Gollum, “We shall see, oh yes, we shall see.” (from Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King by JRR Tolkien).
I remember the above scene from LOTR well, and I remember seeing the scene in the film when it first came out and thinking that the stairs that Gollum leads the two hobbits up to Mordor looked about as hellish a climb as it was possible to imagine. However, that’s just it, Middle Earth is fiction and born of imagination. The climb to the summit of Mont Blanc is very very real and it is as if fiction has become reality and we were climbing some evil twisted path to Mordor – I even saw a black spider scuttling around in the rocks!
Back to the start of the climb, Tuesday morning, breakfast in the chalet – a relatively quiet affair due to nerves. We then headed off to catch a cable car at Saint-Gervais-les-Bains to take us a few 100 metres up the mountain to a small train station. We caught the train and went up even further. The sun was blisteringly hot. Last night there had been the most almighty thunderstorm all around the mountains hence why we had delayed our MB climb by a day. Had things gone according to plan we would be crossing from the Gonella Hut on the Italian side, over to the Goûter hut on the French side from where we would summit tomorrow. The change in plan meant that we had a huge amount of climbing and descent to do in two days instead of three. Leaving the small tramway we started our ascent on foot from the station at Gare du Nid d’Aigle. It was roughly about 10am (ish). Cold and wet weather gear in our pack along with snacks a plenty for the next 24 hours, and roughly 1-2 litre of water, helmets, crampons and ice axes, all of which would be needed the higher we climbed. We started out simply in a thin base layer, trousers, boots and gaiters, and using our walking poles. The pace was steady and if it was walking up, say, Helvelyn in the Lake District, I would have said it was slow. But because we were well above 2000 metres it felt very much like we were running. After about an hours climb we had a brief pitstop – John, our head guide only goes in for brief stops, barely long enough to take ones pack off to access water and grab some mouthfuls of food of some description and the put your pack back on. From where we stopped we could look across (and up) to the Refuge Cosmiques and Aiguille du Midi where we practiced our technical climbing yesterday. It was very high and I slightly marvelled that I had even done it!
Respite over and we pressed on over a stoney/rocky and steadily climbing trail. I confess I was already beginning to feel tired, physically, and searching around in my head for something to occupy my thoughts I spent the next hour or so trying hard to remember all the words (phonetically at least) to the South African national anthem. Literally couldn’t tell you why that popped into my head. I reckon I did quite well on the lyrics. It was hot, and sweaty going. I made the mistake of looking up every so often and the view didn’t seem to change as the trail twisted and turned upwards through the rocks. Nothing up ahead ever seemed to get any closer. We eventually clambered up around a sort of prominent hilltop…where there was an old small hut, and across a flatter saddle was the Refuge Tete Rousse- we were roughly at 3167metres. We had a pause here (to my enormous relief) however, it was more of a stop in order to put on our helmets and crampons and rope up. We stuck with the same teams as yesterday so poor Luca and Jordan had me on the rope between them. Aiden was tied to Fernando and John so there was no chance of me cutting his rope (I had strict instructions to do this from my Fellowship Desert runners of tent 115!). And so began what I think was possibly one of the toughest 2-4 hours of my life!
We set off through slushy rocky snow (always upwards) but still for a bit a relatively straightforward scrambling type of terrain. After about 20 minutes we had to cross the infamous Grand Couloir. This channel/corridor is like a steep gully running steeply down between two rocky ridges. It is like the worst looking black ski run that you have ever laid eyes on that is out of bounds because it is too dangerous. The reason it is dangerous is because of frequent rock-falls from high above. It can be just one or two pebble sized rocks that gather pace as they bounce down this corridor. If you were to be hit even by a small one it would do some serious damage. We had to cross the Couloir team by team, the team ahead always keeping an eye for rockfall for the team crossing. Luca said to myself and Jordan, “we go straight, steady. If I say back you turn round to the right and go back, if I say run, you run fast. You listen to me and you concentrate and you don’t trip on your crampons.” He said it in a very relaxed manner, at least it sounded relaxed in his slow Italian accent. The path across the Couloir was narrow, very much single track, deep slushy snow, with scatterings of rocks. I know I can run, but bear in mind I was in climbing trousers, boots and crampons and had to potentially run a narrow path where it would be easier said than done not to catch one foot on the crampons of the other! Apparently the fear of being taken out by a gravity driven rock that is winging its way down the Couloir will give anyone enough adrenaline to run the Couloir. We made it – I could feel my heart in my mouth!
It was only about 100 metres but it had felt like running a mile…backwards…with someone pulling against you to deliberately slow you down. Heart rate slowing as we puffed to get our breath back, there was no rest…we had to head straight on, or in fact straight up. Crampons off and a quick drink and mouthful of food and we were off again.
