Rocks for a Mattress

It felt damn good to be lining up for another adventure, this one to Chamonix with the aim of summiting the highest mountain in Western Europe: Mont Blanc. On this particular trip I’d be fifth-wheeling; aiming to reach the summit with my friend Ben (a pal from an expedition to Himalaya a few years back), his girlfriend Denny and two friends of theirs; climbing power-couple Joe and Helen. All are excellent company and this, combined with the length of time I’ve spent without break in London (really, much too long) meant this trip was keenly anticipated.

Packing up brings the familiar sense of pride an anticipation at assembling my cherished cold-weather gear: without exception the most valuable stuff I own and items that I often feel oddly emotional towards. My horrendous plastic boots that have given me more blisters than I can count but also taken me up peaks from India to Scotland. My cotton parka which emerged rather pungent from a year in a tent, but now bears my proudly-stitched Arctic Nature Guide badge. My merino-wool beanie that has been with me from the very beginning: that first expedition to Svalbard five years ago.

Even clouds can look attractive draped over a mountain

We flew into Geneva and took a shuttle into Chamonix. It was my first encounter with this fascinating little town, which I found enfolded by spectacular, sheer-sided ridges and seemingly composed mostly of mountaineering shops and bars. It was also busily preparing for the Tour-de-Mont-Blanc: one of the highlights of the global ultra-running calendar. A number of courses are offered in this gruelling off-road marathon, the hardest of which is 300km long and includes 26,000m of ascent. A mind-boggling undertaking, with the event contributing significantly to Chamonix’s dynamic atmosphere. Ultra-runners powered up and down the ridges, carrying bandoliers of gels and water-bottles. Teams with mountaineering rucksacks leaning against their chairs waited restlessly in the bars or clustered around the guide’s office, seeking news on the conditions higher up. The gear shops are packed with clamouring adventurers. I have never been somewhere with such a concentration of human energy.

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The dense cloud did not bode well for our summit attempt

Our little team bonded most agreeably over a box of good French red, giving voice to the concerns we had over the low-hanging clouds and anxiously checking the weather-forecast. As we waited, worrying tidings reached our ears of a fresh powder-dump of some 50cm above the snow-line. Not only would it be difficult simply walking at altitude through such a thick deposit, it also massively increased the risk of avalanche on our chosen route: The Trois Monts. Three years ago, a huge avalanche killed nine climbers taking the very same path. I’ve written before about how avalanches are right at the bottom of my list of chosen ways to die. There can be no carelessness with such a threat.

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Helen and Ben engage in a spot of rock-climbing

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Helen, Joe and me killing time whilst waiting for the clouds to clear

So we waited for more news and hopefully better conditions, filling our time with trail-running, rock-climbing and evening games of shit-head in the cool mountain air. We played beneath the verandah of our campsite as the rain thundered down outside, uneasily considering that at higher altitudes, this would manifest itself as yet more snow. On our third-day, we caught sight of the summit itself for the first time, looming over us through a break in the clouds. We had grown restless over the previous days and the sight seemed to galvanise our group. To hell with the conditions: we were going to have a crack at it. Not via The Trois Monts though. Too dangerous. We needed a Plan B.

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The summit appears for the first time

After some eleventh-hour research, we boarded a cable-car to the clouds, bound for the Gouter route. Both Gouter and Trois Monts have their risks, with Gouter less prone to avalanches but exposed instead to the Grand Couloir: a brutal chasm in the face of the mountain that spews boulders down on those who dare to cross it. Serious accidents are common. We would have to come face-to-face with it if we wanted to summit, followed by a 600m climb up the rock-face in the dark. Then there was another 1000m of ascent, unacclimatised, to the summit. It seemed ambitious given that none of us really had any detailed idea of the route. More ambitious still given that when we left the cable-car and finished the trek to the Tette Rousse campsite, we’d scaled a total of 2000m the day before a summit attempt. Arriving at the campsite with just four-hours to go until our planned 2am start was just the icing on the cake.

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Setting up camp just before the sun went down

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Above the clouds at last

Lying in my tent that night, the last-minute and scattered organisational nature of the whole attempt leant it an air of the desperado. It was just three hours until we would attempt another 1500m, over unknown terrain. It was tempting to say we were trying too much, indeed there was a whiff of the genuinely dangerous about it. I’ve never been easily intimidated, but nonetheless my thoughts started straying towards everyone I loved, everything I loved doing and every happy memory of life back home. I wondered what the risk was of saying goodbye to it all and why I was lying on this uneven bed of stone, trying to catch a couple of hours sleep and about to risk it all when I could be back home in my own bed. I could hear the sound of rockfalls from the Grand Couloir rumbling regularly through the campsite like the deepest thunder imaginable.

