and subsequent weakening of the snowpack had already begun. This confirmed to me that we were behind schedule and I did not feel that Chris would have the strength to get over Mont Maudit fast enough as to be safe. Indeed, with continued exertion and exposure to increasing altitude, his condition would likely worsen and that would cause the situation to spiral out of control. For those reasons, I made the call to turn everyone around. It was a shame because Justin and I were feeling quite strong at that point, but that’s the way it goes sometimes.

maudit

Unobtainable – Mont Maudit after sunrise.

Chris recovered quickly on the return journey, his strength returning at about the same rate that we were dropping height. The bridged crevasse was no less dodgy the on the way back, but it wasn’t long before we were back at the glacier camp, sweating in the blazing late-morning sunshine. AJ and Ray were still there, and they didn’t look particularly surprised to see us. I detest failure, so to say that I was downtrodden would be an understatement, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. There was nothing for it other than to go back down the cable car to Chamonix so we could regroup and re-assess, but I knew one thing for sure – I wasn’t finished with the mountain yet. Obviously to get to the station we had to negotiate the Aiguille du Midi ridge again, but we actually did a much better job of it on the return journey. When we got to our campsite in the valley I felt knackered, but not defeated, so I forced myself to stay awake and started work on a new plan…


In my arrogance I had only anticipated that one attempt at the summit would be required, but our experience on the ‘Trois Monts’ route had been humbling. We still had 5 days left in the French Alps, and the mountain was pretty much on our doorstep, so I told the others that I was keen to try again. If I’m honest, I probably would have tried all week, and alone if necessary. The weather forecast for the next summit day (two days’ time) was favourable, so we had been afforded a second chance. For the sake of variety I opted to try the more popular ‘Gouter Route’, which has a higher success rate, but arguably a higher mortality rate as well owing to frequent rock fall in the infamous grand couloir. I was not as familiar with the route, so I would just have to wing it and hope for the best. Justin and Chris were still extremely keen so they were happy to put their trust in me and come along for the second attempt. AJ and Ray were equally as desperate to go, but the rational sides of their minds knew that their injuries would prevent them. In light of this, they both took up the role of the support team, and without their superb efforts I’m sure things would have gone very differently for the summit team. As soon as we had all ironed out the details of the new plan I retreated into my tent early and had a fantastic 12 hour sleep.

 

Day 3

Although the Trois Monts route is ultimately more technical, it does have one big advantage over the Gouter route; specifically the convenient cable car shortcut. This time we had no such luxury, especially as the tram from Saint-Gervais to ‘Nid d’Aigle’ at 2372m altitude was shut for repairs. We fared better than the majority of hikers though, exponentially better in fact, as we tore past them in our Land Rover Discovery. But even AJ’s expert driving could only get us so far before we ran out of track about 4km short of the final station. From here it was time for Justin, Chris and I to say our goodbyes to our support team, and we continued on foot. The weather was overcast with occasional outbreaks of rain, but it was all uphill, and therefore hot work, so we were hiking topless for the majority of the 2 hours that it took to reach Nid d’Aigle. This was the official start point of the Gouter route, from which we were treated to stunning views of the Glacier de Bionassay. I double checked the map before taking a sharp left into the Rognes valley – an old glacial moraine, with innumerable boulders and other relics from a river of ice that had long since retreated.

It was impossible to ignore the ominous sign that was placed next to the path. Upon closer inspection we saw that it warned that the route was ‘very dangerous’. I was actually happy to see it because it confirmed that we were going the right way. We pushed on up the valley as the rain returned with a vengeance, and rounded the corner by the deserted ‘Rognes hut’, before following the path onto a craggy spur. According to the map we should have been able to see the western fringe of the ‘Glacier de la Griaz’ to our left, but unless it was buried under all the scree, it was non-existent. It had been a hot summer indeed. Our intended camp was next to the ‘Tete Rousse’ hut at 3167m and after the spur we were almost at our destination. Once again, there was supposed to be a glacier here but all that remained was a rotten ice sheet about 50m wide and 200m long. We crossed it with ease and set up our tent – a task that is easier said than done when the campsite is a boulder field. All in all the approach took about 6 hours, which wasn’t too bad but our bodies felt depleted from the previous day’s excursions. It would be from the Tete Rousse camp that our second summit attempt would launch from so it was time to rest up.

