Pre climb days
Original plan was to climb Mont Blanc and then enjoy rest of my holiday in south coast of France travelling from east to west. Due to my problems with legs I had to change it by 180 degrees. We decided that we will do everything backwards. That gave another 12 days to my legs to heel.
So I enjoyed my time in France gaining fat and loosing muscles and dropping on fitness level. Every morning I was training on the outdoor gyms which are very popular in France. It is great idea I would like see more in UK. Every beach, lots of petrol stations or parks has designated area where you can do some pull ups or stretch your legs. Brilliant.
When we got to the Chamonix I knew I have four days to achieve my goal. My plan was to do this in three days. That’s in comfortable pace. In Poland we say ‘if you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans’.
I started from reconnaissance in tourist information. Nothing can save you more effort than expert advice. I explain to the lady that I would like to climb Mont Blanc and that I would like to do this taking shortest and easiest route. I was surprised when she said that this would be cable car to Aiguille du Midi, via Cosmic straight to the top.
-Something isn’t right, I said, what about tramway? And I should also pass Tete Rousse and Gouter, not mentioning Vallot close to the summit.
-There is no easier or shorter way that by the Aiguille du Midi – lady said
With this in mind I decided to change my plan. Once again Internet wasn’t giving me the best advice. I just couldn’t understand why all this people were taking longer route and not via Aiguille du Midi?
Plan for rest of the day was to do all necessary shopping. List wasn’t very long: spare batteries, 9 litres of water, 24 Snickers and 10 Mars bars. Having that secured I was ready for end of the world. All afternoon me and Anna were enjoying ourselves eating local food and than doing nothing.
First thing in the morning we had to report to the cable car station. Queue was long like… it was long with plenty of time to wait many people were trying to be more clever than others and skip a few places forward we decided to simply wait for our turn.
Our trip up to the Aiguille du Midi didn’t took long but I really enjoyed it. It was quite bumpy and the cable car was swinging but the sight around us was spectacular. it is the longest and highest cable car in the Europe. Empty space around and below us made a great impression of the flight. I don’t know why but just before we got to the end Anna’s face turn green and she was whispering about all of us dying or something…
When we stand on the balcony and look around the view was really nice. Ideal weather, no wind and no clouds. What instantly worried me was that there was a lot of vertical walls and not much space to stand on. The way to the flat section below us was going through an extremely exposed ridge. I looked right – 800 meters vertically down, I looked left – 2000 meters vertically down. Width of the path – just enough to put two feet together and few hundred meters long. Walking on it I could not use my walking pools. It was too narrow. Bugger. Big and heavy rucksack didn’t help with the balancing either. With the thought that my long johns will be requiring good wash at the end of it I decided to get on with it there were positives too. If I feel, I won’t suffer too long. I can’t really say how long it took me to get through for me it was eternity.
When I got to the end, the valley below opened up for me. The day was beautiful and I enjoyed the flat iceberg under my feet. I looked around and I knew something was wrong. I checked my GPS. It said ‘you’re in the wrong place, mate’.
I had a suspicion that I was seriously in the wrong place. I found a little group of people and asked their leader
-Excuse me sir, do you know where am I?-I asked
Can you imagine his face? We started our conversation and I found that I am on the wrong side of the mountain, basically.
-Can I get to the top from here?
-Yes, of course, it is just the longest and the most dangerous way – he said – For all the money in the world I wouldn’t do this on my own.
Great. Guys, now I will give you a piece of advice: do not trust ladies from the tourist office on anything more than a local bus timetable. So, I am in the wrong place and basically it looks like I had lost a day. Improvise, adopt, overcome – old military guideline says.
I decided then to practice my ice axe skills as high as I could on my own. I chose a few ice walls. They were not very steep and I didn’t try to climb they were extremely high. I had good fun trying different methods of using ice axe, combine it with walking pools, I practiced breaking in case of sliding down etc. I was also watching what other groups were doing and how they were training. I think one day I will sign up for one of these winter skill courses the training looked ok. All this took me a few hours. I also walked a few kilometres around the valley.
