A summit and a safe return is a success but there is so much more behind that.
We planned the trip well in advance but the mountain had something else planned for us. Just days before departure the routes on Aiguille du Tour closed due to hot weather. But the forecast looked pretty grim for the week to come with the only window weather from Sunday night to Monday afternoon. And so we made a new plan. I was going to sleep at a hut as high as possible to acclimatise and next day head up to Cosmique refuge with the first cable car.
Once in Chamonix I met with Alexander to discuss the last details, dropped most of my gear in Argentiere and head up to Lac Blanc. After a few attempts to call and book a bed, the keeper finally answered and dropped the bad news – fully booked. As my last option was Col du Balme I changed my route and rushed to get there before nightfall. Half way up I was going to get another bad news – closed. Albert 1er was already too far so I had no choice but to get back down in the valley which meant no acclimatisation for me. Marathon du MB made it very difficult to get a decent priced room. Needless to say 45e for a bed with no blanket in a dorm with 11 other people and a bathroom shared between 4 rooms it’s a rip off. Definitely the most noisy place I’ve ever staid in – Fleur des Neiges.
Tired after a sleepless night I went down to Chamonix and then up to Aiguille du Midi. I was surprised to find out that the ridge has collapsed since my last visit there in February. Weather looks good but too warm for almost 4000m. At the hut we meet a group of brits that were planning to summit Mont Blanc the following morning. A few guides with their clients also planning the same route. Good news – 3 Mont is still in condition to be climbed. Later on we found out there is no trail after Tacul and the crux pitches are covered in ice. The Gouter couloir had some rockfalls but the most worrying part was the storm that was going to hit the mountain in the afternoon. After dinner I went to sleep while Alexander pitched his tent down on the glacier.
I was woken up a couple of hours later by a headache but in time for the sunset. It wasn’t until 11 that I manage to fell asleep again. The altitude had a word to say but I made sure to stay hydrated and the 6 litre I carried from the valley came in handy. Breakfast starts at 1 and continues at 3 and 5. Basic and too little. A few tiny bread slices with some jam, nutella and butter all enough to feed a cat. A choice of tea or coffee. Orange juice and some milk and cereal if you bother to queue. I’ve boost it with Tome cheese and Viande des grisons. Packed up the rest and stuffed 3 cliff bars in various pockets.
It’s almost 2am and roped up we join tracks that go up Tacul. Soon the slope steepens and we feel the heavy packs slowing us down. Carrying 12+kg each we plan to return via Gouter so nothing can be left behind. The route is not too difficult but becomes steeper and steeper making way around seracs and crevasses. Some of the bridges look precarious but we dare to cross over. But one has to be jumped. I look down but 250 lumens are still not enough to reach the bottom. A few second, a deep breath and I jump. The route continues and as we approach the crux pitch we found ourselves waist deep in a snow tunnel. But as we get over the shoulder the snow becomes solid and less angled. Looking back Chamonix sleeps down in the valley. Other climbers make their way up the steep face. The group of Brits pass by as we stopped to hydrate. It meant we ‘re too slow. As the morning comes, we loose altitude and head right, to the bottom of Maudit. The trail is gone now and there’s a choice of going up under a serac on a ice slope or round it through deep snow. I grab my second axe and start climbing while a few groups decide to break the trail. The first layer of ice is soft and unstable and yet my fresh sharpened G12s seem to struggle. The screws don’t bite so I start to just climb it. The progress is slow and the 50m rope just enough to get to a snowfield. A buried axe anchor is what holds us, precarious, but we made it to safety. In the distance more that 20 people queue at the crux pitch.
Nobody is moving and we looked worried at each other. It is clear that the trail breaking was faster but now we have to move on. An hour later we join them. They are still waiting for a climber that is stuck half way up on a 50-60° ice slope. A loud bang and everybody turned their heads – the serac under which we have climbed less than half an hour ago collapsed. There is no chance I will be going back down the same route.
The sun is already up so we decide to climb under the Rocky face on the left rather than under the stranded climber. Another mistake that would cost us more time. I suppose the altitude was indeed affecting my judgement. But Alexander let me lead anyway. About 80m with a short belay and a full pitch in 2 ice screws and a sling and I was at the top. Shortly after Alexander followed up and continued our journey by col de la Brenva up to Mur de la Cote. This is also when the summit of Mont Blanc comes in sight.
The sky was still clear but last push seemed to require more effort than we were prepared for. It wasn’t the stamina and energy that failed. Once we passed over 4000m mark the lack of acclimatization came in play. Gasping for air, 2 steps at a time and lots of rest. I turned back to my partner but he wasn’t much better either. Other parties were slowly passing by but in a steady pace. At this point it was clear it will take us long time to reach the top. But I was determined not to turn back and definitely not eager to descent under the seracs. So we kept going. Counting the steps I forced myself to go faster but everything start spinning. Signs of AMS were showing up but inside I felt strong.
As the weather start closing in, it was clear we won’t make it to the top before the storm. Three hours later we stood on the summit in a total wideout. That’s how slow we were. No view, no joy; a quick photo and kept moving down.
Even though I knew the way from previous years and had a GPS, route finding was quite difficult. After crossing the bosses ridge which is now cut by a huge crevasse with some fix ropes, the only thing we could see was white. All track were already gone and for a moment I even questioned my orientation skills. We finally managed to get to Vallot Hut but I was more eager to go down the mountain than spend the night there.
I was not ready to endure the bitter cold night without a sleeping bag and still unacclimatized at over 4300m, but ultimately had no choice as Alexander was sick and very tired. The refuge is a grim reminder of how filthy human race is: literally stinks like excrements as there is a toilet inside and door doesn’t shut. The rubberized floor is very dirty and offers no more than a shelter with minimal protection from the weather as the main door won’t stay closed. There’s a phone inside to call the rescue but they won’t come during the storm. And a small box where you can deposit 6euros/night.
More than 16 hours I prayed for the next morning to come as I’ve never been so cold before. A step away from hypothermia. I curled up in a fetus position on the rope with my head on the pack- my only insulation from the cold floor. I had food but only little water which I chose to boil every two hours and use it as a heat source. It was so cold that I chose not to go out and get some snow to melt. Every now and then I would wake up Alexander to let me use his sleeping bag. Never been more happy to see day light, I was still alive. And even happier to hear voices. Initially I though the rescue had come, but turned out the storm never stopped. There were two groups of crazy climbers with their guides.
Everything was hurting but the thought of getting out of there gave me the strength to wake up Alexander, kit up and start moving. The weather had now calmed and visibility was a bit better. We let the two parties break the trail as our energy was long time gone but always with an eye on the GPS. The route seemed to be pretty much the same as in 2015 with the exception of a few big crevasses. A few hours later we finally reached the Gouter.
The scramble down to Tete Rouse was slippery and muddy. The couloir is now much wider and steeper. Luckily no rock fall and we both got safe on the other side. No stopping at the refuge this time, but down to Nid d’Aigle for the train, cable car and bus to Argentiere.
Next day I meet again with Alexander and we both agreed that acclimatization, good sleep and a lighter pack would have made the climb way more easier. It’s a lesson we are lucky to learn without paying for the consequences.