How to (nearly) climb Mont Blanc - Part 2
December 20, 2019
I reached the summit! I felt great, not physically but mentally. First challenge done, time for the big one! I didn’t take pictures but we had a laugh. I just wanted to get down as quick as possible. Get rid of the pain and stop fighting with nausea.
Descent from Gran Paradiso 4031m
I was soaking the views on descent from Gran Paradiso 4031m. Snowy ridges, rocky summits, and glaciers around me. A very exhilarating experience. It has been the first time for me, walking on a glacier in a boot crampons with an ice axe in hand. We were all roped up to stay safe if anything would go wrong.
On the ascent, I was the last one on the rope but on a descent, I was leading and choosing the route. Andrea, IFMGA guide, was closing the group of three keeping the rope tight and supervising us all the time. Safety is always a priority for this half-men half mountain. We all made jokes that guides are an exceptional breed. Either half-men half-goat or half man half mountain. I still felt like my head is about to explode and my muscles were hurting from the lack of oxygen. Despite the physical condition, I was enjoying every step, every turn, every joke, and the view.
Vittorio Emanuele II hut at 2735m
Accommodation for the night was booked in Vittorio Emanuelle II hut at 2735m. I was taking every step very carefully. We were descending slowly on a slippery glacier. Sheer ice with occasional snow patches. I had to stomp hard to secure crampons on ice. With ice axe in one hand and walking pole in another, I was scanning the vast area in front of me.
From time to time, one of us was losing grip and I felt the tension on the rope behind me. In case anyone would fall we had to stand firm on our grand to prevent the whole group sliding down. The next stop would be the rocks at the front of a glacier. Moraine of the glacier is a pile of rocks, dirty ice and stones. Not a very pleasant sight to crash into. After an hour or two we have managed to get off the glacier. Well, almost. The last relaxed steps and I were walking on wet rocks.
Suddenly I have heard one of my fellow climbers screaming behind my back. After turning around quickly I realized that Nelson is knee-deep in a glacier river! The ice cracked under his weight and he fell into the river below the glacier. Freezing water found the way through his b2 boots and gore-tex trousers. He was laying on the ice and we were all terrified. We were nowhere near Vittorio Emanuele hut 2735m. His knee surgery was just a few months ago, hence his knee was still prone to injuries. Luckily he was ok and some strong painkillers allowed him to proceed slowly.
We should know that asking for distance will not improve our situation, but we have asked anyway. One hour was the answer. That was the same answer we were given multiple times and overall it must have been over four hours. I was really happy when I saw the hut in the distance. It was still around two football pitches away, but we have succeeded. It was a warm and sunny afternoon. We were all chatting and relaxing next to a glacier lake. The hut was full. I met other Polish climbers and we had a quick chat. I was shattered, still recovering from altitude sickness symptoms. The top of the bunk bed was surprisingly cozy so I had a decent sleep. I departed early, just after 6am.
The final leg was simply following a path in the woods in running shoes. No more B2 boots and crampons today! I got down in no time and at 12pm I was already in a hotel room. Hot shower and comfy bed. You really appreciate simple things when they are taken away from you.
Climb Mont Blanc Day One
Today was climb Mont Blanc day one. Sandy Allan, third IFMGA guide, joined us for the summit days. The ratio for the Mont Blanc summit is 2:1. We all drove to a Bellevue cable car in order to catch Tramway du Mont-Blanc 2 380m. It is the highest in France and the fourth highest in Europe. The car and the train ride were around 30 minutes and I was getting excited and anxious at the same time. Am I ready? Will I feel as bad as on the Gran Paradiso? Gran Paradiso climb was only an acclimatization stage.
Today is stage two. In order to climb Mont Blanc via the Gouter route, I spent the first night in the Tete Rousse hut and the second night in the Gouter hut. Climb Mont Blanc day one was a relatively easy hike with some scrambling involved in order to get to Tete Rousse. I couldn’t believe how much glaciers have retracted in recent years. Moraine remaining, enormous rocks and massive stones, were seen from a distance. The terrifying reality of global warming and the effect it has on the mountains. In the last 40 years, humans have managed to significantly influence global warming effect.
