Mont Blanc Storm

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A story of inexperience, luck, and a summit...

The weather forecast looked good for the next three days, with cold nights and clear days. On the fourth day there were storms predicted, but that was OK, as we should be back down in Chamonix by that stage. The plan was to ascend Mont Blanc from the Col du Midi by the Trois Mont Blanc route. That day we bought enough food for the next days and then retreated to our tent perched on the Plan d'Aiguille du Midi to plan our ascent.

That evening we packed quickly, and then got into our sleeping bags with the alarm set for 5am, so that we could get the first cable car to the Aiguille du Midi. The cabin was crammed with other mountaineers, all looking forward to the day ahead. Our plan was to ascend the Cosmiques Arete that day, then to spend the night in the Cosmiques hut before setting off for Mont Blanc, very early the following morning.

As soon as we reached the Aiguille du Midi we quickly headed for the ice tunnel that opens out onto the Vallee Blanche. As soon as our crampons were clipped on we crunched out onto the arête leading towards the Col du Midi. A couple of groups were ahead of us, but fortunately each had different objectives, with the first group heading towards the North Face of Tacul, and the others continuing along the ridge on the Midi-Plan traverse. We would be leading the way, with no one ahead of us.

The rising sun cast streaks of light that filtered through the morning haze surrounding the Aiguille Verte and Grandes Jorasses groups. Further away we could only see the summits above a level of puffy white cloud. The haze would quickly burn away with the rising heat, but it created an unforgettable morning as we turned beneath the South Face of the Aiguille du Midi towards the Cosmiques Arete.

The snow was in excellent condition and our hopes for the next day were high. We reached the bottom of the route for the day, and watched as a string of ant-sized figures crossed the Col du Midi towards the North West Face of Mont Blanc du Tacul. We opted to keep our crampons on, as the rocks were covered in a dusting of fresh snow that had fallen two days before.

We moved quickly up the route, with the Col du Midi rapidly falling away beneath us. All along the route there are lots of variations, and in some cases we headed over rock gendarmes on the crest, whilst on some stretches we went for the snow. The conditions were perfect, and the sky a brilliant blue. By the time we reached the terraces of the Aiguille du Midi it was quite hot. We turned the final ridge on the North side to get the views of the Piton Sud, and down into the Chamonix valley, before clambering up the ladder to the terrace, which was now crowded by the day-tripper tourists.

We quickly dodged the zoom lenses and camcorders, before heading back down to the Col du Midi and the Cosmiques hut where we were staying the night. In the late afternoon we rested on the terrace, and surveyed the bulk of Mont Blanc before us. We could see the last groups of the day descending down the North West Face of Tacul, and there seemed to be no major problems on the route up the face past the seracs.

After a dinner of pasta, for probably the fifth night in a row, we opted for an early night, as the alarm was set to go off at 2am. Some Italians had arrived at about 6pm, and were in the mood for a party. Despite the best efforts of the Guardian to keep the noise down, they blundered into the room singing and cheering, presumably in celebration of their ascent the day before. I hid my head beneath the blanket and blocked the noise out.

We got our own back in the morning, as the alarm bleeped into life at 2am, and we crawled out of the room over the prostrate lifeless forms that were scattered on the floor, as they had not managed to get into bed. After learning a few grunted Italian swear words we closed the door behind us and headed down for a quick breakfast. After cramming as much muesli and hot chocolate as I could into my stomach, we checked our rucsacs for the last time, switched on our head torches, then headed out into the darkness.

It was still extremely cold, and each breath sent a cloud of condensation through the beam of the head torch. We quickly headed across the Col du Midi, and started on our way up the North West Face of Tacul. In the light of the lamps we could pick out the tracks of the climbers we had seen descending the previous afternoon. As we gained height we saw a flicker of lightning far away over Lake Geneva. It didn't concern us as it was so far away.

Near the top of the face the gradient increases slightly and there are bulging seracs that are slowly separating and heading down the mountainside. It became clear that the seracs and crevasses had moved overnight, and we came to a point where the whole route was blocked by a deep split that had opened up. We looked for ways round the obstacle, but it soon became clear that we would have to wait for first light to find a way across it.

