That 13 people have died on Mont Blanc this month alone drives home the point that despite being well prepared and primed for high performance it’s often a big dollop of luck that gets us there in the end. Here’s an account of my summit attempt which took place on July 13th, 2006.
John Taylor and Miles Bright kept starring over at the summit of Mont Blanc. Wisps of cloud were forming on the peak but didn’t seem to be a threat to our hopes of attempting to summit via Mont Blanc du Tacul and Mont Maudit. We climbed into the cable car and ascended towards Aguille du Midi. My stomach began to churn and by the time we reached the station I also had a headache. Stepping out of the cable car I looked over at Mont Blanc and could no longer see the summit. It was shrouded in a thick cloud that was now moving down towards us.
We had a coffee while John and Miles made a decision. They decided to split the groups, with Gerry Knecht and Jerry Ohmes heading for the summit with Miles from Aguille du Midi while John brought the rest of us around to the Tete Rousse hut for a summit attempt the following morning. I was delighted as there was no way that I was fit for an attempt that morning. The change in altitude from Chamonix to Aguille du Midi had knocked the stuffing out of me.
Down in Chamonix we had an early lunch before heading to the Tete Rousse hut via cable car and train to Nid d’Aigle. The forecast for the following morning was good with the promise of rain in the early afternoon, but John gave us no more than a 50% chance of reaching the summit. The hut is in the shade of the infamous Grand Couloir which has claimed close on 80 lives in the last 20 years. We arrived after 5pm and kicked our heels until dinner at 7pm.
I hit the hay immediately afterwards and got some sleep before our anticipated departure of 1am. Thanks to the altitude I had a mild headache and was suffering from frequent pangs of nausea. I woke periodically to hear rocks eerily cascading down the Couloir. I got the word to move at 1am and set about trying to wash and insert contact lenses using torch light and without running water.
At around 2am we moved out to the Grand Couloir to find that the rock fall had subsided due to the snow freezing further up. We clipped on to the cable and crossed without incident. We climbed for 90 minutes and eventually arrived at the Gouter Hut. It was tough going and I kept my trap shut for the entire spell – something which Matthieu, our French guide, found very amusing.
The grim and disgusting hut was so full that there were people asleep on the tables even. We hung around long enough to knock back a cup of tea before heading for the Dome du Gouter. The higher we climbed, the colder it became. The only reason I didn’t throw up was because there was little or nothing in my stomach.
We arrived on the Dome du Gouter at 0545 am and the view was stunning. I should have been purring with enthusiasm when I looked over at Mont Blanc in all its glory. Instead, all I saw was a further two hours of torture. The altitude was affecting me and I was beginning to shiver and get thick with those around me. John ordered me to put my jacket on as ice crystals were forming on my fleece, and he handed me the climbing pole I’d left behind me.
I trudged along, roped up to John in front of me and Alex Knecht – who I was clearly pissing off – behind me. Ivor Evans and his buddy Adrian the English defence lawyer were roped up to Matthieu. We passed the Vallot Hut and I snapped out of my moroseness and sensed a second wind. Maybe it’s something to do with getting close to the end but I felt a surge of energy as we approached the Bosses Ridge. We stepped aside to let a team of Italians descend. There wasn’t much room to move but there was no wind and there were high fives all round and words of encouragement as they passed. There wasn’t long to go and I was going to enjoy every second of it.
John turned to shake my hand: We were on the summit, and there was more room than I expected. I pulled off the gloves, drank in the view, looked into France, Italy and Switzerland and took out my phone. The coverage was fantastic and I dialled my brother in Brisbane. 15 minutes of photos later we started our descent. My problems were only beginning.
That my climbing boots were half a size too big didn’t matter on the ascent, but it mattered greatly
on the descent. With every step my big toes slammed into the toe caps. Bit by bit the pain grew and after an hour each step was met with a yelp and some nice language thrown in. The following hours were challenging, and we had the added pressure of needing to make the final cable car for Les Houches. I swapped boots with John back at the Gouter Hut and this alleviated some of the pain. More fun followed on the scramble down to Tete Rousse Hut. We stopped for a break and John put Miles Bright on to me. “Stiff upper lip Dara,” he said, his military background coming to the fore.
On arrival back at Les Houches my socks were caked in blood and needless to say both nails came off a couple of weeks later. I wore flip flops to the pub and night club later that evening.
Having completed two marathons, a half ironman in 35 degree heat, and a number of Olympic and sprint-distance triathlons I’d consider that day on Mont Blanc as having been the equal of the half ironman if not my most challenging physical endeavour. You mightn’t need the physical fitness required for a marathon or a triathlon but the day can go on for up to 12 hours. Throw in some altitude sickness along with a poorly fitted pair of boots and you’ve an interesting challenge on your hands.
13 people have died on Mont Blanc in the last month alone, and while I summited and descended safely, there was a good deal of luck involved. Though the weather was in our favour, I often wonder how I would have felt if I’d been denied the summit because of it. Hiring a guide may not be good for some egos but I’d recommend John Taylor of Mont Blanc Guides and Miles Bright to anyone who wants good professional decisions made in what is a dangerous and inhospitable environment.