My heart hammered against my ribcage as a wave of adrenaline coursed through my body. Beads of sweat slowly trickled down the side of my face as my eyes scanned the rocks for the next suitable hand grip. I daren't look down, only up at a seemingly endless ridge of rock that rose steeply into the cloudless afternoon sky. It was all I could do to stay focused on the next five seconds of my life, as right now that was all that mattered. One false move and the consequences could, as two climbers earlier in the day found out, be disastrous.
To feel alive in life we must live for the moment, we must put ourselves in situations where life hangs in the balance, sometimes literally, and where we are challenged to overcome our fears. I had come to climb Mont Blanc for those exact reasons. Not that I felt my life was mundane or lacking in adventure, far from it, yet I had been longing to embark on a mountain expedition for quite some time. Books I had read of epic mountaineering quests had only served to further this desire. Whilst Mont Blanc might not be in the same league as the great peaks of the Himalaya it still represented a sizeable challenge, if not for its height then for its terrain and landscape.
In order to succeed I would not only have to push myself to the limits, both physically and mentally, but I would have to learn new skills and techniques to overcome the challenges that stood in between myself and the summit. I had summited a higher peak than this before, Kilimanjaro, but that didn't require what I would call mountaineering skills, such as the ability to use ice axes and crampons. The challenge there had been the altitude, which would also be a contributing factor here, but not on the same scale with Mont Blanc being over a thousand metres shorter at 4,810m above sea level.
With a need to master new skills before making an attempt at the summit the first three days of the week were spent on Glacier du Tour and several of the surrounding peaks. The walk up to the glacier was as close to picturesque perfect as you can get. Lush green meadows peppered with an array of beautiful flowers, cows with great bells hanging from their necks lowing as they grazed and glacial melt water rivers snaking and trickling their way down the valley, all against the backdrop of snow-capped peaks rising high into the soft blue sky. In that moment, with long deep breathes of crisp mountain air filling my lungs, I was free from the rest of the world, totally immersed in the landscape.
To bastardise the saying our training was very much a case of out of the frying pan and onto the glacier. In order to see if our group had the ability to learn and adapt Bernard, our affable French guide, was throwing us in at the deep end. Whereas two hours before we had been walking through the lush lower slopes of the mountains, now we were throwing ourselves headfirst down steep snow slopes in order to better understand how to use our ice axes to arrest a fall. Whilst great fun we were all very much aware that the skills we were learning were not to be taken lightly, as ultimately they could be the difference between life and death on the mountain.
Armed with new skills and growing confidence the second day saw us traverse the glacier, head up and over Col du Superieur du Tour and to the summit of Aiguille du Tour. I have been lucky enough to see some pretty amazing views and landscapes during my life, but sat on top of Aiguille du Tour, looking out over the Alps, with the Matterhorn and Monte Rosa dominating the skyline, was up there with the best. I was captivated by the scale of the mountain range before me, stretching as far as the eye could see, drawn in by the countless peaks. Sat here, with the wind against my back, the sun on my face and eyes full of majestic scenery I was perfectly happy.
Our final day of training was undoubtedly the hardest. The weather on the previous two days had been glorious sunshine, but we were now greeted by howling winds, heavy snow and a thick mist that reduce visibility to no more than twenty metres. Any thoughts that we might wait out the storm we soon quashed as Bernard instructed us all to get our kit on. I have always had a pretty good sense of direction, but within minutes of leaving the refuge I had no idea where we were going and but for being roped together, and Bernard having his GPS, there is no way we would ever have known where we were going. The real drama was still to come as we reached the top of Petite Fourche and faced up, or down rather, an icy couloir that had to be negotiated.
Despite being roped up to my fellow climbers my entire focus as I descended the ice wall was on what I had to do. It came down to the most basic of thought processes, kick my feet in, hack my ice axe in and repeat, slowly getting lower as I did so. And then, without any warning the rope went tight and before I could even react I knew I was about to be pulled off and sent hurtling down the couloir. There was no fear, just a clear and focused thought that I had to turn myself over and jam my ice-axe in, only I couldn't get any purchase in the ice. Thankfully Charles, who was directly below me on the rope had managed to arrest his fall and I rather unceremoniously clattered into him. At least we had stopped.
With hearts pounding, a bitterly cold wind whipping icy cold snow up the couloir and a crisis averted we all took a moment to gather ourselves and calm down. It took a while to untangle the ropes and get ourselves sorted, in which time we were all blast covered with a layer of frosty ice, and it was with some relief that we finally got back under way. The upside of the fall was that we were now down the worst part of the ice wall and it took no time at all to get down onto the glacier, from where it was a comparatively easy decent back down to where we had started two days before. Having survived our training we all knew it was time to focus on the real challenge, climbing Mont Blanc itself.
