Day Six Had Arrived – We Head For The Summit Of Mont Blanc …
So this was it, the day had finally arrived. Although I'd been to bed early the previous evening, I still hadn't slept that well and only managed a couple of hours. My sleep record in the huts wasn't too hot at this stage. Also, my cold was still lingering and I was a little bit concerned as I had coughed up phlegm from my chest during the night. However, aside from that, my body felt fine so I was excited to get started!
After some breakfast, we got our gear and went outside of the hut to put our crampon's, etc. on. It was another fine morning although it was still quite dark as it was so early. We needed our head torches at the start but even though the sun wasn't up, there was still reasonable visibility.
We roped up and started out on foot to the base of the rocky area below the Gouter Hut to make our way up.
Scrambling up to the Gouter Hut
This bit was a bitter sweet part of the climb for me.
Sweet, in that I love scrambling and it was really cool to climb up through this on the way up. there were lot's of rocks to negotiate while we were roped up. It involved team work and it was great fun when full of beans in the morning. There are lots of steel cables on the way up that are a great aid to the ascent too.
Bitter, in that by the time I got back down from Mont Blanc and had to descend back down through this part, twelve hours later, I was exhausted lol and the last thing I wanted to do was start scrambling down through rocks tied to a rope! As mentioned before, getting down is always harder than getting up. At least I generally find that to be the case and this was a great example of it.
We got to the top of the rocks after about two hours scrambling. It had been a nice climb and we came out at the old Gouter Hut. We then made our way over to the very modern looking new Gouter Hut shown in the photo above. I believe it is only a year or so old. It has the look of a space station of some kind.
An Omelette in the Gouter Hut
The original plan was to only stop here for a minute and then push on to the summit. As we were getting there at around 6:30 / 7am, the restaurant part wasn't expected to be open for business. However, our lead guide popped up into the restaurant area of the hut and found that it was open. He came back down and asked if anyone would fancy an omelette!
This sounded way too good to miss out on so I jumped at the opportunity. A chance to get stocked up on protein in a nice and warm environment before making the final push seemed like a great idea.
As we waited for the omelette, I have to say that I did feel a little bit funny. At this stage of the trip I was familiar with the mildly disorienting feeling that high altitude can give to one. I wasn't ill, nor did I have a sore head, I just felt, well … odd. no other way to describe it.
All perfectly normal and nothing to worry about but I was conscious of it as at this stage, my fitness had proved to be adequate, the weather was in our favor so the only thing left that could potentially scupper my Mont Blanc summit attempt was altitude sickness.
The omelettes came and we feasted like kings. They were very tasty indeed. The standard of food in all the huts we visited I have to say was very good.
With all that extra protein on board, it was time to hit the trail again for the summit.
Starting out Towards the Summit of Mont Blanc
As the weather was so good and some people had already been to the summit in the previous days, there was already a clearly marked out path in the snow which we could use to our advantage. It would certainly make our summit journey that bit easier.
At this point, from the Gouter hut, I think it's really all about endurance. As you move towards the summit, you're inching ever higher so altitude plays more and more of a factor. The ascent gets larger and larger as you go up and down several very high hills on your way to the summit. All this means you're pushing harder and harder as you go so you need to be sure you have that extra bit of gas in the tank.
On reflection, this bit was just tough, there is no way other way to describe it. You just need to put your head down and get on with it.
As you ascend towards the summit there are several quite hairy bits as you walk along ridges. Hairy in that, there is quite a drop on either side of you as you walk along the ridge itself. We were lucky on the day and there was minimal wind. The head down and one foot after another approach is the best for these bits and to be honest, I hardly even noticed these scarier bits along the way as I was so focused on just taking the next step.
One thing I haven't mentioned in this series of posts as yet is the sun. The sun was shining when we summited both Gran Paradiso and Mont Blanc which was just fantastic. The views we had were just stunning and this is how you want it. However, the sun is, as you know, a very powerful element of nature and you need to respect it and protect yourself accordingly.
There are several things to consider with the sun when in the snowy Alpine environment.
The snow acts as a huge mirror and just reflects the UV rays back off of it back onto you. With that in mind you need to protect any exposed skin with lots of sun screen. One key area you need to be wary of is your lips and just under your nose. These bit's can be easily missed with normal sun screen and it's best to get a UV protection chapstick and apply it regularly.
This actually became a bit of an issue for me as my cold was in full flight now and I was regularly blowing my nose. As I was putting sun screen chap stick on my nose, I was rubbing it back off when I blew my nose! A pain!
Another critical necessity related to the sun that you must have is appropriate category four sun glasses. Again Mont Blanc Guides explained all this in detail in advance so I was prepared. To protect your eyes form the sheets of UV all around you, you need strong protection in your glasses or you can quite quickly run into problems with your eyes getting damaged.
