It was quite a pleasant experience to wake up at 6.45am on Saturday morning after the 3.45am start the day before. Today we would just be returning down the valley to our minibus parked at about 1,800m at the top of the mountain road from our second night in the Chabon hut. We had returned to the hut having submitted Gran Paradiso (4,061m) the day before.
It was then almost surreal to have breakfast at 7am in a practically deserted hut. Everyone else who had stayed the night was well on their way up the glacier to the summit, and a glance out of the front door of the hut showed a snake of roped-up climbers up at about 3,500m, appearing ant-like in the distance against the whiteness of the snow.
Following a remarkably similar breakfast to the day before of dried bread and cereal, we were on our way out at about 7.45. The rucksacks this time were bursting again with the things that we had either used yesterday (crampons, harnesses, ice-axes, helmets etc), or had carried up to the hut in the first place and left there on the climb, like toiletries, any spare clothes etc.
The trek down from our base at 2,700m would take only about two hours, and would go via a different valley to the one we came up, so that Neil (our main guide) could take us on some bouldering practice. The bouldering would be useful practice for Mont Blanc, as we would have quite a technical section to overcome when we reached the Grand Couloir area there. Our abilities to do this would be assessed to make sure that we were competent enough for the main climb, just as we had been assessed the day before for our “bottle” at the top of Gran Paradiso.
I hadn’t realised at the time, but that final summit ridge of Gran Paradiso (see yesterday’s blog post) was actually a test. If not technically difficult, it was still technical, and also a vertigo-inducing test of mettle, requiring clipping in via-ferrata style to a wall below which a very thin (probably 10cm wide) ledge separated you from about 1,000m of nothing but a free fall to what would have been instant death. The ledge was probably only 3 or 4m in length, but the expression “heart in mouth” doesn’t do it justice. When I first got to the ledge, having almost crawled along a narrow rock band on crampons to get there in the first place, I had suggested initally to our guide Marco that this was “far enough for me”.
Upon saying this, (and not knowing that this was effectively being assessed), I then quickly realised that I was making a decision that would affect not only me, but all four of us (Marco the guide, plus Jonas and Katya), as we were roped up. The precariousness of our position, perched on the narrow rock ledge meant that unroping one member (i.e. me) would have been at best extremely unwise. Katya had then (very nobly) said “ok, we will all stay here as Chris won’t go”. I think this had made me realise that in my moment of fear, I was denying other people their summit, and so I decided there and then (for them) to go ahead and make the leap of faith. I was very glad afterwards that I had, for a whole host of reasons, but it just shows you that sometimes you have to think not just for yourself, but as to how your decisions can affect others too.
It would be only later today, back in Chamonix, when I was talking to the owner of Mont Blanc Guides, that he told me that the summit ridge was in fact a test for Mont Blanc itself. He said that it represented something ‘scarier’ than anything to be found on Mont Blanc, and so if clients could meet this challenge then they would be allowed to go ahead to face the (far greater in many other ways) tests of Western Europe’s highest mountain!
So back to the bouldering in the here and now, we were led by Neil through a short loop of scrambling over large boulders, both ascent and descent. It was not terribly difficult, but did have at times some moments when a fall would have meant a bit of an injury, which of course gets the old heart pumping a little more quickly than it otherwise would.
When out from the (short, but fun) bouldering test, and having successfully all come through it, we could begin our descent. The valley we would come down was simply staggeringly beautiful. From majestic views to the snow capped mountains in the distance, to stunning waterfalls, to ibex and chamois running past us close at hand, to majestic growths of wild rhododendron and then a sublime forest with overhanging views of rivers far below, it really had it all. I could have walked there forever. And all this in warm and glorious sunshine too. It was also very noticeable that as we were now descending, the air became noticeably more oxygen rich as we went, inducing a quite noticeable feeling of increased energy, and also appetite. Colin in fact burst into an inspired run mid descent, and a la Forrest Gump (but not really, sorry Colin :)) just kept on running all the way to the bottom, and we didn’t see him until the minibus 🙂
Having got back to the minibus mid-morning, we returned back to France, a journey of about two hours via Courmayeur and the very impressive Mont Blanc tunnel. I cannot also not mention a stop half way in the Italian village of Mongex, where we stopped briefly for a gelato and coffee. I can only begin to describe here how good both were. My black cherry and Amaretto cone, plus espresso, were both probably the most delicious things I believe I have ever put into my mouth. ‘Nuff said, as they say!
