We got off the bus at Chamonix, greeted by bright sunshine and the magnificent Mont Blanc. From the bottom, you can spot the massive crevasses in the glacier formations leading up to a puffy white top. Glancing down at my Mont Blanc watched inscribed with 4810, my heart filled up with a quiet joy. This was not a deliberate pilgrimage by any means though. In May, when my mate Richard texted me and proposed that we embark on a Mont Blanc expedition, I agreed readily. For to see Mont Blanc in real life and challenge it was like a dream come true. From that simple text exchange, we would embark on this challenging walk up Mont Blanc.
This story is an amateur aspiring alpinist’s attempt up to Mont Blanc 4810m.
Every year climbing deaths occur on Mont Blanc. It is technically easy but can still be dangerous for the underprepared. I did not think much of it; I came with an open mind. The highest peak I had ever done before this was Mt Rinjani, Indonesia (3726m), and that was ages ago. There was no ice, no snow, no harnesses required. It was a straightforward walk up to the top. Anyone can do it. Mont Blanc was a totally different beast. That much was obvious from the beginning. On our first day, we went up by cable car to Aiguille di Midi, at 3842m. It is the main tourist link between Chamonix town and the mountains. When you’re up there you can admire Mont Blanc at a distance and assess the magnitude of the challenge. From the moment I stepped off the cable car, I could feel the effects of altitude. Even walking up stairs was becoming a challenge. At times, I felt as though an invisible hand was gripping my heart. It definitely takes time to get adapted.
We collected our crampons, ice axe, and other equipment from our guiding company. I had done hill walking and scrambling in Scotland to prepare myself in the month prior, and even went to Norway to do some ice walking. However, doing it for a longer time was quite a different experience. Over the next two days, we practised our walking technique on different glaciers . You need to walk differently because unlike flat ground, ice is very smooth, with greatly reduced friction. You have crampons on to compensate for that. Each crampons has 12 pointy spikes to dig into the ice for good grip; and because of its sharpness, you have to be careful about how you walk or risk tearing your pants or hurt yourself. In many ways, one walks like a duck when using crampons. The stance is wider. An awkwardly cute waddle. We would wear our equipment incorrectly and were slow putting them on. We would slip on ice and trip over. Richard and I were still amateurs.
When we got back from our second day of training, we were hit with bad news. The updated weather forecast meant our original planned Mont Blanc attempt on day 6 of the trip had to be brought forward to the next day (day 3) in order to maximise our chances. This was rather difficult to swallow, not least because we had barely acclimatised to the altitude and would lose valuable training time with the crampons. To add to the stress, our guide Giovanni also advised that we were unlikely to make the summit given our current skill and physical levels. I would have liked to think that we were strong walkers! We had trained diligently to prepare for this — with my efforts in Scotland and Richard’s in Singapore. Alas, we both knew, the altitude was affecting us and we were simply not in our top condition.
We were walking on thin ice. Success or Failure could go either way.
We decided to accept that we were dealt a bad hand and went for the summit attempt anyway. Having come so far, we might as well go for it. That night, it was difficult to sleep. Cognisant that we might be inadequate, there was a lingering fear in the air that we would fail our attempt. All the months hyping ourselves for this might be for nought.
We took the train up to the start point. From there, it was a relatively gentle trek up to Tete Rousse on a rocky trail. Given Giovanni’s comments the day before, I was feeling a sense of urgency to walk quickly to prove myself. More than once, I had been cautioned not to run. Giovanni’s words weighed on me.
It wasn’t long before we detected early signs that my mate Richard was not coping as well with the trail though. We had little rest as we made it to Tete Rousse (3,167m), as we aimed to reach the Gouter Hut (Summit Staging Point — 3815m) by early afternoon to have sufficient rest for the summit push the next day. I would say it was punishing for the unacclimatized. The other groups from our tour company were faring better under the same conditions. Oddly, we appeared the weakest.
When we got to the Tete Rousse side, we took a short break to have water and put on our crampons. The hard part was beginning. From there on, it would be a steep scramble to the Gouter Hut. Richard had shared with me prior about the Couloir — an accident prone section where rocks might race down and hit climbers. A study showed that a rock fell on average once every 17 minutes between 11 am and 12 am. People actually die from this. It was important that climbers were careful, alert and fit, so that we could run if we needed to.
We crossed the first glacier you can see on the right in the above picture. The real deal was beginning. I was pumped. I felt great. But, as we started our gradual scramble, it was clear that Richard was slowing down. This was strange, considering Richard is the more experienced and accomplished climber between the two of us.
We were all tied together, Giovanni, Richard and myself, with rope. We trudged forward. Each step was getting harder with crampons and the elevation. We were going at a snail’s pace. Things were going slow. I tried encouraging Richard, and we both pushed on, but still we were not going at a good speed. The altitude was hitting him. Eventually, Giovanni stopped. He spoke to us- saying that Richard was not going to make it. At that moment, all I could say was ‘Huh!’. Was my adventure going to end as well? But I felt great. I could continue. It was a painful moment for our expedition.