When I decided that there is not much more I can do there I decided to pitch my little tent. I found a place for it, closed my eyes and pitched it without looking. That’s to simulate the night condition and problems with the head torch. When I opened my eyes I was proudly watching my shelter. When I had nothing else to do I decided to lay down on my sleeping mat and read some books. I still had a few hours till the last cable car to the Chamonix and I wanted to spend as much time on that height as possible.
When I was executing my task page after page I heard well known ‘Kurrrrrwa!!!’ somewhere nearby. This Polish (but not only Polish word grabbed my attention. With my head sticking out of my snow hole I looked around and quickly searched for source of this condense poetry. I decided to go there and introduce myself. In one of the tents I found two gentlemen. I told them my name and what I am doing here a few words later we found out that lived just kilometers away from where i live in Poland! What a surprise. These guys were father and son and they offered me a coffee. I stayed with them for quite a long time and we had a good chat. I promised myself to stay in touch with them. I had a really good time there but the clock was ticking and soon I had to pack up and climb up to Aiguille du Midi.
When I was walking up I just couldn’t believe that you can meet your neighbor on the iceberg in Alps. Long time ago one of my friends told me that us, Polish people, we are like disease, spreading everywhere and there is no escape from us. It is hard to dispute with that. After an hour or something I had to walk through exposed ridge again. Second time wasn’t any better. Once I did this I jumped in to the cable car and trying to control my shaking legs I dived down to the Chamonix.
When I came back to the camp Anna was very surprised. She saw me walk through the ridge and she had a feeling this was not something I was planning to do I told her what happened. She was with me in the tourist office and she heard what I was told. We couldn’t believe the incompetence Instead of being upset with my failure she was proud of me that I was confident enough to make the decision to pull back. In her eyes there was only strong personality and she could make this decision without loosing face. Surprisingly I notice that she trust me much more now. Shhhh, I’m going to use this trust in the future.
After a good dinner I decided to trust in the information I had from internet rather than the tourist office and plan everything on my own. I did a last check of my rucksack before next day and dived in to the tent. I had a headache so I wanted to sleep as much as I could before I closed my eyes I just thought of that all my today’s heroic effort was just for acclimatization. I hope it won’t be wasted, but what acclimatization it was! And then I felt asleep.
We both had a good sleep myself nad Anna and we woke up about 7am. After a simple breakfast (huge jar of Nutella and plenty of bread flushed by litre of tea) we drove to les Houches. We took the tramway going up. you can’t expect tremendous speed from the mountain tramway but still the trip was surprisingly long and I started to feel a little bit uncomfortable. The seats in the wagon were wooden and I was sliding down all the time my advice to you: is if you travel up take a seat facing the direction of your trip otherwise your toes tips might hurt.
At the end of the trip we found ourselves on the rocky path it was wide and comfortable. Surrounded with many people we started our walk up. My lovely wife was jumping like a swift goat when I was trying to keep the same pace. I didn’t wanted to show my weakness so I suggested that she should walk a little bit further ahead and find the best route (there is a net of paths along the main one). She happily agreed and I could keep my sluggish pace. Every now and then she was poping up between the rocks waving and shouting ‘This way!’. The weather was perfect: it was sunny and no wind. In fact I was struggling and sweating all the time. soon I ended up only in my long jones and shirt.
On our way up we recognized Polish language and had a chat with Polish marriage. After short conversation I learnt that they serve in Polish Border Guard and they based in Okecie airport! As always in this kind of situation we tried to find surnames we all knew and exchange some experiences etc. This was a good conversation and it forced my brain to remind myself of some details I haven’t been thinking about for a long time.
Finally we got to the Tete du Rousse. We decided to celebrate this fact with a few Snickers bars and photos. After a while Anna decided to walk down and I started to search for a place to pitch the tent. While I was doing that, guess what happened. Yes, I had met another two Polish people. One of them had been on Mont Blanc already. I told him about my plan of attacking summit from Tete du Rousse and still coming back to the last tramway going back down. All that in one day. He convinced me that it is a very brave plan. Too brave. His suggestion was to climb to the Gouter , or even better, to the Vallot and spend the night there. Even if I would suffer from the height I still would have all night to recover. It was good plan.