Back at base in Chamonix at lunchtime, Neil checked the weather forecast before dismissing us for a ‘free’ afternoon, where we could do as we please, shower (very badly needed after three days away I can tell you), and unwind before the forthcoming three day journey up to the main event beginning the next morning. He had actually checked the initial forecast the previous evening, and had warned us that the weather didn’t look good for Monday and Tuesday, and had said that if so, then we may not be able to summit.
Everyone understood this of course, but no-one I think was really ready for the definitive news which we now got: Mont Blanc wouldn’t be happening. A weather front was coming in, the wind would be changing direction, and there would be snow (65cm was forecast that night in fact) and high winds.
As Neil had taken time to explain to us the previous evening in the hut, Mont Blanc is not a mountain you take chances on. You should never go if you don’t think the conditions are just right, i.e. good visibility and low wind. Safety is and always should be the most important factor in the mountains, and especially on a 15,800 feet peak which has killed over 8,800 people, many of these in perfectly benign conditions. Everyone upon getting the news both accepted and fully respected the decision that Neil took. It didn’t stop any of us being disappointed however. It was what we had all come for after all.
It was the first time I have received a setback like this. I have read a hundred or more examples of people being turned back from Everest and the like due to weather conditions, and when it happens to someone else you think “that’s ok, they must surely realise that it is for the best” etc. When it happens to you, you think a mixture of three things simultaneously:
One, you feel a bit sorry for yourself. You’ve just paid x thousand pounds and taken holiday from work to be told you cannot so what you came for. It’s hard, if only a bit. Secondly you do absolutely respect the decision, and realise that someone is making it rationally and so your safety in mind. Thirdly you realise your vulnerability and mortality. This is not a walk in the Lake District or Wales where you might get wet when the weather turns bad. This is a place where wrong decisions cost lives, and in this case the life being decided upon is your own.
Following the announcement Neil suggested that the next few days we would either be able to go ice climbing, or do some via ferrata, depending upon the local conditions in the Chamonix valley. Quite a bit of rain (40mm) was forecast lower down, so this would be weather dependent too. The forecast for Monday and Tuesday over the border into Italy was possibly a little better than that for Mont Blanc, and so it “might” be possible to attempt a summit of Monte Rosa, at 4,280m a mighty summit on the Italian/French border. The forecast was still gloomy though, so it would be all taken on a day by day basis. I made a decision there and then – I was coming home early.
It was a hard decision, and as I write this only the next day on the return flight home, I still don’t know if it is the right one. I do know that when I am sat at my desk at work tomorrow morning, having reclaimed three days of holiday that I would otherwise have (of course extremely happily) used, I will feel a tad miserable. I’d rather be sat in Chamonix in the rain any day of the week than being at work pondering the ifs and buts and might have beens. But at the end of the day, it all came down to either doing some things like ice-climbing that aren’t really ultimately “my bag”, and which I wasn’t really there for in the first place, or getting those three days holiday back which I could use at a later date to do more things of my own choosing. So having made it, as I do with all of my decisions, I stick by it and try to have no regrets, which in fact I don’t.
I’d like to thank Mont Blanc Guides for being an outstanding company. If I go back to do Mont Blanc again, which I surely will, they’ll be first choice.
So although I didn’t get to summit Mont Blanc, I look back now on my trip and am delighted that I was there. I got to summit the highest mountain in Italy, and my first 4,000m peak in Europe, and in doing so pushed the boundaries of my own fears at the summit ridge. I got to meet some really great people. Some I may see again in fact, and I hope I do. I had a fabulous adventure. I got to go up to the Aguille du Midi, and look from 3,840m up at a cloudless summit of the highest mountain in Western Europe. And it gave me the appetite to go back for more.
And, in the words of for me the most respected climber ever, one Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, I got to travel, to experience and learn. And I got to live.