Sunday 20th June 2010
The day had almost arrived. The plan remained to attempt the summit of Mont Blanc, Western Europe’s highest peak, tomorrow. First up we had to reach the Tête Rousse hut which sits nervously on the edge of the Mont Blanc massif at 3167m.
After a restless nights sleep I rolled out of bed at 8am. Shower, breakfast and kit preparation. I was keen to travel as light as possible but, given that we could be in the mountains for 3 days, my bag still felt quite heavy.
Our guides (Eric and John were joined by Mikael and Stefano) at 9am. Our first stop was Les Houches cable car station which we arrived outside at about 11.30am (we’d stopped en route for food and to allow a few of the group to sort some last minute kit issues). A quick ride up saw us at about 2000m with a good days walking ahead of us.
After working our way around a scenic, green, alpine path we quickly found ourselves on the other side of a valley, and the weather changed almost instantly from clear and overcast, to cold, damp and foggy. We followed a train line up for a good hour, snow building constantly, before stopping for lunch at a cafe.
From here on things got a lot more difficult, and it was the next few hours that ultimately cost us a shot at Mont Blanc.Immediately after leaving the cafe the conditions worsened. The path became steeper, the group spread out and visibility dropped considerably. The wind was picking up and the snow started to fall heavily.
After an hour or so of walking we stopped to put our crampons on. This is easier said than done when your hands are freezing cold, but I managed eventually and soldiered on.
The path got steeper, the snow got heavier and the wind stronger still. I pulled my hood right over and zipped my coat as high as I could. At points it was like being in a sand storm. The snow lashed the exposed parts of my face but all the while I plodded on, following the footprints of the guy in front.
I remember passing a memorial which obviously represented the point where someone had been killed. We were on a particularly steep, rocky section and, at points, a metal wire was in place to aid walkers as the climbed higher. At one point I was holding the wire tightly but suddenly realised that the footprints had disappeared. After a few more steps forward I heard a cry from behind – ‘ED!!!, this way man!’ Eric had spotted me and, fortunately, I was back on track. Close call, though.
After what seemed like an age the hut appeared from the gloom. What a welcome sight! That last 3 hours had taken not just me but the guides completely by surprise. An immense amount of snow had fallen (and still continued to fall). In to the hut we went, taking off our boots, crampons and gaiters. It was an amazing place. Very basic, but I can’t tell you how much I appreciated it. Beds had been reserved for us so we dumped our bags and prepared for dinner.
The hut gradually filled up throughout the day. By about 6pm it was heaving with hungry climbers. The three course meal, packed full of all the energy and nutrition needed, did not disappoint. Beef stew with pasta. Wolfed it down in record time.
After a few more games of cards I was ready bed. John gave us the brief for the following day. You could hear the doubt in his voice. The forecast for tomorrow was still great, but so much snow had fallen he knew things would be tricky higher up, especially the infamous Grand Couloir which awaited us just minutes from the hut.
Still, we were advised to set our alarms for 3.45am. Breakfast would be at 4 at which point we would analyse the situation. I hit the hay at 9pm for what was yet another sleepless night. What did tomorrow have in store for us?
Monday 21st June 2010
My alarm didn’t even have a chance to sound. I was awake all night and switched it off at about 3.30am. Upstairs in the communal area there were a few climbers sleeping on the floor. We skilfully negotiated them and had breakfast in near-silence.
The weather was clear. I stepped outside in the pitch black and saw three incredible sights that I’ll never forget. The first was the faint outline of the huge mountain face before me. I’m a fairly small chap anyway, but I’ve never felt so tiny. Secondly, I noticed the stars. The Plough was right above and the perfectly clear, ice cold skies glistened. Finally, way, way up near the top of where we were due to climb was a wonderful sight – lights! Moving lights! Evidently some had made an even earlier start than us and had made great progress.