I put my Bergen on and started to walk up towards the rocks. Before I started my scramble, first I had to pass through Rolling Stone. This is a place where stones are flying down all the time. I read that some of them might be huge and for many people that dream about Mont Blanc ended up here. For the most unlucky everything ended up there. During my run through the Rolling Stone I saw some stones flying here and there. I must say that their speed and energy might be very dangerous but… it didn’t impress me too much.
But then my scramble started. Once or two people asked me why my challenge was for me to climb all these mountains. In peoples eyes I am fit and have no problems to stay outside for couple of days. Well, most do not know that I feel uncomfortable in widely open and exposed spaces. It does make me panicky but I do not feel very confident and I need extra time. This scramble was exactly what I was afraid of. So far I was moving slowly but now I nearly stopped. Everybody was overtaking me and disappearing quickly somewhere between the rocks. It probably was embarrassing but at that time all I was thinking about was to do everything correct. Check every grip and have minimum three points of contact. I could hear stones falling down with huge speed in nearby Rolling Stone which wasn’t helping. My legs and arms were hurting but there were only a few places where I could stop. Not mentioning taking off my Bergen. These few hours were very emotional for me.
Last section of this scramble was supported with cables similar to those on via ferreta trials. It helped a lot and I gained some speed and confidence.
When I finally got to the Gouter it was 19:00. Around the shelter I noticed some workers. Finally I could eat something and I interrupted them. We sat down for few moments. I explained to them what was my plan and that I’m still thinking about climbing another few hundred meters up to the Vallot. They both told me that it is not good idea and I shouldn’t do this. Soon it will be dark and it will be so easy to get lost and lose your way and fall into cravenness. The way they were saying this left no space for compromise.
At this point I felt disappointed because I wanted to test my little tent in the high mountains. Changing my plan meant that I had to sleep in Gouter but I had not many options left to choose from. I Thanked them for their advice and went to ask for a bed in Gouter.
I have to say a few words about Gouter. I have never seen anything like this and especially in the mountains. Normally you can ask for a roof, four walls and, if you lucky, something hot to eat. But Gouter is a proper hotel. First floor is designed as a storage for all climbing equipment. This is the place where you have to leave crampons, walking pools, ropes and all the rest of your climbing stuff. There is space for everything and it is perfectly organized. Next floor is the canteen which is like a dining room. It was full of people, noisy and chatting. Last two floors were filled with beds and each one had its own personal space. Building is new and everything inside is in perfect condition. Bed sheet I had were probably new. Absolutely wonderful. Mountain five star! O, I forget to mention that in the building there was no water, but that’s for a purpose.
During the supper I met a French climber who is married to a Polish girl. We had a good laugh talking about Polish mentality and things which are characteristic for us, but other nations still struggling with. It was so funny. At the end he gave me a lot of good advice about different sections of the mountains. If you are reading this: thank you my friend!
Not long before 22:00 I decided that was time to go and have some sleep.
I was fast asleep and I don’t know what exactly woke me up maybe it was excitement or maybe adrenalin… I don’t know. When the alarm on my watch went off I was ready for my breakfast.
I never heard about French breakfast before. I love English breakfast so I was expecting something similar. What a disappointment! Hot chocolate, white bread, Nutella and juice. I knew what a French portion was and that’s exactly what we had.
After a snack called proudly breakfast I went down to the storage room. It was busy and noisy. Everyone was putting their gear on, considering different options, checking their food tying ropes… I was on my own so it wasn’t long before I went outside. When I looked up towards the summit I could see a line made of head torches. I smiled. At least I won’t get lost.
The walk was ok I couldn’t see a lot around me so I was flying up. At that moment I was very happy I spent all day in Aiguille du Midi. This was the best possible acclimatization. Slowly, one after another, I was overtaking many groups this section was all about acclimatization, fitness and stamina. I done my homework properly.
