soon as we reached the Aiguille du Midi we quickly headed
for the ice tunnel that opens out onto the Vallee Blanche.
As soon as our crampons were clipped on we crunched out onto
the arête leading towards the Col du Midi. A couple
of groups were ahead of us, but fortunately each had different
objectives, with the first group heading towards the North
Face of Tacul, and the others continuing along the ridge on
the Midi-Plan traverse. We would be leading the way, with
no one ahead of us.
The rising sun cast streaks of light that filtered through
the morning haze surrounding the Aiguille Verte and Grandes
Jorasses groups. Further away we could only see the summits
above a level of puffy white cloud. The haze would quickly
burn away with the rising heat, but it created an unforgettable
morning as we turned beneath the South Face of the Aiguille
du Midi towards the Cosmiques Arete.
snow was in excellent condition and our hopes for the next
day were high. We reached the bottom of the route for the
day, and watched as a string of ant-sized figures crossed
the Col du Midi towards the North West Face of Mont Blanc
du Tacul. We opted to keep our crampons on, as the rocks were
covered in a dusting of fresh snow that had fallen two days
moved quickly up the route, with the Col du Midi rapidly falling
away beneath us. All along the route there are lots of variations,
and in some cases we headed over rock gendarmes on the crest,
whilst on some stretches we went for the snow. The conditions
were perfect, and the sky a brilliant blue. By the time we
reached the terraces of the Aiguille du Midi it was quite
hot. We turned the final ridge on the North side to get the
views of the Piton Sud, and down into the Chamonix valley,
before clambering up the ladder to the terrace, which was
now crowded by the day-tripper tourists.
quickly dodged the zoom lenses and camcorders, before heading
back down to the Col du Midi and the Cosmiques hut where we
were staying the night. In the late afternoon we rested on
the terrace, and surveyed the bulk of Mont Blanc before us.
We could see the last groups of the day descending down the
North West Face of Tacul, and there seemed to be no major
problems on the route up the face past the seracs.
a dinner of pasta, for probably the fifth night in a row,
we opted for an early night, as the alarm was set to go off
at 2am. Some Italians had arrived at about 6pm, and were in
the mood for a party. Despite the best efforts of the Guardian
to keep the noise down, they blundered into the room singing
and cheering, presumably in celebration of their ascent the
day before. I hid my head beneath the blanket and blocked
the noise out.
got our own back in the morning, as the alarm bleeped into
life at 2am, and we crawled out of the room over the prostrate
lifeless forms that were scattered on the floor, as they had
not managed to get into bed. After learning a few grunted
Italian swear words we closed the door behind us and headed
down for a quick breakfast. After cramming as much muesli
and hot chocolate as I could into my stomach, we checked our
rucsacs for the last time, switched on our head torches, then
headed out into the darkness.
was still extremely cold, and each breath sent a cloud of
condensation through the beam of the head torch. We quickly
headed across the Col du Midi, and started on our way up the
North West Face of Tacul. In the light of the lamps we could
pick out the tracks of the climbers we had seen descending
the previous afternoon. As we gained height we saw a flicker
of lightning far away over Lake Geneva. It didn't concern
us as it was so far away.
Near the top of the face the gradient increases slightly and
there are bulging seracs that are slowly separating and heading
down the mountainside. It became clear that the seracs and
crevasses had moved overnight, and we came to a point where
the whole route was blocked by a deep split that had opened
up. We looked for ways round the obstacle, but it soon became
clear that we would have to wait for first light to find a
way across it.
