Kristin J. Forbes

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Chamonix and Mt. Blanc (August 2010): The Gory Details

Steve and I celebrated our 10th anniversary (and a big birthday that I won't specify) by returning to Chamonix to attempt to summit Mt. Blanc-which at 15,782 feet (4,810 meters) is the highest peak in the Alps and in Western Europe. Here is a photo of us in Chamonix eight years earlier when we talked about one day returning to climb the gorgeous peak that we looked up at when we hiked the Haute Route. Before summiting, however, we needed to do several days of training in mountaineering and rock climbing-as well as to acclimatize. We began by meeting our fantastic guide-Geoff Unger-from Mountain Madness.

 On training day #1 we wasted no time and practiced our rock climbing skills by crossing the Aiguilles Crochuet. Here we are starting out, scaling the ridges, and at the top. For training day #2 we started on the snow, but quickly shifted to rock climbing on a ledge of "fins" (in the front of the picture). We then practiced our mountaineering and ice axe skills as we hiked through the Vallée Blanche, down some slopes and across glaciers (yes-those dots are people) to spend the night at the Terrino Hut. The sunset from the hut was spectacular. On training day #3, we begin by catching sight of our goal-Mt. Blanc in the background-and then maneuvered through a field of cravasses and beautiful ice formations. We returned to Chamonix, hoping these days training at altitude had allowed us to acclimatize enough to try to ascend Mt. Blanc.

The next morning the weather report looked great so we decided to get into position to make an ascent. We opted not to take the most popular (and easiest) route from the Gouter hut as we worried the narrow tracks would be overcrowded and dangerous during this first streak of good weather in a couple of weeks. Instead we opted to take the longer and more difficult La Voie des Trois Monts-which would have limited climbers if we left early and moved quickly. We took a series of cable cars to the scenic l'Aiguille du Midi and then went through the "bat cave" for serious climbers before heading down the narrow ledge that would bring us to the trail to the Cosmique Hut. On the trail we had a great view of the start of the summit climb that we'd be doing before dawn the next day. We took a break on the hut's deck, before trying to catch a couple of hours sleep in the bunk room.

Summit day began with a 12:30am wakeup and quick breakfast before heading out at 1:15am by the light of your headlamp and the stars. There is no description for the scene-the crisp, pure air emanating from the glacier, the hulking shadows of black mountains surrounded by countless glimmering stars, and the nervous anticipation of the hikers as we ponder what we are about to attempt and fumble with our harnesses and crampons in the dark cold. As we headed up our first mountain-- Mount Blanc du Tacul-- the only sound breaking the deep silence was the crunching of crampons on the hard snow. (Most of the following pictures were taken on the way down when there was light.) We summitted "The Tacul" in about two hours, and then had a more gentle path for a brief period before another major push to the second mountain-Mont Maudit. Look closely and you can see some tiny people near the steep ridge at the top. The scramble over the rock ridge was a tough climb as chunks of ice continually crashed down from above. As a reward, when we reached the top of the Maudit around 5:15am, the sun started to peak through with the lights of CoeurMayer in Italy below and a stunning view of the Matterhorn in Switzerland. We then began the final push to the summit-which looked deceptively close but involved an unforgiving, seemingly endless slog. By this time, it was getting harder to breathe-which was a great excuse to take a couple breaks and enjoy the stunning scenery as the sun rose. At 7:15am we finally made it! "Top of the World" takes on a whole new meaning on the narrow ridge that comprises the summit. Unfortunately we couldn't enjoy it for long as even wearing everything in our packs wasn't enough to keep out the frigid cold and vicious winds (which quickly froze the batteries in the camera and even made our chocolate bars too hard to chew.) We headed back down, for a quick stop at the hut and then finally a return to Chamonix. Some people have told us we are crazy to spend a vacation that leaves you more exhausted than when you started, but does it get any more beautiful than this final climb?????