At some point the sun was rising and the ground under my feet became narrow. I stopped on a small but flat section. I looked up and realized that this is the last moment to look for some line I could attached myself to. When I was looking around I heard a loud ‘Kurrrwa!’ somewhere nearby. Aha, Polish people I approached them and kindly asked if I could attach myself to their rope. ‘OK’, they said ’but we are moving very slowly as one of us was sick’. We were nearly there so I thought it shouldn’t be a problem.
As we moved on it wasn’t brisk at all. One of them was stopping all the time and vomiting. He really suffered and was considering giving up and walking down to Vallot. We all tried to encourage him and give him as much support as we could. We had to do well because he was still walking.
When sun was over the horizon I started to look around. I was really glad that I was attached to the rope with these guys. What I was even happier about was the decision I made the previous evening to stay in Gouter. Now I could see what these workers were talking about. You do not need a lot of imagination to guess how many times you can make a wrong decision and end up in trouble Being on your own that means one thing… That’s why this is the most lethal mountain in the Europe and maybe even in the world.
When you walk towards the summit of the Mont Blanc you don’t see it all the time. On the steeper parts it is invisible and then when you get to the flat it is just above you. This is why I was surprised when I got to the top. Being last on the rope I wanted to come and shake the other’s hands and congratulate them. I was so surprised when they almost jumped on me hugging and shouting. Wow! What a spontaneous reaction. Few seconds later I was infused with their enthusiasm and was hugging them and shouting as well. I was looking around. The view was spectacular the sky around us was clear and visibility was perfect. I was looking around and I was also surprised that the summit was flat. Other crew were standing everywhere around and it was hard to take a photo with no one behind. My new team mates sat down and started to take care of one another. I just realized that we didn’t even introduce ourselves. I quickly fixed that. Jacek, Bozena and Andrzej were really good to me. They shared a cup of coffee with me and I gave them some jelly babies to Andrzej. Easy to digest energy this should help him with his height sickness. After a while emotions went down a little bit as we were sitting and enjoying the view.
I remember what I was thinking at that moment. I was so surprised by their spontaneous reaction. 10 years ago I wouldhave reated. the same way. You might think it is stupid but I was thinking about who am I. Still Polish or already English? It was the same when I was talking with the French guide. I talked about Poland from a great distance, like it wouldn’t be me country any longer.
But this philosophical moment didn’t last long because we were freezing our arses off. It was time to move on. We clipped our selves to the rope and started the ascend. Our pace was much quicker. Walking briskly we got to the Vallot within a few moments. My New friends invited me for a last cupper and we exchanged e-mail addresses. I couldn’t stay with them for too long for two reasons: I was desperate to get to the tramway today and according to weather forecast this afternoon weather was supposed to change dramatically. So I quickly swallowed my coffee and went down to Gouter.
It was nice walk. As I was loosing height I could look around and see helicopters and paraglides flying below, trains, towns, roads. It was really nice view. When I got to the Gouter nobody was cheering, there was no congratulations or anything. Atmosphere was completely different than in Barrels on Elbrus. No one even noticed I was there. I packed my stuff as quickly as I could and I was just about to go when I met this Polish couple from the Border Guard. When I told them where I came from I had a tap on the shoulder from them. They told me their story.
They left Tete Rousse at 1am that night and started climbing through the rocks. It wasn’t long before they got lost. Later they found out that they entered Rolling Stone. Not only stones were flying around them but also rocks under their feet were loose. Did I mention that Rolling Stone is about 70 degrees (vertical), few hundred meters high rock wall? It took them hours before they got back to safety. They said that probably had their limit of good luck for the rest of their life there. When they were talking about this they were still shaking. I was wondering what would happened If I would stick to my original plan of attacking summit from Tete Rouse? Probably I would be the same.
Then I got to the rocks. You would think that the ascend is worst than scrambling up? It is worse because you have to look down all the time. My syllabus was exactly the same. Minimum three points of contact with the rock at all time. It took ages. Everybody was faster than me. I’m not a poet and I can’t express how scared I was. All that time.
