Climbing Mt. Blanc

This is a rough transcript of a presentation I did at The Sub on 18th February 2014

I don't know if you've heard of type 2 fun. Type 1 fun is the fun that we're all familiar with - eating ice cream in the sunshine with friends, that sort of deeply pleasant thing.

Type 2 fun is when you are hurting, tired, sweaty, kind of regretting life in a lot of ways, the sort of fun where you question your decisions. But afterwards, when you're drinking a beer, your muscles are all warm and glowing, you kind of think, that wasn't so bad, that was fun. That's type 2 fun! I kind of think of it as the Stockholm syndrome of fun.

Now I think if you get into most sorts of sports deeply enough, it kind of becomes type 2 fun - running marathons, triathlons, that sort of thing - those fall deeply into the realm of type 2 fun. But I can't think of a sport that embraces type 2 fun more wholly, more unabashedly, more completely, than mountaineering.

It's hard to argue that shivering in a blizzard at the top of an icy cliff above chasms of death in the worst sorts of weather the planet has is anything more than some sort of masochistic mental illness. But it's a genuine sport.

The obvious question is why, and most mountaineers defer to one of the most famous quotes from Sir Edmund Hillary. The guy had just climbed the tallest mountain on the planet - a mountain that had killed scores of people before him. A mountain that is so tall that above a certain altitude you are literally dying slowly from a lack of oxygen, and this interviewer asks him - "why?"

And Sir Edmund replies "Because it was there".

That's the sort of quote I'd accept for a question like "Why did you go into that Dunkin Doughnuts?"

But for something as completely insane as climbing to the top of a merciless mountain, I think we need maybe a smidgen more justification.


Well one reason is for views like this:

There are views in the mountains that take your breath away, that seem unreal in a photoshopped way that makes you question what is going on with your eyes. Mountains are some of the most stunning places on the planet.

But I think there's something more, there's something about a mountain that can get into your soul, and like a piece of sand in the shell of an oyster, irritates deep inside of you, kind of gets to the root of your being and says, you should ditch everything and go climb me. It's definitely not logical, it's not easily explainable, but mountains have a weird draw. I think it's the same way that some people are drawn to the sea, some deep spiritual thing makes them need to be near the ocean, and thats a way easier urge, because the ocean has beaches and sunshine and type 1 fun. But for some twisted reason, some of us are born with an urge for mountains.

This story begins the best part of a decade ago - I had done a summer internship - they call them a "stáge" - in France, working at a nuclear reactor. At the end of the summer, a friend and I borrowed his mentor's car - one of those ridiculous looking old Citroens that was falling apart - and we drove it on this crazy road trip. We went from Grenoble down to Monte Carlo and slept in the car, which was pretty awesome, because we were literally the poorest people in the entire country that night.

Then we drove north until out of sheer exhaustion, we camped on the side of the road somewhere in Northern Italy.

The guy dropped me in a town the next day so he could drive back to work on the Monday morning, and I hitched north vaguely towards Switzerland where my flight left from.

I took a bus that was gonna go through the Mt. Blanc tunnel to get to Chamonix which is on the North of the mountain.

And there's this bend on that road which all of a sudden just reveals the mountain, like opening the curtains in a play, and that's when the mountain stole a little part of me, a part that's still gone, but a part that's kept me coming back to that Mountain, culminating in the trip last autumn in which I climbed to the top.

I'd decided to do the trip with a guided group. Mt. Blanc isn't considered a particularly 'technical' climb - there aren't many points where you are ascending using more than just your feet - but it's still on a glacier for a long way to the top, and every year a handful of people die trying to make the ascent. I thought it prudent to enlist the help of some real mountain guides, and I found a company that did a 'package' including accommodation etc.

I also roped my friend Jacob in, because he's just about as crazy as I am, and he has a hard time saying no to things like this.

So we sign up for this package and 6 months ahead of time they send us a package of materials about how to start training. And this package has a fantastic quote in it - I have to read it to you:

"you either do the suffering during training or you do the suffering during your holiday"

So obviously this is going to be some good old type 2 fun. I couldn't wait.

So I flew into Geneva in September and took a shuttle into Chamonix which was going to be base camp for the expedition, and met all the group - there was going to be about 10 regular people on this trip, plus the guides. We got an introductory lecture the first night that went over the plan.

First we were going to acclimatize by climbing another mountain, during which time we'd check that we all had the right skills with crampons, ice axes, ropes etc. This wasn't going to be some small mountain either - the guides had picked out the tallest mountain in Italy - Gran Paradiso. The first day we hiked up to a mountain hut where we were going to stay overnight.

The alps has this amazing system of mountain huts, and to call them huts is to do them a disservice because they're actually quite nice - the bunk beds are very basic, and the toilets are pretty terrible, but they have a full bar with food, so you can get a cooked meal and a beer. So that night we ate Italian pasta at around 8 or 9 thousand feet and drank some Italian wine. It felt quite civilized. This is the view of Gran Paradiso as the sun sets.

We left at around 5 the next morning - it's pitch black outside and we have headlamps on and all of the gear, and we ascend up towards this huge glacier. Dawn in the mountain is completely magical, everything starts to get blue and dusky, and you're above this sea of clouds below, and then the very tips of the peaks start to glow red.

We get to the ice about first light, and we rope up as a team - because glaciers are pitted with crevasses, and because you really don't want to fall in them, you're always roped up on a glacier, and you try and keep the rope from getting too loose. It makes picking a pace pretty hard as you have to walk at exactly the same speed. The guides do this very slow pace, but make up for it by not resting at all, so for the next few hours we sweat our way up the glacier, winding around crevasses and cliffs.