I’m not sure how to explain the next section of the climb up to the Refuge Goûter (at 3817 metres). To say it was difficult and challenging doesn’t really do it justice, it was relentless, hefting ourselves up great boulders with tiny ledges or cracks for our cumbersome hiking boots to try and find a foothold. Trying as much as possible to push up with the legs and not pull with the arms…although not always possible. I tried to get into rock climbing about 10-12 years ago and intermittently at my gym back in London over the last few years, but I was never particularly proficient at it to say the least. But here I was dangling on a rope on what felt like the climbing twisting stair to Mordor (and I had no doubt Shelob would be lurking somewhere near the top). Jordan was awesomely patient, especially when I came across rock faces that felt so sheer, and were so high it was almost all I could do to contemplate finding a foothold. If Jordon hadn’t been there to help (relatively unceremoniously) shove me upwards on occasion I don’t really think I’d have made it.
The climb seemed interminable, I had a devil on my shoulder whispering that what goes up must come down and that this horrendous climb we were slowly conquering, well we had to climb down it all again tomorrow….after also climbing to the summit and back! I couldn’t see any of the other teams ahead, and I started stressing about being slow…it’s quite easy to get quite negative…Jordan said if I apologised for being slow one more time then I’d owe him a pound every time I said it – that shut me up. After what seemed like a lifetime, and as clouds were beginning to gather above us and the wind was picking up we eventually clambered over a wonky (?!?!) railing and up a rickety ladder onto a wire mesh platform outside the old disused Goûter hut. Crampons on, jackets on and a shortish walk across a snowy ridge to the new (5yrs old) Goûter Hut.
The approach to the Goûter hut is interesting to say the least. You feel relief that you are finally off the effing rocks, contemplating a cup of tea, something warm to eat, going to the loo, lying and resting on a bunk. The hut was built about 5 years ago and is a modern architectural achievement of sorts. I say of sorts, because never has a building looked so out of place. Some overpaid modern architect had designed a metal and glass Death Star to sit obtrusively on the side of the mountain. It hangs on the edge time an irritating crumb on the corner of someone’s lip that you longing for them to lick away, but as you approach the hut there is something far far worse that overwhelms you. The smell is something even as a nurse I have never encountered. The sewage pipe exudate from the human waste from all the mountaineers inside the hut pours out just below the hut by just a few metres. I cannot tell you how gagging this smell is as it wafts around the hut like someone has sprayed too much perfume. I have smelt some fairly awful human odours in my time as a nurse but literally nothing has made me gag like this smell. It wafted into the hut through the air con, and through the odd open (why?) window! How after all the money that was spent on this building they could get the sewage system so wrong is baffling and horrendous.
Anyways, there was nothing to be done except drink eat and relax. We were in a dorm of bunks again but the other adjacent dorms were in the same room just in different pens, so essentially there were about 30 people on our floor – and it was hot (the air con didn’t work very effectively) and in the loos, there were sinks and taps but clearly just ornamental as there was no running water. We had been spoilt on Gran Paradiso in the Italian hut. And a bottle of water cost a hefty 7euros!
After a somewhat school dinners style supper in the dining room at 7pm (where delightfully the unique Goûter stench managed to suppress the smell of the food thus certainly killing my appetite) we returned to the dorms to attempt to get as much rest and sleep as possible with our breakfast call being 2am. It was so hot and suffocating in the dorm couldn’t sleep at all and just lay watching the light fade and the clouds gather. At about 10pm the most almighty thunderstorm erupted around us. Watching a thunderstorm way up in the sky is one thing, being right up in the middle of one in the mountains is another…it was thrilling and terrifying at the same time…and very loud, but also not conducive to sleep.
2am came, we groggily gathered in the dining area and ate breakfast, which at 2am is difficult, but you try and force it down knowing that you’re going to need every bit of energy. We then made our way down to the boot room (very much aware that the thunderstorm was still rumbling and fizzing around us). Thankfully John stated we would wait half an hour. So all geared up in our harnesses, crampons etc. we sat in chilly damp fragrant boot room and waited. We then waited another 20 mins, storm and wind still prevalent. And another 20 mins.
John lost his patience and said to Aidan and Fernando to get ready. The lightning strikes were not over us so he wanted to head out and strike a path through the fresh snow and get going. To our surprise and that of the remaining guides they set off. A debate now ensued amongst the guides as to whether the rest of us should follow….they were very reluctant to head out with lightning still going on…that was fine by me.
After several more 20 minute delays we finally got ready to head out at 4am. The wind had dropped and the lightning seemed to have abated. There was a lot of fresh snowfall and it was cold. We set off. The slope climbed gently at first and there was nothing but the lovely crunching sound of footsteps through deep fresh snow (which made it very slow going), and the pool of light from our head torches just picking up the person in front of us.
