Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Mont Blanc by Karl (Rich will supply the climber's perspective...)

Rich and I travelled to Geneva on Thursday 11th June, met in the airport and got our shuttle bus to our hotel in Chamonix. After commandeering the double bed and leaving Rich to the 'guest bed' / futon, we sorted our kit and headed into Chamonix for some last minute carb-loading. The waitress exhibited typical French charm whilst serving us our pasta and pizza (each), but did seem impressed when we managed to polish off the double banana crepe dessert as well...we were eating for the hill after all.

After an early night and an early morning (combination of kid-induced body clock and butterflies in the stomach...) we got our gear packed and took the bus down the valley to Les Houches, from where we were planning on taking the Bellevue cable-car up from the valley floor at 1000m to begin our climb at about 1800m. In typical French fashion, the cable-car was closed, and my request if there was any other way to get up was answered with a typically Gallic shrug and a murmered "you could walk"... We had known that the little train which could have taken us right up to 2372m was off, so we were prepared for that walk, but I must admit having to walk from the valley floor, only days after having to change our route completely due to the new snow creating a high avalanche risk on Mont Blanc de Tacul (route from the Cosmique Refuge we had been planning) was not something I had planned for or was looking forward to.

Our luck did seem to be in on the weather front with the snow, clouds and winds of the previous week seeming to be clearing for the weekend. Even with a clear forecast, we'd not be sure that the wind would be calm enough to make the summit until we got up there. In fact when we set-off, the weather was very hot which made for some sweaty walking as we made our way up the paths out of the valley floor. Despite the tree coverage, it was still so hot that I soon started feeling the sweat in my boots, and the heat in my heels. It was beoming very obvious that I was blistering. I couldn't believe it as during the long hikes and many miles jogging during training I'd never had any blisters and here i was not one hour into what would be 2 days walking with blisters on each heel. Nothing for it but to keep going.

Having left the road about 10am, we were well above the tree-line and at the train line where we stopped for a breather, watching what appeared to be several bodies being carried down the hill by the gendarme (an exercise as it turned out...). Pushing on we made good time up the hill into more desolate territory and into the snowline. A final scramble up brought us to the Téte Rousse hut at at 3167m at about 3pm where we had booked to spend the night. Time to have a look at my heels which had been causing me some gip. The hut guardian sorted me out with some guaze and tape and after getting sorted we had a dinner with a great view. Time to get our gear sorted for our planned early departure before an early night. It could have been the 4 degree temperature in the dorm, or the altitude, or a bit of nervousness about what we were in for the following day, but neither Rich nor I got much sleep. Warning - the photo below is not a pretty sight...

Up for breakfast at 4am, we were one of 5 or 6 groups heading up the hill that morning. The first challange on Saturday getting my crampons on... The next was to cross "le grand coulior", the big corridor, a gully running steeply down the mountain infamous for causing many deaths as people get hit by falling rocks or ice. Fortunately it was all quiet, as expected at that time of the day with everything still frozen, so we managed to have an uneventful crossing, hoping it be just as quiet on our retuen crossing later in the day. The route up to the Gouter Hut at about 3800m was good fun, proper scrambling for over 2 hours. At Gouter Hut about 7am we had a brief break for some energy gels (lots of energy, not a lot of taste) and carbohydrate bars (looks like chocolate, tastes like plywood).

Rich got us roped up to move together on the snow, meaning that if either of us slipped on the icy sloes, and failed to self-arrest with our ice-axes, the other could stop them. We then headed off up the Dome de Gouter. The next few hours passed pretty slowly as we followed the path as it zig-zagged up the Dome and around the top and down the far side towards the Vallot Hut at the bottom of the Bosses and the ridge up towards the summit of Mont Blanc. Stopping there about 10am for more calories and a breather we braced ourselves for the final push. Looking up the ridge we could see some groups ahead of us making their way slowly up the ridges, being buffetted by strong gusts of wind carrying snow and ice. It looked pretty wild, but doable; having come this far we pushed on for the summit. The photo below shows Mont Blanc from the Dome de Gouter with the Vallot Hut in the centre. The route up followsw the ridges up the sky-line, right of the peak.

The ridges over the Bosses were pretty hairy. Moving together Rich and I made made slow but steady progress upwards, stopping briefly to get our breaths back when we needed to. Our pace had been pretty good all morning and we passed another set of climbers on these ridges, this time a group who had a camerman and photographer with them. We were so focussed on what we were doing that we dismissed it as a promo video for the guiding company, but we later learnt that it was Zinedine Zidane (who may or may not have been dropped at the Vallot Hut, and picked up on the summit by helicopter...).

