Two years. Two years I’d waited for another shot at scaling Western Europe’s highest summit. When the first words from the mouth of our mountain guide’s mouth were, “Guys, Mont Blanc is a no-go”, you could actually pin point the second when my heart ripped in half.
I should have seen it coming. A day earlier, whilst saying farewell to my family back in the UK, the most deadly avalanche in almost 50 years hit the Mont Blanc massif. In total, 9 climbers died on Mont Maudit (delightfully nick-named ‘The Cursed Mountain’) on the morning that I arrived in Chamonix. They had been hiking the exact route that we were due to be taking a week later.
Emotions were mixed. For myself and my two climbing buddies, it was a hammer blow. Months of training and excitement had led up to our week in the Alps. We’d spent a lot of money to get their too. For our family, partners and friends back home it was a massive relief. We didn’t argue with the decision but part of me thinks that, if we had, we would have been able to climb that mountain.
We said goodbye to the guide (Ross) after arranging a meeting time for the following morning and trudged back to our apartment. The mood was pretty low. Sentences were short. Cheeks were puffed out. Dinner was quiet.
The rain hammered down all night (seriously, I’m not adding this for dramatic effect) on our skylight and continued into the following morning. We met our guides (Ross and Andi) for coffee to discuss the week ahead. The rain eased as we caught the Montenvers train to our crampon playground: The Mer de Glace.
We kitted up (helmet, harness and rope) and made our way down a few sets of conveniently placed ladders. Scale is very hard to judge in vast scenes such as this. At first I had thought we weren’t too high up. Then I spotted another group of climbers waaaaaaay down below. Gulp.
Once down we made our way to the start of the glacier and slipped on our crampons. Onto the ice we went. It was round about now that the sun started to come out; the first time it had shown it’s face during our visit. If you haven’t got sunglasses when walking on ice then you’re in trouble. The floor glistens and dazzles.
A few strange noises began to make themselves known. Some were easier to explain than others. The gentle trickle of water was near-constant and became louder the further up the ice we walked. At one point our guide placed a confident foot across a crevasse. Below, we heard a quiet ‘shhhhhhhhiiiiip’ then ‘cooooouuuuwwwww’. Evidently a huge chunk of ice had broken off deep below our feet and crashed to the valley floor. This is what we had come to the Alps for!
Another sound was trickier to place. Up the valley sides and in the hills above we heard the occasional crack and roar. It would last for 30 seconds or so then fade. At first we thought it was helicopters. They patrol the Mont Blanc Massif at this time of year. The slopes are busy with climbers, some of whom will need a helping hand at some point (or an airlift to Chamonix Hospital). It sounded a couple more times before I looked closer. It wasn’t a helicopter. It was the sound of huge boulders crashing down the valley sides. Small landslides would gather up huge rocks as the mountains eroded right in front of us. Yes!
We were in no rush. We stopped for lunch and soaked in the scenery. The sun was beating down now. At the glacier source a huge channel was cut down it’s centre, running out of the valley. The meltwater gushed down it. If only I’d brought my rubber ring.
Crampon training. Our guides wound in two ice screws to the ice, about 6 feet from the edge of the meltwater channel. Ropes were set up between the screws, one of the guides and ourselves and we were lowered over the edge. ‘Just lean back and walk down the slope, let gravity do the hard work’. Easier said than done, Andi. At the bottom I stopped to take in the scene. I was on my own in a glacial meltwater channel. Snapped a quick photo. Ice axe in, crampon, crampon. Use your legs, not your ankles. Ice axe in, crampon, crampon. Rope always tight above me.
We toyed around with the glacier for a while before heading back to the station. It had been a great few hours and the disappointment of the previous day had eased a great deal. Mont Blanc will always be a goal of mine but I’ve read enough self-development books to know that you ALWAYS have a choice as to how you feel. I chose to feel lucky.
Back in Chamonix we made our plans for the coming two days. Mont Blanc was off the agenda but Gand Paradiso (4061m) would be a great fall back. To Italy…