Mont Blanc, the White Mountain, is the highest peak found in Western Europe, it is also the world’s deadliest mountain. This was my destination and together with old and new friends we tried to reach the top.
I arrived in Chamonix on a sunny day in august and hooked up with Petter who’s been living in Chamonix for quite a long time. We ate a tasty dinner while talking about good old memories. Several hours went by and we decided to meet with the other guys joining in on the ascent to grab a few drinks. The night was spent planning our climb as we talked about everything from what gear we should bring to how the weather forecast would be the coming days. Another big focus for the night was the safety of the climb. Over the course of the last two weeks eight climbers had died.
Arriving in Chamonix one gets overwhelmed by the majestic landscapes. Mountains reaching several thousand meters up above the ground surround the small city. I am used to the Norwegian mountaintops of 1000-200 meters but seeing the Alps reaching over 4000 meters was a treat! Chamonix is home to less than 10.000 people but during the busy summer season they are visited by several millions of tourist. Most people come here to hike, relax and enjoy the view from Aiguille du Midi, but as many as 30.000 people try to climb Mont Blanc each year.
Back to our company. I had never met Rick and Eystein before but they seemed like two superb guys. What I have heard from Petter is that they go out trail running as often as they can, together with Petter and other people from the trail running community. I have always loved running but these guys seem crazy. “On Sundays we usually go out for a 5 hour run and during the course climb over 1500 meters” Rick told me. This year Rick was pushing 40 but I would not have guessed a day older than 30 with their kind of activity!
The next day the rest of the company had to work so I decided to take a visit to Aiguille du Midi. The summit of Aiguille du Midi is at a height of 3.777 meters with a panoramic view towards Mont Blanc. My plan was to take the cable car to the summit and spend some time up there to acclimatise my body to the height. Did someone say thin air? I exited the cable car and walked towards one of the viewing point. I had to climb two stairs and then it hit me. I started to feel dizzy and had to sit down as my field of view began to shrink way to fast. I was certain I was going to faint and as I tried to catch my breath no air would fill my lungs (at least I thought). As I sat there for maybe half an hour I thought to myself what have I gotten myself into. Climbing Mont Blanc and I cannot even ascend a pair of stairs, and the other guys in such great physical form, terrible idea!
Slowly my breathing came back and I felt better. I grabbed my camera bag and made my way to the cafeteria for a cup of hot chocolate. The view from Aiguille du Midi is spectacular and it didn’t take long time before I was back out again with my camera trying to capture the view. But, I must say, it is better to have the view in real life than watching some simple images.
Later that day and back on the ground I met with Petter and Rick. We decided to pack our bags and tent and go back up to Aiguille du Midi in the afternoon and spend the night up there. “The more a person is acclimatised to the thin air before ascending Mont Blanc, the lower the risk for getting altitude sickness” Petter said as we were adjusting our climbing belts and counting rope lengths. Our plan was to walk down the east ridge of Aiguille du Midi and put up our camp at the Col du Midi glacier. I am glad that I’m not afraid of heights. The Aiguille du Midi East Ridge is narrow and with one small slip to the left you would fall a few thousands meters. “Rope, check!, crampons, check!, ice axe, check!”. “We keep the ropes short and remember if you lose your balance, make sure you land on the ice axe to break your fall” Rick stressed. Even experienced climbers take this ridge very seriously.
We kept a steady pace and descended the ridge as swift as we could. 15 minutes later we stopped to adjust the gear and then continued towards Col du Midi. At the glacier we stopped on the upper side to make sure we were safe from crevasses. We put up the camp with a good view towards Mont Maudit and the Italian Alps. We ate a small dinner and I set the alarm for 5 AM the next morning, hopeful to catch a good sunrise.
The sun rose slowly giving birth to a new day. If I haven’t said it before I will say it now, the view is breath taking! Mountain tops as far as the eye can see. After a cold night it was good to feel the sunlight in the face. As we packed the tent and equipment back into our bags other climbers were already on their way ascending up the steep climb towards Mont Maudit, and the north eastern way to Mont Blanc. In two days we would try to reach Mont Blanc from the north western way. I started to look forward to the ascent.
We walked back to Aiguille du Midi and took the cable car down to Chamonix. “Ready for a morning run tomorrow?” Rick asked. “Are you joking?” I answered. But no, Rick and Eystein were going for a morning run the next day, the same day we would start the ascend of Mont Blanc. Crazy runners! I spent the rest of the day getting hold of the last piece of equipment needed for the climb, which I had forgotten to bring from Norway. I also took the opportunity to try paragliding and get a good view over Chamonix from the air. Good fun!
The next day after lunch we caught a train on the very popular Tramway du Mont-Blanc. The tramway was opened in 1907 and takes you up to the Nid d’Aigle station at the Bionnassay glacier at an altitude of 2,372 meters. From here we started our ascent towards the Tête Rousse hut, which would be our starting point to ascend Mont Blanc. We walked for a couple of hours passing glaciers and spectacular views. 800 height meters later we reach the Tête Rousse hut at 3167 meters. Here we stayed for the afternoon getting a good dinner and tried to catch a few hours sleep before midnight.
Our plan was to start the ascend right before midnight but during the evening the wind had started to pick up speed. Outside the cabin it was difficult to stand upright and we discussed if we should go on with the climb. At midnight we took a small meal and checked the winds again. The wind speed was still increasing and it had also started to snow a little. We decided to wait a few more hours. At 2 AM the wind had calmed down a bit and after a long discussion we decided to give it a go. On with the equipment and off we went.
Only a few hundred meters from the Tête Rousse hut there is the infamous Grand Couloir also known as the Death Gully. The Grand Couloir is a narrow and steep gully were there is a big risk of getting hit by falling rocks and ice. It is also possible to slip and fall to your death and many people have died here over the years. As we arrived at the Couloir we passed it one by one. Although no rocks were falling at that time, I still must say that my pulse went up quite a bit. After the Grand Couloir there is 500 meters with scrambling. There are both easy and difficult sections but this part was fun to ascend. At 3817 meters we reached the new built Goûter cabin and here we took a small break.
During the scrambling we had very little wind but when we got up on the ridge by the Goûter cabin we were met by strong winds again and a lot of snow. After our short break we continued up on the Goûter ridge towards Dôme du Goûter. As we got higher up the wind was increasing to gale speeds and the sight was also decreasing. At best we could see 20 meters in front of us. Good thing to have a GPS! We continued even further and for each step the climbing became heavier. At the height of 4098 meters we could barely walk to the right direction because of the wind. We decided to turn back. You do not want to get stuck in a snowstorm up on Mont Blanc. If you do the chances of getting down alive are minimal.
Some brave souls trying to defy the powers of the mountain. Over the ridge the view completely disappear.
The descent went fine and unfortunately I had to fly back to Norway again the next day, otherwise we could have tried to reach the top again as the weather had started to calm down.
We were defeated by the weather, but was it a defeat? No! It was a fantastic trip and I will gladly do it again and hopefully reach the top next time! As always it was nice to meet new people and to push the limits for what knew you could do. Nature is powerful and kind, and it was great being out in the Alps during these days.
I would like to say a big thank you to Petter, Rick and Eystein!