Objective Mt Blanc, France, 2014

Late on Saturday evening, I arrive in Chamonix for the start of the expedition I’m really excited about. I am going to attempt going to the top of Mont Blanc, highest mountain in Europe. But before things get serious, I still need to reach the village where we’re going to depart from. Les Contamines Montjoie is only 25km away from Chamonix so I’ve decided to hike. I’ve got the entire sunday free so why not exercise and enjoy the beautiful scenery offered by the french Alps and the Massif du Mont Blanc. The only little problem is that I have no map. I have a GPS which only tells me where I am and where I’m going but not how to get there. It only meant I took the wrong direction a couple of times and did an extra 5km. That’s no big deal, I still managed to find my way to the ridge called Bellevue at 1,794m. The view towards Chamonix and the valley is breathtaking.

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It took me roughly 6 hours to reach the village of Contemines Montjoie. The first thing I do is stop at the local supermarket to buy some energy in bars and bottles for the next 5 days. I really don’t want to fall short of resources up there and miss the chance.

The tent set up, I return to the city centre, looking for a restaurant serving one of my favourite type of food typical of this region of France: la cuisine savoyarde. Made of very tasty, creamy and melted cheese, it is an ideal dish to warm up in the winter. But I miss those so much that, even at this time of the year, I go for a tartiflette. On the way back, the sun has gone below the surrounding mountains. Therefore the valley is in the dark but the higher mountains still under its warm light.

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Day 1 – 3, Preparation

Monday 25th of August, day 1 of the expedition to Mont Blanc has arrived. I meet the rest of the group at 8am: Fabien, our guide, Christine, Michel, Bruno, Nicolas and Cédric. We take a dozen minutes to get hold of the necessary equipment for the technical portions: harness, crampons, helmet and ice axe. It leaves plenty of time to everyone to make comments about my bag being particularly heavy of all my camera gear, my bottle of syrup Teisseire (the french version of squash, only 10 times better). But I’ve been training with a bag of 30kg so the 15-20kg I have now should be fine.

The hike to the Refuge des Conscrits, at 2,600m, doesn’t present any particular difficulty. The weather isn’t great and the small showers make the rocks a bit slippery. Only a couple of hours after we’ve left, the guide tells us that the ascent of Mont Blanc won’t be possible. The weather forecasts are not good. What’s the point of making this comment at the start of the expedition? There is 4 days to go and the forecast is changing every day, there is plenty of time for the conditions to improve. A little bit annoyed, we pass the refuge de Tré la Tête and continue our way up. It’s after I’ve crossed a small bridge that I turn back and realise we can see across the valley.

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After short encounters with local wildlife (marmottes, bouquetins and chamois), we arrive at the refuge des Conscrits around 3 pm and all we have to do now is rest. They’ve decorated it with those colourful prayer cloth that are very popular in Nepal (a bit pathetic, what’s the point of copying someone else’s custom?). The plan for tomorrow is to learn how to walk with our crampons on various glaciers up to the Col des dômes at 3,600m. However the weather doesn’t look promising so we delay the wake up time from 4am to 7am. There is no point getting up early to go out under the rain and facing strong cold winds.

We wake up for day 2 and the storm is here. The rain is falling horizontally (is it still called falling?) as the wind is so strong. Looks like we’re going out at all. We practice the use of the rope inside the refuge, simulating falls into cracks and recovery in the stairs. After lunch, I’ve had enough reading and I propose to go outside for a couple of hours. The wind has gone and the rain isn’t as strong as it was this morning. So Nicolas, Cédric and myself dress up and, with Fabien, go practice on snow slopes a few hundred meters above the refuge. We come back completely wet but it doesn’t matter. I’m happy I’ve been outside. The weather forecast for tomorrow seems better. The plan is then to wake up a bit earlier than planned so we can practice walking with crampons before descending all the way back down to Les Contamines.

And it is! We take a quick breakfast, put our gear on and head outside in the dark. We make our way up at the light of frontal lamps. An hour later, the sun starts to appear behind the mountains.

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And as we ascend, we can see the entire landscape touched by the first sun rays.

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We are now at 3,200m. It’s windy and cold and the GoPro is extremely slow. If it is being affected by these conditions although being designed for extremes, how would my camera react at 4,800m? It probably isn’t a good idea to take it with me then. It is time to start our journey back down to the village. We have lunch waiting for us at 2pm, 2,100m lower. But it looks like it’s going to be a good day as the sun continues to warm up the atmosphere.

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On the way down, we take the direction of the glacier Tré la Tête. It is quite easy to walk with the crampons and the rope at the start, because it’s flat. But now we’ve got a steep descend to complete.

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As you can see there is also a large number of stones which risk to fall down as the sun softens the ice. We all look at the bottom pretty anxious. If one of us slips and falls, we all follow. How are we going to make it? We start going down one by one and I realise the ice is really hard which makes it even harder to get some grip. My legs are burning but I can’t stop, we’re all attached. We make a stop about half way so the guide can descend to our level without any of us risking to fall. All good? Ok, let’s finish this. The second half is even harder than the first as our leg muscles are tired. It makes is more difficult to handle our weight on the ice and resist. But surprisingly and despite a few frights, we safely make it to the bottom. The glacier looks even more steep from there.

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We then continue to walk on the glacier but the rest is completely covered by rocks.

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We didn’t quite make it on time for lunch but it doesn’t matter. We had a fresh beer to start with, some nice pasta carbonara and a shower. All the ingredients for a very relaxing afternoon under the sun. After all, this is absolutely necessary so that we are in good shape for the final stage of the expedition, the ascent to Mont Blanc.

