Dear Uncle Nigel
Well, what can I tell you about our challenge to climb Mont Blanc? Before I went you reassured me that I’d done all my training, kitted myself out with all the equipment and guide books and booked guides through a reputable company in Chamonix to take us up the mountain. Everything was sorted, kit, fitness and someone to show us the way.
As you will know the part we couldn’t control was the climate, there was incredible unseasonal weather – while we were in Chamonix the top of the mountains had in excess of 6-8 feet of new snow. The odds were against us.
But still we went up with our guides to learn how to work in the mountains and to become acclimatised to the altitude. We learnt so much – how to climb and fall, use ice axes to climb walls of ice and how to walk incredibly slowly up enormous faces of deep fresh powder snow, with every footstep we slid a few inches as the powder struggled to stick together.
I have always said that I not comfortable with heights, so when we had to walk along the ridge from Aiguille de Midi the white out conditions suited me very well. The first time we attempted it the 60-70 kmph winds, driving snow and white out prevented me from seeing the views on either side of the ridge. The guides decided it was too dangerous to continue so we turned back. On the second attempt to cross the ridge the wind and snow had dropped in intensity but the white out conditions were still in full force. So I can honestly say I didn’t get to see the full effect of the 200m drop to my right or the 2000m drop to my left. Shame?
So with all the new snow, winds, unpredictable weather and serious avalanche potential it was decided by our guides to change the challenge. We would now ascend the Aiguille du Tour in 24 hours starting at the car park at the bottom of the climb. Whilst this might not seem as scary or as challenging as initially expected, I can safely say that climbing up to the needle point at 3500m from the very bottom and then all the way down is a very long way.
We started off in beautiful sunshine, all aching and hurting from our practice runs as we built up a rhythm for the climb. We stopped overnight in the mountaineering hut Albert at 2500m, breaking the journey. Needless to say trudging and climbing got us all excited and daunted with what we were about to attempt. There was plenty of banter in the dormitory as sleeping at altitude brings out snoring from the quietest of people, all 30 of them.
The alarm went off at 4am on ascent day! Head torches were needed just to find all of our clothing, and we needed it all. Putting my contact lenses in was a real challenge at that hour with a head torch shining in my eyes. All dressed and ready to go, crampons on, roped up and first light was starting to show across the mountains – good morning world!
Trudging and climbing through lightly frozen snow up and up. The moon-like landscape all around us with spikes and mountain peaks poking up out of the craters was incredible. From where we were we could see all the way to the Matahorn, (no I am not considering climbing it) – this was expected to be a four hour ascent and so it turned out to be, meaning we had good pace.
I was really pleased and proud of my progress up to the final rest point where it was time to dump the rucksacks, the poles and out on helmets. This was the last bit of the ascent to the top of Aiguille du Tour – a â€œrock climbâ€. I don’t do rock climbing, especially not at 3500m. Slowly I did it, one step after the next, clutching onto the rocks like my life depended on it…and it did! There was one corner where the view opened up and showed me a sheer drop to the bottom, which brought forth from me every swear word I have ever heard, in every language I knew. There were just 30m to go, so there was no way I was turning back now. Sitting on the top gave us enough time for a quick photo, a chuckle at the birthday cake that I took out of my pocket for Paul and then a ridiculous climb back down.
We got back to the overnight hut in two hours without much incident. My knees had managed well on that part but it was the next bit down to the car park where it all started to go wrong. The distance was further than the height of the tallest mountains in the UK so plenty of downhill climbing. Rough, irregular scrambling that made every footstep agony as my knees squealed all the way. By the time we got to the car park every single one of us was completely shot and struggling to walk another step. We had done it â€“ reached the summit of a 3500m mountain in less than 24 hours. If we hadn’t been quite so exhausted, there would have been a real celebration.
So, thank you again for all your advice beforehand; every piece of equipment was used and now it all stinks to high heaven. I now have even more respect for mountaineers â€“ they have nerves of steel at extreme heights in extreme weather, combined with amazing self control and determination to trudge on through the monotony regardless up and down the mountain.
To conclude, I haven’t been bitten by the desire to become a mountaineer – I enjoy terra firma at a much lower level far too much. I have learnt so much about myself and achieved so many firsts this week, hundreds of life metaphors and lessons getting out of my comfort zone and achieving loads, a week that will stay with me for the rest of my life. Some of the guys in the group feel the need to go back for the Mont Blanc summit scalp, for me it wasn’t about Mont Blanc it was the journey and everything else. If and when I head back to the stunning Chamonix area, the chances are I will be paragliding, canyoning and skiing, not mountaineering.
Intrepid challenger with a number of additional ticks on his bucket list.