The White Mountain
Our planet is bordered, split and segmented by two natural forces, oceans and mountains. Both are dominant features of any landscape, and wildly untameable. For centuries, people have been drawn to the top of one, and to the other side of the other.
In February we crossed an ocean, and it changed our lives forever. So naturally, we turned our heads skywards to find our next challenge. Neither of us have experience mountaineering, neither have we climbed/walked up anything notable. In fact, the only time we have gained altitude on snow is via a chair lift. With the help of our main partner Lifeproof however, we were given the chance to take on a new and exciting challenge, and stand above the clouds.
Mont Blanc was the obvious choice, a recognised peak in the climbing community, but a good entry level into mountaineering. As the highest and most prominent in the alps, its jaw-dropping beauty drew us in immediately. After some light-reading however, it soon became clear that the white mountain was not a creche for aspiring mountaineers, but in fact has claimed more lives than any other mountain on earth. Rock-fall, hidden crevasses, fast-changing weather and the constant threat of avalanche made the climb a far more treacherous endeavour than we had once imagined. Regardless, we had committed by this point so that was that!
We arrived in Chamonix on 25th September, and spent the first few days at altitude, climbing the tallest peak in Italy, Gran Paradiso (4,061m). This was a ‘warm-up’ to the main event and would allow us to acclimatise to the altitude, train with an ice-axe and crampons, and get into the swing of things. The casual jaunt we were expecting however, never materialised. We were instead put through our paces, scrambling over exposed rocky cliffs and shown the true power of altitude on our aerobic performance. To compound our problems, we made the naive mistake of forgetting our lunch we had purchased for the 7 hour climb. After reaching the summit (in a needlessly quick time) we began our descent of the mountain, until we were stopped in our tracks much like a car running out of fuel. Those reading this who cycle/run regularly will be familiar with the term ‘bonking’ (if not, Google it!), and will likely understand the helpless situation that follows hitting ‘the wall’ your body rightly constructs. We spent a nervy 4 hours descending Gran Paradiso, with severe dehydration and malnutrition, our legs would not respond and our heads thumped with the lack of oxygen. In short, we learnt some sturdy lessons the hard way.
After returning to Chamonix, we rested for 24 hours and tried to stretch out the worst DOMS either of us have ever experienced (to no avail, we faced the facts we would be climbing Mont Blanc with Bambi legs). We met with our guide the night before our climb to discuss the plan. We would spread the climb over 3 days. Day one would consist of a slog from the valley floor up to the Gouter Hut (3,815m). We would then attack the summit on day two and return back to the Gouter Hut before making our descent to Chamonix on day three.
The days that followed were some of the hardest we have ever put ourselves through. Day one gave us a taste of adventure, some incredible rock scrambling and basic climbing kept our focus sharp and adrenaline pumping. This was the most dangerous part of the climb, crossing long couloir’s of exposed ground prone to rock-fall, as well as scaling an intimidating face of jagged rocks and ice. At the end of day one we arrived exhausted at the Gouter refuge, celebrating like we had already conquered the mountain.
Day two was one for glory, a steady 5/6 hour climb to the summit, a barrage of selfies and a casual jaunt back down to the Gouter for beers and laughs. We could not have been more wrong. We awoke that morning (Awoke would actually give the impression we slept, which we barely did for the entire week) to the news of a storm fast approaching. We set off into impenetrable winds, and drudged our way up the mountain with faces cold and red from the thin layers of ice being swept across us by the weather.
It soon became evident, this was going to be far from easy. The route to the summit was a set of rolling inclines, each plagued with ice, crevasses and fresh powder from the previous night. This was officially the last climbing day of the season, and we seemed to be the only people heading to the summit, the lines of climbers had vanished from the months before, we found ourselves alone, isolated and out of our comfort zone.
We reached the summit in 3.5 hours (mainly due to our nutcase of a guide, Eric, who after hearing of our voyage across the Atlantic, decided we must be alpine machines, and dragged us up the mountain at a pace not worthy of our experience!). Within that time, we had asked some serious questions of ourselves. Our bodies were not used to this strain, altitude and constant punishment. At this height, your lungs scream for air, your head feels close to explosion, and your legs are turned to jelly, but the summit looms above you, urging you on, step-after-step.
At 4,809m we stood on top of the tallest mountain in Western Europe, the clouds opened and we were greeted with the warmth of the sun. The turmoil of the previous hours and days washed away, and we simply stood their, saying nothing, surveying the landscape around us. Clouds hovered at eye-level, and distant mountain peaks glinted in the sun like an ocean of breaking waves. We had pushed through the pain, stumbled, fallen and slid down many a slope, but had achieved what we had set out to do, and that was all that mattered.
This experience for us has opened up a new channel for adventure, and one we intend to explore. From a young age, reaching the top of something seems to be a natural instinct for humans. Whether that is a climbing frame, a building, or a tree. We have an obsession with being up high, and looking down at the world from above. This is probably why mountains often offer such reward for so many people, and we can now see why. We were incredibly lucky to be the only people on top of Mont Blanc at that point in time, our experience was undiluted and personal, and for a brief moment we were totally cut off from society around us.
The reason as always we took on Mont Blanc, was to show that ordinary people can go and take on these challenges. We could have easily come back down and said it was easy, a walk in the park. But what is the point of that? We want our experience’s to inspire others to do the same, and educate people on how to get the ball rolling. Make no mistake, this is a serious week physically, we hugely underestimated it. But if you have a background in long-distance running or trekking, then you are far better suited than us!
So get the calendar out for 2017 and start planning your trip to the mountains, you will not regret it!
We used a company called Chamonix Experience who provided a guide and all the accomodation and technical equipment. https://www.chamex.com/ - These guys were good, and made the whole experience far easier. If you have not climbed, 100% use a guide. People sometimes naively take it on guide-less, and this is when accidents often occur.
Kit: We were very lucky to be supported by Surfdome for all our kit on the climb. These guys sorted us out with a load of stash that was vital for our ascent. Kit list shown below:
- Down jacket
- Waterproof Shell
- Waterproof trousers
- Gore Tex trousers
- Thick socks
- Thick & thin gloves
- 75L bag
- Boots (hired)
- Crampons (hired)
- Ice axe (hired)
- Poles (hired)
- Climbing harness and rope (hired)
Training: If you fancy taking on Mont Blanc, get yourself outside and get stuck into some cardio. The more hill sprints you can do the better. For those tied to a gym, low weight/high rep squats and deadlifts, mixed with some stairs and cross-trainer. As long as you are in decent shape, you will make it.