Day 4 – 5, the Final Ascent

This time, I have made my bag as light as possible. I don’t won’t anything to get in the way between me and Mont Blanc. We all gather at the train station of Le Fayet to take a train to Le Nid D’aigle at 2,400m. The ropes are made of 3 persons: 1 guide and 2 tourists. I am in the group led by Giovanni, an italian guide and Christine. As we start the hike up, the conditions are fabulous. But it doesn’t take long before a bad news strike. The weather for tomorrow morning is not going to be as good as supposed to. The consequence? Going to the top is very unlikely. The guides propose to try and do it in a day. In other words, push to reach the refuge du gouter a little bit earlier than planned and begin the ascent to Mont Blanc right after, instead of tomorrow morning. Of course, everyone is up for it… apart from my rope colleague who isn’t capable of going any quicker. It is full of frustration that I watch the others getting away…

After a couple of hours, we reach the refuge de Têtes Rousses at 3,167m. (what I learnt later is that at the same time, the firs group was reaching the refuge du Goûter, 700m higher). Here we take our crampons out and begin crossing the first snow slope. We soon reach the famous Couloir de la Mort (Death Corridor). It is called this way because rocks often fall into this passage. We have done less than 10m than other climbers shout “PIERRE!”, “PIERRE!”. We start running on the snow slope to avoid them. I take the time to look up to see the first stone rolling towards us. That one is fine, it’s going right behind me. The second one, however, is not fine. I won’t have time to run and avoid it. So I stop running so the rock passes between Christine and myself. I resume running and we reach the other side safely. Ouf, that was really close! Of course neither Giovanni or Christine realised how close the rocks passed. A break, some water and we begin the climb (literally) to the refuge du goûter (it’s on the picture below, at the limit mountain/sky, can you see it? 😉 )

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Giovanni was slightly worried about my colleague’s condition who was really struggling in this challenging ascent. About a third of the way, he even wanted to stop and go back down. But she really wanted to pursue and at least reach the refuge. We continued the climb but our progress was very slow. As if the conditions weren’t difficult enough, she also ran out of water so I shared mine. She was giving everything she had as we continue to go higher on the sky.

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We finally reached the refuge at 4:30pm. I admire the effort she gave to complete the objective she had set herself. Only it was quite late and there wasn’t a lot of time left to go to the top of Mont Blanc. From here it’s another 6 hours and we’ve only got 5 before the sun sets. And then probably another 4 hours to come back down in the dark. So we cannot waste time. I am feeling great physically, full of energy. So I peruade Giovanni to go. By 5pm, we are on our way to the summit.

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Up there, it’s like being in a different world and the view is extraordinary.

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Only there is a slight problem. Because I shared my water on the way up, I was far from being properly hydrated. And because we arrived at base camp really late, we didn’t have time to rest a little bit and eat. The consequence was inevitable and I start to feel the effects of altitude sickness. It started as a small headache which gets stronger and stronger. My mouth is now very dry. At around 4,100m, I ask Giovanni for a break so I can drink the coffee that we brought. But I start to feel nauseous and all the energy I had seems gone from my body. I realise I cannot go any higher… You can’t imagine how difficult it was mentally to call it off and accept the failure. I have been waiting for this moment for so long, trained so hard, I am in excellent physical condition but I have to go back down. It is so frustrating!!!

The descent was extremely painful. I had to stop several times to drink any kind of liquid we found but it wasn’t doing anything. I had lost all my tonicity and motivation for this. Back at the refuge, I ate quickly and went to bed straight away, so disappointed. I had half a litre of coffee to drink on the way down, we were in altitude, I was still a bit sick, you can imagine I didn’t sleep much. I had lots of time to think about the day. I am extremely disappointed. I feel like I wasn’t given any chance to succeed. The weather was perfect, no clouds, bright sun and apparently not very strong winds at the top. If only I could have had all the water and be hydrated properly and time to rest before taking on the last portion… Maybe I wouldn’t have reached the summit, but at least it would have been down to my own physical ability. Not to someone else’s.

As everyone in the dormitory gets up at 2pm to make an attempt, I really want to join and try again myself. I really hope that I didn’t blow my chance by wanting to go straight away rather than waiting for the following morning. But as it turns out, the weather was bad and nobody went a lot higher than I did. So the descent back down was in the clouds.

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We can’t even see the bottom.

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The rest of the day went particularly smoothly apart from the fact that I really can’t digest the failure. It’s a once in a liftetime chance and mine has been completely destroyed. As I’m sitting on the train going to the valley, I can see the path we took and can’t stop myself from thinking how stupid this is. I still can’t believe it. Of course I will try again but definitely in an other way. The only thing the agency does is book the refuge an hire a guide. I can do that. I will hire my own guide so that the agenda and the pace will be based on my ability. In the mean time, I have to accept the situation. My character pushes me to try again straight away something that I haven’t been able to achieve. But I won’t even have this chance either.

Like if that wasn’t enough, I hurt my knee on the hike back to Chamonix the following day. I quickly became extremely painful. As long as the angle of the path was high (up or down), I was ok. But as soon as it was more horizontal, I could only use my right leg. What had the potential to be an amazing holiday with a significant achievement, ended up being extremely frustrating. I never devoted so much time in writing an article in the same day. But I want this story behind me. Having to go through all these events again wasn’t enjoyable. I can now think forward and start planning my trip to Bornéo in October with my brother. I am sure it’ll be much more rewarding.