Monte Bianco

Alors... another long time since posting but content yourselves with the knowledge that I've mostly been busy but not in the sort of way that I feel compelled to tell y'all about. Nyah.

Anyway, I recently had a "working" holiday masquerading as a Times photographer for Tom Whipple's recent article about Mont Blanc. A good wheeze --- I jetted to Geneva with (Hardcore) Dave Williams, met Tom and Al Young and then proceeded to spend the next few days running ourselves ragged getting a bit of practice and acclimatisation: with an intention to get up Mt Blanc by the end of the week we only had 4 days for preparation! We got rained off the Chapelle de la Gliere just as it was getting interesting, but the weather behaved itself on the second day and we had a perfect day on the Aig de la Perseverance that at least convinced me that months of no climbing hasn't hurt my ability to swing around on alpine V multipitches too much. So far so good.

After a late descent, we popped back down to Chamonix the next morning and by evening were up high again --- this time camping on the glacier at the Col de Midi as a huge thunderstorm came in. Very impressive, if not exactly ideal... well over a foot of snow fell on the tent during the night, making it bulge disturbingly until we knocked it off! Oh well: with time so short there wasn't much of an alternative. Unfortunately I suffered from my first altitude sickness during the night, so Dave and I canceled our intentions of climbing either the Chere or Jager Couloir on Mt Blanc du Tacul: a real pity on both counts. By the time I was able to move, Anna Grocott had come up from Cham and we climbed the Cosmiques Ridge back up to the Midi, encountering a dangerous and arrogant twat of a guide on the way. Having watched him send novice clients down an abseil off a jammed overhand knot, I'm severely put of the prospect of hiring a guide for any trade routes: while most are excellent and safe climbers, there are some extremely bad examples around.

I was still feeling pretty crappy from my altitude sickness, and the snow stompy bits of the Cosmiques had been disproportionately hard work, given that I had climbed the rock pitch bits pretty effectively with a heavy pack and not felt out of breath. I felt better on getting back to the valley, but in retrospect we suspect I had a chest infection that was stopping me from breathing properly: I certainly felt like I was repeatedly burning up my anaerobic reserves and then crashing, and trying to breathe deeply made me hack and cough. It's so obvious in retrospect!

The next day, after a night camping in Cham, we took the Mt Blanc tram to Ni d'Aigle and hiked up to the Gouter Hut on the Mt Blanc normal route via the Grand Couloir and Gouter Ridge. By this stage I'd pretty much convinced myself not to go to the summit the next day --- the ridge itself had been much more enjoyable than the prospect of a 5+ hour snow trudge in a queue of tourist climbers. However, Dave persuaded me to go for it, and in practice the hut and most clientelle were much more "climbery" than the clueless tourist climbers I'd been expecting... and there were fewer of them, too. And no signs of the expected rubbish and excrement. Score several points for the "Mont Blanc is being destroyed" line being oversold.

Being serial cheapos (and more importantly, tragically disorganised) we bivvied illegally above the hut, with a few other cheapo British types. Tip: bivvying without a tent at 4000m is just fine, indeed maybe better than with a tent since the latter continually flaps through the night, but it is a bit cold! In fact, so cold that normal cooking doesn't really cut it: our pasta was a cold, congealed nightmare within about 20 seconds! Eat in the hut or bring a clever insulated JetBoil thing if you're planning it: I will in future. The view from the ridge is amazing --- what a place to camp! --- but by heck is it windy!

A good, but wheezy night followed, with some amazing views down onto the lights of Chamonix and St Gervais over 3km below as I went for a mid-night wee. I'd even be tempted to go back up for a night of long-exposure and time-lapse photography. At 2am, chains of people began to pass us, but by the time we had got up, packed and stuffed a bit of confectionery into ourselves they were mostly gone. Bivvying is faff-inducing but that's not always a bad thing! From higher up we had some very cool views of the sporadic chain of headtorch light winding up the route --- another good long-exposure photo opportunity for a later visit. I wasn't in a good way, though, and within 20 mins was finding the going very hard: I couldn't breathe properly and my legs had no energy at all. The best I could do was to wheeze upwards at the head of the party, counting my steps incessantly and aiming to get over 30 before stopping to pant air back into my lungs. In the end I hit a pace I could sustain for more than 70 steps, but it was painfully slow: I was playing the slowing-down end of Nine Inch Nails' Closer in my head and it was at about half-speed! Amazingly, we kept catching up with the main group ahead of us... god knows how unfit they were! Every now and again, small parties would give up above us and we would pass them as they descended, looking ashamed and defeated. Each time, I thought "Well, I'm better than them, so I'll get at least to their high point!" While I wanted to give up, I couldn't do so without forcing Dave to stop and descend with me, so we just kept going at the painful trudge pace. Sorry guys, I couldn't make my legs go any faster!

The mountain just kept on going: over the Dome de Gouter, up to the Vallot refuge, and then on and on up the steep powder snow ditch/path of the Bossons Ridge. As we got higher, there were increasing pools of vom in the snow and we saw several guides dragging semi-conscious clients towards the summit. If you're thinking of hiring a guide to drag you to the top for summit bagging purposes, I have to say it didn't look fun, but then I don't understand the bagging compulsion anyway. Eventually, the ridge flattened, without really becoming spacious, the gorgeous sunrise disappeared in a painful wind of hard-driven spindrift and we were done. I flopped on my arse and cried uncontrollably to myself: there was no more god-damned up to be trudged and we could get on with the important business of getting down. Not exactly a glorious summit experience! I've never had such an emotional experience from exhaustion before: I had dragged myself upward continually for almost 5 hours after my body first wanted to give up. Ridiculously, we were a mere 10 minutes over guide book time: they must have timed it for mountaineering sloths!

On the descent, we stopped into the Vallot refuge, largely out of curiosity. It was a disgusting place --- full of rubbish, and smelling of rot. We ate some cake and, since my camera had filled with snow taking summit shots, Al snapped a pic of Dave and myself looking tired and grumpy among the debris. A few days later it was splayed across 2 pages of the "Times 2" supplement. How annoying... I carry an SLR camera all that way, snap 500 shots, and the killer image is the one where my camera is out of action! Then stomp, slide and trudge back to the Gouter Hut and eventually civilisation. It was a bad 12 hours for Mont Blanc: we saw one climber slip down the Grand Couloir to his death on the descent, and the next morning a huge serac collapse avalanche on the 3 Monts route killed 8 climbers and injured 8 more. Over 100 climbers have died in the Massif this season alone.

Later, in our campsite in Chamonix, we all looked up, and saw our route in profile, the wing whipping a lenticular spindrift cloud into existence along the summit ridge. "Thank god we don't have to do that again," said Tom. We all nodded.


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