"We all have the same sickness," said our guide Fabio, in reference to himself and the three other mountain guides leading our trip. "All of us guides come from different places in the world, but all four of us are afflicted with the same disease: we just cannot get enough of the mountains, and the list of places to see never gets shorter." These type of sick people, I've come to realize, are my tribe - and his comments couldn't have made me feel more at home as I threw myself into another high altitude expedition and a week in Chamonix with Mont Blanc Guides.
Ever since moving to Europe a few years ago, I have had my sights set on Mont Blanc. In fact, a first-time trip to the Alps (more specifically, the almighty Matterhorn in neighbouring Zermatt, Switzerland) is what inspired me to move to Europe in the first place. It took only one time trekking the trails and traversing the mountains in Switzerland and I was hooked. I knew I needed to spend much more time in these precious places - and what better way to fulfill this dream than to summit the highest peak in the Alps.
My experience has taught me that these types of mountain expeditions are best completed with 1) a knowledgeable and experienced guide, and 2) a group of similarly fit, like-minded individuals, with whom to share the experience. After all, the best things truly are most enjoyed with good company. While I appreciate the people who boast about completing missions "un-guided," I've come to greatly appreciate the value in having a guide, as learning not only technical skills, but also about the local culture/history is equally as important to me as the mission itself.
With this thought in mind, I set out to find a solid resource which would make this possible and within minutes, I landed on the website of Mont Blanc Guides. Needless to say, they know what they are doing and made it an incredibly easy decision for me to choose to work with them. Their website was in English (more rare than you might think), well laid out/organized, and even provided a "fitness test" to new mountaineers to help determine how close they were to the fitness level needed to succeed at summiting something like Mont Blanc.
The other important differentiator to me was the fact that Mont Blanc Guides would handle all logistics - from meals, to lodging, to guides, and hut reservations. Anybody who has taken on big mountaineering adventures, knows these details are a substantial part of the trip and require someone who knows what they are doing and has it down to a science.
Other services/providers I looked at required you to find your own hotel room for the week (and who really wants to go back to a hotel across town every night only to meet up with your crew again the next morning?), or provide your own meals. MBG on the other hand, houses all participants in "The Castle" or the chalet, right in the middle of Chamonix. You get a bunk buddy for the week, as you are required to share a twin room with a fellow guest, and everyone enjoys a three course breakfast/dinner together on all nights spent at the Castle. Plus, because it is 'home' for the week, you have a place to leave your things even when you are up in the mountain huts - which was a game changer for someone like me, who absolutely hates dealing with the logistical nightmare of having to unpack and repack bags all week, only to put them into storage. In the end, it was an easy sell and I happily sent off my deposit to MBG.
I chose to start my 6-day course on a Saturday, so I would only need to take 5 days off of work. I flew from Amsterdam into Geneva, arranged a quick one hour shuttle with the most popular service in town (Mountain Dropoffs), and was at the chalet in no time. The group who had started their trek on Wednesday that week was there when I walked in the door and overlapped with us in the chalet on our first night, which gave us ample time to get a realtime download of what the week would hold -- from a client perspective, which tends to be the most honest. They gave us tips as to what gear we would need vs what we wouldn't, where to stock up on Snickers bars in town, and what advice to take/ignore, all of which was immensely helpful to make sure we had the important stuff.
We also had plenty of time to wander around Chamonix - which in the summer season, is quite the attraction in itself. During the week we were there, a slew of ultramarathons and mountain races were taking place, and at any given time, one could catch a plethora of post-race runners stumbling around town on a quest to find a burger and a beer. It was an awesome time of year to just hang out, people watch, and shop to your heart's delight (I spent what felt like half of my month's pay check in Salomon, Millet, and Columbia - damn you, Chamonix).
DAY ONE: TREK TO CHABOD HUT ON WAY TO GRAN PARADISO
After our first dinner getting to know our adventure-mates for the week, we all woke up ready and excited to start our quest. The morning started with a quick debriefing and intro from John, the MBG founder, after which we were instructed to lay out our gear on our beds "military style," so our diligent guides could survey our gear. They were quite strict with us as to what we should/could bring up the mountain, and rightfully so, as every extra item (literally, shampoo bottles were eliminated from the packing list) adds extra weight to your back during the climb.
