Before I got into triathlon in a big way, I spent a few years quite obsessively rock climbing. Not that I’m a typical Type-A or anything… I also did a bit of mountaineering, and it was this big scary stuff in the mountains that really lit my enthusiasm for the sport.
I completed an alpine mountaineering course in 2011, learning how to use an ice axe and crampons, I climbed all over the UK and even around the world, including Thailand and Siurana, Spain, and even did a spot of ice climbing (yep, a frozen waterfall). I read every book on mountaineering that’s out there. Basically, lots of people die.
But apart from the depressing side to this dangerous activity, it really is amazing. My passion didn’t just die away when I started to take triathlon a bit more seriously, but it took a back seat while I ran around learning how to swim and ride a bike (still learning). I managed to do the odd indoor climbing session and went to some UK “mountains” a few times, but other than that, it just sat like dormant pipe dreams in my head.
I have a pretty ambitious bucket list, and this year, I decided to tick something major off it: to climb Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in Western Europe.
I booked the trip through Exodus and created a ‘project list’ to plan all the bits I needed to buy for the trip. Training? Nah. I could rely on my triathlon fitness, right?
Originally, I was going to do this climb three weeks after IRONMAN Austria (easy), but after having to pull out from Austria due to a tendon injury in my foot, I was quite glad to have this other challenge to focus on!
As the trip grew closer I felt a bit nervous as I have been ‘out of the game’ (so to speak) for a number of years, but instead of training specifically for it, I was mostly drinking wine. It’s kind of my off-season! Anyway, I felt in pretty good shape so wasn’t really worried about the physical side of it at all.
I flew out with a massive load of kit – only slightly less than I usually take for a triathlon – and met the other members of the group at the other end. Five blokes and me. Good. I knew I’d be in decent company; I get on well with guys and knew that aside from being able to take my banter, they’d be strong and hopefully not hold anyone back.
We headed straight into Chamonix to buy any last necessary bits (somehow I managed to spank a few hundred Euros – any opportunity to buy new kit!), and had a beer-fuelled team-bonding lunch. Perfection. I felt so happy to be there. The sun was shining and the mountains looked incredible.
We spent the first night in what I referred to as our ‘basecamp’ hotel in Les Houches, just a few kilometres outside of Chamonix. A nice dinner with a few glasses of wine all got us in the mood for the challenges of the days that lay ahead of us.(The view from the hotel was already psyching me up) While tucking into a nice dessert (not sure we’d earned that yet), we met our guide – after a quick Google we realised that 65 year old Bernard had actually done the seven summits, led expeditions up Everest, and was basically a mountaineering legend. Right, it’s on!
Time to head high
The next morning, we packed the bare essentials for the next couple of days, as we were heading up into the seclusion of the mountains. Yep, sleeping up there.
At this point, it’s really crucial to be brutal about what you’ll need. I’m talking the absolute bare minimum – that means no spare clothes and the tiniest wash bag imaginable. You definitely don’t want to be carrying any unnecessary weight here, as we were to carry all our stuff over the next few days. When your backpack has crampons, ice axes, warm layers, gloves, hat, waterproof jackets and food and water, it can feel pretty damn heavy.
We took a cable car and a ski lift up the mountain before commencing a two hour walk up the mountain, enjoying breathtaking alpine views with just the gentle ring of cowbells for company. As we started to climb up a fairly steep section, now over 2500m high, the edge of the glacier came into view and we could see where we would be spending the night – the Albert Premier mountain refuge hut, at 2800m high.
Surrounded by glacial plains and snow, it was quite a sight. Especially the fully stocked bar inside.(The first mountain hut is just out of sight on the left of the glacier)
After a quick lunch and kit faff we got kitted up in crampons and headed over the to the glacier for some skills training. I felt totally comfortable in crampons and with my axe – it was almost like I hadn’t had a seven-year break from them! It felt good to be back, breathing that thin, mountain air and just gazing endlessly at the stunning scenery around us. And laughing at people falling over, of course.(Crampons and ice axe skills on the glacier) We headed back to the hut and settled in for a beer and a game of cards. This, quite quickly, would become our nightly routine and was the source of much hilarity (and plenty of abuse). Group bonding was going well and spirits were high.
After an impressive three-course dinner (the mountain refuge huts supply vats of soup, hearty main meals – a vegetarian specific one for me – and tasty desserts), we resumed our competitive card-playing before heading to the dorm for an early night.
