Having not really slept at all, I finally gave up trying at
01:00, when the rest of the room got up.
Breakfast was the usual bread and hot chocolate, but this time the hot
chocolate was proper, tasty, French hot chocolate.
The previous night Lisa had mentioned that a warm night
would be bad news, as the snow would not be frozen hard. Over breakfast she announced that the
temperature was much milder than had been expected, which worried me slightly,
but she didn’t seem too concerned. Lisa
recommended a Gore-Tex jacket but after a trip onto the refuge’s balcony I
decided that, bearing in mind the size of the impending climb, I would set off
without any Gore-Tex layers, with just a Helly and a fleece on top, and my
normal walking trousers.
Having packed my bag I passed through the boot-room and
picked up the contents of my plastic box, then wandered outside and attached my
crampons sitting on the steps of the refuge.
Around me there was a sea of Petzl head torches as people attached ropes
and crampons and adjusted layers. There
were several groups of army climbers, roping up in groups of four and looking
ready to go, which I hoped would mean that any of the previous day’s snow was
fully trampled by the time we reached it.
Al and Lisa appeared and we roped ourselves together. At 02:00 we set off, with Lisa leading, me
in the middle and Al bringing up the rear.
Mont Blanc du Tacul, Mont Maudit and Mont Blanc
As we set off we left many of the other groups behind, which
didn’t seem like the best way to get a path trampled, but there were still
several groups in front. A few had
already reached the north face of Mont Blanc du Tacul and the head-torches
were slowly snaking up it.
We dropped down the 80m or so to the Col du Midi and crossed
towards Mont Blanc du Tacul in glacier-travel mode, then switched to short-rope
mode for the ascent. The Mont Blanc
route doesn’t take in the summit of Mont Blanc du Tacul (4248m) but climbs up
to the Epaule du Mont Blanc du Tacul at about 4050m before descending slightly
to Col Maudit at 4035m.
We were about the 4th group up, behind at least
one of the army teams, so the route was fairly obvious by the time we got
there, and the snow wasn’t too soft.
The route zig-zagged up the face so the crampon technique was more often
side-on rather than front-pointing.
The views during the ascent were quite bizarre: because of
the absence of light, the vast seracs towering above us appeared out of the
darkness only when a group of head-torches got close, while the view below was
dominated by the line of head-torches, and the glow of the refuge where those
having the 03:00 breakfast were just getting up.
Apart from the possibility of a serac toppling down, the
main danger was in the form of two or three crevasses and a bergschrund. We crossed these in glacier-travel mode, but
otherwise stayed in short-rope mode to the crest. The climb took around 2 hours (including the descent from the
refuge), so we hit the shoulder at almost exactly 04:00.
From the relative warmth and shelter of the face of Mont
Blanc du Tacul we suddenly appeared into the howling gale of the plateau
descending gently towards to Col Maudit.
Despite the forecast of a light wind, with a maximum of 40 km/h at
4800m, we were hit by 60 km/h winds
even though we were only just over 4000m. Combined with the temperatures of
about -10ºC this gave an effective temperature of about ‑35ºC.
We decided to drop down to the lowest point of the col
before putting on more layers but as we struggled against the wind the
temperature became more of a problem.
By the time we had added Gore-Tex jackets, trousers and over-gloves we
were freezing: despite having my hands balled up as fists inside two layers of
glove I felt like my fingers were getting frost-bite. Lisa must have been even
worse off, as she lost an over-glove in the wind. As we set off towards Mont Maudit we kept having to pause to put
down our tools and warm our hands up.
The route up to Col du Mont Maudit
The next target was Col du Mont Maudit at 4345m. This was reached by a short ascent and a
long traverse across the north-west face of Mont Maudit, followed by a very
steep 100m climb to the col.
The traverse was slowed by various groups who must have
passed us while we were putting on extra clothes. We were literally standing in a queue at certain points but the first rays
of light raised our spirits slightly, offering the hope of finally warming up.
As we waited I asked Lisa whether she was worried about us running out of time:
to my relief she said it shouldn’t be a problem.
Eventually the traffic in front of us on the traverse cleared and
we reached the bottom of the most exciting and technically demanding
part of the whole expedition: an icy slope of between 50º and 60º up to the col. We stowed our walking poles, adjusted the rope slightly
and set off, using a single ice-axe each.
Lisa lead the way and Al and I followed, front-pointing up the slope while trying to
avoid looking down into the darkness of the
glacier falling away behind us.
The pause on the traverse had allowed our energy levels to recover slightly, so despite the
wind, the angle of the climb and the concentration required, the
climb didn't seem to draining. We arrived
at the col at around 06:30.
From Col du Mont Maudit we traversed round towards Col de la
Brenva, descending slightly to 4303m.
As we came off the steep side of Mont Maudit and passed close to the
cornice edge on the way to the col, we were hit with a massive shock: Lisa
turned to us and said "I don’t think we’re going to make it guys, the wind’s
After a quick chat we decided to carry on and see how the
wind changed further round, so carried on towards Col de la Brenva. Within half an hour or so we’d passed the
col and climbed Mur de la Cote, reaching just over 4400m. At this point we
passed near to the cornice edge again and Lisa told us she still thought the
wind was too strong. Al asked me what I
wanted to do and I said I thought we should carry on unless Lisa thought it was
dangerous. Lisa thought it hadn’t yet reached the dangerous stage, so we agreed
to carry on a bit further.