The packing list on the MBG website was pretty straightforward and technical items (ice axe, crampons, harness) could be rented from MBG on site, which made things easy (I didn't want to be troubled with trying to get crampons through airport security!). Anything else you were missing could be bought or rented in town, which was a 5 min walk away - Chamonix is the mecca of mountaineering, after all, so you did not need to walk far to find the necessities.
Around 11am, we were off over the border to Italy for a three day training climb of Gran Paradiso (4061m). They took it easy on us for the first day: we only needed to get ourselves up 1000m to the Chabod hut, which took 2.5 hours in the afternoon. At the hut, we settled into our bunks (all 10 of us, including guides, shared one bedroom, which was surprisingly comfy), and enjoyed some downtime. Showers were pay-per-shower (3 Euros each), and beers/snacks could be purchased at a reasonable price with cash. Most of us waited to shower until the next day, knowing it would be most appreciated post-summit. After a hearty pasta dinner and dessert, we were off to bed, as the 4am wake up call would come quickly.
DAY TWO: CHABOD HUT TO GRAN PARADISO SUMMIT AND BACK
Mont Blanc Guides aptly calls this day the "dress rehearsal" for Mont Blanc. And indeed it is. You rise at 4am, do a last check of your bag, and prepare to head up the mountain. One of my teammates, Kevin, made the fatal mistake of turning on the light in the dorm room we all shared at 3:55am, only to be yelled at to turn it off, and give us our last 5 minutes of rest. (He didn't make that mistake again the rest of the trip.) Once we were all awake, all we had left to do was shove as many calories into our mouths as possible before setting out.
This morning served to be an excellent trial run indeed, as it made the gear prep and check for Mont Blanc only a couple of days later far easier, having already done it once. From the Chabod hut up to the summit, we only had to climb 1400m, so not terrible, and was a good opportunity for us all to test out our crampon and ice axe skills.
The ascent took around 4-5 hours, which was the requirement from Mont Blanc Guides for us to "prove" that we were worthy (and not a safety hazard) for the much bigger Mont Blanc trek later in the week. The entire team made it without too much trouble, and we waited our turn to summit at the somewhat congested Gran Paradiso summit ridge. This ridge was by far the scariest part of any climbing that week, as there is quite a substantial exposed section. I'm pretty sure I heard about 14 different languages being spoken amongst the 40-50 individuals scrambling around at the top, and it was quite entertaining despite all the chaos to hear the guides quibble with each other over whose group would go first. Totally worth it for the #summitselfie.
The walk back down was easy and uneventful, and quite slushy given the sun had come up and already started to melt quite a bit of the snow which had been frozen solid on our way up. Conditions this time of year were perfect, with minimal sketchy crevasses, so we could glissade down the mountain without needing to exercise too much caution.
Beers were enjoyed upon our return to the chalet, knowing that all we had to do the next day was get back down to the car and rest.
DAY THREE: CHABOD HUT TO CHALET / CHAMONIX
We did an easy descent on Day 3 from the Chabod Hut through a scenic Gran Paradiso National Park. Given that Gran Paradiso and this portion of the week was in Italy, it was only fitting for us to stop for espressos and gelato before heading back into France. That pistachio and stracciatella gelato was well-earned, and I enjoyed it accordingly.
We were back in Chamonix by early afternoon, which gave us ample time to do some shopping, indulge in a much-needed shower, eat a hearty three course chalet dinner, and unpack/repack our bags for the big show, which would commence the next morning.
DAY FOUR: CHAMONIX TO TETE ROUSSE HUT
We started this morning by meeting the additional 2 guides who would be joining us on this trip: Ally and Tomas. We were only required to have one guide per 4 people for the Gran Paradiso outing, but for a Mont Blanc summit, it was necessary to have one guide for every 2 people. Both guides were awesome: Ally and I swapped stories about Yosemite and Bay Area adventures and travel mishaps (we had both spent a decent amount of time out there over the past couple of years), and Tomas relived stories of his very admirable Andean summits, whilst reminding me that fashion is "very important" in the mountains (as he adjusted his intentionally mismatched blue and yellow socks.) We were off to an excellent start with our late joiners.
There are many schools of thought as to the best way to climb Mont Blanc. Some people believe that the Gouter hut gives the best chance at summitting, as it is up higher on the mountain, and breaks up the ascent into two reasonable day climbs. But reservations are harder to come by there, and the Tete Rousse (3167m up) has its benefits as well. In our case, the Tete Rousse was a bit more accomodating for our needs, so we resolved to stay there both the night before and after our attempted summit. This decision also allowed us to again have a "home base" where we could leave our belongings on summit day (no need for toiletries, etc, to be going up the mountain with us), which made for lighter packs.
