Mont Blanc Challenge 2012 with GATT Challenging Experiences.
The 'programme' starts at Noon on a Wednesday at the Mer de Glace campsite just outside Chamonix. It wasn't really possible for me to travel on the Wednesday morning and arrive by that time therefore I travelled the day before and stayed in the campsite.
The opening meeting was fairly relaxed, tents were erected and gear sorted. We all introduced ourselves and Stefan outlined the plan for the week over a cold lunch.
The course language is English, which is useful! Stefan and all the guides are Austrian - so their first language is German, which is also used quite a bit for communication between the guides where clarity and speed is required.
The basic itineraryy is to spend 2-5 days acclimatising to the altitude and learning/practicing techniques that will be required for the summit attempt, followed by the two day ascent itself. However the summit attempt will be made on the best days from a weather point of view and this will determine how much time is spent on acclimatisation treks.
More information and a typical itinerary can be found by downloading Stefan's programme details.
After the group session delegates were allocated to guides and our guide, Martin, checked our kit, we prepared to go up onto the mountain that evening. At around 5.30pm we took the cable car to the Aiguille du Midi where the fun starts straight away with the descent down a sharp ridge onto the plateau below the cable car station and a walk across the glacial plain to the Refuge du Cosmique.
The walk down the ridge was exhilarating, with two delegates tied to a guide I was nevertheless glad I'd done the crampon practice! Apparently the previous year the ridge was only wide enough for one foot and climbers had to walk foot over foot.
The descent doesn't take long and you are soon on an easy slope down to the plateau. The walk to the Cosmique hut is very enjoyable and takes about an hour. The hut itself is excellent quality, good food and good accommodation - with an excellent viewing platform to watch the sunset. It was a good start.
This was the first morning and so an early start wasn't required - which was just as well because I felt terrible, uncannily like a hangover I had a thick head and felt like I wanted to throw up! This was a result of ascending from 1000m to nearly 4000m and spending the night. The guides assured me I'd be OK when we got going - and they were right - once on the snow I felt much better - and didn't suffer again for the whole trip.
We had a leisurely breakfast at about 7.00am and left the hut at 8, two each roped to a guide, there was instruction in how to walk and move around - also covering how your body reacts to short rests versus long ones - breathing techniques etc..
The trek to the Torino Hut is superb, awesome scenery combined with quite easy terrain. There were one or two exposed crevasses to cross but they just required a bit of re-routeing.
As we approached the area of the hut a slope was selected to practice the use of crampons and ice axe. I'm glad to say that the main instruction covered walking up, down and level using both crampons and ice axe and there was only a small period at the end for self arrest. For me this is the correct balance as I've been on too many courses where the emphasis is on self arrest - which is the least likely technique that you'll have to use.
After a fair degree of strenuous climbing and descending the deep snow slope we grabbed something to eat and headed for the Torino hut - which was, unfortunately - a toilet.
In fairness there was a lot of construction work going on with cranes and heavy moving equipment spoiling the landscape - inside the hut the communal areas were fine but the rooms and beds left a bit to be desired and the toilets were a bit of a nightmare. BUT we survived - and despite everything - got a good night's kip - bunk beds with 8 to a room.
We headed off just as the sun was coming up - heading East, away from Mont Blanc we looked back periodically to see the orange glow fill the mountain.
We crossed the Glacier du Geant and joined the route to the Rochefort ridge. In threes with our guides we were all travelling at different speeds - Stefan led the team at the front who were heading for the Dente du Gigante (the Giant's Tooth) - a massive monolithic block standing just off the ridge.
Two of the more experienced members of the group had expressed an interest in climbing up it - so Stefan was taking them up to look. In the end they decided to scramble up something else - the cold and wind made the tooth a bit daunting.
The climb up to the ridge was a typical Alpine mix of snow, ice and rock with a lot of exposure on a relatively secure route. With our guide we made our way up the mountain steadily.
Of the three groups following Stefans only one made it to the ridge - we didn't - I think that was my fault - the continued height exposure and time we were taking meant that I wanted to call a halt shortly before we reached it. My companion with our guide was also happy to go back down so that was what we did. No pressure - we still got pretty high which fitted our acclimatisation and the alpine style ascent was perfect preparation for the crux of the summit attempt - climbing onto the Mont Maudit ridge.
When we reached the Glacier du Geant and level ground I was knackered - but all that remained was a few hours walk back to the Refuge du Torino. The refuge is accessed from the valley floor by a cable car so we headed down for the night - arranging transport from the Italian side back through the Mont Blanc tunnel top Chamonix.