Nearing the summit, Rich and I were both pretty emotional. This had been such a long time coming, and had required a big investment in training time and energy, and support by our wives and families. Richard's first son Archie would have been 11 this year. Ross was already 1, a year which has flown past and throughout which we still have no idea of what his future holds. Our thoughts filled with these and others of our families as we climbed the final ridge to the summit.

Midday, Saturday 13th June, 4810 metres above sea level. The view was amazing. The summit was empty and in all directions mountains stretched into the distance. The most striking view was looking out over l'Aguille de Midi down into Chamonix valley, a view which is more commonly seen in reverse, from Chamonix looking up into the mountains. We took some photos and didn't hang about long. The -7 degree temperature plus the pretty strong winds meant it was bitterly cold and standing still wasn't sensible. After getting one of the group who followed us to the summit to take a photo of both of us, we headed downhill.

Heading down was hard work. Down the ridges, concentrating on every step, it seemed endless. Stopping at the Vallot Hut again briefly we trudged on back the way we had come towards the Gouter Hut. By the time we got there at about 3.30pm I was absolutely bushed, and not looking forward to the downclimb to the Téte Rousse hut where we were to stay again that night. We managed to get a mobile phone signal and speak to our wives before the cold sucked the rest of our phone batteries - great for them to hear that we'd done it, but pretty emotional for us, stopping and accepting that we'd been successful. We headed back down climb below the Gouter Hut, something which we thought would take us about an hour, but which took over 2. Arriving at le Grand Couloir again we were pleased to see that it was quiet so we didn't hand about and walked steadily across before heading on down to the hut at about 6pm - 13 and a half hours after leaving that morning.

I was wrecked and hardly had energy to get my stuff off (even almost falling on the steps up to the door...) but we'd done it! That said, the altitude meant that even though we had a pretty early night and didn't have to get up early in the morning, neither Rich nor I got much sleep. The altitude again, plus our lovely dorm-mates who seemed to be sorting their kit for most of the fist half of the night, and getting up at staggered intervals during the second half of the night. Sunday morning after brunch we left about 9am and made great time down the hill, especially sliding down some of the snowy parts losing a lot of height quickly and were at the end of the train line by 10am, 20 minutes before the train was due.

Having walked up from the valley floor we felt we were entitled to take the train and cable-car back down. To be honest I'd have struggled if we hadn't... When we got back to Les Houches, rather than hanging around for an hour and a half for the bus, we decided to hitch-hike from the bottom of the lift back to our hotel, and we were both very grateful to the young French couple who decided to stop for us. Not sure why they put the windows up with us in the back of the car; I hope we didn't smell as bad as we thought we did. Following a warm shower, where I discovered that shampoo and open blisters should never be mixed, we got some clean clothes on and headed into Chamonix for some celebratory steak, chips and cold beer. As we were pretty hungry, this was followed a matter of hours later by a large plate of tartiflette - just what the doctor ordered.

Rich and I separated at Geneva airport for our flights home and when Fin saw me coming through arrivals at the airport he ran and gave me the biggest hug. Also got amazing giggles from Ross, kisses from Clair (although not on my blistered lips) and Fin telling me that when he's a big boy like me he's going to climb mountains too...
I'll make sure he reads this web brochure called "Climbing Mont Blanc is best left to Experienced Mountaineers" ( before he decides to do so...

It's now 2 days since we got back, my lips and nose are less weather-beaten than they were, and my legs a lot less heavy than the were (very French condition that 'heavy legs'...), but my heels are still a mess. A 50p sized open wound on each heel will probably take a while to heal completely and will likely mean I can't do any more jogging for a few weeks - shame that...

Thanks to Rich's mountain skills, our training, a bit of digging deep and a lot of inspiration we'd made it. The summit of Mont Blanc was achieved, and (including Gift Aid) over £20,000 raised for the National Society for Epilepsy plus over £5,000 for CLIC Sargent. Thanks to everyone who has helped and supported us, and thanks to Rich for getting me up there and back safely.

1 comment:

claire hannah said...

Karl, have just read your blog and feel all weepy....what an AMAZING achievement for you and Rich and so glad you are back in one piece. Can't believe all the money that was raised - fantastic. Hope those blisters are on the mend - ouch!! XX