The deaths in #Chamonix. One man’s experience of climbing #MontBlanc – the pinnacle of Europe

Many will have read the news that several people have been killed on Mont Blanc. I am posting this article by my good friend Philip Gomm in the hope you will be as interested in it as I was.

“The news that at least nine climbers have been killed on the slopes of Mont Maudit is tragic.  For me it also brings back memories of an intense experience on the same slopes just under a year ago. I have also made my way up the precipitous north-eastern flank of the mountain on my way to the summit of Mont Blanc. Unlike all those caught in this morning’s avalanche, I made it.

The reason the ‘white mountain’ has its name is blindingly obvious. It is snow covered. All year round. And the reason it is snow covered is because it is so high. At 4,810 metres – 15,782 feet – it is the tallest mountain in Western Europe.

Many of the attempts to reach the pinnacle of the continent – though in reality, it is more of table top, a wide ridge, sloping gently to each side, perhaps fifty metres long – take place in the summer months when the days are longer, the temperatures warmer and the weather more benign.

But it that warmth that leads to the problems: melting snow and exhausting conditions. Not that it isn’t sometimes ferociously cold and windy up on massif, even in July and August. My own initial summit bid was cancelled after my colleagues and I were forced to spend two days and two nights holed up at 3,613 metres at the Cosmiques Refuge after snow, gales, thunder and lightening essentially closed the mountain and prevented the cable car up from Chamonix from running to the nearby Aiguille du Midi. (They say travel light on Mont Blanc, but my advice is to sacrifice something else before you leave behind a good book.)

Descending the Aiguille du Midi Arete.

When the weather eased we retreated to the safety of the valley to prepare for another bid a few days later when the conditions stabilised.

Second time round we again used the Cosmiques hut as base camp, hitting the sack at around 9pm. There followed a few sleepless hours, caused by a mix of tension and excitement, interspersed with the shuffling and occasional snoring of scores of other climbers who also had their eye on the glistening prize.

We – myself, my colleague Nick, and brilliant local guide Pete Mason from the Chamex agency – were up by 1am. By 1.30am we were out of the door, the first team to escape the claustrophobic conditions of our accommodation. There was nothing oppressive about the landscape outside. The night sky was alive with stars and in the brightness – enhanced by the reflective properties of the snow-covered mountains – we set off, using our head-torches not so much for route finding but to identify any sneaky crevices which might be laying in wait as we strode first across the plateau and then started the breath-sucking, energy sapping ascent itself.

To get to the top of Mont Blanc from this starting point (another route is from the Gouter hut which we had intended to use but was closed by a massive landslip) you need to partly circumvent two satellite peaks: Mont Blanc du Tacul and the now infamous Mont Maudit. Doing so involves cresting two shoulders before starting the slog up to the top of Mont Blanc itself. As is ever the case with mountaineering, progress upwards is never continuous. For every bit of height gained, there is always some that then seems to be lost. Two steps up, one step down.

We remained roped together for the entire enterprise, but it was the climb up to the ridge of Maudit which, though relatively short, was the steepest and most technically difficult part of the challenge, made just a little easier by a number of fixed ropes and slings. Certainly it was on this section that you could understand why there are front points on crampons.

Although getting a flying start is essential to having the best possible snow and ice conditions underfoot, it also means you don’t have to queue. Whilst witnessing nothing like the line of climbers pictured on Mount Everest earlier this year, there are a couple of bottlenecks where you would rather be the first to arrive than the last. The Maudit ridge is one of them.

On top of Mont Blanc

At about 7am we reached our goal. Taking a breather on the top of the continent, there was opportunity to look up rather than down at one’s feet – which had been the routine for the previous five and a half hours – and soak in the heavenly sky, splashed as it was with a glorious spectrum of colours: red, orange, crimson, ochre, dapples of white where a touch of cloud had intruded. The gathering light made the 360-degree views truly awe inspiring. Knowing that there was no one higher than you for several thousand miles in all directions was a spiritual feeling even for a confirmed agnostic.

Yet reaching the top was only half the journey. There was the return, not just to the hut but beyond to the cable car.

Going down was an interminable process. Once more, change in height was not linear, the ups and downs of the terrain sapping what little energy was left, the only consolation being that almost all the way down we passed people still on their way up. I did not envy them their task. Rising temperatures not only increased the risk of avalanches, it also turned firm conditions underfoot into a slushy, shifting morass. Then there was the heat. Even 4,000 metres up, the warmth of the rapidly rising sun soon became very uncomfortable.

It was the last hour of the ‘descent’ that was the worst. Once clear of Monts Blanc, Maudit and Tacul you face a slog across the plateau. For the first half-mile or so it is generally flat, but the last half a mile up to the Aiguille du Midi is torture. A gentle slope turns into a shoulder and then there is a knife-edge arête which needs to be negotiated before you are ‘home and dry’. You do these last few steps literally under the noses of hundreds of tourists who have journeyed to the Aiguille to get a better view of Mont Blanc (and you) but sensibly have no intention of climbing it.

In ‘normal’ conditions it is easy to think that to achieve an ascent of Mont Blanc it is merely necessary to overcome your own perceived limitations. But today’s events show that whatever your physical prowess, you only ever manage a safe passage because of the benevolence of the mountain.”

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