Mountain hut life
Here’s a bit about mountain hut life. It’s bizarre for so many reasons. During the trip I shared bunk-bed dorm rooms with up to 25 men; no-one has had a shower for days and we are all still wearing the same clothes that we’ve climbed mountains in. At times I had no running water for three days, so even washing your hands was out of the question. The closest I got to a ‘shower’ was rationing myself three wet wipes per night, per mountain hut. The toilets were sometimes utterly grotesque – non-flushable and caked in excrement from years of use without being cleaned. Yep, gag-fest.
Everyone goes to bed at around 8pm (I think the latest we stayed up was 9pm – wild!), as many mountaineers will head out at 2am to make summit attempts before the sun warms the snow up too much. This is to avoid the danger of avalanches, rock fall, and poor weather in the afternoons (when typically, storms or rain would come across every day). It also means you’re back for beer-‘o’-clock at 1pm. Winning.(Hut life = playing cards and beers)
Here’s a word of advise as well – earplugs are essential as all you can hear is snoring, the rustling and faffing of kit, and zips opening and closing every hour from about 2am to 7am as groups all head out at different times. Not annoying at all. Honest.
From country to country
The weather forecast for day two looked absolutely rubbish – in fact, our guide thought we may even have to spend the entire day in the hut. Even at our level of incessant competitive card-playing (and beer drinking), we were less than enthused by the idea of this!
Luckily, when we got up the next day, the weather was cloudy but not pouring with rain/snow as anticipated, so we headed off after breakfast into the clouds. All roped together for safety, I vaguely wondered how I was going to pee while tied to five men.
Our route today was supposed to take in a popular summit but unfortunately, due to the white-out that we now found ourselves in up high on the glacier, our guide decided to take a slightly “lower” route across a col. This included some rock climbing and scrambling up a very steep section of terrain, before reaching a ridge line at 3300m and descending back down onto another glacial plain. We nailed it and no-one died. Brilliant start.
We had now crossed from France into Switzerland, and couldn’t see beyond about 50m. Our guide had to do some nifty compass-bearing navigating to get us down onto the glacier, and as we faffed with really serious gloves on/gloves off dilemmas, we headed down breaking trail in deep snow. Then, all of a sudden, in dramatic movie-style fashion, the clouds cleared and the mountain panorama was revealed.(Topping out at the hut in Switzerland!)
An expanse of snow and mountain vista was spread before us, even more impressive because we could see the refuge hut perched on the mountain before us, in the middle of absolutely nowhere. As we made the final steep ascent to the hut and topped out on the terrace, the view was absolutely incredible. Refuge de Trient, at 3200m and zero phone signal.
As we had arrived at the hut by lunchtime, even the most hardcore card players amongst us agreed that we couldn’t peak too early, so after some food we decided to go and climb the rocky summit behind the hut; a fun scramble all the way to the top. We messed around trying to get some really precarious and dangerous-looking rock climbing photos which actually involved us standing on a rock and tilting the camera a bit. All about the Insta shots though, right?!
Back at the hut I had my obligatory wetwipe “shower” before we resumed our card playing habit with renewed vigour and a few beers. Trying to understand the rules of a new card game was a challenge – can we blame the altitude for mind fog?
There was no running water at this hut and a 1.5L bottle of Evian was charged at a very reasonable 10 Euros (yes, really!), so once we learned that beer was cheaper than water, we adopted a new hydration strategy.
A fantastic dinner and an early night ensued, before a 4.45am alarm the following day.
We left early and the air felt chilly, so after wrapping up well we set off with phenomenal views of the Matterhorn (and masses of posing in front of it), as we made our descent back down onto the glacier.
After down-climbing a pretty sketchy section of rock and steep snow, and only one or two “he fell over” moments, we were back on the French side and made our way back to the hut that we’d stayed in the first night for a quick pit stop. Then it was away from the snow and ice, and back down the valley into the greenery and sunshine.(Downclimbing the col that forms the boundary between France and Switzerland)
My heels were in a pretty bad way – mountaineering boots are really stiff and had basically eliminated all skin from the back of my heels. Time to suck up the pain and crack on!
We enjoyed a banter and beer-fuelled lunch (again. Spot the trend?) before heading back to the hotel for a long-awaited shower (wow that felt good), and enjoyed a few (more) drinks with dinner as we shared excitement about what was to come.
Our legend guide came along after dinner and gave us some strict instructions about what to pack. Summary – not much. This was it. The Mont Blanc summit bid would start tomorrow, and it was pretty crucial to get the kit right – no more trial runs, no more faffing with the wrong gear. It was becoming all-too real now.
It's go time
We set off mid-morning, heading to the cable car in Les Houches where we met two additional guides, who, in typecast Italian (Mario Kart) style, were called Luigi and Giovanni. We headed up in the cable car before getting on the Mont Blanc tramway which would take us to Nid d’Aigle at 2380m. From here we then did a fairly challenging walk up steep, rocky terrain before arriving on the snow field and a token Mont Blanc security checkpoint at just under 3200m.