Sick of my thoughts, I turned to a book on Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. I did not read for long, finding the stories of heroic failure rather too close to the bone, but one particular piece of poetry, inscribed on a cross in memory of three of those who perished, caught my eye:

I was ever a fighter so one fight more,

The best and last.

I should hate that death bandaged my eyes

And bade me creep past

Let me pay in a minute life’s

Arrears of pain, darkness and cold

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Clear skies at last

Finally, at long last, the clouds had lifted. A red hunter’s moon was rising and the stars were gleaming overhead. I was back in the cold, back in the rarefied mountain air and had one hell of a challenge before me. I thought again about how happy my life had been so far and found my confliction gone. This was the stuff I lived for. It might be stupid, but it was also starting acquire a glint of the genuinely epic. The summit was there for the taking. One fight more.

The Attempt

Up at 2am, no sleep, we dressed and roped-up in a haze. A trail of headlamps had set out in front of us and scattered over the rockface above, rising so high they were indistinguishable from the stars which blazed overhead. Nobody really spoke; just did what we had to. Boil water for the thermos. Crampons on, harness tightened, axes in hand. Munch on a couple of pain-au-chocolat, feeling too sick to enjoy it. It was not far to the Grand Couloir and the path was easy enough. We paused where it crossed the couloir and strained our eyes, listening hard in the darkness for the tell-tale clatter of falling rock. But an ominous silence held. We stole across it, one by one; the drop to our right hidden by the darkness.

We climbed.

Sleepy, fatigued and resigned, we scrambled automaton up the face; scarcely thinking beyond the next hand-hold. The next foothold. Is that too far to make a lunge? Glancing occasionally at the blackness tumbling away to either side, tired brains flickered into life, imagining the fall.

There came a crack from above. We froze, eyes staring sightless into the dark and ears straining. An immense measure of adrenalin was pouring into my bloodstream. Then the darkness filled with a horrible roar. Somebody screamed “Move! Get down!” from behind. We hurled ourselves into the face of the wall just as the unmistakable sound of a huge boulder hurtled through the air nearby, smashing into the face and obliterating some part of it. The night filled with kinetic force and the mountain unleashed pure fury around us. A vast, thundering rock avalanche that pulverised the face and made the rock quake beneath our fingers. I couldn’t see my companions. Couldn’t hear if they were sheltering like me or had already been snatched off the face by one of the boulders. I could only focus on the small pool of illuminated rock in front and listen to that awful thunder as the world around me was smashed apart.

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Nearing the top of the Aiguille de Gouter, West Face

We heard from the campsite when we got down that many of them had been woken up by an immense rock avalanche at 3am that morning. We didn’t need telling – it felt as though we were right at the centre of it, though in fact most of it passed to our left, confined by the channel of the Grand Couloir.

The noise died away and the threat rumbled down into the void. A few seconds of silence. “Everyone alright?” I ventured into the dark. Everyone was. “Bloody hell. That was big.”

We climbed on. The wall was supposed to take about two and a half hours, but owing to some of our party suffering from nausea, a few wrong-turns and some kerfuffle with the rope, this stretched closer to three and a half hours, with the sun fully up before we had climbed gratefully onto the ridge. For a while we just sat in the early sunshine in silence, pressing cereal bars into our mouths without much enthusiasm. Rather unexpectedly, Joe ran to the side of the ridge and vomited over the edge, managing a feeble “Look out below…” soon afterwards.

3,800m. To our left, the ridge stretched far out of sight, a scatter of climbers moving across it and a cold katabatic wind cooling the sweat developed on the climb. “You’re already too late,” said a voice at the back of my head. “Back off,” I told it. But it had a point.

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Starting the ridge, much too late

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Crevasses in the face of the mountain

At 8am, still hours away from the summit, I called a halt. “I think we should turn back.” It was getting late. The sun was warming the snow and conditions were deteriorating. Worse: the heat of the day would soon hit the Grand Couloir, which we already knew to be unstable. Some of our party were suffering with the altitude already and we were barely at 4000m. If we’d continued, we could almost certainly have fought the final 800m up to the summit but would then have had to come the whole way back down exhausted. Down-climbing the West Face (which had appeared extremely vertiginous in the darkness) in the heat of the day, shaking with fatigue, was not appealing.

I still wanted to press on, particularly when confronted with the disappointed expressions of my companions. I felt like a coward. But we weren’t in a good state, we had tried too much and turning back was the right decision. It doesn’t mean I wasn’t swearing at myself the whole way down, plagued with doubt and self-directed rage.

