|Descending to the Cosmique hut. Photograph: Tom Humpage|
I was on Mont Blanc. It was 2am. Passy and Sallanches, two towns at the foot of the Chamonix valley, twinkled a lifetime away below as we made our way up the steep face of the Col du Tacul. Behind us pinpricks of light signalled the presence of other teams following in our footsteps, their headtorches carving a small niche in the heavy darkness.
This was summit day. A storm was forecast to roll in that afternoon. And we still had so far to go.
John Taylor, my guide, had been to the top of Western Europe’s highest mountain more times than he can remember. ‘But it still blows me away,’ he says, keen not to belittle the achievement, or the view, that comes with standing at 4810 metres above sea level. Finding a guide in Chamonix willing to take you up Mont Blanc is not hard. The valley houses around 300 IFMGA (International Federation of Mountain Guiding Associations)mountain guides, the most highly qualified and experienced mountain professionals in the world, each one capable of the task. But with his company Mont Blanc Guides, John has turned the ascent into his specialism, devising a five-day acclimatization and climbing schedule which can lead to an empty summit on arrival – no mean feat on one of the most crowded mountains in the world. ‘Most of my clients are adventure tourists, rather than die hard Alpinists,’ says John. ‘What we’ve done is make Mont Blanc our only goal and we’ve made the programme as good as we can.’
Certainly the aspiring mountaineers who sat around the dinner table in Chalet Prarion in Les Houches, base camp if you like, on the first night owned a diverse selection of experience and skills, ranging from absolutely none to summitting Mount Elbrus in Russia. Since the mountain was first summited in 1786 by Jacques Balmat and Michel Paccard, Mont Blanc has become an achievable jewel in the amateur mountaineer's crown. In good weather the climb isn't technical putting it within the remit of the less experienced if accompanied by a guide and offering up a legendary Alpine summit without the expedition price tag. But while Mont Blanc may be enchanting, it is also a mountain oft underestimated, viscious storms and avalanches an ever-present danger. In 2008 it claimed 100 lives, in 2009 the toll was 68 making it one of the deadliest peaks in the world.
We may not have had a complete idea of what to expect, but we weren’t glib enough to assume it would be a walk in the park. Already news was filtering through of deaths on the Gouter couloir – an essential part of our route – with unusually warm weather causing boulders to shift and fall with lethal momentum.
Despite this, our acclimatization continued as planned. It’s hard to say whether acclimatizing before heading above 4000 metres is essential in order for your body to get used to the altitude, or to the mountain huts. Both impact your faculties with equal ferocity, the close quarters of the huts offering little respite for those suffering the fitful sleep, headaches and bloating of being up high. To get us used to the rope work and movement in crampons which is essential on glaciers, John chose to ascend the Petit Fourche, a modest peak in the massif with striking views of the Eiger and Matterhorn. With this in the bag we rappelled into Switzerland and trekked across the Trient plateau, a seemingly endless swathe of snow, a merciless sun slowing baking us as we ground our way across. The next morning we again crossed the plateau but at 6am, our skin relishing the coolness, the snow taking on the appearance of gentle waves with the sun chasing us out of darkness as it rose behind us. By now we were much more used to the intimacy and teamwork which comes with being roped to four other humans. Need a bathroom break? There’s an unspoken rule that everyone will avert their eyes. Luckily the view of Mont Blanc in the early morning light through a gap in the rock by the Aiguille du Tour provided a beautiful alternative while the necessary ablutions were dealt with. That was where, ultimately, we were headed. It was a thought heavy with tension, excitement and nerves.
None of which were mitigated by sharing the Cosmique hut with a selection of other climbers from different teams who could only be describe as rugged mountain types. ‘Good lord look at us,’ muttered Matt, a consultant from Derby. ‘We’re a bunch of giggling Brits in a sea of hardy men of the mountains.’ It was the evening before our summit attempt. The closing of the Gouter Couloir had left John with the decision of either calling it quits or ascending via the harder ‘Three Monts’ traversee, the longest ascent of Mont Blanc which involves climbing two cols before the final summit ascent. He chose the Three Monts, confident we were strong enough to handle it. The two members of our group who had struggled during acclimatization were not attempting the summit with us, John adamant the safety of the team could not be compromised and setting them the challenge of Gran Paradiso instead (which they went on to summit.)
Two other guides – Mark Pulieo and Yannick Flugi would be joining us and we would ascend in three groups of three to increase the safety and the pace. The problem was the weather. ‘What you don’t want to see,’ said John as we stared at the horizontal wind sock outside, ‘is wind on the clouds, so there’s straight lines through them. Erm, basically like that.’ But there was a chance the wind would drop, so we, and the rest of the people in the Cosmique hut, bedded down for a 1am wake up call.
At 1.24am John, my teammate Andy and I were roped up and beginning the climb up the Col du Tacul, the deep night hiding the seracs which lurked above us. We moved swiftly, aware of the potential dangers of our position underneath them and focused on our task ahead – 3pm was our deadline to be back down otherwise we risked being caught in the forecast storm. Everything had to go like clockwork for us to reach the summit. After the Tacul we faced the Col du Maudit – ‘maudit’ ominously meaning damned in French. Wind tickled my ears. My headtorch carved a column of light into the vortex: outside of it I had no sense of anything. But we were climbing Mont Blanc! One foot in front of the other, relentlessly upwards, ice axes plunging into the snow wall at our side for stability. Nearing the apex of the col, spindrift lashed at our faces, our shoulders instinctively hunching for protection. As I followed John and Andy to the top, an 80kmh wind smashed against my body, knocking me off balance and sending me staggering. ‘This is not a hard decision to make,’ yelled John above the screaming wind. ‘Guys, we’re going down.’ Just like that. We were not destined to reach the summit that day.
There is a saying that the mountain always wins. ‘Not always,’ said John as we sipped sweet tea back in the Cosmique. ‘That’s what makes people continue to go back.’ He’s right. Mont Blanc will be there next year. As will I.
Guardian link here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/travel/2011/jan/08/extreme-sport-climb-mont-blanc