We were in position for the next day's ascent with minimum energy expenditure, and at 3167m, our overnight at Tete Rousse allowed us to acclimatize gradually as we worked our way up the mountain. We enjoyed a dinner of lentil soup, bread/cheese, and beef stew to fuel us for the next day's adventure, and were in bed by 8:30pm, in anticipation of a 4am wakeup call for our summit.
DAY FIVE: THE BIG SHOW: ASCENT OF MONT BLANC (4,808m)
I couldn't believe how quickly summit day was upon us, as it seemed like we had just arrived in Chamonix, yet here we had already climbed one mountain and spent nearly a week together.
We rolled out of bed at Tete Rousse at the very generous wakeup time of 4am (other teams had left at 1am, but we opted for a later start given the anticipated weather window) and started our journey up. All week, our guides and John at MBG had given us advice which I found to really come in handy on summit day: 'take the summit in 2 hour intervals, and just keep moving - don't worry about the end.' They were spot on with the advice. All in all, we targeted to have a 11-12 hour day from Tete Rousse to summit and back. 6 sets of 2 hour pushes - easy.
The ascent / summit portion of the day could best be thought of in three sections:
1) Tete Rousse Hut (3,167m) to Gouter Hut (3,815m): a steep rock climb/scramble.
The Tete Rousse to Gouter hut was the most demanding section of the entire summit bid for me. Not only are you doing this part in the dark, but there is quite a bit of scrambling which requires a lot of emotional energy/attention early on in the day. Fortunately, the sun did begin to come up pretty soon after we started, given the long days this time of the year, which made for a beautiful sunrise.
The Grand Couloir (location shown on map), only an hour into the ascent, has also earned itself quite a reputation and has itself inhibited many climbers from even getting up onto the mountain for an attempt at the summit. One only needs to YouTube "Grand Couloir Mont Blanc" to see why; this area is completely fine/safe when nothing is happening there, but on a bad day, rocks the size of basketballs come aggressively tumbling down the mountain and propel people down the couloir before you know what has hit you - and has led to many of the fatalities on the mountain in the past. It's absolutely necessary to approach this section with caution and the proper equipment - crampons, and proper ropes (thankfully, we did not find out until later that an unprepared climber had tumbled to their death off this section only 12 hours prior to us crossing).
After two hours of hard and cautious climbing paired with incredible sunrise views of the Alps, we found ourselves approaching the Gouter hut.
2) Gouter hut to the Vallot hut (4,362m): a very snowy uphill walk/climb.
We stopped in at the Gouter hut after the initial climb to leave behind some equipment (helmets were no longer necessary after the first scramble), warm up, and have a quick cup of coffee with a snack - which to be honest, felt a bit like cheating the summit, but was a welcome respite.
(*Fun fact: gouter, in French, actually means to have an afternoon snack, so it is aptly named as a designated place to sit, take some time, and eat to fuel up!)
Only 20 minutes later, we were bundled back up and ready to head to the Vallot hut. This 2-hour stretch was one of the most enjoyable, as the morning light was perfectly illuminating all of the surrounding alps, and the walking was relatively effortless so long as you were paying attention. We were extremely fortunate with weather conditions and enjoyed a perfect blue bird morning. No major effort needed here, other than to just keep walking and stay warm.
3) Vallot hut (4,362m) to Mont Blanc Summit (4,810m) : the final steep, sketchy/icy/windy 2.5 hour push.
The Vallot hut was truly a sight to see, and was a good stop off point to check in with other climbers. While called a hut, it is really a glorified shoebox, as it's only a 35 m^2 shelter made of aluminum sheets placed on both sides of two thin layers of plywood. We popped in to do a quick clothing swap (here, we added every layer we had brought including wind proof pants and heavy jackets), and chat with a few other climbers who were either also headed for the summit or had just come down. What I didn't expect to see when we walked in was 7 or 8 climbers piled upon each other in a corner, in full gear (sunglasses, goggles and all!), sleeping in unison. Likely they had already summited that morning and were too wrecked to head back down without a bit of shuteye. Others stood around, waiting for the winds to die down for a second attempt to summit, as excessive winds earlier in the morning had thwarted their first attempts, but not enough for them to give up on the day. There was a real sense of simple and pure mountain camaraderie there which I will not soon forget.
