Some backgroundEven though I now live in Denmark, I was born and lived the first 20 years of my life in the city of Lyon, France, which happens to be located a mere 2h30 driving distance from Chamonix. Ever since I was a toddler, our parents took my two sisters and me to this amazing place for a couple of weeks each year. I learned how to ski in the Planards, the Flégère and the Tour, I hiked all the valley trails multiple times, first with my parents, then alone, going higher and further each year, but always stopped by this invisible barrier which separates "moyenne montagne" from the realm of "haute montagne". I didn't even climb rock back then, and those glaciers, snowy peaks and granite spires were so inaccessible that they could as well have been on the moon.
Yet, every time I had to turn around, a little voice in the back of my head was telling me "one day, some day, you'll go up there". And of course, the call was the strongest when it came from the true lord of the valley, the mountain that can't be ignored, majestic Mont-Blanc.
I am not sure I ever really believed the little voice. It seemed I had so much to learn before I could attempt anything so big, before I could feel remotely safe on a mountain. I remember four years ago when I rented my first pair of crampons in a Chamonix shop, and was asked whether I intended to climb Mont-Blanc with them, I was genuinely taken aback at the very idea that anyone would ever think that I could even attempt such a thing.
All of this is to say that Mont-Blanc, to me, is a mountain like no other. More than a mountain, it is the dream of a child, looking up from the valley. I probably wouldn't be a climber today if it hadn't been there.
PreparationsSince the day of my crampons rental and glacier school on the mer de glace, things have changed. Always an avid hiker, and more recently a rock climber, I decided I was ready for the alpine. In the summer of 2008, I traveled to Alaska to take a full 12-days mountaineering course with the amazing AMS people. It gave me a solid set of base skills, along with an attitude of humility and respect for the mountain environment. It also opened a new world of possibilities.
Things started to speed up after that. At the end of this summer, back in Chamonix on my way to Denmark, I hired a guide to take me on the arête des Cosmiques, where even a sprained ankle after a lowering accident couldn't erase the wide grin on my face. Last June, I spent two weeks in the Peruvian Cordillera Blanca, successfully climbing - with a guide - 5460m Yannapaccha and 6354m Chopicalqui.
By mid-June, however, I was back in flat Denmark, with no more climbing prospects for the summer than weekends of trad in nearby Sweden. It didn't take much browsing on SP for a new project to emerge: take a long weekend at the end of August and go climb the mountain. Mostly for aesthetic reasons, and in an effort to avoid the worst of the crowds, I settled on the 3 Mounts route. It was graded PD, and though not without objective dangers, I knew that if the weather cooperated, I had the skills to safely climb it without a guide. I asked my friends and regular climbing partners to finally end up with a 3 persons team: Bernd, Anh and me. Though experienced rock climbers, none of the others had ever put crampons on, and we agreed on operating a mini mountaineering course, consisting of one theoretical day in Denmark and one practical day just before the climb, with an easy route from refuge des Cosmiques, which would also help for acclimatization.
Dates were agreed on, plane tickets were booked, gear was bought. The climb was on!
Getting to the refugeAfter two months of waiting and with beautiful weather forecast, we finally flew to Lyon on the evening of August 27th. My dad picked us up at the airport and after a late dinner full of carbs, we got some sleep in the family home. Language combinations were rather interesting, since Bernd and Anh spoke Danish together, I spoke English to them and my parents spoke French, with some German thrown in the mix.
We got up early the next morning, managed to somehow load all of our stuff plus the camping gear for my parents in the car, and were on our way. We discovered when arriving in Chamonix that the city was even more crowded than usual: the Ultra Trail du Mont-Blanc (also known as "the nutcase race") was taking place during the same weekend. 166km of trail running with several mountain cols, we were somehow glad to learn we wouldn't be alone to suffer on Sunday!
The others rented or bought the last of their missing gear, we stocked on (way too much) food and water for our lunches and I bought a (way overpriced) guidebook for Mont-Blanc. A final visit to the Office de Haute Montagne left no doubt for the next day plans: since the Midi-Plan traverse was almost entirely on ice and the Vallée Blanche traverse was heavily crevassed and much more technical than usual, while Mont-Blanc du Tacul was in an exceptionally good state for the season with few crevasses and seracs, the latter would be our acclimatization and training route.
Around 16:00, we had changed into mountain clothes (not a small feat, as temperatures were upwards of 25C in the valley) and bought return tickets from the Aiguille du Midi lift. At this late hour, the ride was smooth, as the cars going up were almost empty, while the ones coming down were packed solid with tourists and a few climbers. Unfortunately, low clouds hid everything between Plan de l'Aiguille and the summit, but as each time that I go up, I promised myself that next time, I would use the Frendo spur instead. Yeah, right.
