It’s not yet light but the train we take from Chamonix to Saint Gervais is already half full. At Saint Gervais we follow pilgrims bristling with excitement and wearing numbered hire boots, small day packs festooned with ice tools and nervous smiles. We all cram ourselves into the tram. Those wanting to appear nonchalant opt for the hard wooden seats, the rest of us are happy to stand so we get a better view as we slowly chug upwards through alpine meadows. The tram halts several times at tiny villages that lack road access, more seekers climb aboard. Mountains drizzled in snow are visible through slits in the steadily receding tree line. When our tram halts at its final destination, Nid d’Aigle at 2,380m we’re already half way.
Swept up with the rest of the commuters we get to work weaving up the maze of well-worn trails, threading back and forth through remnant moraine. A herd of multi-coloured, long-haired chamois ignore us as they focus on the Sisyphean task of extracting grassy morsels from the rubble. Cameras dangle from necklines, walking poles in each hand counterbalance the ice tools strapped to backs. We have only the lightest of packs as we are heading to a centrally heated refuge where food, drink and indoor shoes are supplied. All we need is spare clothes, some alpine gear and evidence we’ve booked, the latter will be checked part way up by an official and we’ll be turned around if we can’t prove we’ve paid. Pale summer sunshine lights our way, a few puffy clouds clutter the sky, but there is no cooling breeze for them to surf. Before heading up we checked and rechecked the weather, used to the changeable, maritime climate of home we can’t quite believe the rows of yellow sun symbols.
We walk at what feels like an unhurried pace but it’s faster than the norm. To maintain it we’re obliged to strategically pick our way through the ground trails steadily overtaking our companions until we emerge in front. As the gradient of the hill steepens our lead increases. After a couple of hours we’re alone with Refuge de Tete Rousse (3,167m) visible on our right. This is a popular place for guided parties to stay as they can get a better night’s sleep at this altitude compared to Gouter hut (3,817m). Waiting here also allows parties to cross the Gouter corridor, the most dangerous part of the route, pre-dawn when the rocks are frozen in place.
Aware we are crossing the corridor at the least favourable time of day we strap on our helmets and jog the tired, rock poked, dirt streaked, down trodden snow to the base of the Gouter ridge. The remnant glacier above us sweats and groans in the heat sending loose rocks down the gully at random intervals. Relieved not to be stuck in a queue we scramble without pause up the main ridge as the risk of rockfall has not yet abated.
The territory is familiar – loose rock, rough travel and a need to think about route selection. Normally I would find this game engaging, especially the views back down to the refuge and the glacier below, but my head is pounding, I’m nauseous and my energy is draining away. We are now higher than Aoraki Mt Cook and the altitude is weighing me down. The higher we climb the harder moving forward becomes. I’m forced to stop frequently for rests and to pull on every bit of cable or rock available. The higher we climb the more cabling there is, the more breathless I feel and the longer my rests become.
Walkers we passed earlier pass us, we encounter climbers descending from the summit. I offer up my best grimace hoping they will mistake it for a grin. Some of those descending clip the cables via ferrata style. Their eyes are hidden behind sun glasses but their exhaustion is evident in their dusty sunburned faces and slow, stiff movements.
Usually I dismiss hillside seats barely giving them a passing glance but I’m glad to sink into the rickety remnants of a collapsed bench that rests precariously against the old Gouter hut at the crest of the ridge. The remaining hurdles between me and shelter are a twenty meter snow slope followed by a few hundred meters of horizontal walking. Most hikers carry on without pausing using the handrail fashioned out of an old rope the guides have rigged up to save time. I have a sufficient presence of mind to appreciate that given my inebriated state putting on crampons is prudent. This simple task takes me several minutes. David waits patiently then points out I’ve got my crampons the wrong way round.
At the top of the snow slope we are treated to superb views across to the Aiguille du Midi cable car which tops out at 3,842m a mere 1,000 metres below the summit of Mont Blanc. “It’s worth it,” I tell myself breaking into a genuine smile. Inside we clumsily stuff most of our gear in lockers on the ground floor, put on hut shoes and head up to the main kitchen/dining area. David checks us in and locates our allocated bunks.
In a daze I battle my way through the congestion to order hot chocolate and bottles of water to go with the cold pizza we’d lugged up with us from Chamonix. Relief washes over me as we sprawl on the wooden benches and absorb the warmth, gulp hot drinks, eat pizza and let the conversations in French, Italian and Spanish wash over us. The windows are fogged up with the condensation from throngs sheltering here so we can’t see a thing but it feels fantastic to be sitting down in our cosy office.
The afternoon disappears in a fog of drinking and resting. We lie in the dark on our bunks. I feel certain I will sleep but the altitude keeps everyone awake, plus as we booked at the last-minute our bunks are located right beside the bunkroom door which squeals every time it is opened. This is a frequent occurrence as climbers are drinking as much water as they can to counter the effects of altitude necessitating trips to the bathroom.
