That first snowy ascent

Why on earth did I think this was a good idea. At over 4000 meters high, huffing and puffing my way uphill in the dark, I was seriously doubting my holiday plans to climb Mt Blanc. The tallest mountain in western Europe, Mt Blanc was a mountain I’d decided to climb just over 12 months earlier whilst descending the Khumbu valley in Nepal – I’ve always been bad for planning the next holiday before I’ve even got on the plane to leave the current one – but with absolutely no alpine climbing experience, let alone knowledge of how to use crampons or an ice axe, deciding to take of this snowy dome was one of my more hare-brained holiday ideas when I came up with it. Fast-forward to June 2016, and one Winter Skills course in Scotland later, I had arrived in Chamonix for what would be the most challenging thing I’d done up to that point.

Chamonix in the summer was so unlike my previous experience of this alpine town. The fact there was still people touting skis around in 20+ degrees whilst runners in shorts and vest tops bounded past was baffling, but only reinforced that it really is an outdoor playground. It certainly felt that way on our first day out with our guide, when he took us up onto the Mer de Glace to test out skills and introduce rope work. When this resulted in a quick dabble in ice climbing it felt like being at home, digging in axes and crampons to climb up out of moulins before abseiling back down again was brilliant, even if I was less that graceful whilst climbing over the moulin lip back onto the top of the glacier. It was a reassuring start to what would end up being a physically and mentally taxing week.

For Mt Blanc many companies encourage you to climb two people per guide. As a solo traveller this means I end up not knowing who will be my climbing buddy for the week until I meet them at the first course briefing, somewhat of a concern when you don’t know if they will have put in the same effort to skill up or if they will be as physically fit as you are.

Unfortunately, these concerns came to fruition for me. I was landed with a perfectly pleasant but slightly incompetent individual who in hindsight really shouldn’t have done the trip given their existing level of skill. Now I’m all for encouraging others to give things like this a go, but at the end of the day, when someone puts other peoples lives at risk because they haven’t taken the time to learn the necessary skills it’s not good.

I don’t know what I really expected when we set off for our two day assent of Mt Blanc, hot weather and lots of people was probably not it. But then heatstroke wasn’t something I anticipated getting either. Ascending next to the notorious Grand Couloir, getting sunburnt and overheating because you can’t stop to get water is not the typical picture most would associate with a snowy scene. Starting to loose vision and having to rely on stuffing snow and ice under my helmet and on my neck to lower my body temperature was the only way I managed to push myself on to the Goutier hut, our stop for the evening. It certainly brought home just how carefully balanced our bodies are and how easy it can be to get into trouble somewhere like this.

Like a Bond villains lair in the late 60’s, the Goutier Hut peaked at us all day from its spot on the near vertical mountain face. It is by far one of the nicest mountains huts I’ve ever been in, with clean, warm dorms, friendly staff and delicious French food. I almost didn’t want to ever leave. With an early start on the cards admiring the sunset from such an amazing place wasn’t an option no matter how tempting it might have been.

Unseasonably warm weather greeted us at 2am on summit day, trying to judge layering was tough. Zigzagging up the mountain side in the dark felt like a slog, not helped by stopping every few minutes for the guide to shout at the 3rd member of our group for standing on the rope. It seemed to go on forever, my one distinct memory of it was debating with myself why I thought it was a good idea to this trip at all. However, the second those first rays of light peaked out from the horizon all thoughts of difficulties vanished. It became a desperate desire to see more, see further, stand above it all on the illusive mountain summit.

After curving round crevasses, along ridge lines and over what seemed to be endless false summits we made it to the top of Mt Blanc.

There are no words to truly describe the feeling of standing there, the magnificent alps seem to stretch out in all directions, snow capped peak after snow capped peak like gleaming spires as far as the eye could see. Standing there it’s so easy to forget that the journey is only 50% complete, that you can’t relax just yet. After all it’s well known that more accidents happen on the decent of a mountain.

Needless to say the decent of Mt Blanc was certainly more eventful for our trio when it became apparent that the other person who had paid to be on the trip, who hadn’t really had the request skills or fitness, hadn’t told anyone that he was experiencing symptoms of altitude sickness. When combined with exhaustion it resulted in a situation I certainly wouldn’t want to relive anytime soon. Trying to literally talk someone down a mountain for hours is hard. And if I’m totally honest, more than a little scary when your attached by a rope to someone who is becoming an increasing danger to everyone else.

Force feeding him sweets, water and making him move when all he wanted to do was sit down was an ordeal, and when we considered how we would get him down anything which involved him doing more than a stumbling dragging walk the decision was made to call in the helicopter. He had become too much of a liability, and a risk to not only himself but our own lives, to take him any further down the mountain than the Goutier hut. Seeing the helicopter land to collect him was a welcome relief before my guide informed me that we were now over 4 hours behind schedule. We should have already been back in Chamonix celebrating out successful summit, instead we faced a race to make the last train of the day and all that stood between us making it was several thousand meters of snow, rock and ice including a crossing of the Grand Couloir during the hottest part of the day, when rock fall is most likely.

I’ve never been so glad that I rock climb, deciding the rocky ridge line, finding hand and foot placements seemed like a dream compared with earlier experience on far simpler terrain. Aside from ducking a few falling rocks the rest of the descent was a breeze and a few child-like toboggans later we reached the train to take us back down to the car we had left the previous day.

With the rose tinted glasses on, which everyone wears when reminiscing, it was an incredible trip, one I still can’t quite believe I’ve done, at least not until I look down at the two black toenails I acquired on the trip. It at least makes a strong reminder of what I’ve accomplished for the next six months.

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