The summit station was quickly drifting in and out of the fog, and we took the time to enjoy the occasional views of the Tacul face. But after a while, we couldn't procrastinate anymore: it was time to go on the fearsome Arête du Midi. Though not that difficult, it is very exposed at the start and can be quite narrow. There are better places where to use crampons for the first time... It took a while to gear up and rope up (carrying the coil, the weight on my shoulders convinced me that a 60m 9.1mm probably wasn't ideal for glacier travel). Since it is fairly difficult to cross or overtake on the ridge, we waited a bit for the climbers going up to the station to finish, but as we were almost starting, a group of about 15 arrived from the tunnel and started without a glance our way. I was dumbstruck at such bad manners and hoped that they didn't keep that behavior higher on the mountains!
Finally, we could get started. Anh, being by far the lightest of us three, was in front, followed by Bernd and myself at the back, silently praying I wouldn't have to jump on the opposite side of the ridge, should someone fall. Luckily, we were back in the fog and the others couldn't see the big empty voids that lied on each side. The ridge was very dry and crevassed, but it saw so much passage that it was covered in loose, crushed snow, into which the crampons were not much use. We initially progressed very slowly, everyone being extremely careful with each step. After a while, the ridge widened and curved to the right, until we reached the platform where the Vallé Blanche ski run starts in winter. The snow was also of much better quality, though the late hour meant it was fairly slushy. We switched positions and I went back in the lead. As the others were starting to get a feel of how to walk with crampons, I tried to speed up, but to no much avail. Starting what would be the pattern in the next two days, Bernd would be crushed between me in front, wanting to go much faster and Anh in the back, wanting to go much slower.
The fog was lifting and the terrain was now very easy, with just a couple of narrow crevasses. We saw a late party on the last pitch of the Rébuffat, a route which just acceded the top of my toclimb list. After so much time in flat Denmark, seeing such beautiful granite faces made my fingers itch, but I had to turn away, as rock was not on our schedule this time around.
A short climb up from the col du Midi and two crevasses later, we arrived at the Refuge des Cosmiques, which we had booked more than two months ago. I had heard lots of good things about it, and I am glad to report that they are all true: it is spacious, well run, very clean, comfortable, and most important of all, food is excellent and plentiful! Of course, the downside is the hefty price (37€ with only breakfast, 50€ with dinner).
Despite arriving late, around 19:00, we were served dinner almost immediately, consisting of a soup and a hearty Savoyard dish of lentils and Diot sausages. During the meal, I kept rushing on the big balcony outside to take pictures of the changing sunset light, then hurrying back inside to regain some warmth. The low and warm light on Mont-Blanc du Tacul and Dôme du Goûter was incredibly beautiful, and a new discovery for me, having only done daytrips at this altitude so far.
By 21:00, we were tucked in the comfy bunk beds of the refuge. The night was somewhat long and we woke up many times, but we also got some good sleep despite the big gain in altitude. Certainly a good surprise!
Training day, Mont Blanc du TaculBreakfast is served four times at the refuge des Cosmiques: at 01:00 (for Mont-Blanc would-be summiters), 03:00, 05:00 and 07:00. We had the whole day to climb the Tacul, but since we wanted to get some rest in the afternoon due to the short night to come, we decided on an early start. We were up at 04:45 and enjoying breakfast at 05:00. Which is when we had the first hint that things might be going wrong: Anh asked both of us, then the refuge staff and the other climbers in the mess whether anyone had antibiotics, for she had developed a bladder infection. Unfortunately, none could be found, and though she indeed appeared a bit weak, she assured us that she would be ok.
By the time we were dressed and roped up, dawn was there. We could see the cloud cover just a few hundred meters below us on the glacier du Géant, but the day appeared beautiful at our altitude. The weather forecast was confirming high pressures until at least Monday, with one caveat: very strong winds (60 to 70km/h) for the day, though they were supposed to slow down to 40km/h during the next night. The view over the Dent du Géant and the Grandes Jorasses was magnificent, and for a moment, we all forgot our respective worries and fears, simply enjoying the moment, glad to be standing there.
Initially sheltered by the rocky buttress on which the refuge is perched, we realized how strong the winds actually were as soon as we reached the Col du Midi and the base of the Tacul face. I was also worried by our slow pace, since it took us almost an hour to reach this point from the refuge, instead of the usual 20 to 30 minutes. The terrain was very easy, but walking with crampons was still a new experience for the two others.
We took a short break and started up the gigantic face. If we had been slow before, our pace was now reduced to a crawl. After each step up, I had to wait three or four seconds for the tension on the rope to decrease somewhat. It was annoying and tiring to have such a tight rope, but any slack would immediately translate in further slowing down, which we simply couldn't afford if we ever wanted to reach the summit. The upside of this pace was that I didn't feel tired at all, nor even out of breath. Maybe having done some running in the past few weeks had been useful, after all.