Anyway, after a few hours of enjoyable hike to Tete Rousse hut, we have arrived at the control point and I could see the hut. Spectacular views of a clean, blue glacier, the hut and Mont Blanc massif in the background. Sun was shining and the temperature allowed for walking in short sleeves. I started to feel a little bit tired, the headache came back. One more night on high altitude and I will be ok, I thought. After a quick dinner, I went to bed. Long sleep and good recovery before the 2am start.
Climb Mont Blanc Summit Day
2am sharp we are awake. By we I mean myself, Sandy and one more climber. We go out early to set a slow, steady pace. Originally it was supposed to be me and Sandy because of an altitude sickness I have experienced on Gran Paradiso climb. At 2am above 3000m my body and my mind didn’t work as I wanted. I am usually a well-organised person always planning ahead. This time I couldn’t focus and communication was difficult for me but in the end at 2.30am I got my shit together. I roped myself up and we headed out to Climb Mont Blanc! With a head torch on I was following Sandy’s every step. Sandy Allan is a living legend with extensive experience in Himalaya, especially ice climbing.
I quickly understood why it is a Mont Blanc Climb. Shortly after nervous crossing the Grand Couloir, one of the most dangerous sections, pissing fridge size stones when it is too dry and too warm for a prolonged time. In the middle of the night I was climbing steep rocky sections, nearly vertical. Some parts were supported by fixed lines and steps but selecting the route was not an easy task when illuminated only by our head torches. Half man half mountain IFMGA guides call Mont Blanc and adventurous walking. As a normal human being, I found this section technically and physically demanding. It took us around 2 or 3 hours of constant climbing and scrambling at night before I sat down in a Gouter hut 3815m. Just a short break for some snacks and drinks. I already felt miserable. Headache was increasing but mentally I was strong and determined!
Mont Blanc Summit Attempt
People often forget that ascent Mont Blanc is not hiking, it is Alpinism. It is a high mountain route, prone to rockfall, crevasses, extreme weather and avalanches.
From Gouter hut we had an easy and steady hike for at least 5-6 hours to the summit of Mont Blanc 4801m. One step after another. Mental game with altitude, distance, and proper breathing. I was at the end keeping the line without a slack. Sandy set a very slow pace so we can gain altitude slowly. The problem was that we were already very high, above 3800m. I knew that my headache and overall body pain will not disappear.
Sun was rising and the views were just spectacular! I already felt like being on top of the world. The first part of the Gouter hut was quite steep. I was focused and slowly traversing following my fellow’s footsteps. Eventually, we have reached the point where we saw Dome du Gouter and Mont Blanc. It felt like I could nearly reach for it. The reality was that we still have at least 4-5 hours climb.
Feeling bad already, I didn’t say anything. Well, I just mentioned that I have a headache, but I couldn’t focus anymore. I kept repeating like mantra in my head: steady pace, breath slowly, keep drinking. Painkillers didn’t help at all. I felt worse than on Gran Paradiso 4061m a few days ago. I kneel down, a shortstop for another sip of water, another snack to get the energy levels back in place. Every second Mount Blanc seemed to be closer and more approachable.
Altitude sickness was kicking harder with every meter gained. What exactly is the altitude sickness? I read a fair bit before getting myself on climb Mont Blanc adventure. Apparently altitude sickness has three stages: AMS, HAPE, and HACE. I am by no means an expert, hence I will quote the source – www.altitude.org.
AMS – Mild altitude sickness is called acute mountain sickness (AMS) and is quite similar to a hangover – it causes headache, nausea, and fatigue.
HAPE – HIGH ALTITUDE PULMONARY OEDEMA is a dangerous build-up of fluid in the lungs that prevents the air spaces from opening up and filling with fresh air with each breath. When this happens, the sufferer becomes progressively more short of oxygen, which in turn worsens the build-up of fluid in the lungs. In this way, HAPE can be fatal within hours.
