Climbing Mont Blanc, by BootCamp Member John Davidson
1. The Invitation
Early in May 2017, I got a phone call from my son Jon-Paul (JP): ‘Fancy a week doing some walking in the Alps next month Dad? Maybe we’ll even get to climb Mont Blanc.’
How could I refuse an opportunity like that?
‘Of course JP’, I said. ‘I’m sure I can get a week off work and with all the training I’m getting at BootCamp, I expect I’ll be fit enough to do a bit of Alpine walking – I’m not sure about climbing up Mont Blanc though – isn’t it rather high?’.
‘Yes’, replied JP. ‘About 4,800 metres, or nearly 16,000 feet.’ ‘Oh right – I better do a bit more training before we go then’, I said.
Thus, at the age of 62, I began my adventure to climb the highest mountain in Europe.
2. The Preparation
The training I do with Felix at Lemonbody comprises BootCamp activities that provide all-over body exercises and give you really good muscle work-outs. However, what I needed to get up (and down) the steep Alpine slopes was something to strengthen all my leg muscles and build stamina. Luckily Felix had regular sessions to Box Hill where the vertical ascent up the Jacob Ladder steps is about 110 meters. After doing a session of six ascents (and descents) I felt like my legs wouldn’t get me up anything any more; however, after a few days I found they had recovered and I’m sure this gave me a good feeling of what climbing the Alps would be like. Little did I know.
Next we needed kit. Proper kit. One evening after work I met up with JP at the mountain kit shop in Covent Garden. We spent a couple of hours (and a large amount on the credit cards) getting the appropriate clothing and equipment that we’d need.
‘What mountain are you climbing?’ asked the assistant. ‘Mont Blanc’, we said. ‘Right then, you’ll need all this stuff over here’, and he led us the 5,000 metre mountain section.
I hadn’t realised the full extent of what we’d need: Rucksack (40ltrs), waterproof liner, water bottle (1ltr wide neck, nalgene), waterproof mountain trousers, waterproof/wind-proof coat, hat, category 4 sunglasses with side-shields, factor 50 sunscreen, lip-screen protector, mountain socks, insulated Alpine mountain gloves, base layer thermal leggings (thin and thick), base layer thermal long sleeved merino vest (thin and thick), pair of gaiters, fleece top, shell jacket, head torch and a whistle.
Just as well we weren’t going up Everest…and this wasn’t all of what we’d need, as I found out when we arrived in the Alps.
3. The Alps
Climbing above Le Tour to 2700m
A few weeks later on a Saturday evening we were sitting at the bar of our hotel near Chamonix enjoying a beer before what we hoped would be an enjoyable week of climbing in the Alps. JP had hired Lolo, an experienced guide, for the week and we were discussing plans with her for the next few days. The topic of Mont Blanc had come up.
‘It all depends on the weather’, said Lolo. ‘The forecast is good, so we may be lucky to try it on Thursday before you have to return to London on Friday’. ‘But first we need a few days of acclimatisation’ she continued, rather ominously I thought.
The next morning we had another session of kitting up, this time at the local hire shop. Here we loaded up with all the heavy duty equipment we’d need (but didn’t want to buy) for the high altitude climbing we’d be doing. The list included: reinforced climbing helmet, adjustable climbing harness, B3 grade technical mountain boots, C3 grade crampons, telescopic ski pole and an ice axe. Phew…and we’ve either got to carry or wear all this stuff!
Lolo then drove up the road to the NE around 10kms to the small village of Le Tour from where we started our first climb. The plan was to climb up to the Refuge Albert 1er which was at 2,700m – about 1,200m of vertical climbing from our start point. Lolo advised that at these lower levels of the Alps we could wear our trail shoes – which meant carrying our heavy mountain boots. Lolo showed us how to strap them on and tuck them in to our rucksacks to stop them moving about too much as we climbed.
After about 6 hours of climbing we finally arrived at the refuge and I realised that I hadn’t done nearly enough training. I felt completely exhausted and went to have a lie down.
After a while however I felt better and got up to have something to eat and enjoy the views.
JP at the Refuge Albert 1er
The next morning we set off to climb the Aiguille du Tour. At 3,540m this would require us to climb up around 800m and this time wearing our boots and crampons to get through the snow and over the glacier. Lolo ensured we avoided any crevasses along the way.
After briefly crossing into Switzerland and back into France we climbed up the last few metres of rocks and got to the top. The views were stunning.
