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 sic