warning sign

The clouds hid the summits, but we could see a portion of the task that lay ahead from our vantage point; namely the western face of the Aiguille du Gouter. The fact that it was mostly snow-free offered some reassurance, but our eyes were unavoidably drawn to the pitted scar that ran the length of it. It was called the ‘Grand Couloir’, and needed to be crossed in order to make progress up the rock-face. We wouldn’t have thought much of it without the prior knowledge that this particular gully had caused many fatalities in the past. Even then, as we laid eyes on it for the first time, a momentous cascade of rock poured down the couloir just seconds after a team had made their return crossing. August is the most deadly time of year for that section of the route because the freeze-thaw cycle is at its most influential and the crowds are at their thickest. The couloir proved to be especially active that particular afternoon and evening, so much so that the mountain police were concerned for the safety of the campers and got everyone to move their tents to the other side of the hut. I took the opportunity to get an up-to-date weather forecast from them and they assured me that the skies would clear by 9pm, and most importantly – they were to stay clear all the following day.

tetes rognes

The ‘Tete Rousse’ hut, as seen from our tent. The Aiguille du Gouter is top left of the photo.

At about 6pm we all tried to get some sleep. It was difficult to say the least, partly due to the ghastly noise of intermittent rockfall, but mostly due to the impossibility of lying on the floor without something stabbing into your spine – our rollmats were wholly inefficacious at cushioning the rocky terrain. Nonetheless, my mind wandered, the hours floated by, and I was taken by complete surprise when my alarm went off. It was just 12:15am. Justin was closest to the door so I blearily told him to look outside to see if there were any head-torches visible on the Aiguille du Gouter. He replied that there were none so we treated ourselves to another 30 minutes in our sleeping bags. This might sound lazy, but it made practical sense – I didn’t fancy ascending an unfamiliar rock face in the dark with no-one to follow. I had been warned previously that the route was not obvious and going the wrong way on that section would probably end in disaster. It would be much more sensible to tail another team, exploiting the experience of their mountain guide, but without paying him thousands of euros.

 

Day 4

The longest day. We set off just after 1am, emerging from our sleeping bags and out into the moon’s shadow, but pleased to see the stars twinkling overhead. We left our tent erected, happy to leave it there until we returned so as a result our packs felt much lighter than they had on the Trois Monts route. The first section was a steep path that hand-railed the grand couloir and once we had gained a bit of height we could see more of the stone chute. By now it had taken on a personality in my mind and I referred to it as the ‘bitch’, who would grumble and throw rocks at anyone who came too close. The bitch seemed to be sleeping that morning, which was a relief. We were following a large guided party and when we got close to the crossing point, one of the clients had a panic attack and had to be taken back down to the hut. She had good reason to be scared – the bitch had taken hundreds of lives in past years, and we had been told that just days earlier a Spanish alpinist had been killed on the crossing after losing his footing on the thin path and going for an unintentional trip down the chute. His mangled body was found on the glacier hundreds of feet below.

Video of falling rocks in the Grand Couloir (not mine but taken the same week).

The last bit of natural shelter before the crossing can sometimes be busy, but we didn’t have to wait long that morning. A fixed line spans the 50m breadth of the couloir which can prevent one from suffering the same fate as the Spanish guy, but most of the advice I had received tended towards the idea of favouring speed over security as it minimises ones exposure to rockfall. So we went one at a time and kept our strops clipped onto our harnesses. A few pebbles bounced off my boots when I went across which freaked me out a bit, but overall it went without incident. The next stage was a laborious scramble up the Aiguille du Gouter, opting not to rope up to each other, but clipping in to the fixed lines wherever appropriate. We topped out from that at 3800m and stepped into a different world, away from the rock and back onto the glaciated snowfields of the high alpine environment. It was 5am and there were still many kilometres to cover, as well as more than another 1000m of height. I envied the rich clients who were just emerging from the Gouter hut next to us – they had it so much easier.

gouter climb

The pre-dawn Aiguille du Gouter climb.

gouter dome

The surreal landscape as seen from near the Gouter hut

The next stage was a sustained ascent up to the Dome du Gouter. At 4304 metres in altitude it was a formidable alpine summit, but we were using it as a stepping stone on the way to the ultimate goal. The winding path was well trodden so we felt quite safe, despite the crevasses that surrounded us. The sun had risen by this point, and as promised it was a beautiful day with low wind, we really couldn’t have asked for anything more. Everything was going to plan and we were on schedule until we broached the dome, at which point Justin began to look very ill. He had been slowing down ever since passing the Gouter hut, displaying all the classic symptoms of altitude sickness, but his mind was pushing him on regardless. On the other hand, in a bizarre twist, Chris was absolutely fine despite being at highest altitude of the expedition so far. I was also physically untroubled, perhaps I’m one of the lucky ones who just isn’t sensitive to it. Justin refused to stop though, and managed to get across the flat terrain of the Col du Dome. The summit of Mont Blanc was in sight, but we all knew that the final climb would be the hardest.


