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Climbing Mont Blanc – an Honest-to-God Story

January 17th, 2013 Posted in Mountain Guides, Mountaineering - Alps

Tis’ a guest contribution from a wonderful client, Jordie Landes of Brighton, who was kind enough to send us his experience on CBM’s Mont Blanc Climb. When he got home from the summit, he probably felt he needed therapy, so he started writing. This post is the fruit of that therapy. May it be to your greatest benefit!

Nearing Mont Blanc's Summit Ridge

Nearing Mont Blanc’s Summit Ridge

Derek, a very wise man, an old mountaineer and a friend (or so I thought) answered the question in a brief and cynical way: “you just do it”. Come on, I insisted, you are a mountain guide and you’re supposed to be more helpful than that…! So I bought him a pint on his visit down in Brighton and we finally agreed on him guiding me to the summit. But, the old bastard decided to ditch our plans for an expedition to the Pamirs at the last moment, so I was stuck without a guide. Problem!

Derek did have a recommendation, though – he had an old friend who had been guiding for this company – ClimbBigMountains – for a few seasons now and recommended that I give them a call. I checked with several other companies, but CBM’s office lady was very helpful and has the sweetest accent ever, so I was very convinced (purely on a rational and professional basis, as you can see). OK, Derek had also recommended them, which was convincing, even though I was kind of pissed at him for changing plans so rapidly.

Things got a little complicated in the beginning. Flight to Geneva was smooth; and landing in Geneva in crystal clear weather is a memorable experience in itself. But the airport staff aren’t always a charm to deal with – or maybe it was just my luck. Long story short, the airline had misplaced my luggage and the gentleman responsible for handling the situation was obviously very caught up flirting with other staff. I missed the pre-booked transfer to Chamonix, so I gave the office a call and had them rebook my ride. The chance of going to Chamonix and climbing Mont Blanc felt very exciting and improbable at the same time.

First-climbers of Mont Blanc

Chamonix – First climbers of Mont Blanc (photo: Joelle Bozon, Chamonix.com)

I was not at mountaineer at the time. I had taken a few short courses and trips in our Scotish hills, but this would be my first trip to the Alps – for climbing, at least. The ride took just over an hour and I was sipping French beer on a terrace by mid afternoon. The weather turned crap, so I was concerned about the feasibility of our climb the following day. I also met my guide, Stephan, a curious and kind man with a sense of humor that I would eventually get used to and come to like. Stephan saw the concerned look on my face, staring at the falling rain and assured me that “ze wezer will be gut!” and outfitted me with climbing gear for the day after.

I had a good night’s sleep at the B&B, but “ze wezer” didn’t turn good. I did a little shopping with Stephan in the morning – I needed gaiters and a light jacket. The weather did start getting better later in the day, and we headed for St Gervais in Stephan’s funny car, listening to this wacky MP3 album from a 70′s Dutch reggae band. I mean, how surreal is that under the overtowering 4000 meter peaks! :)

The train ride with the view of Mer the Glace in the sunshine following the rain was amazing. Pics from the train ride and the walk up to Tette Rouse hut filled half of my 1GB memory card on my camera. The trail on the walk up to Tette Rouse was a little bit crowded. There were also a few mountain goats and marmots along the way which continued to delight the other hobby-mountaineers and myself as well. The hike to Tette Rouse isn’t very long and the staff at the hut are helpful, kind people. We sat down to a table with a Japanese couple and their guide, who were on a European round-trip. They’re coming from Paris and are heading on to Cote d’Azur after the climb. What a contrast it must be to drop from a metropolis to the birthplace of mountaineering, and go on to a posh-y beach…

Beautiful Climbing Weather on Mont-Blanc

Beautiful Climbing Weather on Mont-Blanc

It was wakey time quite early in the morning, as we wanted to get through the notorious Grand Couloir before the heat melted the stones a few hundred meters above. It was a chilly morning, barely above freezing when we go to the couloir. It really didn’t look so bad, but Stephan would tell me ugly tales of people being bombarded with stone, sorta like pegs in a bowling alley. The quick jog through the danger zone is about 30 seconds long, and is done on a one-by-one basis.

Then, the fun part began. I’d have to start using my hands on these giant boulders, as the trail turned steep. We were gaining elevation quickly. What made things a bit more challenging was the number of people on the hill. It was funny because there were some steep parts. In other places in the Alps, they would place via ferrata cables on the rock to enable you to protect yourself with the use of a via ferrata sling. Stephan did take out the rope and we roped up in a few places to stay on the safe side.

mont blanc climb-again

Cornices can be scary

By this time, I’m all crazy about Mont Blanc, the beauty and scenery that the Alps has to offer. My heart is pounding like snare drums in a metal song, the grin on my face is huge, adrenaline is pumping through my body, and the sun is melting the sunscreen on my face. I didn’t really care about the blisters forming on my heels at this point. Life couldn’t be better, I felt like a kid again. Stephan brilliantly sensed the state I was in and started telling stories about the mountain, what the place looks like in winter, how they ski and sometimes paraglide off Mt Blanc and stuff.

Got a little tired by the time we approached Gouter hut, though. The new Gouter hut looks spectacular, sort of like a space station from some 80′s sci-fi movie. I was hoping we’d get a room inside the new building, but Stephan had told me earlier, that “we slip in ze old bilding zis year”. The new Gouter hut only opens for the 2013 season. No matter, because the beer that I bought myself (and my guide) as a reward for the day put me in a happy zen state. I almost forgot to care for my blisters, which would have been a show stopper in our quest for the summit the following day.