After some phone calls, Giovanni said that he would bring Richard to the Tete Rousse Hut and I could continue to the Gouter Hut. There was little protest. Richard acquiesced. Still, it was a hard moment seeing Richard descend the slope to the Tete Rousse Hut. The two of us go way back, having known each other since high school. We had done hikes together in Australia and were both enamoured by the challenges that nature had to offer. We came to do this together. So, it was definitely a difficult emotion to see him descend. In a way, we had failed. At the same time, I also felt a sense of relief that my adventure could continue; but even then, it was not an easy emotion to accept.
No climber likes to fail but this sort of adventure is unlike others. Mountaineering is a risky sport. People die. You never want to risk climbing with someone with altitude problems up a steep scramble. If they fall, you would as well, because the whole team is roped up together. I believe if our ascent plan were less aggressive, Richard would have had greater odds of making it .
As I sat at the spot waiting for Giovanni to return, I looked into the vast expanse, wondering how I would have felt if it were me instead. Could I calmly encourage my team mate to push forward? Why were two of us at Mont Blanc forking out so much money trying to conquer this mountain? Was there value in that?
According to the philosopher Frederic Gros — walking does give us the freedom of disconnection. We are liberated from our daily lives. It frees us from the illusions about the essential. To be liberated from time. To be ourselves. In this struggle, we can’t pretend to be someone else. Stuck on a mountain with a pack, we are only ourselves. I am under no illusion that I can be a selfish person. My goals are important to me and I would spend heart or gold to gain every advantage possible to achieve them. So, whether it’s investing in a high-end mountaineering pack for its lightweight properties or spending a whole month in scotland scaling hills in fog and mud, I would do it all. But sometimes, I still look back and wonder to myself — was it alright that I wanted to carry on without him? Was that being very selfish? Am I good friend? Were my goals the only worthy ends?
One thing I had going for me was my repeated failures prior in Scotland. The crazy weather and my poor navigation had taught me how to make peace with failed objectives. Things happen when climbing. We just have to accept it as part and parcel of the sport. An understanding that there is no certainty that you will seize your objective on the first attempt is what makes this sport fun. When we fail, we try again. The most important part is taking calculated risks — to appreciate if the danger is worth going for. I accepted that Richard was not going to make it. It was up to me to carry our ambition to make the summit. I had to focus.
Giovanni came back and we trudged on. This section of the climb was extremely difficult. The angle of attack was very steep. We had to take very high steps and climb on all fours at certain points. It felt like proper rock climbing. I had to take many breaks to keep up. It was brutal. I spent everything I had to get through.
The view of Gouter was helpful though. With each step, I knew I was getting closer and closer to the day’s goal. It kept my spirits up. Just as the Greek Master Sculptors carved out the statues of glory, I chipped away at the rock, patiently working on my own masterpiece. Bit by Bit. Step by Step. We pushed. The effort was singular. My heart might have been screaming, but I was going to make it. I found my rhythm and my feet moved forward at my own speed. There was no jostling, no hampering, no one else but me. Giovanni who was much stronger accommodated me and we moved at my pace.
As a city boy, I am used to grabbing opportunity with a tap of my fingers. Be it a job opportunity, a date with a lovely girl, or discounts at my favourite Asian place. Here on the mountain, I was grabbing for dear life. Each handhold I had helped me place a better step. It was gruelling work. Totally unnecessary.
Yet it was also totally necessary. Sport is the cultivation of endurance. A labour. We trade effort for joy. Being joyful for the very ability to walk. To experience the beauty the world has to offer and celebrate the maximisation of our potential. I had to continue.
After 3 gruelling hours, we managed to reach flat ground. My heart sang. Finally, the day’s grind was over. When we got to the hut, I was pleasantly greeted by a well stocked cafe and cooked food. Supplies are delivered via helicopter to this refuge. To call this mountaineering would be a joke. This was French glamping at its finest. We were served a three course meal for dinner and drank Evian. Granted, that was some of the most expensive water I’ve had in my life, but up there, you did what you had to do to stay hydrated and stay strong. As an amateur, I took all these creature comforts in a heartbeat. If I had had to haul my food and camping gear up, I have little doubt that I would not have made it.
As I sat in the hut taking in my food, I also realised I was now surrounded by mountaineers. Everyone in their North Face, Mammut, Quecha, La Sportiva, Scarpa, etc. People decked out in amazing and seasoned gear. I realised I was amongst adventurers. As I heard different stories from the others of their exploits, I was in awe. It felt as though I had found my tribe. These people came from everywhere, all sharing the joy of being in nature and testing themselves. It was rejuvenating to take in their energy. I belonged with the adventurers.
Sunset came and I stood by the edge admiring the mountain’s glory. Above, the clouds were embraced by a sky saturated in a gentle orange that transitioned into an overflowing purple. As darkness set, I marvelled at the stars, and lay on my bunk bed.
In the morning, I would tackle the summit.
Edited by Constance Teoh