We only took one break on the way up, but still needed a couple of hours to climb the face, much more than normally needed. The north face is usually very dangerous, with lots of crevasses and potential serac falls, and we were only too aware to be climbing almost to the day one year after eight climbers died at the very same spot, taken in an avalanche triggered by seracs in the middle of the night. But 2009 was a good year for the Tacul, and though certainly impressive, the seracs at the top of the route didn't feel too threatening. We still hurried as much as possible during the mandatory passage. We also found tracks of climbers who had stopped and had a snack just below the biggest one, I have no idea what they must have been thinking...
Hurrying on the last part had taken its toll on Anh, however, and by the time we reached the shoulder, a rest was dearly needed. Unfortunately, the wind from which we had been somewhat sheltered on the upper face was now blowing stronger than ever, and we knew we would get cold very fast as soon as we stopped. We kept going a while more, hoping to get better protection, but finally had to admit that none was to be had. We agreed on a short stop, but even with my belay jacket on, these five minutes without moving lowered my body temperature much more than I liked.
The summit was now very close, only one last snow ridge and a small rock scramble to get to the cross. But to our dismay, we met the two climbers who had been in front of us the whole time, now on their way down. They told us that they had had to turn around at the ridge, as the winds were simply too strong to continue. A quick pow-wow agreed on giving it a try anyway, retreating if we didn't like it.
As soon as we were over the last hump of the shoulder, we understood the previous team decision. It required concentration to stay upright, nothing could be heard even if shouted from a very close distance and I had no doubt that any bit of exposed skin would soon be frozen solid. At some point, annoyed to feel tension on the rope even though we should be walking fast, I turned around only to realize that there was lots of slack between me and Bernd, but that the wind was pulling the rope with a lot of strength. Time to get a move on!
We covered the ground to the summit rocks quickly, only pausing to let a party finish descending. As I got to the start of the scramble, it felt like a switch had been turned off. Since the rocks sheltered me from the wind, it felt again like a warm, beautiful day. This is what saved the summit, as there would have been no way for us to climb the last bits in this gale.
The scrambling is short (maybe 40m) and rather easy, but requires some awkward mixed moves on very exposed terrain. Since the two others had never tried crampons on rock before and no one was coming after us on the shoulder, we decided to belay. I switched to my technical ax (the beloved BD Cobra, which I carried in prevision of the icy condition of the col du mont Maudit, the next day) and climbed up. About midway, having arrived at the end of my rope length, I looked hard for any protection. Since there was quite a lot of snow at places, I initially tried to hammer in a picket, but it soon hit ice and wouldn't go any deeper. No problem, thought I, I will put a screw instead. But the ice just wasn't any good, and after screwing the whole BD express in, I could just pull it straight out without any effort. Nope, won't do. I of course had no rock pro, since we hadn't planned to see any. After some more searching, I finally decided on a somewhat sketchy slung rock. I announced to Bernd, still down, that he was kind of on belay but that I strongly advised against a fall.
In less time than it took me to say it, he confidently climbed to my position, soon followed by Anh. Neither mixed terrain nor exposure seemed to affect them, much to my delight. A very short "pitch" later, and I was belaying them from the slung summit cross, which certainly beats bolts in the realm of cool belay stations.
4248m: hugs, pictures and big smiles, we had gotten our first summit together, and for all three of us, it was our highest point in the Alps (though Anh has been on Kili and myself on Chopicalqui). The day was beautiful and we even briefly forgot about the wind.
We didn't unrope, and by the time we had used up all combinations of angles, photographers and photographees, there was a giant clusterfuck connecting the three of us. It took us a while to untangle it, and we could also see several parties approaching on the shoulder. We knew it would be tricky to cross each other up here, and we had already spent 20 minutes on the summit, so it was time to go down. We reversed the way we had climbed up, with a bit of simulclimbing thrown in to speed things up. Anh initially started downclimbing the rocky south side before Bernd noticed and told her it probably wasn't such a good idea. Later explanations included "it looked easier" and "it seemed more interesting"...
At the base of the rock, we met a guided party of three. The guide kept shouting to his clients, encouragements, beta and reprimands with each step, and I couldn't help thinking that wanting to be yelled at is not the prime reason I am climbing mountains.
We took another break on the most sheltered spot we could find on the shoulder, then started the long descent off the face. Anh wasn't so confident facing the slope on the way down, so we were once again pretty slow. As we got lower, I started getting a headache, then feeling suddenly very tired. The progression was dull and repetitive slogging, and I spaced out for a while before getting a grip on. Impatient to get back to the refuge and the rest it promised, I made the mistake of not halting at that point. By the time we reached the refuge, all I wanted was to be allowed to collapse and die on the spot.
I initially thought it was altitude catching up with me and fearing the consequences for the big push that would start just a few hours later, but I realized I had just committed a beginner mistake: it had been so cold all day that I barely drank any more than a few centiliters the whole day, and I was badly dehydrated, though I didn't feel thirsty. I felt much better as soon as I downed more than a liter of tea and water. I forced myself to drink as much as possible during the afternoon and evening and didn't suffer (from that particular ailment, at least) on the next day. I'm usually careful about hydration, but overestimated my camel skills on this day. Lesson learned, I hope.