Finally, the sun dehydrates. You're of course exerting yourself as you hike towards the summit and with the sun beating down, you are losing water all the time. This is why you need to re-hydrate regularly and having the right amount of water with you is crucial. Again, this became a real issue for me on the way back down as the darn cold, exacerbated my fluid loss. By the time I got to the Gouter hut on the way back I was gasping for water! It worked out fine though but man was I thirsty 😉
The Final Push
All the way along we just kept going at a steady pace with a break every so often. Again, as with Gran Paradiso, the key is to have small amounts of food handy for you to take as you need when you can as well as a drink of water.
My friend gave me carb gels for the Mont Blanc summit attempt. I'd never actually used them before and I had heard they were awful but I actually found them alright. As we drew closer, about 2-3 hours, to the summit of Mont Blanc I started to take these mixed with other snacks, like banana or bread. I found them effective and they gave me a good boost to push on.
Another thing that is worth noting and is entirely common is that, your appetite can go to nothing at altitude. I definitely wasn't pushed on eating but I made myself eat anyway. Again, nothing unusual at high altitude.
The climbs on the last legs of Mont Blanc are long and hard. We continually followed the path laid out by previous climbers so we were lucky in that we didn't have to exert more energy making out our own trail.
Another interesting thing that can happen as you get closer to the summit is that your steps get smaller and smaller. The altitude makes each step that bit harder so your steps get smaller. I did notice this happening to us but we did keep a reasonable pace up all along.
We reached the summit at about 12:30 on Monday June 9th. We had set out at 4:30am so at this point we had been on the go for about 8 hours. With about two hours to get to the Gouter Hut from the Tete Rousse Hut, a 30 minute break at the Gouter for an omelette, it took us about 5 / 5.5 hours to get to the summit from the Gouter.
It was quite a feeling to make it to the top! The weather was still beautiful and so we had time to enjoy it. I took the short video below to give you an idea. It's a view from the summit. Starting out, it looks out over Italy and as it pans right it moves to look over France.
What Goes up Must Come Down!
At this stage, I was feeling decidedly odd lol 🙂 which must have been from the altitude. Again, I wasn't nauseous but I did have a faint headache and I just felt kind of out of sorts. Again, the milder effects from altitude can be hard to describe. The best way I can describe it is that I am standing here but I feel like I'm standing over there three feet away. Not sure if that makes any sense but in short, I was pretty sure altitude was playing with me.
We spent about twenty minutes at the top before deciding it was time to head back down.
So, we had done what we had set out to do but now we had the daunting prospect of getting back down. With a lot of energy already spent, I was under no illusion that this would definitely be nothing but tough. At this stage my water supplies were running low and my cold was still as full on as ever with me still blowing my nose every few minutes.
So, off we went! We basically just set out back the way we came. The hills we had come up and down, we now just did in reverse. They were just as tough though as there are plenty of downward slopes prior to ascending upwards on Mont Blanc. So doing these in reverse meant we still spent a fair bit of time going upwards.
Just Over That Peak!
Another thing I found in my time in the Alps was that they are deceptively long lol 🙂 I am used to hiking on relatively small mountains by comparison. You get to the top of a peak and you look ahead to try and see the next peak and maybe even the summit not too far away. This is good encouragement to keep you moving and works fine in Ireland or the UK but I don't recommend it in the Alps.
Countless times, we would get to the top of a peak and I would look over expecting to see the summit or our next destination ahead but no, you would just see more peaks and troughs … lots of them! False tops aplenty!
This can be demoralizing if you're pushing hard to try and get to the summit or back down. Again however, it's easily avoided with the head down and one foot in front of the other approach. This doesn't mean you can't stop to enjoy the scenery. Not at all, just don't be regularly looking for the finish line … you will be disappointed 😉
Another element to this is that, with the white snow covered surroundings, things can look closer than they are and you can set off at quite a pace to get to the next peak. Then, when you look up, lo and behold you're still what seems an age away and you're really hot and tired after pushing yourself.
To avoid all the above, simply don't be overly concerned with seeing your destination in the distance or where you're going to next when climbing Mont Blanc, keep a steady pace and focus on your next few steps. That's by far the best approach you can take in my opinion. You'll get there in good time.
Back To The Gouter Hut!
We pushed on and after some hours we got back to the Gouter hut, probably around 4 / 5pm. At this stage I was exhausted. Not so much from just the climb but from the mix of the cold, the climb and lack of water.
A storm was possibly coming in so our guide was keen to get back down to the Tete Rousse as soon as possible but I asked him to stop as I needed to get water. He was a really nice guy from the States and he could see I was finding it tough so we nipped in.
I bought a tea and a 1.5 Liter bottle of water. I polished both of them off in about 5 minutes flat lol 🙂
To be honest, at this stage I just felt like crap. The cold was now a chest infection and it was kicking in. My body was of course tired from the climb as well so I knew I'd have to dig deep to get back down over the rocks to the Tete Rousse.