Ahead of us was the hut which we would sleep in before our summit attempt the next day – the Tete Rousse hut, set against the dramatic snowy mountainous backdrop of the Mont Blanc massif. It looked so much nicer than it actually was. I mean, we had mountain refuge hut standards to benchmark against now!(The snowfield with the hut on the right hand side)
We settled in, got an obligatory beer (obvs) and started our routine card playing, but the atmosphere was very slightly less relaxed, as we all quietly immersed ourselves in the knowledge of what we were about to tackle. I was also not feeling the love for the state of my feet but knew I’d have to ignore it! After yet another surprisingly good dinner (think cheese on slate – posh!), we headed to our bunks early in preparation for our 4am start the next day.
Aiming for the summit
We were up at 4am in the pitch black, getting kit together and forcing down a breakfast of cereal, and cake with Nutella spread on it. It’s the small wins in life.
As we set off with head torches on our helmets, roped together now in our smaller teams (the guide to client ratio for summit day is 1:2 due to the sketchy nature of the ascent!), the atmosphere was electric.(Early morning start, ready for the summit)
I felt really upbeat and so excited about the day ahead of us. We set out on the snow field before arriving at some rocky, loose terrain. Quickly, we arrived at one of the most famous sections of the Mont Blanc ascent – the famous Grand Couloir. This seemingly innocuous section of terrain, which involves a traverse of around 100m, is one of the most common causes of death on the mountain. It is known for its unforgiving rock fall, especially later on in the day as the snow above warms up, melts, and dislodges rocks from beneath it, showering any intrepid climbers attempting the traverse deep below. Nothing to be afraid of then.
As we approached it, a stream of small rocks came showering down the mountain. Even our guide looked a bit disconcerted as he stopped, turned to us to pull a face I can only describe as ‘the emoji with one eyebrow raised and a hand on the chin’, and got his helmet out of his pack.
We were instructed to move very, very quickly through this section to avoid risk of being pulled down below by a rogue rock or two. We virtually ran, which, roped together with crampons on, and on a very narrow ledge with a thousand foot drop below you, isn’t the easiest thing in the world.
But we made it. Adrenaline was pumping, my heart was pounding, but we laughed in relief – we were safe. Phew.
Right, onto the next bit.
So this section is called ‘The Wall’. Because literally, that’s what it is. A 600m steep, close to vertical, section of rock which would require a high grade scramble/low grade rock climbing. We would remain roped together so we could move quickly. The terrain was steep and there was a terrifying drop beneath us – we knew that one false move could be potentially fatal, but as rock climbers, we felt comfortable with our hands on the rock and moved quickly and easily up the face. I was, in fact, absolutely in my element – I was really enjoying the feeling of rock beneath my hands and discovering my way up the rock with different movements and techniques. It felt wonderful.(The 'wall' from the Tete Rouuse hut (number 1) to the Gouter hut (number 2) towering at the top of the rock face)
After a two hour slog we arrived at the top and crossed a short snow field to the highest hut on the Mont Blanc ascent route – the eminent Gouter hut, which looked like something out of an extraterrestial world, perched precariously on the edge of the mountain. Famed by its Bond movie appearance, it really did look impressive.
Here we were due to stop for an hour break to refuel and de-camp any unwanted kit for the summit attempt. As we were coming back to this same hut later on in the day to sleep overnight, it meant we could eliminate any stuff from our packs that wouldn’t be required for the ascent. Time to chuck out the kitchen sink then.
I sat down with some food and a hot chocolate, and all of a sudden, I felt very, very ropey. I think it was the altitude – we were now at 3800m, the highest we had been, and had already exerted ourselves on the two hour climb. I felt shaky, shivery (even though I wasn’t cold), and dizzy. I took an Ibuprofen, ate as much food as I physically could, and sat there feeling a bit nervous at what was to come. Would I be able to cope with the altitude? Would I even make it?
No more time to ponder. Off we went.
