"The value of a climb is the sum of three inseparable elements, all equally important: aesthetics, history, and ethics". Walter Bonatti
This story begins a couple of months ago, right in the middle of the exams period at the university (I work as a lecturer). Jose, myself and five other fellow Chelegal club members have been planning this adventure for weeks, and the time has finally come! The climbing party is divided into three separate roped teams: Pincho and Toño (we have known and climbed with them for years); Rubén, Juan and Lolo at their own request (Rubén has some climbing experience but Juan and Lolo don't; they are friends with Rubén who assumes all responsibility); and Jose and me (it's my first time in the Alps but over the past few months I have gained significant experience thanks to the efforts of my husband and selfless instructor, Jose). We are (quite) a bit worried about Juan and Lolo's inexperience and apparent lack of awareness of what awaits them in the next couple of days, and we make our feelings known. We can't take responsibility for anyone else when we are up there; Rubén, Juan and Lolo understand.
Our little apartment is in the city of Saint Gervais, not far at all from Les Houches and the Bellevue cable car. After a (very) long van ride from Zaragoza we arrive at the heart of the Alps hungry and tired. The hour is late (for French standards, not so for Spanish ones) so a lovely Italian restaurant by the river becomes our first stop. A few pizzas and artisan beers later we all feel more than ready for bed so we head to the apartment for a well deserved full night's sleep (we wouldn't get another one for the following couple of nights).
Day 1. From Les Houches (1008 m) to the Refuge de Tete Rousse (3167 m)
It is early in the morning but not too much when we wake up after a surprisingly good night's sleep given the number of mountaineers sharing the place. In this world one learns very early that sleep does not come easy when one is surrounded by a bunch of snoring mountaineers; however, this lot of mountaineers either do not snore or my new silicon earplugs are miraculous (note to self: go buy two dozens more). We want to avoid the rush hour at Bellevue cable car, chiefly due to those who complete the ascent in two days (that is from the bottom to Gouter, and from Gouter to summit), so we aim to catch the second cable up to the Bellevue plateau (1800 m). We make it just in time and follow a large group of Americans with guides, and a few other people who's nationality is not so obvious, into the cable car. There is little space to breathe, let alone move, but the ride is not long. There is a little bar at the Bellevue plateau which offers food and drinks at reasonable prices; Jose and I get a hot beverage and join the others at the tramway station a few yards down the hill. The tramway du Montblanc is a hundred plus years old mountain railway which takes you to the Nid d'Aigle (2372 m) at the foot of Montblanc. The ride is lovely and highly advisable to all sort of mountain and nature lovers whether or not you are climbing Montblanc, as the views of the Bionnassay glacier from the top are simply breathtaking.
The weather looks almost as somber as the faces of those waiting to catch the train back down to Bellevue; we later learned that nobody had managed to summit that day due to the nasty weather and snow conditions. Still, we are feeling excited and nothing can alter that so we start the climb, slowly but surely, towards our first stop, the Refuge the Tete Rousse. A thick fog envelops all but the way is well marked by red dots and we follow the track without difficulty. The snowfields make their first appearance but there is no need from crampons. Technical stop by the hut de Les Rognes to rest and get something to eat and drink, and on with the second half of the trek. From here, still clearly marked the track follows a ridge up the mountain and gets a bit steeper with sections equipped with handrails, more for comfort than real necessity. We all get to the Refuge de Tete Rousse in good time and in good form; so far there are no signs of altitude sickness (but again, we have all been at this altitude before).
The Refuge de Tete Rousse is comfortable enough although some (not all) of the staff are a bit unhelpful (to put it nicely). The evening is spent in good company playing Rummikub and re-hydrating. By the way, be prepared to carry your own water, carry your own gas heater so you can melt the snow, or carry a lot of money to buy water, as there is none available at Tete Rousse, and none means none. Each 1,5 l bottle of water costs an abusive 5,50 euro! Now you are probably thinking, no problem! I can always carry water purification tablets... Wrong! The water tabs at the refuge are drier than your throat then you get there, which means no showers, no hand washing, not even flushing the toilets!, (this I can understand). Most seasoned mountaineers probably don't mind but I do. My trick is carrying wet wipes with me wherever I go; you never know when you are going to need them (not to self: make sure I rinse my hands thoroughly in the snow before putting my contacts in after use).