It had taken us 1h30 to get back to the refuge, and we now had most of the afternoon free. We feasted on our supplies, realizing we had brought a lot more than we could possibly eat, and discussed routes and times at length. In the end, it was agreed on that since we were so slow, only a very early start could give us enough margin for a serious shot at the summit. We planned on a midnight departure, which would mean no breakfast, but we felt it was worth the sacrifice. And with enough luck, the 2 hours head start would allow us to avoid the traditional traffic jam on the col du Mont Maudit.
Anh refused to tell us how she really felt, which in retrospect should have been a big warning, not only of her actual condition but also of how stubborn she could be, but the recent success was still so fresh in our heads that we rationalized we could pull it off again. We would be slow, but if we managed to keep a steady pace, then we would be all right. We alluded to the possibility of her going down in the evening, but none of us considered that option very carefully. Early summit fever or just plain bad judgment, it was in any case another mistake...
We spent most of the afternoon sleeping, then had a nice dinner where we chatted with two lads from London who were coming straight from Monte Rosa and were guided to the summit. We saw them briefly on the col Maudit, going very strong, and I have no doubt they reached the summit without trouble.
Going back to bed around 20:30, with an alarm set for three hours later. For more than an hour, I couldn't find sleep, full of worries, reviewing mentally the route and planning timetables according to different scenarii. I had just given up the idea of sleeping altogether when...
The big day, and my first rescue... I woke up to the sound of the alarm going off. And judging by the groans and movements coming from pretty much every other bunk, it must have been going on for quite a while, too. I had been in such a deep sleep that I had no idea where I was, nor why I was getting up instead of getting back in the (decidedly too comfortable) bed. The next half hour happened more or less in a dream, and only when we actually got started on the glacier did I remember where I was, and more importantly, where I was headed to. It was 00:20 when we started.
We had agreed to try and go fast when on easy terrain, and we certainly made good time on the col du Midi, that we were starting to know pretty well. We also had the good surprise to get much less wind than the previous day. Things were going well.
Or so we thought. As soon as we started up the face of Tacul, we were back to a crawl, even slower than the previous day. Anh was clearly suffering, but she bravely kept going. At about one third of the face, the slopes eases a bit and it is possible to take a comfortable break. I didn't want to stop, afraid to get cold and to lose whatever little rhythm we had managed to acquire, but it was obvious we didn't have much choice. Of course, by the time I had peed, drunk some water and dug out a powerbar from the depth of my jacket (the only food I would eat of the whole day), the others were ready to start again. For the record, it's not easy to open a plastic wrapping with alpine gloves, while going up 40 degrees snow, at night and with an ice axe and a walking pole under one arm.
We remembered the way from the day before. One big section up, three turns, one long traverse, a short steep part, a half-dozen turns, another traverse... We were back under the seracs. Anh was slowing down and asked for a break, but we refused it to her and pushed forward, afraid to stay longer than strictly necessary in this death trap. When we reached the shoulder a few minutes later, at around 03:00, we took the promised break and Anh, timidly, wondered what the options were if she wanted to go down. Coming from her, we immediately knew what it meant. Something was really wrong. We stopped and interrogated her. She finally confessed that, for the past half hour or so, she had felt like fainting with each step and was very dizzy.
The discussion that ensued felt quite surreal. Even Anh knew that her summit bid was over, but she felt bad that Bernd and I would have to turn around. Her first suggestion was to call a rescue helicopter, so that Bernd and I could keep going, and it took a little while to explain this wasn't how things worked. She then, very seriously, said that she would get down on her own, even though she was by then barely capable of walking. When we told her, repeatedly, that this was completely out of question, she got up and said "ok, then we continue", and started walking. Stubborn, this one. I don't know to what extent it was the sickness talking, but she clearly wasn't taking the mountain nearly seriously enough.
It took quite a lot of arguing, and the somewhat heavy-handed argument "if you're dead, we won't care much about the summit" to convince her to go down with us. At this point, however, a lot was going on my head. It was still early and the conditions were as close to perfection as I was ever likely to see. I also knew I had the skills to safely solo the climb. If we managed to get Anh to safety, and if Bernd felt like he could take her up the arête du midi on his own, then maybe I could still have a shot to the summit.
I asked him what he thought of it, and, true to himself, he said that he had no problem with me continuing while he was going down. However, we had no guarantee that Anh would be able to descend the Tacul face of her own power, and he would really need my help on the way down if things turned for the worse. I postponed any summit thoughts and focused on the task at hand. It was now officially a rescue.
We weren't sure what exactly Anh was suffering from, but we were above 4000m, and losing altitude quickly certainly wouldn't hurt. Since she was able to think clearly and walk reasonably well, we opted to keep our current rope configuration, simply retying Bernd one meter away from Anh, ready to arrest any fall. This was probably a mistake as well, as since I was the only person with self-arrest experience, I should have been behind Anh, and Bernd would have had no problem leading on the way down. I realized this quickly and asked the others if they wanted to switch, but since Anh was doing all right (considering the circumstances), we simply kept on going.