Almost immediately we were faced with the most terrifically steep snow wall. It looked phenomenal, the climbers ahead looked like ants. It was so steep that the trail in the snow ahead of us was set out in large, sweeping zig zags all the way up the mountain side – the easiest way to tackle such steep terrain. We made (really) slow progress, the altitude made breathing hard but the good news was that I no longer felt unwell. I felt great, and we chatted easily and excitedly as we moved upwards.(If you look closely in the top left on the mountain side you can see people moving diagonally up the mountain)
After what felt like a very long time, we topped out on a plateau and the other group caught us as we made fresh yellow marks in the snow and refuelled, looking ahead at the ridiculously steep and numerous ascents that lay before us. We had a short descent (which I described as ‘recovery’ – god I’ve been a triathlete for too long!) before another extremely steep wall of snow, and as we encroached the next ridge line, I was beginning to really feel it. My calves were burning with lactate, my lungs were bursting, and my head was spinning. Uh oh.We paused briefly at what we then started to call ‘the pee hut’. It was an emergency shelter with a toilet in it, and even approaching it, all we could smell was the overpowering stench of stale urine. We deposited our trekking poles underneath the hut and brandished our ice axes. Things were about to be taken to a whole new level.
Another huge, almost vertical snow slope towered above us. The terrain was so steep that we were moving at a snails pace, trudging with one foot in front of the other. I was breathing hard and feeling dizzy, we were now over 4500m high – by far the highest I have ever been in my life.(Wall after wall of snow slopes faced us)
I began to struggle. I didn’t even notice the pain of my blisters anymore.
We eventually reached a short plateau but our guide pushed on, up onto the next steep section. A few metres in I stopped. He yanked on the rope and in his thick Italian accent, said “no, don’t stop, keep moving!”. I ignored him, leaning over my ice axe, breathing heavily and closing my eyes to avoid the ‘room swimming’ dizziness. He continued to tug the rope and shout, but I told him I needed a minute to recover my breath. Once I could get my breath back I felt fine, but he didn’t seem to want to accommodate for this total normal behaviour!
I later realised that in mountaineering, with ‘rookie’ mountaineers, you have to really push on. If you let someone who is struggling and inexperienced stop, even for a short moment, they will want to keep stopping and will eventually not get moving again. I knew I was different – I was a fit athlete, I just needed around 30 seconds to recover my breath, lower my heart rate, and when I moved again I felt absolutely fine.
It was relentless. We hadn’t stopped even for a sip of water for two hours. The altitude was really getting to me, I felt so dizzy and light headed. Our chatter had quietened down into silence; just heavy, monotonous breathing now. More steep walls of snow lay ahead of us – I could see the summit ridge but before it lay a series of steep walls of snow, and I felt demoralised even looking at them.
I looked at the last section of steep snow, which seemed to stretch up forever, and said aloud “I don’t even know how I’m going to make it”. I felt exhausted, I wanted to lie down right here in the snow and close my eyes. My climbing partner informed me it was less than 60m to the summit. I could make it.(The snow was so steep we had to kick steps into the slope)
I closed my eyes, took a breath, and stepped forward.
That last section was painful. I was blocking everything out and just taking one step at a time.
Finally, we reached the summit ridge. Even this was not for the faint hearted. The terrain had evened out a little so we weren’t climbing such a steep slope, but we were now walking along a path that was as wide as both feet, with thousands of metres of drop either side. It was pretty intimidating, especially when your head is swirling with dizziness! I basically felt drunk, but this time, no alcohol was involved!
A few more metres of walking along the knife edge ridge, and the mountain plateaued out. Our guide stopped, put down his axe, and said “we are here”, like we’d just pulled into a service station or something.
I burst into tears. I felt so unbelievably emotional – not only from the hardship of getting here, but because I was living a dream. This was a dream come true for me. It has been on my bucket list for years, and I couldn’t quite believe I was standing on the summit of the highest mountain in Western Europe, at 4800m.(Summit elation!)
The best bit (apart from having full 4G phone signal, of course), was that we were alone on the summit.
My climbing partner hugged me, then gave me two Ibuprofen (at least I think that’s what it was). We had a can of coke and a Snickers bar (best summit picnic ever), and sat there in absolute adulation of the view, the situation, the achievement.
The conditions were just perfect – we were just in mid-layers, the sun felt amazing and there was absolutely no wind. A few other people arrived and we did the obligatory summit photos. Our guide motioned for us to get moving, so after one last deep breath and a gaze around in wonder at the top of Europe, we headed back towards the sketchy ridge to start our descent.
I was absolutely buzzing. Words can’t even describe that feeling of elation as I stood on the summit of Mont Blanc, having conquered it and ticked something incredible off my list of lifetime achievements.(Our summit team - legends!)
What goes up must come down
As we descended the ridge we soon came upon the guys in our second group, and although one of them had been struggling badly since the start of the ascent, I was stoked that they were going to make it as well.