As we sat on the mountain we could see that the lightning was spreading around the horizon, though still far away. Every few seconds a bolt would flash down in either a dull yellow or bright white fork. Above us the stars were clear, and there was no cloud. The wind was very light, and we thought that the storm was the one predicted in the weather forecast, that was due to arrive in Chamonix in two days time. It was due to get a bit lighter in an hour, and we were confident that we could make up time once we were over the obstacle in our path.

It soon became lighter, and we could pick out a route across the crevasse. A snow bridge led to the vertical far wall, which then had to be traversed to the right for about twenty metres before I could head up to the final section of the face above. On a tight rope I climbed down to the snow bridge, and gently crossed to the security of the far wall. I was grateful of my decision to carry twin axes and then traversed sideways over the gloomy abyss below. Finally I could pull upwards and over the upper lip of the crevasse onto the clear face above.

After pausing to catch my breath I buried my deadman in the slope above me and belayed my partner up towards me. As soon as we were both across, we headed up the final section of the face. The crevasse had held us up by about two hours in total, and it was in full daylight as we traversed over the Epaule du Mont Blanc du Tacul, onto the Col Maudit.

The original plan had been to reach each of the three summits; Mont Blanc du Tacul, Mont Maudit and Mont Blanc. Due to the delay over the crevasse, we decided that we should just go straight for the summit of Mont Blanc, as this would cut about two hours off the ascent. We rested briefly on the Col Maudit, and then started across the col towards the bulk of Mont Maudit.

The view back down the North West Face of Tacul towards the Aiguille du Midi was really clear, though the Aiguille Rouges on the far side of the Chamonix Valley and the whole Portes de Soleil region were shrouded in cloud. The lightning had stopped at daybreak, but the clouds were dark grey and stormy.

As we started to climb up from the Col Maudit we watched as behind us the clouds drifted nearer, and it seemed that the storm would hit later that day. Fortunately the wind was still light, and we hoped that the storm would hold until the evening. We carried enough equipment to make an emergency bivvy if necessary, but it seemed that the storm had turned towards the Aiguille Verte side of the Massif, so we were confident that the ascent could still be made in safety.

All the guidebooks warn of the massive bergshrund that can occur on Mont Maudit. We had been informed by a group in Chamonix, who had descended the route a few days before, that they had to abseil from stakes to cross the gap. As we neared the bergshrund we spotted a fragile looking snow bridge at the highest point, which was only about one hundred metres below the ridge top. We made our way towards this point, and noted with concern the grey wisps of cloud that has started to blow across from the Aiguille du Midi, and that the wind had built up a little.

By this stage we has climbed about one thousand metres from the hut, and there were only a few hundred metres of climbing, to the summit of Mont Blanc, once we had traversed over the ridge of Mont Maudit. We opted to make a decision as whether it was safe to continue once we had reached the ridge of Mont Maudit. I reached the snow bridge and crawled carefully across onto the steeper slope above. With each step I drove my axe firmly into the snow as we edged up to the ridge.

I was only a few feet from the ridge, and could see grey clouds billowing over my head, and could hear the wind whistling as it built up. At the ridge crest I was engulfed in a cloud of spindrift, and as I pulled over onto the far side I was knocked over by the blast of wind. Digging my axe into the snow right up to its head, I belayed my partner up over the ridge. We had completed the hardest section of the route.

We quickly donned balaclavas and fleeces under our jackets, as the wind was perishingly cold. The storm had hit the eastern end of the massif first, and was rapidly heading west. We were at 4400 metres, and the safest route of descent was onwards over the summit of Mont Blanc. The storm had travelled really quickly and had effectively cut off our quickest route of descent, back to the Col du Midi.

We traversed across the Col de la Brenva towards the Mur de la Cote, which was in thick grey cloud. Occasionally the wind lifted the cloud slightly and we could look down onto the Brenva Spur. As we entered into the clouds it started to snow, and the strong wind made it sting in our faces. We soon became plastered in snow and it froze onto our clothes and headwear. By the time we had reached 4500 metres visibility was down to fifty metres.