At the top of the ridge, the altitude is kicking my ass, so keeping this slow pace is pretty much torture, but we can see up to the jagged rocks at the top.

Now Gran Paradiso is a popular peak - by the time we get to the rocks near the top there's actually a line waiting to take the narrow ridge to the summit. And when we get up there it's obvious why - we're still roped and cramponed and we have to scramble up this rock. I'm at the rear of the rope, so the guide tells me to unclip the rope from the bolt in the rock he's clipping it too. and there's a dinner plate sized rock that sticks out of this cliff, and nothing below it for about a thousand feet, and I have to step onto this dinner plate, unclip the rock, and all the while I'm dizzy from the altitude and trying not to let the rope pull me off the rock. After that it's a short scramble to the summit which is literally the size of a table, and we have 6 people trying to sit on top.

I tried to get pictures but they don't do it justice. The clouds are far below us like the view out of an airplane. And then there's the long descent.

And that was just the warmup.

We got back to base camp in Chamonix and checked the weather. The weather is the thing that's most likely to kill our attempt, so we're watching the weather religiously, hoping that the jet stream stays north of us. It looks crystal clear from Chamonix valley, but at the summit there's 150kph winds and it's -40 degrees sometimes, so we hope that the wind drops.

The ascent takes 2 days. The plan is to take a funicular railway up to the base of the western glacier. Then we ascend to the lower of two mountain huts called 'Tête Rousse'. There's a higher hut on the ridge, which gives the route its name, called the 'Gouter hut' but our guide is concerned that we won't be acclimatized enough to stay that high, so we'll leave early from Tête Rousse, climb to the summit and descend to the hut again, before making our way back to the train.

But best-case plans go wrong.

We make it up to Tete Rousse, and have dinner above the clouds. It's an incredible view. There's a tattered string of Nepali prayer flags outside, and with the sea of churning clouds below us, you could very well believe we were in the Himalaya. The glacier creaks and groans and every now and then a little avalanche cascades down the steep walls in this incredible amphitheater of rock.

It's peak season, so the hut is completely full of mountaineers hoping to make the ascent tomorrow, but we've all seen the forecast and there's a high chance that the wind is going to be too strong, so there's a kind of nervous anticipation in the air.

Our alarms go off at about 4 the next morning and we get up and ready. It's pitch black outside, but the guides are out on the balcony, listening to the rockfall and the howl of the wind. It's too strong. They tell us to go back to bed. But I'm way too excited, so while everyone else tries to sleep, I drink my tea and watch the sun come up.

One of the coolest things about sunrise in the mountains is the way that the mountains cast a shadow into the clouds. The lights of houses in the valley twinkle, and little curls of smoke start to rise from their chimneys as people turn on their heating, or make their morning coffee.

So we had a day to kill while we waited for a weather window. The contingency plan is to try and complete the ascent in a single day - we only have 1 more night in the hut booked, so our fallback is to hope the wind dies down, leave at about 1am, and climb through the night, aim to get to the summit ridge by sunrise, and therefore have the rest of the day to descend all the way to the train. The guides are worried about the speed of some of the climbers - the fallback plan is very much a sprint, and if we're not close to the summit by 8am they'll turn us around.

We pace aimlessly around Tête Rousse for a day. The summit is infuriatingly clear, but even still we can see snow being blown from the ridge.

So 1am rolls around and we're outside. For the summit day, we're in rope teams of 3 - 1 guide per rope. As before, the guide is up front, Jacob is in the middle, and I'm at the back.

The most dangerous part of the ascent is the infamous Grand Couloir. This gully has a steady cascade of rocks, and the trick is to time the walk across it so you don't get hit! But it's pitch black and our headlamps can't illuminate the mountain. Our guide listens for a while, trying to find a pattern. Then we walk fast to the other side.

It's a pretty brutal climb from there to the Gouter hut on the ridge - it's probably about 60-70degrees slope so it's mostly a scramble. We stop at the top to put on crampons and stash helmets. Then we continue up the snow, zigzagging steadily up. It's fun to watch the headlamps ahead of us zigzag up into the sky - the furthest ones are at the same angle as the stars.

I'm painting a picture of the views, but really when you're climbing, you are mostly looking 6 feet ahead of you at a small patch of snow, and focusing on the steady exertion, you barely have a chance to look around.

We're the fastest rope group so we're up front.

I'm starting to really feel the altitude as we get to the summit ridge, but the sun has start to come up, and I just let the adrenaline kick in. When we make it to the summit I do a kind of primal howl, I'm so excited to be there.

It's funny, because I had looked forward to that moment for almost a decade. I was surrounded by the most incredible vista. I was on top of Europe with one of my best friends. But other than the initial spike of exhilaration, my memories of the top are pretty blurry. I was pretty delirious from the altitude, and the weather means you're only on top for a few short minutes. I snapped some pictures, high fived Jacob and our guide. And then we started the descent.

You've probably heard the travel cliches about it not being the destination, but the voyage. And I don't think that's true anywhere more than mountain climbing. You have this brief but wonderful summit experience, but that's not why you do it. It's the triumph over the exhaustion, the camaraderie, the views along the way. Days after I came down, I was still trying to process the feelings I'd had at the top and what climbing Mt. Blanc had meant to me. I still don't have a clear answer.

I guess if somebody had asked my why I climbed it, I'd have struggled to answer. The closest I could explain it would be:

"Because it was there"

Thanks for listening.