the white mountain
It all started in December 2015, when contemplating my first Alpine expedition. It dawned on me that it was not actually out of the question to be able to climb Mont Blanc, something I’d wanted to do from a very young age. Having spent hours studying photographs of Europe’s tallest peak, I decided it was time to have a go.
New Year’s Eve, 2015, Dan was coming round for dinner. I had a proposition for him. So, after a few bottles of fine wine I came out with it. Fancy climbing Mont Blanc? It seemed he had already been thinking the same thing. How hard can it be? I had my heart set on the Trois Monts route – something a bit more challenging than just a path, and away from the crowds of the Voie Normal. I studied the route for weeks, working out where the cruxes were, where the avalanche risk was, and which hut we’d stay in.
We settled on a date. July seemed the best month, and booked the ferry. All that was left to do now was plan our warm-up and acclimatisation routes, and sort the hut out. Our original plan, was to climb Le Petite Aiguille Verte, (3512m), and then stay in the Chamonix valley. A day on the Mer de Glace to practice hauling each other out of crevasses, and on a different day we would catch the Midi up to traverse the Cosmiques Arête. We would then stay in the Cosmiques hut for an Alpine start of the Trois Monts, covering Mont Blanc du Tacul, Mont Maudit and Mont Blanc, and descending via the Gouter route back to Les Houches.
After much scanning of the UKC forums and seeking advice from the more experienced, I decided we needed to get higher for the acclimatisation, and spent another night reasonably high too. This led to plan B. We would catch the Grand Montet lift up to Glacier Rognon, put the hours of You Tube videos to practice in the form of actual crevasse rescue, and then spend the night on the Glacier d’Argentiere. We would then have an early start up the Aiguille d’Argentiere, and then back to the valley. This would take us to near 4000m. Cosmiques Arête and the Trois Monts would remain part of the plan.
Hut booked, days to go and then we start checking the Weather forecast. Not good. After weeks of high pressure and blue-sky days, an unstable series of depressions were on their way from the west. Serious discussions were had about cancelling, but due to the losses we would suffer in the form of the ferry, travel insurance, breakdown cover etc. it did not seem worth cancelling. Instead we crossed our fingers. It seemed there was a chance of a window in the weather, so we went for it.
Tuesday morning we set off, and drove all the way in one go: Dover to Calais, arriving in Chamonix at around midnight. In search of a comfortable place to sleep, we settled for the roadside bivy in Col des Montets, just outside Argentiere.
On Wednesday morning, the original day that we would head up to the Glacier d’Argentiere, the weather was fine. We headed into Chamonix to visit the Maison D’Montagne. After a chat with one of the staff, and a translation of the forecast into thundery showers, we decided a bivy on the Glacier was not a good idea. Instead we headed up the Grand Montets as planned, and were on the summit of le Petite Aiguille Verte in no time.
Dan had started to feel the effects of the altitude a little, and after a pleasant afternoon we headed back down to the valley to find somewhere to base ourselves. After trying the Mer de Glace campsite which was full, we checked out the Camping Argentiere. This was a gem of a campsite, it had great washing/shower/toilet facilities, and a bar with cold beer. With a view of the head of the glacier d’Argentiere, this was base camp.
Thursday was a reasonable forecast for the morning, not so good for the afternoon. We walked up the footpath some 1200 vertical metres to the Glacier Argentiere. Its scale was staggering. Sheer faces of granite towered above the run-off from the ice. A short walk onto the glacier itself revealed a playground of crevasses of all sizes, some too deep to consider throwing ourselves into, others just right.
It was time to put the hours of theory into practise, and after roping up and deciding who was going first, I ‘fell’ into a crevasse. It was a couple of minutes before I had started to wish I had put my hard-shell on – these crevasses were wet! Oh well, Dan will have me out in no time! Sometime later, I emerged over the lip of the crevasse, faced with the look on Dan’s face of ‘that’s not as easy as it looks in the video’! We swapped roles, and some more time later I donned the same look.
There were a few oversights, old ice screws are not that easy to drive in to the ice! But it worked. We found a bigger crevasse, and did it again. This took up most of the day, so we headed back. With some slightly sore feet, the prospect of cable car sadly dwindled away as we realised we would miss the last one. A quick patching up of blisters, we walked back down to the valley to be refreshed with some cold beer at the campsite.
On Friday, we were quite tired from yesterday’s ordeal, so after another visit to the Maison Montagne decided some rock climbing was in order. Advised by the office to try out Les Guillent, some 5 minutes up the road, we spent the day there, on some lovely sports routes. We climbed around 8 routes, and then headed back after a last minute decision to pack and go bivy on the glacier Argentire, even if it was forecast rain. Half-way through packing our sacks, the heavens opened, and we quickly changed our minds.