The weather guided every decision that was made and there were good reports for the next two days (Saturday and Sunday) followed by a good chance of wet weather from Monday onwards.
The decision was taken to descend to the valley, back to the campsite and get a good nights sleep before the summit attempt over Saturday and Sunday. The traditional early start was not planned as it was a better strategy to get a good rest - we set alarms for 6am on Saturday morning.
Today I was feeling good! After a good nights sleep our bivouac gear was checked and we went up to the Aiguille du Midi once again stepping out onto the descent ridge with confidence. Its a bit exposed if you look down the steep slopes either side, but for some reason I could manage this easily.
We were soon crossing the plateau and on the ascent of Mont Blanc du Tacul. There were quite a few others with the same intention but everyone moved steadily.
We were paused when a snowboarder took a fall in a dangerous place but with a satisfactory outcome.
The trek was fantastic - luscious scenery. We stopped for lunch. Two of our group had struggled during the morning and decided to go down with one of the guides. They would later stop to build their own snowhole but were subsequently taken off by helicopter because the wind was fierce and that was their best option.
The rest of us trekked on, there were 6 delegates remaining with three guides. The crux of the route is the climb onto the Mont Maudit ridge , and frankly I was nervous about it after the exposure on the previous day.
The guides top-roped us and I clambered up - not without a bit of trauma - and with a great deal of satisfaction when I got to the top. The descent the next day would be by abseil - which was a lot more comfortable.
From the Mont Maudit ridge the route drops down slightly at an easy gradient to the Col de Brenva. When we arrived the snowhole was well underway and so I simply helped out as best I could but I felt like a spare part - all the jobs were being done!
Stefan cooked simple grub for us all.
A reminder of just where we were came when two climbers came down from the summit at about 7pm, heading for the Cosmique Hut - they thought it was really close but our guides estimated they were 8 or 9 hours away at their present speed. They were shocked and were totally unprepared for a night on the mountain.
Our guides persuaded them that their only option was a helicopter uplift - and they called it in - we watched mesmerised as the pickup was made.
Once settled in sleeping bag and bivy bag I slept pretty well - so the next morning I was ready to go. Another member of the group though was feeling rough - very rough, and although the summit was just a few short hours away he did not have the strength to continue. He would remain in his sleeping bag until we returned.
The higher we trekked the more spectacular the scenery became - I had no idea that I would achieve this type of altitude and gaze down upon such a mountain panorama - for me this had only existed in photographs. I reached the summit at 9.57am on Sunday 24th July 2012.
It was a strange experience, it didn't feel like something had finished - there was a long descent to come - it would not feel like an achievement until we were finally back down in the valley.
We spent perhaps ten or fifteen minutes on the summit - enough time to see some skiers move off from the top - then we headed back to the snowcave. Our companion was feeling better but a helicopter uplift was requested. In this case there were more pressing emergencies on other parts of the mountain and Svein decided to try and make the journey on foot.
Stefan shouldered Svein's rucksack and we all headed down.
I was dreading the descent from the Mont Maudit ridge - but in the event an abseil made it a straightforward experience. Stefan was handling two abseils at the same time and inspiring confidence in all who passed through his hands.
We had a time constraint, the last cable car down from Aiguille du Midi was at 5.30pm and to make it by that time was going to be tough. But we bought into it and pressed hard. The weather on the descent was characterised by strong winds whipping up the hard hail on the snow surface and battering us with it.
Most of our group made the cable car but we missed it by minutes, the only group to do so. Rather than trek to the Cosmique hut we actually bedded down in the cable car station which seemed to have been constructed with this in mind.
We had all the gear we needed and quite a bit of food - it was warm and dry - in fact it was considerably better than the Torino hut.
The forecast for Monday had been bad and true enough, by the time dawn arrived the weather was poor indeed and it was some time before the cable car was cleared to carry us down. Once more in the valley we met up with the rest of the team for brunch and debrief at the campsite.
At the end of every day we had all got together and discussed our experiences - delegates and guides all made a contribution in the format of highs and lows - this was a good technique to get to know each other but was also useful to air strengths and weaknesses so that the guides could manage us more effectively.
The last session was more involved - led by Stefan the group discussed the whole experience and a fitting end to the week was constructed. By lunchtime flights had been changed and new arrangements made for everyone to get home or on to other destinations. I found it wasn't worth changing my flights and stayed a couple more days.
I now have the luxury of looking back on it, and as Stefan puts it - I've taken a 'pack full of memories' home with me - so without getting too slushy it gets better every time I relive it - I may be getting bitten.