So my ass was kicked by the mountain I least expected it from. 4810m, how hard can it be, right? Wrong!
“50% chance of success” – they said. “Naaaaa” – I thought.
Brief intro just in case: Mont Blanc – the highest mountain in the Alps, Western Europe and EU. Also commonly known as Monte Bianco (for Italians). Or as a Death Mountain or White Killer (for pessimists). The reason for the later nicknames is quite obvious: although the mountain is relatively “low” (compared to Himalayas, or Andes for example), the number of people trying to climb it is quite high, resulting in a higher death rate, proportionally. Now enough with statistics. If you ask me: it’s not the mountain, it’s the joyfully crazy people that flock to Mont Blanc that top up the scales. If you stick to the “Normal route” and just plan to move your feet – you should be fine (unless avalanche hits and swipes you off those feet – about that later). But people there are nothing but normal, and so they leave this route for us, amateurs, and go up the mountain in some batshit crazy ways, and go down even in a crazier ones.
So, unless you’ve climbed Eiger or Cassin Ridge of Denali already, you’re probably gonna stick with Normal Route (or Gouter route, as it’s also called), which is pretty straightforward and the easiest of them all. Or you’re gonna opt for the 3 Monts Route – the more difficult, yet more fun and scenic way to get to the top of Mont Blanc by climbing two more mountains on the way (hence the name = the Three Mountains). If one thing I’ve learned in Himalayas: if an easier way exists, yet the harder one doesn’t perish – there must be a reason (he should patent that). And so that’s what I set my eyes on the Three Monts Route, and here is the story:
Well the odds weren’t quite in my favor from the start. On the day of moving half way up the mountain, I woke up to a ‘beautiful’ weather. That’s Not a white wall behind me.
“Half way up the mountain” movement consists of waking up early wherever you are (preferably in the vicinity of Mont Blanc and preferably sober, although not mandatory) and making your way up to Aiguille du Midi (3842 m) by cable car from the station in Chamonix (approx. 30 min). Oh and don’t forget your gear.
Your gear, apart from common sense protective clothing, should consist of: head torch, sleeping bag liner (if you’re super squeaky with hygiene like I am), no need for sleeping bag, it’s very warm in the hut, but great need for earplugs (!), mountain boots, crampons, ice axe, wide mouth water bottles and eye protection. Everybody were wearing goggles. My Cavalli sunglasses, I can imagine, unpolarized, worked just as fine, And screw the helmet. That’s just extra weight on your head.
*Funny, now that I think about it: none of my guides ever told me to wear a helmet on any of the mountains. Even when everybody around me was wearing one. Gets me wondering whether it’s my choice of guides or it’s me.
And so on we went. Despite the visibility of freaking zero.
This picture (above) was taken around midday.
And that’s how the place would normally look like on a clear day.
“Mmmm.. Next summer I might stick to the beach side” – I was thinking. Stumbling and falling into a waist-high piles of snow as my guide kept on pulling me by the rope. He thought it would be more fun to overtake everybody on the way and get to the refuge faster. Basically what happens when you leave Aiguille du Midi is that you go down a narrow ridge and then up to Cosmique Hut (I know, sounds like a nightclub, but it’s not). The whole journey takes about an hour depending on the ‘traffic’ and weather conditions. Just keep in mind that it’s quite a narrow ridge so the faster you get through, the better. So my guide knew what he was doing.
…unlike me. “What the hell am I doing here?” – I though – “… next time I feel adventurous, I’ll paint my nails green or smth.”
Refuge was fun though. Not as fun as base camps in Aconcagua, but nonetheless. Basically you arrive there at daylight and hang around for 10h or so trying to get as much rest and energy as you can before the summit push. It’s at elevation of 3610 m and you have to go up 4810 m, that’s another 1200 m (yes, I’m also a math genius) in one go and not exactly straight, but with ups and downs of two more mountains on the way.
Normally, you’d wake up half past midnight, that if you managed to get any sleep at all: sharing a room with 30 snoring men at that altitude might push you over your tolerance threshold just a bit… Hence the earplugs. I slept like a baby.
Then you have ‘breakfast’ at 1am. A piece of advice: go easy on that breakfast. Bread and hot water with sugar. Nothing that’s hard to digest. Fat and protein stuff you eat before, but not on the day. You’re gonna spend so much energy climbing, you won’t have any left for digesting. And the last thing you want is find yourself puking on that beautiful unmolested snow half way up the summit and photobombing everybody’s pictures. Also according to my female super-logical frame of mind, you don’t want to carry extra weight up even if it’s in your stomach.
By 2AM you’re out putting your crampons with all your gear packed/on/sorted and off into the night you go. And you’d better go fast. You don’t want to hold the people behind you. From now on it’s like an army: you’ll have some rest when you die. Or slip into crevasse. Which is not gonna happen, don’t worry. You have more chances getting hit by an avalanche. That’s the reason you’re not gonna hear “Poli poll” here (ref. Kilimanjaro), the less time you spend on the mountain, the better. Plus everybody’s stepping into each others’ footsteps, literally, so if you prefer to go slow, it’s better to start later so that you don’t cause inconvenience for people behind.
Although if you ask me, it’s not really about the “inconvenience”. It’s the feeling of loserdom imposed on you by people overtaking you that will make you charge up that mountain like a mule on steroids. And make sure you turn around a few times, not to absorb the view, but to check if the next group is far behind.