This final sight was relayed to John Taylor. It was obviously a good sign for us as it meant that the route could be attempted, at least to the next hut – the Goûter.
Within half an hour we were outside the Tete Rousse and ready to go. Rob and I were paired up with Italian guide Stefano and set off up an initially gentle slope. The light was just starting to appear. We were way above the clouds now, and the immense slab of rock we were about to climb could now be seen clearly. It was an incredible daunting site.
The first tricky section was the Grand Couloir. A couloir is a deep gorge or gully formation found on the side of a mountain and this one is particularly deep. We had been warned about this short, 30m section many times in the build. Today, however, we were in luck. Usually, it is dangerous due to rockfall, forcing walkers to zip across as quickly as they can. There had been so much snow, however, that the mountain (at this point at least) was relatively stable. We clipped in to the handy wire that spans the section and walked across, careful not to slip.
The next 2 hours passed in a haze of breathlessness and discomfort. It was by far and away the most physically demanding 2 hours of my life. The climb to the Gouter hut was very steep, with almost no let up for almost 800m. Stefano was a hard task master and only allowed Rob and I one proper break. On more than one occasion I found myself off balance, slipping down a steep rock face. Thankfully I had Rob behind me, and Stefano up ahead to keep me going (and, if need be, pull me up!).
Progress seemed painfully slow. I remember stopping and looking back at around the half way point. The Tete Rousse hut was miles below, which made me feel like we’d made good progress. Then I turned around and looked skywards. The Gouter was an equal distance away!
My lungs were having to work harder than they ever had done. Each step seemed harder and, with the ‘top’ only 20m away, I ploughed on. Those last few yards were so hard! The feeling upon reaching the hut was one of pure relief. It’s amazing what 30 seconds of heavy breathing can do though and, composure regained I allowed myself a small celebration.
The view was staggering. The sun had just started to illuminate the peaks around us and, almost 4000m below, you could just about make out the valley floor. I’ll never forget that moment.
Inside the Gouter hut the mood was a sombre one. Though it had not yet officially been announced we all knew that the decision had been made to abort the summit attempt. It was easy to see why – huge amounts of snow were stacked up on the slopes, just waiting to fall. The chances were that we would be fine but it wasn’t worth the risk. The Mont Blanc dream, for now at least, was over.
We spent sometime behind/above the hut and got an amazing view back to Chamonix. The guides did their best to keep spirits high by trying to create a few mini-avalnches (with some success!). Hopefully the photos I took say more than I ever could about the majesty of the scene up there. At just shy of 4000m, this would be as high as we would be going. We were just a 3 hour hike from the summit but it wasn’t to be.
The less said about the journey back down, the better. It was horrible. Slipping and sliding, we edged our way down. Even now, 3 weeks after, I can still feel the tension in my knees from the awkward descent. After another 2 hours we were back at the Tete Rousse in the glorious sunshine. Looking back at what we had just climbed gave me a great sense of satisfaction, though of course it was tinged with disappointment.
Lunch at Tete Rousse then home. We were back at the cable car by around 3pm and in the chalet now too long after. Everyone in the group was quiet. The guides had plans for the now useless following day, but all I wanted to do was go home (or drink).
The following day was spent on a via ferrata in Passy. As it turned out, it was a fantastic afternoon’s climbing and both Rob and I were glad we chose to head back out in to the hills, rather than wallow in the valley.
The following day I was back in sunny England, just in time to see the second half of England’s final group game. Missing a chunk of the World Cup was actually a massive blessing! My week away, despite the obvious disappointment, was one I’ll never forget and easily ranks amongst the most incredible experiences of my life. Mont Blanc isn’t going anywhere and I’m sure future opportunites to return will present themselves.
I’d like to also quickly say a massive message of thanks to all who sponsored and supported me in my quest to climb Mont Blanc. I will return!!!
***** Still think my efforts were worthy of sponsorship? Visit my JustGiving page to find out more about my chosen charity and to donate *****