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Thin air and massive views: climbing Mont Blanc

Little did I know how it feels to try and breathe at nearly five thousand meters above sea level.  Little did I know how it feels to look down from the highest point in the European Alps.  Human beings were not designed to survive up there, yet I have joined the faithful following that makes the pilgrimage each summer to the high mountains.

I had been eagerly anticipating our trip to the Alps for so long that I could barely endure the interminable wait for the traffic light to change so I could dash across Euston Road to Belgrove Street where my climbing partner Drew and his trusty Toyota Yaris were waiting to pick me up.  Drew’s collection of 80s dance music provided the soundtrack for our drive from London to Chamonix, a necessity for the 3:00am driving shift.

I have been living in England long enough that I no longer see arriving in Dunkirque and traveling through the French countryside as foreign and exciting, but have come to regard the prevailing use of French language in this part of Europe as a somewhat bothersome inconvenience that must be endured en route to better things.  Eventually we arrived at the climbers’ car park in Chamonix, valley of mountaineering legends, and cooked our dinner by a country villa where the lady tending her garden smiled broadly and wished us “Bon Apetit!”

Acclimatisation Trip

The next morning we made preparations to transition to the climbers’ world.  Dressed as British climbers, heavily laden with too much gear and clad in dark colours, we clanked our way to the Telepherique Aiguilles du Midi amongst sleek, shiny Europeans in bright colours with tiny form-fitting rucksacks.  Tourists made up the rest of the queue to ride to the top of the lift whereupon they flooded the restaurant and viewing decks to have a look into our world, and we mountaineers climbed over a metal fence to live in that world.

Accommodation de luxe

Meeting our friends Igor and Helen from Cambridge provided us with an alternative to our plan of living as bivvy bag- dwelling paupers in the tent-village that had sprung up in the Vallee Blanch, as they had laid claim to a 10m x 10m wood shack perched on a snowy ridge.  Wooden shelves in the form of two sets of twin bunk beds allowed four pairs of two to cuddle up out of the wind.  Luxury to the student budget!

The views and the altitude took our breath away, and we deemed the acclimatization trip a success as we completed the Cosmiques Arete and Ordinary Route on the Mt Blanc du Tacul over the next two days.  Climbing over other climbers on the icy rocks of the Tacul summit yielded views of alpine peaks swirled in moving clouds.  At the edge of our line of sight, Mt Blanc worked on a lenticular cloud and suggested that a descent to the valley might be wise.

Summit Day

After two days of waiting out a storm, the volume of gear and food crammed into the Yaris on our way to the lift station indicated the magnitude of our upcoming Mt Blanc climb.  Trekking across the wind-blown glacier to the bivvy hut brought us to a cozy party of three Russian men and three university students from Southampton, all of whom were waiting to pounce on the weather window, and invoked the “Always Room For One More!” rule.  The lack of any space for movement about the hut and the 1:00am rise-time brought chaos as all ten of us bustled through breakfast and rucksack-packing rituals to join the strings of roped-together lights making their way toward the highest summit in Europe.

After climbing the fixed ladder over the Tacul bergschrund, we plodded higher into the night and up to the shoulder of Mt Maudit, where the 45-degree snow and ice slopes of the col du Maudit provide a significant challenge when situated at 4300 meters.  I shivered up the pitch whilst climbers above kicked ice into my face, and turned into a whimpering, coughing, nauseated wreck.  Near the top Drew suggested we might want to turn back, as the altitude was clearly just going to get worse.  I hurt so much that I very nearly agreed, but upon topping out and seeing the summit slopes in the distance, I told him “there is no way we’re turning back now.”

On we marched into thinner air.  My friend Alex’s words rang in the back of my mind:  “you can go on a climbing trip, climb some routes in nice weather, and have a good time.  But that’s not where all the good stories come from.”  Indeed, the requisite “I’m never climbing again” moment had been satisfied.

As the sun rose, Mt Blanc turned into Mt Pink and the cameras came out.  The track weaved around snow domes and seracs and the gradual uphill battle became more elusive as I gasped out “I’m trying…I’m really trying…sorry Drew.”  I was suffocating, I couldn’t think, all I wanted was to collapse and sleep for a bit.  Nausea set in, I wanted to throw up but there was nothing to lose from my empty stomach so every few minutes I would cough violently from trying to expel nothing.  A few steps uphill, then keel over with head between knees, barely able to muster the strength to move forward.  I tried to enhance my energy by eating some food but the few bites of cereal bar merely egged on the nausea and were abandoned.  I told myself to count twenty steps before the next desperate pause, but five seemed the best I could manage.

Just two more sections of slope…just five more switchbacks to catch up with that green-clad team…then aim for the orange figure moving in the distance.  Each target was met miserably behind schedule, but we finally held the summit in our view.  A German climber saw me struggling and offered me a trekking pole:  “Just leave it in the Cosmiques hut when you’re down, and label it ‘for Jakob’.”

And then I had a strong urge to both laugh and cry, as Drew and I finally stepped onto the top of the world with Igor and Helen close behind.  The narrow summit ridge fell away to Italy, France, and the rest of Europe!  Mountains that looked imposing from the valley base were mere topographical indicators from up here; clouds gently cushioned the space between knolls and bumps; heavily crevassed treacherous glaciers showed only an innocent white blanket carpeting the bases of tiny mounds of granite.

The descent was easier but I was still sick and moving slowly. Whilst setting up our ropes to descend the col du Maudit, a Canadian guide criticised our boot-axe belay technique and said to me “sweetheart, you’re going to get frostbite if you don’t cover up your nose.”  A disgusting descent of that pitch, lowering on top of climbers and mistaking climbing ropes for fixed ropes, made me wistful for Swiss and American mountains where company is not the norm.

Still weak and coughing, we arrived at the bivvy hut and collapsed in our sleeping bags for thirty-six hours as a whiteout raged outside.

Back to Reality

I awoke to a burning face and toes screaming as they succumbed to frost nip.  Spooned against Igor in the top bunk, I welcomed the storm outside as an excuse not to have to move.  When it finally cleared, we couldn’t climb anything due to the instability of nearly two feet of fresh snow so prepared for our descent to the valley.

The transition from “our world” up in the high country to the people-accessible world  below was marked by tourists oooh-ing and aaah-ing at my massive rucksack in the cable car.  To them, this was the ultimate form of adventure and independence.  But I reflected on whether the cable car lifts, huts, and daily weather forecasts infringe on the purity of  mountaineering in Chamonix.

We had climbed the mountains and got their good tidings (to quote Scottish alpinist John Muir), and this knowledge must suffice to tide me over through a long winter of city-based work until the next journey above the trees.  Now that the sunburn has healed and the frost nipped toes are a less alarming shade of blue, weekends of rock climbing and hill running will keep me focused on preparing for a return.

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