At the summit of the Aiguille du Tour
The descent back down to Le Tour
As we all know, what goes up must come down; so after a short break, we started back down the 2,000m descent to Le Tour.
This took us most of the rest of the day and we arrived back at our hotel ready for a beer and a good meal before going to bed exhausted but feeling good about what we had accomplished so far.
Aiguille du Tour
On Tuesday morning we set off with Lolo on our next ascent, this time on the route up to Mont Blanc. The weather was fine and we were in high hopes we’d get a chance to climb it in the next day or two. We took the Bellevue cable car from Les Houches, about 8kms SW of Chamonix. This gets you up to about 1,800m and avoids the tedious climb through the woods surrounding Chamonix. Unfortunately the tram that runs from this point up to the Nid d’Aigle wasn’t running until Saturday, so we walked carefully along the tramline up to the Nid which is the tram terminus at 2,372m. From there we set off up the fairly steep slopes and rocky terrain and after about 4 hours of climbing above the Glacier La Griaz, arrived at the Refuge de Tête Rousse where we stayed the night. At this point we were at 3,167m – a climb of nearly 1,400m in one day.
Ascent to Refuge Tête Rousse
Unfortunately, as the evening came on it looked like the weather was getting worse. Lolo consulted the latest forecast and discussed it with the other guides and they all agreed that the worsening conditions would make the ascent to Mont Blanc too dangerous in the next couple of days. So, regretfully, we agreed to descend back down to Chamonix the next day and think of some other things to do instead.
Back to Chamonix
On Thursday we decided to take the train to the Mer de Glace and do a spot of ice climbing. JP had done this before in South America but it was a first for me.
The train takes you to a point above the glacier from where you have to climb down a series of vertical metal ladders down to the glacier. I counted around 600 rungs.
We had a lot of fun being let down on the rope into slopes and crevices and then climbing up again using the toe points of the crampons and a pair of special ice axes. The knack is to try to keep your body upright and then climb up like a spider although it is quite a strain on the legs and arms.
4. Mont Blanc
Later on Thursday afternoon, after we got back to Chamonix, Lolo looked up at the sky.
‘The weather looks like it’s clearing up a bit’ she said ‘how do fancy having another go at Mont Blanc?’ I looked at JP. ‘It’s a real shame, but I have to fly back tomorrow as planned because we’re off on our family holiday to Greece first thing Saturday morning. But, hey Dad, why don’t you have a go?’
I thought about it. If I changed my flight back to London from Friday to Saturday evening it wouldn’t need an extra night in the hotel in Chamonix. And I could still get back in time for work on Monday. ‘OK’ I said to Lolo, ‘let’s go for it!’
Lolo made the arrangements for our overnight stay in the mountain for the following evening. We’d be taking the same route up from Les Houches up to the Nid d’aigle, but this time we’d be climbing past the Refuge de Tête Rousse up to the Refuge de Goûter which is at 3,800m.
The route up to the Refuge de Goûter
Shortly after going past the Refuge Tête Rousse, climbers have to cross over the Grand Couloir. This is a dangerous gully which is a couple of hundred metres wide down which rocks and loose stones fall which climbers need to avoid.
‘Wait here’ Lolo said as I sheltered behind a large boulder at the edge of the Couloir ‘I’ll go and see if it looks safe to cross’.
After a few minutes she came back and said that, if we were quick, then it might be safe to cross. I held onto the steel cable that has been strung across the gully and, just as we got to the other side, a large group of rocks came tumbling down the mountain where we had just been.
After the Couloir, the climb gets really steep and the going was quite tough. A few hours later we traversed a long snowy ridge and finally arrived at the Goûter Refuge.
The Goûter Refuge
By the time we got to the Refuge, I was really exhausted. We had spent 6 hours climbing up around 2,000m (over 6,500 ft). Most of it was either over rocky terrain or on steep snow covered slopes using our crampons. I was glad to get out of the heavy boots and rest. Dinner at the Refuge was at 6pm and Lolo explained the routine to me for the next day. ‘You need to be up at 2am for a quick breakfast so we can leave at 2:30am’ she said. ‘The ice won’t have melted at that time, so we will get a better grip with our crampons before the sun comes up.’
So I went to bed around 8pm and tried to get as much sleep as I could before our early start the next day for our attempt on the summit.
