Our Mont Blanc journey started with 3 days of acclimatisation and training on Grand Paradiso. After the drive through the Mont Blanc tunnel into Italy we climbed 850m from the road to the Federico Chabod hut, 2750m, reaching our destination by lunchtime. As we sat around acclimatising we practiced knots and some easy rock climbing, although maybe not so easy in big mountaineering boots! The knot lessons turned out to be hilarious as our Italian guide Gianni only knew the Italian names for the knots and us only the English. Each time he showed us a knot we had to work out if it was one we had seen before and try to remember the English name. After an incredibly hot night in the hut, we rose at 4am for a quick breakfast before heading off wearing our head torches. We made our way towards the glacier on the North West face of Grand Paradiso. First crossing moraine, before pausing at the base of the ice to gear up with harness, ice axe and crampons.
This was the first time either of us had been on a glacier and as the sun rose it illuminated numerous crevasses. This is the point to be grateful that we were on a rope…….and attached to a guide! Peering down into the larger crevasses revealed nothing but darkness and a real sense of the potential danger. Even a small crevasse would hurt if one leg suddenly fell into it, although with no fresh snow this is probably less likely to happen. As we climbed the glacier I began to get more and more frustrated. The sun was rising, the views amazing, but we couldn’t stop to enjoy and instead had to continue moving. My head was swimming with the altitude, that familiar feeling of being light headed, and I began to get very, very hungry. I was also frustrated with Gianni who kept tugging on the rope as if to say, hurry up!! Only later did he tell me he was keeping the rope tight in case we fell, not as a means of rushing us on. I knew we were making good time, we had passed a couple of other parties but not been passed by others and this did nothing but add to my frustrations. Thankfully I have been on enough guided trips to know that ultimately you just need to trust the guide. I knew it was important to move steadily on the glacier, reducing the risk, and I suspected he had an ulterior motive for getting us up there as quickly as possible.
I was eventually promised a break at the saddle where I promptly shoved a Trek bar down me whilst listening to Gianni repeatedly saying ‘Strong Sarah’. I think it was a given that Tara was strong (she was to have her frustrated moment later) and his approach was that if he said ‘Strong Sarah’ enough times I might begin to believe him. With food in my stomach and my breath caught, his enthusiasm worn me back down to my usual smiling self. In the back of my mind I was already making mental notes to pack my snacks in more accessible locations for Mont Blanc!
At this point I seemed to get a second wind and off we plodded to the summit ridge. We removed our crampons and rucksacks for the last airy scramble to the Madonna statue, 4061m. After taking some photographs and enjoying the views we scrambled back to retrieve our bags. Just in time it would seem as the steady stream of people now trying to pass each other on that thin ridge line was getting a bit crazy, hence Gianni’s rush up the glacier earlier.
I am generally happy going downhill, my muscles cope better and the altitude very quickly eases as you descend. Tara however, hadn’t prepared herself for the monotony of going downhill on a rope in crampons, normally used to running down at breakneck speed instead. She became increasingly frustrated when she caught her crampon on her trouser leg and tripped herself up, sending her ice axe flying. As with going up on the rope, going down must be slow and steady. It is amazing how mentally draining it is to walk as a group and not at your own pace. Gianni was his usual cheerful self, repeatedly telling us to walk like a duck, which was not particularly Elegant! Apparently this is the best way to engage all the crampon points for good grip and the technique can be applied on both ice and exposed rock. My GPS watch was tracking us for 7 hours that day, probably at least 5 of those were spent on the rope, moving together as a group. When we eventually reached the glacier edge and were able to remove our crampons and harnesses we were very happy girls. As we picked our way down to the Vittorio Emanuele hut, 2735m, it started to sink in that we had our first 4000m Alpine peak under our belts! We had a short walk out the following morning before returning to Chamonix for some sport climbing. That evening we repacked our bags for Mont Blanc, trying to go as lightweight as possible and incorporate the lessons learned from those first three days.