Wednesday, August 4, 2010
Mont Blanc-Canada Day 2010
I m French…. And to be more specific, I am Lyonnais (from the city of Lyon) which means I am from the region of Rhone-Alp, where the mighty Mont Blanc resides. My family has strong attachments to Chamonix Mont-Blanc. My Grand -Pa use to hike there when he was a young gentleman and bought an apartment there in the 1960s. My father fell in love with the valley during his young years, became a mountaineer with the French “Chasseurs Alpins” and purchased us a flat in 1997 in Chamonix so he could come as often as possible, although 800 km away from his home. Since I was born, I have spent every summer in Chamonix looking at the peaks, wondering what it felt like being up there. I always admired the climbers coming down the mountains, with all their complicated gear, their burnt faces but with that glow in their eyes that they had accomplished something that most of us could never do.
I started mountaineering when I was 16, with UCPA (an equivalent of the YMCA in France). For about 500 French Francs (1997, was about $100 Cad), I spent a week learning the basics of mountaineering, School of snow, School of Rock, School of Ice and a final Climb Eperon des Cosmiques + Arete des Cosmiques ( A south face of l Aiguille du Midi with a traverse that ends on an observation deck).
After this week of training, my father started to take me on some climbs with him (Belvedere from the Aiguilles Rouges, La Tour Ronde in the Massif du Mt Blanc must do if you’re going to Chamonix !) . However nobody ever invited me to do Mt Blanc, too expensive, too high and too long.
When my father text me happy New Year 2010 from France on the 1st of January, I replied to him “ Happy New year to you too, lets climb Mt Blanc this year!” and he replied, “Ok, let’s do it”. From that point, I knew I was going to climb the highest summit of France and Western Europe this summer.
Unfortunately, in April my father called me and told me he realized he would not be fit enough to climb, he was mostly worried about the altitude which he is not a big fan of. I knew my partner Bonn-Tien would be fit enough as she was planning to climb by herself Mt El Toub Kal (4 167 m) in early June. My father said that we could use the services of the family Guide (Yes I have no family doctor but I do have a family guide) and since he was not coming he would pay half of the climb. A bit disappointed that I was not climbing this with him but I looked at the bright side that I would now be able to bring Bonn-Tien on this peak that I have looked at since I could walk.
In order to acclimatize, we spent a week hiking the Swiss Haute-Route which included a 3300 m peak and several nights above 2500 m. We also carried 25 kg packs on 12 hour days going up almost 2000m per day, we were fit for this climb.
Lionel is our family guide and has been for about 10 years. He has brought my father and looked after his safety on many climbs such as the Matterhorn. I had climbed with Lionel before and his experience and knowledge is simply immense, over 60 years old, he has climbed every single summit of the massif du Mt Blanc and many around the world.
Originally we had planned to do Mt Blanc in a day, but the current conditions did not allow it, beautiful weather in the morning, thunderstorms in the afternoon and clear in the evenings. This would force us to spend a ½ night in the refuge, wake up at 1 Am summit by 7 and be off the mountain as fast as possible.
We met Lionel at his chalet at 11 am on the 30th of June 2010, we had met the day before to discuss about the logistics and the food. How it works in Chamonix is that you pay a flat rate for the guides and you have to buy their food (and carry it), pay for their nights in huts but not pay for their lifts as they have special passes. Although we were going for two days, our packs did not weigh more than 10 kg, and the guides `bag with all his gear was also under the 10 kilograms. We headed towards the Aiguille du Midi lift which starts at about 1030 m and brings us to the modest altitude of 3840 m ! The one way ticket to the aiguilles, which is packed with tourists, cost me about 37 Euros, about $45, thank God the loonie was so strong. It took us less than 20 min to ascend the 2800m, a real turbo too the alpine. Once we arrived at the top, you go through a tunnel and arrive on a tiny platform, the entrance to “La Haute Montagne”. There we put on the crampons and roped up. To get off l aiguilles du Midi you go down a steep ridge. As soon as I stepped on snow, I pushed of a small pack that started going down the south face. It quickly grew to a size 1 wet slab and went tumbling down at least 200m. It was about 13:00 so the sun was hitting hard. It was a bit embarrassing for me to have started this wet slab since I had just arrived on the mountain. But this did not seem a concern at all for my guide. Going down the ridge was fun but exposed as the north side is a 1000m drop, but the rope and the guide made us feel safe and comfortable. Once we arrived at the plateau or Mer de Glace, my guide stopped and started talking with another guide about the conditions. Meanwhile I started talking to some other clients, they felt miserable, they had just done what we were planning to do, they felt tired and they had felt the altitude. They admitted to me that they had not been exercising at all lately.