For the past hour or so, the refuge had been spitting out an apparently endless stream of climbers. At some point, there was an almost continuous light path between the refuge and the foot of Tacul, and the col looked like a highway. By the time we started descending, the fastest parties had caught up with us, and having to cross so many people coming up made our task much more difficult. The upper part, below the seracs, was especially steep and the track was not more than a few days old. Most of the climbers didn't want to give way, even though it would have cost them only a few seconds. I could have gone on the side and followed a parallel path, but with her lack of cramponing experience and in her condition, it was simply too dangerous for Anh to follow. If she had been worsening, then we would probably have yelled and shoved our way down, but since she seemed rather stable, we elected to wait out the worse of it, trying to gain grounds in the rare moments where nobody was on the track.
Unfortunately, losing altitude did not make Anh feel any better, but at least she was not doing any worse. Once we were past the serac section, the track was considerably wider and we had already passed most of the other parties, so we were able to go down pretty fast. We stopped for a break at the same place than on the way up. Though still steep, the terrain wasn't exposed anymore and went straight down, so a fall wouldn't have been fatal. At this pace, the refuge was about 45 minutes away. I asked Bernd and Anh if it was ok for me to leave them here, and they both agreed. I quickly unroped and also gave Bernd my now useless snow picket. Ideally, I would also have dug out the pots I carried for emergency snow melting, since I wouldn't have the stove, as well as most of my food, but everyone was in a hurry to get started again, if in different directions.
I offered one last time to go down with them if they had any doubts, and when they generously declined again, started resolutely up the hill, for the third time in less than a day. It was 04:20.
The pushMy first feeling was one of great freedom. The heavy coil was gone from my shoulders and I didn't have to fight against the rope with each step. Of course, I started way too fast, but my legs and my lungs quickly reminded me of what altitude I was currently at. Adding to that the 4 hours I had been walking on already, the much too short night and the emotions from Anh's rescue, it didn't take long for me to hit the wall. Soon, I was barely going any faster than when the three of us were roped, which was not without irony.
It was hard to go back up, very hard. Not only physically but also mentally, as I had already done that bloody section earlier today, and it just wasn't fair that I had to go through it again! I spent quite a while feeling sorry for myself, which at least kept me busy through the boredom of the upper Tacul face. Finally, I remembered what Rune, my main climbing partner, once shouted at me while I was loudly complaining on a difficult but amazing trad lead, a few months back: "Alex, you're doing what you love and you wouldn't want to be anywhere else, so stop bitching and climb!".
It was like a slap in the face, and I stopped whining, instead using the only way I know of climbing big mountains: not thinking about the summit, which is impossibly far, but keeping going bit by bit, as long as possible. And when I am finally forced to give up and turn around, doing it with a smile, knowing that I have given it your best. I know we all heard that stuff dozens of times, and honestly, I too used to think it was just some more leadership-consultant-buzzwords-bullshit, but it made a real difference on Chopicalqui, and now on Mont-Blanc. I have no doubt I would have turned around in discouragement very early if I had kept shooting for the summit.
Unfortunately, my newly found mental strength failed to transmit to my body, and the last portion of the face, under the now all too familiar seracs, was pure torture. By the time I reached the shoulder, I knew that, being barely a quarter of the way, I wouldn't go much further if I didn't find new legs quickly. My first goal had only been to go further than the place where we had stopped earlier, and when I reached it, I was extremely close to turning around. The view, however, was magnificent. The Mont Maudit, hidden so far, was now in full view, rendering the remaining route to the col du Mont Maudit much less abstract. The headlamps of climbers, most of them jammed at the col, made for a surreal picture. Despite the wind, I stopped long enough to take some pictures, finally settling on a makeshift snow tripod and a long exposure.
My decision about whether to continue was still in the balance. I felt exhausted and knew I had something like 10 hours left to get to the summit and back down safely. I also had the promise of a few hours of sleep in the refuge if I came down quickly enough. In the end, I am not sure what tipped the balance in favor of going up. A mixture of pride, not wanting to acknowledge that the Mont Maudit was indeed cursed (which is what its name means in French), and being aware that I had really lucked out on the conditions and wasn't likely to find such good weather in future trips. But most of all, what saved my summit may have been the simple fact that the next section through the col Maudit (not to be confused with the col du Mont Maudit) was long and flat, and that with some luck, I might rest a bit on it. After all, I should turn around on hard terrain, not before the easiest part of the whole climb!
Flatness did wonders. Miracles, did I even think at the time. Though I was still very slow and struggling with each step, I wasn't considering bailing anymore. I had been afraid of the steepness of the Maudit, but even though my watch told me it took one hour and a half to climb it, I had the impression it was only 30 minutes. Adding to my good disposition, after 6 hours in the darkness, the sun was finally rising, and the day was as beautiful as promised.
