Mountaineering for beginners: That time I summited Mont Blanc
By : Jess Pealing
It’s dark, it’s cold, stepping on a narrow ridge, just my head torch and a rope attached to my guide to lead the way. We are about 4300 m above sea level, another 500m of vertical gain to go. The altitude starting to have an effect. The thought of trying to eat something to keep me going is making me feel very nauseous indeed. Calories from the 2 am breakfast forced down is waning with each deliberate step toward the top of this rather big hill. Thoughts of fear of the descent creep in. This is hard, mentally and physically, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I have only ever lived in cities in the U.K. - currently London. To the confusion of my lovely mum I always wanted to be outside - especially when it was raining apparently, I never have been ‘normal’. I love the outdoors, the mountains, the oceans, and doing anything physically active. So after a very tough year personally I knew I needed to change some things and start thinking about what I want from life. I quit my job last month, booked some adventures, and enrolled myself into working a ski season for this coming winter.
First-up was a mountaineering course based in Chamonix, France. I booked onto a 1 week introduction to alpine mountaineering, followed by a 1 week ‘Mont Blanc’ course.
The Mountaineering Course
Arriving in Chamonix with the mountains hiding their secrets behind the clouds, I checked into the ‘retro’ apartment, met my roomie for the week, attended the course briefing, and collected my rental gear from the company. I certainly now looked the part and I was eager to go the next morning, but after some welcome drinks first...
French practiced (badly) and lift pass purchased for the two weeks, we were off to the Aiguilles Rouges (red peaks) for a hike/scramble, the cloud of arrival day lifted to reveal the stunning Mont Blanc Massif opposite us bathed in bright sunshine, Mont Blanc itself (4810 m) looking intimidating enough!
Initially, feeling like bigfoot, I soon got used to my rental B3 mountaineering boots and started to feel more mountain goat-like (sort of..). After an evening session on rope knots we headed to bed full of enthusiasm and slightly sunburnt faces - very English.
The rest of week 1
That was where the good weather ended. Enter ‘character building’ fun. The following two days were spent on the glaciers, and getting used to using all the gear, crampons (high heels), ice axe, harness etc. Bambi on ice is how I can describe my initial ability to walk in my high heels. Learning how to traverse, climb and descent steep ice, and I was doing my best to remain positive (it is really all you can do to make the most of a situation!) but I couldn’t help but feel unconfident, and felt like the only person in my group not getting it. Suggesting my crampons were a little blunt (they really were) the company supplied me with a set of new, really sharp crampons - here’s hoping I thought!
Next up, over the border to Italy to attempt Gran Paradiso (4000 m peak). Whilst the clouds added incredible atmosphere to the surrounding lush green valley up to the bare rocks and snow-capped peaks, it came with a sense of foreboding, that the mountains were not playing ball. After a night of rain hammering on the mountain hut roof (loudly), later giving way to snow, the mountains had decided not to be climbed that day. Respect given.
New roomie, new people to meet, and new weather - sunshine! Back to the glacier but in my new crampons, I could finally get the footwork down, back to feeling more like a mountain goat! The following day spent climbing the Cosmiques Arete gave me a further confidence boost on a slightly more technical route, our guide Filippo was awesome (as are all the mountain guides, thank you) and I was getting into the swing of mountain life.
Before I knew it we were on our way to Mont Blanc. Taking the Tramway du Mont Blanc we then hiked/climbed for about 4 hours to reach the Gouter Hut, the mountain refuge at 3800 m that looks more like a spaceship which would be home for the next 12 or so hours.
Mont Blanc Summit Day
Rising at 1:45 am with your fellow bleary-eyed climbers, you eat (forcefully) at 2 am, gear up and go. Three kilometres to the top, gaining 1000 m in height, hard work in the thin air! Only snow up here, glistening in the light of the headtorch. Hearing only your breathing and footsteps, giving 100% concentration and being consumed by the mountain. In the very brief moment of taking your eyes off your feet, the sun slowly rises on the horizon - purple, blue, orange.
Having not slept at all in the hut, I felt very tired, and the altitude meant I couldn’t face eating on the way up. One foot forward, crampons in, ice axe buried, repeat. As the ground got very steep, I had a moment of self doubt, but you realise your body is a lot stronger than you think, it’s only your mind you have to convince. So on we went.
Finally, on the summit, after 5 minutes you realise you’re only halfway there, time to go! It was a long 2500 m descent back down, and I have black toenails as a reminder.
Mont Blanc, or any other personal goal is not about ticking a box to earn bragging rights. The journey there is so much more important whatever the outcome. For me, climbing offered a level of introspection hard to come by. Mountains are just a bunch of rocks, you only get out of it what you bring to them yourself.
Next up is some time spent with friends in Croatia, and family time in Spain, given my inability to sit still I’ll be looking for activities to do there as well.
Until the next adventure...
You can follow Jess' next adventures on Instagram : www.instagram.com/jesspealing