Usually climbers get tense when they got to the Rolling Stone but I am probably one of the very few who felt relief when Igot there. I just asked someone to have a look at me when I will be crossing it. You know, just in case. I walk througheasily and didn’t bother too much about rocks falling around me. Maybe it is a soldier thing? With things flying around your head you just not so scared, just do what you have to. There is not much more you can do?
Now I don’t remember how many hours it took to get to the Tete Rouse. Maybe 4 or 5? I don’t remember but all this time I ate just few jelly babies which I kept in my pocket. Hunger hit me. I checked my watch and it was obvious I needed to speed up if I want to get to the tramway on time. I swallowed three Snickers bars and started my walk down. I was moving as fast as the ground allowed me. It reminded me of Fan Dance I did a few weeks before.
On my way down I was stopped by a very nice bunch of Russian climbers (we were talking about Mont Blanc and Elbrus) and Alan – an English teacher from Bydgoszcz, one of Polish cities. It was an interesting chat, he was speaking English Polish, I was responding in Polish English and we were talking about both countries. These were not very long stops though. I still had something to do this afternoon and not a lot of time for it. At some point I realized that I would be late. Walking with that sort of speed it would take me about an hour but I had much less time. Well, what can you do?
Exactly, fight for it anyway! I decided to run. At this point I was drained of energy, hungry and probably slightly dehydrated. Despite of running with the rucksack I wasn’t even sweating too much but this time gravity was on my side. It is hard to say how you feel in those moments. Your world is restricted to the few meters and the only thing your brain registers is just a path in front of you. Which I spent in my little universe next half an hour.
Then I noticed somebody running down much below me. I started to shout ‘stop the tramway, please!’ I shouted few times but this guy disappeared. I can’t blame him, he was late as well and he didn’t want to lose his chance. Still running I got to the edge where I could see the tramway station and… It was the second nicest sight of that day. Tramway was still there! Despite of being late about 10 minutes it was still waiting!
Below me I noticed that the guy I was shouting to was part of five people strong group. They were running to the tramway but stop every now and then and shouting to me’ Faster, faster! Come on!’. The tramway driver was helping me with the horn as well. After a few more minutes I caught up with these five guys and the last few hundred yards we run together. I was doing my best, believe me.
Finally we climbed into the wagon and just simply collapsed on the floor. Desperate to catch some air and talking clothes of, we were recovering from our sprint. This French five had no water but I still had two full bottles so I gave them one. Plain water was like proper champagne.
Trip down was long again. My legs got stiff and shoulders sore. Relaxed and with no emotions any longer I started to suffer and fell the pain and hunger. Jesus, I was so hungry! From 3am to 6 pm I had just ‘French breakfast, 4 snickers bars and some jelly babies and I was all the time on the go.
We finally got to le Houche and I went to the train station. I stood under the time table and… I couldn’t read. My eyes, like rest of my body, were too tired and I couldn’t see clearly letters on the display. Somewhere nearby two climbers were waiting with their rucksacks. I was hoping that they speak English. In fact they did because they were part of mountain rescue team from Manchester with responsibility area of Lake District. I couldn’t read and they had problem with buying tickets from machine. We helped each other and soon ended up in the train. I had a great time with them. We were chatting about old cold war era as one of them serve with Royal Engineers in West Berlin. I said what my dad told me about those times. Matt, Brad, if you are reading these words, cheers guys!
At last I am on the train station in Chamonix. It was last stretch and soon I get to my tent. Do you remember what I wrote about disappointment in Gouter when I was ascending? This all has change because I had a really crazy welcome from guys on the camping including champagne splashing everywhere around. Schumacher wouldn’t be disappointed with this sort of celebration. What a salutation! After 10 minutes of hugs, high fives and hand shakes I was avalanched by questions from everyone. After quick shower we all had good dinner and occupied long table in the camping. It was the only dry place with roof over head. The thunder storm had started. All of us we had really good time. Just before midnight Anna told me that I should go to the tent because tomorrow I will spend all day and night driving. And that was it!
Thank you and good bye Alps!