Climbing Mount Blanc – Part 1

October 16th, 2009

Follow Flip Byrnes as she sets out on a mission to summit Western Europe’s highest peak – Mount Blanc.

I sit outside a refuge in Italy nursing a vino rosso, looking at the southern face of Mt Blanc. From France, she is a young woman, curvy, undulating, inviting, skin the unblemished white of snow. But from this southern face, she is all sharp edges and angry, lined from millennia of harsh conditions, the mother in law of your nightmares.
I am at the tail end of Le Tour du Mt Blanc, a week long pilgrimage through France, Switzerland and Italy circum navigating the highest mountain in Western Europe. Her flanks revealed a complexity of character traits but one thing is constant. Her 4807m dress size.
This is a warm up for an Mt Blanc Ascent, the climb of my dreams and it has two purposes. It will be my first “major” mountain and while walking to the heavens, I plan to expose myself so thoroughly to heights that I will never have vertigo again. It seems a very efficient and simple plan but actually it’s rather audacious. The mountain draws advanced and novice climbers alike, the latter thanks to The Gouter Route, a less technical summit route that can be accomplished with excellent fitness, a four day course and a guide. Yet nothing is as easy as it seems. The mountain has claimed over a thousand lives in the past two hundred years and even the Gouter Route is a labyrinth of obstacles. First there is a dash across the rock strewn Grand Colouir, a bowling alley of boulders that collects climbers like pins annually. An 800m scramble to the halfway mark, the Tete Rousse, where 1631m, the summit, altitude and cold await. But on this night, anything is possible. One in two make it to the top. Will one of them be me?

I’m having deja vu. Exactly a week ago at 11am I was here in Le Tour car park, about to cross into Switzerland on my first day of the Tour de Mont Blanc. Here I am seven days later, having walked through three countries, about to start training for Mt Blanc. It’s amazing what you can do in a week. In the car Gary asks, “Anyone else nervous?” I think we all are, we’re heading up for our first day of glacier work, 1000m up the Glacier D’Argentiere to the Albert Premiere Refuge and don’t know quite what to expect. Like last night. Who would my team be? A crack climbing platoon from Cliffhanger who eat animals raw? I was relieved to find normal looking Tom and Steve, who have climbed Kilimanjaro, Gary and Peter. Peter has climbed everything from Mt Aspiring to Base Camp Everest. He’s also 73 years old and I bet as tough as nails.
Immediately today, I am happy to be walking again and the benefit from the previous weeks’ climbing is clear. My “systems” are organised down to a secret sunscreen pocket and my back welcomes the weight of the now-familiar pack. Whistling, we head to the glacier nursery slopes to meet my new best friends: crampons.
Benoit, our guide teaches us to walk, then side step, then front point, climbing mini ice walls with our fang-like front prongs. I trust mine immediately, knowing they hold the key to a treasure trove of mountain secrets, they’ll hug the slopes that will take me to another world above. The day is shot with sunbeams, blasted with sunshine reflecting off the dry glacier. It’s late season and crevasses issue invitations, yawning wide, hungry for climbers. We pass cautiously around and over them, peering into their bottomless depths, speechless.
The refuge is packed with day trippers from Chamonix and the dormitories are full with a melange of nationalities, Norwegian, Finnish, Swiss and Dutch. It’s like a huge multi national outdoor gear expo. I go to sleep wondering if I’m developing an odd equipment fetish and apologise to my neighbour if during the night I breathe on his face. When you sleep this close to a stranger, you get to know each other pretty well.

Benoit points out Mt Blanc, only a few days now….

First day of (glacier) school – mind the gap.

We are not quite mountain men (and women) yet. It has been a challenging day that has taken some of our posse to physiological, if not physical limits. Benoit has a challenge on his hands, preparing a group ranging from glacier virgins to experienced Peter for the demands of Mt Blanc. We wait 15 minutes while one member gets organised. I’m impatient. It’s fine on a day like today when the Alps are benign, but what about when they’re not and whip up in merciless fury? My opinion is extreme and tolerance a virtue I need to work on, but on icecaps or just trekking in mountains, my glass is half empty, always considering the worst case scenario and how quickly it can happen. The more I learn, the less I consider I know, and respecting nature is a good way to stick around to get to know it more.
Today was a day just like the last, the sky opening arms wide and we walked across the glacier towards the col under a blue, endless dome. Benoit was harder on us today, thinking about in 48 hours time when we’re descending from the Gouter, weary limbs and fatigued minds. The terrain was harder too, climbing the Col rocks slipped beneath feet, hands scrabble for holds. The exposure became pronounced and tension increased with the altimeter until a small argument broke out. A member of the group questioned Benoit’s route and his speed. Benoit answers the Gouter is just as difficult and 7 times as long. The client won’t let it drop and we all hold our positions in a dizzying game of Freeze Frame.
Meanwhile feet play musical chairs on unstable rock, one in Switzerland, one in Italy, on the peak of the col. But Benoit is right to test us. The situation passes and we descend to a refuge that can only be described as other wordly. The terrace is the stalls for an audience viewing the majesty of nature, peaks standing still like players on a stage waiting for their cue. Birds fly below. Mountains soar above; across the valley a wooden cross graces a peak, a sign post to the heavens.
The adversity of the day has bonded our group like a small family, each with their individual strengths. We discuss the obstacles on the Mt Blanc route with Benoit, the Grand Couloir, the Rocks of Death, and at the top, the altitude and the cold. But one at a time, just like today, they can all be overcome. Yet this afternoon, on the col, one of our group revealed they have the X Factor, the dangerous ability to be unpredictable and argumentative under pressure. I know Mt Blanc is not a technical mountain and only my first, but this risk has made me aware I’m hungry. So hungry. I’ve never realised just how hungry I am to climb her, until now. Who will be on my summit team? It could be the unkown Sebastian, joining us in Chamonix, the lucky dip of the adventure.

