Mont Blanc - The hard way

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Written by Rhys Williams, 2004.

Mountains, in some ways, are like Presidents. Some are better than others. Some linger in the memory long after we expect to forget about them, resurfacing at unexpected moments. Others that we expected to remember forever fade from our memories within a few short years. Some are substantially more photogenic than others, although looking good is no indication of inherent value. And one or two are downright criminal. We all have our own personal favourites, but the average man in the street can only name a few, and probably not any of our personal favourites. Some are known internationally, others are barely recognised within their own country. And some, like Mount Everest or George Washington, are known to pretty much everyone on the planet.

Ask the average (half-educated) man in the street to name five mountains around the world, and the chances are that he will list Everest. After Chomolungma, the list might include Kilimanjaro, the Matterhorn, Mount Fuji or Mount McKinley. It's a pretty safe bet, however, that a large proportion of people would list Mont Blanc, the majestic peak that towers over the French Alps, and is visible from Italy, Switzerland and France. It attracts mountaineers like a magnet attracts iron filings and like my legs attract hungry mosquitoes. This, now that I think about it, may partly explain why I am attracted to the mountains - no damned biting things.

The first ascent of Mont Blanc (4810 metres/15,780 feet), by Balmat and Paccard in 1786, occurred only ten years after the Declaration of Independence and three years before the French Revolution. It was perhaps the beginning of alpinism for sporting rather than scientific research purposes (although Balmat and Paccard did have the incentive of prize money offered by de Saussure to whoever first climbed the mountain). And even today, new routes continue to be put up on this Emperor of the Alps.

In Europe, climbing Mont Blanc is a rite of passage. It is an opportunity to stand on the shoulders of giants. They've all climbed it: Mallory and Bonatti, Scott and Messner, Whillans and Twight. (Although not in these particular pairings, obviously). And so can you, because there are so many different routes up it, you don't need to be an alpine genius to ascend its snowy slopes.

I have been lucky enough to have climbed in the French Alps for a number of years. For some reason, however, until last year I had never got around to climbing Mont Blanc. Various problems always seemed to get in the way. Appalling weather conditions ruled out attempts on several trips. The attraction of some of the lower, more technically demanding climbs often diverted me from ticking off the Big MB. At other times, my climbing partners simply expressed a preference for other routes and other mountains.

Finally, in June 2004, I got around to getting up. I summited via the Gouter Route, the "normal" route to the summit, but I resisted the urge to make it too easy. Oh yes. In fact, I made it as difficult as possible for myself. Like Bonnington in the Himalaya, I climbed Mont Blanc - the hard way. And if you're thinking of climbing the mountain soon, permit me to make it easier for you. Don't do as I did. Do almost the exact opposite.

Get Fit Before You Leave

I arrived in Chamonix utterly unprepared for what is a pretty major physical and mental undertaking. I had recently changed jobs, moved house, and my wife had produced our first child, Owain, in February. He was a beautiful baby (he took after his mother, I'm pleased to report), but he also arrived early, underweight and sick, resulting in two first-time parents who were stressed, sleep-deprived and terrified, all at the same time. To make things even more entertaining, my wife was then herself hospitalized for several weeks, almost as soon as Owain arrived home. By the time I left for Chamonix, leaving Rachel and Owain with Rachel's sister, things were on a more even keel but my good intentions of rigorous training had all fallen by the wayside. I was fit, but not mountain fit.

There Is Less Oxygen Up There, You Know

At 4810m, there is substantially less oxygen than at sea level, and the air pressure is reduced by about half. This adversely affects the body's capacity to operate, for obvious reasons. Especially if you are a smoker. Which I was. In fact, I was so dedicated a smoker, that I even purchased a cigarette lighter that claimed to be adjustable so that, depending on the altitude, the oxygen flow to the flame would alter, always guaranteeing a flame, no matter the height. Of course, it didn't work, only adding frustration to my ever-lengthening list of ailments. Shortness of breath, headaches and vertigo are all very common ailments at altitude, especially if you're burning extra calories simply restriking a lighter time and again, with no benefit whatsoever. Still, if you're acclimatized, your body doesn't notice the absence of oxygen so much. Naturally, I wasn't acclimatized either.


Spending a few days at altitude enables the body to produce more red blood corpuscles so that the blood can carry enough oxygen, even in low air pressure. Conventional wisdom has it that acclimatization, through at least three or four days at altitude, is essential prior to an attempt on Mont Blanc. I didn't bother. Instead, because the Aiguille du Midi cable car wasn't working, I went straight up from the valley floor. Heck, not even the TMB tram next to Col de Bellevue cable car was working, thus ensuring an extra few hours of hiking before starting the climb proper.

Food and water are essential

Climbing at altitude requires regular body refueling, so I feel particularly proud that I didn't take anywhere near enough food or water. Sure, I stayed at the Tete Rousse Hut (3167m) for the first night, so was able to replenish my supplies, but I quickly depleted them again the next day. And as the weather closed in the next afternoon and as I struggled exhausted towards the emergency Vallot shelter (4362m) just past the Dome du Gouter(4250m), I rather regretted not having any food or water left. I had intended to rest in the shelter for only an hour or so but the bad weather continued so I stayed the night, lying wrapped in old blankets, too cold and tired to sleep.

Choose good weather for your ascent

The wind had died down a little by 4am the next day, which meant it was a far more bearable 50-60 kmph. Still, at least the driving wind took my mind off the unseasonably knee-deep snow that sapped my strength with every step. Some people climb Mont Blanc in perfect conditions, with firm snow and no winds. They no doubt enjoy themselves, but they may not always understand what an awesome mountain they have summited. By pushing yourself to the edge of exhaustion and holding yourself there, you learn more about yourself and how far you can go.

Take a friend

If you are going to try climbing Mont Blanc the Hard Way, make sure you do what I did: go with an expert climber who can make sure that none of your mistakes becomes a fatal error. I went with an old friend with whom I have climbed on many occasions, and his unfailing good humour as he dragged my sorry ass up the mountain has earned him a lifetime of gratitude and large numbers of cold beers whenever we get to meet up.

Mont Blanc is a beautiful, awe-inspiring mountain, which more than justifies its popularity. Mere words and photographs cannot convey its charisma and attitude.

As Charles Dickens, who had a better command of the English language than most, wrote in 1846: "Mont-Blanc and the Valley of Chamonix, and the Mer de Glace, and all the wonders of that most wonderful place are above and beyond one's wildest expectation. I cannot imagine anything in nature more stupendous or sublime. If I were to write about it now, I should quite rave - such prodigious impressions are rampant within me…"

So get out there and do it. It is one of life's greatest experiences. But honestly, and you'll have to trust me on this one, make sure you do as I say, and not as I do.

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