This was the big turning point in the climb. Though it didn't last very long, this energy allowed me to cover enough ground to be able to think in terms of what was in front of me, rather than what was behind me. From now on, in my head, the way out would be up. As Mark Twight puts it, I had stopped being ground fixated.
I finally had reached the col du Mont Maudit, which formed the technical crux of the route, about 50m on a 50° slope. We had been warned that it was dry ice, but the lower part was equipped with a fixed line. I waited a bit for the five climbers in front of me to clear the way and stop sending big chunks of ice my way, then cautiously started up.
If until then, soloing had been no problem at all, I was suddenly very aware of not being roped in. This was still well within what I considered reasonable risk, but I was way out of my comfort zone. With the fixed line in one hand and my technical tool in the other, I slowly came up, being careful to only use very good pick placements but a bit insecure in feet (I would like to blame my Makalu crampons, which are really not made for technical ice, but the most probable culprit is my lousy technique). The rocky outcrop halfway was soon reached without too much scare.
So far, so good, but I now had to give up the fixed line and the feeling of security it brought. I considered stopping for a while to calm down and maybe get my second ice ax out of the pack, but didn't want to take the risk to start panicking, and just wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible. I now had to traverse 6 or 7 meters to another big rock. This track had been made more recently, and there was still a bit of hard snow at places, which offered much better foot placements. I was really scared, as a fall would have had very serious consequences, but just concentrated on getting good swings with my axe, and before long was hugging granite. Phew. One last uphill bit, which was somewhat treacherous as a thin layer of snow covered hard ice, I focused on the edge of the col, just a few meters above, and shut down any thoughts of falling. With one last swing, it was over. I was done with Mont Maudit.
In my memory, this remains as the most beautiful moment of the climb. For the first time, I could really see Mont-Blanc, not hidden by any other mountain. To my left, I had the summit of Mont Maudit, the gently sloping col de la Brenva and an abrupt drop into Italy. To my right, looking down, the glacier des Bossons, the Grands Mulets and the Dôme du Goûter. And in front of me, the unmistakable king of the place, Mont-Blanc itself, guarded by the last difficulty of the route, the steep Mur de la Côte. This was the panorama I had been looking at so often from the valley, and, after waiting 20 years, I finally felt part of it. I had to fight back some tears before I could start towards the Mur, having forgotten everything about tiredness or altitude.
As soon as I had reached the Col du Mont Maudit, however, I had been hit by strong, cold winds. And judging by its direction, there wouldn't be any shelter before the summit. From now on, stopping, or even slowing down too much, would mean brutal falls in body temperature.
The col de la Brenva was easily reached, but as soon as the slope started increasing towards the Mur de la Côte, my good dispositions vanished and I was back at the snail pace I was more used to. My only comfort was to see that the group of three who had passed me earlier, then going strong, was now struggling up as well. The mur is relatively short, and I had initially hoped to power through it, but, unsurprisingly, this proved overly optimistic. Though indeed quite steep, it wasn't iced up and was technically very easy. I fought my way up for more than half an hour, being occasionally passed by climbers returning to Aiguille du Midi and looking at their downhill speed with envy. By the time I reached the plateau at the top, I felt like Tenzing Norgay was said to be at the top of the Hillary step: gasping for air like a fish that has been taken out of the water.
It was now 09:00 and I only had to climb the last summit slopes. The guidebook announced 2 hours, but it seemed so close that I didn't really believe it. I should have, it took me 2 and a half! The first part consisted in going around the rocky outcrop of the Petits Rochers Rouges (small red rocks), followed by a long snow slope to the summit ridge. I don't know what the worst was, having the reference point of the Rochers and realizing just how little progress I was making, or being on the featureless snow and convincing myself that I wasn't going up at all. The wind was blowing stronger than ever and there was no escaping it, which also started to take its toll.
Mentally as well as physically, I was nearing exhaustion. My poor acclimatization was showing, my digestive system had shut down since the early morning and just the attempt of forcing down some chocolate almost made me throw up. I was drinking as much as I could, but, wind helping, my throat was completely dried up (and I would be unable to speak much for the next few hours). My body was telling me it needed to rest badly, and as soon as my attention drifted to something else than the machinery of putting a foot in front of the other one, I simply stopped. The autopilot was dead.
At this point, I was again very close to turning around and simply giving up. The summit didn't mean anything anymore, I just wanted this torture to end. What kept me going, this time, was the thought of the easier Goûter descent route, which I hoped wouldn't go up as much as the Trois Monts (I was more or less right) and which would avoid necessitating to downclimb the nasty Col du Mont Maudit, since I didn't have a rope to abseil on. I honestly don't know if I would have made it to the top if the traverse hadn't been there.
I looked down. The Petits Rochers Rouges were impossibly far away, I should have been on the summit by now. And yet, all I could see was the exact same snow shape above me. Slowly, one step at a time, I climbed up, and up, and up, until I finally could see what was standing behind the dome. And of course, instead of the air I had been hoping for, there was more snow. It was just a false summit. The mountain was playing with me, and it made me angry. Full of rage, I walked faster up this slope which I didn't dare hope was the last. Mistaking distances once more, I realized that what I had thought was yet another endless hill only took me a few minutes to go through.
