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 before.
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
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
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 path.
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 face above.
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
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 was nearby.
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 Grands Mulets.
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 hours.
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.