I had been in this area several times during my life as a climber, but this time I had a whole new vision since I have been mountaineering in the remote coastal mountains. I felt that I was in a giant temple of alpinism as there were climbers everywhere. There was several team on the South face of aiguilles du Midi, others on the Arêtes des Cosmiques , a tent village not far from refuge des Cosmiques. We traversed the area roped up, it was really a quick walk no more than 15 min. However the sun was extremely bright, although we had our Julbos Level 3 on, we felt the brightness deep in the retinas.
The refuge was splendid; the rooms were cosy with giant bunk beds. We enjoyed a late lunch with Lionel and went for a nap at 3300m high. The nap was interrupted by people going in and out of the room but we still managed to get some rest. We woke up around 19:00 for dinner and enjoyed some amazing skies from the observation deck. It was cool but not cold.
The dinner was ok but with a delicious apple crumble. I spoke to a Swedish Aspi Guide who used to be just like me a banker; he had quit everything to follow his passion of climbing. It was an inspiring story, from finances to freedom…
We went to bed around 21:00 but with much rawkus around, people hoping into the bunk beds, getting out, fixing their gear. It was not very easy to close an eye, especially when you know you will be climbing a mountain you have looked at since you were born. With my few power naps, the clock finally rang at 1:00. We took our packs and put on the climbing clothes and headed downstairs for breakfast. I think the whole refuge opted for the 1am breakfast as there was some risk of thunderstorms in the afternoon.
As I walked among the crowd, I noticed some worried faces. It turns out it was slightly raining outside!!! A total surprise for everyone! I went up to Lionel and ask him what he thought; he was a bit concerned but tried to stay optimistic. “we are not in a hurry, we are not in a hurry” What he kept saying to me.
Lionel asked about the conditions to other guides, and went out on the refuge patio. Around 2 am, everything had cleared up and we were good to go.
We put on all our gear and roped up immediately. We were actually the last rope team to leave camp. But that was fine as we had a cool vision of a train of head lamps going up the first part of the climb “Mont Blanc du Tacul”. We were going at a slower pace than usual but this was a good thing as I usually go too fast and end up too tired at the summits. We were short roped and Lionel was leading. Although the early weather had been rather bad, now it was simply amazing, very clear sky with almost a full moon.
The first part is Mont Blanc du Tacul which is a 30 degree slope with a good trail broken into the mountain. It is not exposed and is not considered technical but the seracs above are constantly threatening to fall. Lionel told me that last year, two Swiss guides and their customers were blown away and that their bodies will only come out of the glacier in 40 years…. chilling thoughts.
There was a small Bergshrund to cross but it was still very closed and did not represent any danger. At the top of the Mont Blanc du Tacul slope, two climbers were coming down, Lionel yelled at one of them since he had inverted his crampons, a huge risk when this increase the chances to get a strap caught in one of the claws. At the top, of the slope we took our first break, beautiful views, L Aiguille du Midi seemed so below and the valley was still sleeping, 3000 m below me, it was just extraordinary. At this point of the night, it was still very dark but the moonshine led the whole mountain up. From there we had a long traverse to go all the way under Mont Maudit. Mont Maudit starts with the crossing under some crazy huge ice blocks. Once that is passed you have to go up a 30 degree slope through several zig zags. At the top of the slope there was a steep section (45 degrees) with some fixed rope. The snow was very hard but the conditions felt right and being roped up with a guide made me feel very comfortable.