I was looking at a ridgeline only a handful of meters away. Though I couldn't see if something else was hiding behind it, I knew deep down that there wasn't. I had arrived. At this instant, I was reminded of my first moments on Machu Picchu, two years earlier. We had climbed the 800m of height difference during the night to arrive at sunrise, and it had been an ordeal as I had been sick and (surprise) not so well acclimatized. I had deliberately looked away when the site was visible through the trees, waiting for the final viewpoint, knowing it would be extraordinary. When it arrived, I slowly looked and was blown away by the experience. I knew the summit of Mont-Blanc would be similar.
I climbed the last meters and found myself on a thin ridge. I was the highest I could possibly be, looking down on everything around me. This time, I didn't try to fight my tears. I thought of all the times when, as a child, I had looked up to this very place, dreaming of how beautiful the view would be. It was even better. I was completely alone and the day was as perfect as one could hope. I know it must have been as windy as on the way up, but I have no memory of ever noticing. I could see far into Italy, Switzerland and France. I saw the Eccles hut, start of the Innominata ridge and had a thought for both Rahel and Michael, though I haven't met either. But of course, my thoughts were first and foremost with Anh and Bernd, whom I hoped were by now safely recovering back in Chamonix.
What will remain as my most beautiful summit memory was the moment where a rescue helicopter circled around me, on the way to the other side of the range, as I was standing alone on the summit with a stupid smile painted on my face. I made a small wave of the hand, being careful for it not to interpreted as more than a greeting, and I think I saw the pilot wave back, though I can't be sure. In a second, it was gone. Turning around to follow its movement gave me an immense sensation of space, and made me realize that I was indeed on the highest point of the continent. It was simply magical.
DescentI wanted to spend a lot of time on the summit, enjoying the moment, but my watch decided otherwise. It was now 11:20, and the last Tramway du Mont-Blanc departed from Nid d'Aigle at 16:35. Missing it would mean at least 2 extra hours and 1000m of additional descent, which really didn't sound appealing. The guidebook indicated exactly 5 hours for the descent through the Goûter, but I had been going for 11 hours with almost no rest and wasn't sure I could make it.
I took a few pictures, including a 360° panorama, said a last goodbye to the summit and started down on the Bosses ridge. Along with Chopicalqui, it is one of the most beautiful ridges I have ever walked. Narrow, exposed and varied, it was pure pleasure to follow, especially as I was still alone on the mountain. I also had the good surprise to find myself sheltered from the wind, and in addition to the midday sun, I was rapidly too warm. Not wanting to reiterate the mistake of the previous day, I decided I had deserved a small break, which I used to strip down extra layers, apply sunscreen and rehydrate. Five minutes later, once more full of energy, I continued down. After so much going up, my body appreciated the change in direction and the different movements. It wouldn't last.
I quickly reached the Rochers Foudroyés and the Vallot shelter and realized that the interesting part of the route was now over. A long and boring descent put me to the Col du Goûter, by which time I was growing tired of the dullness of descending snow. But as soon as the route up to the Dôme du Goûter had even the slightest positive slope, my pace was slowed to a crawl. I simply had no resources left to go up. When I finally reached the top of the hill, I could see what was awaiting me: another very long descent to the ridge of Aiguille du Goûter, followed by a short uphill walk before reaching the refuge. It didn't seem that far away, but the size of climbers on the ridge gave me a better idea of the real distance. The track was incredibly wide. If the Trois Monts had been a well-traveled road, this was an 8-lanes highway. I have seen ski resorts with less compacted snow and could only imagine what the traffic had been like just a few hours earlier!
The next hour and a half happened in a dream. Just like on the final slopes of the summit, my goal kept retreating at the same rhythm than me, and I had the impression of not progressing at all. I didn't have the strength, either mental or physical, to run or slide down. Soon my thighs were begging for mercy, but I knew I couldn't afford to stop. I passed a few crevasses, surprised as this route is supposed to be totally safe for soloing. The views also kept growing less and less interesting, hiding all but a few rock faces.
By the time I reached the ridge of the Aiguille, I was once more nearing exhaustion and wanted nothing more than a stop, water and sleep. Two of those would have to wait a few hours longer, though. As one approaches the refuge, the snow becomes brownish and littered with waste. Some slopes are literally covered with mummified crap and it made my heart sink, especially as the whole mountain had been pristine so far. The refuge was, as usual, crowded, and I only stopped for a few minutes, long enough to remove crampons, strap the ice ax back on the pack and drink some water. I also had cellphone coverage, which allowed me to call my parents, giving them an update and asking about Anh's condition. She seemed to be doing good, and Bernd and her were relaxing in a restaurant when I called. Having been on the move for so long, I found odd that people would be having lunch when my body told me it was well past dinner time...
