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They really do mean it

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"When they say you need to be fit... they really do mean it!" - a cautionary tail

Written by Ali Hunt, 2006.

An awful lot of money, a huge amount of time invested in training, and the overwhelming excitement of climbing Western Europe's highest mountain has all ended in awful, huge and overwhelming disappointment…

I have dreamed of climbing a mountain for years and years so I was over the moon when an old mate of mine, B, and I booked onto the Mont Blanc intermediate course months ago. As a long distance triathlete I knew that I would be fit for the trip, and with a lot of hillwalking and climbing experience I also figured that I'd at least have some relevant skills. B, my climbing partner and general all-round good egg, had the time to boost his own fitness levels, so I thought we were away!

Doing it with Icicle was fab – the first day on ice practicing tricky crampon moves and rescuing each other from glaciers bonded the group whilst teaching us some valuable skills. The predicted weather wasn't great so we'd been warned that we would be having a crack at the Mont Blanc summit somewhat earlier in the week than planned. This was great news as far as I was concerned – I couldn't wait.

As it turned out, the only way this would be possible was to do one day on the Cosmique Arete to acclimatise, and then do the trip to Mont Blanc in one day, returning to the Gouter Hut in the evening. This is quite a big ask – it's a 4-hour scramble to the Hut, followed by a 4-hour trudge uphill through the snow to the summit… and then of course the descent time back to the Hut. Four of us were going, with 2 excellent guides, and given the weather conditions, we were really chuffed to be going at all.

The first leg to the Hut went well – the weather seemed perfect, the scenery was spectacular and the company was excellent. When we got to the Hut we had a quick break for a cup of tea and to top up water. Pascal (guide) left with Lennox and John about half an hour ahead of Jacques (other guide) with me and B. Before our little group left I said to B that once we all left we would be committed, that giving up was not an option. He agreed… It was clear from the first 10 steps from the Hut that this was not going to be easy – the first thing to negotiate is a seemingly vertical snow wall which really gets the blood flowing!

The first landmark is the Dome de Gouter – an enormous mound of snow that doesn't seem to get any nearer or smaller despite how many steps you climb up it. It's exhausting and potentially demoralising, as when you get to the top of it, you're still less than halfway there. It's a slow trudge which I got through by singing (in my head!) my way through Linkin Park's 'Meteora' album. B was doing OK, though a little slow, but Jacques seemed happy.

The next bit is great – mostly flat, downhill in places, though there is that gloomy realisation that having climbed up so far you're now losing height. Having said that, the sight of Mont Blanc rising up in front of you is fantastic, a real incentive to keep going. As we started ascending up towards the disused Vallot refuge, B started slowing down hugely. Jacques was out in front and we were all roped together, and at times I would feel B pulling me backwards. It was exhausting so I'd give him a yank which he wasn't too pleased with. By the time we reached the refuge he stated that he didn't know how much more of this he could cope with. I was raging inside – the weather was starting to turn, and if we were to have any chance of making it, we had to keep up the pace. I could see Pascal, Lennox and John ahead of us and was desperate to get there too. B caught his breath and we headed on up to Petite Bosse. The pace was painfully slow. When we reached the Bosse, the summit seemed close enough to touch. Pascal et al were about halfway up and showed no signs of turning back. I was tired, for sure, but feeling good and determined to get to the top. So when I heard phrases such as 'we don't have enough time because the pace is too slow', 'I passed my pain threshold half an hour ago', 'we cannot go on – B is too tired', 'we must turn around', etc etc, it felt like the world was ending. Earlier in the week I'd said to B that I wouldn't be too disappointed if we didn't summit, but I had meant due to weather, one of us breaking an ankle, the guide falling into a crevasse, etc. In a million years I never expected that (selfishly) I would not make it to the top due to lack of fitness, or determination, or both, from my climbing partner. And to hear 'there's always next year', 'the mountain is not going anywhere' and 'c'est la vie' did nothing to dam the almost tangible anger / disappointment / sadness that I thought was going to choke me. I remember shouting 'they're up there and we're down here – and that's why I'm so angry', but other than that, the descent was a blur. I didn't care about the sunset, the view, our shadows circled by rainbows on the cloud below. I felt let down by B – I'd spent two months wages and hours every week training for this and he clearly hadn't been as serious about it… or thought he could wing it.

When we got back to the Gouter Hut, I couldn't be near anyone, which is pretty hard in a place that busy. So I crawled under my blanket and tried not to think about anything. I nearly succeeded until I heard Pascal, Lennox and John come back. They'd made it to the top and back safely. I wanted to congratulate them… but sadly I couldn't find it in me. I was gutted. I should have been up there with them.

B and I have thankfully known each other long enough that my disappointment in him, and his probable alarm at me currently ignoring him will evaporate soon, but my regret and frustration at not summiting when all factors were in favour will linger an awful lot longer.

Lessons learned then:

Don't just assume that because you've given it all 100% that others have.

Mont Blanc is a BIG MOUNTAIN. A guide cannot drag you up it – it takes phenomenal fitness AND determination (and appropriate weather, of course!) to get to the top. This should not be underestimated. Remember, it's not just YOU you may letting down if you can't make it – consider the other person climbing with you.

It's a long, cold, leg-burning, lung-bursting, head-spinning slog. I hope that next time I can make it to the top to experience the exhilaration that makes you feel that it's all been worth it.

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