we sat on the mountain we could see that the lightning was
spreading around the horizon, though still far away. Every
few seconds a bolt would flash down in either a dull yellow
or bright white fork. Above us the stars were clear, and there
was no cloud. The wind was very light, and we thought that
the storm was the one predicted in the weather forecast, that
was due to arrive in Chamonix in two days time. It was due
to get a bit lighter in an hour, and we were confident that
we could make up time once we were over the obstacle in our
soon became lighter, and we could pick out a route across
the crevasse. A snow bridge led to the vertical far wall,
which then had to be traversed to the right for about twenty
metres before I could head up to the final section of the
face above. On a tight rope I climbed down to the snow bridge,
and gently crossed to the security of the far wall. I was
grateful of my decision to carry twin axes and then traversed
sideways over the gloomy abyss below. Finally I could pull
upwards and over the upper lip of the crevasse onto the clear
pausing to catch my breath I buried my deadman in the slope
above me and belayed my partner up towards me. As soon as
we were both across, we headed up the final section of the
face. The crevasse had held us up by about two hours in total,
and it was in full daylight as we traversed over the Epaule
du Mont Blanc du Tacul, onto the Col Maudit.
original plan had been to reach each of the three summits;
Mont Blanc du Tacul, Mont Maudit and Mont Blanc. Due to the
delay over the crevasse, we decided that we should just go
straight for the summit of Mont Blanc, as this would cut about
two hours off the ascent. We rested briefly on the Col Maudit,
and then started across the col towards the bulk of Mont Maudit.
view back down the North West Face of Tacul towards the Aiguille
du Midi was really clear, though the Aiguille Rouges on the
far side of the Chamonix Valley and the whole Portes de Soleil
region were shrouded in cloud. The lightning had stopped at
daybreak, but the clouds were dark grey and stormy.
we started to climb up from the Col Maudit we watched as behind
us the clouds drifted nearer, and it seemed that the storm
would hit later that day. Fortunately the wind was still light,
and we hoped that the storm would hold until the evening.
We carried enough equipment to make an emergency bivvy if
necessary, but it seemed that the storm had turned towards
the Aiguille Verte side of the Massif, so we were confident
that the ascent could still be made in safety.
the guidebooks warn of the massive bergshrund that can occur
on Mont Maudit. We had been informed by a group in Chamonix,
who had descended the route a few days before, that they had
to abseil from stakes to cross the gap. As we neared the bergshrund
we spotted a fragile looking snow bridge at the highest point,
which was only about one hundred metres below the ridge top.
We made our way towards this point, and noted with concern
the grey wisps of cloud that has started to blow across from
the Aiguille du Midi, and that the wind had built up a little.
this stage we has climbed about one thousand metres from the
hut, and there were only a few hundred metres of climbing,
to the summit of Mont Blanc, once we had traversed over the
ridge of Mont Maudit. We opted to make a decision as whether
it was safe to continue once we had reached the ridge of Mont
Maudit. I reached the snow bridge and crawled carefully across
onto the steeper slope above. With each step I drove my axe
firmly into the snow as we edged up to the ridge.
was only a few feet from the ridge, and could see grey clouds
billowing over my head, and could hear the wind whistling
as it built up. At the ridge crest I was engulfed in a cloud
of spindrift, and as I pulled over onto the far side I was
knocked over by the blast of wind. Digging my axe into the
snow right up to its head, I belayed my partner up over the
ridge. We had completed the hardest section of the route.
quickly donned balaclavas and fleeces under our jackets, as
the wind was perishingly cold. The storm had hit the eastern
end of the massif first, and was rapidly heading west. We
were at 4400 metres, and the safest route of descent was onwards
over the summit of Mont Blanc. The storm had travelled really
quickly and had effectively cut off our quickest route of
descent, back to the Col du Midi.
traversed across the Col de la Brenva towards the Mur de la
Cote, which was in thick grey cloud. Occasionally the wind
lifted the cloud slightly and we could look down onto the
Brenva Spur. As we entered into the clouds it started to snow,
and the strong wind made it sting in our faces. We soon became
plastered in snow and it froze onto our clothes and headwear.
