When we were planning what to do in the Alps and BG said ‘let’s get you your first 4000m peak’ we planned it to be the Weissmies in Switzerland. It would be a week into the trip by the time we planned to do the Weissmies which meant I would have had a week to acclimatise and get my head around it. And technically it should be an easy first 4000er.
The week of leaving for the Alps BG was reading through guide books and said something along the lines of ‘how do you fancy Mont Blanc du Tacul?’ Innocent, naive and with a craving for adventure I said ‘yeah’.
Around ten days later I found myself putting crampons on in the ice tunnel at Aguille du Midi about to rope up and head down the Aiguille du Midi ridge and on to the Col before attempting 4248m of mountain.
This is what happened.
When we left for the Alps Mont Blanc du Tacul was more of ‘an idea’. By the end of the day on the Mer de Glace it was more of ‘a plan’ for the end of the week in Chamonix and the whole group would go up.
Two days before the big day we went up to Aiguille du Midi, in a box with 50+ other people that is hanging from a string, that’s what it feels like anyway. The feeling of suddenly being at 3842m was bizarre. Climbing the stairs to the cafe made me feel breathless (I am fitter than ever too) and lightheaded. Sitting scoffing a macaron at 3842m I felt drunk and as though the floor was on a tilt.
I also got my first view of Mont Blanc du Tacul.
I stared at it, studied the path that had been well trodden up it, questioned the fact it went past some rather large seracs and tried to confirm how big the crevasses were. I was told there might be a ladder crossing the crevasses. So I questioned it some more.
I took a picture of it. I studied that picture until the day came that we went to climb it. I zoomed in on the path, zoomed in on the seracs, questioned it some more. I suddenly became obsessed with checking the mountain forecast and decided to be concerned over avalanche risk. I made BG ring the hut guardian at Refuge des Cosmiques for a report on the condition of the mountain. I think she said it was perfect.
The hut guardian said is was perfect, the two mountain guides we went parasailing with the day before said they were good, the mountain forecast was safe. And then the mountaineering white water rafting instructor went and said ‘take care up there’. Why is he saying ‘take care up there’ when everybody else said it’s good? Me and BG lay in bed that night and I questioned EVERY possible scenario. Just checking… Ballerinas don’t tend to climb mountains that big!
We were up at 5am. It was dark and everybody was quiet. I forced some cereal and a yogurt inside me. I checked my bag and put my now very-much-loved mountain boots on and we headed out to the cable car. Just after 7am I was putting the crampons and helmet on. I was calm and felt very focused and just like back on Amphitheatre Buttress accepted the challenge ahead and got on with it.
BG always said that the thing he thought I would struggle with the most would be the Aiguille du Midi snow ridge. It’s narrow and exposed and there’s little chance of surviving a fall down one of the steep sides. And it didn’t bother me. Not even when I was stood to the side, in the wind, as people were passing. Surprise number one.
It didn’t take very long to get on to the Col du Midi and as it was relatively flat/slightly downhill I didn’t feel the altitude at all. We made good and fast progress passing the Cosmiques Arete, Refuge des Cosmiques and a few tents and headed to the the foot of Mont Blanc du Tacul.
As soon as we started going ‘up’, even at the slightest degree the altitude effects kicked in. Suddenly walking up a gradient that wouldn’t affect you at even 2000m became something that made you slow and heavy. My legs were no longer my own.
Getting started on Mont Blanc du Tacul started with a little difficulty until we (I mostly) got a pace that felt comfortable. And it felt slow. The surprising thing is that most rope parties were that slow. Some were slower and we had to pass them. Some were practically running up the mountain (locals).
Off we plodded, two teams of three up what felt like to me, the biggest mountain in the world. It was so vast. Rope parties all over the mountain looked so insignificant and those seracs we passed were enormous. It became one foot in front of the other and trying not to think too much of what was ahead. When I heard the first crevasse crossing was coming I knew I would just have to deal with it. Ladder, no ladder, an icy crack of doom, the thoughts of Joe Simpson in Touching the Void… It turned out to be a giant step across, although I pretty much jumped to increase my chances of not falling in. Because of how vast the mountain was until you got to a certain point I could not judge how steep or long a section would be until it was right in front of you. The last part before the summit ridge was so steep it felt as though I was climbing a ladder, or some kind of staircase of kicked in snow. It seemed eternal.
Looking up, that snowy-staircase seemed never ending. The thighs were like lead and the heart was pounding and I was glad to get onto the final big fat ridge towards the summit. It was cold up there. The wind was biting and I hadn’t realised how sheltered the climb up had been. It became more of ‘let’s just get this done and back down’. Walking along the shoulder towards the summit the last part of the climb looked like a rocky scramble but as we got closer this rocky scramble showed itself to be a climb that involved rocks covered in a sheet of ice.