Descending To The Tete Rousse Hut
So this was it, the last leg of the journey 🙂 I was happy to be here but man, as I looked down the rocks that stood between me and the end of the climb, I was just like, ‘how in the hell am I going to do this!' lol 🙂
Again, our guide was great. He was very encouraging and got me psyched up to do it. We roped up again and started down. It was hard going back down. Concentration and focus was critical as a bad slip here couldn't end well. Again, the ‘focus on the next step' mantra came into it's own. That's just what I did and took one step at a time.
When we started out on our way back down the sun had, thankfully, ducked behind the clouds so it was nowhere near as hot as it was. There was a potential storm coming in and we started to hear thunder in the distance. At this point, some light snow also started to fall. We definitely did not want to be stuck out there if a full on storm kicked in. We would be using the metal railing ropes again to help us get down so if thunder and lightening ensued, it wouldn't be a good time to be clinging to anything metal!
The snow fall did get a bit heavier but the storm didn't materialize, thankfully! We went at a reasonable pace and we eventually got back down to the end of the rocks and the final walk through tent city, some folks camp close to the Tete Tousse hut and a bunch of tents had appeared since that morning, back to the hut.
Our guide actually told us that it was probably the worst weather he had ever been in to come down those rocks so when all was said and done, we did well.
Home At Last!
I gingerly took my final steps through the snow to make it back to the Tete Rousse hut. I went into the boot room and sat down. My legs were like jelly and my chest and head were gunged up from the cold. But Man, I felt great! I had done it. I had successfully got to the top of Mont Blanc and back. I was chuffed inside!
I took off my crampons, harness, boots, etc. and stored them in one of the lockers. I walked into the main room of the Tete Rousse hut and my friends and some others from our climbing party were already back. Two of my mates came over to congratulate me and I was thrilled. My voice was more or less gone from the cold and taking in lots of cold air all day so I had no sound when I spoke. I didn't care though, it was done and everyone had made it to the summit. HAPPY DAYS!
Two of our party were still on their way back so I headed down to the dorm and lay on my bed for a half hour till dinner time. Man, I was exhausted! We ate dinner and the food tasted divine. I didn't hang about after dinner and went straight down to bed as did many of our group.
One thing is for sure, I got my first sound nights sleep in an Alpine hut that night! I was out like a light and slept through till morning 😉
Back To Chamonix
We got up for 7am the following morning. We were in no rush so we got ready slowly. My body was aching and my cold was in full flight so the thought of walking back down to the car park near Saint-Gervais did not appeal!
However, I was pleased to learn that we would actually be able to slide down a lot of the way back over the snow. This made me very happy as, as soon as I stood out on the snow my body had some kind of reaction and I was walking very gingerly across it. Not sure why, I think I was just snowed out!
So, with a mix of walking and sliding on our bums, we made it down to the snow line. I can't tell you how happy I was to get off the snow and walk on a normal hiking trail. We were on a trail now all the way back down to the car park and the sun was shining yet again, what more could we ask for!
In another hour or two we were back at the car park. I got out of my boots and slipped on my sneakers which I'd left in the van … man they felt good!
And that was that. We headed to a nearby town, Saint Gervais I think, for a celebratory drink and then back to Chamonix.
We had one more night to relax in Chamonix before heading back on the Chamexpress to Geneva airport and back to normality.
Sitting on my couch back in my living room now writing and reflecting on it all, it's hard to put into words what it felt like to make it to the top of Mont Blanc. The whole trip in itself was without a shadow of a doubt, the best trip I have ever been on! It might seem odd to some that one would say that about going somewhere where you have to rough it a bit and work hard to get to where you want to get to. Definitely not everyone's idea of a relaxing holiday, that is for sure!
However, the sense of achievement having made it to the top of both Gran Paradiso and Mont Blanc was just awesome. The folks I met on the trip were all really nice and for a few days we all became brothers in arms, if you will, who pushed and cajoled each other to success. There was a definite sense of camaraderie among all the team and there were many good laughs along the way.
Again, special praise and compliments should be given to Mont Blanc Guides, without them, none of it would have been possible. They are a top notch and professional set-up who know what they're doing every step of the way and they'll do their utmost to help you get to the top of Mont Blanc. If you want to climb Mont Blanc, I highly recommend them, you couldn't be in better hands.
As part of the Mont Blanc Guides set-up, a special mention should be given to all the mountain guides who took care of us on the way to the top of Gran Paradiso and Mont Blanc. Their professionalism and emphasis on safety was clear at all times but they were also very human, happy to share a joke, laugh or a story with any of the climbers along the way. Really nice guys all round!
The weather was just perfect throughout our trip so I just feel so lucky with the whole experience. Basically, I don't think it could have went better for us. There was one guy climbing in our group who was actually there for his second attempt as the weather had scuppered him the first time round. He told us how disappointed he was the first time round so I feel blessed we didn't have to go through anything like that.
I started the year wanting to push the hiking adventure boat out a bit and I feel I have certainly done that with this trip, an amazing experience!
I guess the only remaining question is, what next!? The Matterhorn maybe? 😉
Have you climbed Mont Blanc? How did you find it? I'd love to hear about it in the comments below 🙂
To go back to part four of this series click here.