Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Mont Blanc Challenge

Climb and Ski Descent of Mont Blanc, 25th and 26th April 2011

When I sat down with Mark Charlton (the UIAGM guide who would be leading the climb) on the Wednesday before Easter, things were looking decidedly bleak.  The plan had always been to attempt the climb over the Easter holiday weekend, but the lack of snow during the winter meant that the glaciers were pretty dangerous with open crevasses, weak snow bridges and unstable seracs.  Worse, the weather forecast for the Easter weekend was very poor.  The expedition was all but cancelled until news arrived on Easter Friday from the Grands Mulets hut that there was a safe route up the mountain and a window in the weather due on Tuesday 26 April. If we could be at the hut on Easter Monday, the challenge was back on.

Being short on time, Mark and I – work commitments meant Radek couldn’t sit out the weather – decided to abandon the original plan to start from the Chamonix valley floor (1,050m), and instead used the first tranche of the Aiguille du Midi cable car and started at the Plan de l’Aiguille at 2,350m.  We jumped on the 8am lift and were skinning by around 9am.  The first section, traversing on the moraine slopes below the Aiguille du Midi was fairly gentle.  As we passed above the old Glaciers cable car station, and the gazex avalanche controls that protect the Mont Blanc tunnel, we crossed onto the plateau of the Bosson Glacier and marvelled at the spectacular seracs resembling exotic ice sculptures.

The main danger on the first day is an area called La Jonction because it is the junction where two glaciers meet in a turbulence of broken seracs and crevasses.  Negotiating a route through Jonction is a question of jumping from one boulder of broken ice to another, and trying not to look at the deep, black holes between them.  In ski boots and with skis on your back, this is a pretty serious and somewhat scary proposition, and I was very relieved to be roped up to Mark.  After Jonction, it was a relatively simple 45 minute climb on skins up to the base of the Grands Mulets rock – a rock island sticking out between two glaciers, on top of which is perched the Grands Mulets hut (at 3,051m). 

Before setting out I had read various guides to the route, most of which, at this point, say something fairly anodyne like “leave your skis at the foot of the rock and follow the cables to the hut”.  What none of the guides mention is that it is actually a 50m climb up a fairly sheer and icy rock face with only the odd bit of old chain to hang on to.  Being a total novice climber, in ski boots, and with a heavy touring rucksack on my back, this was a major challenge for me, and all the more terrifying because as I climbed up, I knew that in the morning I would have to climb back down again, in the dark, and with fresh snow covering the rocks.

Once in the hut we fell into the normal routine of hut-life – drying out kit and discussing the route for the next day over a couple of litres of sweet tea.  We had two choices of route: either, a more arduous and technical route using crampons to climb the north-facing arête of the Dôme du Goûter, or a more gradual gradient skinning up though the Petit and Grand Plateaux.  Unfortunately the second route would mean spending several hours skinning below some enormous and unstable seracs.  There were several groups in the hut that night that did take this route, although in Mark’s view, playing “Russian Roulette” with seracs that could sheer off at any moment, crushing everything below them, is an unnecessary risk.  We would play it “safe”, and take the tougher route up the arête.

As we sat in the hut that afternoon, the forecast snow storm arrived, and later that night, after only fitful sleep, the wake-up call came at 1am, for breakfast at 1.30am, and departure at 2am.  Having somehow managed to get back down the Grands Mulets rock face, it was a comfort to get my skis on and start skinning. It was a dark night, with little moonlight, and with head torch on I tried to focus exclusively on the back of Mark’s skis rather than looking around at the specks of light that were the other teams on the mountain.  All was going smoothly until we reached the transition at the base of the Goûter arête.  As I was calmly taking off my skis, strapping them to my rucksack, and getting out the ice axe and crampons, I heard someone in a team behind say “of course, guys, this is a ‘no-drop-zone’ – lose a ski here and you’re in big trouble!”.  Amazingly, up until then, this had not occurred to me, but having had the thought planted in my consciousness; I developed a gut-wrenching fear of dropping something important, and thus became commensurately nervous and ham-fisted with my equipment.

The arête was steep, icy and a long way from being the “set of steps in the snow” that I had told myself it would be.  Half way up the gradient became more extreme and very exposed, and Mark decided that as well as the rope between us, we needed the additional insurance of an ice screw belay.  He told me to wait whilst he climbed a rope’s length above me, where he made us both secure with an ice screw, before shouting down to me to start climbing after him.  I tried to follow his technique: kick one crampon toe into the ice wall, kick the other toe in, swing the ice axe for a hand hold, repeat, repeat, repeat...  The ice here was blue, glacial ice, it was hard and brittle, and I found it desperately difficult to get purchase and avoid slipping.  When I reached Mark, he would secure me to the ice screw and then climb up another pitch and secure us again, at which point I would remove the screw and climb up after him.  When climbing, I was concentrating so hard that I had no time to think, apart from just telling myself: “Focus on what Mark tells you to do!  Do it slowly and carefully, don’t think about it!  And definitely don’t look down!”  The worst part was actually the waiting whilst Mark climbed up ahead, as then my mind would start racing, asking “what on earth is a total novice like me doing here?”  My comfort-zone was now left several kilometres behind, and below me.