By the time we had reached 4500 metres visibility was down
to fifty metres.
rope between us was lengthened and we headed on upwards. From
this point on the mountain, we knew that we were on the summit
snow dome of Mont Blanc, and that just by climbing upwards
we would reach the top without worrying about navigating in
the storm to avoid the steep faces on which the summit is
perched. We plodded onwards, leaning against the wind, and
pausing for breath every few minutes. The snow had eased slightly
as we continued upwards, but the wind just got stronger.
was getting late in the morning when we finally caught sight
of the summit, which was marked by a small wooden stake, topped
with a flag, and encrusted with ice. We made our last weary
steps towards the top, but were aware that we still had a
way to go to reach the safety of the Grands Mulets hut, almost
two kilometres below us. We paused to take photographs, then
after confirming our bearings, scuttled down towards the Bosses
Arete. The success of reaching the summit really didn't sink
in as we were in the clutches of the storm, and had a long
descent to make.
were both tired and in need of a rest, but the storm would
not allow for that. The Bosses Arete was reached quickly,
and we could make out the slopes falling steeply away from
us into dense dark grey cloud. Unfortunately the wind built
up, and for a few minutes we were forced to descend the ridge
'a cheval' to avoid being blown off our feet. Finally the
ridge widened and we knew that the Vallot emergency refuge
we could make out shapes in the swirling cloud, but none of
them were the refuge. The fresh snow lay several inches thick,
and there were no discernable tracks to follow. We were relieved
to finally see the rocks on which the shelter is constructed.
It was totally plastered in snow, and we could easily have
descended past it. I climbed the ladder to the door and pushed
it open. Inside ten sets of eyes stared at the two snowy figures
that had climbed in. We rested for a short while and had a
hot drink, which thawed out our faces that had been wind and
snow blasted for hours.
other climbers in the refuge had sought refuge from the storm,
and were waiting until it blew over to complete their ascent
of Mont Blanc. Some were waiting for better weather to make
their retreat as they looked cold and miserable. The refuge
was crammed, and we decided to continue on our way down to
we had reached the Col Du Dome, the wind slackened, though
the snow started to fall more heavily. We lost height quickly,
heading towards the Grand Plateau. Now we were sheltered from
the wind we warmed up again, and moved quicker, jumping over
the crevasses on our way towards Grands Mulets. The fact that
we had cheated the storm to reach the summit started to sink
in, and the feelings of achievement lifted our spirits, which
had flagged due to tiredness.
we reached the Petit Plateau, we could look across and see
the Aiguille du Midi seemingly floating up in the clouds that
swirled around it like a castle wrapped in mists. At the Pic
Wilson we reached a wide crevasse that was approximately ten
feet across. Taking turns, on a slack rope attached to buried
ice axes, we took turns in running jumps over the chasm. Upon
clearing the far side of the crevasse, my crampons clipped
the far lip and I pitched forward into self-arrest over my
ice axe. Shaken, I got up and watched as my partner sailed
over the gap to join me.
soon reached the nunatak on which the Grands Mulets hut is
perched, and clambered up the wires to the door. Due to the
storm the helicopter that delivers supplies to the hut had
been grounded, which meant that the choice of menu for dinner
was pasta for a change. Too tired and hungry to care, we tucked
into huge steaming bowls of pasta, beneath a poster of Dhaulagiri's
South Face. We were in bed by eight and didn't stir for twelve
the storm continued, and the next day we descended the Bossons
glacier towards our tent on the Plan d'Aiguille, which we
reached in the early afternoon. From the warmth of our sleeping
bags we could see the summit of Mont Blanc swathed in dark
clouds, which remained for three more days. We thought of
the ten miserable faces in the Vallot refuge, and hoped that
they had retreated down the mountain.
return to Chamonix, we discovered that the storm had claimed
the lives of four climbers, trapped high on the mountain,
and too tired, scared, disorientated, and cold to move. What
our experience taught us, was that we were privileged to have
got the chance to reach the summit, with no greater consequence
than having to endure yet another meal of pasta.