“Mt Blanc Conquest” published in Ski and Board. A lucky ski tour ascent of Western Europe’s highest peak, Mont Blanc Mountain – 4807m.
Yes or No
“It’s a pointless slog, two days of agony at altitude, for what?”
“The achievement. It’s the highest peak in Western Europe.”
“There are far prettier, less crowded summits with better skiing. Monta Rosa for instance.”
“It’s not the highest. Pete, what do you think?”
“I’m with you Rob.”
That left me outnumbered. It was Pete’s dream to climb it before his fortieth and Rob always pushed our limits. For years I’d skied off-piste with these guys. We shared the love of escaping resorts but I still preferred skiing down, rather than up; a ski tour rather than mountaineering. Rob knew me too well, “Listen,” he said, “It isn’t technical, hundreds of people do it and will take guide who will show us a great route down”. As long as I believe the main objective was coming down, I’d do it.
For three months we trained vigorously, and by the time we left for all we needed to do a small ski tour to gain altitude acclimatisation. But a collection of unpredictable depressions drifted in one after another. Even the guide offices gave up providing meaningful forecasts. A week slipped by and we hadn’t achieved any of our aims. The guide we always used told us we might as well go home.
That night, downhearted, we shared our chilli with a solitary, mad looking Kiwi called Roy. He turned out to be a guide and offered to take is up mid-week. He would even give us 20% discount because he hadn’t been up the Mont Blanc mountain since the ‘80s. Only later did it occur to us that maybe he couldn’t remember the way – hence the discount.
Early on Wednesday morning, unable to get the latest forecast from the guide, we prevailed upon a fat restauranteur serving as coffee and croissant. He pulled out his copy of Le Monde gestured emphatically at a picture of the sun over the Alps.
Not The Plan At All
This wasn’t how we planned it at all, but fate was driving us to one conclusion; it was now, with the crazy Kiwi, or never. In a whirlwind of preparation we picked up Roy, shopped, packed and caught the lift up the Aiguille Du Midi mid-station (2310m).
Skinning the traverse to the Glacier Des Bossons was easy. From a distance the immense crevasses looked spectacular. But once on the glacier, the deep chasms weren’t so easy to spot. We picked our way through towers of ice whose leeward sides, creamy with soft snow belied the danger beneath.
After four hours we reached the steel encased Grand Mulet Refuge (3051m) safely.
Gradually other teams filtered in. The following day 60 people would be heading for the summit. Some cooked on camping stoves but, like most, we opted for an excellent meal provided by the refuge staff.
The dining room buzzed with expectation. The clear weather was expected to hold. Soon after sunset everyone packed into the bunk room. Crushed shoulder to shoulder, it was impossible to escape the spluttering breathing of altitude-stricken lungs.
While eating breakfast at to air, I felt as though I hadn’t slept a wink and the eight hour climb to the summit was a daunting prospect. Outside the stars sparkled like candlelight flickering through black gossamer.
An Easy Ski Tour, You Said
A torchlight procession began marching up the mountain, the chink of gear chipping at the silence. Amongst the pale towers and tears of the glacier, the shadowy figures moved with the slow gait and nodding heads of cattle, their hot breath consumed by the cold.
High above us danger lurked in the huge unstable ice cliffs. If you were ever to dance with the Devil in the pain moonlight, it would be here.
I did that dance. Negotiating a crevasse I inadvertently left my binding heels up. It tipped me forward, my skis lost their grip and I began sliding towards a gaping crack. I frantically arrested the fall with my ski pole and the dance ended. I wouldn’t make that mistake again.
Near the Le Grand Plateau Roy stopped us and said, “Put everything on”. We weren’t cold and protested. “You will be”, he warned. Within 20m the temperature plummeted. Even when the sun crept over the horizon it didn’t warm up, yet we felt strong and confident. So long as we kept a comfortable pace we didn’t seem to notice the attitude, no-one was suffering nausea or undue shortness of breath.
We were lucky. Clambering into the basic valet box shelter I was assailed by the stench of vomit and the vacant expressions of people shaking uncontrollably. Others looked pained as they stripped off their boots and tried to rub the circulation back into their feet or repaired gaping blisters.
Roy pulled a master stroke by brewing up some strong sweet tea, perfect after the six-hour, 1311m climb. For the first time I began believing we could actually make it to the top.
We left most of our gear and shelter, strapped on our crampons and roped ourselves together. Within minutes of setting off, someone above us fell. He accelerated fast, only narrowly missing Rob and Pete before arresting his fall. Roy assured us that, should we fall off the ridge into Italy, he would jump into France. We didn’t want to test his sincerity so made sure every crampon kick counted.
Ahead of us a team continually halted while one of their members collapsed, gathered his strength, dragged himself upright and plodded forward another 50m. His perseverance was inspiring and for 3 hours we picked our way along the undulating ridge.
After particularly precipitous section, Roy calmly announced, “This is it boys the top. Mont Blanc mountain, 4807m, we had done it! We hugged and took photos, but mainly just sat in silence.
Mont Blanc Mountain Is Special
It had been less physical than I expected, but I was still too tired to feel elated and ironically I didn’t care about the ski down any more. Rob and Pete had been right, it was different to any other ski tour, the whole point was making it to the summit. I’d accused Rob of wanting to do the Blanc just so he could tell people he’d done it. The pleasure comes from knowing you can do it, a prize you share with the others who stand on the top.