After our brief foray on the Midi Plan traverse, Ben and I have been itching to start our mountaineering season properly. Unfortunately, the weather has been anything but compliant, so when the forecast gave us a brief window, we decided to walk out of our back door and climb Mont Blanc. (Les Houches is the starting point for the Gouter Route, the most popular route up the mountain.)
We set off in blissful, almost too hot sunshine; leaving the town behind, we hiked through Alpine meadows vibrant with flowers and butterflies. More exciting was the sight of at least half a dozen baby ibex wandering onto the path, who were more than happy to pose for pictures.
As is typical of the higher climbs in the Alps, an ascent of Mont Blanc involves a night in an Alpine hut, or refuge, followed by a pre-dawn summit bid in order to get off the mountain before the dangerous midday heat arrives. On the Gouter Route, climbers can either stay at the Tete Rousse Hut, at 3167m, or the Gouter Hut, at 3817m. The two huts are separated by a rocky ridge, which is, under normal circumstances, an easy scramble, particularly since metal cables have been installed on the steepest sections. Staying at the Tete Rousse can mean a better night’s sleep for those who have trouble with altitude, but it also means a longer summit day and the necessity of navigating the ridge in the darkness.
We reached the Tete Rousse at 3pm, but it already felt like evening. To our dismay, the sky was filling with thick, grey clouds, and a light rain had started to fall. We decided to press on, however, figuring that the ridge would take us a couple of hours at most. Unfortunately, we were quickly to find that the conditions were much poorer than we’ve experienced in the past. The ridge was a mixture of ice, rock and snow, often too bare for crampons but occasionally alarmingly slippery without them. Worse, the rain had turned to hail, which the wind whipped into our faces like hundreds of tiny needles. Our hands were numb in our sodden gloves, and the refuge didn’t seem to get any closer, however high we climbed.
We reached it eventually, though, stumbling out of the storm and into the gear room with immense relief, tearing off wet clothes and pulling on all the dry down and wool we possessed. After inhaling a bag of dried fruit and some noodles we were feeling much more cheerful, and Ben decided that he would brave the weather and attempt to summit during the night. I had already decided that I had no interest in going further; for me, mountaineering is about the views, and the sense of peace, and neither of these things is possible in a storm. I tried to talk Ben out of it, hating the thought of him heading up the dark, lonely mountain, but he was adamant, and I reasoned with myself that he is an accomplished climber; that he has been in much worse, and that he has no desire to die. So off he went, and I climbed into my bunk, to try to sleep.
Not long later, a peal of thunder cracked the sky, followed shortly by the kind of lightning that leaves an afterglow on your eyes. Where was Ben? As I listened to the storm rage, I felt more and more nauseous. My head spun with the worst kinds of thoughts. Then, about an hour after he had left, I heard the door of the dormitory creak open. I looked at the shadowy figure that walked in, and recognised its posture and its form with a flood of relief. At the first signs of lightning, he said, he had virtually run through the snow back to the hut.
The storm raged all night, hail pounding against the tiny window. At one point, the window flew open, and even I – about six metres away – felt a few flakes of snow on my face. At around seven, the room started to wake, and with the snow still coming down outside, jokes were made about “our new home, the Gouter hut.” Then the wind dropped, the guides announced that they were taking their clients down, and a mass exodus began; everyone knew that a big storm was coming in, and if we didn’t get down then, we probably wouldn’t for a few days. Naturally, my main concern was how the cats would get fed…
Through the clouds that swirled around the hut, we could see that the ridge was now about a foot deeper in snow than it had been the evening before. I was nervous about the climb, but ended up really enjoying it, remembering equally the satisfaction of a solid axe placement between two boulders and the unnerving skittering of crampons on rock. High up, the weather was a real issue, with winds strong enough to blow me off balance, but as we got lower, its sting became less painful, and sometimes the clouds would clear enough to grant us views of sun soaked fields far below. Several hours later, we were walking through those same fields, exhausted and hungry, and wondering at how benign the clouds shielding the high mountains looked.
“For Love is of the valley, come thou down And find him; by the happy threshold, he, Or hand in hand with Plenty in the maize, Or red with spirted purple of the vats, Or foxlike in the vine; nor cares to walk With Death and Morning on the silver horns…” – Tennyson