Mt Blanc, August 2002

or Never Again. Again.

by Paul Harrison

Well, here we were two years later and attempting, again, to summit Mt Blanc. Our predictions for the weather weren't good. Jon Stevens had been here for 3 weeks not long before and had done only 3 days climbing (he said). (If you ask me he was probably too drunk the rest of the time ... or playing cards) Anyway, his weather predictions seemed to be turning out true. Our first week was spent walking mostly amongst the bouts of rain. This included a failed attempt to walk up to Montenvers. Failed because Roberta got us lost. Oh well, there was plenty of time to work on the "nav" throughout the week. The next day we took in a walk up to the Plan d'Aigiule, then a long walk along the Balcon Nord (strangely on the South side of the valley) to out destination of the previous day - Montenvers - where we were able to get a fantastic view of the Mer de Glace.

Steve and I also took in the Petite Aiguile du Midi and revisited a place we knew from our last visit. Although the weather looked dodgy, we arrived in the afternoon in time to do the NW buttress (Facile) then spent a couple of cold hours cooking our dinner in the telepherique station (and, No, we didn't take advantage of the loos to sleep in. Firstly because the heating wasn't on and secondly there is only room for one "BogBoy" © in this world...)
Up at 6.30 the next morning we did the NNE buttress in beautiful conditions - sunny and clear. It was a fantastic day. Then the crowds arrived and we had a mare of a job descending via the facile route.
At the end of the week we decided to go up to the Albert Premier hut and see about an attempt on the Aiguile du Tour. The meteo wasn't very promising, but off we set, thinking we would see how things looked in the morning. So in the morning we finally had to accept that the meteo was right. The weather was cloudy and visibility was poor. But it wasn't raining so we cramponned up and went for a walk up the glacier towards the Col du Tour.
Mer de Glace

That was on Saturday. The following day Steve realised he had left his phone and first aid kit at the hut. So Monday morning saw Steve race up to the Albert Premier hut to get his phone ...
So we were now into the second week and according to the meteo the weather was going to be good for the next couple of days. We didn't think we were ready to try Mt. Blanc so we thought we would get as much altitude in as possible over the next few days and hope the weather held 'til the end of the week. So, when Steve got back from his unplanned trip to the AP hut, we packed and headed for the Telepherique. At the top the weather was perfect, albeit a bit windy, which made the walk down the arête from the top a bit scary (well, for me anyway!). Once down to the col we walked around, even paying a visit to the Heights Climbing Club luxury Mountain Refuge just down from the Cosmiques Hut.
The next day we were a bit more ambitious, and even got up earlier (7am!), although too early for some people as Steve left his jacket at the Telepherique station and we had to wait for one of the assistants to bring it up on the next cabine.
But anyway, this time we had decided to walk across the Vallée Blanche. We thought a good walk across the valley at this altitude would be a good test of our fitness - or lack of it. As it turned out the weather was perfect. The Col du Midi was a suntrap and we were in danger of being fried in the heat...

Resting at the Tete Rousse Hut
We eventually reached the Italian side and caught the telecabine back. The views of the Glacier du Geant, Mer de Glace and Vallée Blanche were just incredible. So with a lovely scenic walk in lovely conditions behind us we set off home and prepared for "The Real Thing".
We had planned to get the 8.40 train from St Gervais, but read the timetable wrong - there wasn't an 8.40 - and got in the queue too late for the 9.40, thus having to catch the 10.40!! So, we reached the Ni d'Aigle (the final and highest point on the Chamonix Mt Blanc Railway) at about midday and prepared to walk up to the Tete Rousse.
We were now confronted with the daunting prospect of the climb up the steep ridge up to the Goûter Ridge and Hut. I remembered this from our last attempt, and it was the most dangerous section of the climb. The only saving grace was that we did it in the dark and couldn't see how steep it was (it also helped us get lost on the way up, too).

But this time we were doing it in the day, so no danger of getting lost, and we could take our time, so if we got a bit scared we could stop. The Goûter hut finally arrived a tiring 6 hours after the Tete Rousse Hut. It was nearing 7pm so we hastily set about setting up camp. Then after a visit to the hut for some bottles of water (4€ each!) and a couple of hot chocolats, we watched the beautiful sunset and hit the sack.

Campsite on the Guoter Ridge looking
up to the Dôme du Gouter
Seconds later (or so it seemed) we were awakened by our various and multiple alarms for 2am and we were up, getting ready and finally on our way at 3am. We certainly weren't the first but there were a lot of people still getting out of their tents and getting ready. Ahead of us the headtorches of the people in front snaked their way up the Dôme du Goûter. This was the bit I remembered from last time and I knew it would be tough going. Luckily, the conditions were better - the snow wasn't fresh and therefore slushy. Add to that the fact that we weren't knackered from climbing up to the Goûter Hut (like we were last time) and the fact that we were a lot fitter, we made quite good progress and hit the top of the Dôme for about 4.30ish.
Here, we rested for a short while and checked our progress.

Roberta was the worst of the 3 of us and was labouring heavily. She was stating to feel ill and had to nip off to empty her bowels. But, by now the sun was up and we could look across the Col du Dôme and see the Valois hut above us. Behind it ran the higher ridges to the summit. It was a beautiful sight with the headtorches marking the route up the ridges to the top. We were all feeling confident (well, 2 of us) so we set of again, momentarily enjoying the drop down into the Col.
Our next steep bit took us to the Valois Hut. What with Roberta struggling we decided to go in and rest for 15 mins. The entrance was though some sort of trap door contraption that took us at least 10 mins to get up... Inside, the atmosphere was silent and grim. Bodies were strewn everywhere, all seemed to be in some state of distress and nobody seemed to be aware of the fact that this should be an enjoyable experience - we seemed to be in a temporary field hospital for the dead and dying...
After a while we left the Hut and headed up again. The sun had now fully risen and we could see fully the last ridges leading towards the top. It didn't look too bad, I told myself, and it wasn't really. We just got our heads down and inched our way summit-wards with the rest of the world (or so it seemed).

By about 8.30 we had trudged our way to the final summit ridge, we dumped our sacs along with a few others on a convenient wide area and started on the last section. Roberta was by now feeling at her worst. She had been feeling sick for some time and was in some distress. So much so, that with only about 100 metres to walk she sat herself down and refused to budge, saying that this was near enough the summit and it would still "count". Steve and I were having none of it, and with a mixture of encouragement and goading we managed to get her to walk the last stage.
Then, finally at 9 o'clock we reached the summit. Rather disappointingly, the first thing I noticed was the number of people on the summit ridge - there must have been at least 50 or 60. But that didn't stop me enjoying my moment. The view was breathtaking with the Alps
Paul and Roberta on the summit

spreading away at my feet to the Northeast, and without a cloud in the sky I had an uninterrupted 360º view of the horizon. I busied myself with my camera as I recorded the moment for posterity and Steve sent a swift text message to all corners of the globe (well, back to the UK) informing everyone of our success.
The sense of achievement was fantastic. I had been thinking of this for two years ever since the failed attempt last time and was finally glad to be able to put it to rest. I was also glad that all the training that I (together with Steve) had done had made it quite an easy ascent and I was able to enjoy it totally. Roberta also, I think was dead chuffed. For while she had a difficult ascent and wasn't as fit as Steve or myself she managed to pull it out of the bag. For her the sense of success must have been double because only 6 months earlier she had finished a course of chemotherapy after discovering she had cancer. 2 summits in one I think, for Roberta.