Some random morning at the breakfast table of the Holland family. In between sandwich-making for five kids, last minute homework and discussing everyones program for the day (especially optimizing mum’s taxi schedule) my parents start talking: “As you know, we climbed a couple of high mountains during the last years and we somehow feel that we want to climb one more this year. We did not want to fly far away this summer so we choose to go to Mont Blanc.” I forgot my müsli, this was my chance! Not too far away, not too difficult, not too high altitude.
Don’t ask me how but somehow I convinced my parents to allow me to come with them!
To prepare for the altitude we climbed two other mountains in Italy before: Gran Paradiso (4061m) and La Tresenta (3609m). All of us have been training for this for a while so we were really looking forward to the day that we started to walk towards Mont Blanc.
We got up early that morning to meet our guides at the train station. Did I write train? Oh, it was maybe a so called train 50 years ago! The train takes you up to Nid d’Aigle which is the start of one of the common routes to Mont Blanc. From Nid d’Aigle you have a great view to the summit and to many of the impressive glaciers around. That’s why there are many tourists taking the train just to enjoy the view and take pictures. On the train two so different kinds of people clash together, the mountaineers and climbers with backpacks, equipment, warm shoes and hard shell jackets on the one side and the classic tourists that take pictures of people with ice axes and ropes and “extreme” looking equipment. As a mountaineer you almost felt like an animal in the zoo, they were staring at you!
From Nid d’Aigle it was a nice ascend on a rocky path to the Tête Rousse glacier. There we put on our crampons and harnesses for the first time. The Tête Rousse glacier has a massive amount of water in and under it. If the ice broke many villages in the valley would be in danger, that’s why there are many rapid alert systems installed.
On the other side of that glacier we climbed a few meters on a rocky ridge and arrived at the grand couloir which is considered as one of the most dangerous parts of the whole route because of unpredictable rock falls. Luckily we arrived early on that day so most of the snow and rocks were still frozen. We waited for the people in front of us to reach the other side and entered the snow path in the couloir. Everything went well, the path was quite good and we could go fast to avoid being in this dangerous zone for too long.
Just when we arrived at the hut a thunderstorm started and it began to snow heavily. The forecast didn’t sound nice either, therefore we had to go to bed without knowing if we could go to the summit the next day. We decided to get up early anyways to see if we had a chance.
At 1.30am my alarm rang, when I got up and looked out of the window I could see millions of stars, it was freezingly cold but we couldn’t have been any luckier with the weather. Nobody expected it to be so good!
After a short breakfast (Who is hungry at 2am??) we put on all our gear and started to climb. With us many other people left from the hut, we were maybe the sixth or seventh group of about twenty. As we knew that the weather would get worse in a couple of hours our guides were in a hurry. One of them kept turning around asking “do you think I can go faster?” “Sure” I said the first time, so we speeded up and overtook some people. After the third or fourth time he asked I had to breathe so hard that I could only answer with a “mhhh”. I guess he assumed I said yes though :). When we arrived at the first steep slope everyone climbed on a zick zack track the first climbers on that day made. Our guides somehow could not slow down…so we went up straight and suddenly all the headlamps of the others disappeared and it was all dark around us. Further down we could see the lights of the others, it seemed like a glowing worm that was winding itself up the hill in slow motion. The snow was rather deep as it snowed the whole night and there was no track therefore. It was hard to walk in the deep snow as it went steeper and steeper. We found a couple of crevasses but no large ones, we could always take a large step to cross them.
After a while we found ourselves on the Bosse ridge. There we had to be careful as it was very steep and a bit exposed. The deep snow didn’t make it any easier, I took two steps and slid back one. The ridge has a couple of peaks in it and with every peak that appeared in front if us I thought “this must be the summit!”. It wasn’t.
We could not see the actual summit until we were almost there, it is not like a sharp peak but more like a larger platform. We were so privileged to be the first people on that day to make new footsteps into the fresh snow and just when we arrived the sun rose at the horizon an disappeared in the clouds a couple of minutes later. In the rising all the glaciers around us were glowing in purple and orange for a couple of minutes and the Mont Blanc mountain drew a large shadow on the mountains beneath. This was a majestic natural spectacle!
A couple of pictures later we already started to descend, it was freezingly cold and I desperately wanted to walk just to get warm feet again. When we left the summit the first other people came and thanked us to lead and make a new track into the snow. I like how there is always some kind of team spirit amongst strangers when you are in the mountains for the reason that everyone has the same destination – the summit!
We descended quite fast, at some safe parts we almost ran downhill. There were still so many people going uphill, some of them had quite a long way to go at that point. I wonder how many of them made it to the summit that day, because the bad weather was coming close quickly. It was nice going downhill the same way we came up especially because we could see much more of the landscape in the daylight. When we arrived back at the hut just before 8 am it almost suddenly started to snow. I could not believe how lucky we were with the weather, I guess that so many of the other mountaineers could not make it all the way to the summit on that day. At the hut we had a second breakfast (oh yes, at eight o’clock I am way more hungry!) and then decided to descend all the way to the train back again. The snow made the climbing passage harder, everything was slippery, wet and cold, we were extremely slow as we had to be super careful. My gloves were wet after a couple of minutes and I just closed them to fists every 5 minutes to get rid of at least some water.
The two hours climbing seemed endless to me but finally we arrived at the grand couloir and made it through safely. After the couloir it was more like a walk down, first on glaciers then on rocks. Although we hurried we missed the train for two minutes, it was raining, I was tired from 1000m ascend and 2500m descend, everything in my backpack was wet and I wished for nothing more but a shower, dry clothing and a bed afterwards. It feels like we used up all the luck for that day already because the next train one hour later broke just when it drove into the train station and we had to wait for another three hours for the next one in the rain.
I was incredibly happy when we were on that train and made it down to the valley safely.
Enjoying the afternoon in Chamonix was great fun! Where else can you find people in cafés with harnesses (including ice screws and ropes) on? I felt some kind of sympathy to everyone of them knowing that they all like the same thing that I do: climbing mountains.
It is hard for some of my friends and family at home to understand why I like climbing mountains. If I try to find reasons, I struggle to explain it to them. I can always come up with “I love being outside and the view on the top!”, “I like to see how far I can push myself!” or “Adventures are great because you don’t know what happens next.”. Every answer is true, but actually the most simple and honest answer to this question is: “Because I can.”
Date: Summer 2013
Place: Mont Blanc, France