Mont Blanc, the central feature of the Alps, standing at a grand height of 4,808m is western Europe's highest mountain. To put that in context, it's about 7 times the height of Croagh Patrick. Ever since I was a child, I always wanted to take a trip to the Alps, but moreso, I had always wanted to climb Mont Blanc. Despite it being a lot less higher than mountains like Everest and K2, it is considered to be one of the world's deadliest mountains due to the large number of fatalities every year. Each year, dozens of climbers are killed in the Mont Blanc massif due to rockfall, avalanches and accidents. Not fazed by the thought of a serious accident or death, in September 2017 I decided to take on my biggest challenge to date; a solo ascent of Mont Blanc.
Leaving the comfort of the hotel in the picturesque village of Les Houches at 8am, a rising sun and the sound of singing birds provided a glorious backdrop to start the day. It wasn't long until I left the main road and joined the meandering trails of the Tour du Mont Blanc, the 170km hiking trail that circumnavigates the Mont Blanc massif. I chose to use this path to bring me as far as the Bellevue cable car station from which point I took a detour and began to follow the Tramway du Mont Blanc railway line. Neither the cable car or railway services were working at this point in time as it was off-season, but I had planned to hike the whole thing, so it didn't make any difference anyway. A lot of climbers will use these services to bring them up to Le Nid d'Aigle at an altitude of 2,380m, but to me, this kinda seems like going out, running 10 miles and then telling everyone you had completed a marathon. If I was going to climb Mont Blanc, I was going to do it from the valley, or not at all. Construction works on the Tramway du Mont Blanc meant that only a certain distance could be covered along this pathway and I had to settle for a detour. Not part of the plan, but when does anything ever go to plan??
After 3 and a half hours had passed, a quick check of the map revealed I had made good progress so far - over 1,000m of ascent. This would turn out to be the easiest section of the climb though, and from here onwards, everything just got tougher and tougher. At this stage, the sun was high in the sky and I was dripping with sweat. My boots felt like I had just submerged them into a pool of water. Nothing could have prepared me for the thirst I had. Literally, every 10 minutes I had to stop and drink, and no matter how much I drank, it just never seemed to quench the thirst. The air was so dry. By the end of the day, I would go on to drink more than 5 litres of liquids, and even that wasn't enough.
It wasn't long before I started to encounter patches of snow. Shaded areas played host to pockets of snow and as I ascended higher up the mountain, these patches became bigger and more widespread. It was time to fit on a set of crampons. Awkward to fit to your boots and even more awkward to walk in, but they are an essential piece of gear for anyone travelling along glaciers or snow and ice covered slopes. The mountain boots were already very heavy, and strapping a set of crampons on made them heavier again. At least it had cooled down a little and no longer was there a waterfall of sweat pouring down my face.
A few hours later and I had made it as far as the Tete Rousse Hut at a height of 3,167m which is located beside the Tete Rousse glacier. Although it's a relatively small glacier, it's collapse and the subsequent flood in 1892 led to the deaths of nearly 200 people in the nearby village of Saint-Gervais-les-Bains. An on-going threat, there is an emergency and evacuation plan in place in nearby villages, and as recently as 2013 this plan was put into action when an alarm-warning system was triggered. Of course, prevention is better than cure, and these days, holes are drilled and water is pumped out in a a controlled release to help prevent the build up of glacier water and so protect the thousands of inhabitants in the valley below.
The journey between the Tete Rousse hut and the Refuge du Gouter (Gouter mountain hut) is the most dangerous section of the climb. First you must cross the notorious Grand Couloir, and if you make it across there alive, you then have a 500m uphill scramble to the Gouter hut. Crossing the Grand Couloir can be compared to playing a game of Russian Roulette. Between 1990 and 2011, there were 291 rescue operations, 180 injuries and 74 deaths recorded at the couloir. At any time, rocks at the top of the couloir can become loose and catapult their way down the gulley. Earlier in the year around May, June and July appear to be the more dangerous times to cross. Snow and ice begins to melt as the summer temperatures rise, releasing deadly missiles upon innocent victims as they attempt to navigate their way across the gulley. It was late September and snow and ice on the ground were helping to bind most of the rocks together. But that's not to say it was safe. I had seen a number of large rocks the size of a bag of coal come hurtling down the gulley on the approach to the crossing, but it was reassuring to see that the snow gradually brought them to a halt. I pulled back my hoodie, looked up and listened intently. The silence was intense. The expression 'silence is golden' came to mind. Having scanned the pathway ahead of me and rehearsed the footsteps in my mind, it was time to make a move. Off I went. I needed to move fast, but not so fast that I would risk tripping up. It's not easy trying to move fast while wearing heavy boots and crampons and carrying a rucksack. It's not a long pathway, less than 50 metres actually. Needless to say though, I was glad to get to the other side unscathed.
