Mont Blanc at 4,810m meters is the highest mountain in the Alps and the 11th highest in the world or, more technically, and according to Wikipedia, it is ranked 11th in the world in topographic prominence. Mont Blanc is also – useless trivia alert – the highest mountain in the EU, which surely must entitle it to some sort of EU funding.
On the weekend of 13th-15th September 2013, a very good friend of mine, Mark Downes, was in a party that attempted to reach the summit of Mont Blanc. He sent a number of emails recounting the trip, which I thought evocatively captured a big climb.
Friday, 13th September 2013
Yesterday and today we are getting acclimatised. The trick is to get over 2500 meters, which shocks the body into creating red blood cells which helps you deal with altitude better and hopefully avoid altitude sickness, which I have had before and don’t want again.
We have had to change our route up Mt. Blanc because of the recent snow and increased avalanche risk on the Three Summits Route, so now we are going on the Gouter Route. You sleep higher on the last night (so don’t sleep well and have a tough time the day before) but have a higher elevation from which to attempt the summit. Yesterday we climbed up to Tete Rousse (3145 meters) which is the first section of the Gouter Route. We were surprised to see the snow line was down at 2300 meters. Winter is definitely on it way and it means that it will be very cold higher up, perhaps minus 15, not counting the wind chill factor.
Climbing to Tete Rousse gave us a good idea of what to expect at the start tomorrow. We climbed back down and slept in Megeve last night. It was nice to see the climbers on their way up and down from mt blanc. There were teams from Hong Kong, Argentina, the Netherlands, the UK, Russia, Georgia and Italy. Our own team is made up of myself, a Scot, a Slovak and an Indian (Aj, Alexander and Smurthi). We all work together in ISSAT and so have been able train together the last few months. We will be joined by two guides, Martial a former Chasseur Alpin, and Loic (also known for some reason as ‘the Naked Guide’ or maybe we have lost something in translation, but if not fair dues to him in this weather).
We even met two lads from Cork who were on their way up, and so was I was able to stop and have a quick chat about the All-Ireland Hurling Final last week between Cork and Clare, ‘we waz robbed we were’, ‘sure you didn’t deserve it though’, ‘and he was the only fellow on the pitch never to have scored in his life’, ‘Ahh it was a fair result really’, ‘you’d think the GAA planned it’, ‘at least we’ll be down for the replay’.
People going up were in good form encouraging each other, while the people coming down were quiet, dealing with their tiredness and evident pain. Words seemed for them a luxury that their energy levels could not afford. Everyone was talking about the weather, wind, cloud cover, and the dreaded ‘Grand Couloir’ that lies between Tete Rousse the the climb up to the Gouter Refuge. The Grand Couloir is the Russian roulette section of this game show, a corridor of around 100 meters that you have to cross but down which rocks fall almost constantly. It was the reason why we were originally going to go the much longer and tougher Three Summits Route, but there is no avoiding it now. The good news is that the snow will hold onto the rocks better and we will cross it tomorrow early enough in the day when the snow is more solid. We met a fellow from the UK who was on his way down having turned back at the Couloir, he was looking back up the mountain when we met him, no doubt wondering if he made the right decision. He said he left his climbing partner up there but that there was too much going through the head, his daughter was getting married next week, he couldn’t think straight. We told him that the mountain would be there next year, but I am not sure that was much consolation for him yesterday.
I was heartened to see a Limerick flag was pinned up on the wall of the Tete Rousee refuge surrounded by flags from Nepal, Slovakia, India, Montenegro and many others. It seems that this place is a mecca for madmen from all around the world.
Last night we did the last equipment check, went through and made the hard decision of what to leave behind. We are trying to travel as light as possible. With the boots, crampons, ice axe and helmut you are already carrying a few kilos and so you try to measure out food, water and layers of clothing as accurately as possible.
Anyway, today we up in Aiguille du Midi (3800meters), it is minus 10, so fairly cold. We should stay here for around 4-5 hours to help the acclimatisation, then a big bowl a pasta and an early night. We are on the first train tomorrow to the Nid D-Aigle and from there to Tete Rousse, across the Grand Couloir and then a near 600 meter vertical climb to the the Gouter Refuge (3700 meters). We should be there by early afternoon, all going well. If I can I will send a message from then.
Until then, take care,
3pm Friday, 13 September 2013
I am not sure when you will all get this, but it is 3pm on Friday the 13th. Up early this morning, took the 0700 train back to Nid D’Aigle. Two hours up to tete rousse. The Grand Couloir lived up to its reputation, luckily there was only small rocks coming down but I felt we ran like Usain Bolt across and everyone got across safely. Then 2 hours climb up to the Gouter Hut. It was a real physical climb, and something I had not done before so very interesting. Now at Gouter and we are discussing whether to put on for the summit tonight or decide to sleep here tonight and try tomorrow.
We have decided to push on, it will be a long day, but fingers crossed!
5am Saturday, 14 September 2013
What an amazing day yesterday was (it is now 5am on Saturday). We left the Gouter Hut at 3pm and push on for the Vaillot Hut which is an emergency hut at around 4300 meters and 2.5 hours away. As we crossed to the hut, the wind was around 70 kms (with gusts over 100kms) and it was near minus 20. The scenery looked like Antarctica, with the wind created snow drifts that cut right through you. We arrived at the Vaillot Hut and put on all of our spare clothes, drank something and pushed on.
A half an hour later we met a guide coming down who said that the Bosse ridge was too dangerous, the wind too strong and as the ridge was only a foot wide there was no margin of error. Even after this, we push on further but the wind was too much and we huddled around to make a difficult decision. With 300 meters to go to the summit, we agreed that it was too dangerous, that it was better to live to climb another day. Everyone was devastated, but it was the right decision. We turned, bent forward and made our long trek back to the Gouter Hut.
Everyone is, needless to say, devastated by not getting to the top. But yesterday we saw the amazing beauty of Mother Nature and equally her awesome power. We had further evidence of that this morning when the guides said that 2 people who passed us, whom we thought were going to the Vaillot Hut, had tried for the summit and in the wind and snow had gotten lost. Four of the guides had to form a search party and go look for them around 10pm and found them around midnight, suffering badly.
Each and every one of us had to dig real deep; we experienced things and emotions that do not happen often. It has been an experience that we will all treasure and we have not yielded just yet, plans are already a foot to come back and make another attempt next year! One guy who ate at our table last night and who also had to turn back like us, told us that it was his fourth attempt and all times he was thwarted by the weather. It is the mountains and this is that happens.
Thanks for all of your support, all that is left to climb down the rock face (in the dark) from the Gouter Hut and across the grand couloir again.
All the best from Mt Blanc