in some ways, are like Presidents. Some are better than others.
Some linger in the memory long after we expect to forget about
them, resurfacing at unexpected moments. Others that we expected
to remember forever fade from our memories within a few short
years. Some are substantially more photogenic than others,
although looking good is no indication of inherent value.
And one or two are downright criminal. We all have our own
personal favourites, but the average man in the street can
only name a few, and probably not any of our personal favourites.
Some are known internationally, others are barely recognised
within their own country. And some, like Mount Everest or
George Washington, are known to pretty much everyone on the
the average (half-educated) man in the street to name five
mountains around the world, and the chances are that he will
list Everest. After Chomolungma, the list might include Kilimanjaro,
the Matterhorn, Mount Fuji or Mount McKinley. It's a pretty
safe bet, however, that a large proportion of people would
list Mont Blanc, the majestic peak that towers over the French
Alps, and is visible from Italy, Switzerland and France. It
attracts mountaineers like a magnet attracts iron filings
and like my legs attract hungry mosquitoes. This, now that
I think about it, may partly explain why I am attracted to
the mountains - no damned biting things.
first ascent of Mont Blanc (4810 metres/15,780 feet), by Balmat
and Paccard in 1786, occurred only ten years after the Declaration
of Independence and three years before the French Revolution.
It was perhaps the beginning of alpinism for sporting rather
than scientific research purposes (although Balmat and Paccard
did have the incentive of prize money offered by de Saussure
to whoever first climbed the mountain). And even today, new
routes continue to be put up on this Emperor of the Alps.
Europe, climbing Mont Blanc is a rite of passage. It is an
opportunity to stand on the shoulders of giants. They've all
climbed it: Mallory and Bonatti, Scott and Messner, Whillans
and Twight. (Although not in these particular pairings, obviously).
And so can you, because there are so many different routes
up it, you don't need to be an alpine genius to ascend its
have been lucky enough to have climbed in the French Alps
for a number of years. For some reason, however, until last
year I had never got around to climbing Mont Blanc. Various
problems always seemed to get in the way. Appalling weather
conditions ruled out attempts on several trips. The attraction
of some of the lower, more technically demanding climbs often
diverted me from ticking off the Big MB. At other times, my
climbing partners simply expressed a preference for other
routes and other mountains.
in June 2004, I got around to getting up. I summited via the
Gouter Route, the "normal" route to the summit,
but I resisted the urge to make it too easy. Oh yes. In fact,
I made it as difficult as possible for myself. Like Bonnington
in the Himalaya, I climbed Mont Blanc - the hard way. And
if you're thinking of climbing the mountain soon, permit me
to make it easier for you. Don't do as I did. Do almost the
Fit Before You Leave
arrived in Chamonix utterly unprepared for what is a pretty
major physical and mental undertaking. I had recently changed
jobs, moved house, and my wife had produced our first child,
Owain, in February. He was a beautiful baby (he took after
his mother, I'm pleased to report), but he also arrived early,
underweight and sick, resulting in two first-time parents
who were stressed, sleep-deprived and terrified, all at the
same time. To make things even more entertaining, my wife
was then herself hospitalized for several weeks, almost as
soon as Owain arrived home. By the time I left for Chamonix,
leaving Rachel and Owain with Rachel's sister, things were
on a more even keel but my good intentions of rigorous training
had all fallen by the wayside. I was fit, but not mountain
Is Less Oxygen Up There, You Know
4810m, there is substantially less oxygen than at sea level,
and the air pressure is reduced by about half. This adversely
affects the body's capacity to operate, for obvious reasons.
Especially if you are a smoker. Which I was. In fact, I was
so dedicated a smoker, that I even purchased a cigarette lighter
that claimed to be adjustable so that, depending on the altitude,
the oxygen flow to the flame would alter, always guaranteeing
a flame, no matter the height. Of course, it didn't work,
only adding frustration to my ever-lengthening list of ailments.
Shortness of breath, headaches and vertigo are all very common
ailments at altitude, especially if you're burning extra calories
simply restriking a lighter time and again, with no benefit
whatsoever. Still, if you're acclimatized, your body doesn't
notice the absence of oxygen so much. Naturally, I wasn't
a few days at altitude enables the body to produce more red
blood corpuscles so that the blood can carry enough oxygen,
even in low air pressure. Conventional wisdom has it that
acclimatization, through at least three or four days at altitude,
is essential prior to an attempt on Mont Blanc. I didn't bother.
Instead, because the Aiguille du Midi cable car wasn't working,
I went straight up from the valley floor. Heck, not even the
TMB tram next to Col de Bellevue cable car was working, thus
ensuring an extra few hours of hiking before starting the
and water are essential
at altitude requires regular body refueling, so I feel particularly
proud that I didn't take anywhere near enough food or water.
Sure, I stayed at the Tete Rousse Hut (3167m) for the first
night, so was able to replenish my supplies, but I quickly
depleted them again the next day. And as the weather closed
in the next afternoon and as I struggled exhausted towards
the emergency Vallot shelter (4362m) just past the Dome du
Gouter(4250m), I rather regretted not having any food or water
left. I had intended to rest in the shelter for only an hour
or so but the bad weather continued so I stayed the night,
lying wrapped in old blankets, too cold and tired to sleep.
good weather for your ascent
wind had died down a little by 4am the next day, which meant
it was a far more bearable 50-60 kmph. Still, at least the
driving wind took my mind off the unseasonably knee-deep snow
that sapped my strength with every step. Some people climb
Mont Blanc in perfect conditions, with firm snow and no winds.
They no doubt enjoy themselves, but they may not always understand
what an awesome mountain they have summited. By pushing yourself
to the edge of exhaustion and holding yourself there, you
learn more about yourself and how far you can go.
you are going to try climbing Mont Blanc the Hard Way, make
sure you do what I did: go with an expert climber who can
make sure that none of your mistakes becomes a fatal error.
I went with an old friend with whom I have climbed on many
occasions, and his unfailing good humour as he dragged my
sorry ass up the mountain has earned him a lifetime of gratitude
and large numbers of cold beers whenever we get to meet up.
Blanc is a beautiful, awe-inspiring mountain, which more than
justifies its popularity. Mere words and photographs cannot
convey its charisma and attitude.
Charles Dickens, who had a better command of the English language
than most, wrote in 1846: "Mont-Blanc and the Valley
of Chamonix, and the Mer de Glace, and all the wonders of
that most wonderful place are above and beyond one's wildest
expectation. I cannot imagine anything in nature more stupendous
or sublime. If I were to write about it now, I should quite
rave - such prodigious impressions are rampant within me
get out there and do it. It is one of life's greatest experiences.
But honestly, and you'll have to trust me on this one, make
sure you do as I say, and not as I do.