It was starting to get late in the evening and the sun was beginning to dip below the horizon. Photographers refer to it as 'the golden hour'. A beautiful golden hue illuminated the sky, while shadows enveloped the distant mountains. It would be very tempting to spend the rest of the evening shooting sunsets, but I had to remind myself of my goals. Climb first. Photography second. I was at least an hour away from the Gouter Refuge hut, and with darkness setting in, it was a race against time to get to safety for the night. I took out the camera, fired off a shot and it was back to business. The effects of altitude and a day of tough hiking were setting in. I was exhausted, dehydrated, struggling to breathe and had headache. The next hour would prove to be the toughest bit of hiking and climbing I had ever endured. Concentration and focus was essential. I was clinging to a rockface more than halfway up a mountain and with a drop of over 1,000 feet below me, there was no room for error. A slip or loss of balance and it would be game over. Less than 5 days after I climbed this section up to the Gouter refuge, 2 climbers died in separate incidents when they fell to their deaths having slipped off the rock. Slowly but steadily, I made my way up the mountain, questioning my own sanity and pursuit of dreams along the way...
By the time I stepped foot inside the Gouter refuge, it was cold and dark and I was never so tired and exhausted in all my life. I made the decision that this was the end of the adventure for me, and the next morning I would make the return journey to the village at first light.
I hit the 'Call for Assistance' button - you're not allowed into the living quarters of the hut while wearing your gear and I didn't have the energy to take it off at this stage. A few minutes later, a young french lady came down the stairs.
"Whoa", "Are you ok?" (a rather suprised look on her face)
"Oui", "Je suis d'accord"
"Do you want to sleep?" (miming somebody falling asleep)
"Do you want to eat?" (miming putting food in her mouth)
"Oui, oui", "Merci beaucoup"
And with that, she smiled and disappeared up the stairs. It's amazing how something as simple as a friendly smile can lift your spirits. I have to say, the few staff that were working there were all incredibly nice and helpful. Even though I had missed the dinner service time of 6:30pm, they went out of their way to cook me up a fresh dinner. Due to the altitude, I had been having stomach problems all day and hadn't eaten anything bar a few sweets since 7:30am that morning. I struggled with every mouthful, but ate as much as I could, at least to show them my appreciation of their efforts if nothing else. I have to say, the Gouter hut is quite a marvel. A 4-storey hut perched on a mountain edge at a height of 3,835m, which was constructed between 2010 and 2013 to replace the old Gouter hut. It has many special features; indeed a full blog post could be wrote entirely on this magnificent feat of modern engineering and architecture. It's unique ovoid shape is designed to deflect wind and snow. All the supplies such as fuel, food and water are supplied to the hut (and indeed all the mountain huts) by helicopter. Of course, this method of delivery also makes the price of food and drink extremely expensive. At 5 euro for a can of coke or 7 euro for a 1.5 ltr bottle of water, it's certainly not cheap. It's quite the experience staying there for the night. It can house up to 120 people (albeit, crammed into small wooden bunk beds where your head is merely a few inches away from the person beside you). There's an exciting buzz about the place. A room full of mountaineers exchanging stories of their climbing experiences, some having already completed the climb, others awaiting their destinies. Electricity is provided by solar panels; anytime a member of staff switches on the kettle, all the lights in the hut dim and flicker. Toilets are unisex. If you use toilet paper, you don't flush it down the toilet, you have to put it in a bin. There's no running water, so showers or a wash are out of the question. Evening meals are served at a set time of 6:30pm and you have 2 choices - take it or leave it. Breakfast is a similar affair, only they give you a choice of times. 3am or 7am. Nope. That's not a typo! No sleep-in's there so...
Antoine, the hut guardian designated me my bed and asked what time I would like breakfast. "7am" was my speedy reply. I thought it would give me a enough time to rest and recover before I got ready for the return journey home. A short time later, I headed for my bunk, one of the last people in the hut to go to bed. It was only 10pm, but the lights were out and people were fast asleep. I honestly can't remember the last time I was in bed at 10pm. Trying to find your bed in the dark in a strange building isn't an easy task, but eventually I did. At least I think it was mine...
And then came the harsh reality of staying in an overcrowded, youth-hostel styled mountain hut. Snoring. I'm a bad sleeper at the best of times, and if there's one thing that's guaranteed to keep me awake, it's the sound of somebody snoring. Luckily, I had anticipated this happening and so had carried a set of ear plugs. I got up to grab them from my bag, only to search in vain for them. Images of them in a wash bag back at the hotel began to haunt me.
So there I lay. Exhausted, but wide awake, being slowly tortured by the sound of a donkey being choked to death. I checked my phone. 11pm. God, this is gonna be a long night...
12am... snoring as loud as ever... Are there hut rules with regard to snoring I wondered?
1am... OH. MY. GOD. How can anyone not wake themselves up when snoring that loud?!
2am... How long would I have to serve in prison for smothering someone to death??
3am... Alarms started to go off and a few people began to stir. Obviously they were getting up for the breakfast in order to make an early morning summit attempt. At this point, I had been lying in a bed wide awake for nearly 5 hours and it certainly gives time for reflection. I had come so far and was only hours away from the summit. The thought of turning back was bugging me. This was something I had wanted to do for years and years. If I had to suffer for a few hours, so be it. Nothing worthwhile comes easy. Fuck it. I'd rather be out on a freezing cold mountain in the dark of night than listen to anymore snoring. So with that, a quick bite to eat and I was back downstairs in the storage hold getting geared up and ready for the morning ahead.