After 10 minutes and a couple packs of energy chews later, we headed out for our final summit push! Those last two and a half hours were challenging and required you to be careful, so as not to make a misstep on some of the more narrow areas as you approached the summit. Fortunately, I have never had any issues with altitude sickness which meant I felt quite well as we approached the 4,810m summit, while some of the others on our trip fought a constant feeling of illness/headache and shortness of breath. Thankful to not be afflicted with any significant physical complaints, I truly and humbly had nothing to do but keep walking (there were quite a few false summits on your way up), and take in the absolutely incredible views of the Alps (when not getting pelted in the face with ice). With views like those, I could have kept walking for hours, but was happy when we finally reached the summit around 10:30am. WE DID IT!!
The way down was uneventful, but it has to be said that like on any mountain, it is especially wise not to be lazy on the descent, as this is where costly mistakes are often made. Especially on the initial two hour scramble, which would be the final 2 hours of our descent that day, we had to be especially cautious as many rocks were loose and falling. Not to mention, we still had to cross the Grand Couloir, which always requires special attention and respect. On our way down, we heard helicopters, which it turned out were there trying to locate the belongings of the person who had fallen to their death the day prior. Quite the ominous background sound, for tired climbers just wanting to get back to the hut - and a clear reminder of the dangers of the mountains. Fortunately, we went through all of the above without incident, and were back down at the Tete Rousse by around 3:30pm.
DAY SIX: TETE ROUSSE HUT BACK TO VALLEY / CHAMONIX
We all woke up super pleased with ourselves for our work the day prior, and scarfed down breakfast, anxious to get down off the mountain and shower since we had not been able to after the summit (no running water at the Tete Rousse hut!)
After 3 short hours of uneventful downhill hiking and a quick train ride the rest of the way, we were back in the village and made time to pose for one more group shot.
We went back to the chalet, where a plethora of homemade cakes and pastries were waiting for us with coffee and tea (and a couple well-earned Heinekens for good measure!) and we made one final toast to our guides before we would send them along their way.
As we sat around the table recounting stories and laughs from the past week, Tomas prompted us to go around the table and each give one word that would best describe our feelings about the week/adventure. "ICY, hard, fun..." answered my new friends around the table... then my word came to me quickly and easily: INSPIRING.
The people I had been around the entire week INSPIRED me to want to complete this task as a team. The guides we had the pleasure of climbing with motivated and INSPIRED me to want to keep pushing my limits, and more importantly: become a smarter mountaineer. The experience itself, too, further INSPIRED the "sickness" in me: to keep on chasing these summits, pushing beyond my comfort zones, and not let anything stand in the way.
So, I said it then and I stand by my (cheesy, but true) word choice today: climbing Mont Blanc INSPIRED me, and I suspect will continue to inspire me to chase my affliction for many years to come :)
Three final things:
1) I would be remiss if I didn't mention the amazing dinner we had as a team on our last night in Chamonix. We went to Monkey and it was incredible - great tacos, burgers, fries, beer selection and all of the other post-adventure food you could ever ask for. It's a must.
2) We spoke in quite a lot of depth while trekking about Anna Karenina by Tolstoy, as well as his thoughts on living an unconventional life. Those discussions have stuck with me and rattled around in my head since. I would like to leave you with a few of my favorite quotes I've been reading, in reflection:
“There was no solution, save that universal solution which life gives to all questions, even the most complex and insolvable: One must live in the needs of the day--that is, forget oneself.”
“Without knowledge of what I am and why I am here, it is impossible to live, and since I cannot know that, I cannot live either. In an infinity of time, in an infinity of matter, and an infinity of space a bubble-organism emerges while will exist for a little time and then burst, and that bubble am I.”
“There are people who, on meeting a successful rival, no matter in what, are at once disposed to turn their backs on everything good in him, and to see only what is bad. There are people, on the other hand, who desire above all to find in that lucky rival the qualities by which he has outstripped them, and seek with a throbbing ache at heart only what is good.”
3) One final shoutout to our guides, all of whom I would highly recommend to ANYONE for any Chamonix outings, or other expeditions around the world... I would trust any of these guys with my life on a future mountain expedition, and am so excited to follow all of their future adventures:
Neil Mackay https://skiascent.com/
Fabio Levi https://www.facebook.com/fabio.levi
Ally Swinton http://allyswinton.blogspot.com/
Tomas Franchini https://tomasfranchini.com/