But that’s mountaineering. Sometimes it’s just a matter of surviving to fight again another day. So that’s what we did.

The Second Attempt

Or that’s what most of us did. Denny, crestfallen at having to turn back, ploughed on with Ben for some time before being forced back by rising winds and spindrift. Though they didn’t summit, it was certainly worth it for those two, who got engaged just before turning back at 4,200m. The plan was nearly scuppered when poor Ben opened the box containing the ring to discover that it was completely empty. Very carefully, the two searched the surrounding snow and fortunately discovered the ring lying on the surface, whereupon they both received cold-burns from the chilled metal. Having heard this was on the cards, I had brought a bottle of questionable champagne up to toast the occasion (rather nervously sealing it in the outside of my pack in case it exploded with the altitude). However, as me, Joe and Helen had already turned back, we had to wait for them to return to camp before drinking to the newly engaged couple.

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On the way up

The exertions were ultimately too much for them. Marching on for another hour and a half, with an additional hour’s descent, they did not have enough left in the tank for a second attempt before our flight home. Their chance with the mountain was done.

Me, Helen and Joe had one more. Our flight left on Saturday and the three of us hatched an ambitious plan to make a Friday-night ascent, coming all the way down to Chamonix just in time for victory beers and a transfer to the airport. So while Ben and Denny retreated back down, the three of us rested and ate to prepare ourselves for one last effort.

We read and played backgammon while we waited, leaving me plenty of time to reflect on the fact that (now that Ben had descended) I was the most experienced mountaineer on an unfamiliar mountain. The responsibility was rather inspiring. This moment had been a while coming and it felt as though I was finally passing out of my apprenticeship stage.

Sleep in quite as short supply as the last time, we set off at midnight. This time the camp was quiet as we zipped on our gaiters and harnessed up, making our solitary way up the face. We were wiser and better-prepared, leaving our crampons off, our ice-axes hooked to our packs and the rope coiled on Helen’s back. We dashed across a slumbering Grand Couloir and were soon climbing quickly and efficiently, surging up the path that had been so unfamiliar two nights before. Our experience showed, reaching the top of the face in just over two hours.

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Hitting the ridge in the dark

We refueled and roped up to discover an otherworldly procession of lights had already set off from the Gouter hut, climbing the pristine Dome du Gouter. We followed the trail, all three of us feeling much stronger than we had at this point on the last ascent. We were also comforted by the intense dark; a sign we were well ahead of schedule. I had slipped my iPod into an easily accessible pocket and turned on my running playlist on the way up, beaming to myself as I admired a couple of meteors ploughing across the sky. The world was entirely composed of pin-pricks: distant stars and headlamps against a midnight-blue backdrop. Cold, dark and awesome: this was my kind of mountaineering.

We laboured on, altitude taking a familiar toll as limbs got heavier and breathing faster. I love the thin air. Everything gets colder and purer and it takes a special kind of effort to climb in these conditions. Anywhere else, intense physical exertion results in boiling heat and sweat dripping off my forehead within a few minutes. At altitude, you can’t move fast enough to produce that heat. The effort is all in your lungs, hauling like a pair of bellows at all times. It is like the essence of exertion. It’s all about your breath, and kicking in your crampons for the next step, and the next breath, and leaning forwards on an ice-axe. Your lungs are always working and always empty and the struggle becomes compelling and otherworldly.

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Taking a breather on the final climb

We made excellent progress, overtaking a string of rope-teams on the ascent. Indeed, so quick were we that there was some concern that we might be at the top before the sun had even risen and miss out on the view. The altitude and exposure on the ridge allayed such worries, slowing us to a mere shuffle by the time we were climbing the final section, the edges of the world tinged with pink.

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The sun rises just as we hit the summit

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The Petit Bosse and Grande Bosse ridges

We summited at 08.30, just as the sun was rising in glorious conditions. To have been rewarded for our persistence was wonderful and made the summit all the more spectacular. What a climb. I’m about to start training as a doctor, but on the summit, I made a mental commitment to climb at least one major peak per year. I don’t ever want to leave this behind.

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The Alps arrayed below us

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Very pointy

Mont Blanc may not be the hardest mountain, but it is a highly satisfying climb. I’m not sure what the next adventure is: I’ve been training hard to run the West Highland Way later this month, but have sadly had to postpone it due to a clash of dates. I’m therefore casting around for a replacement ultra to full the void – no doubt you lucky folks will hear all about it.

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Me, Helen and Joe on the summit

2 responses to “Rocks for a Mattress

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