Once we arrived at the Mont Maudit Col, the sun was almost out and the views were spectacular. Towards the North East we could see Mont Blanc du Combin, Weisshorn, Matterhorn, Dom etc. And of course our South view was a beautiful close up of Mont Blanc. From this col, it was another traverse to a col and then the final ascent to the summit. We traversed and could see the climbers from refuge du Gouter making it to the summit. Although I was at 4400m at this point, I felt just great no signs of altitude sickness or short breathed, the Haute Route Trek was paying off. However we did take a final break just before the final ascent which is just a long 400m ascent 20 degree slope. I would have thought that this would have been easy but it was not. It was just a long painful slog. At this point, I felt the altitude hit hard, the good was that we were in the sun and we were quickly warming up. Sadly, the summit was completely clouded up, and I was hoping for it to clear up as we were ascending the final meters. Unfortunately, as we arrived on the last 50m, we got into the fog and it was a complete white out… However, we quickly arrived at the summit of Mt Blanc, I was overwhelmed with joy and emotion. I took Bonn-Tien in my arms and hugged her tight. I was on the top of Mt Blanc, the mountain that I had been looking at since I was a little boy.
We took a few shots, it was not cold but we had to rush down as we arrived around 8 am, a bit late on schedule. Instead of heading back the way we came, I asked to do the traverse. I was a bit disappointed to have arrived on a clouded summit, but since we got to be on both sides of the mountain and the fog was only at the top, we didn’t t really miss any views. The south route towards refuge du Gouter was very different than what he just had done. It consisted in a ridge with some fair exposure. I still felt comfortable on this part of the route although we were still in the fog for the first 15 min. I was surprised to cross a few solo climbers towards the summit as a bad fall would mean deadly consequences. After the ridge it was a succession of nice easy snow slopes all the way down to refuge. Once we arrived at the refuge, I thought the hard part was done…. I was so wrong. The worst part had yet to come… Under the refuge there is a 400 m slope, a mix of rock, ice and snow. In the beginning there was a fair amount of ice and I appreciated the fact that we kept our crampons on, however, Lionel made us keep the crampons on the whole way, where most of it was large rocks. The terrible grinding noise was almost unbearable. I asked 3 times to remove the crampons but Lionel knew we would have to put them back on a small snowy traverse (le couloir). I believed that this was slowing us down way too much and would have made us save some time. Not only was it difficult to go down the slope but we had to be roped up and being short roped on this kind of scramble was just hell. It was important to stay high on the trail as rocks were falling on the side, pushed by other climbers going up or down. After 2 ½ miserable hours going down, we made it to the “couloirs” a notorious deadly zone of the climb. It is a traverse of about 75 m where you are a pin and the mountain in the bowler. The goal is to traverse as fast as possible so you don’t get hit by a flying rock. Bonn-Tien and I prepared ourselves, and we basically ran through the death zone. After that we finally made to a giant snowfield where hundreds of climbers were preparing themselves for the “Sh..tty” part. However, it was a good thing we had roped up, as a week later I found out a polish climber had just killed himself in this section.
From the snow field it was great glissades all the way down to the snow free alpine. We went down 600m in less than 30 min, a huge contrast with our earlier hours. From the grassy alpine it was a short walk to the nid d aigles train, a small touristy train that bought us to a lift all the way back down to the valley. While we were waiting for the train to pick us up, the glacier spat a huge about of ice and water which generated a huge amount of noise, a good reminder of the forces of the mountain.
We finally made it back home by 4 pm, it had been a very long day but myself and Bonn-Tien where extremely happy by what we had just accomplished. I called my parents to let them know what we had just done and went to sleep with my childhood smile.