June 2017: Not climbing Mont Blanc

‘Sorry Lads, Mont Blanc’s off” isn’t what we wanted to hear on arrival in Chamonix. The ascent of Mont Blanc had been almost a year in the making, from scrabbling together hard earned funds, to getting mountain fit (Jake) and piling on the mountain insulation (Nick). It would have been the very literal and metaphorical pinnacle of our climbing career to date, but it wasn’t to be.

On hearing the news, Jake set to researching if cancellations were covered by his insurance, while I frantically tried to figure out how to sue the tour company (after all, I have watched a few episodes of Ally McBeal). Rather than taking immediate legal action, we decided to sleep on it. We were still set to meet our guide the following day, so we figured we’d talk it through with him.

The crevasses were the first I had seen where the darkness inside simultaneously invites you in and terrifies you to the core.

We pitched a tent but chose to sleep outside in the open air. Waking up at 7am, I began the lengthy process of repacking my bag for the days ahead amidst the overwhelming beauty of mountains in the morning haze. I always struggle to exclude things from my bag, imagining that someday there could be a very specific situation that calls for a roll of duct tape, an oversized down jacket, and a big cuddly toy.

Jake had woken up before me (as per usual) and disappeared to take photographs (as per usual). He returned wearing his snazzy new WAA gear looking like a bolt of lightning as he sprinted up the hill towards me, dripping with sweat in the already-warm morning air. Jake has to hit a minimum amount of exercise everyday, no matter where he is. I, on the other hand, hoard my energy levels like a bear before winter so I’m always fresh and ready for that big push.

The Showdown

Once Jake was satisfied, we set off to meet our guide, prepared to give him a little piece of our mind. What actually happened was that he told us Mont Blanc being closed was a blessing in disguise. “There are much better mountains”, he said, and more technical ascents to be taken on. Before we knew it, we were being crammed into a minivan and whisked to a local climbing spot for our guide to assess our basic climbing skills.

We’d both been practising with a rope for a good few months before this point, so anyone would assume we’d have been comfortable with the basics. It turns out, however, that Jake has a fascinating condition that means he manages to forget everything he knows whenever a figure of perceived authority is watching. On the first attempt at tying the basic knot, despite having used the same knot to secure his own rope countless times, he produced something that looked like a Half Windsor and received a sharp rebuke from the Italian Stallion Stefano (our guide for the Italian portion of the trip).

With the knot re-tied we spent the morning going over climbing basics in our boots on varying degrees of rock and Stefano was eventually satisfied that we’d be able to hack it on the mountains.

Mint Glaciers

Glaciers are big chunks of ice that hang on to a mountain. They come in all different shapes and sizes – from smooth and marshmallowy to jaunty explosions of blue ice and black holes. Our first glacier experience was, thankfully, on a delightfully smooth marshmallow. It was also our first experience of being roped up to others. At first it was frustrating having to adapt to others’ paces, but we finally got into a comfortable rhythm (until Jake pulled his camera out and asked everybody to wait for him to frame a shot).

After learning the ropes for a few hours we headed back to our home for the night: the fantastically appointed Torino Refuge. The last time we stayed in a mountain refuge was in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, which to us was very luxurious for something so impossibly high. The Torino refuge took it to another level. There is a bar there, open all day, and the meals were far better than the “miscellaneous lamb flavoured soup” of Morocco. We slept the night in our own four person dorm and revelled in the luxury of not having to share with a large group of mountaineering German snorers.

Gran Paradiso

Gran Paradiso National Park was our next destination, the home of the eponymous mountain, which is the largest one completely contained in Italy. First, we stopped for pasta rated 4/5 on Stefano’s world famous pasta meter and the ravioli nearly blew my mind. (The overwhelming scent of garlic later blew everyone else’s mind once it made its way to my sweat glands on the ascent to Paradiso).

On arriving at the refuge, we immediately swapped our clammy boots for uniform Refuge Slippers and ran back down the hill to plunge directly into one of the coldest rivers I’ve ever dunked my biscuits in. We played chess and ate a delicious meal before hitting the hay early in preparation for our early morning ascent of the summit.

The alarm went off at 3:30am. Fearing any stern words from our guide, who didn’t suffer fools gladly, we jumped out of bed and attempted to wake ourselves (very much in that order). The summit attempt started in twilight, with the sun slowly revealing our impressive surroundings as we trudged up the mountain. An hour in, we clipped on our crampons and unsheathed our ice axes to tackle the second glacier.

This one was just a little bit more intimidating. The crevasses were the first I had seen where the darkness inside simultaneously invites you in and terrifies you to the core. The next couple of hours was a slow slog, dictated by the fact we were all tied together and had to maintain ten metres of distance between each other at all times. Three hours from when we set off, we ascended the ridge that took us up to the summit and joined the queue (which can reach delays of up to two hours) to perform the tricky scramble to the Lady Madonna perched atop the summit. Selfie secured with the Holy lady, we set off down to another refuge for a double portion of pasta and now compulsory swim in a glacial lake.

Mt. Drawing a Blanc

We had debated (for only a short amount of time) what to do after Paradiso now Mt.Blanc was off the cards. Jake and I both agreed that the most valuable thing to do was to hone our mountain skills in order to reach a point where we could feasibly come back to conquer an alpine peak all on our own. This is where Robin Beadle came in, our guide for the second half of the trip. On the face of it an unassuming British gent, Robin possessed a giddying wealth of experience gained in high mountains around the world, having guided Everest, Broad Peak and St.Vincent in Antarctica to name but a few of his highlights.

Robin took us under his wing and, over the following days, taught us how to move across tricky high alpine traverses and feel comfortable multi-pitch sports climbing (something we had always dreamed of doing, but required someone like Robin to give us the confidence to take on). Our next challenge was Les Perrons, a dramatic knife edge ridge traverse in Switzerland that had us scrambling, abseiling and climbing without a hint of terror even with near vertical drops on either side.

We took the Aiguille de Midi cable car up to the Cosmiques ridge on the final day, to tackle a seemingly impossible traverse nestled beneath the imposing shadow of Mt. Blanc and her sister mountains. As we rounded the final traverse of a solid spire of rock, we had visibility of the vacationers peering over at us from the safety of the cable car station, wondering why and more importantly how the hell we had got there.

It felt good to be on the other side of those questions. We were the crazy people who’d stepped beyond the safety of a piste marker in pursuit of adventure. No longer confined by a viewing gallery or fence as we had been countless times before, or even to a well-trodden mountain route like the one we’d have taken up Mt. Blanc, we felt more connected to the dizzying vastness of the great outdoors.▲