After a dinner of lentil soup, and something else which like Miguel de Cervantes "I do not care to remember", we assembly to discuss our options. The weather conditions are no better and it has begun to snow. Jose, Toño, Pincho and I decide that there is no point going to Gouter if our chances of reaching the summit are close to non-existent; there is a storm on its way dumping up to 50 cm of fresh snow on the slopes of Montblanc. The others grudgingly agree and we all go to bed feeling slightly uneasy.
Day 2. From the Refuge de Tete Rousse to the new Refuge du Gouter (3835 m)
I sleep very well in spite of the altitude and the snoring (thank God once again for silicone earplugs), and join the others for breakfast. We have no way to access the internet to check the weather forecast (pah!) so I call my parents who give me an up-to-date report from all the main websites. It is good news! The storm is coming early and we will have a clear night with strong winds for our attempt to summit. All the Americans and their guides are on their way up when we are finally ready to leave (including a seventy-something year old lady and her granddaughter!); we have all day to get to Gouter and time goes slowly when there is little to do and even less to see, as the obstinate fog continues to enshroud all.
Crampons on and ice axes in hand, we slowly begin the ascent. It's 8 am. We leave Tete Rousse behind to face the first section of the climb, a short walk up a snow covered slope and the infamous Grand Couloir (aka the bowling alley for obvious reasons; you become the skittle whilst the falling rocks become the balls). There are two friendly gendarmes a few meters up the slope asking people if they have a reservation at Gouter; beware, camping around the refuge is no longer permitted. The snow is hard at this time in the morning so we cross carefully but separately (there is a cable in case you want to secure yourself). I see a stone the size of an orange fall like a rocket two meters in front of me; it seems they don't call it the bowling alley for nothing. We take cover and wait for the others to get across; we can't stay here so we continue up a steep section equipped with ropes and wire cables. For the first time since we left Les Houches we are treading on technical terrain and Juan and Lolo's lack of experience is beginning to show. We regroup on a small plateau and wait for Rubén and Lolo, who is flippantly having a conversation with his special someone in Spain. After a prudential time, Rubén tells us to press on so Jose, Toño, Pincho, Juan and myself continue up the 550 m ridge to the Aiguille du Gouter and the old and now disused old Refuge du Gouter. The sometimes scramble sometimes easy climb up the ridge is a total pleasure. We encounter a few people on their way down who, judging by their broad smiles, must come straight from the summit.
The Refuge du Gouter is a wonder of engineering; resembling a gigantic egg, it is perched on the edge of the mountain, right on top of the Bionnassay glacier. We leave all our climbing gear downstairs (there are wire cables to secure your valuables with a lock if you remember to pack one; we didn't lock our stuff and it was all there the following morning) and take our boots off before stepping into the main building. There is a bar-restaurant-common room on the first floor which is made entirely of wood and is very comfortable and warm. We take a sit at one of the long tables and discover with pleasure that there is water running out of the water tabs! Water is non-drinkable but I can wash my hands so who cares! Lolo and Rubén arrive 30 minutes later. I try to organise a game of cards (I love a good game of anything really) but everyone feels more tired that the day before so we stay chatting and most of us drift off to the dormitories for a nap before dinner. The dormitories consist of rows of comfy and warm bunk beds with their separate mattresses, stuffy pillows and duvets; I'm in heaven. I manage to rest for about an hour before Jose wakes me up with the news that there aperitif is served downstairs. Feeling a bit lightheaded I follow him to the restaurant. Tomorrow is the big day so we discuss our strategy during dinner. Given the circumstances and what we have seen during today's ascent we suggest that Juan joins our roped team and Ruben and Lolo rope up together but they refuse. They want to summit together so we respect their decision. We have no symptoms of altitude sickness (at least apparently) but my poor heart is racing at 92 beats per minute just to keep me alive; Jose's is beating at 68 bpm but he drops down to around 30 when he's sleeping. You can definitely tell there's less oxygen up here! Tachycardia and all we go to bed early; tomorrow will be an early start!
