At 4810m, the summit of Mont Blanc soars above the rest of the French Alps and indeed, all of western Europe.
It has been a long term goal of mine to climb it and Last Friday, my dad, my two brothers and I went over to Chamonix to attempt to achieve that goal. Fearghal was meant to come on this trip but unfortunately a niggle in his knee meant that he had to stay in Ireland as the long descent from Mont Blanc could have caused permanent damage that could cause problems during our cycling expedition.
After a day ice climbing on the Mer de Glace and another practising our skills on the knife edged Arete de Midi we packed our supplies of dried apricots, snickers and lion bars and headed up to the Tete Rousse hut. From the hut, we were to climb the full 2000m up to the summit in a single day as a closing storm system meant that we couldn’t spend longer on the mountain. Spending an evening above the clouds was incredible, being surrounded by amber snowy peaks, glowing in the setting sun.
At 4 the next morning, we got out of our beds, donned our head-torches and crampons (spikes attached to the soles of special stiff hiking boots) and walked across the glacier to the Arete de Gouter. We climbed up this steep, jagged, rocky outcrop and soon enough we faced our first challenge, crossing the Grand Couloir. The couloir is a wide gulley in the mountainside where huge rocks can come hurtling down the slope that could easily knock you down to the glacier hundreds of feet below. After waiting for first light, we checked above for any signs of movement, picked our moment, and swiftly crossed the rocky, icy track. I felt like Super Mario dodging the dragons, fire and maces.
A long, long scramble upwards finally leads to the snow line where we roped together, took out our ice axes and began our ascent up the Gouter Dome. The snowy trail winds up towards our goal, past eerie seracs and around crevasses. The air was getting thinner and it was becoming harder to breathe. It was becoming increasingly difficult to keep a constant pace and we had to stop regularly to get our breath back. Finally though, we reached the top of the Dome and set our sights on the final task, the Boss ridges and the summit which was only 400m above us.
At this point, all of the surrounding mountains were below us, the sun was in full blaze and attempting to sizzle my skin. We pushed on, past the Vallot Hut and up to the Grand Boss ridge. The slope got steeper and steeper, and the snow became softer and softer in the burning sun. The snow resembled sugar and there was little grip offered by either my crampons or ice axe. The wind was picking up too, wind that our guide had said would not be due until the following day. The narrow summit ridge that lay ahead of us is known for its impossibly steep sides, not where you want to be when there’s a strong wind blowing. We sat in the snow and discussed our options. We could head on brazenly, up to the top, then likely get blown off the ridge by the strengthening wind. Or perhaps slip in the ever softening snow, down to the valley below. No; it was time to go down. At a height of 4500m, only 310m below the top, we turned back.
It was wise decision, after only an hour, the wind was howling and we found ourselves in complete white out. The track was disappearing fast and only a few faint footprints remained marked our way back down. After a total of 14 hours of walking, we got to the Gouter Hut where the four of us slept under one of the tables, with others sleeping on top of the same table!
After a terrible sleep, we woke from our floor-beds and emerged into the -20degree wind outside. A further 6 hours of a knee-jarring rocky descent and we found ourselves back at the car. We munched on cellophane wrapped sandwiches that may as well have been Michelin starred cooking, and they tasted so good!!
View Mont Blanc photoset here