Up and Down Western Europe's Highest Mountain in a Day
In August, 2008, as I checked into my hostel for a week long climbing class in Chamonix, the hostel manager asked me if I had heard. Heard about what I replied? He indicated that a freak ice and snow avalanche buried 8 climbers at 3 am on their way to the Mont Blanc summit via the du Tacul route. It had been a long time that this number of people had been killed all at once there. It was a stark reminder of the unforeseen dangers the mountains can present. I had enrolled in a week long class to hone my climbing skills that included climbing Mont Blanc at the end of the week.
Early in the week, I enhanced my knowledge of how to use an ice axe, crampons and the rope. Additionally we learned how to climb on various rock pitches, navigate glaciers, safely cross crevasses, scale walls with solid holds, belay the guide and generally use our clothing to maintain a comfortable body temperature and all the while, take in some of the most incredible mountain views the great French Alps have to offer.
Remi was my guide, a truly fit and very knowledgeable French mountaineer with 20 years of experience. His strong climbing skills were easily evident. That provided a comforting sense of security in the climbing for me, making the week much more enjoyable. Additionally the weather was excellent and provided us with unrestricted access to climbing and the panoramas.
From a small town outside Chamonix near Les Houches, we took a gondola to a train and then the train to the last stop at 7,545 ft (2300 m). From that point, we started the climb as many others did as well. I was traveling light as was recommended with a 25 liter pack and brought along what I needed and not a gram more. Our first target was to go to the La Gouter refugee at 12,529 ft (3819 m); a popular hut for over-nighting. The 4,984ft (1519 m) ascent involved a lot of steep hiking and mild technical rock climbing. Fixed cables on the climb did exist on steeper sections to aid in navigating safely. A great blend of nationalities on trail to include French, Swiss, Italian, German, US, English and more, made the journey a super "multi-culti" experience with various greetings from many languages being exchanged.
I arrived at the hut in about 4 hours. Lunch was a welcome meal that I had carried. As I ate fruit along meat and cheese sandwiches, I could feel very my body start to re-energize almost immediately. I sat the entire time to rest my legs and mentally prepare for the long journey to the top. An hour break was well needed but went fast. The climb is often broken up into two days with an overnight at the hut and an early start in the morning. From this point, continuing on would allow us to have the mountain essentially to ourselves and avoid the 1 am mass rush to the top in the dark. We carried on!
The transition to the snow and ice began immediately above the hut. It was nature's border to an all white surface, a welcome break and a very different change of scenery from the dusty rock face. Not a single rock or piece of earth was stepped on above this point. I was barely half way there and the shift was so sudden and vastly different. All was so bright white as the sun was beaming strong on the snow and ice. Out with another layer, the ice axe and crampons and off we go!
To the summit. It was now 2pm. This portion of the climb consisted of crossing vast snow fields and a large glacier with numerous crevasses. We trekked on. The ascent vacillated from generally gentle flat glacier hiking to steep ridge trekking with steep drop-offs on both sides. At times, it was a series of up and down ridge climbs. Up, down, up, down and whatever it takes to get to the top. I recall my legs being very fatigued. We had covered so much vertical. This is difficult to prepare for when not living in the mountains as was the case for me. I said to myself, just march on, regardless of the effects of the attitude, exhaustion, negative thoughts, visions of being in a place where I would be experiencing less fatigue discomfort. Deep drop-offs and narrow steep ridges visually challenged my mind. It was just another obstacle of many that had to be overcome.
I proceeded on. With only a 60% summit success rate among guided clients, I made an effort to not waste any time or energy. Just focus and continue on. At times, just walking at this attitude on a slight incline would produce a heart rate of 130-140 bpm; the same as jogging on flat ground at sea level. Many breaks were taken in the afternoon. Some prompted by myself, others by Remi. Each one was a welcome relief to relax the legs, the rest of the body and the mind along with replenishing ourselves with food and fluids. Now it had been over 4 hours since lunch and about 9 hours since we started the climb.... at last, at about 6:15, we summitted!
Above the clouds! The view was stunning. You could see forever. The long journey UP was at an end with a surrounding view of everything. I embraced the full satisfaction of standing atop the highest point in Western Europe 15,774 ft (4,810 m)! I had been significantly on the physical go for over 8 hours and felt every bit of that. We spent about 15 minutes at the top eating and drinking and taking in the vast vistas while recalling the effort it took to get to that point. Even though I was not back to safe ground, there was a super rewarding feeling of having made it to summit! There was a truly calming sense of having accomplished something big. The feeling was awesome! Since lunch, we ascended and descended virtually alone and experienced a beautiful sunset on the return journey to the hut. The mountains were extremely quiet and this journey of genuine solitude was as peaceful as peaceful gets. I was tired but going down was easier than going up and the sunset was a nice distraction from the weariness.
We returned to La Gouter just as darkness set in 2.5 hours. The overall one day journey was of a mild difficulty rating on a rock climbing scale but from an endurance standpoint, this mountain was very tough. Towards the end of the 11 hour effort, I felt every step. My legs were physically drained. I was neither sick nor bitten by altitude sickness, just simply worn down from the long day of climbing. I was at a very low energy state. I had climbed 8,200 ft (2,500 m) and descended 3,280 ft (1000 m). It was a challenging endeavor for one day. I cannot remember feeling as exhausted as I did that evening in a long time. But the true and lasting rewards of having accomplished this great climb easily outweighed all the discomforts that would soon vanish.
The service to the open seating area in the hut was closed but we quickly joined the staff in this small cozy kitchen for the last meal that night to us select few. Every bite was like a reenergizing scoop of power. It all tasted better than good but more importantly it was the way back to having normal body energy. Shortly after dinner, I attempted to sleep in a super crowded, overly warm hut. It was like a Cambodian refugee camp. Climbers were sprawled all over, sleeping on the floors and tables with bunk beds stuffed to the hilt.
I fortunately had a bunk bed slice but my personal space was limited. It did not matter, as long as I was horizontal. Closed windows, warm temps in the hut and high altitude air only allowed a few hours of sleep in a period of 8 hours but I felt far better after that. The next day I rose and we had a simple breakfast and descended to the train station via the same trial and greeted all the new climbers going up, eagerly ready to tackle the Mont Blanc Summit Challenge!