Day 3. From the Refuge du Gouter to summit (4807 m) and back down to Les Houches
The alarm clock (that is to say Jose) wakes me up at 1:45 am; I cannot express with words how much I abhor this horrible (if absolutely necessary) moment. My feelings are quite mixed, a lot of excitement, loads of confusion and sleepiness, quite a lot of sullenness and that sensation at the pit of the stomach that persistently tells me that this is it; I am joining the scores of men and women who have attempted to reach the roof of Western Europe, the summit of Montblanc. Breakfast is served when we finally make it downstairs. I am not hungry but manage to drink a tea and eat a piece of sponge cake; I know I have to get some calories inside me and fast, but I am worried about feeling nauseous on the way up. I generally get pretty nasty dizziness and gastrointestinal symptoms when we walk in the dark with our headlamps on; we believe it may be due to some sort of travel sickness caused by the movement of the light as I walk, as the symptoms immediately disappear as soon as the sun comes up, but this time I have an ace up my sleeve! I have acquired the most potent headlamp I could find in the black market; the birds start singing and the marmots pop their heads out of their burrows when I switch it on. I sincerely hope it works.
Jose and I work like a well oiled machine and are roped up and ready to leave in a few minutes. Unfortunately, our friends are rather rusty and take quite a bit longer to prepare. Everyone is half way up the first ramps to the Dome du Gouter by the time we leave the Refuge, followed only by three Japanese who arrived quite late the previous evening in a pretty bad state. The view is amazing; a long line of headlamps zigzag up ahead of us and get lost in the immensity of the slopes of Montblanc. We need to get going so I lead the group setting a nice and slow pace to become accustomed to the effort. The night is cold but there is no wind so we decide not to wear our glove covers; we would pay for the mistake later. From Gouter to the Dome du Gouter there is hardly any difficulty apart from the risk of crevasses but there are none. I follow the tracks of the people ahead of us quite easily at first, but the wind is starting blow hard from the left and fresh powdery snow soon covers their nice and deep footprints on the snow.
It is beginning to get bright by the time we reach the Col des Domes, giving a miss to the Dome du Gouter which is only a few meters to our right. We can see the Valot hut (4362 m) a few meters up a steep slope so I push on; Jose's hands are nearly frozen and mine are not much better. The Valot hut is an emergency shelter which offers small comfort and even less warmth, but which allows you to get out of the merciless wind for a few minutes. Jose calls this place the refuge of the lost souls, where those who have renounced the summit and those who are willing to continue meet for a few brief moments. We drink water and (Jose makes me) eat an energy gel which gives some warmth to our bodies. I make use of the highly uncomfortable toilet and observe that someone has been sick; I suspect it is Lolo but he keeps it to himself. Rubén is not too good either and says he feels sleepy. We suggest that they turn back or wait for our return but they decide against it.
Time to go. I again lead the way but the effort of clearing a path in the powdery snow is killing me so we let Toño and Pincho take the lead. I can see the Bosses ridge right ahead and my spirits begin to falter. I have parachuted out of a plane, rock climbed, jumped into rivers from a (significant) height, all without skipping a beat; but I am terrified of the snow, especially when this snow covers the narrowest and most exposed ridge I have seen in my entire life. As Jose rightly says, it is irrational but I can't help it. I can honestly say I would have gladly turned around at this point if it hadn't been for him (thank you my love for your patience and for helping me on). In the end I manage to pull myself together, get my head down and follow Toño and Pincho onto the ridge. There is a nice and deep path carved in the snow by the tens of feet which have preceded us this morning and this calms me down a bit. It is not wide (about 50 cm), but with a good cramponing technique there should not be any problems (the snow was powdery and soft; I imagine things may look slightly different in icier conditions). We soon overtake them again as our pace is slightly faster (due to my anxiety and Jose's excitement perhaps?). We encounter quite a few people on their way down who cheer and encourage us on (their words of encouragement really did help a lot so thank you guys), but the battle is not over. I struggle to breath in this atmosphere; I have to take 5 deep breaths before I feel like I have enough air in my lungs; the end is near but I fall on my knees, exhausted. Seeing the state I am in, Jose takes the lead and clears a lovely path (fit for a hobbit given the nice and short length of his steps, thank you again darling) up the last ramps and onto the snow ridge to the summit. The blessed ridge has no end; twice we think we are there and twice we break into tears overwhelmed by the emotion, only we are not there yet. Finally, we see two mountaineers with their arms in the air and nothing around them; it must be the summit!
We have made it! Around us only air and a sea of clouds broken only by the 4000+ m colossi of the Alps. I cannot describe what goes through my head and my heart at this moment, only that I hug Jose and he holds me tight in a long and warm embrace. We take a quick picture and take our leave; the summit is only half way, the wind keeps blowing hard and the temperature is very low (if I thought I would be able to sit down at the top and wonder at the wild beauty of this desert of ice and snow, I was terribly mistaken).
