Peak 36 | Mont Blanc, France & Italy | 4810m | 1st August 2019
Updated: Jan 1
Western Europe's highest mountain is the unforgettable gem in the trip that nearly didn't happen for me. Being let down last-minute by a climbing partner, I found myself faced with the tricky scenario of whether to go up alone with my limited experience, or not for the foreseeable future and jeopardize the remainder of my schedule.
• Starting point - Nid d' Aigle
• Route taken - Gouter Route
• Total ascent - 800 m + 1650 m
• Total length - 2.7 + 16 km round trip
• Total time for climb - 2 + 13¼ hours
• Accommodation - Tête Rousse Hut
• Expense category - #VeryHigh
• Equipment - #FullAlpine Gear
• Difficulty - #Level5 of 5
• Enjoyment - #5stars of 5*
Adapting to changing plans
It was the day after my soaking wet scramble up Germany's Zugspitze - a hike in conditions that were far from favorable. Non-the-less, it was necessary to keep to a commitment that I'd made. Following a successful summit, I headed to Zurich airport. I was traveling to pick up my climbing partner for Mont Blanc. Someone that I'd met briefly earlier in my journey that; planned on flying out from America, especially for the mountain.
But this adventure has continually reminded me that plans will rarely go the way intended. And my vision for Mont Blanc undoubtedly fell within this trend.
To try to keep this short - communication with this individual fell silent on my way to Zurich. The last message received spoke about spending the night in urgent care, and I would be contacted when she was released. I waited for a day and a half in a state of limbo. Getting more worried and stresses by the hour. Unsure of what else to do, I spent the night in the back of the car at a Mcdonald's car park. I'd Instantly reach to check my phone every time I awoke from a broken sleep in the hope of some news.
Heading solo up Mont Blanc
By mid-morning, it was crunch-time. I couldn't afford to wait any longer. If I was going to attempt Mont Blanc to the schedule planned, I needed to leave to give me enough time to reach the booked cabin on the mountain that night.
I'd already gotten lucky with getting the accommodation on short notice. I'd booked just a day prior, and they only found space because of a cancellation. The cabins on Mont Blanc are notoriously famous for being fully booked-up months in advance. Additionally, the poor conditions on the early weather forecast were now looking near perfect. I was starting to realize that this could be the best, if not the only opportunity that I may get to climb Mont Blanc for the foreseeable future, which could be a considerable risk to my record attempt.
So, despite the nerves, lack of a companion, and only the most basic of equipment on me, I decided to leave Zurich and head towards Chamonix. But more worryingly, I'd still not received any further messages from the American counterpart.
I drove the entire 300 km trip with my head spinning with potential scenarios of what could have happened. Agonizing if something serious had occurred, or was it just an elaborate excuse to bail last minute?
On my arrival at Chamonix, I had no time to explore. Instead, I needed to head straight to an equipment shop to hire the essentials I still didn't own. Crampons, ice ace, helmet, insulated boots, and a harness were all needed, and at this stage in the project, it was starting to feel a pretty silly move that I didn't just bite the bullet and buy all the gear at the start of the challenge. But then again, I was never feeling overly confident with how far I'd get.
Fifty euros later, I was ready. At least equipment-wise. But mentally, I was still nervous and in a pretty confusing place. I ditched the car just outside Les Houches in a free looking car park next to the equipment shop and headed to the chairlift station. I have to admit that I still find the feeling of taking lifts partly up a mountain to climb the remainder a little strange. On exit, I hold almost a sense of guilt that I cheated somewhat. I completely understand why some like to start the hike from the valley.
From the cable car, then it would be the mountain railway to 2386 m and the starting point of the Mont Blanc hike. The packed train emptied, but there were only a couple of others that appeared to be heading up. The rest looked like they were doing lower routes. I was expecting more on a mountain with 20,000 summits a year. But it was now just after 16:30, and I suspect that many would have headed up before then.
My ideal plan for Mont Blanc was to do over two days. Firstly a 2-hour hike by making my way up to the Tête Rousse Hut at 3160m where I would stay the night. Then an early start the following morning to summit Mont Blanc and return.
I started in a desolate-looking, rugged landscape shrouded in the clouds. Then about halfway there, I could begin to see a few breaks above me, and the blue skies appear. Then suddenly, its as if I just walked out of the cloud and revealed the surroundings.
I was above a sea of clouds. From this point, my nerves began to vanish, and I was in absolute awe of the surroundings. I could see for the first time the mountain towering above me and on it my destination for the night — a welcomed sight, where I would arrive just in time for dinner.
The evening blessed me with one of the most incredible sunsets that I'd ever witnessed. It seemed like the whole hut stood still to take it in. I certainly felt like it was a better end to the day than the beginning.
Summit day meant a 2 am alarm. Although I don't think I managed to sleep much anyway in a 16-person dorm room. I knew that I had at least 1900 meters of altitude to gain and another 2500 meters of decent to complete before the day was over.
The first part involved a 2-hour climb in the dark and past the most hazardous part of the route, the infamous Grand Couloir where rocks often hurdle themselves down a 50-meter gully that unavoidably needs passing. But thankfully, it was silent from the sound of any rockfall as I passed through.
By 5 am, the morning glow was starting to unveil the surroundings. A morning golden hour that I hope never to forget. It's these moments and views that make memories that stick far beyond any broken night's sleep or aching leg.
It was twenty past six by when I caught a glimpse of the sun for the first time that morning. I had just come over the top of the Dôme du Goûter ridge at 4300 meters. But with it came exposure to the bitterly cold winds.
The summit was now in sight. Just two kilometers and 500 meters of vertical ascent remained from here. My confidence grew as it felt very much within touching distance.
After making it to the Vallot emergency cabin at 4362 meters, I stopped for a quick break as it was the only place that I could take shelter from the freezing winds.
After here, the incline gets notably steeper and more difficult. It was the beginning of the final push. The high altitude was now also having its effects. Stopping to catch my breath was becoming noticeably more frequent.
Despite the early weather forecast showing heavy thunderstorms. It turned out I was incredibly fortunate in the end. Barely a cloud in sight. The winds felt cold, but they were nothing concerning with speed of around 25kmh.
Walking along the narrow ridge just a few minutes away from the summit now. It was in my grasp.
The views were unreal.
By 9 am, I had made it to the summit. Now, all that I needed to do was to descend and return in one piece.
Mont Blanc signified the completion of the #Alps for me. It was hugely satisfying to have these under my belt. Having been just four months since I started, I now was three-quarters of my way through the peaks on the challenge and had been making good progress in recent weeks.
The plan now was for me to head back home to the UK for a short break. It had been an intense few weeks of climbing and traveling. before the start of my final stint.
Mentally this summit gave me such a positive boost. After starting on a low, I was fishing off on a momentum high. Never underestimate the power of the mountains for a better mental state.