By Saturday the possible window in the weather was disappearing, as were the hopes of making the summit we had come for. We decided to make a break for the Cosmiques Arête, in reasonably poor weather. At least we would get some altitude we thought. At the top of the Midi station, it was snowing, and visibility wasn’t great. A short while after roping up and sorting gear, it was time to head for the little gate. Tourists stood in anticipation as we wondered through. I led the way, briskly at first, but when out on the arête I was soon slowed down by the reality of the situation, particularly the 1000m drop on my left, and several hundred metres on my right. Nevertheless, this is what we had prepared for so on I went.
After crossing a small crevasse we arrived on the Col du Midi. The visibility was improving, so decided to head over to Mont Blanc du Tacul to assess the conditions. The tracks were covered, and there seemed to be a lot of snow. Just then the rumble of an avalanche nearby confirmed the route was probably too risky. After the recce we headed over to the Cosmiques hut, and began the Cosmiques Arête. This was a very enjoyable route, mixed climbing, a couple of back to back abseils, snow ridges and a nice pitch of around VDiff in crampons. After a couple of hours, you arrive at a ladder, which once climbed you are greeted by hordes of Japanese tourists eager to have their picture taken with you. We felt famous, at least in Japan! What do they do with all of those photographs?! We hung around for a while until the last lift, to stay at 3800m for as long as possible. At the mid station, we were suddenly stopped from boarding the cable car as a huge flash of lighting struck the station. There was a zap and a smell that reminds me of the dodgems, followed quickly by some panic and a rush of lift staff to get everyone off the car. After waiting a while for the storms to pass, we were allowed back on.
That night, we drove up to Bellevue to check out the lifts, in case the Gouter route was an option. After absorbing the info on lifts and parking, we headed back to base to drink beer and contemplate.
Sunday morning was judgement day. Monday had a good forecast, as did Sunday night. Sunday afternoon was forecast storms however. There was also fresh snow. Trois Monts was out of the question, what about Gouter? We would achieve our objective? But we didn’t have a hut booking on this route! Could we bivy at the Tetes Rousse? What time would we cross the Grand Couloir? Lots of questions, and debating to be had. We checked the website for the Gouter hut – it was full. So on the off-chance I called them up. They had space! the summit bid was on!
We quickly made our way to the Bellevue Telepherique, and were soon on the Tram up to Nig Aidle. The weather was fine at this point, becoming swelteringly hot. A couple of hours later we arrived at the Tete Rousse Glacier. We would be crossing the Grand Couloir at the worst time of day! There are some pretty horrific videos on You Tube to prove the point. After a quick enquiry with a warden we were relieved to be told it was calm.
After what seemed eternity, and lots of energy used up, we finally arrived at the Gouter hut, just as the weather started to come in. A quick study of the route, a sachet of dehydrated food and we were in bed for 8pm. It was not long before the alarms sounded (not that we were asleep). It was 1:30am, time to get up.
Monday morning, we had breakfast, geared up and left the comfort of the hut. By now it was 2:45am. It was pitch black, with the exception of a half moon, and the glow of the lights in the valley below, as if Chamonix was still awake. It was a beautiful setting. I started walking the ridge up to Dome Gouter, with only two parties in front. Their head torches highlighted the way.
After an hour and a half we were on the Dome Gouter. The shadow of the giant mountain beyond rose out of the darkness. Soon after we were at the Vallot hut, and then on to the Bosses ridge. As the exposure increased, so did the faint glow of light on the horizon in the east. We plodded on up the ridge, stopping to rest more and more frequently as the realisation we were over 4000m kicked in. Mont Blanc is one of those mountains that you think you can see the summit, only to arrive and see another. The gradual sunrise and breath taking views to keep you going, and before long we were having the obligatory hand-shake, only this time at 4810m. We had done it! Although we were only half way! We hung around on the summit for 10 minutes or so, and then started our descent.
The descent seemed to take forever. Trying to convince ourselves that the uphill parts of the descent were not there on the way up. By now the effects of the altitude were kicking in. We both had headaches, so tried to get lower down as soon as we could. We finally arrived at the Gouter hut and put our gear away. Those who had stayed the night at the Tete Rousse hut were just making their way passed the Gouter. The thought of doing the Gouter scramble and then Mont Blanc was not appealing. It was around 9:00am now, and we started the rocky (which was now a snowy) descent toward the Grand Couloir. There seemed to be a small amount of rock fall, triggered by walkers above. Ironically our experience of the Grand Couloir was rock fall in the morning and not the afternoon!
After what seemed like an extremely long day, it was actually only lunch time. We had arrived at the tram, made our way down the lifts and were in a café bar at 12:30pm. The beer never tasted so good! That night we packed our base up, went for a fondue and set off early the next morning. Another day of driving, we arrived back home for around 10:30pm. All in all, a fantastic experience, with some extreme amount of luck thrown in to enable me to achieve my dream, even if it wasn’t by the Trois Monts.