We abandon our blankets in favour of dinner. Our companions for the evening are a batch of English friends who have flown over for their annual adventurous holiday. Despite having no previous climbing experience they have all succeeded in ascending Mont Blanc. They’re more tired than elated by their achievement but their good humour and self depreciating stories of grinding their way upwards all day urged on by their guides help calm my anxiety about what lies ahead. Fortunately my appetite doesn’t seem to be affected by the altitude. After David has hoovered up all the spare chocolate cake we head back upstairs to resume our wait.
At 2am those anticipating summiting abandon all pretence of sleep and line up outside the kitchen in preparation for breakfast at 2.30am. After forcing down some watery coffee, dry bread and jam we put on our crampons and head torches and join the queue outside. Conditions are so mild I don’t need a woolly hat under my helmet. For the first couple of hours we are part of a silent suffering centipede of head torches snaking up the ridge. David who is unaffected by the altitude is keen to overtake those who are barely moving but after yesterday’s experience I know my place.
By the time we reach the first milestone Gouter Dome, my headache has returned. As David grows more impatient with the pace the temperature starts to drop and a slight breeze adds to the chill, a chill we’d likely escape if we sped up or put on more clothes. We don’t have any more clothes. We are here for a summer holiday and climbing Mont Blanc is a case of taking advantage of fortuitous timing rather than meticulous planning. David is wearing travel trousers, my pertex jacket is light and my windproof gloves are not designed for the thin, cold air encountered at this altitude. We would not dream of going on an alpine route in NZ with so little warm gear, now we’re paying the price for our complacency.
Milestone two is Bivouac Vallot located at 4362m about half way between the hut we left earlier and the summit. I swap gloves with David and put on his down jacket. We force down some chocolate and continue climbing. David confirms my gloves are useless. We’re not sure if we will make it to the summit. If conditions get any colder we will need to turn around. As I’m processing this depressing thought I notice sunlight starting to trickle over the eastern horizon silhouetting the ridgeline. For the first time we can see where we are going. I notice we’ve left most climbers at the Bivouac resting and eating. We are able to increase our pace which warms us up.
The moment we both understand we will make the summit comes when we see the shadow of Mont Blanc projected on the horizon. This delicate triangle film is a good omen, like a butterfly fragile, beautiful and ephemeral. The familiar shadow sends warmth through our bodies as we recall a similar image we spotted while summiting Mt Aspiring at sunrise. With dawn the wind drops, and we start encountering climbers descending from the summit. A guide tells me off for having a prussic dangling too low on my harness. He points out that someone tripped and fell to their death from this spot yesterday. Meekly I adjust my prussic and check my crampons.
We reach the summit at 7.30am. I feel light-headed not due to the thinness of the air rather a mix of elation, disbelief and familiarity. Mont Blanc is such a well-known, well documented mountain we knew what the view would look like before we got here. We knew how long it would take to get here and what to expect along the way. Despite our expectations being here feels wonderful in a way no pictures can easily replicate or words adequately describe. We gaze at the familiar shapes of the Matterhorn and Mont Rosa and all the pointy peaks of the Italian and French alps spread out around us like elegant furniture. The sky bleeds indigo, the sun is blazing as it rises. The snow carpet glitters frosty, bright and white where it is touched by the light, the snow in the shade looks mildewed.
We descend against the traffic down the sharp ridges giving way to let tired climbers past, enjoying the mountain views and the surge in energy that comes from decreasing height. Off the narrow ridgeline we descend directly rather than following the switchbacks searching for a more interesting route away from the rush hour lines of hikers still climbing. We marvel at ice formations, unknown peaks and strange mountain villages in the distance seen from unfamiliar angles. We marvel at the long line of climbers still trudging up to the top so they can come back down.
The risk with climbing popular peaks in summer in continental Europe is less about falling off or not making it and more a fear that the experience will feel over processed. The convenience, accessibility, and decadence attracts crowds anxious to tick off peaks leaving you with a suspicion that your experience will be neither special, hard-earned or interesting. You question whether you’ll quickly tire of it or ought to have selected a more remote, challenging objective. It’s like eating hot buttery toast. You savour every mouthful because it’s succulent, crisp and tasty while fresh all the while appreciating that you can only eat so much toast before it cools and goes brittle and hard. Plus eventually you can’t fit any more in without feeling uncomfortably bloated.
Our climb has been a memorable roller coaster of emotions and effort. The ebb and flow of our feelings and memories, the lessons learned, challenges endured, the spectacular beauty of the landscapes encountered, the uncertainty of whether we will make the top, the people we met over the two days we spent on the mountain ensured that for us the Mont Blanc experience was a heady mix of the familiar and the surprising, both visceral and rewarding.