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Mont Blanc

Living on ice for a week

A few months ago, my friend Karl invited me to climb Mont Blanc with him and some of his closest friends. I accepted the invitation without a hesitation. We’ve been on a few vertical adventures together, which have often resulted in tears and made me question the resilience of my existence. Wild, scary and exhausting, these experiences heighten my senses and are very addictive. Karl is one of those guys who doesn’t speak much, but who radiates a strong sense of composure. Disciplined and precise, he is the kind of guy you can trust in situations where you life relies on a piece of rope. A great companion.

Karl

Mountains are special to me. Austere, wild, sterile and hostile, they provide the perfect ground for self-discovery. My attraction to them also stems from my father’s strange love for rocks as a geologist and his Himalayan experiences at my age. Needless to say that adventures like this one are essential to me.

Our week of mountaineering was split in 2 phases: the acclimatisation and the ascent.

PHASE 1: Acclimatisation

The best way to enjoy these kinds of expeditions is to be prepared, physically and mentally. Weeks of cardio and strength exercises were followed by a three-day period living above 3500m to boost erythropoiesis. Living on a glacier is fun, and weird. Ice and rocks become the only elements composing the landscape. The scale of the physical things surrounding you is difficult to comprehend. These environments provide a glimpse at the insignificance of a human in relation to nature.

The téléphérique de l'Aiguille du Midi took us from the valley to a peak from which we accessed the glacier.
Glaciers are alive, they slide, crack and transform.
As we approached the ice plane, we found the remaining foundations of a previous camp and used the protective snow wall they had built to install our own tents.
It doesn't always snow much in summer, so we thought it'd be reasonable to build some sort of sanitation to keep the snow layer as clean as possible.
Waking up with the sun gives you a different sense of time.
Every morning at dawn, we dried the condensation accumulated inside our tents and sleeping bags in the warm sunrays.
Being independent on the mountain means carrying food supplies. Before engaging in our acclimatisation phase, we had to be sure we were carrying all the food we would need, but nothing more. Every meal was rationed. We carried all the water needed for a day of climbing, and time was spent every night boiling glacier snow for the next day's liquid supplies. Plain pasta, couscous and dehydrated soups are cheap and efficient.
Not super delicious, but a good way to rehydrate our bodies.
Summer afternoons are hot on the glacier and the snow starts transforming into a slush from the moment the sun hits the ground. This increases the risk of falling through the snow pack into crevasses, so we used warmer hours to review safety measures and crevasse rescue procedures.
One of the routes we climbed was the Arête des Cosmiques, a beautiful ridge, fairly accessible but very exposed with incredible views on the Chamonix Valley and surrounding ranges.
Depending on the nature of the climbs, attach ourselves to each other in different ways, either in groups of 2 or 3.
View on our camp from the ridge.
The top of the ridge gave us an impressive view on the Mont Blanc, culminating 1000 meters higher.

PHASE 2: The Ascent

Back in the valley after three days up in the mountains, we took the afternoon to assess our equipment, shower (well needed), and refuel.

That same evening, we were back on our feet to climb to the Tête Rousse Glacier, the base camp before the Goûter couloir. An essential part of our daily activities had been to follow hourly weather forecast updates in order to plan our ascent the best way possible. Thunderstorms were planned for every evening that week. We actually had a very intimate encounter with the sky the moment each of us felt an electric discharge across our bodies on our hike up. We managed to race to a refuge near by where we waited for the weather to improve. Mountain goats came to visit us. Gaining awareness of one’s own vulnerability when exposed to the elements is a strange feeling.

The weather forecast also posed a problem for our original intentions to bivouac on a snow ridge during the second night of our ascent. The exposure of the camp in a thunderstorm would seriously compromise our safety.

We dried our equipment in the sun before packing our bags for the next phase.
The gear was carefully chosen in order to carry the bare minimum.
We were continually comparing weather forecasts from different sources in order to get the most accurate prediction.
The first part of the ascent was a trek on a rocky terrain.
Clouds were moving rapidly, and the sky was charged and threatening.
I find the colours of things to be more saturated at higher altitudes, and the depth of blue hues in the sky always strikes me.
We saw and heard many rock falls on the faces surrounding us. These are the result of high temperatures causing reduced nocturnal freezeback, and a high altitude drought.
Our itinirary.

At the base camp, we prepared lyophilised dinner (we were now only carrying those to save weight), following which we did a final evaluation of the snow condition, weather condition and physical/mental conditions of each member. After much discussion, we chose to complete the full ascent as well as the descent back into the valley the following day before the storm. This implied leaving most of our heavy equipment behind and climbing to the summit only with water and snacks in order to travel fast and efficiently. We would pick up our tents and stoves on the way down. We had to leave early enough before sunrise to avoid navigating on melting snow, and early enough to avoid the afternoon thunderstorm. The plan was solid, and the adrenaline was flowing in everyone’s bodies. We had one hour to rest before what was going to be a 15-hour day of climbing.

00:45 (15 minutes before departure) - loud noises take me out of my meditative state. Leo, sharing the tent with me, tells me to hide behind my bags. Alerted, I open the my tent, and in the moonlight appeared a large cloud of debris near our camp. Rocks the size of a fridge were flying in the air, dislodging other rocks and in a snowball effect, creating a mineral avalanche down the couloir we were planning on crossing just a few minutes later. The amplitude of the solid cloud falling down the cliff and the sound it generated were unlike anything I’d experienced in the past. Karl went around the tents to check how everyone was feeling, and we decided to postpone our departure to 5:00. Resting was difficult as rocks continued to fall throughout the night, and around 4:30 we heard screaming voices coming from the cliff. Bold, or perhaps reckless, mountaineers were stuck amidst the big flying objects.

We were now facing a difficult dilemma and had to decide whether we were going to take the objective risk ahead of us, or turn back and postpone our ascent to an unknown date.

Pierre and Karl, considering all our options while observing mountaineers turn back.

The Goûter Couloir, also known as "Le Couloir de la Mort" ("The Death Couloir"), is, as its lovely nickname suggests, notorious for taking lives. In 20 years, almost 300 rescue missions have been conducted in that particular part of the normal route, with over 70 deaths. Raising temperatures have contributed to an increase in rock falls because of the weakened ice layer maintaining the integrity of the face. During the week of our expedition, that region of France was also experiencing record high temperatures, which augmented the fall frequency. We later found out in a press release that all guided tours had been cancelled on that route due to the high risks involved.

Filmed by Andriy Ivanov in 2010. Apologies for screaming.

Painful post-rationalisation

Three painful hours of rational and emotional deliberation resulted in the common decision to not attempt the climb. I couldn’t hide my feeling of sadness, but much is to be learnt from each of those experiences, from the people, their fear and their strengths, from the environment, its unpredictable weather and its incomparable force. Mother Nature is almighty.

Ultimately, success is not a function of the ascending elevation conquered. Success is about getting out there, and coming back alive. Ce n’est que partie remise...

June 2017, with Karl and the gang (Pierre, Nico, Tom, Leo)