We made fast progress going down, and a little further down we saw the last guy in our group, who was with our esteemed French guide. He, too, looked like he was going to make it. It made my day. With things like this, it’s not always about a personal achievement, and although that meant the world to me, it genuinely made my day that I was going to share the achievement with these awesome people. I couldn’t have been happier. Sometimes, sharing these moments is just as important as experiencing it yourself.(Seeing the others coming up made my day)
The steep terrain was hard work on the descent, and the sun had made the snow quite slippy, so we were a little uneasy on our feet coming down the steep sections. An hour or so in and the big toe on my left foot was starting to become excruciating from slamming against the hard boot the whole way down.
As we descended, the mountain rescue helicopter flew over and looked like it was hovering just short of the summit, on the other side to where we had ascended. While my big toe was hurting and it was a pretty serious situation, I wasn’t sure I was in need of mountain rescue just yet.
All jokes aside, it’s always a bit scary seeing that sort of thing, as you know someone is having a bit of an epic for them to have to call out the search and rescue service to be helicoptered off the mountain.
We went to collect the poles from under the ‘pee hut’ and mine had disappeared! Talk about marring a good mood! I was really annoyed, mostly because I had bought them in Chamonix on the day I’d arrived – they were brand new and now I’d have to make the descent ‘sans poles’. I mean, how rude. There were many expletives.
My climbing partner kindly offered me one of his so at least I had something. I was fuming for a bit and then made the executive decision to simply get over it, otherwise it would ruin an amazing experience. On we plodded.
We made excellent progress and before we knew it the final ridge back to the hut was in view. The final trudge down the snow field towards the hut felt amazing. We made it. 10 hours since our start that morning, with eight hours of moving time. We had reached the summit from the second hut in four hours and made it back down again in two.(The famous Gouter hut perched on the mountainside)
I felt absolutely, utterly trashed. A bit delirious, actually. But it was the best feeling in the world. I couldn’t believe what an amazing day we’d had, the experience I’d been through, and the achievement I’d logged. Celebratory beer time.
After a wet wipe shower down, we ordered some beers and some food, and waited for the others to come in. As the others eventually came in and the hours went by, we shared stories of the day and the atmosphere was wonderful. My body felt so so battered and my eyelids heavy, and clearly everyone else felt the same as we only managed about two rounds of cards. Off to our bunks at 8pm, carrying that feeling of warm satisfaction with us and ready for a night of being constantly disturbed by other climbers. Bliss.
Back to reality
With a comparatively leisurely start of 8am the next day (let’s take a moment to appreciate 11 hours of lying down), we got up for breakfast at 7am and I went outside to see a fresh dump of snow on the mountain. A fair bit had come overnight which meant that the rock climb we had done the day before would now be done in crampons, as the rock was half covered in fresh snow. Just to make it even more challenging. Hmm.
Down climbing is far trickier than climbing upwards and there is so much greater margin for error – again, as I faced the very steep cliff below me I knew that one false move could see us tumbling down. Our trusty guide clung on to the rope he and I were attached to, probably thinking I might very well stack it at any moment and that his life was fully at risk here.
The down climb was actually really enjoyable and we were overtaking other groups that were also descending. Take that! We made really fast progress and after a very quick dash across the Grand Couloir (no rock fall this time), we made it back to the Tete Rousse hut for a much needed snack and cup of coffee while we waited for the others.
After around an hour’s wait the others arrived and we were all glad to be approaching the final descent and walk back to the train without being roped together. We chatted as we moved, spirits were high, and as we descended, the weather felt warmer and the air felt ‘thicker’.
We arrived at the train station, tired and happy. After being informed that we had a 1.5 hour wait for the train we had only one thing on our minds – beer. So we went in search of some and as it happened, there was a café close by so we enjoyed a few beers in the sun, a pretty sketchy snow slope running competition, and a lot of piss-taking. I realised that I’d miss these guys – the experiences we had shared, not just in the mountains but also in the bonding we had created as a group, was pretty special.(Awesome times with awesome people)
We made sure we celebrated well that night in the hotel, with too much cheese and wine, celebratory shots of Genepi, and some last laughs and stories about everything we had achieved together. And obviously, some pretty raucous card playing.
For me, this was a truly incredible experience. The summit moment itself is something I will never, ever forget – very few moments in my life have come close to that feeling. Mountaineering is a completely different beast to triathlon – yes, endurance swimming, cycling and running is hard and is a great personal achievement, but when you add in the teamwork and comradery that is absolutely essential in the mountains, the massive challenge of altitude, of being so far removed from civilisation and home comforts in the mountain huts, and aside from all that, the sheer danger of risking your life in the mountains, and it really puts everything into perspective.
Since I awakened it, the fire inside me for mountain climbing has been burning strong, but this experience has really reawakened it. I am planning more trips already – I can’t explain how much it means to me, but I am so excited to push myself further than ever before…