Ever wondered if you could climb a mountain – crampons and all? We sent a climbing novice off to learn the ropes and summit the mighty Mont Blanc...
Have you ever been punched by a polar bear?
Me neither. But stepping out onto my balcony in Chamonix had, I imagine, a similar impact: anvil-hard, ice cool, snow white, brutal – my first view of Mont Blanc. The mountain was right there, brooding aggressively behind my whimsical window-box. I was frightened, but transfixed – so much so that I shunned my suite’s main bedroom that night to sleep on the sofa, simply because it was angled at the mountain: Mont Blanc would be the last thing I saw at night, the first thing I saw in the morning.
I’m not usually so obsessive, but Mont Blanc and I were set for an intense relationship. This was to be my first proper ‘climb’. Having dallied with some of the planet’s highest trekking peaks – Kilimanjaro, Mount Kenya – this was the next step ‘up’: a lower summit, but one that needed technical skills to get there.
To be honest, I was scared rigid. But the challenge was enticing, and the idea of cutting my crampons in the birthplace of mountaineering was enough to get me on the plane. Though now I’d seen the mountain, I wasn’t so sure.
No matter – I had Pierre to help me. My sinewy Gallic guide would spend three days teaching me and my three fellow novices mountaineering basics in the shadow of 4,810m Mont Blanc, before – hopefully – leading us to the summit itself.
We drove from Chamonix up the chalet-dotted valley and, two chairlift-rides later, were gazing down onto the Tour Glacier. With depressing predictability, Pierre explained how hastily the Tour, like glaciers worldwide, is retreating back into the mountains. But this shrinking tongue of white would serve as our classroom for the morning, and we gathered for our first lesson. Or rather, to dress for our first lesson.
There’s no easy get-up-and-go in mountaineering. First I put on an extra jacket. Then gloves. Then I took off the gloves to strap on my crampons, but Pierre deemed my trousers too “flappy”, so it was off with the crampons, on with the gaiters, back on with the crampons.
I swapped my walking pole for an ice axe (ice axe!). Oh, I’d forgotten the harness – which I did my best to step into without severing the straps, then stood infantilised as Pierre made adjustments about my nether regions, like a baby having its nappy changed.
Finally – finally – we were ready. The next stage was to work out how to walk.
“Ooo la la!” Pierre exclaimed as I almost skewered one leg with the spikes protruding from the other. The trick for ascending, it seemed, was to hack one foot, full force, into the ice, then bring the other leg up over the first to do the same. And to never stop concentrating on this, not for a second. Descending required a John Wayne stance, legs inelegantly bowed.
I was terrible at both.“Sarah, it is easy!” Pierre reprimanded as I tried, and failed, to Wayne-walk down. I plotted a new use for my ice axe…
Our afternoon challenge was even more daunting – learn to scale a sheer(ish) ice face. For tackling super-steep slopes you need to stab the ice with the front prongs of your ‘cramps’ and walk up, praying that your metal toenails maintain their purchase.
I gave it a try – and nearly bayoneted myself. I planted my ice axe like (sorry sisterhood) a girl: rather than imbedding it deeply to provide a sturdy handle, it rebounded off the surface with an ineffectual plink.
“Sarah, you worry me,” lamented Pierre. My toes were sore, my hands were cold, my confidence receding faster than the glacier. Oh my god, I thought, I’m going to cry!
And it was this horrifying realisation that made me really angry. Which is a dangerous thing in a woman with an axe. As Pierre commanded me from above to try again, I did. With venom. Concentrating on the haughty Frenchman, I hacked like a psychopath, ice chips flying. But it worked, and as I reached Pierre at the top he looked part proud, part scared – I was still wielding an axe, after all.
“Train hard, walk easy,” he said – and I started to get it. This was pushing my limits, but better to falter here on the ‘baby’ slopes than on Mont Blanc itself.
The hut – home for the night – was a hive of activity, and as bright and shiny as a jewellers: multi-coloured carabiners and other technical trinkets glittered in the sun as their vigorous owners drank beer. All seasoned mountaineers, no one batted an eyelid when an avalanche rumbled down the adjacent valley. I shuddered with it.
Alpine hut sleeping is as much a challenge as walking in crampons. I slept badly in my dorm, uncomfortably intimate with 15 snoring, flatulent, unknown bedfellows, and it was a relief to walk out into the peach-pink 7am light. Mountains reared all around as we roped ourselves together and set off across the glacier. The rope was a blessing and a curse: as we tramped past crevasses – some tiny incisions, others gaping chasms – I was glad of the security. But I also felt like a dog on a lead, variously tugged, tugging or tangled.
Suddenly, Pierre veered off-piste, towards what looked like a mountain-blocked dead end. But no – we were, somehow, going over. This was our toughest test yet, hacking our way up an icy, near-vertical slope at about 3,000m. I managed to establish a three-part rhythm of toe-poking one crampon, jabbing the other at a ten o’clock angle, then stabbing with the axe. Finally,we made it to the top of the col – breathtaking, in every sense.