This went in for a while, but it gradually started to get steeper and steeper. I have to confess I was beginning to feel absolutely cream crackered. I didn’t feel sick, or ill from the altitude, yes I was a bit breathless but no more so than anyone else, but I felt utterly exhausted. Our pace dropped behind and looking up ahead we couldn’t always see the lights of the headtorches of the other teams. And we kept plodding on and on and on. Our route was to take us to the lower peak of the Dome du Goûter, past the emergency Vallot Refuge and L’arrete des Bosses to the main summit. The guides occasionally chattered to each othe on their radios. John Aidan and Fernando it seemed after much toiling through the snow as they cut the path, had made it to the Dome, and were going to try and press on.
After what seemed like an interminable amount of time and steep climbing upwards in the slowly dawning sky we eventually made it to the peak of the Dome.
There was a decision to be made. The wind was stronger, and visibility was very mixed going on. Hamish said he wasn’t happy o go further so he and the two Irish guys, Colm and Phil turned back. Along the ridge the collected Fernando who had hurt his knee – John refused to take him further as due to the poor visibility any potential mountain rescue wouldn’t be able to happen as the helicopter would not be able or willing to land. Alessandro, Alfredo and Ebe decided to trudge on, as did Tatou, Emily and Paul. I was in a dilemma, I felt exhausted and my legs felt like one more upward step would cause them to crumble. You have to know your limits, and this wasn’t the desert where I could stop for half an hour and recharge before pushing on. I was also aware of the massive climb all the way back down that had to be done. I had reached my limit, and I didn’t want to be foolish and press on and potentially cause a problem if I ran (plodded) into trouble. Luca hailed Alessandro and we managed to catch his team up to attach Jordan onto their rope so he could continue (he then joined up with John and Aiden). And myself and Luca then turned and headed back to the Refuge de Goûter (and it’s refreshing odour). I felt mixed, relief, disappointment, cross, sad, tired, tired, tired. I felt as if I lay down where I was I could sleep for a week…I had made the right decision.
We stopped briefly as the sun made its very beautiful and heartwarming appearance around the side of the mountain. Luca gave me a hug, he said “Arianna, you don’t worry, you peaked the Dôme, and that is fine, many many don’t make it this far, it is tough today, but now the sun is coming out and we will have a hot drink in the hut, smile eh!” And so we made it back down to the hut…(if I hadn’t had altitude sickness, I now certainly felt like I did…the smell in the hut was almost overwhelming nauseating!) we didn’t stay long…but once we had a hot drink inside us we set off back to that horrendous “Mordor” climb but in descent.
I was now roped in with Luca and Fernando, and we made a steady and careful descent. The snowfall had covered the rocks all the way down and we kept our crampons on. It felt in places much harder than climbing up, if only because going down some of the long drops felt like some sort of death defying feat of impossibility! On more than one occasion myself and Fernando tested the strength of the ropes and knots…they were strong! We paused occasionally for a quick gulp of water and a snack but pressed on.
Eventually we found ourselves back at the Grand Couloir which from this side looked a hundred times more dangerous, it looked steeper, snowier, and the rocks falling and bouncing down seemed more frequent and lethal from where we were perched holding onto the rocks. We waited and watched as Hamish, Colm and Phil were poised to cross…”wait” Luca kept calling, “waaait”. A small stone hurtled down, followed by a rock the size of someone’s head. The danger was very apparent. Finally there seemed to be a window and they set off, with Luca calling out “go go, keep going”, and they were across. Our turn…we got into position with Fernando leading, followed by me and Luca at the back. We waited, a shower of rocks tumbled past, a big one hurtled down, followed by several more – maybe we were destined to stay stuck on the side of the mountain! We had the green light from Hamish, we set off, about 5 paces in “STOP….go back go back”. Stoping and turning in a single narrow snowy track with crampons on with your heart in your mouth is not remotely easy! I had a vision of a rock smashing into my head… We started again and about halfway across Luca shouted “Run!” It is amazing how despite the narrowness and slushy snow, and the fact that we were wearing crampons, how quickly Fernando and I then ran! That we didn’t fall over is testament to the amount of adrenaline coursing through our veins. A few high fives and whoops of relief and then we were back to slogging it through some deep snow, sinking occasionally as we descended to the Refuge des Tetes Rousse. No stopping except to take off our crampons and harness, pack away our ice axes and dig out our poles, shed a layer or two, and on we we descended.
The descent literally seemed to go on forever, and I couldn’t believe that yesterday we had climbed so far. With the sun now blazing and the temperature rising we hit the gentler trail that would take us down to the mountain tramway station which would take us back down to Chamonix.
It’s been a phenomenal week, and has been a test of physical ability and endurance that I was unsure that I have. Lack of sleep and long working hours leading up to the trip certainly didn’t help and I feel perhaps that if I’d felt fresher I would have made the summit. However a few more long weekend runs might also have helped. John did debrief us and say that due to the weather the climb had been about 30% tougher than average…but it doesn’t matter. I’ve learnt to recognise my limits and know when to say stop, which is a surprisingly big deal.
But most of all I’ve attempted something because I can – because I am able and have the freedom and ability to try it, and that is s huge privilege and gift to be treasured every day….and to remember to always “BE MORE OLLY!“