Obviously we weren’t alone by any means. Countless other teams were sharing the mountains with us, some overtaking us as our pace dropped off, but most of them trudging along as slowly as we were, with their guides almost towing them. I saw more than one puddle of vomit next to the track. Helicopters buzzed around like flies, picking up those who were too weak to continue. I really hoped that Justin would not end up in one, mainly for the sake of his bank balance! The Vallot Refuge at 4367m, accessible only during emergencies, was the last safe checkpoint before the summit push. It was here that we left behind unnecessary kit and culminated everything we deemed essential into one pack which was carried by myself. Already, the first successful teams that day were returning from the summit and I studied their appearance as they staggered past us. For the most part they resembled zombies, with their vacant expressions and exhausted gait, completely reliant on their guides, and I had to wonder if they were enjoying the experience at all. What were their motivations on this mountain? Were they in it for the bragging rights? Because they certainly weren’t in it for the simple pleasures of mountaineering.

justin sick

Justin on the Col du Dome, feeling very ill.

The climb became steep after the refuge, and every step became a monumental effort for poor Justin. He managed to negotiate the dangerous ‘Bosses ridge’ with us, but he was almost completely devoid of motor function and had to take a rest stop every few minutes.  I knew it wasn’t sensible or sustainable. I was concerned for his safety, and in addition we were running out of time (I didn’t want to be on the summit any later than 10:30am), so I was wondering how best to tell him to give it up, in the nicest possible way of course. He ended up making the choice himself, at about 4600m altitude. He simply turned around and said “Sorry boys, I just don’t think I can go any further, I have nothing left”. It was absolutely heart-breaking for all of us. He had given so much, and come so close, but there was nothing more I could do to help him. I told him to carefully make his way back to the Gouter hut, whilst Chris and I would push on to the summit and then catch him up on our return. In retrospect this was probably a bit selfish of me, but I was afflicted with summit fever. Justin would have never allowed us to give up on the summit on his account anyway.

It took Chris and me another 45 minutes to climb the final 200 metres. Few words were spoken, we had each withdrawn into our own minds, totally focused on the next step and the next axe placement. I just kept moving, with my lungs screaming for oxygen, and my legs heavy, kicking the points of my crampons in with each desperate upwards motion. And then, all of a sudden, we rounded a corner and there was no more uphill. The time was 10:30am. The mountain around us fell away in all directions, and we could scarcely believe we had actually reached the top. My altimeter confirmed it though, reading 4810m (15781ft). The realisation eventually reached my oxygen-starved brain, and we embraced, totally overwhelmed by a melee of euphoric emotions that few others could ever understand. I said I was going to make it, and I fucking made it. The view was incredible and I will not forget it anytime soon; the crumpled terrain of the Alps stretched to the horizon in all directions under an azure sky. It was hard to believe that we were higher than anything else in the range, higher than everyone else in Europe. We could not linger though, out of concern for Justin, so we snapped a few photos and started our return journey.

summit

Success at last for Chris and I!

Our speed of descent was surprisingly rapid. Once we had got clear of the exposed ridges, we were literally running down the hills, using the snow to naturally absorb the impact. We found Justin, who was still struggling, on the far side of the Dome du Gouter. He congratulated us on our achievement, and was very apologetic about his condition, referring to himself as ‘baggage’. He was a strong guy though, so I had faith that he would make the distance that day once we dropped some more altitude. We still had to climb down the Aiguille du Gouter, then cross the grand couloir again, pick up our tent, and then walk all the way back down the valley past Nid D-Aigle, before following the defunct tram line around Mont Lachat to our pick up point. It was a huge undertaking, especially with no food left other than sweets and a very limited quantity of water.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, we eventually made it. The light was fading so think it was about 20:30 in the evening by the time we saw the Land Rover with AJ and Ray waiting to meet us (at that point it looked like the most beautiful sight we had seen yet). We had been on the go for the best part of 20 hours, we were dehydrated, our feet were shredded, and I have seldom felt exhaustion like it. But it was done and time to celebrate. Unfortunately the brakes on the wagon were shot, so the drive back to Chamonix was the final dance with death before attending a well-earned pub meal. From there we went straight to Morzine for 4 days and nights of ‘rest and recreation’, which was a completely separate adventure.

I can’t speak for the others, but overall, my Mont Blanc experience was overwhelmingly positive – I thrived on the mountain and loved every minute. I would recommend it to anyone, and it is wholly achievable if you fit the criteria: good fitness is imperative, as well as good acclimatisation (we broke that rule which was massively to our detriment), and basic knowledge of winter mountaineering, e.g. correct clothing, kit, and experience with crampons/walking axe. All of the aforementioned, with the exception of acclimatisation, can be acquired in the UK. Dream big and try hard; you might surprise yourself.


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