To the left was the Aiguille du Tour, a fang of rock, and our next destination; before us a bowl of untrodden snow;in the distance, the Matterhorn. Oh, and we were now in Switzerland.
The 3,540m Aiguille du Tour is classed ‘facile’ – easy – in mountaineering terms but, as I’m scared of heights (did I mention that?) I’d say that definition is rather relative. Roped to Pierre, and trying hard not to look at the sheer drops in every direction, I slowly advanced to the summit, hugging the boulders like long-lost friends. Luckily, I was concentrating too hard to be properly petrified, and finally we made it to the pinnacle. Now we just had to get back down…
It was with enormous pleasure that we arrived at our new hut-home. As you’d expect from Switzerland it was immaculate: wide windows, red-check curtains, cowpat-sized cheese rösti.
Post-lunch talk turned to Mont Blanc – our assault was only two nights away. Pierre reckoned we were fit enough, but feared the weather was on the turn. I decided not to think about it – I could barely control my feet in these mountains, let alone Mother Nature.
Another beautiful day dawned, but even as we scrambled out of the mountains, Pierre pointed out an anvil-shaped cumulus amassing on the horizon and shook his head. To distract from the sky, I quizzed him about climbing as we processed in our roped-up conga. What, for instance, should I do if I fell down a crevasse? A prescient question, for shortly afterwards I fell down a crevasse. I’m embellishing slightly: I slipped as I jumped over a crack in the ice. But still, Pierre reacted in a flash, hauling me out before I’d even fallen in; indeed, hauling me further than strictly necessary, so I flailed in the snow like a landed trout.
My dignity plummeted with me. We continued over the ice and rock; I felt a bit firmer on my feet, though far from a bona-fide alpinist. But it seemed that wouldn’t be a problem. Back in Chamonix, Pierre delivered the hammer blow: “We cannot climb the Mont Blanc.”
Part of me was disappointed – this was the goal of the trip and I wouldn’t get to see if I was up to the challenge. But part of me rejoiced – I wouldn’t have to see if I was up to the challenge.
Thunder boomed around the valley that night, and it was still raining when we entered Italy the next day, heading for Gran Paradiso – our mountaineering understudy. At 4,061m, it’s no minnow. It also resides in Italy’s oldest national park, and the pine and larch forests lining the way to our base camp were a rustic relief from the hostile world of creaking glaciers.
It was also fun to be in Italy – country three! The hut wasn’t as snazzy as its Swiss equivalent, but the espresso was excellent. We retired that night, bellies full of pasta and minds wondering if the clouds would be kind.
At 6am we kitted up and strode out into the pre-dawn. At the glacier’s edge, we paired off (two climbers to a guide), roped up and fastened our crampons to tackle the great white tongue ahead.
It was hard going: not too steep, but the deep snow clumped on our boots, making footsteps iron heavy. It was mentally draining, too – if I took my mind off my motion for a second I tripped, slipped or stabbed myself.
My legs and my brain hurt.
As the sun gained height, so did we, cresting a ridge leading up to the summit. Not that we could see it – we were in a world of wind-blasted white now, sky and snow indistinguishable. I was incredibly thankful for the rope securing me to my fellow climbers.
As we ploughed on a Gore-Tex shape appeared from the opposite direction: “Not far now!” it yelled over the gale. “And there’s only one bit where you need to hook on!”
I didn’t dwell on this information – I wasn’t sure exactly what it meant and I was pretty sure I didn’t want to. So we fought on through the white, and came to a ladder over the most beautiful crevasse, dripping with icicles: the gateway to the summit, spine-chilling drops on all sides.
Scraping over the boulders, we inched upwards. And then we had to ‘hook on’. It was a ledge about 5m long, no deeper than a pack of cards; to get across we had to clip our harness into a hook in the rock, then inch over, not looking down. Thankfully my balaclava absorbed the brunt of my fear and cursing – I’ve never been more terrified.
And then, at last, I found myself on the mountain top, along with a frosted statue of the Madonna. I clung to her, not for religious significance but because she was a trusty anchor in this perilous, windy world. I hoped she would see me down safely.
Summiteers’ euphoria didn’t hit at the summit. It wasn’t until an hour later, when most of the descent was done, that I began to grin. Now this is something you don’t get from a simple trek in the mountains – the buzz of success!
I felt literally and figuratively on top of the world.
Would this feeling have been amplified if it had been Mont Blanc conquered? Would it have felt 800m better? True, no one’s really heard of Gran Paradiso – my bragging rights had diminished. But though people do attempt Mont Blanc for its kudos, is that really the point? I think not. I had come to the mountains to learn a new skill, attempt a summit, test my limits – mission accomplished. And if anyone disagrees – beware: I’m pretty handy with an ice axe.