As we began the final ascent to the summit I was too worried
about the fact that we might not make it to think about being tired. Every couple of steps we’d get blown a step
to our left and I’d expect Lisa to turn round and tell us to head back. All the way I was guessing the height left
to climb, and preparing arguments along the lines of "but there’s only 300m
left to go..."
Al's view of the rope party heading across Mont Blanc du Tacul
Any fresh snow had been blown away by the wind, so the
surface was hard packed snow/ice. The
route zig-zagged up the fairly boring slope and every time the route changed
direction I (being the in the middle) had to step across the rope to keep it on
the lower side.
Lisa told us later that, after the second discussion, she’d
decided that since we were both up for it we would attempt to reach the peak.
She said that if she'd been blown over then she would have turned back, but
otherwise we would head for the summit.
The first we knew of this was when she turned to us and said "We’ll only spend 2 minutes on
the summit!" At this point I switched
from worrying about whether we’d make it to the kind of confidence that one can
only have immediately prior to completing a challenge. I gave Al as much of a
thumbs up signal as I could, using a thumb which was inside two layers of
Gore-Tex and desperately trying not to lose either my ice-axe or pole.
Finally, at 09:55 we reached the summit of Mont Blanc
(4808m). As I arrived I embraced Lisa,
then Al joined us in a group hug. We
took 7 hours and 55 minutes to reach the summit, which was on the slow side, but we had been
delayed by slow groups on the traverse below Col du Mont Maudit and the fresh snow
along much of the route.
Lisa estimated the wind at 80 km/h on the summit. The ‑10ºC isotherm was forecast at
4000m, so the temperature taking windchill into account must have been below ‑40ºC,
even though the sun was rising into the sky.
Jonny and Al on the summit of Mont Blanc (4808m)
We dropped off the summit to the south-west in the hope of
finding some shelter, but soon decided there wasn’t going to be any respite
from the wind so we climbed back up to the summit where we paused for a brief
At the time I don’t think it really sank in that we’d just
conquered the highest peak in western Europe, and achieved the goal of our
expedition. After several months of
worrying about being fit enough and acclimatising to the altitude, and several
days of worrying about the weather and the choice of route, we’d finally done
it, and by the most challenging route.
Unfortunately, any euphoria was quickly dampened by the
realisation that we had another 7 hours of descent ahead of us, in conditions
which were less than pleasant. We set
off at quite a pace, with Al leading and Lisa shouting advice from the back.
On the way up I hadn’t noticed much tiredness or pain after the Epaule du Mont
Blanc du Tacul. I think any pain during
the climb of Mont Maudit was eclipsed by the pain of my frozen fingers and the
hope that some physical exertion might warm me up slightly. The steep climb, which might otherwise have
been tiring, came immediately after a very slow section which must have helped
recover some energy, then during the latter stages of the ascent I was
concentrating on the fact that we might have to turn back due to the weather.
Annotated Route Map
Much of the ascent had just been automatic. Apart from the fact that I was probably
still half-asleep, we didn’t have any choice over our speed or route - all Al
and I had to do was keep putting one foot in front of another at the right
speed to keep the rope somewhere between too tight and too loose. Another possible form of assistance could
have been the adrenaline.
Either way, when we started the descent, it started to hurt.
When we reached the Col du Mont Maudit we made an anchor out
of Lisa’s ice-axe, and she lowered Al and me down the steep slope
together. The effect was much like
abseiling, except that Lisa was controlling the speed of the rope.
Halfway down the slope we anchored ourselves to a rock and
Lisa climbed down to join us. We
repeated the technique to get us down to the bergschrund at the bottom of the
slope, then waited while Lisa climbed down to join us again.
The route down was full of surprises. I must have been half-asleep on the way up,
as there were several places I didn’t recognise at all. The traverse along the side of Mont Maudit
was considerably quicker than on the way up, but the light revealed a much
steeper slope below the path than I had realised existed in the semi-darkness
of our earlier crossing.
At the end of the traverse there was some confusion about
the route, as none of us recognised the way we’d come up. Lisa soon worked out which way to go though,
and we descended considerably further than I remembered ascending to get down
to Col Maudit, where we’d frozen several hours earlier.
Al and Mont Blanc du Tacul
We descended Mont Blanc du Tacul and paused on the Col du
Midi plateau beneath the refuge for some refreshment. Although we’d stopped for a few quick drinks on the way up I’d
drunk less than a litre over the entire 14½ hours. This was partly due to most of the water freezing (the water
remaining as liquid had been uncomfortably cold) but was also due to the fact
that we didn’t want to stop for more than a few seconds because of the cold.
Back down at 3532m I drank another litre of water, and ate
some of the food I’d been carrying since 02:00, although I never did get round
to finishing the emergency peanut supply.
We crossed the plateau and made the final ascent up 250m to
the Aiguille du Midi Télépherique, arriving just before 17:00. While tourists looked on into the
Alpinistes’ ice-cave again, we removed our harnesses and crampons for the final
The télépherique journey took a while, due to some
interesting French queuing, but in one of the queues Lisa met her boyfriend,
taking the Danish party up to the Cosmiques refuge. She convinced him to lend her his car keys,
so when we got down she gave us a lift into the centre where we returned our
hire kit and paused for an enormous burger with chips in. The three of us sat outside the Belouga
burger bar, for once feeling completely justified in eating fast food.
Lisa dropped us off at the youth hostel, where Al and I
decided to give dinner a miss. We made
a quick call home to report our success, had a very welcome shower then
collapsed into bed at about 21:00.