This, is nothing I have done before. Ten metres from the summit I made the decision to turn around. I was not disappointed. My abilities and experience did not cover mixed climbing and it was too cold and too windy to stand around waiting to learn. And it would have been a dangerous decision to do so.
I got approximately 4238m high.
I swapped rope parties at this point. BG and two other experienced people from our group went to the summit. I joined the other two who were already planning on heading back down as the other novice in our group also felt the summit was beyond him. My new rope team consisted of my fellow novice and one of the kindest and experienced mountaineers in our group. Walking back down the shoulder the wind was biting. I had to cover my face with my hands. It was bitter and hostile yet the conditions were almost perfect. There was no cloud, the sun was out and it was dry and yet that mountain was not welcoming, a lesson that poor conditions have nothing good to offer.
Heading back down Mont Blanc du Tacul came with its own challenges. My fellow novice was struggling with the steepness and exposure of that ‘snowy-staircase’ just after the shoulder. It was very busy and very steep and the struggles he was having were the exact same ones that I had back in the Lake District in January. A LOT can be said for discovering that you are now out of your comfort zone. I was in the middle of the rope team with my fellow novice ahead and the mountaineer behind me. It was still freezing and the wind was biting and it was still exposed and still steep. The only way was to go down and that meant getting my fellow novice down and past this steep bit. Along with words of encouragement we developed a slow but productive way of getting him down and onto the easier path.
I think back to the moment I realised I was attached to a steep snow line with an ice-axe dug in, the icy wind beating my face, being completely exposed and loads of experienced parties flying past us, sometimes almost into us and there was no panic inside me. It was high and there was no panic. There was no fear. I have come a long away in the six months since the almost-panic-attack on the tiny English mountain.
Back onto the easier path the plod back down the mountain was welcome and more relaxed. Even when our mountaineer at the back caught his crampon in his gaiter and slipped down the side, luckily getting the rope caught on ice stopping his fall we still felt relaxed, if a little stunned. The other rope team quickly caught us up and we got back onto the Col du Midi together.
Looking back up at Mont Blanc du Tacul from the Col it looked bigger than it had ever felt while we were climbing it. It stunned me to think I had just been all the way up there and I felt pity for those that were just heading up. I didn’t want to go back up there for a long time. It was exhausting just thinking about it.
Unfortunately I was wrong to think the hardest part of the day was over.
Two days previously, when we were being tourists at Aguille du Midi I stood and watched the mountaineers and their parties crossing the Col du Midi and I couldn’t understand why they were moving so slowly. They would move and stop. This would happen over and over and their progress was slow. I too was about to embark on this slow progress across the Col.
The Col du Midi is massive. It is even bigger when you’ve just climbed your first 4000m peak. It didn’t look like there was a much of an incline on the way back to the Aguille du Midi ridge but it sure as hell felt like it. After walking for about 20 seconds, actually walking is too quicker a term, so let’s use plodding, the legs would be heavier than lead and the heart would be pounding. So we would stop, regain our ‘energy’ and plod on. And stop. And repeat. We became one of those slow moving rope parties that the tourists watch from the safety of the Aguille du Midi cable car station.
The other rope team including BG made quicker progress than us. It seemed to take forever to get to the ridge line. The gate to the ice tunnel at Aiguille du Midi never seemed to appear. The last part of this journey was the most difficult. The ridge line’s incline was steeper than the incline on the Col and my body no longer felt like my own. I was tired. It became 10 steps and and rest. Anything more and every step became a battle of will against my own legs. They weighed more than ever before. This, is high altitude. My thighs felt like I had done 50 consecutive squats every time I had only plodded 10 steps. The heart pounded in my chest. My body didn’t want to move. Just before it steepened up for one last time and the ice tunnel was in sight I actually thought that I just wanted mountain rescue to come and get me. Or that I was going to have to just rest on the ridge for an hour or so because I was too physically exhausted to go any further. I couldn’t understand how this was physically more difficult than Mont Blanc du Tacul itself. I was tired. Digging deep inside to get the legs moving up the steepest section of the Aiguille du Midi ridge and climbing up was difficult, and for a split second I had the realisation of how steep and exposed everything was. I had to bury that realisation and concentrate on moving.
We got onto the final part of the ridge and didn’t want to look up in case the gate wasn’t in sight yet. But it was. And it took every-last-part-of-me to lift my thighs to lift my feet and not stop again. I got through the gate and just stopped, exhausted, out of breath, eyes full of tears and said shouted to BG who was packing his kit away, ‘I’m here’.
This, is the most physically and mentally challenging thing I have ever done. And I would do it all over again in an instant.