HACE – HIGH ALTITUDE CEREBRAL OEDEMA is a build-up of fluid in the brain. HACE is life-threatening and requires urgent action.
I was definitely suffering from AMS, personally I do suffer from really bad hangovers, but this one was much worse. Pounding headache, pain behind my eyes and nausea were not improving. I told myself that I will not stop, I will proceed and succeed. I have been preparing my mind and body for months!
Climb Mont Blanc 4808m
To climb Mont Blanc 4808m was my ultimate objective. Below me were already over 4000m of adventure travel. Hiking, climbing, and adventure walking for a week in order to get where I am now. I will not stop and I will succeed. Taking one step after another, breathing deeply and drinking water were my only challenges at the time. I didn’t even realize that I started coughing badly and that I was not keeping the pace anymore. Fatigue was unbearable. I had many broken bones in my life, head concussion and other minor injuries. Muscle pain and overall body fatigue that I was experiencing were comparable.
I was on my last steep section before Vallot Hut 4632m. My vision was narrowing down, I was breathing heavily, gasping for oxygen. Cough, fatigue, nausea and massive headache forced me to stop. In my mind, I thought that I have communicated my intention well. Short stop to drink water and calm my breath down that was all I wanted. I drunk water and got my strength and determination back. Yes! I felt power increase. All my efforts will be rewarded. All three of us were at the doorsteps of the Vallot Hut 4362m.
Vallot Hut 4362m
The Vallot hut was grim. I could smell urine and old blankets. Tin can that is used only as an emergency shelter. I met Polish fellow climbers in a hut and we had a chat. By that time I knew already that I was not well. Apparently I did not communicate well either. The last stop for water was only going good in my head. Both Sandy and another climber in my group told me that I was really struggling to find a water bottle in my jacket’s pocket! I have been also told that Nelson has never seen a human “looking that bad”. I was pale, mumbling and struggling to drink.
Inside the Vallot Hut 4362m
In my head I was invincible, and I was angry that they are walking so slow. That I am forced to overtake to keep my pace. Moreover, I believe I have expressed my disappointment and frustration with Sandy. Fortunately or unfortunately I did not remember a thing. Just a blurry recall of the climb to Vallot hut. Sandy approached me and very seriously explained that this is the end of the adventure for me…
The End of Mont Blanc Adventure
The end of the Mont Blanc adventure came sooner than I have expected. Altitude sickness was progressing and apparently I was in worse condition than I thought. It was no longer AMS stage but HAPE stage and fluid was building up in my lungs. I have been told that this is the end and we have to go down. If I would feel any worse at any point, helicopter rescue will be needed. I thought that I have ruined summit attempt for Nelson, luckily we met Olly and Andrea and he joined them successfully reaching the summit. Go team!
I and Sandy proceeded towards the Gouter hut. I failed. My body failed me. I felt depressed. Exhausted, out of breath, in pain. All I could think of is my failure. When we descended to Dome du Gouter I had a chat with Sandy about what happened and why. Some people acclimatize longer than others. I was part of the ‘some’. Two more days and I would be ok to try again. Fitness was there, the determination was there, acclimatization was definitely not there. It took me eight hours to get better. I was speaking in my native language when I have been woken up and asked questions in the hut and guides were concerned that I am not recovering. I have improved eventually but the bitter aftertaste and disappointment of my performance were following me for at least two more weeks.
That was the end of Climb Mont blanc for me. Lifetime experience despite failing to set my foot on the Mont Blanc summit. I am considering getting back one day, but this time on a splitboard and with at least two days extra acclimatization above 3500m. Every experience is teaching us a lesson and helps to improve in the future. Learn on my mistakes and you will succeed. Never give up and keep progressing.
That was the lesson I understood after some time. This adventure could end up much worse for me.
Thank you, Sandy, for pulling the plug and getting me down safely!