It's strange walking out of the hut in the pitch black of night. The first thing that gets you is the harsh bite of the freezing cold wind. The second thing is you can only see 2 colours. Black and white. And so for the next 3 hours, that was all I would see apart from the occasionally glimpse of shining headlights of climbers in the distance as I followed the steep and narrow path to the Vallot emergency hut. Although an emergency hut, climbers use the hut as a shelter to take a much needed break and a bit of respite from the cold wind.
After a much needed rest, piece of chocolate and a drink of ice cold water, I was back enroute. Hang around for too long and you get cold. You have to keep moving. By now, the sun had started to rise and it was starting to get bright outside, but a strong wind had picked up, making it even colder and reducing the visibility. I pulled a balaclava over my head and put on sunglasses to protect my face from the sting of fragments of ice being whipped up by the wind. There was a numbness in my fingers and toes and I had to constantly wiggle them to keep the blood flowing to my extremities.
It wasn't long until I reached the famous Bosses Ridge. This is the final sketchy section of the climb before reaching the summit. A narrow, snow covered ridge with barely enough room for one person to shuffle along. Steep drops either side and behind you lead only to the bottom. It was difficult to breathe. Every 10 or 12 steps and I would need to pause to catch my breath. Every 5 minutes I would need to stop for a minute or 2 so that I could recover. My heart beating like a bass drum, it felt that at any moment it would burst out of my chest. At this height, there is only slightly more than half the amount of oxygen at sea level and heart and lungs are working overtime in a bid to keep blood and oxygen pumped around the body. Progress was slow, but steady. On a couple of occasions I met other climbers that had been ahead of me making there way down the mountain. The only way to let them pass safely was to step slightly off the pathway, anchor myself with an ice axe, crouch down to lower my centre of gravity and try not to think of the massive drop below me.
The approach to the summit was amazing. Peering down through scattered gaps in the clouds to see the valleys and peaks below. By now the wind had eased off and there was an eerie silence. As I made those final few steps towards the summit, I realised that I would be by myself. Both feelings of exhilaration and loneliness. A joyous triumph, but nobody to share it with. A few selfies and photos of the amazing 360° views and it wasn't long before I was on my way again. Even though I was happy and proud to have reached the summit, I still had to get back down safely off the mountain. With a long hike ahead of me, there wasn't time to hang around.
The descent was an easier affair. Although it was still relatively slow, it gradually became easier and easier to breathe. My heart rate started to ease and my body began to loosen up. On the journey down, I passed climbers making their way to the summit. I could hear the puffing and panting and see the strain in their faces, thankful that this struggle was now behind me. It wasn't long until I was back at the Vallot emergency hut. A quick 10 minute break and I was on my way again.
The journey back to Les Houches was long and arduous. Legs and body tired from all the hiking, climbing and lack of sleep. Thoughts of a dinner, shower and bed seemed more appealing than ever. Surrounded by stunning mountain views in all directions, it was difficult to resist the temptation to just keep shooting photos all the time. Even though I had a headtorch with me, the aim was always to try and be back in the valley before dark. It wasn't to be though and the last 2 hours of hiking involved the dark of nightfall, wild mountain goats, forest pathways, tree roots, stubbed toes and a full vocabulary of obscenities.
Shortly before 10pm, 38 hours after leaving my hotel in the village of Les Houches, I stumbled back into the reception. Exhausted, aching, and feet in bits, but nothing compared to the feeling of satisfaction. For many years I had dreamt and thought about climbing this iconic mountain and now I had finally fulfilled my goal. Years of dreaming, weeks of planning and days of doing. Mission complete.
Whatever goals or aspirations you have in life, it's a great accomplishment and feeling to achieve them. Sports, work, relationships, personal, etc. Always keep striving towards your goals.
Distance: Les Houches to Mont Blanc summit - 22km
Ascent (height gained): 3800m
Day 1: 12 hours. 8:00am to 8:00pm. Start in Les Houches, finish at Gouter Hut.
Day 2: 18 hours. 4:00am to 10:00pm. Start at Gouter Hut, summit Mont Blanc, return to Les Houches.
Mountain Boots, crampons, ice-axe, helmet, harness+slings+carabiners (for via ferrata and in case of rescue), 40L rucksack, walking pole, headtorch, thin gloves, winter gloves, buff, hat, lightweight hoodie, hiking pants, down jacket, shell jacket, sunglasses, powerbank, Locus Map Pro (pre-loaded with IGN map Auvergne-Rhone Alps) and GPS.
Nikon D610 + 16 - 35mm lens, Gopro Hero 5. I would have preferred something a little bit more compact and lighter than a full-frame camera, but you have to make use of what you have. Apart from the space and weight savings, a smaller camera can be stuffed in your pocket or stuffed down your jacket. This would have made the camera easier to access, but also, body heat would help prevent the cold from draining the battery.