I briefly chatted with some guides who wanted to know the conditions, and one of them assured me that most of the people who would sleep in the refuge that night had already arrived, a scary perspective when I counted more than 50 people still going up. But I had a more pressing problem: I had been so slow on the snow descent that I was now well behind schedule, and I really had to hurry if I wanted to catch the last Tramway.
I was in luck. The rock scramble to Aiguille du Goûter was completely snow-free, including the fearsome Grand Couloir, and it was the kind of terrain I love. My stints of the previous month in the German Alps had greatly improved my confidence over that kind of terrain. Training on rock climbs with my alpine boots also paid off on that day. I downclimbed very fast, using only occasionally the fixed cables, which allowed me to avoid most of the upwards traffic. There were some fun climbing problems to be found on the sides, and I enjoyed how this scramble broke the monotonicity of the descent. The rock was, however, very loose, and I wondered how the mountain was held together. Probably a lot of duct tape.
I had heard many stories about the Grand Couloir that one has to cross at the base of the Aiguille du Goûter, but it wasn't before I saw a volley of stones fly down to its base that I really understood why it was scaring people so much. Since it was so dry, however, the conditions were rather stable and my crossing thankfully uneventful. At that point, it was 15:00 and the guidebook announced only one hour to descend to Nid d'Aigle. I was starting to relax when I asked a local guide what he thought of the timing. As it turned out, we both corrected each other mistakes: there was actually 2 hours left, and he thought the last tramway was at 17:35. We both realized we had to hurry a lot if we wanted to make it. He started jogging down, but I could only follow his pace for a few minutes before having to slow down. He crossed the edge of a glacier with ease, but, not having been raised by mountain goats, I slipped and fell no less than four times in a hundred meters.
I stopped, rehydrated, layered down once more and kept going as fast as I could. The path was now easy, but impossibly long and going steeply down once more. My watch was in the backpack and I didn't want to stop to take it out, fearing I wouldn't be able to restart, so I had no idea what the time was and whether I had a chance to still make the last train. I had started getting used to the idea of having to walk all the way down to the valley, though I honestly didn't know how I could pull it off.
Of course, there were some more of those you-think-you've-arrived-but-there's-actually-another-hill-behind-the-crest moment, but I was getting used to them. When I finally met a couple of hikers who inexplicably didn't seem to hurry down, they gave me three of the best news I had ever heard: it was only 16:15, the station was less than 10 minutes away, and there was an extra service at 17:00. And, true enough, 10 minutes later, I was sitting in the midst of day hikers and grandparents, having secured a seat on the last tramway. I downed my remaining quart of water in just a few minutes, called my parents to ask them to pick me up, Anh to know how she was doing.
Finally, I could stop and relax. I had been on the move for more than 16 hours, stopping no more than half an hour in total, had gone up 2000 meters and down 3200, a new record for me. But more importantly, I had realized that old childhood dream. I had stood on top of the world.
EpilogueAfter a few hours of rest in the Cosmiques hut, it took Anh and Bernd more than two hours to cover the short distance up the Arête du Midi to the cablecar station. In daylight, Anh realized that she had a persistent fog in front of the eyes. It took a few days to disappear. A doctor told her it was minor high altitude cerebral oedema (HACE), which had likely been caused by poor acclimatization, as her body was busy fighting the infection. She seems to have made a complete recovery.
Both of them want to go back and try again next year. As for me, the short look on the Italian side convinced me that this would be the route of my next ascent. But in the short term, I am looking toward the Frendo spur and the Rébuffat for next summer.
I learned a lot on this trip. We made mistakes, some of which could have been avoided, and some which could have cost us dearly. In no particular order, here are some thoughts:
- Discuss thoroughly the philosophy of the ascent with your partners, and make sure that everyone is on the same page regarding risks and goals. Anh underestimated the dangers and kept going long after she should have alerted us of her real condition, simply because she didn't want to endanger our summit bids.
- Don't always assume that everyone can make the best decisions at all times. The sickness made Anh believe that she could call a helicopter in the middle of the night to get her down if needed. We should have paid more attention, and done so much earlier in the climb.
- Bail. Bail. Bail. When the risk isn't worth it anymore, just turn around. Trying to make the climb fit in a weekend is especially dangerous, as there is only one shot and we can be tempted to go in less than perfect conditions. It was a big mistake to even get started when Anh was beginning to get sick. I feel ashamed to not having made that decision and having endangered her life.
- Take the time to stop and fix whatever needs fixing, be it layering up or down, rehydrating or changing the rope configuration. The time lost will be more than repaid very quickly.
- The real climb happens in the head. It is a fight of every instant. The most important thing is to want to get up, and one needs good reasons for that. Be sincere with yourself, as your brain is going to try and convince you to stop this foolishness by any means necessary when the going gets tough.
- Mountain climbing is equally beautiful and dangerous. Learn to appreciate one while respecting the other.