We find Pincho and Toño after about ten minutes of walking down the ridge; I am literally freezing on my feet so we exchange a few words and agree on regrouping in Gouter. A few minutes later Rubén, Juan and Lolo make their appearance; Lolo looks absolutely distraught as he wobbles his way up the ridge. He is not well and his rope partners know it, yet they choose to press on at their peril. Looks of disbelief between us and words of encouragement to them.
We fly down the ridge and the steep ramps that soon deposit us back on the Bosses ridge, overtaking less experienced (or more cautious) mountaineers on our way down. I am possessed by a mixture of excitement and fear which urges me down and away from what I perceive as mortal danger. Jose begs me to stop for a break and some food and water but I don't want to stop; I feel cold and I am painfully conscious of the hundreds of meters long falls to my right and left. There is a sheltered spot between the Grande Bosse and the Petite Bosse where I finally agree to stop; Jose is feeling hypoglycemic and needs calories fast. I had not realised he was so hungry and foolishly put us both in danger by (quite literally) dragging him down the ridge (serious note to self: I must learn to control my fears, real or perceived). My anxiety grows the longer we wait so we start back down after a couple of minutes. We make it to Valot in good time, where we again stop for a respite and a chat with a lovely couple from the UK. We sit in the sun in a spot which affords us a good, clear view of the ridge, and wait for our friends to appear. As soon as we are satisfied that Toño and Pincho are safely off the ridge we resume our descent (they waited for the last roped team just like we did with them).
It's 11 am when we get to Gouter; we have completed the ascent in 8 hours. Not bad! We are famished so we order drinks and some pasta, which Jose devours in an instant. Toño and Pincho arrive one hour later (we made a fast descent) feeling as tired as puppies (it's a Spanish saying; I couldn't resist). Given the state Lolo was in near the summit we calculate another hour before the third team arrives. However, time passes and even the three Japanese who left after us this morning have made it back safe and sound. We are getting worried; we are in no fit state to help them if something has happened to them, but we don't want to leave without them. At 1:30 pm it becomes clear that we are missing the last train back to civilisation. This means that we are going to have to walk all the way down to Les Houches in the purest old school alpine style (the last train departs at 5 pm; if you miss it, you get down by your own means). I try calling their mobile phones; they are off or out of coverage. Suddenly, the noise of helicopters flying overhead turns our anxiety into fear. Jose puts his crampons on and starts up the hill when one of the gendarmes confirms that three Spaniards have been lifted from Valot and taken down to Chamonix. It turns out that they were exhausted, Lolo was suffering from altitude sickness (no surprises there) and Juan had injured his knee whilst trying to control Lolo's fall at the bottom of the Bosses ridge.
It is well past 2:30 pm by the time we set off. We help and support each other down the ridge and across the Grand Couloir. My mind starts playing tricks again at the thought of becoming an unwilling skittle and Toño is not feeling much better, so Jose takes control and secures the section for us. We leave Tete Rousse behind and press on, retracing our steps from the days before. We are tired, its foggy and there is a long way ahead, but I enjoy the descent thoroughly. We sing and joke all the way down, take pictures and strengthen an already strong bond with Toño and Pincho (I would go with you guys to the end of the world). We follow the train tracks from Nid d'Aigle to Bellevue plateau, and take a pleasant route through the now green ski slopes and the beautiful woods down to Les Houches. It's well past 10 pm when we finally make it to the car-park in Les Houches, exhausted but proud of what we have achieved.
I don't want to finish this story without adding a final reflection. To me, climbing Montblanc has been the most exhilarating, terrifying and physically demanding activity I have ever attempted. I could not have made it without the help and support of my rock and my love, Jose. Together we can achieve anything. Having said this, there is a downside to every story and this is not an exception. I have learnt a few valuable lessons after this experience: I will never rent a van with people whose driving skills have not been tried and tested before (I was more scared on the way back to Zaragoza than at any time on the Bosses ridge); I will never embark on a project like this with people whose character, quality and experience are not known to me before (now I wonder if Lolo and Rubén's jokes about calling the helicopter, "at the end of the day it's free", the night before were said in more than mere jest); and I will always trust and rely on Jose (first and foremost), Toño and Pincho, three true Alpinists and friends.
See you guys up there!