The rocky Col du Trient.

The Trient refuge with a view.

Back in Chamonix, we separate for one last shopping mission. I pick up (more) Snickers, power bars, head lamp batteries and gloves and resist looking at cow hide rugs. Commitment. I am so exhausted from climbing around 5000m and walking 140km in the past week, then messing around on the glacier that I don’t even notice I smell of what some people would call sweat, what I’d call adventure. In the supermarket I have a moment. I describe Chamonix as a place where people think they are so extreme they go to the supermarkets with ice axes (the Scandinavians are particularly guilty). Reaching for yogurt, my axe clings against karabiners. Who would’ve thought?
At dinner the lucky dip reveals itself in the form of Sebastian, a 30 something doctor from England and my climbing partner tomorrow. The first thing he says is “you won’t cut the rope, will you?” He’s like winning the fluffy duck, contagious enthusiasm and humour. I think we’ll be good mates.
I walk home in the dark thinking. Who will it be? If the statistics are to be believed which two will make it to the top? Could it be Team Calm Goat? The steady Steve and the nimble Gary? Or Team Persistent, the ultra intelligent Tom and the uber experienced Pete? I am thinking so much I miss my turn off. I don’t assume for a moment that if there is someone on the summit tomorrow, it will be me. I tell myself no matter what; it’s been an incredible week; new friends, new scenery, new skills. But I want it to be, badly. I really want it to be.

The first thing you need to know about the cooks at the Refuge Gouter is that they are hysterical. That’s what four months living on a rock will do to you, a high altitude version of Alcatraz. I play with the refuge cooks, here for four months, who declare themselves the Hot Chocolate Making Champions of the World, measuring the quality of their concoctions by bubble quantity. They also tell me they don’t wash; they don’t go down, while another staff member does a caveman dance behind him. These guys really need to get out more. The cooks antics are a high point in a place that can only be called…..eerie. The Gouter is a battle ground, a twilight zone where climbers have either summited or on their way to summit. At 4pm I head to the dorm full of sleeping bodies to wait for the 2am call, listening to my ipod, the thump of my heart at altitude and resting muscles after the suffer fest of The Rocks of Death. Oh yes, it’s already been quite a day and we’re only a quarter done.
This morning I meet my guide, Italian Enrico, and score the lucky dip again. We share the same languages of Italian, French and English and patter away as we join the peak hour crowd on the way to Mt Blanc. Guides call and whistle to each other, like shepherds on an autumn jaunt until we reach the first obstacle, the Donkey Kong Grand Couloir. Which is a complete anti climax, a rocky goat track crossing a stony gully. Yet it is the only time today I see Enrico nervous and he ushers us across quickly, this graveyard where stealthy stones steal climbers’ souls.
Assessing the route to the Gouter, it’s not a scramble; it’s more an 800m climbing wall. Up, up and up, sneaky patches of ice resting in shadows of unstable rocks. At times I shimmy up mini technical chimneys. At others I hail myself over boulders, legs splayed – classy. At others, clinging with four contact points on the wall, as the valley floor slips away dramatically.
After an hour, I would simply like to stand vertically. After an hour and a half, I would like to lie horizontally, but just as I run out of steam there it is, The Gouter, standing tall like a fortress in the sky.
Team Calm Goat come behind and Steve greets me with a hug, handling that exposure is a massive achievement for us both. This section was our biggest fear. I almost become teary, I need… I set up a mini Kiosk in the corner of the balcony. Coke, water, Gatorade, an omelette and snacks. But suddenly my French deserts me. Mangled foreign words spray out one side. Omelette the other. Oh dear. Over dinner, I’m in a similar state. Shattered. I have no doubt I can get up Mt Blanc. But I’ll be empty by the time I’m again at The Gouter. I’m empty now -how will I get down?
I pose the Rocks of Death descent question to Steve who says “No idea. NO idea”. He’s been thinking of joining the kitchen crew up here at Alcatraz and choppering out post season. I don’t tell him they walk down. We all have to cling to our little hopes

Our group coming up the rocks of death.

Enrico – our legend guide.

To be continued…


The UTracks Mont Blanc Classic self guided walk runs every Monday and Saturday from June 19 to August 30 2010. $1050 (dormitory), $1240 (double room). or PH 1300 303 368.

Suggested Reading:
Lonely Planet , France.

Getting There:
Thai Airways has flights to Zurich for Earlybird prices of $1964 between Aug 16 and September 19 2010.
For more details Thai Airways or PH 1300 651 960