Talking about the view, first 4 hours you’re going in a total darkness. All you can see is the circular spot of light beneath your feet. That’s if you didn’t forget to put fresh batteries into your headlamp. If you did, all you can see is a circular spot of the person climbing in front of you. And unless you have some super vision powers, you’re totally oblivious to the crazy place you’re getting through at that moment. Which is a world of seracs and crevasses. You don’t even realize that the path you follow has to be changed at least once a year to accommodate the glacier movement, yes the one you are walking on.
All I remember is that it got quite steep at one point. And then I saw these amazingly looking overhanging ice formations in the light of my headlamp that I wanted to document desperately, but got a strong feeling my guide was very close to slapping the stars out of my eyes if I stopped one more time in a dangerous place and pulled my camera out. Eventually the slope fattened out and we took a nice break. Nice being the relative term here. I figured we passed the first mountain out of the “3 Monts” called Mont Blanc du Tacul (4100 m). And headed off for the challenge of Mont Maudit (or “Cursed Mountain” as pessimists say). The challenge literally was in the face of the mountain: the North Face. It is really steep, but less dangerous (as optimists say) than the seracs we just went through. But that’s when pessimists would contradict that’s only true in good weather conditions, and not the shit we were going through, with storm and the snow accumulating over the past three days.
Anyhow, the challenge of Mont Maudit ends with a 50-60 degrees ice climb to the cole – and at the bottom of that obstacle that’s where I saw the sun rise… After four hours of gruelling work, and 400 vertical meters away from the summit… We were looking at almost perfectly vertical slope, that had turned into impassable wall of ice overnight due to precipitation. “We need TURN BACK” – I heard the words of my guide, but the meaning didn’t register in my mind. I blinked at him and said: “We need to turn back to WALK AROUND this wall to get to the summit?” To which he blinked at the obscurity of my question and replied:” We need to turn back to GO BACK!” It started sinking in. And I started loudly protesting. “If you slip even once, we might be dead. Somebody has to make the decision, and I’m making it for you.” – he said firmly. “Mmm… I like myself better alive then dead” – I mumbled, turning around.
That’s the col that made us turn around. Behind it is the summit. All those black dots are the people giving up and making their way down. That night over 60 people made an attempt. Everybody had to turn back.
” … talking about 50/50 per cent chance.” – I thought standing there, so close yet so far.
Well since I didn’t get the summit, I decided to get the most out of it anyway. It was still a beautiful morning and I was there to see it. Not quite the sunrise you can spot everyday.
There it was. The warmth of the day wasn’t far. We couldn’t wait to get the sunlight on ourselves. Now it’s easy to type that it was cold. Back than it was beyond your sensory feelings.
To make things a little bit better, on the way down we went up Mont Blanc du Tacul, 4248m. From where you could see Mont Blanc summit teasingly peeking from behind.
I remained still roped to the guide. So that I don’t run away back towards the summit.
From Mont Blanc du Tacul the view was quite amazing too, right into Switzerland.
And from the other side you could see all the way into Italy with it’s Gran Paradiso (4061m), the highest mountain in Italy standing entirely within its territory.
As we kept on heading down, there was l’Aiguille du Midi. The place where it all started and where we’re heading back to catch a cable car back to Chamonix. Aiguille du Midi = “The Needle of the South”. The mountain of 3842m with the highest vertical ascent cable car in the world.
Well, now that we were out in the daylight, I could finally see the stuff we crossed in total darkness on the way up. “Holy crap” and “Bloody hell” were pretty much most of my vocabulary.
There were plenty of wonderful seracs alternating with marvelous crevasses, which was all part of the fun to pass on the way. I managed to take pics of just a few as my guide kept pushing me down to the safer grounds.
I was bamboozled in the beginning with the difference between the two. Basically, seracs are formed by crevasses. You can fall into crevasse, but serac can fall on you. That’s pretty much the main difference to remember.
Approaching l’Aiguille du Midi. That’s the Cosmique refuge we were staying at on the way up. Quite an architectural marvel, ain’t it. And no matter whether you summited or not, you still need to get back up to the top of Aiguille du Midi, no cable car on this side.
From there you can also see why they call it a “3 Mounts Route”. From left to right: Mont Blanc du Tacul, Mont Maudit, and Mont Blanc summit – in all its beauty.
Our climbing team.
Next week I returned for my other 50 per cent chance. But due to lack of planning and excess of wine-drinking I had to postpone the summit attempt date. Decided if I’m going up there again, might as well paraglide off the summit, which wasn’t possible to arrange on such a short notice. So as I was sitting on the terrace of Langley Chamonix having my morning coffee and looking at the wind forecast, the news struck: 9 killed, 4 missing in the worst Alpine disaster in many years. An avalanche set of from the col of Mont Maudit devastating all 28 climbers going for summit that day. I was sitting in stupor and couldn’t comprehend the situation. I called my guide. I bet he wanted to say “I told you so” but it was no time for jokes. That’s when two beaten up and bandaged up guys walked onto the terrace, with empty face expressions. “Damn, guys, you either had a very good night, or…” – “Yes, we are survivors from the avalanche”. I had no more questions.
Needless to say I changed my mind about climbing Mont Blanc again that season and booked my flight back home instead. I didn’t change my mind on paragliding off the summit next time though. After all, whatever happened was an exception.