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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Fit Before You Leave
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.
Is Less Oxygen Up There, You Know
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
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.
and water are essential
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
good weather for your ascent
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.
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.
Blanc is a beautiful, awe-inspiring mountain, which
more than justifies its popularity. Mere words and photographs
cannot convey its charisma and attitude.
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
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