The next morning we set off as planned at 2:30am in the cold, equipped with head torches to see the way. We left most of our luggage in the Refuge so we could climb up carrying as little as possible. However, I still had on my thick leggings under my mountain trousers as well as three top layers and thick Alpine gloves, so I didn’t feel the cold so much. Once we had climbed up onto the ridge above the refuge, the first section across the Aguille du Goûter was fairly flat and easy going. After a couple of hours we passed the Dôme du Goûter and then rested in a small hut called the Vallot shelter. We noticed the wind was picking up a bit, so it was good to rest out of the wind. During the next hour we felt the wind pick up quite strongly; Lolo thought it was gusting up to 50 mph and the temperature was dropping with the wind chill factor.
We stopped for a while at the base of the Grand Bosses. ‘Dig your ice-axe into the snow next to you’ shouted Lolo,‘and hold onto it with both hands’ I did as she instructed as I felt myself being blown about by the strong wind. Presently, another group of three climbers came up behind us. Lolo and their guide talked for a while and then they decided not to proceed any further and turn back. I looked at Lolo.
‘Shall we wait for another 5 minutes and see if the wind drops?’ She agreed and we held on to our ice-axes and waited to see if the conditions improved.
After a while, Lolo agreed to go on. Apparently it’s safer to go as a group of two than with three. I guess that if I fell over the edge then Lolo would have a reasonable chance of pulling me back. If two people fell over, then I suppose they would pull the third over with them.
Crossing the Bosses Ridge
Crossing the Bosses Ridge was spectacular with fine views and sheer drops on both sides of the perilous narrow ridge. However, most of the time I was just watching where I was putting my feet!
The final ascent to the summit of Mont Blanc
Around 6:30am we reached the final slope leading up to the summit and by 7am we reached the top. The views were spectacular and the feeling of achievement was overwhelming!
At the Summit of Mont Blanc and our amazing guide, Lolo!
After spending some time at the summit, Lolo said we should start heading down again. Being at 4,810m meant we would have to climb back down over 2,400m (8,000ft) to the Nid. We got back to the Goûter refuge around midday and stopped to have some lunch there before picking up the rest of our belongings and heading back down the mountain.
Going down was easier than going up but I found that the constant pressure of my toes against the heavy mountain boots started to be a bit painful. In the end I lost both of my big toenails which took about 4 months to grow back again.
Some parts of the descent were quicker as we were able to slide down the slopes that were covered with snow. By about 2pm we reached the Nid and we were glad that the tram was running so we didn’t have to walk down the last section to get the cable car back to Les Houches. According to my fitness tracker I had expended just over 7,000 calories in about 12 hours! By 4pm I was having a nice cold beer after getting back to the hotel for a shower and change.
We took all the rented equipment back to the hire shop and I said good-bye to Lolo and got the transfer bus back to Geneva airport and the flight back to Heathrow.
I finally got home around 10pm after being up since 2am that morning. I couldn’t really believe that I had been standing on top of Month Blanc at 7am that morning!
5. What I learned
I would highly recommend climbing Mont Blanc to others. The experience for me was an incredible sense of achievement and it was probably the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. It proves that you don’t have to be young to achieve something like this – but you do have to relatively fit. It isn’t a very technical climb but it is arduous and will make high demands on your body – as well as your mental capability. Lolo said that it’s surprising how much the body can put up with, but half the battle is in your mind. Having physical and mental resilience are both equally important.
Given the chance, I would certainly do it again. I would probably do more preparation and stamina training. There are long days of climbing – both uphill and downhill. Taking time to do some lower climbs and returning back down to Chamonix before tackling Mont Blanc seemed to work well. I didn’t appear to suffer from any altitude issues. I would also recommend making sure you have all the appropriate clothing and equipment before setting off. Having a guide, like Lolo, is also essential.
I certainly don’t think I could have achieved it without doing all the BootCamp training at LemonBody; so thanks Felix!
The Goûter route up Mont Blanc
Reproduced with the kind permission of John Davidson.
© John Davidson, June 2018, firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo Credit: CamptoCamp.org
Laurence (Lolo) Monnoyeur
Booked through MaximumAdventure
All inclusive tour
‘Mont Blanc 4810m – 5 Routes to the Summit’, Francois Damilano
Hôtel Les Lanchers, Les Praz
Insurance (covers Alpine climbing over 4,000m)
Captain Felix Deer joined the Army in 1985 and served in a number of Training Officer roles, qualifying as a Unit Fitness Officer in 1986. Since leaving the Army in 1994, Felix has sold property, built houses and flown airliners for a living, but has always maintained his keen interest in Fitness.