The rope between us was lengthened and we headed on upwards. From this point on the mountain, we knew that we were on the summit snow dome of Mont Blanc, and that just by climbing upwards we would reach the top without worrying about navigating in the storm to avoid the steep faces on which the summit is perched. We plodded onwards, leaning against the wind, and pausing for breath every few minutes. The snow had eased slightly as we continued upwards, but the wind just got stronger.

It was getting late in the morning when we finally caught sight of the summit, which was marked by a small wooden stake, topped with a flag, and encrusted with ice. We made our last weary steps towards the top, but were aware that we still had a way to go to reach the safety of the Grands Mulets hut, almost two kilometres below us. We paused to take photographs, then after confirming our bearings, scuttled down towards the Bosses Arete. The success of reaching the summit really didn't sink in as we were in the clutches of the storm, and had a long descent to make.

We were both tired and in need of a rest, but the storm would not allow for that. The Bosses Arete was reached quickly, and we could make out the slopes falling steeply away from us into dense dark grey cloud. Unfortunately the wind built up, and for a few minutes we were forced to descend the ridge 'a cheval' to avoid being blown off our feet. Finally the ridge widened and we knew that the Vallot emergency refuge was nearby.

Ahead we could make out shapes in the swirling cloud, but none of them were the refuge. The fresh snow lay several inches thick, and there were no discernable tracks to follow. We were relieved to finally see the rocks on which the shelter is constructed. It was totally plastered in snow, and we could easily have descended past it. I climbed the ladder to the door and pushed it open. Inside ten sets of eyes stared at the two snowy figures that had climbed in. We rested for a short while and had a hot drink, which thawed out our faces that had been wind and snow blasted for hours.

The other climbers in the refuge had sought refuge from the storm, and were waiting until it blew over to complete their ascent of Mont Blanc. Some were waiting for better weather to make their retreat as they looked cold and miserable. The refuge was crammed, and we decided to continue on our way down to Grands Mulets.

Once we had reached the Col Du Dome, the wind slackened, though the snow started to fall more heavily. We lost height quickly, heading towards the Grand Plateau. Now we were sheltered from the wind we warmed up again, and moved quicker, jumping over the crevasses on our way towards Grands Mulets. The fact that we had cheated the storm to reach the summit started to sink in, and the feelings of achievement lifted our spirits, which had flagged due to tiredness.

When we reached the Petit Plateau, we could look across and see the Aiguille du Midi seemingly floating up in the clouds that swirled around it like a castle wrapped in mists. At the Pic Wilson we reached a wide crevasse that was approximately ten feet across. Taking turns, on a slack rope attached to buried ice axes, we took turns in running jumps over the chasm. Upon clearing the far side of the crevasse, my crampons clipped the far lip and I pitched forward into self-arrest over my ice axe. Shaken, I got up and watched as my partner sailed over the gap to join me.

We soon reached the nunatak on which the Grands Mulets hut is perched, and clambered up the wires to the door. Due to the storm the helicopter that delivers supplies to the hut had been grounded, which meant that the choice of menu for dinner was pasta for a change. Too tired and hungry to care, we tucked into huge steaming bowls of pasta, beneath a poster of Dhaulagiri's South Face. We were in bed by eight and didn't stir for twelve hours.

Outside the storm continued, and the next day we descended the Bossons glacier towards our tent on the Plan d'Aiguille, which we reached in the early afternoon. From the warmth of our sleeping bags we could see the summit of Mont Blanc swathed in dark clouds, which remained for three more days. We thought of the ten miserable faces in the Vallot refuge, and hoped that they had retreated down the mountain.

Upon return to Chamonix, we discovered that the storm had claimed the lives of four climbers, trapped high on the mountain, and too tired, scared, disorientated, and cold to move. What our experience taught us, was that we were privileged to have got the chance to reach the summit, with no greater consequence than having to endure yet another meal of pasta.

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