It had always been my intention to make an ascent of Mont Blanc during my Alpine trek. It seemed a fitting thing to do – to walk from sea level to the highest summit in Europe. I don’t think I’ve hired a mountain guide before, but conscious of my time limits, not knowing the mountain and wanting to increase my chances of a successful ascent, I did for Mont Blanc; John had recommended that I ask Rick Marchant to guide me. I did that, and was glad, for Rick was great company and we had a ball.
Two days were needed to make the climb. Over breakfast on my first morning, I heard from Rick telling me there was a weather window that day and the next, and we should give it a go. I ran around in freshly laundered clothes trying to get them dry, packed gear for the climb, and made my way to Rick’s house for lunch and a quick fit of crampons, ice axe, climbing harness and the like.
We left Les Houches at 3 p.m. on 3 October for the 2,000-metre climb to the Tête Rousse refuge. It was in itself a top walk into the sunset, and we arrived at the hut just on dark. The main refuge had closed for winter a week or so before, but there was a winter room, stuffed overfull with Russians, French, Chileans, Bulgarians and now us. Twenty bodies squeezed into 12 bunks and I slept not a wink. At 2 a.m. the sardine can was opened and four or so were plucked out. The rest of us breathed loudly.
Rick and I rolled out into the darkness at 4.30 a.m. Crampons on, we crunched across some snow and scuttled across the Grand Couloir, a place notorious for stone fall. A steep 500-metre rock scramble led to a snow-covered glacier at 3,800 metres. Sparks from our crampons and head torch beams added colour to the black night.
The first light glowed under the Aiguille du Midi. Soon after, the big cone of Mont Blanc cast her own shadow across the cloud below, stretching for kilometres. What a morning to be where we were. What a day to be where we were heading.
What causes that burst of cold just on dawn? Rick and I reached for down jackets, pulled on warmer gloves. The sun touched us briefly on the Dôme de Goûter, with 500 metres vertical still to climb. But we were soon back in cold shadow on the northwest face of the mountain. Steep, crunchy snow up onto the Bossons ridge led to an ever narrowing, airy snow arête that led straight to sunlight, straight into the sun.
Then this angled catwalk ended and we were on the highest stage in Europe–4,810 metres above the Mediterranean Sea I’d turned my back on 62 days before. It was 10 a.m. and the stage was empty. I was stoked to be there, to have been given the break in the weather. Beneath us stretched a cloud sea, and looking east across Italy I could trace my route back to the Matterhorn and beyond to the Monte Rosa.
I fumbled with my phone to switch it on so as to take a summit photo to post on Facebook. A bunch of emails rolled in. I was not about to read them in such a fine place on such a fine day. But something led my eye to just one:
From: Marin Medak
Subject: My plans have changed
I opened it and scanned the words: We failed to get funding for the new business. I want to do the row with you. I will organise everything.
Those words gave me as big a high as the summit itself. Having hugged Rick for the summit, I gave him another huge one for the news. After 45 minutes on the summit we started down; nearly 4,000 metres down, to finish a 14-hour day.
Extract taken from Huw Kingston’s book ‘Mediterranean – A year around a charmed and troubled sea’. An incredible tale of 12 month kayak, foot, rowing and bike journey around the Mediterranean.
The book has just been published – 224 pages, full colour, 100+ photos, 15 maps and 94,000 words and can be purchased:
It will of course be in bookshops and other outlets too.
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