Taking on Europe’s Roof
Summiting Mont Blanc is not for the fainthearted, demanding weather conditions and the altitude make it an arduous but incredible experience
Article by Justine Gosling
At 3am it was warmer than I expected as we exited the warmth of the kit room in the Goûter hut and hurried outside. I guessed it was around 6 degrees as I tried to wriggle my toes in my boots to keep them warm. The group huddled in the darkness as we attached ourselves to each other via our hardnesses and ropes. The air was still and heavy, the thick mist reduced visibility to just a meter or so. As we set off our head torches only highlighted the density of the mist and my rope partner, always just a couple of meters away.
I felt a strange sense of calmness despite the fact that at the start of a climb, you never know if you’re going to make it to the top and what challenges lie ahead. Mont Blanc is known as Europe’s deadliest mountain, last summer 15 mountaineers lost their lives. We knew a storm was incoming by late afternoon and that the altitude would affect us all. Excitement was mixed with trepidation, but awareness of the potentially fatal dangers in the mountain kept my emotions in check and forced me to focus on each careful foot placement as we began our assent.
We followed the trail, blissfully unaware of the severe drops either side of us due to the darkness. Occasionally, I looked ahead and was amused by the diagonal line of tiny, bobbing, white dots against the black of the sleeping mountain, the head torches of the group above us. The only audible sound was the crunching of the snow beneath our feet. Right from the start my legs felt heavy and each step felt a bigger effort than it should. Was it the effects of altitude already? Tiredness from a training week of climbing? My lack of fitness?
… Riddle has a tiny favour to ask. Set up four years ago to shine an objective light on the best of British craft and heritage brands, we want to keep our journalism rigorous and and open to all, allowing us to give you unbiased advice and options. It is ever more difficult for high quality journalism outlets to secure income but support from you will enable us to grow and continue to support small British brands. It only takes a minute. Thank you. Make a contribution.
As I contemplated the answer I was distracted by a flash down the mountain. In contrast to the serene world up here, an angry storm raged in the town now over 4,000m below. The carpet of rain clouds, tinted orange from the towns street lights seemingly divided our two worlds, a clear line of separation between the chaos in town and calm above. Every few seconds a flicker of lightning angrily flashed below us, but we are safe up here above the storm. Silence surrounded us in our in our snow covered landscape and the stars twinkled overhead. Mont Blanc was our sanctuary and I had no fear. I felt invincible and the tiredness in my legs was gone for now.
We progressed without stopping at a steady pace, zig zagging up what looks like a long steep hill that is the Dome du Gouter. We didn’t summit the Dome, instead we passed over the left shoulder and made our way gently down hill, then back up again to the Vallot hut (4,360m) which is an emergency bivouac shelter. Here, feeling the chill I put on another jacket layer and we had our only five minute break during the whole climb.
At around 4 am, the darkness began to lift as the sun rose, boosting my energy levels. We could now see the billowing clouds in the pale blue sky and the horizon was a streak of orange with a fiery centre. The light revealed the sharp edges and terminal drops of the Bosses Ridge I didn’t want to see but couldn’t help but examine. The ridge starts with a short, steep snow slope leading to two distinctive bumps of snow. The ridge is just wide enough to step on with a sheer drop on my left side. If I tripped on my rope or got caught up on my crampons and slipped, it would certainly be “ovoiur” for me and my rope partner. The trust we have in each other despite only meeting a week ago could not be much greater. I ignore my morbid thoughts and kept my feet moving.
Many layers of clouds, fluffy grey buds of cotton wool drove over our heads from all directions like cars at a junction with the suns rays intermittently breaking through. It was a scene from the most perfect whimsical dream, distracting me from my now racing heart, tired legs and desperate lungs as we approached the summit of Mont Blanc. We over took the groups that set out before us, and behind we had others chasing. Spirits were high.
The last push was steep and the snow conditions horrendous. A waterfall of tiny snow baubles poured down the mountain as the snow was disturbed by our steps. I struggled to keep my footing and my ice axe was useless, simply sinking into the snow as I leaned my weight into it for support. The effort to pick up each lost step was exhausting and my lungs were wheezing as I was almost on all fours, but I knew we were close.
We were the second group of the day to summit Mont Blanc at around 06:20am. I got my cheesy celebratory, arms-in-the-air welding an ice axe summit photo at 4,812m. Clouds shrouded the mountainous view in the distance and it was as though we were encased in a white box. We quickly chilled and didn’t stay long, heading back the way we came wanting to avoid the worst of the passing traffic on the narrower sections and the escalating avalanche risk with daybreak.
Heading down our guide reminded us of the old truism that at the summit you’re only halfway to safety. I felt ok but ‘groggy’ on the descent to the hut, probably due to a combination of sleep deprivation, physical exhaustion, dehydration and the effects of altitude. I don’t remember much about the descent, except struggling to stay on my feet passing through the area of the snow waterfall again. We reached the Goûter hut at about 08:15 and gave ourselves a half hour break before heading to the bottom of Mont Blanc and ironically into the 32 degree Chamonix heat.