The Ultimate “Day Hit” – Mont Blanc
The piercing alarm snatches me away from muddled dreams as I slowly orientate myself to time, place and purpose. It's 11pm, a funny time to start the day. John arrives for breakfast while Alastair emerges from his slumber and turns on some motivational tunes to get us psyched. Pouring milk onto my cereal I try to convince myself it's actually the morning but these efforts are belied by the sound of hearty chatter in the streets of Chamonix as the off-season nightlife gets underway.
I can't remember exactly how the idea first came about but at some point Alastair, John and I decided it would be fun to climb Mont Blanc in a single day from Les Houches in the valley. At 4808m, Mont Blanc is one of the most well known mountains in Europe. It is usually climbed over three days with a train ride to excuse the first 1500m ascent and two nights in a mountain hut to aid comfort and acclimatisation. We decided we would start from the valley floor, on foot, tackling over 4000m of vertical ascent in one big push.
The conditions were good but not optimal - both usand the environment. John was fresh from a week paragliding on the beach in Turkey, well rested but certainly not acclimatised. Alastair and I had been rock climbing up high but were worn out from several days of non-stop activity. The weather was expected to be clear overnight although brutal temperatures of -18degrees with 30km/h wind were forecast and a huge storm due from midday. We knew that the storm would bring deep snow and with the Gouter Hut about to close for the season there would be less traffic to break a good trail. It was now or never. So, obviously, it was now.
Up, up, up through the forest. Twisting dirt trails, burning thighs, sweaty backs and heavy breathing. We rise above the treeline and the silhouette of The Giant comes into view above. I’m tired, very tired and the enormity of the objective hits me. We've done 1000m and there's still 3000m to go.
As we reach the Tete Rouge Glacier we see a stream of headtorches ascending the slope above. Until now we were completely alone in this vast dramatic landscape, the only souls brave or foolish enough to tackle the giant in a day. Now the silent starry night is broken by the footsteps, jangling and shouts of other mountaineers as we are united by our common goal. On one hand I am motivated by this new sense of camaraderie but on the other hand I wanted this magic all to ourselves.
We reach the infamous Grand Couloir, the bowling alley where rocks intermittently hurtle down onto the path we must now follow across its base. Look, listen, run. It is silent and we pass quickly and unscathed. The next section involves steep scrambling and I realise that my balance and coordination are not right. I feel wobbly in a way I've not experienced before. But I've not got a headache and I don't feel breathless or thirsty which are my usual symptoms from altitude. So we all keep going up, up, up.
We reach the Gouter Hut and try to replenish our water supplies. But the guardian is in bed and none of the sinks have running water. We've got about 200mls each to the summit so that will have to do. Crampons on, ice axes out, up, up, up we go.
I feel like I'm dreaming. I can hear Alastair and John chatting, and myself too, but I feel detached. It’s a confusing feeling that I don't feel comfortable with. I'm completely exhausted and have an overwhelming desire to lie down on the glacier and close my eyes, just for a little sleep. Then I realise the others feel the same way too so we all collapse onto the glacier at once. We drink, we eat, we laugh, we joke, all in a state of crazy delirium as our brains cry out for more oxygen.
I had naively thought this would be easy. A fun day out. The idea of failure hadn't even entered my mind. Now I am wondering if I'm going to make it and if we should turn back, fantasising already about the warmth and comfort of the valley waiting below. Each step is slower and more painful than the last. The wind is relentless and penetrates through two down jackets straight to my core. I don't even notice the sun rise. Clouds are amassing, whipped up by the wind, with growing cumulus towers an omnipresent reminder of the impending afternoon storm. But we feel better after the break so continue on our way, up, up, up.
Finally, we are walking along the narrow ridge that delivers us to the summit plateau. I pause every few steps to double over and suck the thin air deep into my starving lungs but now I realise we are going to make it. Success is guaranteed. Baby steps. Keep going, one foot after the next.
We arrive on the summit of Mont Blanc. In nine hours and twenty minutes we have climbed continuously from the valley floor to the roof of Europe. We are dizzy from a concoction of caffeine, hypoxia and pure joy. We are exhausted, elated and euphoric. We are higher than the four-thousand-eight-hundred-and-eight metres on which we stand – we are on top of the world.