You’ve got to understand the state I was in. I was so amused by the natural beauty and the whole atmosphere of this sport; it was so new to me but felt like I belong to this place, among these people, on mountains. I was eating my supper at 3800 meters in the hut with the toughest part of the journey still ahead of me, but I was already making plans for climbing the neigboring peaks. I wanted to book Stephan right there, on the spot for the subsequent climbs on Monte Rosa, Dom, Matterhorn etc. I spent the evening getting Stephan to talk to me about mountaineering techniques, safety, expedition stories from high and far away places… my brain was soaking up everything and anything mountaineering and couldn’t think of anything else. Things can only go “downhill” from this enthusiasm, even though there was 1000 meters to be climbed the following day.

Sure enough, the summit day started out crap. I was woken up at 1 am by other parties getting prepared. Stephan was already out of bed. “Windy tu-day!” – he said with a not-completely-honest smile. I could see he had doubts in his mind regarding the weather. I was kind of hoping he’d say “go back to sleep”, but I knew it wouldn’t be right and I’d regret later. After all, it’s the summit climb I came here for, isn’t it?

lonely climber on mont blanc summit ridge

Looks lonely, but it’s actually more crowded on the summit ridge

I couldn’t take much for breakfast. Wasn’t very thirsty either, but Stephan made sure I force at least a cup of tea down my throat. And some biscuits I had wisely bought back in town and Stephan knew I had them. “You’ll starve in 30 minutes and we’ll have to stop in the cold otherwise.” He later explained that he saw I had a big appetite and knew that I would go hungry soon if I didn’t grab a bite. Others can easily summit with merely a candy bar along the way and eat brunch at Gouter hut on their way down. It all depends on the way your body uses fuel. After this small breakfast, I was indeed able to climb for 3 hours before starting to feel the first signs of hunger.

Stepping outside was a nightmare. Dark, windy, cold. And serious doubts about what we can achieve that day. Not a muscle in my body wanted that climb at 1:30 am. I hated it. Head lamp low on battery, too dim. Jammed zipper on jacket that took too much effort and screwing around to fix. Not anybody’s idea of fun. In addition, Stephan advised against wearing my down jacket which would have given me a bit warmth. “We start uphill and you sweat like pig in five minutes. Then you catch a cold!”

So we started off with what seemed like an army of other parties. After about 15 minutes though (which felt like an hour) I began to work up a sweat and get accustomed to our stagnant rythm of walking up the icy mountainside. I was getting into swing and it felt good. By dawn, I was feeling great, although quite tired. I was getting emotionally ready for the summit. “How much more to go?” I ask Stephan expecting an answer like “just under an hour”. His actual response disarmed my enthusiasm: we were less than half way to the summit! The dark, the wind, the monotonous pace completely disoriented my sense of time and space. An interesting, but annoying lesson.

It took quite a bit of self convincing to stop myself from getting into a smaller frenzy, especially because I felt like I’ve burned the better part of my energy. Stephan saw my disappointment and tried some of his humor on me to try to distract me. Then he decided that the best thing to do is to keep going, so we did.

Auguille de Bionnassay in the Mont Blanc Group

Aiguille de Bionnassay in the Mont Blanc Group – the beauty eases your pain

What eventually helped me get over this disappointment was the awesomeness of this climb. Walking by giant seracs and just the immensity of the whole mountain blew me away. If the weather is clear, you actually get to see Mont Blanc cast a shadow over the valley and the underlying plains. It’s huge. Aiguille de Bionnassay is another beautiful 4000 meter peak with a stunning neighboring Mont Blanc. But before I could get all excited, taking in the views and the experience, there came another setback.

Some faster parties had passed us on the way up and what we began to see is that they started turning back and walk past us on their way down. Stephan saluted the guides he knew, which was like every single one of them and they all told him the same thing: too windy. Not what we wanted to hear. Stephan decided that he’d keep going and turn back if things started getting to harsh.

Lucky that we did keep going! Mont Blanc decided to show its friendlier face later in the morning, so even though conditions were not ideal, my guide decided to enter the summit ridge. I haven’t told you how exhausted I was, though. Very exhausted. It made things quite tough. I felt like I was using the last bits of my reserves and the thought of having to walk back down was… unpleasant.

Summiting Mont Blanc - finally!

Old and tired, but finally on top!

Everything changed on the ridge, though. I got supercharged emotionally. I wanted this summit really bad, had total confidence in my guide and began to see some new, unknown source of energy reserves taking over the now empty “fuel tanks” of energy in my body. The climb was a struggle with the wind and the narrow summit ridge, but it was a motivating and worthwhile struggle. Stephan didn’t need to convince me any more, I was pushing and wanted the thing badly.

People on the way down all had huge grins on their faces which motivated me even more, and ascertained me that what we’re doing is worth the effort. Finally, at around 9am, we were standing on the summit. What an awesome place to be standing! The peak of Western-Europe is a rounded, flat summit, so there is plenty of room for a dozen people at a time to be taking pictures and take in the views of Monte-Rosa, the Matterhorn and endless snowy peaks and valleys.

The way down was a knee killer and a foot killer (blisters, baby!) but I didn’t care much. I am grateful for having the chance to climb Mont Blanc – and to climb in general. I can’t thank Stephan, my mountain guide enough… and many thanks go to the office folks as well, Laca and the girls.

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