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Friday, 29 August 2014

4,810m

Mont Blanc, One of the most popular mountains in the Alps, both for the apparent ease of the route, and the attraction of it being the highest mountain in Europe. This mountain is attempted by thousands of people a year. The mountain is packed with mountain guides and the huts crammed to the brim with expectant people hoping to summit. I decided to attempt it as soon as we arrived in Chamonix. As I sat in the guides office, with Pete and Jack planning their own route up the North face of the Drew, I was scanning the many folders filled with alp summits and routes, and suddenly decided that with the two day weather window given to us that I would attempt Mont Blanc. I asked every conceivable question known to man both directed at pete and at the guides. The weather looked good, the route looked relativity busy, which is what I wanted, with little knowledge or build up to the attempt I liked the safety net of guides that were going to be up the mountain. If all went to pot, I could simply follow the crowd. Shortly after visiting the guides office, I met up with a lad named Will Hornby who had been in Chamonix for about two weeks, but had fell ill, allowing for nothing but relaxing at the valley floor. Seeing as a solo attempt was probably a foolish idea, I asked if he would like to join me, and he was keen to use the two day weather window as much as I was.

Planning to attempt The Gouter Route (Ordinary Route) up Mont Blanc, we set off from car park opposite the train station and hopped on the bus to Les Houches and immediately realised we were heading the opposite direction to Mont Blanc, getting off and running for the right bus we finally made it to the Bellevue cable car and started our ascent to the foot of the mountain, we then switched to the  Nid' aigle tramway where we met some Scottish climbers who were also making the use of the weather window and making their own first attempt. Getting off the train, we quickly made our way up the Desert de Pierre Ronde, up to the Refuge Tete Rousse, where we had planned to push up the Grand Couliour, in the same day allowing for a short push to the summit the next day (990m). But this was not to be, we were not allowed up the ridge without previous booking at the Gouter Hut. We tried many times to contact the hut, but phone coverage was hard to come by, and resorted to having to stay at the Rousse for the night, this meant a couple of negatives and positives, staying lower down would mean a better nights sleep but would also mean an earlier start the next morning, it would also mean a safer traverse of the Grand Coulior, with no sun melting the snow further up, rock fall was less of an issue on the ascent, the final issue was having a very long day. With a 1:30am start we would have to ascend to the summit in 7 hours or less to allow for plenty of time to get down for the final train and cable car off the mountain.

We spent the first evening playing scrabble with the Scottish men we met, making up words and playing a 'climbers' version, with words like cam, tat and the such allowed on the board. We were low on cash and could just about scrape a bed and breakfast, but dinner was well past our price range and had to use the 'self cooking' room, and cooked pasta and sauce, then proceeded to spend 2 hours melting snow for the next day (4 Euros to fill up a litre!). By 7 oclock we were packed and ready for the next day, and in bed awaiting the 1:30am wake up and breakfast. I slept like a log, and by some fluke woke half an hour early and set about sorting my kit, before the hut was packed with the clinking of crampons and rustle of gore tex. By 2:00 we were out of the hut, wrapped in just enough layers to keep us warm if we kept going, and with the Grand Coulior towering over us, there was no problem with that. Will and I had, by now built up a fantastic rapport and began moving roped up fantastically, with concept of  exposure being suffocated by the small pool of light that was emitted from my head torch we moved at a good pace, with mixed rock and snow making its way up to the Gouter Hut. This was probably the busiest section of the route, with a lot of climbers bunched up directly after leaving the hut, there were a few bottle necks, but after 2 hours the route spread out and became quieter, reaching the hut. Getting to  Aiguille de Gouter took roughly 4 hours and seemed to last for ever. the hut never seemed to come any closer, yet at last we stood above the Colouir with just over 3 hours of a slow slog to the top of the mountain. Ever since the 3,000m mark we had began to seriously feel the altitude and we had been stopping, in states of breathlessness and nausea.

As Dawn broke over the Alps and the head torches slowly began to disappear, we were nearing the emergency refuge, the wind was picking up and we stopped for some much needed Haribo and a toilet stop. I was now feeling properly cold, and my feet were completely numb, I had attempted to wrap my feet with too many socks in my B1's and the circulation was slightly trapped backtracking the actual effect of the many layers. (Proper B2-B3s needed!!) Sitting next to the refuge waiting for will to go to the toilet, I watched the orange glow of the early morning sun glint off the Midi, and tried to let the rays warm me up.

Now approaching the Grande Bosse in the shade, the wind picked up considerably and we stopped to add layers, Now with nearly every layer on and my RAB neutrino zipped up and my frozen buff hanging uselessly at my neck, Mont Blanc suddenly felt like well like, Mont Blanc. With 4,000m now well and truly under our belt, the slog up to the Peteite Boss felt nigh on impossible. The wind was so strong that we had resorted to using the axes as a communication device. We were managing at best, 10 paces and a rest on our axes. Staying on the Italian side of the ridge allowed some respite from the spin drift and constant wind, yet this small victory was soon to be quashed by the need to rise to the Roches de la tournette and finally the summit. By now, I had completely given up at looking at the view and started to stare vacantly at my feet, counting the many steps to the ever closer summit of Mont Blanc.

Finally, after leaving the Tete Rousse 7.5 hours earlier we reached the summit at 9:27am on the 24th Of August. The view, spectacular, the conditions, terrible. Spin drift was making eyesight difficult and the altitude was affecting both of us, and after almost two days of climbing we spent nearly 120 seconds savouring the moment before giving each other a high five and quickly descending. Shortly after, and roughly 70m down from the summit, I got the 'screaming barfies' or hot aches, on my nose, from the constant spin drifts, and had to sit down and regain feeling and get over the pain, and push on down. The further down we got the easier everything became, the wind dropped the temperature rose and the altitude once again started to work in our favor.

Our next job was to get down to the train before the last one left, or risk having to Bivy at the train station, which neither of us felt like doing, so quickly descending down the grand Coulior, dodging mountain guides and their clients and stopping at the Tete Rousse to pick up our sleeping bags and other heavy items we had left for the summit push, we made it down to the base with over 30 minutes to spare and promptly fell asleep on the platform, surrounded by people who we had seen on the summit that day.