Mont Blanc Ascent: Day One
"I'm alive. After the last three hours that means so much, as for so long I feared for my life. They say to truly feel alive you must come close to death. Whilst I don't think I would have died had I fallen off at the time of climbing up the ridge to Gouter Refuge it didn't seem that way. In fact I can't even remember a time in my life where I felt even close to what I did today. From Tete Rousse to Gouter was 700m of ascent, and given it was only 1.5km in distance it was a gradient of 50%. In total we covered 8km, but it isn't always about the distance, but the difficulty."
The climb up the rocky ridge to Gouter Refuge was one of the toughest moments of my life, not so much physically, although it was tough, but from a mental point of view. I committed the cardinal sin of not focusing on the next five seconds of my life, on where I next needed to grip. Instead, gripped by fear, I let thoughts of Kim and becoming a Dad to enter my mind. Tears welled in my eyes as I began to contemplate all I had to lose if I wasn't to return. You might think that sounds dramatic, yet hours before we took on the ridge two climbers had fallen to their death here, and to make it worse a helicopter buzzed below looking for the bodies. It took all of my mental strength to refocus my mind on the task at hand and to overcome the fear.
Sat in the Refuge, having finally made it up the last ice-covered rocks without any mishaps the fear subsided into a sense of achievement. Part of my wanting to take on so many challenges this year was finding out more about myself, as it's only when we are faced with adversity that we really discover who we are. There was still a long way to go to the summit, but already I knew I could push myself further than I might have first imagined. Much like each training session has made me fitter this year, so to do that climb helped make me mentally stronger.
Despite that I went to bed with a head full of worry of what was still to come on the climb to the summit. Bernard had said it would take focus and control to reach the summit, for whilst the ridge might have caused me a fair deal of concern there was still plenty of serious climbing to do, including crossing several ridges with sheer drops on either side.
Mont Blanc Ascent: Day Two
"As we neared the ridge my heart quickened at the sight of the drops on either side. One slight mistake here and the consequences were not worth thinking about. My fears from the day before had begun to resurface again as I fought to zone in one the steps in front of me. Bernard had talked the night before about zen and maintaining a clear mind when walking on the ridge. It was a lot longer than I had expected and rose higher than I could make out. Now that day had broken the summit was in clear view. Every step was taking us closer, yet it seemed we still had an eternity to go."
Our summit attempt had begun in the dead of night with the mountain veiled in a cloak of darkness. It was clear and windless night and as we set off the was silence as each and everyone of us focused solely on what lay ahead. As we walked the only noise was the rhythmic crunch of crampons in the snow and the gentle clink of ice axes. Ahead in the distance a line of head torches snaked their way upwards, the only reminder that we were not alone on the mountain. Whilst I had visualised what it would be like to reach the summit I hadn't given much thought to what it would take to get there and now, as the mountain reared up in front of us, it began to hit home just how steep the climb was.
It's easy to lose track of time walking in the dark, yet I knew it wouldn't be long before day broke when, looking across to my left, there was a blood red streak appearing on the horizon. It would be some time until the sun rose but the first signs of day breaking were evident. As the darkness gradually faded the silhouette of the summit starred down at us, a stark reminder that we were by no means there yet. The ridge was looming ahead of us as the morning grew brighter, highlighting the severity of it.
Despite their being steps cut into the ridge, which ran along the edge of the mountain where snow and been blown into an icy peak, it didn't make it any easier climbing up and walking along. My heart raced as I focused solely on making sure each step was made. I stole a glance to my left and instantly regretted it as I almost lost balance. Instantly I began wondering just how our guide would save us if one of us fell.
"It's hard to describe the exact feeling I experienced as we summited. First and foremost there was a huge sense of relief, I could suddenly afford to switch off for a while. I no longer had to focus on every step. With that ability to switch off came an almighty wave of emotion that took me by surprise. After hugging Nicolas, our guide, and Rhys, my climbing partner, I remember dropping to one knee as tears well upped inside and thoughts of Gigi (my late Gran) filled my mind. Whereas before, climbing the ridge, I had choked the tears back, here I let them flow. Her lucky charm had been in my pocket the entire time and just as I had done when summiting Kilimanjaro, I felt closer to her here. Next came the excitement, we had made it to the top of Mont Blanc and my god it felt good.
"The sun had begun its slow ascent into the sky and I could see for miles on end if every direction. It was as if I was stood in the centre of the world and everything unfolded from here. It was a perfect moment, my mind suddenly empty, no thoughts as it took in the spectacular views, washing over me, instilling a sense of awe and calmness. This was pure escapism from the rest of the world. Stood here on the top of Mont Blanc the only world that mattered to me was the one that I could see stretching far away into the horizon."
I wish I could have stood there for hours, yet as the wind picked up we knew it was time to make out way down. Summiting is only half of the job and it means nothing if you don't make it back down. It was time to focus again, only this time it was made so much easier knowing we had achieved our goal, I had achieved my goal. I don't think what I had achieved really sunk in for a few days. It was when we had returned to Chamonix, looking up at Mont Blanc from the valley below that it hit home, but when it did a huge smile broke out across my face as the enormity of the achievement registered. This had, in many ways, been the perfect week and it was capped by the fact we had conquered the mountain.