During this period of climbing, we heard a sudden sound that resembled a jet passing over nearby – it was a huge serac breaking off and crashing down on the glacier below us.  It appeared to have come from our left near the Petit Plateau, and as we looked from the arête at the glacier below, we could see the head-torch lights of the climbers who had taken that route, wildly swinging around as they desperately tried to spot the falling serac.  Thankfully it was not near them, it was probably in the next valley, but we would hear from them later that this was a truly terrifying moment.

After about 3 rope-length pitches of climbing like this, the slope become more snowy again, and we resumed normal climbing, and then as we reach the top of the arête near the summit of the Dôme du Goûter, the gradient evened-out enough for us to take the crampons off and put skis back on.  In my mental planning, as I had laid awake the night before, there were three sections that I really dreaded – the climb down from hut, the arête, and the summit ridge.  Two were now done, and I encouraged myself that I was therefore two-thirds of the way there!

The danger in the next section of the climb was crevasses.  I lost count of the number we crossed, some closed, and some very open where you could look down into the abyss.  One crossing had a snow bridge that was only wide enough for one ski.  Mark skinned across, balanced on one ski on the snow bridge.  I gulped, closed my mind to the consequences, and followed his moves.

After a 9am “lunch” – a 10 minute rest (the only rest of the day!), a drink and some chocolate – we skinned up the steep icy slope to the Vallot hut (an emergency refuge at 4,362m), took skis off and put crampons back on for the final climb to the summit.  At this point Mark made the decision to leave our skis at the hut, rather than taking them to the summit.  In the strong winds, gusting to 50 km per hour on the summit ridge, skis on our backs would have acted like a sail, and made climbing the steep narrow ridge very perilous.  Whilst I would have preferred to ski down the north face of the summit, not least because it would mean only having to do the dreaded summit ridge only once, instead of twice, it was the right decision, and one that every other team on the mountain followed.

The summit ridge was as tough as I expected.  It was narrow, steep, windy, and had sheer drops of over a kilometre on both sides.  For the first time I started to doubt we would make it to the top – I was very concerned that Mark would call it off because of the wind, and we did pass other teams who had turned back for that reason.  However we battled on to reach the summit at 11.45am after 9 hrs 45 minutes of climbing.  The views were sublime and, in a much over used word, simply awesome.  It seemed very strange to be looking down on the familiar peaks I only normally see looking up – the Aiguille du Midi, over a kilometre below us, appeared nothing like the sharp and distinctive needle that so dominates the Chamonix valley.  I was also struck by how close the passing jets looked to be!   Was I elated?  Yes, briefly, but it being very cold and windy, and in the knowledge that the job was only half done, mostly I was filled by a unexpectedly strong desire to get going back down as soon as possible

Back at the Vallot hut, we had our skis back on for some much awaited downhill.  We had a tricky slope to negotiate just below the hut, where the strong winds had blown off all the snow, leaving just blue ice on a steep slope with a crevasse at the bottom.  Mark informed me that the trick is not to try to turn, just point your skis at the snow bridge over the crevasse and skate down the ice hoping your aim is good.  After that we had reason to celebrate the fresh snow from the previous afternoon which had left the Grand Plateau covered in powder, and we enjoyed the opportunity to make fresh tracks at over 4,000m.  It still amazes me that the height that took over seven hours to gain was lost on skis in less than 45 minutes. 

Having negotiated Jonction again, I felt a strong relief that the big dangers were behind us and that we were nearly home.  However, I had a sudden realisation that I was actually extremely tired, my brain was not operating efficiently, and it was a very long slog back to the Plan de l’Aiguille lift station.  We arrived there just in time for a quick beer – the best tasting beer of my life – before joining the tourists coming down from the Aiguille du Midi, in the last cable car down at 5pm.

As you are no doubt aware, I am a novice mountaineer, with not a great head for heights.  This climb and descent was the most physically challenging, and undoubtedly the scariest, thing that I have ever done.  Over 20,000 people attempt to climb Mont Blanc each year (mostly on foot, in the summer), and whilst there are no precise figures on fatalities, estimates range from “dozens” to “around a hundred” each year.  At less than half a percentage, the proportion of fatalities is not as high as some of the truly deadly mountains, but it is still a frightening number.  Mont Blanc has a reputation as a mountain that you can “walk up”, a reputation as being easy.  When we were safely sat in a Chamonix bar after the climb, I asked Mark about it.  His verdict was that “if anyone tells you it is easy, either they have not done it, or they are lying!”

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